Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part Two)

And finally, the last part of your title, “Social Media,” implies some model of how media change -- and the availability of new technological resources -- may be shaping what counts as citizenship and political discourse right now. So, what assumptions does your book make about the relationship between new media technologies and political empowerment?


MR: We think the book actually calls up both the possibilities and the problems with social media as a site for political action. The ‘problems’ of course include private ownership of platforms, popularity echo-chamber (filter bubble), lack of public accountability – any of these factors can change at any moment, of course. But in terms of possibilities, one examines increased freedom for connectivity, ‘routing around’ traditional media outlets and systems--all of which poses some challenge to government control and censorship and makes for complex terrain. Readers will find in the collection examples of both good and ill without being either socially or technologically determinist.


While we were motivated to organize the conference and edit this book based on our significantly optimistic or politically hopeful trajectories, promises, and accomplishments already achieved through creative social media uses, the chapters aptly capture what can rightly be termed “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Readers will note Ron Deibert’s Foreword, marked by his serious warnings about the end of the free and open internet as we know it.  Further, essays such as Jenson’s on the limits of creative production in school contexts, essays on surveillance practices as outlined by McPhail et al, and Bissonette’s critique of TV news formats such as iReport represent, on this continuum, the more pessimistic view.


Some of the examples discussed throughout the work probably would be most often described as “citizen journalism.”  What roles do you see citizens playing in shaping the informational resources available to their communities? 


MB: Part IV of our book, “DIY Media: Redistributing Authority and Sources in News Media” includes a diverse array of perspectives on the roles citizens play in shaping and distributing information in new media landscapes.  Having been researching for over ten years the motivations and practices of those who produce what I term “digital dissent” or alternative media for the web 2.0 environment, it is clear that people are hungry for trusted sources, for interlocutors who can help “filter” or “make sense of” information produced by traditional authorities. People’s hunger for trusted sources runs parallel to the increased capacities and possibilities to produce alternative interpretations given the new media landscapes and modes of access to expression and dissemination.


Citizens, people, users of the world wide web, increasingly make it part of their daily lives and work to create, shape and share information with their communities.  It is now widely recognized that news is consumed predominantly via mediated platforms like FB where “friends” have pre-selected, in a sense vetted and culled, news or information believed worthy of recommending and spreading.  Given the information saturation and inundation of the information economy, understandably people require signposts and directions for making choices regarding sources.


Frustrations with traditional news media coverage after September 11, 2001 catalyzed everyday citizens to become media makers and producers of digital dissent.  I term ‘digital dissent producers’ those who elected to produce blogs, videos, or engage in public expression specifically to contest corporate-owned media and its often predictable agenda-setting, point of view, choice of content, and use of sources. The shifting understandings of truth or what we have come to identify as “sense making” is especially apparent in the challenges to the authority of traditional news sources and the rise in citizen journalism that has corresponded with crises of public faith in traditional news authorities. The crises of faith with respect to news institutions is closely related to the quite real crises and public skepticism towards electoral political sphere and traditional social and state institutions ranging from news to schools, government to democracy.


Regarding alternative media, Chris Atton emphasizes the importance of alternative media reflecting the  “practices of decentralized, directly-democratic, self-managed, and reflexive ‘networks in the everyday’.” The Chapters included in this section outline diverse kinds of alternative news-making or interventions , ranging from the production of feminist ‘zines (which pre-date so-called Web 2.0 capacities; Reitsamer and Zobl), to DIY experimentation with technologies and “vox pop” rituals aptly illustrating critical making (McVeigh-Schultz).  With a bit less optimism, other chapters analyse the blurry lines between amateur/professional “alternative” interventions such as the controversy sparked by KONY 2012 Campaign (Meikle), the ongoing agenda-setting influence of powerful media institutions (Ananny) and in his chapter on CNN’s iReport, Bissonette argues that “Citizen journalism remains tilted towards commercial gain, not democratic discourse.”

We are witnessing a seachange in how information is currated through what might be called a 'remix' traditional/institutional sources and filters, intermixed with personal/networked sources and filters. The effect is a (still inudating) number of differing entry points, pathways of information, be those a combination of platforms (from Reddit to Facebook to Twitter) that facilitate information, crowd-sourced or other "trusted filter"significantly determining directions and pathways. And of course, all of his moves alongside the invisible politics of ranking performed by the algorithms of Google, for example.

Indeed, the whistleblowing events brought about by Assange, Manning, and Snowden are not only related to the technological crises surrounding surveillance and privacy, but truth and propaganda and their function within the information economy.  And it’s crucial to point out that in both instances, Assange and Snowden partnered with and used traditional, established news organizations (the Guardian and the New York Times).



For the past decade, it’s been a cliché that young people learn more about contemporary social concerns through entertainment sources, including “fake news” programs, than through traditional journalism. Megan, you’ve done extensive research into this space. So, what is your current sense of the ways people use the Daily Show and other such programs in relation to more traditional forms of journalism? What do you see as the strengths and limits of the kind of civic knowledge that emerges from these sources?


MB: The October, 2010 Rally for Sanity and/or Fear organized by Stewart and Colbert  in Washington D.C. drew nearly half a million people from all across North America, (“Woodstock with the Clothes on”, as one attendee described it to us), demonstrating that those long accused of being slacktivists and couch potatoes are in essence a standing reserve of political and cultural criticality.  Following years of questionable scholarship asserting such claims as the “cynicism effect”--that viewing The Daily Show may result in decreased civic engagement such as electoral voting--this monumental rally demonstrated indubitably that viewers of so-called “fake news” are at the ready to be mobilized and called into action.


A recent and ongoing sign of the power of satire as a news format are the increasing number of popular “fake news” shows found even in some of the most repressive governmental regimes, such as Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef’s show Al Bernameg, now in Season 3 following the events of 2011.


There can be little doubt that satirists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and independent video producers around the world are taking action daily and dissenting from mainstream media agendas.  What matters is that dissenting voices are being aired through increasingly broad and multiformat channels. Corporate-owned news and papers of record are being forced to watch their step by the 24/7 surveillance of a vibrant public demanding accountability. 

All of this raises interesting points regarding the ways in which "fake news" can be conflated with entertainment, and then -- as noted in your question -- is turned into a cliche, about young people as disengaged -- of course there are distinctions to be made between different forms of popular cultural entertainment and how they do or don't cultivate a critical sensibility towards political institutions and practices.  The comedians may claim to be only interested in the laugh. But those who watch, think critically, and take numerous forms of action do come away each night with renewed political convictions--not least of which is to question a news media that too often fails in its responsibility to speak truth to power


Megan Boler is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at:

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.