“What Is Civic Media” Revisited: A Conversation with John Palfrey (Part Two)

JP: One of the tensions that emerged from my interviewing was around this issue (broadly) of what community means. It operated as a tension on various levels. One was a sense among the staff that they weren’t quite sure what Knight Foundation had in mind about where to focus: locally near Boston, around the US, abroad. (I’m sure that Ethan Zuckerman’s focus in his own work will have an impact on future thinking in this regard.)

Another hard question related to the term “communities”: what are they, do they really exist in the ways that paradigmatic examples might suggest, and so forth. I think there’s good, hard, conceptual work still to be done about what it means to “meet the information needs of a community” and what empowerment looks like in the C4 model. I love the approach taken so far, and I think it can bear fruit in terms of informing theory, too.

HJ: John, your questions about whether communities exist is a key one which I’ve struggled with from the start. Benedict Anderson tells us that communities are “imagined” in that no member of a community in practice has regular contact with every other member of the community but they act as if there were strong social ties and a shared identity among this somewhat abstracted group of people.

So, when we talk about doing projects in “communities,” what are we talking about? Are we describing an actual group of people who interface regularly with each other? Are we dealing with a population, such as prisoners, who are locked out of the dominant social institutions and yet seek some kind of interface with a community beyond the prison walls? Are we seeking tools, such as Hero Reports, which seek to strengthen the imagined ties between people who pass each other on the subway? Are we seeking to decrease social conflicts or to give people tools to more meaningfully engage with those conflicts, as seems to be the goals for some of Chris’s projects?

The mandate for the center assumes that we are working within existing communities, yet often we may be helping to constitute the communities the projects serve by giving them resources through which they may better “imagine” and start to more fully realize the potential ties between them. The range of projects the center has developed so far suggest many different understandings of what a community is and how media relate to communities, though we have a way to go before they/we articulate fully the theoretical implications of this work.

JP: This concept of in fact “constituting” communities by giving them resources is completely fascinating. I think this is one of the common beliefs about the web, in particular: where there are humans who are far-flung in geographic terms, share an interest, find one another through the web, and then work together, have we “constituted” these communities in the process?

An interesting case study might be Global Voices, the signature project that Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon founded and which joins an extraordinary network of citizen journalists and activists around the globe. Was there a GV community before GV? Or was it in fact constituted by the creation of tools, the services, and the passion that went into the founding of GV?

I realize that this is not exactly on point, vis-a-vis much of the existing work of the Center, which has defined much of what it’s done in geographic terms, but I wonder if there might be insight there. Diaspora communities, connected by digital media in richer ways, might be another case to consider.

HJ: I am struck by the contrast between the Center’s view that civic media may enhance a sense of community among participants and the fears being expressed by political leaders and news media in Great Britain that social media may have contributed to the riots which disrupted community life across England last summer. How might we contrast between these two models for thinking about the impact of new media technologies on community life?

There seems to have been a persistent strand of criticism that new media is leading to greater social isolation, that it is inspiring anti-social behavior, that it contributes to the disintegration of traditional civic associations, etc. In what ways can we see what the Center has done as an effort not simply to question those claims on a theoretical level but also to demonstrate on a practical level how new media can be used in the service of strengthening social ties?

JP: This too is a tension worth exploring in my view. I’ve had the Arab Spring uprisings alongside the riots in the United Kingdom in my head. In terms of our reaction to these two events, why do leaders like the Prime Minister in the UK on the one hand say that we should be studying the Egyptian marches in our schools, while raising the specter of restricting social media use when people take to the streets in his hometown?

OK, so the politics of the situation are obvious; also, there are ways to distinguish the two types of uprising. But the core problem remains the same: it’s dangerous for us to make any assumptions about how a given “community” will use digital media tools in any given circumstance. They may have a salutary effect on one day, and a disruptive one on the next — if your perspective if law-and-order. And from a social fabric perspective, we ought to note the possibilities for multiple outcomes as well, as you note.

HJ: I am struck in your report by some comments which Chris makes about “disruptive technologies” rather than “gradual change.” And that points to another creative friction that shaped the early days of the Center. It’s not clear that we would have agreed about the model of social change underlying our work.

