Design Principles for Participatory Politics

The following design principles were developed for the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network by a committee consisting of Danielle Allen, Lissa Soep, and Jennifer Earl. We share them here as an extension of my interview with Allen.

Design Principles for Participatory Politics 
Are you a digital change-maker? Do you want to be? Do you want to help someone else get there?

Sixties activists insisted, the personal is political. Change-makers in the digital age get that idea, and one-up it with another rallying cry: the political is social and cultural.

Your platforms and digital strategies need to make this principle count, so that you, your peers, and your audiences engage each other, and the allies you all want, in high-quality, equitable, and effective participation in digital-age civics, activism, and politics. What’s more, you need digital environments that actively support the secure development of your identities as participants in public spheres, so your civic and political engagement today doesn’t harm or haunt you later.

Thinking that through comes first.

Top Ten Questions for Change-Makers Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics

Whether you’re creating your first Facebook page to support a cause you care about, or seeking to engage your friends, associates, and even strangers in a new platform aimed to achieve civic ends, these ten questions will help frame your decisions. Use them to shape your strategy and to check whether you’re doing everything in your power to achieve maximum impact. These principles have been developed on the basis of national research (by the MacArthur Foundation research network on youth and participatory politics) on experiences and structures that support young people’s agency with respect to matters of public concern.

Why does it matter to me? Start with the experiences and interests you and your friends already can’t get enough of, and connect that engagement to civic and political themes. Popular culture fandom, for example, is a great source to harness. Overall, you and your peers know a lot about a lot, and you’ve got all sorts of authentic ways to bring your friends on board. Use that expertise to build traction for your cause by finding unexpected alignments. And take the time to figure out why your passion matters to you.
What it can look like: IMAGINE BETTER PROJECT

A project of the Harry Potter Alliance that taps enthusiasm for popular culture and applies fandom energy toward social change. By appropriating storylines, characters, and iconography from popular narratives, fans “turn the fictions they love into the world they imagine.”

How much should I share? Take heed: real names can help foster better dialogues, but they can also put people at risk and discourage taking positions or acting on controversial issues. Consider how much you should share. Which part of your persona do you want to see live online? Can you keep your offline and online selves separate? If so, how? Or do you have to expect them to merge? Which features of your offline responsibilities and roles should limit what you do online? Help your community consider how different audiences may react to their posts and how a post might impact them years down the road. Give them choices about how much to disclose, and make it possible for them to change their minds.
What it can look like: Global Voices

Global Voices is a community of writers and analysts from around the world who contribute, largely on a volunteer basis, to a news site that publishes under-reported stories on topics ranging from digital rights and activism to religion, labor, and LGBTQ rights. There is an option for authors to contribute anonymously if their safety is at stake, and the site provides specific guidelines for how to maintain anonymity when publishing online.

How do I make it about more than myself? How can you and your community take it from “I” to “we”? Help your users think of themselves as part of something bigger. Can you expand the network of engagement for yourself and your users by actively rewarding authenticity, accuracy, truth-telling, and bridge-building across social divides?

Marshall Ganz’s organizing theory invites people into a movement as individuals, where they are asked to share their stories and connection to the cause. Then, the strategy helps them see their shared collective interests with others in the movement before introducing them to the fierce urgency of acting now. This principle is the bedrock of numerous campaigns since Obama for America popularized the model in the 2008 presidential election. Participants are asked to become part of something major and give more of themselves as a result.

Where do we start? Go where your peers go. Can you make use of spaces where you and your friends and associates already gather to connect and pursue shared interests? (Hint: for right now at least, text and mobile are key). Perhaps you’re interested in building a stand-alone platform? Think twice before you do. A custom platform is easier for opponents to hack and probably harder for your friends to use, than a common mainstream, commercial platform. But remember that existing platforms have their own cultures, which you’ll need to consider and fit into.
What it can look like: #CANCELCOLBERT

Hashtag activist Suey Park used Twitter to create the #cancelcolbert hashtag in the wake of an ill-considered tweet from the Colbert show. As the hashtag trended it generated widespread conversations about race and racism in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, “Colbert’s offending tweet was later deleted,” and “Colbert deleted the Comedy Central-run account on his show,” directing “people to follow his personal account.”

How can we make it easy and engaging? Remember that some engagement is better than none, and think early and often about your target audience. How can you engineer an array of entry-points and pathways to participation for your community? Where are the opportunities for light-touch engagement that is potentially powerful in itself and also a possible gateway into deeper involvement? Make acting easy, so your users can co-produce your civic and political engagement.
What it can look like: DO SOMETHING

DoSomething’s creative campaigns invite teens to take part in a variety of ways, and almost all of the campaigns revolve around a teen’s group of friends. For example, The ‘Fed Up’ campaign invites teens to upload photos of their cafeteria’s school lunch program to begin an investigation about the food it contains. Students can rate photos ‘eat it’ or ‘toss it’, and are simultaneously provided with better-lunch advocacy materials.

How do we get wisdom from crowds? Invite investigation and critique. Create openings for your friends, associates, and even strangers to dig into, verify, challenge, and contribute to the knowledge-base you provide, and stay open to evolving purposes. Don’t act like you know the whole story. Because you don’t. There is wisdom in crowds.
What it can look like: REDDIT

We aren’t as deferential to political elites and institutions as earlier generations used to be, and that can be a good thing. Campaigns have responded to this shift by seeking engagement in new ways. Reddit, an evolution on the venerable web discussion board, has emerged as a space where citizens can jointly examine and expose issues of public concern, in some cases powering investigations that rise to national and international prominence. Not without controversy or risk (as evident when Reddit ID’ed the wrong suspects in the Boston marathon bombing), the platform nevertheless is an important model for how to spark and sustain collective inquiry through a digital platform.

