Two Media Tech Ideas for Distributed Solidarity | MIT Center for Civic Media
At the Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Nathan designs and researches civic technologies for cooperation across diversity. At the Berkman Center, he applies data analysis and design to the topics of peer-based social technologies, civic engagement, journalism, gender diversity, and creative learning.
Nathan's current projects include large scale research on community building online. In the summer of 2015, Nathan will be a PhD intern at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective. A full project list is at natematias.com.
Nathan regularly liveblogs talks and events. He also publishes data journalism with the Guardian Datablog and PBS IdeaLab. He coordinated the Media Lab Festival of Learning in 2012 and 2013.
Before MIT, Nathan completed an MA in English literature at the University of Cambridge, where he was a Davies Jackson scholar. In earlier years, he was Riddick Scholar and Hugh Cannon Memorial Scholar at the American Institute of Parliamentarians. He won the Ted Nelson award at ACM Hypertext 2005 with a work of tangible scholarly hypermedia. He facilitated #1book140, The Atlantic's Twitter book club from 2012-2014, and was an intern at Microsoft Research Fuse Labs in the summer of 2013.
Two Media Tech Ideas for Distributed Solidarity
In this parallel post alongside one by Denise Cheng, I review the media-making practices of 350.org, who coordinate thousands of events into global days of climate action. I also propose two technology designs for collaboratively tagging and remixing media from an event.
Read Denise's post on the story and mission of 350.org, annotate this post using ReadrBoard, or suggest your own ideas
Here at the Center for Civic Media, we have spent the last year discussing the idea of peer-based politics. In a Media Lab talk at the beginning of the year, Rebecca McKinnon argued that international politics sometimes needs the consent of the networked. Corporations, climate, and the Internet don't operate within national boundaries. A few months ago, Steven Johnson called for Peer to Peer Politics to organise online on issues that affect us all.
350.org are the party planners of peer-based politics, creating global days of action focused on climate change. In their first day of action in 2009, 350.org coordinated 5,248 simultaneous rallies across 181 countries. More recent campaigns include the 10/10/10 Global Work Party to celebrate creative solutions for a low carbon future. Occasionally, 350 will also coordinate place-specific actions like the Nov 2011 Keystone XL Pipeline protest at the White House.
350 "holds a mirror to the movement," explained Duncan Meisel in an interview. Peer-based politics can feel lonely, even when a movement has large numbers of people behind it. Especially when confronting a vast issue like climate change, small groups need to recognise and believe in the collective power of people they have never met. 350.org's days of action coordinates regional efforts into a global event that energises activists. The global events also make a statement that they hope the press and those in power can't ignore. In our conversation, the team at 350 used a lovely phrase to describe their approach: "distributed solidarity."
Before an action, 350 makes videos and starts social media conversations to inspire people to create their own events. They offer resources and guides to help organisers create a successful event. During and after an action, they aggregate and publish the best videos and photos out to the press and back to the movement.
Three Challenges for Distributed Solidarity
Denise and I were fascinated by three challenges that 350 has to navigate as they curate activist media:
Telling the wider story with citizen media is hard to do. People with cameraphones in the middle of an event can share remarkable personal perspectives. Nevertheless, some of 250's best footage and greatest media exposure has been the work of experienced videographers. Nearly all of the videos they share to their community are professionally produced, even if they use citizen media to make them. (Read more in Denise Cheng's blog post). Participants want to be part of a grassroots movement, but they also need to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves. Media with very high production values can deliver that feeling.
To create global awareness, 350 has to combine regional experience into a single global story-- one whose themes have been decided even before an action happens. Sometimes regional organisations pressure 350 to focus on regional issues, but 350 does its best to focus on high impact global issues. They do occasionally tell human interest stories with a universal appeal. They also run a global blog which features reports from 350's regional hubs around the world. Occasionally, people within the movement also make their own videos using 350's footage and photos.
The tension between regional interests and a global vision is a common challenge. In a Civic Media talk in October, Michael Silberman described a similar challenge for Greenpeace as it transforms itself for the post-broadcast era. At the same time that Greenpeace is learning to participate in the ad-hoc network of peer politics, 350 is trying to find ways to unify that network into a single story.
On a global day of action, 350 needs to filter, tag, and remix media from thousands of events to create press releases within a very fast news cycle. They have tried a variety of technologies and platforms with limited success. Most recently, they have been sharing a single Youtube and Flickr endpoint for everyone to upload. Bandwidth remains a problem in most parts of the world. Flickr and YouTube aren't set up for collaborative tagging; it's easy to overwrite someone else's tags. Most often, 350 simply organises a small in-person team to tag and sort incoming media.
Two Media Tech Ideas for Distributed Solidarity
Here are two ideas we brainstormed with the 350 team:
Collaborative Uploader and Tagger: 350's greatest bottleneck on a day of action is their ability to sort photos and video. After reviewing the list of existing technologies we made in November at the Mozilla Festival, here's what I propose: a multilingual, collaborative tagger. Here's how it would work:
- Auto-import everything posted to the 350.org Flickr and YouTube
- Auto-create tagging batches, grouped by region
- Reach out to 350.org followers on Facebook by language, matching them with tagging batches for regions whose language they know
- To tag a photo or video, volunteers:
- Upvote the best media
- Click on one of 5 common tag buttons, which have been localised for the language of the tagger. This ensures consistency across all tags no matter the language of the tagger.
- For videos, viewers click an "interesting!" button when they see a great scene
- Bonus: taggers chat with people from the region in question to ask clarifying questions
- Bonus: taggers with photo editing skills upload cropped & corrected photos
- Periodically, the tagging system syncs all of the tags to Flickr and YouTube using the API
A system like this would do more than simply coordinate tagging across more people. If tasks are batched by region, individual taggers gain the opportunity to learn about and relate horizontally across regions. An especially well coordinated version might even link to preliminary background information about the context and causes of that region's climate organisers.
Video Remix Button: 350 produces high quality video that they edit offline and upload as a single video. That's fine for an organisation that wants to tell a unified story aggregated from the many groups that participate. But those organisations can't easily do the same. It's not so easy for regional groups to appropriate 350's work to tell the story they want to tell. That's why I propose a remix button for advocacy films. HTML5 technologies like Mozilla PopcornMaker and Zeega stitch together films from their component parts online, pointing back to the source material that was used to create them. By using these technologies to create and share videos they can:
- Make subtitling and localisation easier for regional volunteers to do on their own
- Allow regional groups to create a region-specific version of their video, adding media from their own actions into a story created by 350
- Enable individuals to customise the video to tell the story of their own protest experience in the broader context
- Direct journalists to the original media files, in case they want to use that media in their own reports
HTML5 videomaking is still in its infancy and won't work well on older computers. Even if 350 still produces a YouTube video with a link to a Popcorn or Zeega, they can enable more of a two-way mediamaking conversation across their network of climate advocates.
In my conversation with the team at 350, I was struck by their use of the word "believe." They want people to believe that they're connected into something larger, working together to fight climate change. It's an important goal, since people can feel unreasonably isolated. All the same, distributed solidarity needs to go beyond the unified messages that 350 is so good at creating with a small central team. Collaborative taggers and remixable videos open up the mediamaking process to movement participants and enable them to reframe the message for their context. What would you design?