Four Questions about Civic Media

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The civic media field is often better defined by example than in abstractions. The field is so nascent and fluid that any comprehensive, conceptual definition will likely miss key aspects of the field. For those of us who believe civic media – the various ways communities create, find and share actionable information – is transforming media and civic life, exciting examples are always an opportunity to think about the future of the field.

This recent story about women in Saudi Arabia driving and posting videos of their drives to YouTube, as a protest against the Kingdom’s laws preventing women from driving, is a case in point.

This protest movement began with Najla Hariri, a mother in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who drove her children to school and tweeted about the experience, leading to an outpouring of support and enthusiasm in the Gulf twittersphere. About a week later, computer security consultant Manal Al-Sharif took a drive with her brother, her son and a leading Saudi women’s rights activist and filmed the drive. After posting the video of her drive to YouTube, she was arrested by Saudi authorities and ultimately held for nine days, charged with violating public order.

Her arrest triggered international media interest in the story, and support from Amnesty International, which declared her a prisoner of conscience. During her detention, a number of other Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving to YouTube, and others tweeted their support using the hashtag #women2drove. A Facebook group emerged, organizing a “mass” protest for June 17th.

The protest wasn’t all that massive, because the organizers wanted to make sure only licensed drivers drove. That meant that the participants were limited to women who had licenses from another country, which gave a very small pool of potential protesters to choose from. And the Saudi reaction was pretty muted – one woman was ticketed, no arrests – and Global Voices has a story about Laila Sindi in Jeddah, who was detained while driving, but released by the officer after a complicated charade designed to allow him to respond to a complaint that had come in about women driving, but not arrest Sindi.

Role of Social Media: the Evidence

Despite the small scale, the protest got a great deal of attention, in part because of the novelty of the organizing media – US and European politicians tweeted their support, and a campaign to honk in support of Saudi women was launched to accompany the protests in the US and other countries. This may be because there’s a current fascination with the idea popular movements can be created using virtual tools. While there’s good reason to suspect that the role of Facebook has been overstated in the Arab spring, there’s also good reason to believe that the role was real and significant, especially as it came to documentation. For example, we know that the use of Facebook to document protests in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia was critical in helping protests spread beyond that small city throughout that nation and the whole region.

The women2drive protests illustrate at least three ideas that I’m seeing around many recent civic media efforts:
- Organizing in virtual as well as physical spaces, recognizing that online action alone doesn’t move most politicians
- Self documentation using participatory media – in this case, documentation as a form of protest in and of itself
- The use of broadcast media to amplify beyond the “some to some” space of social media.

Blurring Roles: Reader-Publisher, Audience-Broadcaster

Citizen media is complicated, but media overall is especially complicated now, at a moment when changes in technology make it possible for hundreds of millions of people to share their thoughts, perspectives and ideas and where some of the systems we had for aggregating and filtering people’s stories are facing challenges to their sustainability. It’s a space that’s moving incredibly quickly, where debates that would have occupied the conversation four years ago – Do blogs have a place in the newsroom? – are obviated by the reality that most major news outlets have made space at the table for different forms of civic media. We seem to be rapidly going beyond black and white questions of whether citizen media has legitimacy, or whether new media will crush old media and into the murky grey of discovering what’s actually going on in a world where the distinction between publisher and reader, broadcaster and audience is disappearing.

I’m moving to MIT because I’m obsessed with four big questions about civic media, and I’m looking to learn from the brilliant folks at the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies department, as well as from the folks we’re able to convene, to address these questions. They’re not the only questions we’re going to be looking at, because one of the major reasons researchers work together in centers is that when we work in isolation, we often lack both the right answers and the right questions. My new colleagues Sasha Costanza-Chock, Mitch Resnick, Leo Burd, Rick Borovoy, Lorrie LeJeune and others at the Center are surely going to bring more and better questions to the table – these are just the four I’ve thought about.

Understanding the Media Ecosystem

The first comes from this realization that we’re at an extremely confusing moment in the media space. Debates over whether Facebook can topple governments or whether dictators love social media point to a simple truth: we don’t understand the media ecosystem very well. How do we map and understand media ecosystems?

