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My turn on the soapbox

Forgive my silence this week. There’s a plague heading through the Berkman Center, evidently, a headcold that’s been knocking many of us out of commission, and I’ve been working at roughly 30% capacity the past few days. I managed to scrape myself together and give a talk at the MIT Museum last night, as part of the Soapbox series, a set of four lectures on technology and social change, with a focus on civic media.

The Soapbox series is a very cool format – it’s open to the public and heavily focused on dialog and participation. Speakers talk for 15-20 minutes, broaching a topic and opening questions, and then the audience breaks into small groups to discuss the questions. Each group has a tablet PC and can place questions on a projection screen, visible to the audience and speaker. The museum director, John Durant, runs a question and answer session in a salon format, inviting the speaker to address questions posted on the screen or in the audience.

I took advantage of the format to ask three of the questions I’m working on right now in thinking about media and the ways we encounter the world. How do we build serendipity into the tools we use to find news? How do we break out of homophily traps that often characterize online media? How do we cultivate the sorts of bridge figures that can help introduce us to media we’d never otherwise encounter?

I got very good feedback from the audience, including lots of pushback on my basic premise: that it’s important for people in one country to get news, information and opinions from other countries. I’m pretty confident that my core argument – that in an interconnected world, we need to be aware of issues in other places, for our economic, social, political and security welfare – is right… but it’s a good challenge to figure out how to express that to an audience. One audience member had the great insight that web users may be moving from a news-seeking behavior to a surfing behavior where they’re often looking for entertainment, not challenge. This is an interesting problem for those of us trying to “sell” international news – do we need to be relentlessly positive? Or connect this sort of news to other types of information likely to be surfed onto – sports, music, celebrity?

Joost Bonsen offered a very generous description of the talk on his blog, Maximizing Progress. You can see for yourself by watching the video from the event – would love your thoughts and feedback if you do.

For folks in Cambridge – you should catch some of the upcoming events in the Soapbox series. Henry Jenkins, master of fanfiction and participatory culture, is speaking next, and Ellen Hume, who is managing MIT’s vast and ambitious Center for Future Civic Media project is someone you should also make a point of hearing.

2 thoughts on “My turn on the soapbox”

  1. Hi Ethan. Followed up on your discussion about serendipity and homophily. I guess I would describe the latter also as “being stuck in a rut” which is sometimes the feeling I get about the websites which I tend to visit regularly.

    On the serendipity side, personally I find “browsing” in say Amazon much harder than in a physical bookshop – though with the options available in Accra, one has to widen one’s net.

    Regards, Nina [an Accra resident]

  2. Ethan, Sorry to miss this talk, reading Nina’s comment I’m reminded of the Russian phrase “вариться в собственном соку,” to stew in one’s own juices. It’s something the provincial Russian media folks we used to train said all the time about how important and wonderful it was to leave their TV stations and come to a seminar with other folks – it’s a chance not to spend all our time stewing in our own juices.

    Homophily must be resisted at every turn!

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