What is Civic Media?

A couple of weeks ago I attended the kick off for the Fall program of the MIT Communications Forum. The evening’s focus was on the new Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4FCM) and exploring what Civic Media was all about. I’ve prepared a summary of the event for the Comm Forum Web site but thought I’d share a little bit here as well.

The format for the evening was a panel discussion. It featured Henry Jenkins of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, Chris Csikszentmihalyi of the MIT Media Lab, Beth Noveck of New York Law School and Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center and Global Voices.

What struck me most during the course of the discussion was the idea that the media has failed to provide a means for people to be engaged with their communities. Part of this had to do with the technologies people use to consume media – which were described as being designed for the individual at the expense of the community. Civic media itself, of course, is itself built on technology.

According to Jenkins, Civic Media is any use of any medium (by which he means a communications technology and the protocols that govern its use) that fosters any civic engagement. So while communication technology has been part of the problem in the past, it is seen as part of the solution for the future. How can this work? The main issue is that the individual nature of much technology has fostered the rise of media (and to an extent a democracy) that is built around talk rather than action. Civic media – it’s hoped – will create a media based around action by providing people not only with information but with the tools to put information to work. Building on the democracy theme, Jenkins said that democracy needs to be more than a special event that takes place once a year. It needs to become an everyday challenge and activity; and everyone needs to be asking what are the technologies that will help create this sense of engagement.

When it comes to the issue of technology, Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that everything has winners and losers – as well as unanticipated uses. He thought it was unfortunate that so few technologies support the idea of civic engagement but went a step further, suggesting that specific types of engagement need to be supported and encouraged. His view was that civic media needs to be about gaming the system to create better civic spaces. Again, the idea that democracy isn’t being supported by the current media came through loud and clear.

Noveck was probably the most outspoken of the panelists on the failure of the media in fostering public conversation. According to her, the deliberative role of the media – and of democracy itself – has failed and she suggested that the time might be right to reinvent our conception of the media. She pointed out that civic engagement and conversation don’t necessarily translate into participation or a change in power structures. There were a few reasons for this. First, community-level engagement doesn’t scale and second because the issues we face often require more knowledge and information than people have. Providing tools to access and share information with larger and larger communities (whether actual communities or imagined ones) is the key to Noveck. She described the end-game as recasting our conceptualization of the First Amendment to be not simply about talking about talk but also talking about action.

Zuckerman provided some great examples of civic media in action around the world. Cases where communities were forced to create their own news because the traditional media was controlled by the government. So not only were these people creating content and conversation and action – they were also building the communication channels around their actions to bring attention that hadn’t been there in the past. He also described the “action, not words” aspect of civic media by describing a situation where crowds rallied via SMS and Twitter were able to block the progress of local police and secure the release of an arrested man. What he described was neither talk for the sake of talk or action for the sake of action but the practical blending of ideas and engagement to shift the balance of power and effect change.

At the end of the day, that was really what everyone was talking about – how do we make technology more than a tool for individual entertainment and content consumption and more into a tool to connect people and ideas in ways that will benefit their communities. Considering this issue – and developing the ideas and tools to make it happen – is the goal of the Center. It’s very cool and I am looking forward to getting involved.

[tags]MIT, MIT Communication Forum, MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media, C4FCM, Civic Media, MIT Media Lab, Berkman Center, Henry Jenkins, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Beth Noveck, Ethan Zuckerman [/tags]

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