We can start by mapping who reports about what and where, with tools like Newsflow from Civic’s Jeffrey Warren and David Small. We can start understanding who amplifies whom, with analysis like the Egypt Twitter influence map from Kovas Boguta at Infoharmoni, or Gilad Lotan’s analysis of how a single tweet from Keith Urbahn, a defense analyst, turned into a cascade of speculation about Bin Laden’s arrest. (Deep in Gilad’s data is the story of how Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani IT consultant inadvertently live-tweeted the raid, and how social media friends connected his account to the rumors and media stories.)

To do this, we need lots of data, and new ways to look at it. The project I’ve been working on at the Berkman Center, and which will continue as a joint project between MIT and Harvard, is Media Cloud, which indexes hundreds of thousands of newspaper articles and blogposts and allows us to look at what language is used by different corners of the mediasphere. One of the goals of the work is to be able to track how stories go viral, and what stories die on the vine – a more general goal is moving from a world where we talk about how the media works in terms of anecdotes towards one where we can root our conversations in data. In the long term, I’d like to be able to talk about media in the ways we talk about complex systems like traffic and weather – something we can’t fully predict, but can model and understand.

Understanding how media ecosystems work is more than an academic question – it’s critically important for activists. I mentioned that the Saudi protests gained a significant amount of US media attention. I found it very interesting that the technique of video civil disobedience used by the Saudi women directly parallels a technique used by Dream Act advocates in the US. (The Dream Act would allow undocumented youth who’ve served in the armed forces or completed higher education to seek permanent residency.) Dream Activists have been using the language of the gay rights movement, “coming out” as undocumented in YouTube videos, and using this online statement to complement offline marches and activism. While this tactic has become widespread, it hasn’t received the same sort of media attention the Saudi protests have – I just did a quick Nexus search and found nine stories on The New York Times searching for “YouTube” and “Saudi Women”… none for “YouTube” and “Dream Act”. It may be that the Saudi activism is leveraging patterns of connection and amplification that the Dream Activists are not, or that a story about defying theocracy is easier for people to amplify than the deeply divisive issue of immigration in the US.

Supporting Rarely-Heard Voices

My hope is that understanding who speaks, who amplifies and who listens will help us address the second question I’m obsessed with: “How do we help marginal and rarely-heard voices find an audience?” While the promise of digital media is that everyone can share their story, we’re a long way from realizing that potential. Projects like Charlie deTar’s Between the Bars, which invites the roughly 1% of Americans who are incarcerated to blog by sending paper letters which are scanned and posted online, or Sasha Costanza-Chock’s VozMob, which allows immigrant and low wage workers to blog from mobile phones, invite us to pay attention to communities we rarely encounter in new or old media. Bringing people into the conversation sometimes requires new tools, like Leo Burd’s VoIPDrupal, which brings the power of Voice over IP – critical to reaching populations who don’t have regular internet access – into the participatory media conversation.

My work at Global Voices has shown me that the question of finding an audience for marginal voices can’t end with helping people publish. We’ve run tens of thousands of stories that unlock social media conversations taking place in different corners of the world. At moments when a dramatic natural disaster takes place, or a revolution comes into international media focus, there’s tremendous interest in our content. But we’ve written about dozens of revolutions that got almost no mainstream media attention – which included Tunisia up to the day before Ben Ali stepped down – and we’ve begun to realize that increasing the supply of media from underrepresented voices isn’t enough: we’ve got to increase demand.

Global Voices tries to work on the demand problem using three tools: images, narrative, and human connection. It’s our hope that by giving you glimpses of other parts of the world, by telling compelling stories and by giving you the chance to connect to individual bloggers, you can connect to stories you otherwise might have ignored. But I’m increasingly convinced that there’s another factor we need to consider: participation.

When people hear about stories that they connect to emotionally, they want to find ways to be part of them. Confronted by injustice or tragedy that you’re powerless in the face of is an extremely frustrating and alienating prospect. In a participatory age, people look for ways they can help out, and may follow stories more closely when they can.

That helps explain why more than 160,000 Twitter users turned their profile pictures green in solidarity with protesters in Iran, an action that had little impact beyond the symbolic… or took actions that were probably in the long run unhelpful, like changing their Twitter location to Tehran, making it even harder to find the very few people actually tweeting from within Iran. It’s the logic that led people around the world to send pizzas to pro-labor protesters in Madison, and might be the logic that led people to join Anonymous and to mount a denial of service attack on Egyptian government sites (which may have worsened the internet connectivity situation in Egypt for those using the one ISP that remained online during the shutdown.)

