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MIT: What is civic media?

I spoke last evening at MIT’s Communications Forum on a panel titled “What is Civic Media?” (One of the questions I’m hoped to have answered is whether what we call citizen journalism at Harvard is what they call civic media on the other side of town.) My copanelists are Beth Noveck, Henry Jenkins and Chris Csikszentmihalyi , and we gave a pointillistic impression of the world of civic media.

Henry and Chris are two of three principal investigators of the newly founded Center for Future Civic Media, funded through generous support of the Knight Foundation as part of the same grants series that supports Rising Voices, the Global Voices outreach project. Leading off the evening, Henry quickly dispells my fears about a confusion between civic media and citizen journalism, offering a very broad definition of civic media: “Any use of any medium which fosters civic engagement.” He defines a “medium” as more than just a technology, but “a communication technology and the social protocols around its use.”

To illustrate, Henry offers two photos, one of a group of men reading a newspaper on a streetcorner together in the 1930s, and another, contemporary photo of young Japanese women taking photos of something offscreen. The first clearly looks like an example of civic engagement – it’s people interacting with journalism, talking about civic issues. The second might or might not be civic engagement – it has a great deal to do with what the girls are photographing and what they’re planning on doing with the photos.

These images raise the question: “What does democracy look like?” In American iconography, we tend to use images of colonial America and the Founding Fathers to illustrate democracy, or images from the 1930s: Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra. “Contemporary images of democracy are almost always retro,” he argues, which raises the question, “How do we reinvent the set of images of democracy?”

In Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” – a text that’s been offered to frame our conversations about civic media – a retro image of a 1950s bowling league is offered as an exemplar of civic engagement. We meet to go bowling, but we have conversations and engagement that help strengthen us as a community. This contrasts with television, which makes us more solitary and less engaged. Henry accepts the first part of the argument – television does lead to privatization, a move of entertainment to the home – but people do build communities around television. “We can’t just look at the technology – we need to look at how it’s used. If his example of civic engagement is the bowling league, people are meeting for entertainment, not to exchange news content.”

Henry offers some pictures of high-end “home television entertainment complexes”, specialized rooms designed for television viewing. All include more seats than are neccesary for the nuclear family, implying that the use of this space is for inviting friends and neighbors over. We may see computers as isolating and as a solitary medium, but what are we to make of guild behavior in World of Warcraft – he shows us a guild posing for a group photo. “Whatever they’re doing, they’re not bowling alone.”

Cornell professor Benedict Anderson posits the idea of “imagined communities”, the group of people we imagine to be connected to us through a shared identity or a shared piece of media. The London Times created a social connection throughout much of the British Empire, allowing readers to be engaged in a type of conversation. These are imagined communities, since we’d never meet all the members of the British Empire, but they’re real and powerful. (He invokes Red Sox nation, the nebulous set of baseball fans currently sick to our collective imagined stomach that we’re only 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees.)

These imagined communities are vital in understanding diasporan identites. People living in the America in the Caribbean diaspora may be reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts from home. Perhaps they’re disengaged from local civic culture, but very tightly engaged with their home country’s civic life, despite geographic distance. We need to reconsider whether local civic engagement is the only important factor to track. Henry points out that the coffeehouses that Habermas romanticizes in his discussion of the public sphere were not just local centers of discourse – they tended to have themes, communities of interest as well. He offers as a parallel MeetUp, which builds physical gatherings that are both local and subject based.

“Is Flickr civic media?”, Henry asks. It can be. Australian researcher Jean Burgess writes about how people in Queensland have found each other through Flickr, realizing that people photographing the same scenes likely live nearby. This has turned into a social circle, where people meet up, take photos of locations in their cities and has led to a type of civic activism.

Video can be civic media, as recent outrage over the University of Florida taser incident has proven. But so can action figures – Henry reports a protest in Singapore against an anime distributor staged with five-inch tall action figures carrying signs. The protest was quickly shut down by authorities, demonstrating that different media can be equally threatening in a closed state.

Who’s producing civic media? The blogging community and citizen journalists, of course. But also high school journalists, Henry tells us, who sometimes serve the function of local newspapers. Ethnic newspapers become an important source of information in diaspora communities, and projects that bridge generations through media, like Silver Stringers, are worth studying as well.

