Here at MIT, summer means time to dig into our research. A group of us at the Center for Future Civic Media is working on a white paper defining “civic media.” We are interested in how civic media is empowering new user-creators, with related effects on governing elites. Inspiring people to take action, through access to information and the public spotlight, is a familiar goal to those of us on the team who used to be journalists. We used to facilitate the agency of an isolated person or community to make the government act for justice or change. It often took elaborate work by someone to get our attention as journalists, but once they did, a lot could happen. Our ethic was to remain in the background, and avoid promoting any personal interest of our own in the matter.

Of course that’s the last century’s story. Few people seem to believe any more in the public-interest motives or practical utility of the elite professional journalism corps. Digital media technologies are disrupting the old source-journalist-politician relationships and offering exciting opportunities for our former sources to make their own home-brewed politics. As journalists struggle to figure out who will pay for their work, civic media is rising up everywhere, helping people not only to gather, analyze and distribute information, but more directly to convene various publics who stimulate policy-makers to act.

Blogs, smart phones, Google map mashups, YouTube amateur videos, open-source software, Internet web and social networking sites are famously changing everything. One can see how nodes of influence are developing in the blogosphere, for example, through patterns of connectivity mapped by John Kelly at Columbia University.

Yet most of the analytical work we see about civic media focuses on the impact of new technologies (or technological changes) on the business or broadcasting models of journalism or on the policy or legal issues. These are important topics but ones that don’t necessarily define civic media – or address what makes some media civic and how we might push media to deepen engagement and reinforce social contracts. These questions defy easy explanation, partly because civic media does not fit neatly into traditional notions of public media, nor is it merely ‘next generation’ journalism or random “user-generated content.”

Instead, we might define civic media as a combination of technology and practice that can inspire and enable an individual’s engagement in real and virtual communities. As Colleen Kaman, the white paper’s lead researcher and a former CNN journalist, observes, civic media “creates not only the ability but also perhaps even the responsibility to participate.”

Successful civic media invites collaboration, increases participation, and broadens the diversity of voices within and across channels. Better access to information can prompt and support individual and community action. Civic media is generative and scalable. It favors networks and builds consensus. If we define civic media this way, existing technology still can qualify. Civic media includes a wide range of traditional and new platforms and tools like the printing press-based newspaper, terrestrial radio station, ham radio and cell phone networks, social networks, wifi mesh networks, satellite radio and television, websites and Internet-based social networks, software for visualizing, analyzing and distributing data, and more.

In some cases, individual and community agency might also be built into a technology itself. To paraphrase our colleague Chris Csikszentmihalyi, imagine if we built media that’s intended more to meet the needs of engagement than to serve the ends of capitalism. We can design with a different set of goals, ones that enable and encourage community efforts and reward social obligations implicit in such communities.

As we work on this white paper, some of the questions we are thinking about include:

—What are the forms and functions that make some media “civic”?
—What are the civic media tools and opportunities that people should know about, in order to spur progress in their communities?
—At what points can those participating in civic media be held accountable, and to whom?
—What impacts do civic media have on the connection between information and activism?
—What is the role of expertise?
—Can or should some information be privileged so that verified facts matter more than rumors?
—Can we make media tools that are likely to lead people to take action?
—Can something be civic in one setting and not in another?
—What is the opposite of civic?

In addition to our white paper team, other graduate students working at the Center are creating new civic media tools and applications—such as handheld devices that can transfer content instantly through trusted mesh networks that avoid a centralized switching point, an online reporting and mapping project that helps a community celebrate its strengths, and an open-source voting tool that can easily be used on anyone’s website. Our approach, then, reflects the duality of our Center, which is itself a collaboration between different academic traditions at MIT – one known for inventing future technologies, the other for identifying the social potential of media change.

Eventually we will post our civic media white paper, a bibliography, some case studies and a list of some civic media examples on our new website, which also is being designed and built over the summer. It will, of course, all be “civic”—inviting participation in order to improve our analysis.

—Ellen Hume, with Colleen Kaman

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