How do we handle the downside of crowds? Be prepared for people to say and do things you don’t like in your shared space. Do you know how you would respond? Is your platform or digital strategy being overtaken by a sub-group of users? How can you keep the nastiness out of crowds? Do you need moderators? Algorithms? Special functions? The goal is to keep your community open and democratic, and that also means protecting it from those who misuse that freedom and opportunity.
What it can look like: #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN

This campaign fostered a powerful critique of media bias in the coverage of young black people who are shot and killed by police. Black Twitter users began posting two side-by-side photos of themselves, asking the question, which would the media publish “if they gunned me down?” It didn’t take long for the meme to morph, as other Twitter users appropriated the hashtag to post trivializing images (e.g., of their pets), or photo pairings that mocked the campaign’s intent. Still, those detractors were largely drowned out, and months later, the media bias critique is the lasting legacy of this campaign.

Does raising our voices count as civic and political action? Raising awareness is key. Changing what people care about already makes a difference, and just getting your views into the public conversation is meaningful. Making the invisible visible is already an important civic and political action and a form of activism. Are you also trying to drive change beyond visibility? You’ll need that raised awareness to elevate civic and political engagement over time.

The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project organizes the LGBTQ undocumented community along with allies through advocacy campaigns, leadership development, and toolkits and resources. The No More Closets campaign calls upon “undocuqueers” to come out through videos in order to raise visibility about and fight for the dignity and empowerment of both communities.

How do we get from voice to change? Is your goal is to convert voice to influence over policies, institutions, or concrete practices? If so, you’ll need to move beyond raising awareness to mobilize specific actions on the basis of the attention you manage to get. How can you get traction—real change in concrete practices, institutions, and policies? The research shows that this often comes from a mix of digital and face-to-face organizing. But it’s also possible to achieve influence with online-only tactics. Make sure you know what your targets are, and what changes you want to see. Then you can figure out whether building numbers online and taking aim at your target’s reputation, or criss-crossing the line into hybrid online-offline efforts makes more sense.
What it can look like: NO MORE STEUBENVILLES

After high school football players sexually assaulted a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, two young people–one an athlete, the other an activist–launched a petition that was signed by almost 68,000 individuals. The goal: to get the National Federation of High School Associations to offer sexual violence prevention training to the almost 100,000 high school coaches that organization works with. In 2013, the association agreed to partner with seven sexual violence organizations to develop and implement those trainings.

How can we find allies? It makes sense to call on institutional power holders like established organizations or influential individuals who can support your interests. Gaining influence requires building alliances with people who control decisions over policies and institutions. But it can be hard to reach people in power. What’s more, how can you engage with power players in a way that benefits your cause and also empowers you? The answer often involves connecting with allies who can provide mentorship and broker on your behalf, being creative in your methods, and seeking elites in a variety of places–sometimes beyond the usual suspects.
What it can look like: STUDENTS FOR LIBERTY (SFL)

Founded and led by students, SFL is a network of pro-liberty organizations and individuals from diverse locations and backgrounds. It is not a top down, chapter based, or membership organization. However, SFL works with some of the most influential think tanks and policy-makers in D.C., offering young libertarians a range of opportunities to meet with political movers and shakers at both campus events and national conferences. Sometimes making it to events is hard, though, so SFL affiliates of all ages often rely on their own social networks like Twitter to gain face time with like-minded individuals and political elites alike. Regardless of whether it’s online or in person, when young people build allies and tap into the political establishment through their involvement with SFL, it often means working with groups and individuals on both sides of the aisle.

What the Principles Get You

Based on the research of the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, when you use these ten principles to frame your decisions and shape your strategies, you are well positioned to achieve four important outcomes: Engagement, Quality and Equity, Effectiveness, and Security.

Engagement in participatory politics = you and your friends are drawn in and pursue more opportunities to exercise your agency in civic spheres, using your platform to do so.

People are “engaged” when they lose track of the time they spend participating in an activity; when they describe the activity as important to them; when they are driven to share what they’re up to; and when they invite others to participate in the activity as well.

High quality and equitable participatory politics = you and your friends do authentic, accurate, connected civic work with your platform, no matter who you are; you also look out for chances to spread participatory opportunities to those for whom they are hard to come by.

High-quality platforms are broadly accessible and foster norms of accuracy, authenticity, equity, and openness to social diversity. You can’t have quality without equity.

Effective participatory politics = your platform’s activities make the difference your community seeks.

Participation is efficacious when participants can point to something that has changed on account of their efforts—for instance, someone’s opinion or attitude; a decision-maker’s choice; a law or policy; the attentiveness of the media to an issue.

Secure identity management in participatory politics = your users—to the extent possible—determine the boundaries and public visibility of their participation in your platform, and they plan for the digital afterlife of their choices.

Contrary to the usual understanding, secure identity management is not only about managing pseudonyms, aliases, and privacy and security settings but also about preserving psychological integrity in the face of the challenges presented by digitally-enabled participation: the collision of our separate social networks (for instance, a gay teen who participates in gay rights initiatives online but hides that activity in the face-to-face rural setting in which she lives); the unpredictable repercussions of speech and action in digital environment; the dangers that come with public exposure.

