What is Civic Media?

moderator: Henry Jenkins, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Beth Noveck, New York Law School
author: Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: September 2007,   views: 1909

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In launching the Center for Future Civic Media, Henry Jenkins challenges the notion that the technology we use every day for work and entertainment has fragmented society, driven individuals into private worlds, and played havoc with civic engagement. Jenkins perceives an “expanded notion of local emerging,” as individuals deploy different technologies to form new kinds of social and participatory networks. If “historically democracy was kept alive by micro rituals” like town pageants, picnics and state fairs, says Jenkins, new media might offer digitally based social rituals “to bring people together in powerful ways to enhance civic engagement.”

While technologies might bring opportunities for participation, Chris Csikszentmihalyi points out those technological devices in our society are produced and distributed to individual consumers not to empower them to play a greater part in civil society, but to enrich corporations “often at the expense of the community.” Much greater effort is spent on the commercialization of products for consumers than on developing technologies (such as public transportation) that could benefit entire cities or countries. Csikszentmihalyi says we “must reimagine not just technology that increases civic engagement” but “game the system toward better civic space.”

The romanticized ideal of the media has failed us, claims Beth Noveck, no longer promoting or leading to political participation. It is time to reinvent the traditional conception of civic media and use it as “a call to action, a basis for strengthening democracy,” says Noveck. We must build bridges between new technologies (Web 2.0), the content we’re developing and institutions of power, she states. Noveck has been exploring different forms of technology-enabled engagement such as visual technologies that help people comprehend policy and complex political questions; the Peer to Patent Project that uses a structured, participatory web process to help evaluate whether particular inventions deserve patents; and Democracy Island on Second Life, where tax protests and other community actions arise spontaneously.

Through his work in developing countries, Ethan Zuckerman has identified a phenomenon he calls “bridge blogging --someone using web 2.0 to challenge assumptions about a part of the world.” In many moderately repressive societies, blogging has become an increasingly useful way of creating a political movement, and publicizing it not just nationally but globally. Zuckerman’s Open Net Initiative has also investigated internet censorship internationally and discovered, for instance, that Saudi Arabia keeps users away from Playboy Magazine, and Pakistan won’t let its citizens visit blogger.com. “Once you bake censorship into tools, you can govern certain forms of behavior,” says Zuckerman. In countries with limited internet access, call-in a.m. radio and mobile phones fill in. Zuckerman worries that even if we “put the tools of authorship” into people’s hands in the developing world, there may not be adequate interest in the developed world to engage with these new global communicators.

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