Chris, certainly, embraces disruptive uses of technology, yet there is also an argument to be made for the use of civic media as a way of sustaining traditional institutions and practices, of maintaining social ties, which are being disrupted by other forces in contemporary life. This is not necessarily conservative in a political sense, but it may be conservative in the sense that it seeks to protect something vital in our communities which is being threatened by changes that are not under the control of community members.

For example, I used to talk about town pageants as an old civic ritual which connected current residents of a town to their past — and not simply on the level of representing their history. If the same pageant is performed year after year, there is a social sharing across generations that take place – shared memories, even shared identities (as people feel close to others who have played the same character in the performance). We don’t have such rituals any more and so it is easy for people to lose sense of their own history or to feel disconnected across generations. I wondered what the contemporary equivalent of a town pageant might look like. And I am not sure whether this line of inquiry has born fruit yet in terms of the projects the Center has developed.

JP: I like the connection around the word “disruption” between these various points. Of course, I was most influenced by what I heard from those in the Center as of the end of 2010 and start of 2011, so Chris’s approach was dominant in the discourse and in the shape of the projects that I observed. I don’t think that means that the questions you posed have been asked and answered yet; they seem to me still out there for exploration.

HJ: Bringing on Ethan Zuckerman as the new Director of the Center almost certainly means a further expansion of our notion of community — one which moves the Center much more decisively towards global interventions and pushes it further from a focus on its own backyard. There will be radically different conceptions of community life at play as we deal with national contexts radically different from the U.S.A. and where we will encounter a different set of challenges to community life.

A central concern across such projects should be with who gets to participate, who gets to be a member of a community, given that all communities exclude as well as include, and given that access to and familarity with technologies are a central dividing line in our culture. As I sign off, I want to press the Center to remain attentive to the digital divide and the participation gap and to use technologies as a means of bridging between sectors of communities.

JP: And as I sign off: thanks so much to everyone in the Center’s community for letting me and Catherine Bracy go so deep into your work. It was fascinating. Plainly, what you are doing — regardless of whether it is disruptive or gradual, local or international, place-based or virtual — is so very important to the future of our culture and societies. And thanks, Henry, for the chance to reflect together on this great set of issues. You always push me in my thinking (your critique of the digital natives frame comes to mind, among many other examples) and I consider myself lucky to be able to learn from what you say and do.

John Palfrey is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, vice dean for library and information resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He led a reorganization of the Harvard Law School Library in 2009. He is a principal investigator on the Open Net Initiative, a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge that studies the Internet filtering of countries such as China, Iran, and Singapore, among many others He is co-author or editor of several books, including Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Born Digital (Basic Books, 2008).


  1. Having followed the Center's work for the past year or so, I've been struck by how difficult it is for sharp, like-minded people to define what, exactly, Civic Media is, could, or should be. As far as challenges go, “deceptively simple” is a major understatement.

    The attempts I find most satisfying are those that pay less attention to tools, or even techniques, and focus, instead, on the effect the media has on people's involvement with each other, and how this strengthens civic life.

    To this end, the very best articulation of civic media's aims (or rather, the best I've seen) comes from Lebbeus Woods, who was actually describing goals for architecture in his wonderful essay 'Rules of the Game'.

    “For the city in the most stable, developed countries, the greatest challenge today is to create a ground for individual human beings, one that not only supports their legal and economic and environmental rights, but nurtures their sense of autonomy and at the same time of responsibility, in a personal way, toward others. The way to do this is to show people, by example, that their autonomy—their freedom—is dependent on the autonomy of others. That is a fact of the human condition. I cannot be free unless those I live with are also free.”

    The essential thing is this culture of autonomy. It describes the sensibility you hope to find in your fellow citizens, and what you expect civic institutions – government included – to support and promote.

    If there's a role for Civic Media, this seems to be precisely it. And because 'media' now encompasses forms both fixed and interactive (as well as a smooth continuum between them), it's ideally suited to lead people from appreciation in general to particular expression in their own lives.

    The full post by Woods is here: http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress….

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