“Democracy is kept alive by local rituals” – paegants, parades, festivals and gatherings. There’s a need for new social rituals to preserve democracy, a way to move democracy from something that’s a periodic event (voting) to one where it’s part of everyday life, not just a single decision, but a multiplicity of decisions.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi explains how the new Center for Future Civic Media intends to work on subjects like new social rituals for democracy. He points out that the $5 million in funding that the Center received comes from Jack Knight and his brothers, the founders of Knight Ridder newspapers. Knight Ridder provided an interesting form of wire service, a consortium of smaller local papers that worked together, sending their best journalists to assignments in Washington DC and overseas, but maintaining a commitment to circulating those journalists back home to their local newspapers.

Knight Ridder was acquired by McClatchy, which continued the Knight Ridder syndication service, which has been having difficulty keeping market share. Stories from McClatchy, Chris tells us, have been hard to sell because “they’ve been predicting what’s going on in Iraq so well that newspapers stopped buying their content.” He offers the paradox of “journalism so good that there’s no market for it.”

The difficulty of doing good journalism in a digital age is the reason for the Knight News Challenge, which is soliciting proposals for innovative new media projects. MIT will be the leadership center for the challenge, inviting winners of Challenge grants (like Global Voices) to MIT each spring to share our work. We’ll be hosted by MIT’s Media Lab and by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department, collaborators on the project.

Chris offers a meditation on technology, context and selfishness. He notes that the device of the television, by itself, doesn’t prescribe who can and will use it. “If I take my TV out into the street in Cambridge, no one will watch it with me. They’ll probably watch me instead.” That’s a sharp contrast to behavior in many developing nations, where sharing your TV in this way leads to social interactions.

He offers a concept from anthropologist Bruno Latour: “Technology is society made durable”, a reification of social structure and order. He offers a Latourian example – imagine you work in an office which is a large, shared space. People leave the outside door open, and it makes the room warmer. You put a sign on the door, hoping people will read it, close it and preserve the air-conditioning. They don’t – information doesn’t lead to action. So you ask your boss to buy a door closer, a piece of hardware that closes the door. He eventually agrees, the janitor installs it, and your preference is embodied in technology. But your co-worker, who sits directly below the air conditioning vent is now less happy. Technology, Chris argues, makes the individual who asked for it happier and another individual less happy.

Cellphones are certainly a form of technology that can makes others around us less happy. Chris talks about a student of his who’s produced a piece of jewelry which turns off cellphones within a three meter field of it. It’s a piece of technology which should be (and probably is) illegal, but makes an example of the way technology we want for ourselves (to preserve silence) can impact negatively on others.

“People who can design technologies are usually trying to promote their own values,” Chris argues. “When people say technology is neutral, it’s usually because they’ve zoomed out to the point where everything looks like a speck.” He offers an example of trying to argue that toothbrushes are dangerous because they can be used to kill someone, much like a handgun – you only make this sort of absurdist argument when you’re so far removed from the idea that a largely practical and safe device blurs with an inherently dangerous device.

Technology develops a sense of purpose in its users: a melon baller has the seductive suggestion that melon should be served in balls; an automobile suggests we should spread ourselves out in space instead of clustering close together. A leaf blower suggests that we use cheap energy to move leaves, and holds the consequences that you wake up your neighbors and damage the environment. The intended effect empowers the consumer, while side effects tend to effect others.

“It’s much easier to produce a device and sell it to individuals than to sell devices to institutions for mass usage.” This explains why it’s easier to sell cars than to sell mass transit to communities. Chris shows FUH2.com, a site that “uses democratic media to let people flip off Hummers.” The Hummer, like most SUVs, is marketed as a safe car, but it’s profoundly unsafe to the environment.

The intention of the work done by the Center for New Civic Media is to create open spaces not just for civic engagement, but for a specific kind of civic engagement. We’re hoping to generate Frank Capra-type social capital, not the social capital that leads to lynch mobs. In outlining the sorts of work that Chris and others have done that lead to this sort of capital, he lists Silver Stringers, Mitch Resnick’s Computer Clubhouses project, his work on autonomous boats to protest at Guantanamo Bay, his work on Government Information Awareness and a new voting site called Selectricity.