This is my final post for the 2014-2015 academic year. I am going to take time off over the summer and get things going again sometime in late August or early September.

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Three)

In your introduction, you signaled the ways that a tension between advocacy and deliberation shadowed the development of this book. Can you explain how this tension surfaced within the disciplinary partnerships you describe and in what ways you or others involved in the book resolved this friction?

The disagreement between those who thought that advocacy should be at the core of civic agency and those who thought that deliberation should have that role ran all the way through our several years of working on this project. I don’t think the initial views on this subject were disciplinary so much as connected to whether each scholar’s body of work was more oriented toward study of those in the mainstream or to study of those on the margins.

Over the course of the project, both views came to shift. Most impoartantly, I think, we came to see that the ethical framework that governs civic agency and life in the public sphere is not singular but plural. There is not one, unitary regulative ideal that can help us know how to participate politically; there are several and they are relevant to different situational contexts.

Consequently, our conversation led us, I think, to a place where the successful exercise of civic agency must be understood as also being closely connected to a capacity for judgment about when disinterested deliberation, interested advocacy, or passionate prophesy is the right tool to deploy in the pursuit of a just democracy.

Another disagreement you flag amongst the contributors to this book hinges on the potentials and limits of commercially owned platforms for civic purposes. I know you have been digging deeply into the design of platforms for civic speech. What new insights have you gained through that project?

Working with colleagues, I set off to try to develop design principles for those who wish to build platforms to support civic agency. As we worked, we became convinced by arguments, like Ethan Zuckerman’s in this book, that a lot of good civic and political engagement can and should occur through already existing, often commercial platforms. These are harder for governments to shut down without cost.

So we modified our approach to develop guidelines that might cross contexts and be applicable regardless of whether someone is building a stand-alone platform or trying to use a battery of existing tools, whether those are commercially supplied or the creation of groups like MIT’s Civic Media Lab.

We focus a lot on trying to unify three kinds of thinking: first, about securing one’s identity offline and online (and we mean this in the broadly psychological sense, not in the sense of password security); second, about understanding how to pull the different kinds of levers that are available; and third, about understanding how to develop and deploy ethical orientations that are compatible with the pursuit of healthy egalitarian participatory democracies.

We managed to boil down our core ideas on these three subjects to ten basic principles for civic agency in the digital media landscape. We will be running the guidelines as a post following the completion of this interview.

This book is very much focused on what is changing in the media and political landscape, yet I know you are someone who often goes back to classical texts to understand some of the core principles of democracy. What do you see as the persistent value of such documents, whether the writings of ancient Athens or the Declaration of Independence, for informing how we respond to the challenges of the current moment?

The ancients feel a million miles away from us. For many I think the Declaration of Independence from our own political tradition also feels a million miles away. And yet there are resources in both.

The ancient Athenians were among the first to become self-conscious about the concept of a public sphere. For them, the public sphere was just their city or, in Greek, their polis, and we of course get the word “politics” from this. Although they cared a lot about their formal public spaces–the assembly, the courtroom, the public markets, they did trace the channels of discourse in all their diversity and studied rhetoric intensely.

That study drew out the value of rational dispassionate deiberation but paid as much attention to what I have been calling adversarial and prophetic rhetoric. The ancients had a far more capacious sense of the range of legitimate and necessary political discourse than most of us have today. I think we can learn a lot from that.

As to the Declaration of Independence, I think its most important contribution is its celebration of civic agency, which it both exhibits and provides a profound defense of. Civic agents are as likely to make mistakes as not; the civic action exemplified by the Declaration includes its share of mistakes, most notably in relation to women, slaves, and native Americans. But the Declaration also expresses its own fallibility.

The end of its most important sentence, the second sentence, expresses a theory of revolution and enjoins civic agents, who judge their governments wanting, to try again. They write: “Whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to etablish new government, laying its foundation on such principle and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem *most likely* to effect their safety and happiness.”

From generation to generation, we the people have the job of evaluating our government and, where necessary, altering it in the directions that seem *most likely* to us to effect collective well-being. In other words, the best we can do is to make probablistic judgments about what will be best for all of us. We will fail, and those who come after us will have to try again.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.


From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Two)

A key debate in this book centers around the relative values of what Howard Gardner described as “disinterestedness” and what you discuss in terms of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Both seem to be shifts away from the positionally we have come to associated with identity politics. Yet, arguing on behalf of our own communities has gained new urgency in the wake of Ferguson. So, how might we reconcile that urgent need to protect our own interests with the other kinds of civic virtues that you and your contributors discuss?

Disinterestedness, rooted cosmopolitanism, identity politics, and the urgent need to argue on behalf of our own communities in the wake of Ferguson. How do these things relate to each other? This question leads perfectly into the terrain of the sorts of ethical framworks that need to be developed once one recognizes that not only deliberative but also adversarial and prophetic forms of speech are legitimate in the public sphere and beyond that, not only legitimate but necessary.

What you see in the book in the chapters on disinterestedness by Howard Gardner and on rooted cosmopolitanism by Agnel Parham ad myself is an effort to start the work of figuring out ethical frameworks for “egalitarian participatory democracy.” While most of the contributors to the volume start from a recognition of the improtance of arguing on behalf of one’s own community (because no one else is going to do it!), Howard wanted to push back on us, to make the case that there is something worthwhile and that should be preserved in the disinterested stance, even as we go forward with political paradigms that embrace identity based advocacy (whether adversarial or prophetic).

