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Sam Gregory replies to Douglas Rushkoff

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Sam Gregory

A colleague just shared with me a post by Craig Newmark of Craigslist (at http://mashable.com/2010/04/20/social-media-government-change/) which I thought was apposite as we think of the antecedents of blogging and informal (social) media:

"People have always used the "social media" of their time to effect change. Without belaboring history, consider that some of the most widely-felt changes in the Western world were made by "bloggers" using the technology of their day. Paul of Tarsus (St. Paul), wrote newsletters (epistles) that substantially influenced Christianity throughout the Mediterranean. Martin Luther brought church abuses to light and initiated the Protestant Reformation through his 95 updates (theses), and Thomas Paine spread his blog (printed pamphlets) about democracy to the masses in the ramp up to the American Revolution."

Similarly to this, rumours have always existed, and similarly photos and videos have always been staged and faked (think about the continuing controversy around the Robert Capa photo of the soldier as he is hit by the bullet during the Spanish civil war). One of the positives about an increasing visual media literacy that comes from more people knowing how to create visual media (because they can just do it on their cellphone or digital camera, or on their computer) is that there is an increasing critical literacy about images we look at and the power of selectivity/editing. And more people with the capacity to analyze, blog and share their views means more capacity to weed out the false videos - one of my colleagues looked at that in the case of some controversial footage from Sri Lanka in this blog: http://hub.witness.org/en/blog/should-you-believe-your-eyes-allegations-doctored-video-sri-lanka

Another trend is tools to draw on the power of the volume of information out there in positive ways - (Craig mentions some in the post above in terms of open government), tools like Ushahidi.com (used to map needs for humanitarian support in Haiti) can help us see multiple information points, including visual information points, and make transparent the range of information on an incident and the patterns. When we see fifteen different sources telling us the same thing, or allowing us to see the patterns and not have to rely on a single account, then we're using the power of multiple information sources to corroborate for ourselves. Perhaps one worry here is the lack of media literacy at a broad level for understanding these visualizations when our human tendency is to think in terms of single-track personal narratives?

There is a surreal nature to our some of the spontaneous solidarity that occurs on global human rights crises, particularly from afar and out of dander - when we join 'Support the Monks in Burma' on Facebook, or turn our Twitter icons green, there is a danger that we feel like that is enough. Just like Nathan I hope that our response online doesn't preclude our response offline, that our response online is equally effective as if we'd made the same effort on another action, or that it doesn't leave us with a feeling we've done something when in fact that feeling of satisfaction shouldn't have come that easily! I worry that we can vicariously take other people's suffering (which we can experience so directly through a YouTube video of the violent repression of a protest) and in our safe worlds of circulating, re-tweeting and sharing information, lose touch with the very direct, painful nature of what is happening on the ground - and how people's lives may well depend on how effective our reaction is, not just that we react at all. As a related concern that we've been looking at in some of our work at WITNESS (see for example our post at http://hub.witness.org/cameraseverywhere) - how do you think about the very real safety, re-victimization, unintended consequence and consent issues involved in our gathering, manipulating, remixing and recirculating of imagery of human rights crises, particularly if we don't act as truly 'ethical witnesses' and act upon the material.

posted February 2, 2010

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