Eric Gordon: Public Life in Dark Times
Hannah Arendt characterized a moment after World War II, when much of Europe and the world were reeling from unfathomable destruction and the discovery of the moral depths to which humans could stoop, as dark times. These dark times were not just the result of the remarkable acts of evil doers, but the culminating impact of the banal ways people encountered the world. As Arendt put it, “nothing in our time is more dubious than our attitude toward the world” (2013: p. 3). The world is not a set of physical conditions, or even some lofty abstraction of society; the world is what sits between individuals as a precondition for interaction. It’s the composition of everyday life, or what Arendt would call “public space.” Public space is not a grouping of people, or even some unified interest towards which to strive. It is the possibility space between people, where ideas can emerge, encounters can be had, and beginnings can be set into motion. Arendt’s deepest concern in that mid-twentieth century moment was not the realization that extraordinary evil exists, but rather that public space was being squeezed out by greater connectivity, responsiveness, rationality and efficiency.
Today, with the rise of nationalist politics, and the widespread questioning of the institutions that have historically governed public life, Arendt’s ominous warning of dark times feels deeply prescient. Big data and smart tech are transforming urban landscapes and compelling public sector institutions to place efficiency above all else; and media organizations are proliferating and pumping out content at unprecedented speeds, all while struggling to maintain their legitimacy as they contend with parallel attacks of fake news and social exclusion. Government and the media are the mediators of public space, but in their renewed promise to connect people and things, people and ideas, and people and people, ever faster and more efficiently, they are designing away potentiality and emergent possibilities that thrive in public. This leads to a deeply important question: when institutions are invested in perpetuating an ethos of radical autonomy and endless individual choices to be shared in networks of others with like minds, what becomes of the public? Networks, particularly those aided by artificial intelligence, that force likeness over difference, connection over proximity, answers over questions, can lead to distrust of the institutions that organize them. Arendt warns that distrust leads the individual to ”shift from the world and its public space to an interior life, or else simply to ignore that world in favor of an imaginary world ‘as it ought to be’ or as it once upon a time had been” (1995: p. 19). No doubt there are good reasons for turning one’s back on publics and the institutions that mediate them, not least of which is the historical misrepresentation or exclusion seen in media companies, governments, and NGOs. And while this turning away may be justified and even necessary, the implications are profound. “Those who reject [public life] as part of a hostile world,” warns Arendt, “may feel wonderfully superior to the world, but their superiority is then truly no longer of this world; it is the superiority of a more or less well-equipped cloud-cuckoo land” (1995: p. 18).
As networked life proliferates through disaffected groups who reject the institutions and by extension the public life they mediate, the result is not necessarily a more robust public discourse, but a bunching of cloud-cuckoo lands that find satisfaction in spaces of overlap. Participation in a digital culture is not the same as public life. And it’s important that scholars, activists and practitioners are able to separate the two. Participation is the accumulation of individuals or groups in shared real or virtual space; public life are the conditions that enable those individuals and groups to create new beginnings that have the potential to persist Choosing to turn towards public life as opposed to retreating from it, requires trust, a resource that is growing increasingly scarce.
A recent study from Pew has shown that trust in the United States federal government is at an all time low. The marketing firm Edelman releases a “trust index” every year. Their 2018 report shows trust in a range of institutions globally (from local government to media) stabilizing after a rapid downturn in 2017 (Edelman, 2018). The main exception is in the United States, where trust dropped 23% - the biggest drop in the 17 years they have conducted the survey. Individuals do not trust in institutions as much as they once did. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, the reasons vary from individual bad actors to corrupt institutions. With Russian hacking into political process in the US and elsewhere and a rise in strongman politicians around the globe regularly questioning the legitimacy of the press when it disagrees with them, there is good reason for active citizens to question the intentions of the faceless institutions that mediate public life.
Beyond global politics, trust in institutions is negotiated everyday in small, seemingly insignificant ways. When an underperforming organization adopts technology to enhance its output, people begin to trust in that organization’s ability to do its job (Harding, et. al. 2015). When a city updates its website to enhance usability, or when online payments are streamlined, better user experience typically results in higher trust (Porembescu, 2016). But, when a city installs kiosks that capture IP addresses of passers by without any input from residents, or when black box algorithms determine what news content you see on your browser, the absence of process can have the opposite impact. As organizations adopt efficient processes to “win” back trust of their constituents, the opposite effect can be triggered. Efficiency, in the sense of charting a path to a goal with the least amount of friction, can be at odds with the goal of building trust in the institutions that mediate public life. In general, civic organizations seek a balance between transactional and relational models of getting things done. And when these get thrown off balance, the organization is challenged. But as new digital tools compel organizations towards the transactional, and as publics grow increasingly distrustful of the role of civic institutions broadly, there is need now more than ever to address this lopsidedness.
