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

In spring 2015, I ran a series of guest posts on this blog to celebrate the launch of The Civic Media Project website, which Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the Co-Directors of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab,  had developed in anticipation of their MIT Press book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice. Well, that book is finally out and in the world.

The new book includes essays by some of the key thinkers on contemporary media and politics, including W. Lance Bennett, Beth Simone Noveck, Beth Coleman, Renee Hobbes, Roman Gerodimos, Elizabeth Soep, Molly Sauter, Ceasar McDowell, and Joseph Kahne, among many others. My research team contributed an essay exploring superheroes, the civic imagination, and contemporary youth activism -- an extension of the argument we developed through By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism.  The book moves between conceptual statements about the current moment in the development of civic media and more focused case studies of projects in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s how Gordon and Milhailidis described their understanding of the concept of Civic Media:

Civic life is comprised of the attention and actions an individual devotes to a common good. Participating in a human rights rally, creating and sharing a video online about unfair labor practices, connecting with neighbors after a natural disaster: these are all civic actions wherein the actor seeks to benefit a perceived common good. But where and how civic life takes place, is an open question. The lines between the private and the public, the self-interested and the civic are blurring as digital cultures transform means and patterns of communication around the world.

As the definition of civic life is in flux, there is urgency in defining and questioning the mediated practices that compose it. Civic media are the mediated practices of designing, building, implementing or using digital tools to intervene in or participate in civic life.

This past summer, I had the privilege to spend time with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change. Paul has directed this summer program for the past decade and Eric regularly participates as part of the affiliated faculty, engaging students with both theoretical and design-focused workshops. This past year, they brought together undergraduate and graduate students from thirty different nations to reflect on the changing media landscape, to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms for fostering social change and political mobilization, and to put their emerging grasp of media literacy to work by collaborating to produce an online magazine, Move, which explored the current refuge crisis and global migration more generally. I was proud to be the keynote speaker at this program and to have my research group run a series of workshops and seminars with the students concerning our work on the civic imagination.

You might also want to check out this essay the two wrote for the current issue of the Journal of Digital Media Literacy dedicated to how we help students make the transition from voice to influence.

What became clear to me from my time with these two remarkable scholar-practitioners was how deep and original their thinking was about the future of civic media.  They both knew how to create a collaborative environment where original thinking and creative experimentation took place, and they both pushed everyone involved to dig deeper and question established thinking about the nature of civic engagement in a networked culture.

Returning to the book today, I am struck by the ways that its project is an extension or amplification of what they brought to the students during this summer program.  I can't wait to introduce this book to my students at USC; it provides resources that can help redefine how we teach civic and political life.

While we were there together, we hatched the plan to do an interview with Eric and Paul about the Civic Media book. Across the following three installments, we criss-cross the core themes that animate the book and suggest further developments in their thinking.

You begin the book with a core question: “What does civic engagement look like in a digital age?” I can imagine some traditionalists having issues with this formulation, since it assumes a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice. So, what’s the case for thinking about civic engagement through the lens of civic media more generally and digital media in particular?

We start the book with a question about appearances. What does civic engagement look like when people are connecting to their various communities online? When people gather in public squares or head to the voting booth, the meaning of such actions appear to be clear. They are civically engaging. But when people connect to each other via their phones or computers, independent of the reason or purpose of such connection, the actions might appear more like self-indulgent distractions than civic engagement.

So, at the start of the book, we don’t assume a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice; we actually assume a distortion in appearances, and we encourage a certain comfort with that distortion. From there, we seek to reframe civic engagement using the lens of civic media. Without claiming that civic engagement in democratic cultures is fundamentally different, we claim that when you expand the frame of civic engagement to include a myriad of practices previously ignored, the practice field of civic engagement changes. And, inevitably, as you expand the field of practice of any domain, you will slowly and empirically expand the definition of that domain.  

How are you defining “civic media” in this book? To what degree can we describe particular media platforms as “civic” as opposed to specific media practices? How do we decide that something is NOT civic media?

We define civic media as the “technologies, designs, and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good.” We offer this intentionally broad definition to accommodate what we see as a growing range of civic practices. And we hope that the term is generative, not restrictive – that it sparks the imagination about what it might include. But this isn’t simply a casual investigation.

There is urgency in defining the term, as there is danger of these emerging practices of civic engagement simply getting lumped into larger media trends, or on the flip side, getting written off as anomalies narrowly defined. The term civic media suggests an “acting with” as a means of achieving a common good. It is inclusive of the range of intentional actions that people take with and through technologies, designs, or practices (aka media).

As for what the term excludes: media with civic content that is passively consumed and media actively consumed that stands to benefit only the individual actor. So, on one hand we would likely exclude an effort like iCivics, which is a great example of classroom games with civics content for middle school kids, and we would exclude something like Pokemon Go, which is a highly interactive, place-based game, but playing it (at least as it most commonly used) stands to benefit only the individual actor.

In both cases, however, there can be emergent uses that would move them into the civic media category. There is something unique about civic media - not in the technologies or the tools themselves, but in the ways people are using them.

Some would argue that many of the core platforms of the web are profoundly anti-civic or non-civic (or at least anti-social) in their effects. You will find plenty of critics of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other sites in terms of damages done to civic life. Can we reconcile such critiques with the idea that at least some uses of these same technologies may actively contribute to civic engagement?

Absolutely. Tools facilitate actions. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are tools that can be used for a range of activities. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house and to knock someone over the head, social media can be used for mobilizing a social justice campaign and bullying a peer with hateful speech.

But, as Marshall McLuhan said, technologies are not valueless: their form has implicit or explicit meaning. For example, the design of Facebook values broad connectivity over intimacy. And while it might be used for intimate conversations, one could argue that the tool predisposes its users towards particular outcomes. Such is the case with civic media.

While tools are malleable and multi-functional, they do carry with them certain values that compel users towards particular outcomes. Consider the domain of civic technology. The tools designed and implemented by government are meant to facilitate or streamline government processes, from paying parking tickets to providing input on urban plans.

These tools are designed for particular purposes in particular contexts and while they can be misused or appropriated, the technology largely shapes social interaction. The category of civic media is inclusive of these single function technologies, but is not limited to them. It is not a descriptor of tools. Instead, it provides a context to analyze the intentional actions that people take with tools, designed or modified for civic outcomes.