Archive for April 2007
I find them interesting partly because they do the usual stuff well – make information about elected officials available, help people write to their elected official – but mainly because they do a few newer things, things that are not as integral to the informatio-and-transmission-oriented ways in which we have developed online communication.
* They develop tools for peer-to-peer politics, like Pledgebank, helping people commit to common projects, and Neighbourhood Fix-It that help people locate, discuss, and perhaps deal with, practical local problems like pot holes and the like. Both have a nice action-orientation that can operate independently of the state and organized politics. Both can of course also be turned towards more traditional movements or party politics.
* They help people publicize their reasons for, for instance, non-voting. Check out NotApathetic, a site that contains everything from the pathetic, over the obvious (I didn’t vote because I’m only 17), to interesting, nuanced explanations of how some people felt disenchanted and disenfranschised even on the eve of the ’05 UK election. And debate of those reasons and the platform on which the debate took place too.
Oh, by the way, wouldn’t they have been even lovelier if they where called ‘ourSociety’? Anyway, good, interesting work.
For the Danish-readers out there: I took up the gauntlet thrown by Nikolai Thyssen of Information. Have a look here. I’ll provide a short summary in English later, to boil it down in the extreme, Thyssen doubts the value of the debate that takes place on newspaper sites, I argue they offer readers an outlet for a form of media critique that may not be very valuable for the professional observer, but does publicize the concerns of those active, and gives them an opportunity to slug it out with other actives over questions of bias, factual errors, and what have you. In other words, my basic observation is that commentaries are admittedly not the acme of the media of tomorrow, but still represents a chance for those who want to not only be part of (as readers), but play a small part in (as writers) a mass media site. To be continued…
I went to the above-named event at the New School Friday night, and have been shooting emails left and right since then with questions…
Trebor Scholz raised a question that from my vantage point can be reformulated as: how would it be possible to identify the distinction between participation and exploitation on the basis of what people contribute to one process, event, or organization? When are you working to make a difference, when are you working for someone else? This is obviously very important if one is to assess the potential of participatory political campaigns, where the pro and pols’ urge to control has to find a way of co-existing with the less calculated jolts and spouts of activism.
Trebor argued that seen through an updated understanding of work as self-creating performances, a lot of social networking is a something-for-nothing deal, where site-owners make money out of participants’ creative contributions. I have asked him a couple of questions about what would follow from this if one accepts his point, you can see the questions here.
In a sense, the question I send to Ethan Zuckerman is even more fundamental to my interests in participatory politics. Take the context of the United States, and think about the examples of networked politics – recent citizens’ contributions include the 1984-Hilary video and McCain vs. McCain undressing him for his ‘straight-talk’ slogan. Both have attracted a lot of attention. Both are activist initiatives. Both are prime examples of the crowdsourcing of negative campaigning, and the one thing we know about negative campaigning is that it drives people away, make them not take part, not vote, not care. Maybe we are looking at a paradox, more citizens ‘negative’ participation will feed the spiral of cynicism and discontent, and breed less participation…? I asked Ethan for examples of ‘positive’ participation through social media, and he named perennial favorite MoveOn.org, a good example. I would add the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign too – but those seem to be outliers, and especially MoveOn an outlier structured around resistance, not a positive project. On his suggestion, I have forwarded my question to David Weinberger and Dan Gillmor, and hope to return with input from them. While I wait, and think, this cute little video from an Obama meetup in New York will hold up the beacon of hope for a positive participatory politics. It is all volunteer made, every second of it.
Went to NYU’s Center for Communication for a talk inappropriately named ‘Voicing Your Opinion’. Should have been entitled ‘Voicing Their Opinion’. The one blogger and activist invited, Matt Stoller, didn’t show, and the rest of the panel consisted of traditional journalists, at length praising the value of having op-ed columnists, pundits, various spokespersons and officials, and the like populating op-ed pages (on paper or pixels) and going through the motions of a debate they have nothing but their vanity and maybe the difference between a well-paid and an excessively well-paid job at stake in.
