Connecting the Future: The MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Connecting the Future

It began as a jumble of jargon. Students and faculty from the Comparative Media Studies program (CMS) and the Media Lab—many of them meeting for the first time—huddled around a table and tossed out seemingly interchangeable phrases: civic media, citizen journalism, civic participation, networked communities, hyper-local reporting. More meetings, broad research, and a slew of proposal drafts later, and a path of clarity had been paved in the sea of catchphrases. That clarity led to the announcement, in May 2007, that MIT had emerged as the top winner in the first Knight News Challenge, with CMS and the Media Lab together receiving $5 million to fund a Center for Future Civic Media.

The Knight News Challenge aims to support projects that use digital news and information in innovative ways so as to create a sense of community and bind individuals and groups located in a specific geographic area. As recipients of the Knight Foundation’s most generous grant, CMS and the Media Lab have their work cut out for them in the coming years. As Gary Kebbel, the Knight Foundation’s Journalism Initiatives Program Officer, puts it, “we only want you to reinvent community communication.”

According to Kebbel, MIT was inevitably a front-runner in the Knight News Challenge because “the combination of CMS and the Media Lab was hard to beat.” Indeed, much of the initial excitement surrounding the Center for Future Civic Media stems from its facilitating collaboration between the two programs. “For some time, there has been a strong interest in developing a research theme that overlapped between the Media Lab and CMS,” explains Professor Henry Jenkins, co-director of CMS. For his part, Mitchel Resnick, the head of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the Media Lab, believes that the center allows the two programs to come together through their common interest in the idea of participation and the question of how new media engages people in new ways and encourages deeper levels of participation in communities. “Our goal has been to help people become active participants in their communities, to provide them with new means to experiment, explore and express themselves,” he adds.

Interestingly, the long-awaited union between CMS and the Media Lab is expected to have a broader impact on the MIT community. David Gordon, the Associate Director of the Office of Foundation Relations, hopes that the center will further the cause of interdisciplinary research across the institute. “The center will impact collaboration across departments at MIT,” he says. “Within the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the grant is seen as clear evidence of the ways in which humanistic inquiry can be applied to understanding the ever-changing role of technology in society.”

As if the mandate to reinvigorate local communications and champion research across disciplines weren’t enough, the Center for Future Civic Media is also expected to bolster the separate program goals of CMS and the Media Lab. Professor Jenkins, for example, sees the center as a way to diversify the range of projects and opportunities available to CMS students. “Our students are able to study and master the big picture of media change. At the same time, they are able to put what they learn into action by working on projects that have a real world impact and which help them to expand the skills they will use as they enter their professional lives,” he says. In particular, the center hopes to attract students with backgrounds in journalism and public policy to CMS. Meanwhile, the Media Lab sees the center fitting into its new focus on ‘Inventing a Better Future’ as it will involve developing technologies that can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and communities.

In the coming academic year, students and faculty members involved with the center will have to cut through the rhetoric about community and participation and identify how best to have an impact. “Initially, we expect those involved in the center to learn the community communication landscape so as to be more effective during the four-year grant period,” says Kebbel. To that end, participants in the center will be brainstorming new ideas, conducting fieldwork, and building on projects already underway at CMS and the Media Lab. That said, there is a desire on both the part of the Knight Foundation and MIT to leave things a bit open-ended. “We want to see what emerges when we put CMS and Media Lab students, faculty, and staff in the same room, drill deep into existing work in this area, and begin to brainstorm new directions we might take in this space,” explains Professor Jenkins, who will be the faculty member overseeing the center for its first year (the role will rotate between CMS and the Media Lab on a yearly basis).

One can snatch a glimpse of the kind of projects the center will be working on by considering Nadav Aharony’s work. A second-year graduate student in the Media Lab’s Viral Communications research group, Nadav hopes his proposed project, currently titled Snap-N-Share, will come to fruition under the umbrella of the Center for Future Civic Media. Combining his research work with ideas about civic journalism has helped Nadav envision a wireless communication system in which there is better connectivity among group members rather than to a core network. “I have proposed to create a system that allows the publication and dissemination of content among its users, giving them a service that is free, unsupervised, uncensored, and as private or as public as they would like,” he explains. With students such as Nadav from the MIT Media Lab coming together with three career journalists-turned-CMS graduate students, the center is bound to come up with a host of projects that will allow community members to snap, share, speak out, and more.

For more information, visit the Center for Future Civic Media website.

What is Civic Media?

By Henry Jenkins

Civic media, as I use the term, refers to any use of any medium which fosters or enhances civic engagement. I intend this definition to be as broad and inclusive as possible. Civic media includes but extends well beyond the concept of citizen journalism which is so much in fashion at the moment.

Lisa Gitelman has suggested that a medium should be understood both as a technological platform (a channel of communication) and the social and cultural protocols which grow up around it. As we think about future civic media, we are not simply designing tools or devices which might be deployed to support and sustain citizenship; we are also talking about the practices that grow up around those devices, practices that shape how they get used and how they are understood by the people who use them.

What constitutes a civic use of media? Well, certainly, we have classically considered newspapers to constitute a form of civic media, given the centrality of the concept of the informed citizen to the ideals of a democratic society. Yet, I would argue that even in classic accounts, the concept goes further than this.

