Creating Technology for Social Change

Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself

Hello everybody! As you may have noticed, this is not my first time posting to the Civic Media blog—previously, I liveblogged ROFLcon III as well as the 2012 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. However, I’ve never had an opportunity to formally introduce myself to the Center for Civic Media and the broader online community surrounding it. I just started my sophomore year here at MIT, where I’m majoring in Comparative Media Studies and (hopefully also) Computer Science. Last semester, I worked with Sasha, Rahul, and Becky as a graphic/UI designer for Vojo, a community-based mobile blogging platform optimized for low-cost cell phones. This semester I’m continuing my involvement with the Center in an academic capacity, as I’m taking Sasha’s Intro to Civic Media class.

Over the course of the term, I hope to bolster my knowledge of media theory and delve deeply into the relevant literature, both classic and contemporary. I also hope to explore the new media ecology specifically as it relates to participatory engagement and action, and engage in tangible tool/campaign development beyond just the theoretical frameworks of civic media. Lofty goals, certainly, but our first session last Wednesday did not disappoint. Not only are the content areas listed in the syllabus getting me giddy and excited; more importantly, the breadth of disciplines and expertise that Sasha’s attracted to the class promises to foster stimulating discussions and even more stimulating project work.

Perhaps most emblematic of our class’s diversity of opinions was the 10 Points activity, in which the objective was to arrive at a consensus on the core principles of civic media. With the 10 Points tool, participants may propose points (a grand total of ten) that fit their particular goal. Other participants may indicate their approval or support for the points; they may also edit, alter, or replace entirely other participants’ points. However, if changes are made to a particular point, all favorable votes gathered thus far for that point are annulled. Thus, the effect of any change—no matter how minor—is drastically amplified. This rule may seem counter-productive and impractical at first, but with a time limit in place, participants learn quickly to make compromises and to lower their threshold of being satisficed.

We divided ourselves up into teams, bickering over issues ranging from syntax and diction to whether or not the principles should be aspirational or simply reflect reality. Hammering out a set of broadly-supported principles was a daunting albeit thought-provoking task, particularly considering how nebulous and all-encompassing the topic of civic media can be. Being physically present certainly changed the dynamic of the conversation—during the exercise, the class was charged with energy. Groups would cry out in protest when their carefully-crafted principles were dismissed or dismantled. Only as time was about to run out were we finally able to settle on a majority of the principles. Here is our final list of civic media principles, along with the number of groups that supported each one:

  1. Civic media aspires to be participatory (8/8).
  2. Civic media promotes action and engagement (6/8).
  3. Civic media fights against social inequality (6/8).
  4. Civic media reflects the community it comes from (6/8).
  5. Civic media is accessible (7/8).
  6. Civic media educates and empowers users to be creators as well as consumers (4/8).
  7. Civic media challenges people to rethink social structures (7/8).
  8. Civic media is self critical and iterative (3/8).
  9. Civic media is open and extensible (4/8).
  10. Civic media fosters transparency and accountability (7/8).

It’s definitely interesting to see the activist slant that shines through in many of these principles. I’ve never considered myself an activist—perhaps it’s just semantics, or maybe it’s my lack of knowledge regarding issues of social and media justice (something I hope to remedy this term!)—so why exactly am I taking this class? Broadly, I define civic media as a blanket term to describe the use of media technologies and/or strategies to promote civic action and engagement within a community. As such, the study of civic media is highly relevant to my academic interest in online communities, social networks, and fan cultures. Specifically, the core principles of civic media that speak most clearly to me are:

  1. Civic media aspires to be participatory. Civic media should try to bring its audiences/stakeholders into the mediamaking process. Take, for example, the recently-announced Block by Block initiative, a collaboration between the UN-Habitat’s Sustainable Urban Development Network and Mojang, developers of the open world sandbox game Minecraft (think virtual Lego). The project will utilize the Minecraft engine “to involve youth in the planning process in urban areas by giving them the opportunity to show planners and decision makers how they would like to see their cities in the future” without necessarily having architectural training. This is a prime example of the principle of codesign, an approach to innovation that involves community partners in the design process.


  2. Civic media promotes action and engagement. In the ideal case, the end goal of civic media should be to motivate audiences to take action. In particular, I am intrigued by the way in which certain internet memes go political, manifesting in collective action. In particular, An Xiao Mina’s piece for the Atlantic comes to mind; there, she analyzes the hoodie-wearing meme inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, and the sunglasses-wearing meme inspired by Chen Guangcheng’s unlawful house arrest. Similarly, Chinese netizens banded together in solidarity, posting nude photos of themselves to the internet in protest over government censorship of a photograph from artist Ai Weiwei. From these examples, we can see how these internet memes were able to spur audiences to action and make a powerful statement.
  3. Civic media reflects the community it comes from. One great example of this aspect of civic media is the Harry Potter Alliance online network. Inspired by the student activist organization Dumbledore’s Army from the Harry Potter universe, the HPA uses parallels from the novels to educate and mobilize fans towards engagement around issues of self-empowerment and social justice. In an interview with Henry Jenkins, HPA executive director Andrew Slack explains how issues explored in the fictional world of Harry Potter are translated into IRL activism, reflecting their own values as a fan group:

The Harry Potter books hit on issues of racism toward people who are not so called “pure blooded” Wizards just as our world continues to not treat people equally based on race. House elves are exploited the way that many employers treat their workers in both sweat shops in developing nations and even in superstores like Wal-Mart. Indigenous groups like the Centaurs are not treated equally just as Indigenous groups in our world are not treated equally. And just as many in our world feel the need to hide in the closet due to their sexual orientation, a character like Remus Lupin hides in the closet because of his identity as a werewolf, Rubeus Hagrid hides in the closet because of his identity as a half-giant, and Harry Potter is literally forced to live inside a closet because of his identity as a Wizard.

These three core principles—and the examples I’ve provided—illustrate the intersections between the field of civic media and my other academic interests in CMS (namely: video games, internet culture, and fandom). One of the issues I have been struggling with as a media scholar is whether to go the route of studying media as pop culture or media as political agent. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the distinction between the two is rapidly blurring. These are the sorts of case studies I hope to explore further in this course—at the moment, I have both the academic’s and the fan’s passion for media. Over the course of the term, through our readings and projects, I hope to develop the activist and hacker/developer perspectives as well.