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Future Civic Media at MIT. Shiny!

I’m at MIT this week at the Center for Future Civic Media Conference, a conference that’s bringing together two years of winners of the Knight News Challenge for discussions about innovation in journalism. The host is the Center for Future Civic Media, a collaboration between MIT professors Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Henry Jenkins and Mitchel Resnick. Their joint project, supported by Knight through the news challenge, is a new academic study center that serves as a space for experimentation, largely by students, in the very wide topic of “civic media”.

In my last visit to the Center, I got a sense for just how broad the definition the MIT folks are using for “civic media”. Jenkins, offering a framing talk for the opening discussions, offers examples that range from remix culture in American politics (using an example of a meme he may have helped launchObama as Spock – and the online manifestations of that idea) through pageants small American communities held to replicate the history of their founding. He implicitly makes the point that civic media is much, much larger than journalism by avoiding journalistic examples, and he explicitly makes the point that civic media isn’t about technology, but about personal relationships.

That’s likely a good reminder, as we’re surrounded by an amazing amount of technology to mediate the relationships between the hundred or so people at this event. There is, of course, a conference wiki, an IRC channel, and a twitter feed. Plus there’s a pretty cool tool called Backchan, which invites attendees to post questions and vote on each other’s questions – one users of the tool commented (via the tool) “turning real life into Digg… This can’t end well!”

And we’re all wearing 1990s-cellphone-sized electric name tags from nTAG, a company that spun out of the Media Lab based on research that began in 1995. (Indeed, I remember wearing one of these things in 1998 when I was trying to convince Lycos to join the Media Lab as a sponsor.) They talk to each other, wirelessly exchanging personal data, and generally appear to make the geeks in the crowd very, very nervous. (They’re supposed to be an easy way to exchange digital business cards… something my Palm Pilot was supposed to do as well, but I never found myself using.)

And while I’m not hugely excited about my digital nametag, I can’t deny that a visualization the company founder Rick Borovoy showed is incredibly cool. His system was used at a technology conference involving a lot of Asian attendees. The visualization showed the percent of interactions between people from different countries as relates to a predictive model based on purely random interactions. For instance, you’d expect to see a few hundred conversations between Chinese and Taiwanese attendees – actually, the visualization showed almost none. At the center of the visualization is what we might think of as the “homophily line” – a huge tendency for people from the same nation to interact far more than a random interaction model would predict.

A different visualization from the nTAG folks. I would love to get my hands on the national interaction map Borovoy referred to here. Please see more on Rick Borovoy’s blog

So, yes. As much as I grouse about “shiny for shiny’s sake”, there’s something to be said for technologies that can produce cool datasets like this one. And I suspect that some of the tools we’ll see later tonight, in a classic Media Lab show and tell, will have important implications for the future of human interactions, while some will merely be really cool.

Many of the folks here are more firmly rooted in the world of journalism than in the tech community. Jenkins introduces a panel that includes Jay Rosen, Lisa Williams and Dan Gillmor, three of the luminaries of citizen media. Rosen offers a historical perspective on the press, tracing the rise of journalism to reports on parliamentary debates in Britian. The journalists, he tells us, were the ones who had the skills to communicate the discussion “inside” to “the people outside” – this new institution meant that “the people out of doors grew up, became the public.” This doesn’t mean that journalists are essential to democracy, he tells us, “but that democracy is essential to journalism.”

Much of the discussion focuses on crowdsourcing. Gillmor offers an example from a local mailing list, where people in a community ask each other about local water quality until one is willing to call the town, get the research on the water issues and informs the rest of the list. Rosen makes an argument that crowdsourcing may require the sort of motivation than comes from strong ideological belief – when readers of Talking Points Memo get as incensed as Josh Marshall about the Bush Justice Department, they’re willing to do the work to sort through huge masses of data. In many cases, though, only 1% of people are willing to do the hard work involved with investigating a story, while 10% will be sufficiently involved to participate in crowdsourcing, while others will simply serve as readers. Rosen speculates that the key to crowdsourced citizen media is to identify that precious 1& and turn them loose… and to figure out how to break up reporting tasks to leverage that 10%, but not spend too much time worrying about the 89% who will just read.

The key towards using crowdsourcing well – and perhaps the key in citizen media as a whole – is not exploiting the participants. Gillmor points out that the Huffington Post appears to be using a model where everyone contributes and no one gets paid… very profitable, but unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Referring to her work with smalltown journalism project h2otown, she notes that she knew the project was going somewhere when participants threw themselves a birthday party… and almost as an afterthought, invited her.