One of our goals at the Center for Future Civic Media is to identify best practices from existing projects which might inform those initiatives which will emerge from the Center. We want to understand how people out there are using the tools available to them right now to enhance civic awareness, to play informal watchdog functions within the culture, to call attention to problems and force governments and other institutions to respond, to skirt around censorship and other kinds of regulation over communication, and so forth.

We are looking at a range of different models — from serious games to programs to support an independent student press. We’ve done interviews; we’ve brought speakers to our lab meetings; we are hosting public forums — such as one to be held later this week at MIT featuring Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein, two of the best contemporary thinkers about the prospects of digital democracy.

Last week, on my personal blog and on the Future Civic Media Blog we’ve been featuring an interview with Sam Gregory, Program Director at Witness, a human rights organization founded by Peter Gabriel in the late 1980s, designed to put cameras into the hands of everyday people around the world so that they can document abuses by authorities. The organization emerged in the aftermath of the Rodney King video, which had sparked much greater public awareness of police brutality in the United States, and the hope was to create what Gregory refers to as a “participatory panopticon,” as the wide spread availability of media production tools and the expansion of a distribution network for digital video makes it possible for people to record and transmit their own experiences of abuse.

Those who might be seen as victims in one context are taking media in their own hands. I met Gregory during a recent DIY Media event at USC where he spoke about the decisions his organization faced between circulating these videos via a site like YouTube and creating their own web portal, The Hub, to create a better context for people to encounter human rights videos. What follows are a few highlights from this exchange, but to get the full account, I encourage you to follow links back to our blog.

Over the past fifteen years, a number of factors came to characterize the WITNESS approach. We focus on the empowered voices of those who are closer or closest to rights violations – including victims, survivors, community members and engaged advocates on behalf of affected communities. And until recently we’ve generally sought to use “smart narrowcasting” rather than “broadcasting” to reach key audiences…. Our work has also always blurred the line between amateurs and professionals in terms of using video -we are training human rights workers, and now concerned citizens, to use video as an everyday facet of their work, rather than to turn them into documentary film-makers….

We’ve seen a progressive expansion of the participatory possibilities of video: first, increased access to cameras, the increased access to editing capacity, then the dramatic growth of online video-sharing for distribution. And in the past three years we see the possibilities for increased collaboration in editing and production, for online distribution, and for more immediate and widespread filming – all facilitated by a digitally-literate youth, by mobile technology with still image and video capability and by new online tools….

If the emergence of a more robust participatory culture allows more video to be produced and circulate, it doesn’t necessarily insure that the video is read through an activist lens. Along the way, Witness discovered that some of its earliest assumptions about the transparency of video as a vehicle to awaken consciousness of human rights violations might not make sense in this new communication context. They have gradually been perfecting new rhetorical strategies and new forms of activism to support the needs of the human rights community:

Trying to use the video as evidence frequently does not work. The rules of evidence are hard to navigate. And even if the evidence is admitted, we need only see how the Rodney King footage was flipped around and manipulated both to prove that the Los Angeles Police Department officers were following the training they had been provided to deal with a resisting suspect, and to demonstrate the grotesque abuse of power evident in the fifty-six strikes delivered on Rodney King….

So what this boiled down for us – alongside some re-thinking on audience —- was the need for framing and narrative to create effective advocacy videos. This framing can come both within the video and in the way it is presented within a campaign. Rather than relying on the ‘visual evidence’ in and of itself, you have to place this in a rhetorical framework that explains it, and offers ways to act. Seeing may be believing, but it may also lead to pessimism, and compassion fatigue in the absence of opportunities to act. We’re not promoting a journalistic model of studious neutrality – our experience is that marginalized voices are excluded enough, without the need to balance their voices in a one-for-one ratio to the voices of authority or perpetrators. So most advocacy videos do have a point-of-view and an outcome in mind, but the best do this with clear respect for the facts of the situation….

One of the biggest challenges the group faces is to YouTube or not to YouTube. That is, they want to know whether they should circulate their materials through general interest spaces for video sharing, thus putting them in competition with enetertainment content, or whether they should create their own space where human rights videos can be shared and discussed:

Now as human rights video circulate increasingly unmoored from its original location – i.e. embedded, shared, remixed – it becomes key to place context and ways to act within the video and imagery itself rather than outside it since no sooner has your video been forwarded from YouTube, the Hub or elsewhere it becomes de-coupled from options to act unless those are built into the video itself, and unless your message comes through loud and clear….

The Hub, WITNESS’ most recent project tries to address what’s missing in the online media sharing ecosystem for human rights activists. It’s in Beta at the moment, and launched on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2007. In our first four months of quiet beta, we’ve had in the region of five million views of media, and going on eight hundred items of media uploaded.

It’s envisioned as the human rights channel for the online community, as a place where anyone can upload human rights-related footage, share it with others and self-organize into affinity groups, comment on material there, and most importantly access online tools for action, and guidance on how to turn their video into compelling advocacy material. It places a strong emphasis on security both for the uploader and for those filmed, on providing contextualization for imagery wherever possible, and also seeks to provide normative leadership around the impacts of participatory media creation and distribution in oppressive contexts. For me, that option to act is critical. There’s nothing worse from the activists’ point-of-view than risking your life to film a piece of footage, and to then to have that experience dismissed. From the viewer’s point-of-view there’s nothing worse than being exposed to scenes of misery, and to have no way to take action. It’s deeply draining and de-motivating for people to watch and not be able to act, it misses the opportunity to engage support, and it contributes to the compassion fatigue that we all already experience.

We’re not in favor of walled gardens, and to create something like that would be to waste so much of the potential of the networked online environment. So why not just use YouTube? (or Daily Motion? LiveLeak? etc.). In fact, many of the videos on the Hub have also been placed by activists on YouTube (it is possible to use YouTube or any other commercial or non-commercial site to host content, and then embed it on the Hub), and in many cases we can see real value in drawing on the mass public reached by YouTube.The power of YouTube is that it is increasingly becoming the most prominent platform (at least in the global North, and for English-language media) for video online – although finding an appropriate human rights video can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

From an advocacy perspective, we can see how IF a video achieves either prominent placement, or takes off virally on YouTube it can take off in terms of public prominence. Similarly for many non-governmental advocacy organizations that are trying to engage a general public either with a single video or via a channel, YouTube is likely to be the first place that public will look. And we also recognize that YouTube is a pushing-out point for footage that finds homes in many other subculture-specific media systems, including human rights, where it is embedded and re-contextualized

These issues are going to be confronted by any group which wants to use web based video for civic purposes. The USC conference has sparked considerable debate in the blogosphere about what Youtube is good for and what it’s limitations may be as a marketplace of ideas. The Gregory interview is part of a series of such exchanges through my blog, alongside an earlier exchange with Alex Juhasz, a media scholar, activist, and independent filmmaker, who has been a sharp critic of the pedagogical value of YouTube.