On Saturday I attended the Beyond Broadcast 2007 conference held at MIT. The theme of the conference was “from participatory culture to participatory democracy” and well over 400 people attended. The live face-to-face discussion was paralleled in Berkman Island in Second Life and in Teen Grid too.
The conference web site set the context for the conference with this description, “For 50 years broadcast media have played a powerful role in shaping political culture and mediating citizen engagement in the democratic process. Now a participatory culture is putting the tools of media creation and critique in the hands of citizens themselves.” Here are some of my notes and impressions of the day.
The conference struck a balance between structured presentations and informal discussion: rather than simply have panels where the experts speak and the audience listens and maybe asks some questions (rarely is there enough time for discussion because most moderators don’t keep speakers to their time slots), this conference was well structured and run in a manner that optimized participation and discussion.
The morning started with opening remarks, followed by a keynote and two panels, at lunch time we broke into working groups and towards the end of the day we came back together for reports from each of the working groups, which was then followed by closing remarks. The evening was kicked off with a reception and demos at the MIT Media Lab and then participants went off in small groups to gather at a series of birds of a feather dinners.
Steve Schultze (MIT Comparative Media Studies) said the hypothesis this year has to do with connecting last years theme, the future of public media, and what it means in a participatory culture, as we move from broadcast technology, one way media, to something more participatory and two way, asking what it might mean to allow the audience to make the media themselves, to construct their own meanings and their own news. Is the internet the new public? Maybe, and lots of ideas came out of last year’s conference of how to do that. For example, WNYC has been experimenting with call in radio and ways of making it more interactive.
This year the conference focused more on the issue that now that we’ve seen this new participatory technology develop, what does it mean for citizenship and the public, juxtaposing it with participatory culture, and you get participatory democracy: can this reinvigorate the age old value of democracy? Is this a new opportunity? Does it cross boundaries? Public media and non-traditional media / commercial and non-commercial / fun and serious work. Does it have the potential to break new ground for working on political issues that are not inherently partisan? This is the hypothesis, and many attendees hope this is true and we there are some success stories to discuss and explore, some of which were discussed on the panels and demonstrated during the reception.
Keynote: Henry Jenkins
Henry Jenkins (Director, MIT Comparative Media Studies program) posed the question, “what does participatory democracy look like in the 21st century?” And he discussed the topic in the context ideas from his new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Henry started off with the story of Dino Ignacio, a high-school student who created several Photoshop collages of Sesame Street’s Bert along with Osama Bin Laden as part of a “Bert is Evil” parody on his web site. One thing led to another and in the fall of 2001 someone used Ignacio’s images on a poster used in an anti-American protest and the image was picked up on CNN. Children’s Television Workshop attorneys responded with threats to take legal action. Henry painted a humorous picture, you can imagine where that goes. Ignacio finally took his pages off line, stating “I got too close to reality and had to step back.”
The controversy brings into sharp relief the clash between new media and old media and highlights the top down power of big media entities like CNN and the new bottom up power that participatory media affords individuals. Ten years ago it was inconceivable that a collage made by a teenager like Ignacio would spark controversy and gain international attention. Henry asked, “what does it mean to get too close to reality” in the context of parodies like this? The local flare-up here in Boston over the Aqua Teen Hunger Force signs is a clear indication that governments are out of touch with popular culture and unable to act in a responsible manner.
Henry criticized both the right and left for relying on the same set of images of “what pop culture does to us,” ad busting images by left-leaning media activists are using the same set of tropes as the right. Weapons of mass distraction. Left concerns about brand culture does not grant any power to individuals, we’re self defeating the moment we hold pop culture in contempt, it alienates us from the people that we’re are trying to understand. Henry argues (quite persuasively) that we can’t build participatory democracy assuming people are dumb and uncritical. We need to develop a better understanding of how people use and relate to media.
Henry also argues against the idea that convergence can be understood primarily as a technological process. Instead, convergence represents a shift in cultural logic, whereby consumers make connections between dispersed media content.The term participatory culture stands in contrast to older notions of broadcast media spectatorship. In the new convergence culture, media producers and consumers are transformed into participants who interact with each other according to a new and evolving set of social codes which no one yet fully understands.
In a networked society, people are forming knowledge communities, for example, Wikipedia. Participatory culture presents low barriers of entry for creative expression and political engagement. YouTube is shaping political discourse, citizens are putting up “stolen” media, critique of speeches, recording things that otherwise would not see the light of day, for example, the video of the UCLA student being tasered by police in the library.
What should our politics should look like? 1. Free expression, 2. Fight how copyright is being used to restrict speech, 3. Guarantee everyone has access to right to participate, 4. Look at those spaces in which we come together, 5. Mobilize fan organizations, be careful not to trivialize what they do, 6. Fight for net neutrality.
State of the Union: Internet and Democracy
John Palfrey of the Berkman Center suggested there were two “must read” books right now, Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom . John examined the state of things from an academic perspective and in terms of what’s been discussed at other conferences. In terms of the question, “does participatory media lead to participatory democracy?” John presented his analysis in terms of Pro and Con arguments in three categories: Participatory Democracy, Economic Democracy, and Semiotic Democracy.
Participatory Democracy: Pro: 1. open information environments, 2. new networks, 3. tools that enable activists, 4. help attract new participants. Con: 1. too much information, 2. fragmentation (“The Daily Me” phenomenon), 3. watered down participation, 4. limited to those with access, 5. can be used as a tool for censorship. John suggested we might want to jump forward to a post-democratic structure.
Economic Democracy: Pro: 1. emergence of a strong middle class able to use this technology gives them the ability to agitate, 2. Doc Searls’ ideas on Vendor Relationship Management (he suggests that instead of suppliers advertising what they want us to buy by spamming our attention, we advertise what we want and suppliers make us offers) I don’t recall any Cons here.
Semiotic Democracy: Pro: More YouTube, more Second Life, Less Disney, control of cultural goods and the making of meaning in the hands of the many, this is a spin on the original meaning of semiotic democracy, making new meaning, Cons: How many people are really participating? Is this really is a transformation? Look at how many people see activist videos (tens of thousands) vs. pop stories seen by millions, is that going to transform how meaning is being created?
This phenomenon is about power at the edges, much of it is happening outside of the United States, big media companies are struggling with participatory culture, legal and political battle over the future of the internet is where a lot of this is going to play out, there is a battle over the institutional ecology of the internet and the outcome is not assured (cf. Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, David Isenberg), and Beyond Broadcast 2007 is where the theory meets practice, the outcome is in the hands of people who are participating on the internet today.
There’s more I’ve not written about like the panels, working groups, and wrap-up. You should also check out photos tagged with beyondbroadcast on Flickr. as well as items tagged with beyondbroadcast on del.icio.us.