The Culture of Citizenship: A Conversation With Zephyr Teachout

On February 24th, MIT Comparative Media Studies will host a conference in collaboration with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. The one-day event will be held at MIT, and is entitled “Beyond Broadcast: From Participatory Culture to Participatory Democracy.” It will bring together industry experts, academic leaders, public media professionals, and political activists for panel discussions and focused working groups.

Beyond Broadcast 2007 builds on the overwhelming success of last year’s sold-out event, “Beyond Broadcast 2006: Reinventing Public Media in a Participatory Culture” held at Harvard Law School. Over 350 people took part in-person and online through the virtual world Second Life. Attendees used several unique online tools, including a web-based “question tool” to probe panelists, a collaborative wiki, live blogging, flickr photo sharing, del.icio.us tagging, and YouTube video production. These tools enabled the conference to practice what it preached, turning the event into a two-way participatory interaction in contrast with many conferences. The tools have been expanded upon this year, already spurring an active conversation on

the conference web site, weeks before the event.

I will give the Keynote Address, followed by panel discussions from media makers and policy commentators. Details of these panels are being updated on the conference web site

In the second-half of the day, the conference turns its focus to working groups that attendees will help organize. Building on themes coming from the plenary sessions, participants will target specific issues or questions and join efforts with the diverse crowd of others. In the past, these groups have been facilitated by thought leaders in technology, policy, and academia. Many attendees last year expressed their appreciation for this hybrid conference approach in

which they had a chance to “do something before heading home.”

There will also be an evening reception, called “Demos and Drinks,” showcasing groups that are doing exciting work related to conference themes.

Registration is only $50 (before February 9), and includes lunch and the evening reception. There is also a special 50% discount for students. The conference follows the 2007 Public Media Conference taking place in Boston February 20-23.

As we lead into the conference, I am running a series of features on the blog which foreground the relationship between participatory culture and participatory democracy. In today’s post, I offer an interview with another of the conference’s speakers, Zephyr Teachout. The Director of Internet Organizing for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, Teachout has emerged as a leading thinker about the role of new media in fostering what she describes here as a “culture of citizenship.” After the presidential campaign ended, she worked at America Coming Together and Current TV and was a fellow at the Berkman Center. In 2006, Teachout became the national director of the Sunlight Foundation as the group’s national director. According to Wikipedia, “The Sunlight Foundation was founded in January 2006 with the goal of using the revolutionary power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing, and thus help reduce corruption, ensure greater transparency and accountability by government, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy. At the core of all of the Foundation’s work is a focus on the power of technology and the Internet to transform the relationship between citizen’s and their government.”

In the conversation that follows, Teachout shares her perspective on politics and popular culture, Second Life and Wikipedia, all focused on helping us to better understand what elements in the new media landscape might be deployed to intensify civic engagement and insure a more transparent government.

Let’s start with the core conference theme. Many media reformers have attacked the “bread and circus” aspects of popular culture as distracting voters from serious aspects of politics. Yet, this conference’s theme, “From Participatory Culture to Participatory Democracy” invites us to imagine a different relationship between popular culture and grassroots politics. What do you see as the relationship between the two?

Both of these seem right to me — the possibility and the threat. In the last four years, I’ve met thousands of people whose political creativity, public thinking, and public activity has vastly increased directly because of the internet. I’ve met people who I think you can fairly say have switched from never thinking of being a citizen as one of their central roles, to thinking of citizenship as being an integral part of their identity, the way being a mother or employee or sister or cousin is part of an identity. The internet has enabled that switch — for some, its been a gradual shift, from reading arguments on blogs to contributing to arguments on blogs to joining groups making political statements to holding community fora. For others, its been an instant jump — a Meetup-enabled political meeting has led to a leadership role. For still others (and here I’m thinking mostly of geeks and internet artists), a habit of creativity and responsibility in one arena has led to taking the same attitude in a political arena.

There are millions who have participated in political life because of the internet, first by ventriloquism (an email along the lines of “hey, I thought this political article was interesting”) then by speaking (an email along the lines of “hey, I thought this article is interesting because x, but they got it wrong because…”) who then become more comfortable in their other communications, on and offline, in speaking about political issues.

And then there are those extraordinary people, like those we’ve seen at the Sunlight Foundation, who take citizenship to a whole new level. Simply by being asked, “help us investigate this question about earmarks,” a handful of people not only responded to that question but have becomes intrepid, creative citizen watchdogs, digging up information about our politics and sharing it broadly, all on their own time.