I am interested in those practices that challenge the normative applications of “smart technologies” in order to build or repair trust with publics. In my upcoming book with Gabriel Mugar (to be published by Oxford University Press), we take a close look at a growing group of practitioners that are typically working for civic organizations and actively questioning the assumptions presented by new and emerging technologies. These people range from journalists, to community organizers, to public servants. They embrace a practice we call “meaningful inefficiencies,” or the deliberate design of less efficient over more efficient means of achieving some ends, in order to structure and support public life. My recently published white paper in collaboration with the University of Oregon documents how “engagement journalists” are pushing up against journalistic conventions by spending time on relationship building, even if it challenges traditional notions of truth and objectivity. In the book, we look well beyond journalists to a range of civic organizations that are employing these often unrecognized “civic designers.” They are technologists, communication specialists, producers, and organizers, all of whom are doing the work of thoughtfully, and often quietly, innovating the shape of public life.
For the last ten years, those of us interested in the emerging digital culture and its progressive implications have celebrated novelty, creativity and participation, but have given short shrift to matters of infrastructure. It is my hope that in this conversation, we can explore the relationship between the front end and back end of public space, acknowledge the complexity of dark times, and question how to support the building and maintenance of public life.
Arendt, H. (1995). Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Arendt, H. (2013). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Edelman (2018). Trust Barometer - 2018 Annual Global Study. Retrieved from
Harding, M., Knowles, B., Davies, N., & Rouncefield, M. (2015). HCI, Civic Engagement
& Trust. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems - CHI ’15, 2833–2842.
Porumbescu, G. (2016). Linking public sector social media and e-government website
use to trust in government. Government Information Quarterly, 33(2), 291–304.
Zuckerman, E. (2018). “Four Problems for News and Democracy.” Trust, Media and
Stuart Cunningham and David Craig: The cultural progressivity of civic-minded creators
In Social Media Entertainment (NYUP 2019), we mapped the contours and dimensions of this new cultural industry as operating with distinction from established media industries globally, whether Hollywood, Bollywood, or Nollywood. In addition to the vital differences between the features and affordances of digital and social media platforms, we focus on the rise of vast array of powerful cultural producers in this industry, which we refer to as creators, although alternatively described as vloggers, influencers, youtubers, gameplayers, or livestreamers. While sharing some practices comparable to media talent, creators are also social media entrepreneurs who harness social media platforms to aggregate and engage their online communities for cultural and commercial value. Creators have emerged globally, including China where creators, known as wang hong, KOLs, and zhubo, using Chinese-owned and state-protected platforms have become central to the accelerated rise of their digital economy.
As cultural producers, creators are helping to surface new forms of media culture (Kellner 2011) that “shape our view of the world and our deepest values”; however, creators may not be simply analogized to traditional celebrities - byproducts of a larger structurally-determined media system comprised of media studios and networks, agencies and talent managers, marketers and publicists. Rather, the creative labor, management, and entrepreneurialism of creators are framed by their discursive appeals to community and authenticity within what Banet Weiser calls “brand culture” (2012). Creators blur the boundaries between the authentic and the commodity self that offers the “possibility for individual resistance and corporate hegemony simultaneously” (p. 12). While creators navigate the global scale and iterative evolution of social media platforms and manage a portfolio of business models and revenue streams on, across, and off platforms, they are also engaging in what Baym (2015) refers to a forms of “relational labor” through a suite of strategic and iteratively-evolving social media practices across diverse platforms in which claims to authenticity are tested continuously in a call-and-response rhetorical field.
In advancing our understanding of this new screen ecology across platforms, creators, and intermediary firms and organizations, we also evidenced new forms and practices of mediated civic engagement. Contrasted against legacy media, we found vastly more diverse and multicultural representational practices. In the first wave of creators who helped vitally shape creator content, commercialization, and community practices, we found Asian-Americans over-indexed relative to their presence in established Western media. While we are celebrating the “ground-breaking” success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, for over a decade, creators like Liza Koshy, Wong Fu Productions, the Fung Brothers, Ryan Higa, Michelle Phan, Markiplier, Zach King, David Choi, Natalie Tran, and more have been the category leaders across diverse verticals (personality, DIY, gameplay, comedy, music) and platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat). Deemed the most successful creator in the world by Forbes in 2017, Lilly Singh, aka Superwoman II, a Canadian-Indian bisexual woman has not only secured a massive global fan communities through her self-representative content and interactivity, but converted her appeals to these communities into diverse and lucrative revenue streams, including host of an NBC late night talk show. While these creators may not deliver “explicit appeals to social realities: (Lopez, 2016), they nonetheless represent more diverse representational practices than witnessed previously, practices that border on cultural diplomacy and declare the arrival of a more diverse mediated cultural politics. In our interview with Philip Wang, one of the creators in Wong Fu Productions, he affirmed that while Asian American representation was not their core purpose, “we take our responsibility seriously.”
