It’s hard not to get all fangirl when going to the Media Lab. I mean, I used to read about this place in issues of Wired back before they adopted rational typography!
We all got brief presentations on three projects at different stages of development. One, Virtual Gaza, took eyewitness testimonies from people living in Gaza and overlaid them on a Google Virtual Earth layer. Another, called Between the Bars, was a still-in-concept-phase project that would enable the publishing of letters from prison on the Net. A third researcher reported on discussions with the city of Boston on the potential for using SMS to distribute information on domestic violence prevention.
So many online media projects are about a single question: “what happens when you increase the messaging capacity?” Wikipedia, for example, answers the question, “what if an encylopedia had many thousands of editors and contributors?” Many citizen-media projects ask the question, “What if stories were not limited by the messaging capacity of a newsroom? (After all, an individual reporter with limited time can only call so many sources, right?).
But these projects had more in common than simply increasing messaging capacity — they were about increasing that capacity in places where news does not reach, and in places that were “hot” — politically hot, socially hot, war-zone hot.
When I started my own experiments in citizen media, I also gravitated toward a place where messaging capacity was low — I started a site for a suburb of Boston that was indifferently covered by the nearby regional daily, and covered well-enough by the local weekly — but still had no real online community.
But it wasn’t “hot.” There was little crime in my town; it was and is about as far from a war zone as you can get. There were also few truly “hot” political issues, and I can think of only two or three times where I held a story because I wasn’t able to confirm it and I worried that publishing something that might turn out to be untrue would have a significant impact on anyone.
By contrast, the “heat” of the environments and topics chosen by the participants in the Media Lab group meant that the messages sent could have real weight. A false story from Gaza could amount to propaganda; publishing letters from prison might have all sorts of consequences, as could messages to and from anyone in a home where domestic violence is an issue. At the same time, when silence prevails, that has its own consequences, both political and personal.
The visit also made me reflect on what’s considered valuable in journalism. A lot is made of the courage to go to hot places — war zones, stories where a reporter or his employer might face legal action or even arrest.
Turns out that we might be able to get to hot places even from the very, very cool web.