Can African-Americans Find Their Voice in Cyberspace?: A Conversation With Dayna Cunningham (Part Four of Four)

Henry Jenkins: I do think that the concept of networked publics has a great deal to offer us in terms of identifying a way of addressing some of the concerns you raise here, but I also think you need to go into that realm with your eyes wide open. So much has been written about the democratic potential of an era of social networks and collective intelligence, yet the challenge you pose here is one which might push our current understanding of this potential to the breaking point. Anna Everett’s Digital Diaspora: A Race For Cyberspace (2009) gives us a number of case studies of minority activists and community leaders who have deployed digital tools as a means of promoting social change and racial justice.

We may have to struggle to achieve through digital tools what was accomplished by a previous generation of the readers, writers, and editors of the African-American press. Part of the challenge has to do with the ways that our current framing of participatory culture values freedom over equality or diversity. Part of the challenge has to do with the challenges of expanding access to the digital world and empowering citizens of all ages and class backgrounds to become full participant in this emerging cyber-society. Some of this has to do with the challenges of the interface between the digital world and the realm of our face to face interactions.

There are certainly limits to the potential which cyberspace offers for representing and empowering minority expression. Consider, for example, a site like YouTube. On the one hand, it is an open platform which allows all kinds of groups to submit content and circulate it within little or no gatekeeping unless, of course, you use obscene language or deploy copyrighted materials you don’t own or otherwise violate the terms of service. For examples of what happens then, check out YouTomb, which keeps a running record of the various ways that speech gets regulated and contained through this platform which is owned by a company that once promised to do no evil. But more fundamentally, the site operates according to mechanisms of user-moderation which could not be more democratic in their conception: the public votes through its traffic (or in the case of other web 2.0 sites, through actual votes) to determine which content has the most merit with the result that content that attracts majority interest gets greater visibility. John McMurria did a post in Flow several years ago showing that the videos which got the highest visibility on YouTube were those by white adolescent males. I recently tried to discuss this issue with some technically oriented friends and they offered some predictible counter-arguments:

“Maybe white adolescent males represent the statistical majority of users on the site.” Yes, that’s likely the case, but then this only proves my point that there is a majoritarian bias built into the technology. John Stuart Mills told us a long time ago that the value of democratic institutions rests in the mechanisms they put in place to protect the rights of minorities at least as much as those that they create to insure majority rule. And in any case, we need to ask why this gap in participation exists rather than assuming that minority users simply aren’t interested in producing and sharing videos.

“Yet minority content still circulates on these sites.” True enough, and this goes back to the distinction I made in my earlier comments about the difference between “hush harbor” discourse within a minority community and discourse intended to reach a majority audience. Yet, unlike earlier kinds of “hush harbors,” YouTube is highly porous with content fully accessible, for better or for worse, to those outside the core community, making it a risky site for fostering “black voice”. That risk is personified by the comments posted on YouTube which are at best snarky and at worse hate speech. This brings us back to the Wright videos which were posted initially by those wanting to spread his message but got highjacked and decontextualized by other groups.

“Each user can set their filters anyway they want and thus can receive the content they desire.” This falls back on a now aging rhetoric of “personalized media,” which ignores the need to spread messages beyond your own community and overlooks the fact that digital communications exist in the shadow of still powerful forms of mass communications which insure that some messages reach everyone in society while others only reach those people who know how to find them. In that sense, the mechanisms that shape web 2.0 are forms of marginalization, not censorship, since they do not silence minority users, but their visibility depends on the whims of majority users.

Some will argue that YouTube was never intended as a platform for activism, critique, or pedagogy. It is simply a form of entertainment which allows more people to disperse content. And it is certainly the case that we have a much more diverse culture with YouTube in it than we would have in its absence. That’s not to say, though, that those of us who care about participatory culture should not be critical in examining these new platforms as they emerge to make sure that they support as much diversity as possible. Nobody is talking about intentionally racist design, well, at least I’m not, yet in all technologies, there is a law of unintended consequences, which sometimes means that what you build gets picked up and used in ways you never imagined but may also mean that there may be hidden effects of the design which make it harder for some groups to deploy than others.

But let’s look elsewhere to what would seem to be a much more promising venue. BlackPlanet.Com is an affinity portal which was established to serve the needs and interests of the African-American community. According to HitWise, it has the fourth highest traffic of all social network sites (following FaceBook and MySpace, etc.) and attracts a membership of more than 16.5 million users. We can compare that with your claim that specific black newspapers reached “hundreds of thousands” of readers and we have some sense of the potential impact of such a web portal. BlackPlanet reaches a larger segment of the black population of this country than ever read a black newspaper, so why is its political influence on the public sphere so much smaller?

I just got through reading a very strong dissertation written by an old friend, John Campbell, for UPenn: Campbell certainly finds on BlackPlanet and similar sites real potentials for community building and critical discussions, but also notes that they are run by companies which are pursuing their own economic interests that are not always aligned with the interests of their memberships. So, there is a push towards a greater focus on black celebrities or dating or personal improvement than there is on social critique and political debate.

