The Center for Future Civic Media is collaborating with the MIT Communications Forum to host an ongoing series of conversations about media and civic engagement. This past term, we hosted two such exchanges —- “Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” an exchange between University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge) and Harvard University law professor Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) and “Youth and Civic Engagement” with University of Washington political science professor Lance Bennett, actvist Alan Khazei (Be the Change), and our own Ingeborg Endter (formerly with the Computer Clubhouse project, now a key player at the Center for Future Civic Media.) These events are now available on audiocast: you can find “Our World Digitized” here and “Youth and Civic Engagement“ here. What follows are some personal reflections on a theme touched upon in the first exchange and explored more deeply in the second — the relationship of popular culture to civic engagement.

Despite its title, the goal of the Benkler/Sunstein exchange was not to sort through which of us was “the good, the bad, or the ugly” or even to present a debate between an Internet critic and an advocate. My own sense is that both Sunstein and Benkler have more complex, more multivalent perspectives on contemporary digital culture than is generally acknowledged. I know that both writers are ones I regularly teach in my classes and both raise questions which we need to address if we are to develop a sophisticated understanding of how and why civic engagement operates in the digital era. Our discussion was far reaching and defies easy description or summary here. You will have to listen to it yourself.

Near the end of the session, one of my graduate students, Lana Schwartz (bless her soul!), asked a question about how popular media and participatory culture fit into their ongoing discussion about the state of American democracy. Neither speaker was fully prepared to address this question, though Sunstein showed in the process a previously unsuspected enthusiasm for Lost. As a moderator, I had not felt it was my place to introduce my own perspectives on this question so I wanted to take advantage of this space to spell out a bit more about why I think Sunstein should pay more attention to the way popular culture gets discussed on the web.

A core premise running through Sunstein’s two most recent books, Republic.com and Infotopia is this concern that despite or perhaps even because of the dramatic expansion of the information environment brought about by the introduction of the web, most of us are accessing a much narrower range of opinion than previous generations in part because of our tendency to filter out news that is not personally interesting to us, in part because many of the forums we frequent do not have strong mechanisms for insuring diversity of perspective, and in part because such groups tend to develop very firm yet polarizing consensus over time which further narrows what gets said. I first read Sunstein’s argument when I was asked to be a respondent to his article, “The Daily Me,” for Boston Review.

At the time, I wrote:

Sunstein assumes that we join virtual communities primarily on the basis of ideological identifications. Yet, many, if not most, Net discussion groups are not defined along party affiliations but rather around other kinds of shared interests—hobbies or fandoms, for example—which frequently cut across political lines. The fact that you and I both watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer may or may not mean that we share the same views on gun control. Many ideological questions may surface in such contexts: aviation buffs debate the naming of an airport after Ronald Reagan, the fans of a particular soap opera debate the moral choices made by a character. Sometimes these exchanges produce flame wars, sometimes mutual understanding. Still, they bring together people who would have had little or no prior contact and thus constitute contexts where more diverse opinions can be heard. We should not underestimate such exchanges by maintaining a crisp separation of political dialogue from other kinds of social interaction.

Then as now, I find Sunstein’s argument most convincing when he is speaking about those communities which are defined explicitly around political communication, i.e. the kinds of communities that law professors are most likely to spend time studying. Yet, they seem to break down as we move towards other kinds of communities, such as the fan communities which I most often explore.

While ideological perspectives certainly play a role in defining our interests as fans and media consumers, they are only one factor among others. So, we may watch a program which we find entertaining but sometimes ideologically challenging to us: I know conservatives who watched The West Wing and laugh at The Daily Show; I know liberals who enjoy 24 even if they might disagree about the viability of torture as a response to global terrorism. Television content provides a “common culture” which often bridges between other partisan divides within the culture, even in the context of culture war discourses which use taste in popular media as a wedge issue to drive us apart.

So, a fan group online is apt to be far more diverse in its perspectives than a group defined around, say, a political candidate or a social issue. This is not to suggest that fan communities do not form firm consensus perspectives which block some other ideas from being heard, but they form them around different axis — such as desired sets of romantic partnerships between characters — which may or may not reflect ideological schisms. There may be rich discussions, then, about the philosophy of education which should rule at Hogwarts, just not on which character constitutes the most appropriate life partner for Harry Potter.