This was a hard conversation for all of us, as these two postions were both passionately held, and perhaps also disinterestedly, although of course it’s harder to tell on the latter point. I came to agree with Howard but also to think that the important point about disinterestedness is that it is the right regulative ideal for certain roles and for certain times and places.

The ethical questions for me are both how to know what those times and places are and how to know what the ethical parameters are for the legitimate deployment of a disinterested stance. Let me sketch those briefly, and some of the parameters for adversarial and prophetic modes of engagement. This may help you have more of a sense of how the ethics of egalitarian participatory democracy in fact require a pluralistic sense of the array of regulative ideals that should guide the just deployment of civic agency.

Those who adopt a disinterested role in the appropriate contexts also need practices of testing and counteracting self-interest; they need practices for testing claims of universality made about chosen outcomes or direction; and they need to routinely consume high-quality information on wide array of issues, not only those in regard to which they have a direct interest.

For those who will adopt a prophetic or advocacy stance, and seek to achieve equitable forms of efficacy, the developmental burdens of civic agency involve a need to develop clarity about interests and goals, understanding of the “levers of change” in any given society; skill at “frame-shifting,” or changing the terms of the discourse and agenda; and ethical parameters for means/ends reasoning.

For those who dwell primarily in the adversarial domain, the skills of the two other domains are both relevant, and in addition, there is a need to understand the parameters of “fair fighting,” an ethical topic that the literature of sports has probably done the most to develop.

The focus of this book is on the political lives of youth. I know this was a bit of a shift in your own thinking, since your previous work was not especially youth-focused. What did you learn by adopting this frame? What do you think gets missed if we distinguish between youth and other kinds of political agents?

From the point of view of political theory, the focus on youth was incredibly salutary, and not one we come to so easily on our own in my home discipline. The first great benefit of a youth-focus is that it forces once to confront the nature of political experience for those who are not fully enfranchised. Youth can’t yet vote or they can’t yet run for office and so on. And yet many youth are impressively, political, even if they wouldn’t use that word for themselves.

As with Dreamers and transnational activists, youth political experience is hard to see within the framework of traditional public sphere theory. Once one can see youth political agency and engagement, that is, their civic agency, one comes to realize that they are filling an incredibly important discovery function for the polity as a whole. Youth are often pointing to the importance of issues–like incarceration, food politics, sexual assault, and fluid sexualities–that haven’t made it on to the radar for older people and yet are also defining our socio-political landscape.

So the group of authors in my volume mostly turned to the study of youth in a pretty instrumental way, recognizing that the opportunities and challenges presented by digital and social media had made greater inroads into youth culture than for older cohorts. Yet we realized that our substantive gains were substantial and went far beyond an opportunity to refine our understanding of the impact of technology.

Youth just are part of the story of the political life of any given nation, and of the globe. Understanding their civic agency should take place alongside studies of the civic agency of older adults. And the payoff will be a richer understanding of the big socio-poitical problems confronting all of us.

A key concept running through the book is civic agency, which at some places you link to the notion of citizenship. Yet, your book also accounts civic agency on the parts of those who have been denied some or all of the rights associated with citizenship, whether the DREAMers who are fighting to be accepted as citizens or black youth who have often been victims of voter suppression efforts. So, what can we say about the ways civic agency can be exercised by those who lack the full rights of citizenship?

One of the important things that has emerged with the development of new technolgoies and social media is that it is now easier to pull important levers outside of political institutions: through the targeting of decision-makers in civil society and the corporate world; through social movements that can put pressure on political leaders; and though efforts to change culture and social norms.

While political institutions and the legislative agenda are still fundamentally important, the balance of power has shifted some between the political realm and other realms. Big changes can be developed through civil society.

These tools are available to those without formal membership status in a given polity. Those without the status of citizens have a range of vulnerabilities and exposures that others don’t have and they have to make hard choices about how to negotiate them. But their indivdiual vulnerabiltiy can be counterbalanced by impressive forms of collective and social power. Again, Cristina Beltran’s chapter provides a remarkable exploration of that vulnerability as well as of the forms of empowerment used to counterbalance it.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part One)

Not long ago, I was asked to blurb an exciting new book, From Voice to Influence: Citizenship in a Digital Age (Edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light). Here’s what I had to say:

“From #blacklivesmatter to the DREAMer movement, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, recent social movements have raised questions about how networked participation and civic expression are shaping what counts as politics in the 21st century. From Voice to Influence assembles a multidisciplinary mix of key thinkers to ask hard questions about the shifting nature of the public sphere, the values of deliberation and expression, the continued importance of disinterestedness and cosmopolitanism, the nature of civic agency, and the impact of new technologies of media production and circulation. Each contribution here is original, provocative, thoughtful, and grounded, and each helps us to understand more fully what it means to come of age as a civic agent in today’s media landscape.”

The book is another outgrowth from the work of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary rout of scholars, helmed by Joe Kahne from Mills College, and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which is seeking to better understand the political lives of contemporary American young people.  I have gotten to know this book’s co-editor, Danielle Allen, through her involvement in this research collaboration, which has also informed the development of my team’s forthcoming By Any Media Necessary book.