Of course, the historic black newspapers were also commercial ventures and needed to make money in order to survive, but it is unlikely that they made that money by collecting and selling data on their user-bases, say. They would have been organizations which were at least as committed to their political causes as to their bottom line. And in your earlier examples, some of the most important sources of black critical perspectives came through publications that were sponsored by civil rights organizations and thus were funded more through political contributions than through advertising.

Even so, there would seem to be real potentials for sites like BlackPlanet to serve as mechanisms by which new forms of “freedom discourse” and alternative critical perspectives could emerge, if only because of the sheer number of users of color which are attracted there. Of course, we then have to confront the reality that there are significant class and race divides in terms of access to these digital technologies in the first place. There is of course the digital divide which has been discussed for the past twenty years. The digital divide has to do with limited access to the technologies. And we’ve responded to that concern through wiring schools and public libraries. But, then, as soon as they were wired, a series of moral panics have instigated more and more restrictions on how public-access computers can be used: mandatory filters which restrict certain kind of content (we ran into this recently because we discovered that many sites dealing with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick, were being blocked on school library sites, because it used the word, “dick,” hrrm, hrmm, in the title.), blocks on access to YouTube and other videosharing sites, and potential legislation always hanging over us that would block access to social networks (such as BlackPlanet) and blogging tools.

But at the end of the day, the obstacles are not simply technological: they are also social and cultural. This is what I mean by the participation gap. Some people feel welcomed into cyberspace and others feel excluded. Some have access to an informal network of folks who already know what they are doing online and can offer advice when you hit a wall, as happens to most of us on a regular basis, while those who know few who have spent time on line don’t know where to turn for such advice, become frustrated, and walk away. The ability to participate still depends not only on having disposable income but also disposable time. And so forth. I would argue today that limited opportunities in the digital realm, in most areas of the country, have as much or more to do with this participation gap as with technical obstacles to access.

It must sound like I woke up in a really gloomy space this morning. Despite all of the above, I remain very optimistic about the ability of all kinds of minority groups to overcome some of these issues and to form powerful networked publics on line. I do believe that such new cultural institutions and practices can form the basis for strong critiques grounded in the “freedom discourse” tradition and that they can provide both opportunities for communication within and beyond the black community.

I would argue that as our world more and more embraces ideals of collective intelligence, as I discuss in Convergence Culture, then there is an absolute necessity to insure diversity of perspectives within the knowledge community. Collective intelligence starts from the premise that the more diverse the imputs, the more open the processes, the better the outcome. A society based on principles of collective intelligence can’t just “celebrate diversity” every February, but needs to actively recruit and empower minority participants towards the common good. Yet, it is also clear that there need to be spaces where minorities can empower themselves through their own collective intelligence processes, identifying the best new ideas as well as the common interests and concerns of the community, without being swamped by other competing perspectives.

Some of this involves learning to deploy the tools and platforms that are already available. Some of this involves developing alternative institutions which reflect your own needs. And some of this involves the redesign of existing platforms to insure that they meet the needs of more diverse sets of users.

For the past few decades, there’s been lots of talk that implies that digital platforms and tools are inevitably devices for democratization of our culture. Rather, they still need to be sites of critique and struggle if we are going to deploy them in ways that insures social justice.

The critique above is meant to help us to identify some of the key characteristics we might require if these platforms are going to support the formation of a counter-public where new critical discourses are to be formed and dispersed through black America. First, these platforms need to actively embrace diversity and not simply participation. We need to reject a tendency to talk about what the majority wants to see as if “the best content rises to the top.” Instead, we need to think about alternative mechanisms which might insure that for any given topic, all of us have access to a diverse range of different perspectives.

We need to insure that we have platforms which support community use rather than individual expression, given how much the blogosphere can fragment rather than connect people.

We need to insure that at least some of the platforms get sponsored by groups who are not primarily motivated by economic interests but who also have political and social stakes in insuring access to the broadest number of people. (For example, we should be looking at how the construction trade unions you mention above might be supporting alternative platforms and institutions which might function as collective bargaining units within the digital realm.)

We need to couple the development of new tools with educational initiatives which help more Americans cross over the participation gap. And we have to insure that the platforms themselves are designed to entice and welcome new participants rather than remaining under the control of the most active and visible members of a community.

We need to develop hybrid systems which couple the spreading of content online with a social system which also spreads these same ideas and arguments to people who do not have access to the online world, just as in earlier times, “freedom discourse” was spread through oral as well as print-based channels. In so far as the digital networks are dominated by young people, we need to develop strategies which bring people together across generations, making sure that the wisdom of the old is coupled with the idealism and energy of the young. In so far as the current systems most often serve those who have the time and money to be able to use them, we need to create new social organizations which solicit and transmit the viewpoints of those who are locked by economic and cultural barriers from fully participating in those worlds.

For the forseeable future, we can’t put all of our faith in digital media, because there are simply too many people who will be left behind. Rather, we have to focus more attention on understanding how information moves back and forth between digital and other channels of communication.

I’m hoping the conversation we’ve started here will inspire others to respond, suggesting alternative tools, platforms, and practices which may more fully achieve the goals you’ve identified here, pushing back or suggesting ways to work around the critiques we’ve offered of current institutions and policies. You’ve raised some core issues here which deserve a response.

Now let’s turn this over to our readers.