In addition to multicultural representation, we also witnessed what we call an “activist trajectory” by creators who have built their SME brand through appeals to other marginalized, subcultural, and alternative online communities. Like Asians and Asian-Americans, queer creators over-indexed in the first wave of creators including Hannah Hart, Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen, Gigi Gorgeous, Kat Blaque, and more. These creators more often represented far greater diversity and intersectionality than witnessed in legacy media. Moreover, depending on when creators came out, whether upon arrival online or mid-career to millions of fan members and with an established commercial brand at stake, these creators have often progressed towards more explicit appeals to civic-minded politics and activism. These appeals and the representational power of these queer creators have been recognized by the various organizations and outlets within the LGBTQ social movement. See the recognition of LGBTQ creators by the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD Media, the Trevor Project, and The Advocate which describes the “YouTube Revolution”.
Evidence of a civic-minded creator practice dates back to the earliest years of SME. For over a decade, Hank and John Green, aka Vlogbrothers, have partnered with their self-named fan community, Nerdfighters, to launch Project for Awesome, an annual online fundraiser in support of progressive and social causes that have raised millions. Similarly, Let’s Play gameplayer Markiplier has engaged his communities in support of cause-based advocacy around LGBTQ rights, homeless youth, and more. With the launch of #LoveArmy, prominent Snapchat creator Jerome Jarre has partnered with other creators and traditional media celebrities to conduct interventions dedicated to addressing some of most dire global humanitarian crises from Somalian famine sufferers to Rohingyan refugees. If admittedly a form of corporate diplomacy, YouTube has framed, funded, and promoted the work of civic-minded creators in their Creators for Change program.
For years, civic-minded creators have engaged in explicit political, partisan, if more often, progressive practices. In 2014, President Obama met with creators to encourage them to convince 20-somethings to sign up for the Affordable Care Act that proved vital to meeting legislative quotas. The 2016 U.S. Presidential elections featured a wave of creator-driven political activity, as we described in this op-ed. Compared to MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, the Vlogbrothers launched a 54-video “How to Vote” series that tapped their Nerdfighter community over 10 million strong. Queer beauty vlogger and Clairol glambassador, Ingrid Nilson, broadcast interviews with President Obama and the candidates while airing livestreamed YouTube videos from both political conventions. Casey Neistat’s appealed for creators to come out against Trump and for Clinton, which the BBC deemed “YouTube suicide”. Along with numerous other creators, Neistat would encourage his community to attend the Women’s March and airport protests in response to President Trump’s immigration policies. Civic-minded creators like Philip DeFranco have been cited by the Parkland teenagers who have proven remarkable skilled at harnessing social media to advocate for gun control.
Through their discursive appeals to authenticity and community, creators have been able to aggregate and engage massive online communities who share their interests, ideology, identity, values, and affinities. These practices have, first and foremost, created the means for creators to engage in both traditional and social entrepreneurialism for profit. The global scale and access of these platforms have contributed to a vastly more diverse and multicultural creator class of cultural producers. While the scale of these platforms evidence every conceivable form of civic-oriented practice by creators across the political spectrum, we have been encouraged these progressive creators. If the results from the U.S. midterms are any indication, these creators may be fueling the rise of the most progressive generation in decades.
Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. In addition to Social Media Entertainment, which he co-authored with David Craig, Cunningham has authored over a dozen academic titles including Media Economics (Terry Flew, Adam Swift), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (Jon Silver), Hidden innovation: Policy, industry and the creative sector.
Eric Gordon is professor of civic media and the director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. His research focuses on the transformation of public life and governance in digital culture. He has served as an expert advisor for local and national governments, as well as NGOs around the world, designing responsive processes that encourage play, delight, and deliberation. He is the author of two books about media and cities and, most recently, is the editor of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (MIT Press, 2016). His book Meaningful Inefficiencies: How Designers are Transforming Civic Life by Creating Opportunities to Care is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
David Craig is a Clinical Associate Professor at USC Annenberg and a Fellow in the Peabody Media Center. Along with Stuart Cunningham, Craig co-authored Social Media Entertainment along with over a dozen journal articles and book chapters. Craig is a veteran Hollywood producer responsible for over 30 projects that garnered over 75 Emmy, Peabody, and Golden Globe nominations and awards.