Ethan Zuckerman's DML Keynote: Beyond “The Crisis in Civics” | MIT Center for Civic Media

Ethan Zuckerman's DML Keynote: Beyond “The Crisis in Civics”

Liveblogging Ethan Zuckerman’s Keynote at the Digital Media Learning conference in Chicago

Ethan Zuckerman is Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab. He has been a member of MacArthur’s Youth and Participatory Politics network. Before that, he was a Fellow at the Berkman Center, and has a long history of thinking about technology’s role in civic and political engagement.

Ethan introduces the ‘hug-to-handshake ratio’ at a conference like DML as the measure of a movement.

Ethan opens with Jaywalking-style videos shot at a high school, “Lunch Scholars”, featuring interviews of students from Olympia High School in January 2012:

The disturbing thing, Ethan says, is not that high schoolers are so ignorant, but that the viewers of this video didn’t get the joke. Jay Leno’s ‘Jaywalking’ feature has been, for years, asking questions about civic life for years. It’s not a significant sample, and Jay’s clearly looking for a silly answer.

People didn’t get it. And it got an enormous amount of attention. A Huffington Post piece on the crisis in civics lead with this video. Glenn Beck cites the video in his own piece on a crisis in civics, saying there is a conspiracy by the Obama administration to lower civics education to not talk back.

The school was pressured to take the video down as the national spotlight fell on their students. The students responded in a pretty civic way: they called the ACLU to defend them against the school administration.

Sandra Day O’Connor is also on this beat, citing measures of youth engagement that indicate we are at a significantly lower level than we were 30 years ago. Ethan mentions The Civics 2010 Report confirming many of these same statistics.

Michael delli Carpini’s What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters finds that, if we’re at a low level of civic knowledge, we’ve actually been at that point for about 50 years. What has changed may be our expectations. The average college graduate does not have the same level of civic knowledge as he or she did 50 years ago, because we’re drawing from a far, far larger pool.

If you take the mean of civic knowledge of Americans it’s hard to say whether or not we are lower now.

We can play with other measures of civic engagement: how often did politics come up in your dorm. These show that we are doing as well as we have ever seen on such measures of civic awareness/engagement.

Traditional civic measures have to do with voting and knowledge of the three parts of government and how a bill becomes a law.

Civics is starting to get really complicated. Groups like the Harry Potter Alliance leverage fandom for the books as a gateway to social action, like ensuring the chocolate being used to make Harry Potter candy bars are Fair Trade. Or the DREAMERs, who use a narrative of self-identity to come out as undocumented in public and on YouTube.

Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action [pdf] is a very broad survey finding levels of civic engagement that are roughly as high as traditional metrics, but also growing over time.

Ethan doesn’t want to make the case that there’s not a crisis in civics. He thinks we can make the case but instead it’s a crisis in agency. We don’t want to think about, “can you pass this test?” Instead, do people feel like they have the ability to influence their government or society on issue they care about?

The crisis comes from the fact that the shape of civics is changing. Ethan grew up on Schoolhouse Rock. It took to the air the year he was born, and ran for 12 years of his childhood. Ethan quips he can probably do the lyrics for the I’m a Bill video without looking them up online.

But is I’m Just a Bill the model we want to point young people to as the ideal of how to be a civic actor?

The level of approval of Congress is below cockroaches and colonoscopies. It’s also indirect. The citizen who calls Congress about their ideas for laws is likely to be a very frustrated individual.

Bob Graham’s America: The Owner’s Manual is about as good as it gets in teaching those aspects of government to people. However, I think this book may be missing a fundamental piece regarding how civics might be functioning today in America.

At Google’s Political Innovation Summit, a post-mortem of the 2012 US national election, it was clear that the future is being able to target any political ad to individual television cable boxes.

Ethan argues: We have a 19th century model of politics. Our electoral system is mostly from the 20th century model And yet we are a 21st century electorate who wants to participate in a 21st century model of political engagement

In debating the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington argued for a legislative body with a representative to represent every 30,000 to 40,000 citizens. That way, if you really needed to you could get in to see your representative, and may even know them personally.

We’ve expanded the House of Representatives, but not nearly as fast as the population has grown. The ratio of citizens to representatives today is 700,000:1.

What you now have is a heavily mediated form of interaction with your representative. And your representative has to speak to all their constituents at one time, and has to appeal to their party at the national level because those coalitions are what is necessary to get anything done and stay in office.

This is a broadcast model of engagement. You might be able to send a letter of make a phone call. But you don’t have the fact to face possibility.

Ethan points to the 60 moderates in Congress the year cable television emerged. In 2010, we have no moderates: we can predict voting paths.

Online, we’re now used to the notion that we can have a voice, we can put our thoughts out there, and we might get a response to them.

You can see the early efforts that some people are making to put out their voice and have influence at scale.

The White House is doing something laudable, but also a little strange with We the People petition platform. This is a 21st century update for a 19th century form of participation.

