Defining Civic Media: A Boring Take

I feel as though it’s easy to want to present a definition of civic media that calls to mind images of change, influence, and nobleness. I hesitate, however, to go beyond a very boring and un-romantic assertion that civic media is any channel (be it vetted or otherwise) that informs an individual about her community—from town to global village—and vice versa. As part of this definition, I outline the following principles:

1. Civic Media need not require action on the part of the consumer

In this week’s readings I noted the repeated mention of “engagement.” Jenkins, for instance, argues that civic media itself is defined by that which “fosters civic engagement.” I’m not comfortable with this connection, however. Engagement with one’s community implies action, or at least a link that goes beyond simple information sharing. I don’t believe Jenkins means to exclude local newspapers or blogs, but I want to make sure my definition is inclusive. Be it Boston.com’s Your Town section or BBC’s World News, teaching media consumers about the community of which they are part is the most basic of principles for civic media.

2. Civic Media can be a one- or two-way communication

User generated content and social network activity are often tied to civic media, mostly because both phenomena are based on the individual and her being in a certain place at a certain time. CNN provides this type of content, albeit highly curated, via its iReport product. But to be considered civic media, information channels do not necessarily need to include content from the consumer. The New York Times does not allow comments on its news articles, for instance, only content from its blogs.

If a news organization does wish to encourage a dialogue amongst channel constituents, there are third party products which can help keep that dialogue relevant and focused (unlike the White House’s Open For Questions/NORML fiasco). For instance, the team at Localocracy (a Boston based startup) facilitates discussion and debate while restricting the discussion to only those to whom the topic is relevant (based on location).

Additionally, tools allowing individuals to inform their communities are becoming more available with applications being developed by groups like Code for America’s fellowship program. Locally in Boston, we’ve also seen applications like Citizens Connect that let you call out the needs of your community directly to civic government.

3. Civic Media may relate to a community defined by something different than physical proximity

I think that Henry Jenkins makes a good point when he notes that communities need not be defined by traditional means. Excuse me, however, as I go off on a brief tangent: Reading the summary of Jenkins’ (and others’) talk at the forum brought to question how one should be approaching this source of material. That is, the virtual community landscape—as well as so much more of what digital media looked like—in September 2007 was vastly different than today. Facebook was still tiny (relatively speaking) and Twitter was in its absolute infancy as a mainstream service. So I began to question whether we should read these sorts of pieces with historical context in mind, or as absolutisms.

All of that said, thinking about virtual communities did bring to mind an organization in the commercial realm called Communispace. They provide “white label” communities for companies looking to “engage and intimately understand their customers.” This example ultimately undermines my fourth principle, below, but I struggle to find a similar product (white label virtual communities) with purely non-commercial motives. Perhaps I haven’t been looking long enough, however.

4. Civic Media channels may have commercial interests, but the information being shared must not be relevant only to those interests

I admit that I struggle a bit with the wording here. What I hope to assert is that it’s okay for a private organization to present news—it doesn’t have to be not-for-profit like NPR or user generated like CNN iReport. At the same time, learning about a sale at your local Sears is not civic media. The information shared should not have the sole purpose of promoting a commercial cause.

According to the speakers at the SXSW 2011 Panel entitled “Changing News Rooms and News Consumers” (audio available here), between 1992 and 2002, the sizes of editorial staffs at news organizations was reduced by a third (a trend continuing today, according to The Economist) while the number of public relation specialist positions across the country doubled. The panel spoke of “churnalism,” or the efforts by news organizations to make their process more efficient by simply spitting out what they are given by PR representatives. In response to this, churnalism.com was built to compare bodies of text with press releases from its database.

This trend encompasses the overall mood of the readings from this week: overtly pessimistic when it comes to the outlook for our current media options. I can’t say this is surprising at all, however. As an MFA candidate at the Dynamic Media Institute at MassArt, my work has been focused on the way that dynamic media can elevate the level of public discourse in the country. By studying the participants, rituals, influencers, and representatives all involved with our national dialogue, I am trying to find or create tools that help us move beyond the extremely polarized nature of discourse today.

Understanding how we arrived at this place is important, so the report from The Economist and the FCC’s “The Information Needs of Communities” present a strong contextual background for my thesis. And it’s this context which I hope to build throughout the semester. On the other hand, my undergraduate education is in business and I’ve spent the past five years in the advertising industry, so the commercial perspectives presented in this week’s readings are certainly familiar. I’m looking forward (albeit cautiously) to gaining more exposure to the theoretical and philosophical elements of the topic.