So,let’s consider, for example, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, where the image of the 1950s and 1960s bowling league embodies the Harvard professor’s ideals of civic engagement. In what sense might bowling become a civic act? Putnam suggests it represents a commitment which citizens made to their neighbors, that they would come together socially at regular moments to play and that around the sport a range of other significant conversations would occur which help sustain their investments within their community. Some of those conversations would contain news of civic importance, many of them would be personal gossip, but the key point was that the conversations occurred on multiple levels and thus helped to knit strong social ties.

Putnam contrasts the public sociability of bowling with our retreat into private space in response to the emergence of television. Here, Putnam confuses two arguments—the domestic consumption of television as a medium and concerns about the centrality of entertainment, rather than news, as its primary content of this medium. For me, his argument breaks down partially on both levels.

First, television is not inherently an isolating medium. We need look no further than the accounts of its introduction which suggest that installing the television set was an intensely social occasion in the 1950s with friends and family gathering to watch those first fuzzy and flickering images. Or we might account for the ways that television is consumed collectively in much of the developing world where people gather at the center of the village and hold important exchanges around broadcasts. So, in other words, television was consumed more socially at a moment of time when there was already a much greater investment in civic engagement or in cultures which have a more communal lifestyle (though even then, it was the newness of the technology which lead to the unusual experience of bringing the whole neighborhood into one’s private domestic space). The shift towards more private consumption doesn’t have to do with the intrinsic properties of the medium but rather has to do with the ways the medium gets used in a specific historical and cultural context.

But, second, it seems odd for Putnam to suggest that television can only be used for civic purposes when it is conveying news and information, given the fact that he uses bowling as his exemplar of civic participation. In this case, it is not the informational content of bowling but the emotional context in which it is consumed that enhances civic engagement. The conversations held around the gameplay helped to forge people into a community. And thus, there’s no intrinsic reason why a predominantly entertainment or recreational medium might not enhance civic engagement almost as much as one focused on news and information. Whatever people are doing when they form guilds within a multiplayer game, it isn’t bowling alone.

We might for a moment move beyond Putnam and consider another classic writer on this theme, Benedict Anderson. Anderson writes in his book, Imagined Communities, about the role which The London Times played in creating a shared sense of identity and fraternity across at least segments of the British empire. He argues that nations are imagined in the sense that we are invited to feel solidarity with people who we may never meet face to face—indeed, we will meet relatively few members of a nation even in the course of our entire lifetime and in the case of the British empire, he’s describing how a concept of national culture was extended across the planet (although clearly unequally – understood differently by those who ruled and those who submitted to their rule). Some of this had to do with the exchange of news and information, some of it had to do with the sense of a shared agenda, some of it had to do with the rituals which re-enforced that sense of social connection. Marshall McLuhan compared reading the newspaper to our morning baths—suggesting that its ritual functions were as important as its informational ones.

This sense of the civic, then, is at once real and virtual, created through media and experienced through face to face contact, sparked by shared activities and by exchanged information. This sense of civic engagement manifests itself through democratic participations (voting, for example) but it also gets displayed through the microprocesses of everyday life—through countless social rituals and seemingly meaningless everyday interactions with some subset of the larger group of people with whom we feel some sense of social connection.

As we think about civic media, then, we need to think about all of the mechanisms that generate that “structure of feeling” of belonging to a community and working together to insure its long term viability. Read side by side, Putnam and Anderson tell us that civic engagement involves the interweaving of weak and strong social ties.

So, what medium can foster civic engagement? All media can do so, depending on their use and the investments we make in other users. Jean Burgess has studied, for example, the local camera culture which grew up in Australia around the use of Flickr. Photography, she argued, is at least partially a local medium—we take pictures of real places while we are standing in front of them, even if the images circulate within digital networks. Flickr functions as a social network, helping photographers in the same area find each other. They hold meetups to take pictures together, and this shared activity leads to other conversations and other kinds of social contact. Taking pictures focuses their attention on their immediate geographic surroundings, though they look at them through a range of conceptual lenses. They begin to feel a greater emotional bond with other photographers taking pictures of that same area and, in some cases, their photography increases their awareness of—and then becomes a vehicle for increasing other people’s awareness of—local problems and concerns.

We can read this scenario in two ways: the first emphasizes the affordances of the Flickr technology that enables us to determine the location of the photographs and to identify the contact coordinates of the photographers; the second emphasizes the social processes—the ways that people organize themselves around the shared rather than individual production and circulation of images, the emergence of the meetup in the context of a networked culture.

My vision for this center, then, is one which combines understandings of technologies and of the social contexts within which they are used. If some writers, like Putnam, blame media for the breakdown of civic engagement, others, like Anderson, suggest that the rituals of shared media consumption can foster social connections and thus spark citizenly participations. Working together, we will produce both technologies and social practices, test them in the field, and publicize best practices. As we do so, we need to think about what might constitute today’s equivalent of reading the London Times and today’s equivalent of the Bowling League.

Variations of this essay appear in both the CMS Colloquia event &ldquo:What is Civic Media?” and on Dr. Jenkins’ blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan. You can download an MP3 podcast of the event here; or visit corresponding blogpost here.


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