It works when we get to 100,000 voices and then the White House has an obligation to respond. This is really nice but out of place in a moment where we are used to putting something out there and getting immediate feedback on it.

Ethan brings up his argument-starting slide, with Tea Party, Occupy, Anonymous, and Wikileaks logos. What they have in common is that they are all post-state movements. They are not particularly concerned with participating in politics and government.

That’s not where the action is, anyway. Occupy thinks the entire system is broken, beyond specific legislative repair.

Wikileaks says, we think the whole system is broken and we see leaks as the way to take to down. Anonymous goes after media manipulation for influence.

At the Center for Civic Media, we think about how to read protests and tactics. Ethan introduces a matrix with two axes:
One axis of thick and thin. There are types of civic engagement that ask you to show up but they tell you what to do: show up, do this, donate a little, etc. They don’t want you to suggest your own response to earthquakes in Haiti, because they want you to help them scale to have impact, and that requires a fairly thin level of participation on your part.

On the thick end of participation, groups say, “We want your creativity. We want you as a media maker. We want you to help us solve this problem.” It’s a difficult place to work but it’s where people want to work anyway.

Then there’s the symbolic to impactful axis. There are ways to take action that are primarily about voice. Ethan charts the thin but only symbolic quadrant as the slacktivist area.

Thin and symbolic
One of the better critiques of this work, Ethan says, is Evgeny Morozov’s book, To Save Everything Click. Clicktvism or Slacktivism, if we are acting online it is a very thin way of participating. If we like a movement on Facebook it is probably purely symbolic, it’s not attached to any sort of lever that can change the world. It’s perfectly appropriate to critique certain actions like this as clicktivism.

Thin and Impactful
Action being thin is not necessarily a bad thing. Voting is necessarily a thin form of engagement -- it needs to be incredibly accessible because we want millions and millions of people to do it. When voting gets thick we take it to the Supreme Court and argue that you are putting up barriers to voting.

The theory behind voting is that it requires little participation from us, yet carries enormous impact. The momentum for immigration reform demonstrates that showing up to vote can have enormous impact through a fairly thin form of action.

Thick but Symbolic
The critique of Occupy was that it was thick, but largely symbolic. Occupiers were trying to build governance systems in their occupied spaces. They went to great lengths and took great risks, but their impact was more calling attention to inequality rather than moving a specific lever of power to make change.

Occupy Sandy is a great example where the work gets thick, but also extremely impactful. Experienced Occupiers in Brooklyn took what they learned and applied it to a problem the federal government itself wasn’t doing a fantastic job of solving.

Thick and Impactful
Impactful & Thick movements invite your full participation, but usually work at very small scales. Which is tough, because this is the quadrant we’d like to be in. Can we do it in not just in one neighborhood but at scale to transform the problems facing our world?

Ethan wants his work to be impactful, thick, and at scale. He’s spending a lot of his time thinking about how do we move into that very difficult quadrant.

Ethan discusses the Center for Civic Media’s recent trip to Istanbul to meet with digital activists from around the world. One project tries to address motorized rickshaw corruption in India. uses an SMS short code to allow people to submit claims against their bad experiences in this rickshaws.

The 5000 kyat SIM card campaign out of Myanmar is Ethan’s most recent favorite. It’s a Facebook campaign focused on achieving a ~$6 SIM card. Two years ago, a SIM card cost $2,000 if you wanted it to work on the Myanmar networks. Price was used to keep people from having this communications technology. For a country that was largely cut off from the internet, this Facebook, meme-based campaign is leveraging consumer activism at scale. is a project in Russia emerging from crisis response to the fire in Moscow. They asked the question, “Can we help people in these small towns?” We don’t need the centralization, the hotline to Moscow, because they don’t do anything anyway. You can send a request through Rynda instead and get help for being locked out of your car (e.g.) and through this peer-to-peer help network, someone will come pick you up.

When the Center for Civic Media began looking for case studies, we expected to have to slog through a lot of “we started a Facebook Group” movements. But actually, there was a wide range of cases, on a spectrum from symbolic to impactful. And the only Facebook case was out of Myanmar, which is pretty notable, because they didn’t have Facebook two years ago.

Which levers of change are you pulling on?
In many ways, the gold standard of change is to pull the legislative lever and create top-down change with the force of law behind it. We would really like to get marriage equality enshrined in law because then you would have the full force of the state behind us.

But this can be a very slow and very contested space to create change within. So we turn our attention to other places. Can we influence a single authority figure? And that figure doesn’t necessarily need to be a politician.

The Arab Spring was essentially an authority-based revolution, as it was predicated on ousting leaders standing in the way of change.

There are other theories of change that argue for changing culture first. If you really want equality for GLBT citizens, what you really need to do is change hearts and minds of the people around you. This is an incredibly long form of change, but we’ve seen it happen, from norms around smoking indoors to drinking and driving. These multi-decade campaigns are powerful, but slow and gradual.

The Trevor Project seeks to protect gay and lesbian youth from suicide even before we get that national legal change.

