Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era:An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

A real strength of this collection is a movement between theoretical pieces proposing conceptual models for thinking about civic media and engagement and more case-study based pieces which document specific design practices or implementations of civic media within local communities.  You are trying to bridge the theory-practice divide, in other words. What value do you think the conceptual work brings to design practices and applications? And conversely, what insights do you see emerging through design that modifies or challenges existing conceptions about civic engagement?

It is remarkably difficult to combine theory and practice. The more we do this work, the more we realize that it’s about juxtapositions, not hybridity. The book aspires towards theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory. But it’s not necessarily looking for a hybrid form.

Too often, we see attempts at hybridity as just being bad practice or bad theory. But we both live that tension. We are primarily academics, trading in research and writing. We were each granted tenure at an academic institution based on this work. But we are also both practitioners, building programs and tools designed for immediate social impact. Each of us can say, unequivocally, that our academic work has deeply informed our practice, and vice versa. But the worlds of scholarship and practice are still quite separate. When we work across domains, we are engaged in a kind of rapid switching.

The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about the flaneur, the urban wanderer, who sat in a Parisian café looking out at the crowds of people on the sidewalk. He was both of the crowd and apart from it, a spectator and a participant. But to gain that critical perspective, Baudelaire wrote, he needed to remain alienated from both.

In many ways, this theory/practice divide is similar. It’s a place of anxiety, of being detached from both worlds, while also knowing that the greatest insights come from that detachment. So, we are deeply invested in bringing together scholarship and practice, but we don’t want to remove the anxiety that defines the in between space.

We want practitioners to understand the histories and theories of civic media, and we want academics to feel the messiness of social reality and practice. But we actually want them both to never get comfortable with habits of mind or practice. The main benefits of bringing theory and practice together might just be that it destabilizes both, creating a possibility space that remains fluid.

One of your projects here is to bring work about media literacy towards the center of the study of civic media. Why is it important to understand civic engagement in relation to media literacy? What would it mean to bring a Civic Media perspective into the classroom?


For a long time, the field of media literacy has struggled to articulate a vision beyond the teaching of critical thinking and production skills. It has focused on teaching young people how to critically analyze and critically produce the media. But how these skills and dispositions translate from the classroom to the real world has not been clear. Civic media is clarifying in this regard.

The process of making and participating in civic media represents a media literate subject. It requires a level of critical thinking and production that is, by definition, beyond the classroom. In fact, in a recent article on civic media in liberal arts education, we make the argument that civic media transforms the project of higher education from the dissemination of knowledge to the sharing of “usable” knowledge, wherein critical media skills are applied directly to matters of public impact.  Our project in this book, and elsewhere, is to consider the ways in which knowledge in education translates into social action.

Eric, much of your early work had to do with the development of games as a particular form of civic media, and you were a key figure in the serious games movement. I know you’ve started to shift your focus from games to play more broadly defined. Why?

Games are systems that structure players’ interactions typically with a goal, and specific rules and mechanics for progressing towards that goal. I spent a lot of time making and thinking about games that foster civic engagement by creating meaningful interfaces between public institutions and individuals.

The games I studied and even the games I made, taught me a great deal about how civic systems work. They taught me about the motivations people have (or don’t have) for engaging in civic process and civic life more generally. I am still deeply invested in the possibilities that games have to meaningfully structure civic life.

But what I’ve come to realize is that what’s important about the game is not the game, but the kinds of interactions it enables. Games ask people to play towards achieving a goal. They present a logic whereby a player might feel a certain freedom to experiment or explore towards achieving a goal that is decidedly separate from everyday life. They also present a logic of human systems whereby quality is not measured by efficiency of moving through it, but in fact how meaningful the system’s inefficiencies are. Games present us with unnecessary obstacles that motivate play and increase interest not only in achieving the goal, but in the act of playing itself.

So, as I continued to work in this unlikely intersection of games and civics, I started to ask how these meaningful inefficiencies found in game systems are being practiced in civic life in all sorts of unexpected ways. From playful performances in public spaces to methods of public management that integrate unorthodox feedback loops, or even, when games get designed and played to facilitate public process.

So, quite distinct from gamification, which has become a business trend wherein game mechanics are used to efficiently motivate people to achieve stated goals, meaningful inefficiencies are the elements of civic systems that prompt play for play’s sake. It is a way of maneuvering around the traps of commodified engagement, to motivate a system’s thinking that is generative, as opposed to limiting.

Paul, you’ve been the leader of the Salzburg Academy of Media and Global Change for a decade. In some ways, this Academy represents an experiment in bringing people from around the world to live, learn, and work together. How have these experiences informed your work on this book and other projects? Why is it important to test our ideas about civic media in a global context rather than one that is grounded in national particulars?


For a decade now, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change has gathered young media makers from around the world to explore how media can respond to global social problems. We’ve had over 750 young people and 150 faculty and scholars come through the program, all of whom have sought to make connections across borders, across cultures and across divides.

The Salzburg Academy is indeed an experiment–one that has informed much of our thinking about the intersection of media, activism, and social change. The Academy has focused on topics as wide ranging as terrorism, migration, rights of journalists, and freedom of expression. Each year, as people from around the world gather in a learning community, we are reminded about the importance of human connections in media.

As the flow of information is increasingly fluid across national borders, these gatherings are reminders that human connection requires more than digital connectivity. The importance of people coming together to face challenges as a cohesive unit cannot be underestimated, where diversity is embraced, and where differences become assets. At the Academy we bring students from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Palestine, Canada, England, China, Slovakia, Sweden, Kenya, and the United States, among other places, and ask them to think about media as a tool for inclusivity, equity, tolerance, and justice.

To this end, what the Academy has taught us about the need to experiment in a global setting is that as populations continue to move, and cultures continue to integrate, media-based initiatives need to embrace global diversity. When we engage on a human level, we can think expansively about media and its application in the world.

We’ve seen so many alumni go on to engage in social change work that is often guided by their experiences in Salzburg, and sustained by the network that still supports them. The Salzburg Academy offers the space and time to articulate those processes with a group of devoted, passionate, and diverse people, devoted to striving for common good with the media as their tool.

We spent three weeks together thinking about the current crises around refugees and migration. What roles might civic media platforms and practices play in helping to work through the cultural shock produced by these massive population shifts?

Our work this summer in Salzburg was focused on media, migration and the civic imagination. We explored how the media too often rely on distant and de-personalized stories to explain (and exploit) the issue, ignoring its nuance and deeply personal nature. In order to combat the “objectivity bias,” students at the Academy were asked to make personal the issue of migration by reimagining narratives through the lens of personal stories and popular culture. The goal was to overcome some of the xenophobic sentiments and harmful stereotypes perpetuated by and through the media.

This work was shared in an online publication called Move: Media, Migration and the Civic Imagination. The site highlights over 20 multimedia essays, created by diverse groups of students, working across their own unique understanding of the topic to reinvent how migration is portrayed.

Our work at the Academy sought to put civic media into action by mobilizing young people’s critical analysis and production of media. The civic media lens enabled us to think beyond the tools and specific applications of media, and to consider how individuals, groups and entire communities can actively reshape the stories they consume and produce, especially on matters of global import.

This was not about the informed global citizen, it was about the active and critical global citizen able to use and reuse the media tools at their disposal to effect social change.