Responsibilities of Civic Media | MIT Center for Civic Media

Responsibilities of Civic Media

In reviewing my original principles of civic media, I don’t see too many opportunities to revise. I admitted in September that the view was a bit simplistic and boring, and I stand by that assertion today. After the voluminous amount of reading we’ve done this semester, however, I do feel the need to attach an addendum. Civic media makers are extremely powerful in their ability to influence and change. As such, I propose the following responsibilities which they should take into consideration while doing so:

Be inclusive with your medium

If your primary medium is not one that is accessible to the greatest number of citizens as possible, consider concurrent distribution on parallel media. If you are building a mobile application, but your community is one where most individuals don’t own a smart-phone, then look into SMS distribution or IVR executions. The complexity of this problem was not clear to me until after reading Eszter Hargittai’s piece. Digital doesn’t solve the inequality, in fact it may exacerbate it. Find ways to compensate for this.

Be realistic when it comes to financing

After the thorough review of the [negative] impact of commercialism and advertising on the media over the past few centuries, my reflex is to say, “don’t take any money!” It’s also become abundantly clear that that is problematic, if not nearly impossible, in today’s world.

Consider, for instance, IndyMedia’s troublesome rise [PDF Link] from grassroots to a much larger, global movement. On the one hand, staying purely volunteer based limited the diversity of its members (usually to white, tech-savvy males with supplemental income). On the other, many members felt that bringing in money would dirty the purely motivated waters of the movement.

This leads, however, to my next responsibility of civic media: transparency.

Be transparent about your influencers and motives

In transparency, I don’t mean revealing process and sources—this may put an organization or individuals in danger of persecution or even death. Rather, with the multitude of ways an organization can be influenced by advertisers, investors, or lobbyists, it’s extremely important for these influencers–and their motives–to be revealed. As Gramsci pointed out, the capitalist hegemony leads to a self-censorship by the mainstream media. Whether it’s only up to the rebellious media, the mainstream, or both is something I’m not willing to debate here. But media must be open with itself and its consumers about those that influence it. This may even lead to an appropriate counterbalance. As Jay Rosen put it, “A great deal of progress can be made with a pluralistic solution.”

Please, just keep doing what you’re doing

As the semester comes to a close, I walk away from this class with a significantly stronger understanding of the philosophical, technological, and sociological considerations related to civic media. I also walk away with a vague sense of futility. I struggle to recall a reading or a project that left me feeling overtly…hopeful.

It’s certainly a pessimistic take, but it feels as though we heard or read the following many times this year:

“We ran out of money, so we had to abandon the project.”

“The project wasn’t scalable, and the community couldn’t continue it on their own, so we had to give it up.”

“This project was for my thesis work; I have to move on after I got my degree.”

“I have no answers, but I think asking the questions is important.”

I realize this doesn’t bother someone like Clay Shirky, he of the many-experiments-will-lead-to-a-solution point of view. And there have been many movements, helped on by civic media, that have succeeded, some of which we reviewed in this class: the Algerian case of community radio, or the civil rights movement. But as we learned this semester, the civil rights movement, for example, lost a great deal of steam when it moved from a de jure debate to a de facto one. And as commercialism and advertising were injected into the community, the focus turned from one of liberation to one of celebrity (see: Dayna Cunningham vs. Henry Jenkins).

So how do we keep projects going? How do we keep the capitalist hegemony from crushing or taking a movement over? In some ways, skepticism and pessimism are good things: they encourage one to challenge their world and perhaps find answers to these questions. Because—ok, fine—while I have no answers…I think thatasking the questions is important.