Petitions work best when they focus on a very specific change, and they work with authorities more than they do culture.

DDoS is a tactic leveraged by Anonymous that works to influence not just authority, but also public opinion.

We pay an enormous amount of attention to authority-based theories of change that require a physical presence in the real world. Protesters in Tahrir Square are our poster of how change happens in the world.

In online spaces, people tend to focus on tactics that use media to shift public opinion, partially because it’s what they’re good at. They know how to A/B test to find out what content goes further than others. It’s very difficult to know what kind of impact you are having. You might be looking for change over 20-30 years if you trying to change public opinion.

These are really hard measurement questions.

The notion of interest-driven learning: when we look at spaces like YouMedia here in Chicago, we get a sense of how we should be teaching civics, leveraging young people’s passions to get involved.

Ethan looks to the Harry Potter Alliance as a source of lessons. The organization connects change with existing passions. We are used to creating media like fan fiction. Can we use those same tactics to encourage ourselves and others to get involved in other issues.

Ethan’s been a strong critic of the KONY2012 video, but admires their well-thought-out ladder of engagement: watch the video, spread the video, put up posters, organize teams, join leadership. It respects that some people’s involvement will be thin, but allows growth and deeper and deeper levels of participation.

One of the reasons ladders of engagement often fall apart is that we as organizers encourage people to quickly climb to the top because we need help there. But this requires thin forms of engagement. But ascending that ladder really requires people to deepen their knowledge as they increase their engagement. And, Ethan argues, that can introduce complicating critiques, like, where are all the Ugandans in this campaign? This is a much harder path to lead people on.

If we ask people to help elect us to office, we’re saying not just, "I need you to help me think about my policy positions, my media strategy, etc.," but also "can you go hang posters and hold rallies?" But this thick stuff is also really big and scary.

Ethan’s suggested modified ladder of engagement for KONY 2012 based on deep knowledge: watch the video, learn about LRA, question IC, work with Ugandan orgs, join movement leadership.

Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive is basically “None Dare Call It Media Literacy”. We need to learn to read in this online space. And youth desperately need to learn to read in that space.

We’re doing people a disservice if we just tell people what actions to take. What we really want to tell people is how they can learn more so that at some point they can tell us what to know. We need to help them learn more so they can actually get involved at a deeper level and become leaders of the movement at the top of that ladder of engagement.

There’s also a spectrum between small scale and large scale. There’s Occupy Sandy, and there’s the Red Cross. Even to find the logo for this slide, Ethan had to go to the Red Cross’s brand page, where you get an application to download the Red Cross’s digital logo. (He didn’t fill it out and just cut it from another person’s website: this is what we do on the internet.)

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, was in danger of losing their funding from Susan Komen Foundation, and empowered their most committed members. Deanna Zandt puts together a Tumblr-based campaign called “Planned Parenthood Saved Me.” (Planned Parenthood didn’t arrange this campaign, but did wholeheartedly support it). They received thousands of stories on the Tumblr and won the media battle with the Komen Foundation (raising large amounts of money in the process), which shows how effective a thick and creative form of participation can be.

A lot of the work we’re doing right now is descriptive. We’re trying to understand these new movements. But we’re also doing evaluative work. We’ve dissected the tens of thousands of news stories and blog posts around SOPA/PIPA to try and understand what that conversation looked like, who was influential when, and find out if we were successful as we thought we were moving the right lever of change.

Ethan cites PolicyMic as a great project helping people develop their voice into a thick form of creative participation.

Ethan's final slide: If we want civic participation that is thick, impactful and scalable:

  • get beyond politics vs. activism, and focus on agency,
  • understand levers as well as developing new tactics,
  • deepen foundations of understanding while climbing the ladder of engagement,
  • understand that thick participation at scale means devolving control.

Ethan argues that we need to get rid of the divide between politics and activism. A small number of people get recruited into this special profession of politics. The book The Victory Machine documents the microtargeting tactics and professionalism of campaign dark arts. We cannot afford to allow politics to be separated from other forms of social change. How do we help someone or a group increase their agency and make the change they want to see in the world?

We focus a lot on tactics when we think about activism. And they might work, if they’re attached to a particular theory of change. We need to see moments of interest as opportunities to deepen knowledge and engagement. And we need to understand that getting thick participation at scale means giving up some control.

Ethan at DML

More and more people are routinely creating, and that’s incredibly important. New spaces allow new opportunities to create. All that said, it’s not clear that new spaces immediately draw flocks of people. It’s good for activists to go where people are. But you can’t assume that with more people coming online we are going to amplify all their voices.

There’s a real question of whether people have that time, energy, and bandwidth in their life to contribute to social media or get involved in activism. Encouraging people in sub-Saharan Africa to contribute to Wikipedia can be tough. The assumption of cognitive surplus in the Global North doesn’t always apply in the South.

There may be a way to build movements into education and job prospects. Global Voices’s 900 translators have found their volunteer work with the site helps them make a living as translators.

Matt Stempeck contributed to this liveblog