There are still more who have participated in a one-dimensional way, the way one “participates” in the coca cola industry by drinking coke (and an increasing greed on the part of candidates to increase this kind of participation — big lists, assigned tasks), where neither personal responsibility nor creativity are engaged. But even this flat kind of participation leads a handful to taking the role of citizen seriously.

The internet breaks down some barriers to creativity, to public expression, to information, to public conversation, and to collective action.

That said, our human hunger for humor, connection, games, entertainment, gossip, is nearly limitless, and when the supply is nearly limitless it is hard to avoid. When I go to the airport, I can’t tear my eyes away from celebrity gossip magazines, even though there is no barrier to my reading the Economist — when I’m online, the celebrity gossip, the games, and the political gossip constantly beckon. There is now no barrier to instant dopamine hits from playing games, from reading gossip, from emailing and instant messaging friends. I can’t generalize from my experience, but I know I’m not completely alone when I say that the internet has diminished many of my other experiences — I cook less, read fewer books, plan fewer parties, and wander the streets aimlessly less frequently because I can always trust in some small comfort online when I would have to risk much more by taking on the streets. As applied to politics, its an open question — will we, as a culture, choose the limitless entertainment because its there, and will our civic culture continue to decline (with a small percentage the exception?). Or will the new possibilities lead to a new culture of citizenship?

I happen to think the culture of citizenship is possible, but it will take real vigilance, care, cultivation, and a collective choice to make it a priority. It may also take some serious thinking about whether we want something like the fairness doctrine for the internet — whether, looking at ourselves in the mirror, we decide we want some structural supports for our civic selves — it will take a choice. The internet — no matter all the joyful possibilities of political engagement it enables — will not make us citizens, we will have to do that ourselves.

You were The Director of Internet Organizing for the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Given those experiences, what advice would you offer the current crop of Democratic candidates about the potential use of new media in the forthcoming campaign? Do you have any predictions about which campaigns seem to best understand this current era of web 2.0?

I am far more interested in who will make the best President than in who uses the best tools, and a clumsy use of email, youtube, and blogs wouldn’t dissuade me from supporting a candidate who I largely support. The only way they really relate is that part of any support for me is necessarily a commitment to citizenship and to transparent government.

If you were advising a candidate in this election cycle, would you recommend that they adopt an avatar and go into Second Life?

Yes, I would have a full time staffer, with three interns at least, who were

responsible for gaming outreach.

For the past 40 years or so, there have been basically three ways a citizen can reliably interact with a Presidential candidate:

1) She can join a group (like a labor union) and engage in that group’s decision-making, which is then communicated to the candidate through an intermediary.

2) She can watch the candidate on TV in a debate, on a news story, or in an ad

3) She can live in New Hampshire or be lucky.

Other forms of interaction were possible, but there were not that many, and they were not scalable. Suddenly there is Second Life, listservs, email, games that a candidate can play with and against others, a dizzy mess of kinds of interactions that are possible. The only real limitations on these new kinds of interactions are scale, creativity, and political will.

I once saw an interesting talk by a Microsoft sociologist, in which he talked about the kinds of characters that show up in list-servs. Its easy to be inauthentic in one forum, one time or a few times, he said, but over time, its pretty clear who isn’t acting like a human – there are certain personality types we all recognize (including the trolls) and those that don’t quite seem right we shy away from, picking up subtle signals that suggest that “this person is sort of lying.” This is finally a positive conclusion for internet communities – it sugests that guerrilla marketers may be able to strike once, but astroturf will reveal itself in the end. Language, used unrelentingly over weeks and months, will out the shill.

This thesis is also interesting when reflecting on the efforts candidates make to engage people in completely new forms of interaction – a chat room, say, or in Second Life. While candidates won’t necessarily lie, inasmuch as they do not sound like humans sound and bring prefabricated phrases, or phrases of others, it can undermine their credibility – and certainly undermine their interest. (The cookie cutter emails that so many campaigns now send have growing lists but idle members, who do not believe that the emails carry any authentic connection to them.) Likewise, even if thousands of people show up to watch candidate y “chat” or “blog”, the interest will only remain so long as there is some reason to think they are getting something more than a press release or scripted notes. And the fashionable time-delayed “chat” in which questions are submitted before hand is not a new form – is similar to having a guest on talk radio, except leaves the candidate more control.