Allen is a political philosopher who moves fluidly from attending to insights from Classical Philosophy and the work of America’s founding fathers (she just published a short but wonderful book looking at the continuing impact of the Declaration of Independence ) to responses to contemporary civil rights movements. She recently published a smart op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which dealt with the protests in Baltimore and another with fellow YPP network member Cathy Cohen on “the new civil rights movement”. She is perhaps best known for her book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, which offers some reflections on the nature of “political friendship” across racial lines and gives us some core insights about what it might mean to be an effective and ethical ally in today’s struggles over racial justice. As a political philosopher, she is surprisingly and consistently attentive to media or channels of communication, from the role of news photography in the civil rights movement (Talking to Strangers) to the role of text (Why Plato Wrote) and print (Our Declaration), so there’s much here that people in my home field should be engaging with.

All of this is to say that Allen is wickedly smart, a generous collaborator, someone whose insights I have come to trust on a great many of the most pressing issues of our time. You will get a taste of her thinking in her responses to the interview questions below.

Let’s start with the book’s title, “From Voice to Influence.” How are you and your contributors defining the core terms, “voice” and “influence” here? To what degree has the rise of networked communication shifted expectations about the relationship between the two? What are some of the core challenges that we need to confront before the expressive capacities of everyday citizens is effectively translated into greater influence over public affairs?

Voice was the easy concept for us. It captures any human effort at self-expression. In that regard, it’s metaphorical. Sometimes people express their voice by doing things like die-in’s in city streets. One can be completely quiet, marching in a silent protest, and still be expressing voice. Human beings are remarkably inventive as communicators, and we really intend the concept of voice to capture the role range of human communication.

While there is probably an infinity of different types of human communication, any speech act is connected in some fashion to a speaker. The relationship between a speech act and the authentic, autonomous self of the speaker is extremely complex. Not every speech act is as directly expressive of something authentic. Nonetheless, we’re throwing the whole kit and caboodle in under the concept of “voice” and then trying to see how to sort out the different types of voice.

Influence was the hard concept. The rise of digital media and social media have brought an explosion of “voice” in the public sphere–communications from ordinary people about whatever it is they feel like communicating about that are easily accessible to all of us. There has been a lazy assumption in a lot of commentary about the impact of new media on politics that more voice in itself changes political life and is a good thing.

We thought that assessing that view required more clarity about when expressions of voice are “influential” and when they are not, that is, more clarity about when they make a difference beyond the existential experience of the speaker. This required us to think about the relationship between communicative actions on the part of a speaker and the different levers that can be pulled to change socio-political institutions or broadly impactful socio-political forms.

We came to distinguish between forms of influence that operate mainly on specific communities of discourse (a neighborhood, a social media network, etc.) and those forms of influence that operate on the level of a whole polity. To achieve an understanding of influence, we had to look at how speech acts can pull levers within political institutions, in relationship to the many organizations of civil society and the corporate world, through the work of social movements, and by effecting cultural change. The chapter by Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur toes a terrific job of anatomizing how particular speech acts come to be influential in one, or several, of those domains.

The rise of networked communications has, indeed, as you say, shifted expectations about the relationship between voice and influence, but we think those shifts in expectation are themselves likely to be subject to evolution. In the early stages of the digital media transformation, voice was pretty loosely assumed to translate straightforwardly into influence.

This idea was captured by the notion that gatekeepers were being overthrown everywhere. The thought was that without gatekeepers controlling what got into the media or on the legislative agenda, anyone could immediately have a direct impact on our collective life.

But this soon gave way to greater realism. The dramatic increase in the volume of participation in digital and social media means that many voices are just drowned out. As Ethan Zuckerman points out in his chapter, there is a finite quantity of human attention, so securing attention share becomes a challenge. And influence requires attention share.

In this context, of course, the opportunity is ripe for a re-emergence of gate-keepers who gain their authority by helping people know where to focus their attention in a very chaotic media landscape. Take Facebook and its rules for participation as an example of a new gatekeeper. Jennifer Light does a great job of showing how, historically, historical revolutions in communciations technology that are experienced initially as liberatory have a way of being coopted by traditional power holders.

We think there’s a lot of room in media studies for developing a more refined understanding of the relationship between voice and influence, by studying why one speech act joins the discursive flows that move the waterwheels of socio-political change and why other speech acts don’t. And we think scholars ought to be paying attention to where gatekeepers are re-emerging, both in order to understand that re-emergence and to seek paths along which we can preserve the liberatory force of that initial moment of transformation.


You describe the book as “making technology the backdrop rather than the subject of analysis,” This is an important distinction. What becomes the foreground, then, of your analysis of contemporary political participation?

The foreground of our analysis of contemporary political participation is what we call civic agency. Civic agency consists of the effort to deploy voice for the sake of influence. Between voice and influence there exist a whole host of activities: from organizing to civic engagement, from symbolic protest to running for political office, and so on.

In earlier work, some of the contributors in this volume were in the habit of talking using the concept of “citizenship” to capture this idea. Citizenship is, of course, an old concept from the Latin word for city and for members of a city. While in contemporary politics we have come to focus on the concept of “citizenship” as a legal category of membership, in an older tradition of political thought that membership category was closely connected to an idea that the best way for each person to protect his or her own safety and well being was to exercise political power. There is a sense of responsibility and duty connected to the concept of citizenship, but also an element of empowerment.