At the same time, the nature of popular culture means that it continually raises social, political, and ethical issues; popular media projects something of our hopes and fears and as such, it provides us a context for talking through our values. Research for example shows that fans of reality television shows spend more time talking about ethical issues than trying to predict the outcomes. Indeed, on a fan discussion group, there is an active desire for diversity of background and perspective to sustain the conversation and allow all participants to get new insights which refreshes their relationship with the series. In some cases, the community is engaged in a collective activity of problem solving, as in the case of the Survivor spoilers I discussed in Convergence Culture or for that matter, the various groups online trying to figure out the mysteries of Lost.

In many cases, these groups are seeking to make predictions which have, in the end, right or wrong answers: someone’s going to win Survivor; someday, we hope, we will know what’s really going on on that island. As such, they split around competing theories, often adopting perspectives which are adversarial in the same sense that a court of law is adversarial: competing sides contest each claim made in the hopes of getting closer to the truth. Such communities, thus, have mechanisms built into them that insure that competing truth claims get heard and that the relationship between them get played out at a fairly deep level. Many of these mechanisms look very much like the solutions which Sunstein proposed for insularity and polarity in Infotopia, but they are being applied to less “serious matters.”

Again, though, we can’t assume that no important civic discussions take place here. Consider, for example, the representation of an American political campaign depicted in the final season of The West Wing, which was depicted as a contest between Alan Alda as a thoughtful maverick Republican (closely model on John McCain) and Jimmy Smitts as a minority candidate who refuses to play old style race politics (modeled on Barack Obama). In the course of the season, both fictional candidates rehearsed themes, issues, and rhetorical styles which were designed to play to a “purple America” and were intended to be a utopian alternative to the 2004 campaign cycle. More and more, it looks like this fictional campaign was in fact a rehearsal for our current presidential season and that the program, in effect, market tested a range of new ways of framing the relationship between the two parties. Surely, we have to see such a process as deeply bound up with our contemporary understanding of civic engagement. The program both educated us about core civic concerns and gave us a new framework for thinking about what a good candidate might look like. And because the program was watched by people from all ideological stripes, it offered a context for a bi-partisan or “post-partisan” exchange at the same time we were incapable of talking to our neighbors about politics in the real world.

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

And this brings us to the second of the MIT Communication Forum events on youth and civic engagement. For me, one of the most exciting development of the past year has been watching the dramatic increase in youth participation in the Democratic and Republican primaries, seeing so many young people vote for the first time. Our speaker, W. Lance Bennett, edited an important new collection of essays for the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning and Youth series at the MIT Press, which is essentially reading for anyone who wants to understand what current research tells us about young people’s civic lives online. You can read the book for free online.

In his introduction to that book, Bennett outlines conflicting claims about young people’s relations to civic life: one which sees them as apathetic, ill-informed, and disinterested because they tend to shy away from traditional civic organizations, tend to get news from nontraditional sources, and tend to be skeptical if not cynical about the claims made by political leaders. The other sees strong signs that their experience as media producers and participants in online communities, are giving them a much greater sense of empowerment, creating a stronger sense of shared social responsibilities, and are leading them to feel more comfortable speaking out about what they believe in. Bennett argues that those who want to get young people more involved in the political process, including the designers of future civic media or the developers of school curriculum about politics, need to spend more time studying the kinds of civic lives young people do find engaging and examining the language which speaks to this generation.

Bennett notes that most campaigns spend little time addressing young people’s concerns because they are seen as a hard to reach demographic which rarely makes a difference in elections. We will see whether these patterns hold, given the amount of attention now being paid for the centrality of the youth vote to the Obama campaign. As we look back through the aftermath of the current campaign season, we will certainly want to think long and hard about what impact YouTube parodies, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert had on young people’s engagement and participation in this election and will want to pay attention to how each of the major candidates have tapped into references to these shows as a way of reaching young voters.

For further reflections on this point, check out this video which Otis College posted of a recent public conversation between Stephen Duncombe and myself about youth, popular culture, and the current campaign season.

So, what does popular culture have to do with civic media? More than many law professors might assume…