But back to your question — a real time chat, or a conversation in Second Life, is a new form. That, as it develops, will be fascinating for politicians, who have so much more on the line in every word than the reporters who regularly do this. Would I recommend it? Yes. Presidential

candidates should be outreaching in gaming forums, including game-of-life forums, actively. But it will take some innovation and looseness to work well.

We had some very fruitful real time chats during the Dean campaign, when they were used for policy experts from the staff to answer basic policy questions by chatters. It was a narrow enough context that policy experts were quite forthcoming, and the discussions were fruitful from both sides – the chats we had with Dean involved were more chaotic and less likely to be fruitful. In both cases, much of the interesting conversations that I had were the side-chats, carried on in groups of two and three who pinged me, seeing the name of a staffer. In Second Life, with new dimensions added (and the possibility for visual demonstrations), I can imagine these lecture-like moments being even more valuable – a candidate could have a forum on net neutrality, for example, in which he presents not only himself but his policy experts, creating a new kind of conversation, but one more likely to inform a citizen both about the issues and about the way in which a candidate makes decisions.

Second Life, chat rooms, and social networking tools makes it easier to both create groups and be creative — so instead of having to speak to a candidate through a large community years in the making, 30,000 people with shared interests can get together and ask for a town-hall meeting from each of the candidates, and invite tough questioners to attend.

The forms and format of the meetings can go beyond the classic candidate forum, because of the low cost of bringing people together – and it may be that in these liminal forms we learn more than we thought possible, even if the candidate does not step on his tongue.

What lessons do you think political leaders should take from the Wikipedia movement?

I think there are two key lessons:

1) Small groups of people who feel responsible are highly competent to manage difficult and boring and very important tasks. I think this is one of the most under-told stories, especially in politics — politicians are eager for mass numbers, big email lists, big readerships, big donations, and thousands of people door-knocking for them. This is all fine — but to truly be a democrat (small d) they must also believe that citizens are competent at decision-making and governing, and express that belief through their campaign structures and their governing structures. Any politician you ask will gush about the possibility of the internet to enable citizens to give her good ideas, but most are wary of actually distributing roles, not tasks, to groups of people that are not on the payroll. Wikipedia should help change that story — self-governance is possible.

2) Millions of people want to engage as creative, intelligent adults in political life. Wikipedia, for all its neutral point of view, is a profoundly political project, and evidences, along with hundreds of other examples, the hunger of people to be meaningful contributors to political society.

What connection do you see between the ideals of citizen journalism and the kinds of voter participation and government reform efforts being promoted by the Sunlight Foundation?

Sunlight Foundation is committed to using technology to strengthen the relationship between citizens and Congress. Our grants support people who are making amazing transparency tools, and other parts of our work is more explicitly political, lobbying (with facebook groups and an open, distributed attititude) for Congress to open up its processes and join the 21st century. We beleive that a transparent budgetary process, once impossible, is now possible because of the internet, and the more citizens engage in that process, the closer we are to achieving ideals of self-governance.

I don’t personally have an ideal of citizen journalism, but an ideal of citizenship — which is to say that people actually take responsibility for their government. They can discharge that responsibility in infinite ways — much as one can discharge the responsibility of motherhood or owning a pet in infinite ways. But we all know the difference between someone who owns a pet and takes responsibility for it, and one who does not — what I seek is a culture in which most of us take responsibility. One of those ways is to research and write and mashup and make videos and generally engage others in Congress, and we are working to enable those (a quickly growing community) that are interested in this. There are some amazing people who work with Congresspedia and our Senior Researcher, Bill Allison, doing the hard investigative work it takes to actually understand how Congress works, and they are doing all of us an extraordinary service.

Can you give us a preview of your remarks at the Beyond Broadcasting conference?

Nope! Because I don’t know what they are yet…

Comments

  1. Mariel says:

    I used some info provided by the Yale Law School for a handbook for a debate on the protection of copyright and neighbouring rights in the digital media that I’ll have with some kids this weekend, so I’d liketo know… Will there be any recordings for later consulting for those of us who are on the Teen Grid still? x.x

    Anyway, I hope it’s successful.

  2. Yes, all of the video/audio sessions will be posted for free download from the web site. You can also stream live day-of.

    Cheers, Steve