As we’ve been working on this project, though, we’ve come to see the importance of separating the concept of legal membership in a given political unit from the more fundamental idea of the capacity of human beings to contribute to shaping the world in which they live with others. We settled on using the phrase, “civic agency,” to designate this capacity.

We consider it fundamental for thinking about politics in a world where there are no longer any territorial zones outside of nation states, yet it is still possible for some people to be “stateless,” to have no formal membership in any state, despite habitating on one or another actual piece of ground. Cristina Beltran’s chapter on Dreamactivism is really important on focusing on the civic agency of undocumented youth.

Equally important is the fact that political problems and the effects of political action do not track the geographical boundaries of states but frequently exceeed them; consequently, transnational activism is of great importance in our contemporary world. My chapter with Angel Parham takes up some of the issues that emerge in that context.

The concept of “civic agency” permits us to do a better job of tracking the efforts of people–from across the full diversity of possible formal statuses–to help steer the world in which we live. Technology is the backdrop to this story of civic agency because, as I have suggested above, civic agency starts with voice or communication. The exercise of civic agency traces the arc from voice to influence, through a variety of mediating practices. Anything that changes the fundamental methods of and opportunities for communication will have an impact on civic agency. We start and finish with civic agency in order to re-situate thought about media technology within the context of at least one of the “human things” that it has emerged to enable.


Your book proposes a reconceptualization of the public sphere, from one focused on physical geography to one focused around patterns of circulation. What do you see as the benefits of this reworking of the classic public sphere model?

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate flows from space. Flow, after all, is about the temporalities of movements through spaces. Yet I think the question of which metaphorical lens one uses as one’s starting point for thinking about public spheres has a meaningful impact on what one is able to see.

Spatial models of the public sphere, as in Habermas’ early work, tend to end up focusing on a bunch of formal political spaces–assemblies, legislative halls, courtrooms–or on architecturally salient adjacent spaces, for instance coffee houses, that are in some sense directly connected to those spaces of forrmal political institutions because the same group of peoplel functions in both.

The trouble with this is that the architecture of our public spaces has exclusions built into it, which are then carried over into the analysis. Habermas has, of course, been routinely criticized for prioritizing the communicative experiences in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries of white bourgeois men.

If one seeks instead to figure out who is talking to who, when, and how–in other words simply to find flows–one finds spaces that weren’t previously visible–for instance, the black churches of the Civil Rights movement–but one also finds networks of communication that never become grounded in a single space–for instance, the flows of discourse linking Beltran’s Dreamers again or the flows linking the hip hop community. Tommie Shelby’s chapter on hip hop as dissent is just fantastic.

In other words, I think the “flow” metaphor just helps one see a lot more politically meaningful discourse than one would otherwise spot. And then by bringing a broader field of discourse into consideration for public sphere theory, the flow metaphor forces us to re-consider just how different types of discourse do or do not support legitimate public action.

The Habermasian picture ends up focusing excessively on deliberative modes of speech or rhetoric. The broader picture requires us to see the value in prophetic speech (think MLK, Jr. or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter) and also in adversarial forms of discourse (think of the strategies used by the Industrial Areas Foundation organizers to hold public officials to account; on this subject, Jeff Stout’s book, Blessed Are the Organized, is excellent). Recognizing that prophetic and adversarial forms of speech are necessary and legitimate modes of public sphere discourse introduces a further challenge: one needs to develop ethical frameworks for their use. And this work, too, takes us beyond the ethics of deliberative democracy. In place of that, the shift to flows supports work toward developing ethical frameworks for “egalitarian particpatory democracy.’

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Three)

What parallels do you see between the immigrant rights movement activities you discuss here and the way that transmedia organizing is being deployed right now in the growing struggle against racialized police violence in the United States? Are there lessons which these movements might draw from each other?

Absolutely. In fact, these movements are deeply intertwined, even as it remains important to recognize the specificity of anti-Black police violence. #BlackLivesMatter calls on all of us to do the work of centering anti-Black violence.

And yet the immigrant rights movement, especially as it has developed during the last decade, is no longer (if it ever was) primarily a movement about assimilation to the American Dream. We’re talking in the context of a ballooning detention and deportation system that, under Obama alone, has rounded up and deported over two million people. TWO MILLION PEOPLE. The deportation system includes detention facilities (prisons) that are built and managed by the same private, for-profit corporations that build and manage prisons and jails across the country (see Detention Watch Network for the latest research on this system). In California, Ruthie Gilmore has written about the rise of the “Golden Gulag” and a carceral state that uses prisons as a mechanism of racial control. Michelle Alexander has written about the “New Jim Crow,” and the post- civil rights movement drug war policies that have been used to systematically disenfranchise millions of African-Americans through deeply racist policies, policing, unequal sentencing, and so on.

So the policing, detention, deportation, and disproportionate murder of primarily but by no means exclusively Brown people, enacted through immigration policy, DHS, ICE, and the detention/deportation system, is deeply linked to the policing, detention, warehousing, and murder of disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, Black people through
the so-called drug war. Some activists call this the “Crimmigration” system. Harsha Walia puts it in transnational context and calls it “Border Imperialism,” and notes that it’s the continuation of centuries of settler colonialism.

The increased militancy of the immigrant rights movement combined with the uprisings of #BlackLivesMatter have brought us to an important critical moment of rupture in the glossy facade of multicultural, neoliberal, info capitalism.

