What Is Civic Media?

An MIT Communications Forum event, on September 20, represented the formal launch of the new MIT Center for Future Civic Media, a joint effort of the Comparative Media Studies Program and the MIT Media Lab and funded by the Knight Foundation. The event featured Beth Noveck (NYU Law School), Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center, Harvard, and the Global Voices Project), Chris Csikszentmihalyi (MIT Media Lab), and yours truly. You can find a webcast of this event here. This was the first of a series of Forums focused on the ways media can be deployed at the local level to foster greater civic engagement. This event's focus was largely definitional -- trying to map out what we mean by civic media and comparing notes with researchers from other institutions who have a long history of work in this area. An event later this term, featuring Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech) and Mario Armstrong (The Urban Games Academy), will feature of games and civic engagement.

Earlier in the week, I had posted a preview of my remarks on the Center's new blog site. As I did so, I was trying to dispel two common misperceptions of the new center: because it is associated with the Knight foundation, many assume it is exclusively concerned with citizen journalism and because it is associated with the MIT Media Lab, many assume it is exclusively concerned with developing new media technologies. In both cases, this is partially right -- we are very interested in the role of citizen journalists and the future of news more generally and we are interested in developing new tools which activists, governments, journalists, and citizens can use in their everyday lives. But our notion of civic media is broader than journalism and we are interested not simply in designing and deploying new technologies but also thinking about the social contexts within which they operate and the cultural protocols that grow up around their use. Here's part of what I had to say:

Civic media, as I use the term, refers to any use of any medium which fosters or enhances civic engagement. I intend this definition to be as broad and inclusive as possible. Civic media includes but extends well beyond the concept of citizen journalism which is so much in fashion at the moment.

Lisa Gitelman has suggested that a medium should be understood both as a technological platform (a channel of communication) and the social and cultural protocols which grow up around it. As we think about future civic media, we are not simply designing tools or devices which might be deployed to support and sustain citizenship; we are also talking about the practices that grow up around those devices, practices that shape how they get used and how they are understood by the people who use them.

What constitutes a civic use of media? Well, certainly, we have classically considered newspapers to constitute a form of civic media, given the centrality of the concept of the informed citizen to the ideals of a democratic society. Yet, I would argue that even in classic accounts, the concept goes further than this.

So, let's consider, for example, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, where the image of the 1950s and 1960s bowling league embodies the Harvard professor's ideals of civic engagement. In what sense might bowling become a civic act? Putnam suggests it represents a commitment which citizens made to their neighbors, that they would come together socially at regular moments to play and that around the sport, a range of other significant conversations would occur which help sustain their investments within their community. Some of those conversations would contain news of civic importance, many of them would be personal gossip, but the key point was that the conversations occurred on multiple levels and thus helped to knit strong social ties.

Putnam contrasts the public sociability of bowling with our retreat into private space in response to the emergence of television. Here, Putnam confuses two arguments-the domestic consumption of television as a medium and concerns about the centrality of entertainment, rather than news, as its primary content of this medium. For me, his argument breaks down partially on both levels.

First, television is not inherently an isolating medium. We need look no further than the accounts of its introduction which suggests that installing the television set was an intensely social occasion in the 1950s with friends and family gathering to watch those first fuzzy and flickering images. Or we might account for the ways that television is consumed collectively in much of the developing world where people gather at the center of the village and hold important exchanges around broadcasts. So, in other words, television was consumed more socially at a moment of time when there was already a much greater investment in civic engagement or in cultures which have a more communal lifestyle (though even then, it was the newness of the technology which lead to the unusual experience of bringing the whole neighborhood into one's private domestic space). The shift towards more private consumption doesn't have to do with the intrinsic properties of the medium but rather has to do with the ways the medium gets used in a specific historical and cultural context.

But, second, it seems odd for Putnam to suggest that television can only be used for civic purposes when it is conveying news and information, given the fact that he uses bowling as his exemplar of civic participation. In this case, it is not the informational content of bowling but the emotional context in which it is consumed that enhances civic engagement.The conversations held around the game play helped to forge people into a community. And thus, there's no intrinsic reason why a predominantly entertainment or recreational medium might not enhance civic engagement almost as much as one focused on news and information. Whatever people are doing when they form guilds within a multiplayer game, it isn't bowling alone.

We might for a moment move beyond Putnam and consider another classic writer on this theme, Benedict Anderson. Anderson writes in his book, Imagined Communities, about the role which the London Times played in creating a shared sense of identity and fraternity across at least segments of the British empire. He argues that nations are imagined in the sense that we are invited to feel solidarity with people who we may never meet face to face-indeed, we will meet relatively few members of a nation even in the course of our entire lifetime and in the case of the British empire, he's describing how a concept of national culture was extended across the planet (although clearly unequally-understood differently by those who ruled and those who submitted to their rule.) Some of this had to do with the exchange of news and information, some of it had to do with the sense of a shared agenda, some of it had to do with the rituals which re-enforced that sense of social connection. Marshall McLuhan compared reading the newspaper to our morning baths-suggesting that its ritual functions were as important as its informational ones.

This sense of the civic, then, is at once real and virtual, created through media and experienced through face to face contact, sparked by shared activities and by exchanged information. This sense of civic engagement manifests itself through democratic participations (voting, for example) but it also gets displayed through the microprocesses of everyday life-through countless social rituals and seemingly meaningless everyday interactions with some subset of the larger group of people with whom we feel some sense of social connection.

As we think about civic media, then, we need to think about all of the mechanisms that generate that "structure of feeling" of belonging to a community and working together to insure its long term viability. Read side by side, Putnam and Anderson tell us that civic engagement involves the interweaving of weak and strong social ties.

So, what medium can foster civic engagement? All media can do so, depending on their use and the investments we make in other users. Jean Burgess has studied, for example, the local camera culture which grew up in Australia around the use of Flickr. Photography, she argued, is at least partially a local medium-we take pictures of real places while we are standing in front of them-even if the images circulate within digital networks. Flickr function as a social network, helping photographers in the same area find each other. They held meetups to take pictures together and this shared activity led to other conversations and other kinds of social contact. Taking pictures focused their attention on their immediate geographic surroundings, though they looked at them through a range of conceptual lens. They began to feel a greater sense of emotional bonds with other photographers who took pictures of that same area and in some cases, their photography increased their awareness of-and then became a vehicle they used to increase other people's awareness of-local problems and concerns.

We can read this story in two ways: the first emphasizes the affordances of the Flickr technology which enabled us to determine the location of the photographs and to identify the contact coordinates of the photographers; the second emphasizes the social processes-the ways that people organized themselves around the shared rather than individual production and circulation of images, the emergence of the meetup in the context of a networked culture.

My vision for this center, then, is one which combines understandings of technologies and of the social contexts within which they are used. If some writers, like Putnam, blame media for the breakdown of civic engagement, others, like Anderson, suggest that the rituals of shared media consumption can foster social connections and thus spark citizenly participations. Working together, we will produce both technologies and social practices, test them in the field, and publicize best practices. As we do so, we need to think about what might constitute today's equivalent of reading the London Times and today's equivalent of the Bowling League.

If you are interested in civic media, you should check out our blog. Here, smart researchers from CMS or the Media Lab will share their ideas about civic media. Although we've only been up a short while, you can already get a sense of the diversity of content the blog will offer -- from interviews with leading thinkers about civic media (including, so far, Ellen Hume and Ethan Zuckerman). In the future, we will also run reports on efforts in communities across the country and reports on existing and emerging technologies that might be deployed for civic purposes. We welcome tips about existing programs doing interesting work in this area.