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Henry Jenkins on civic media at Beyond Broadcast 2009

Beyond Broadcast 2009, the fourth edition of a conference that focuses on the future of public service media in a digital age, starts today in Los Angeles at the USC Annenberg school. Dean Ernie Wilson notes that it’s a rainy day in the middle of an economic depression, a tough time to get excited about the future of public media. But there’s reasons for hope – as this conference has moved from the Berkman Center to MIT to American University, and now to USC, the issues on the table have shifted. Our focus here is on hyperlocal media and “hyperglobal”, the ability to share ideas across international borders using digital media. As such, Dean Wilson and his team have made an effort to internationalize the conference, bringing speakers and participants from around the world and focusing much of the program on community media across the world, both in American communities and in other nations.

Wilson offers some challenges for the audience:
– How do scholars of media provide insights that are actually useful and informative to local communities?
– How do we build a future that’s more digital and more democratic?
– How do we take advantage of the success that media is having in countries like India, where increasing incomes and education are helping newspapers succeed?
– What’s the role of public media in countries where public-funded media has historically been propoganda?
– How do we maintain public broadcasting in the face of fiscal pressures? And is public media just what we see on PBS? Or what’s on blogs?

Most critically, Wilson offers a call to action: “If we don’t link digital change and democracy, who will do it?”

Dean Wilson introduces Henry Jenkins, who’s appearing for the first time on a USC stage. He tells us that, after 20 years at MIT, he’s hoping to be at USC for the next twenty. Jenkins explains that he’s a highly visual speaker, and often looks for images to inform his speeches. This led him to think about images of democracy. The images we have tend to be pretty retro: pictures of the American revolution or of 1930s popular protests. Jenkins offers the Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom of Speech”. The figure, a man in a public meeting, nervously standing up to ask a question of authority. “Put this guy in pajamas and we’d recognize him as a blogger.”

How does this image of democracy change if we look at a pink Hello Kitty mobile phone? It reminds us that Rockwell’s picture is all white, almost all male. That the public sphere positied there is public and highly rational, a fixed space and time. This other image juxtaposes a model of citizenship which is more mobile, more mundane, and brings in issues of gender and generational politics.

Jenkins points to Clay Shirky’s recent writings on journalism, quoting him at length: “Society doesn’t need newspapers – what we need is journalism.” We need to shift from saving newspapers to saving society, and that means we’re going to see a blurring of boundaries between professional and amateur media. Jenkins shows us a quote from Morley Safer: “I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery.” This is a false understanding of citizen media, a belief that somehow bloggers are driving journalists our of business. “Increasingly, we’re going to see ‘citizen journalism’ as a phrase like ‘horseless carriage'” – it’s useful for understanding the transition, but it’s not how we currently think about cars. We should expect to see hybrid affiliations, like bloggers working with CNN.

But the real problem with the phrase is the idea that journalists aren’t citizens. Or that civic participation can be reduced to journalism. There are new participatory functions, some of which need to be done and have nothing to do with what journalists do. Jenkins invokes the late James W. Carey, former dean of the Columbia Journalism School. Carey considered journalism in terms of two models – transmission and ritual. Journalistic rituals can shape our feelings, make us feel connected to other citizens. This notion of connection with other citizens informs almost every model we have of public spheres, from Benedict Anderson’s newspapers, to Habermas’s coffee shops, McLuhan’s global village and Putnam’s bowling league.

Jenkins defines citizen media as “any use of technology for the purpose of increasing civic awareness and engagement, enabling the exchange of meaninful information,” increasing social connectivity and enabling a wide range of responses to problems. He invokes Jessica Clark of American University, who defines “pubic media 2.0 as the ability to generate publics around problems.”

This idea raises questions about fragmentation – do we have one public sphere or many? Cass Sunstein is worried that digital media will break down a single public sphere. Jenkins invokes a former MIT colleague, Dana Cunningham, who worries that the black public sphere in the age of Obama is losing critical institutions while black voice still isn’t fully integrated. The example of the Reverend Wright controversy shows how the porous nature of digital media can make it harder for discussions to remain within a specific sphere.

Jenkins sees civic media as extending to include online games, wondering how we can learn techniques from online gaming and apply them to realworld problems. He talks about a group in Brisbane, Australia, where the process of taking pictures of the city turns into a group that explores and envision the city in new ways.

Fan communities are finding ways to mobilize as activists. The fans of the TV show, Chuck, rallied behind their cancelled show and organized a “buycott”, going to Subway (the show’s main sponsor), buying sandwiches and leaving behind cards that said, “Chuck sent me”. The show survived, and grew. Jenkins points out that the fans needed to bring a public together, educate them, come up with tactics, and deploy them, all very rapidly. We’re seeing the emergence of groups monitoring copyright takedowns on YouTube, and a Harry Potter fanclub that’s organized 100,000 young people as “Dumbledore’s Army” to fight Proposition 8.

He looks at the spread of Susan Boyle’s remarkable performance on Britain’s Got Talent as a study in civic media and civil engagement. 170 million people have watched the video of her performance, roughly three times as many as watched the finale of American Idol. And these sorts of shows are an introduction to democracy in countries like China, where the idea of choosing between multiple candiates is a political novely.

Boyle’s story, Jenkins argues, teaches us that the model of “viral media” is wrong. Yes, her story spread via blogs, twitter, Wikipedia and Facebook. But it wasn’t viral – he forwarded it on to people for specific reasons, not involuntarily. And Susan Boyle became a deeply political figure, meaning something different to mothers or church groups than to karaoke communities and fashion blogs. The spread of this attention, faster than mainstream media could react, is an indication of what to expect in the future: demand will aggregate and dissipate before the mainstream media turns its attention to the phenomenon.

The emergence of these new communities and their new ways of engagement will ultimately be a boon for democracy, Jenkins argues. His project is to document the ways it happens, and his new book is going to focus on these questions.

3 thoughts on “Henry Jenkins on civic media at Beyond Broadcast 2009”

  1. Ethan, thanks for both of your great posts this evening. I also enjoyed reading your thoughts about Lokman’s research.

    Regarding the public spheres, concerns about their diminished state, or loss of institutions without being fully integrated, your post prompted me to think about economists and their work around creative destruction. We have heard quite a bit about this with the recent events at GM. Perhaps in the concerns about loss of public spheres there is also progress (or at least the opportunity)? Realizing that opportunity, of course, is the difficult part.

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