Don’t get me wrong, both the speakers and the people they praise are smart. But when Tunku Varadarajan, former op-ed page editor from the Wall Street Journal could simply note in a side-comment that the Journal only prints 2-3 of the 1000-2000 unsolicited letters it receives every week without anyone in the panel reacting or considering even for a second what that says about what the event description called “a powerful forum for public discourse”, you begin to wonder. Perhaps the copy editor just garbled a sentence that should have read “A forum for publicized discourse between powerful people”? Ongoing research of my own suggests something akin to a 1:4 ratio of formal representatives relative to citizens on the letters pages of Danish papers, the Journal, if Varadarajan is right, has something akin to a 23:1 or 35:1 ratio between solicited and unsolicited letters. No big surprise, perhaps, but still, that’s some forum.
Most of the kind comments the panel had to offer for participatory media (they be citizen’s use of new or old media) where defined by a classic journalistic instinct to insist on the professionals’ right to define not only the terms of the conversation, but also the topic, length, and just about everything else you can come to think of. So for these, and, it seems fair to speculate, many other employees at prestigious news outlets, participation is good insofar as it supplements journalism as it is – if it aims to make a difference, effect a change, then it is out of order. Mainstream professional journalism has grown comfortable with ‘news you can use’, probably because it maintains the sender/receiver separation that their profession is based on, but still seems oblivious to the idea of ‘media you can use’.
Here is a quote attributed to a campaign manager: “Why is it better to have more people participating if their level of interest is so low that they can’t even get off their butts to get a stamp and write Washington? Are their opinions really valuable if they can’t afford 33 cents for the opinion? If they will blubber in front of the local TV cameras but not be bothered to actually vote?”
There seems to be some proto-protestant self-flagellation involved in the argument, ‘it has to be hard before it can be good’. I wonder whether this particular campaign manager think we should go back to oral voting anno circa-eighteen hundred, and reduce the number of polls so people can really demonstrate that they care by spending days on trekking back and forth before they earn the right to express their opinion. The printing press and the secret ballot really made it far too easy for all those coach potatoes to express their opinion… It is hard to accept that technological changes making it easier to vote, contact your representatives, and organize politically are somehow in themselves bad, or that the activity they engender are somehow illegitimate relative to ‘good, old, hard work’. It is not exactly as if we have too much engagement.
I needed to make that rather pedestrian point after having finished ‘Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship: The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy’, an interesting article by Philip N. Howard, a communications scholar from the University of Washington. The quote is from his fieldwork (on page 3, since you ask). He is undoubtedly right to point out how political campaigns, both from parties, political action committees, and social movements, use sophisticated narrowcasting and polling techniques to mobilize small and precisely delineated publics around the specific issues these particular citizens, and those who fund the campaign in question, care about.
This more fine-grained and information-directed approach to mobilization and participation makes up the ‘deeper’ part of his title. But Howard appears critical of the development, worried by what for him as for many others (Cass Sunstein and his Republic.Com springs to mind) looks like a tendency towards fragmentation of what he seems to think was at some point an integrated and ‘general’ public. His worries over a ‘thinner’ citizenship, “thinner in terms of the ease in which people can become politically expressive without being substantively engaged”. I share his interest in the question of when someone can be said to be ‘substantively engaged’, but the notion that partisan mobilization does not constitute such engagement puzzles me. I wonder how mobilization in the tradition of Jacksonian democracy, trade union activism, or religious organization would fare under his critical gaze? And whether we should really think of the era of three strikingly similar TV-networks, a newspaper monopoly for every town, and a highly stratified mass society as a better setting for democratic politics? I would have pointed the barbed comments towards the idea of ‘political consumption’, or ‘life politics’.
But anyway, his article is interesting, and definitely worth a look. I will move on to his book ‘New Media Campaigns and The Managed Citizen’ one of these days, it looks interesting too.