Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media — the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?
I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.
For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.
Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.
I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.
You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?
Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.
Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.
As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.
You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?
Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.
There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.
I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

 

You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?
I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.