This rupture is filled with the brilliant symbols, bodies, ideas, stories, demands, and dreams of people who have been long excluded, invisibilized, and oppressed. People of Color, Black people specifically, Queer and Trans* women of color, UndocuQueer people, are using media both new and old to create community, gain visibility, speak truth to power, and to articulate new identities and new intersectional social movements.

It’s a moment of incredible pain and rage, but also a moment of great hope and possibility.

To be realistic, it’s still possible that the primary outcome of the energy generated by #BlackLivesMatter will be more money for police forces to purchase new equipment (body cameras), which is not going to do much to truly advance racial justice and the structural dismantling of white supremacy in the United States. There’s a question here: are we
going to be able to use this moment to come to terms with just how deep anti-Blackness runs as a foundational force in our society?

The immigrant rights movement has been internally split between those who advocate for an assimilationist narrative that involves primarily articulating demands for inclusion in (white, straight, capitalist, patriarchal, militarist) United States society, and those who are bringing an intersectional analysis to their organizing processes, strategies, goals, narratives, and demands. The second approach has been gaining ground, as the first failed to win anything.

Education Not Deportation (END) campaigns, for example, directly link the immigrant rights movement to the broader movement against the growing prison system, and do so in ways that are fueled by direct action, have concrete impacts on real people’s lives, and are also highly mediated events that bridge social media, live streaming, and often receive print and broadcast coverage in both Spanish and English language mass media.

It would be interesting to see something similar to END emerge from the prison abolition movement – highly publicized direct actions, made visible through both social and mass media, focused on liberating specific incarcerated individuals. But the thing is that certain voices  within the immigrant rights movement are always saying ‘we’re not
criminals. We just want to assimilate. Stop treating us like terrorists and criminals.’ While it’s possible to deeply disagree with the framing but still admit that it has the potential to win gains for large segments of non-Black immigrant communities, this is pretty much a losing strategy for Black people, since for hundreds of years the mass
media system has been training us all to see all Black people as criminals.

But respectability politics will probably always continue.

You note that half of the royalties from the book’s sales go to the Mobile Voices Project. Can you tell us more about this project and the ways that it helps to address some of the issues your book has identified?

VozMob is an incredible experience in popular education, participatory research and design, and community organizing, centered around amplifying the voices of immigrant workers in Los Angeles by appropriating mobile phones for popular communication. It began around 2007, and the project is still going strong in 2015. I urge readers to visit the project site, where there are now thousands of posts from day laborers, household workers, students, and other folks from the community around the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). You can also read more about the participatory research and design process that produced the project in the book chapter that was coauthored by the project participants, including community members, organizers, university based researchers, and designers. The chapter is titled “Mobile Voices,” (coauthored with 12 members of the VozMob project), it can be found in Minna Aslama and Phil Napoli (eds.), Communications Research in Action: Scholar-Activist Collaborations for a Democratic Public Sphere. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010. (A preprint version is here).

The VozMob Drupal Distribution is the free/libre open source software that powers, and its features have been developed through participatory design. This same code now powers the hosted mobile platform called . So far, it has been localized, including all interactive voice menu elements, in English, Brazilian
Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s been used by migrant workers in Mexico to report recruitment fraud , by Afro-Brazilian teens from a fishing village in Salvador, Brazil to report environmental damage from a chemical spill, in Hong Kong by participants in the Umbrella Movement to record songs and poems from the streets, among many other projects. It
has been used in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Detroit, and locations across the United States. It powers the Tribeca award-winning participatory documentary project Sandy Storyline, which documents people’s experiences surviving Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent recovery efforts.

The VozMob code has been useful to such a wide range of groups because it was developed hand in hand with a user community whose experience of communication technology is similar to that of the majority of human beings (cheap cell phones, poor, sporadic internet access), but whose needs, ideas, and stories are rarely considered by a system of
technology design that is centered on what’s profitable. That system is run by mostly white (and Asian) middle class cishet men in the 1/3rd world who have been socialized into a startup culture that sadly reproduces some of the worst of heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. I’m not saying developers are bad guys, I’m saying the
structure of technology development militates towards making potentially profitable apps for a small, relatively homogenous sliver of the global population. VozMob is an important counterexample. VozMob is looking for
a new round of financial support and volunteers, get in touch with them on twitter at @vozmob!

My next book, which I’m in the process of writing now, is going to be focused on exactly these questions of design and social justice. Who gets to design technologies? Who are they designed for? Who benefits the most from the design process as it’s currently structured? What do already existing alternative models of technology design look like, and
how can we scale them, how can we make radically inclusive design the norm? We’ve been exploring these questions in courses like the Civic Media Co-Design Studio at MIT, event spaces like the Future Design Lab at the Allied Media Conference , and in community-led projects at Research Action Design. This work feels incredibly urgent to me right now, and I hope that folks who are interested in these questions will get in touch! hmu: @schock.

Thank you so much Henry!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.


On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Two)

You structure the book around the concept of “transmedia organizing.” How are you defining this term? How does it relate to the forms of transmedia storytelling, entertainment, and branding that have surfaced in recent years?