Strengthening Productive Participation

I believe that participation is a key factor in getting people to pay attention to stories locally and globally, and so I’m interested in this question: How do we encourage productive participation? Often, what people need is just a small amount of guidance as to what would be helpful. Last summer, a group of bloggers in Moscow used the Ushahidi platform to collect data on what people affected by wildfires needed after they’d fled the fires – they collected the information on and organized donations within Moscow and cars to drive donated food, clothing, tents and other supplies to people in villages.

Sometimes we can participate by sharing information rather than physical goods. Chris Csikszentmihalyi’s Landman Report Card encourages people who have been approached to purchase mineral extraction rights to their land to document and share their experiences with other citizens facing similar offers, which can include deceptive and harassing tactics from landmen. And participating by sharing good news can be a powerful force as well, as we’ve seen in Cronicás de Héroes, which is helping change the dialog about Ciudad Juarez to include stories about local heroes as well as stories about violence and the drug war.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the most interesting projects encouraging participation involve maps. By inviting people to contribute to a map, you’re inviting people to leave their mark on the spaces they care about. And maps are one of ensuring that media connects with physical communities, and helps people understand the points of conflict and of consonance in their communities.

I was in New York City a few weeks ago having lunch with a friend who’s a labor activist. He took me on a walking tour of his neighborhood, pointing out otherwise nondescript buildings and telling me about the unions that had built them and the activists who’d lived there – this is something he does regularly for union leaders and activists who visit New York. We made our way to a thoroughly anonymous building on 23rd street, which turns out to be the headquarters of the Communist Party in the US, and as my friend began giving me a history of the Communist party, I noticed a man on the other side of the street, talking to a small group of tourists and gesturing. Across the street is the Chelsea Hotel, and the man was offering a walking tour of rock and roll sites in New York City. So while he talked about Sid Vicious and the death of Nancy Spungen, my friend starting telling me about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Abbie Hoffman and their stays at the Chelsea.

The dueling walking tours made me think about layers of data atop the physical world. As I was walking with my friend, I was thinking about how I could design a system that would record his narration, record GPS locations and create a walking map that could be viewed on the web or heard as a podcast while physically touring the city.

Fostering Civic Mapping

Of course, the real challenge isn’t just doing this – it’s making it possible for everyone to add layers of meaning and history to physical space, and to find ways to navigate through those layers. How do we help communities annotate physical spaces? How do we make civic maps?

We’re seeing some basic tools available within Google Maps and other platforms that allow users to build their own maps, offering alternate paths through a city like this walking tour of New York City’s independent bookstores. And we’re seeing some very creative ideas like Mapping Main Street, which invites people to document Main Streets in cities across America by tagging photos and aggregating them into a data layer atop maps. But there’s lots more we can do, making it easier for people to build these maps individually and collaboratively, and to sort through the different types of data that exists on top of physical spaces.

Before we deal with dueling data layers, we’ve got some concrete challenges to take on. Just because data exists to annotate a physical place doesn’t mean it’s accessible. Rick Borovoy’s Lost in Boston realtime project is encouraging business owners to put up smart LED signs that receive information from Boston’s mass transit system and can tell you “You have 13 minutes before the bus arrives – come in for a cup of coffee.” Information that might have been accessible to an intrepid user with a mobile phone and browser is embedded in the space in a way that’s practical and useful.

Sometimes we need the maps themselves. Jeffrey Warren’s Grassroots Mapping work is encouraging people to put digital cameras on helium balloons and make their own community maps. I’m hoping we’re heading towards a future where we’ve got a wealth of maps – from satellite imagery, to homemade aerial maps, to photo collages made by people of their neighborhoods – and a rich set of tools that allow people to annotate these maps with their discoveries, their concerns, their challenges to friends, neighbors, businesses and politicians.

Those are my four questions. They’re not the only questions we should be asking about civic media, and they’re more or less guaranteed to change and morph. I’m interested in answering these questions, both in theory and in practice, but I’m at least as interested in seeing what other questions everyone who’s involved with the civic media movement brings to the table.

Banner image credit: Irish Typepad

This post is adapted from a post from Ethan’s personal blog, My Heart’s in Accra; you can read the original version here.