Beth Noveck, a law professor at NYU known for her work in a broad range of civic media areas, including the world of “serious games” and patent reform, uses her time to outline the foundations in American law and culture of civic media. She points out that the the first amendment of the US constitution signifies the importance our founders put on the role of media. “Media plays the central political role in fostering independent public discussion as a political duty.” The fourth estate has a role in political accountability, providing a critical check on the workings of government.

But we have a romanticised vision of the role media can play. Our traditional conception of media is failing us. Deliberation doesn’t work the way we think it should. Public exchange of reason doesn’t actually lead to participation. The bowling league does not impact world events. Talking to neighbors does not parlay into voting or into civic engagement in general, and we feel as disengaged from Washington or Brussels as we ever have before.

As we rethink civic media, we need to get beyond the assumption that individuals are consumers of information and reconsider ourselves as producers of media. This means breaking the sociological boundary of authority and expertise that currently surrounds news production. Experiments like NewAssignment.net and OhMyNews (as well as Wikipedia) show that there are new ways authority can be generated.

Civic media is a call to action, but it’s a call that demands we build models that work well. These models need to encourage participation as a lifestyle, not just a periodic engagement. Peer production is not the model to build all media, Beth asserts. The models we build are dependent on the questions we’re trying to solve. That said, we’ve got some early indicators of what the Web 2.0 space is good at doing:

Web 2.0 is good at finding gaps in information and filling in those gaps. She points to the Peer to Patent project she’s launched, which invites experts and non-experts alike to review and challenge technology patents.

This process shows that we can bring diverse expertise to a problem, as participants in the project come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, including lawyers, engineers and interested others.

We can make sense of data in groups, using visualization and GID to “connect information, expertise and power”. She offers a Connecticut-based visualization project, CPEC.org, as an example of powerful visualization technologies and their importance for problemsolving.

We’re good at contributing enthusiasm to problems. She points to the protests that have taken place on Democracy Island, a territory in Second Life that she makes available for civic activism, making her a “democracy slumlord.”

We can use these new technologies to uncover assumptions. She shows a tool that allows Swiss voters to find candidates whose opinions align with your own, showing you people you might not have considered voting for.

She suggests that these new tools are excellent for breaking government logjams, pointing to Global Voices as a site that uses new media to offer transparency, tackle corruption and spread awareness of political problems.

Finally, she suggests that these technologies let us do things, not just talk. Specifically, we can take action by using the visual medium, finding new ways to promote ideas and causes in this space.

The goal is to use these tools to “revisit the deliberative ideal” and to “strengthen our democracy by doing, not just talking. We need to “click together, not bowl alone.”

I realized, sitting through my colleagues’ talks, that I’d completely forgotten to address Putnam or bowling alone in my talk. I desperately searched for bowling references on Global Voices and only found pages about cricket. That actually tied well into the theme of my talk, which was that these technologies can be used very differently in developing nations. I talked briefly about bridgeblogging, activist blogging, the Cute Cat Theory of web activism, translation and contextualization (using the river crab with three watches as an example.) It was my third of six talks this month and was good fun, though I wish I had notes to share with y’all.

The conversation during the questions period unleashed a couple of interesting ideas as well:

Shava Nerad from Tor mentioned that our increasing interconnection seems to spread disinformation more quickly than information, referring to three recent cases where people have panicked about the security of Tor. My response, which basically amounted to “that’s the way it is, get used to it”, made no one happy, myself included.

– A question about e-petitions got (overly) fierce reactions from me and from Beth. I thought the questioner was talking about e-petitions in general, and I argued that the amount of effort involved in signing these petitions was so minor that it was hard to believe the documents would have real impact. Beth realized the questioner was talking about e-petitions in the UK, which if they generate sufficient demand get addressed by the Prime Minister, but shared some skepticism about their effectiveness. But this revealed an interesting tension around the “granularity of participation” – Beth argues that it’s great that there are extremely lighweight ways for people to participate in movements online, where I’m more skeptical of the utility of this very lightweight participation (joining a “cause” on Facebook, for instance.)