To be honest, over the past year the framing I use has shifted from “transmedia organizing” to “transformative media organizing,” largely because of my involvement in the research, skill-share, and design
process of the Transformative Media Organizing project. Our definition of transformative media organizing is as follows:

“Transformative media organizing is a liberatory approach to integrating media, communications, and cultural work into movement building. It lies at the place where media justice and transformative organizing overlap. Transformative media organizers begin with an intersectional analysis of linked systems of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other axes of identity. We seek to do media work that develops the critical consciousness and leadership of those who take part in the media-making process; create media in ways that are deeply accountable to the movement base; invite our communities to participate in media production; create media strategically across platforms, and root our work in community action.”

More about this model can be found here  and a summary of our findings about how LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations in the US are using media in their organizing work is here.

But to answer your original question, my thoughts about the definition,history, and relationship of transmedia organizing to transmedia storytelling are best expressed in the following excerpt from the book (pages 47-50):

The term “transmedia organizing” is a mash-up of the concept of transmedia storytelling, as elaborated by media studies scholars, and ideas from social movement studies. In the early 1990s the scholar Marsha Kinder developed the idea of transmedia intertextuality to refer to the flow of branded and gendered commodities across television,
films, and toys. Kinder was interested in stories and brands that unfolded across platforms, and took care to analyze them in the context of broader systemic transformation of the media industries. She focused especially on the deregulation of children’s television during the Reagan years. Throughout the 1970s, Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots nonprofit organization with 20,000 members, organized for higher-quality children’s TV and against advertising within children’s programming, with some success. However, by the early 1980s both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters were pushing aggressively to abandon limits on advertising to children and product-based programming. It was during this shift that Kinder conducted a series of media ethnographies with children. She was interested in better understanding young people’s relationships to franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which children experienced across platforms as a comic magazine, an animated TV series, a line of toys, a video game, and so on. She found that cross-platform stories and branded commodities not only increased both toy and ad sales but also produced highly gendered consumer subjectivity in children.

In 2003, Henry Jenkins [that’s you! 🙂 ] reworked the concept for an era of horizontally integrated transnational media conglomerates, and defined transmedia storytelling as follows:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

He went on to articulate the key points of transmedia storytelling in the context of a converged media system. Chief among them are the following: transmedia storytelling is the ideal form for media conglomerates to circulate their franchises across platforms; transmedia storytelling involves “world building” rather than closed plots and individual characters; it involves multiple entry points for varied audience segments; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different divisions of a company; it provides roles for readers to take on in their daily lives; it is open to participation by fans; and it is “ the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”

In the decade since Jenkins’s 2003 explanation of these key elements, the media industries have increasingly adopted transmedia storytelling as a core strategy. The term transmedia is now regularly used to describe the work of professional producers who create cross-platform stories with participatory media components. Individuals, consultancies, and firms, initially small boutique shops but increasingly also units within larger media companies, have positioned themselves as transmedia producers. In 2010 the Producers Guild of America announced the inclusion of “transmedia producer” in the Guild’s Producers Code of Credits for the first time. More recently, institutions such as the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival have begun to recognize, fund, curate, and promote transmedia projects.

In 2009 the media strategist Lina Srivastava proposed that activists and media artists might apply the ideas of transmedia storytelling to social change, through what she termed transmedia activism:

“There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to influence action and raise cause awareness by distributing content through a multi platform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation.” (see Lina’s blog).

Several firms now explicitly describe themselves as working on transmedia activism. In 2008 the Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal and the director Marc Silver (with Srivastava as a strategy consultant) launched the transmedia activism production company Resist Network.

New examples of transmedia storytelling for social change emerge on a regular basis. Many of these projects are honest attempts to translate the lessons of transmedia storytelling from entertainment and advertising into strategies that could be used for activism and advocacy. Others seem more ambiguous, as transmedia producers who primarily work with corporate clients identify opportunities to win contracts with social issue filmmakers, nonprofit organizations, and NGOs. In any case, by 2013 there were several high-profile, professionally produced transmedia campaigns focused specifically on immigrant rights. Jose Antonio Vargas’s project Define American, Laurene Powell Jobs – backed (and Davis Guggenheim – produced) film The Dream is Now, and the Silicon Valley campaign (spearheaded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) are probably the three best known, and I return to them in chapter 7.

I am excited by the growing interest in transmedia storytelling for social change among media professionals. However, in this book the term transmedia organizing does not center on the emerging professionalization of transmedia strategy, whether for entertainment, advertising, or activism. Instead of carefully managed media initiatives, I primarily emphasize organic, bottom-up processes. More broadly, I suggest that social movements have always engaged in transmedia organizing, and the process has become more visible as key aspects of movement media-making come online. This is not to suggest that nothing new is taking place. However, I believe that the recent emphasis on technological transformation is misplaced, to the degree that it blinds us to a comprehensive analysis of social movement media practices. In addition, while movements do already engage in transmedia organizing, they can be more effective if they are intentional about this approach. To that end, I suggest the following definition:

“Transmedia organizing includes the creation of a narrative of social transformation across multiple media platforms, involving the movement’s base in participatory media making, and linking attention directly to concrete opportunities for action. Effective transmedia organizing is also accountable to the needs of the movement’s base.”

I contend that transmedia organizing involves the construction of social movement identity, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration across multiple social movement groups; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement; and it is the key strategic media form for social movements in the current media ecology. While the end goal of corporate transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the end goal of transmedia organizing is to strengthen social movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform the consciousness of broader publics. Effective transmedia organizing also includes accountability mechanisms so that the narrative and the actions it promotes remain grounded in the experience and needs of the social movement’s base.

The full chapter, and book, can be downloaded for free.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.