Civic Media — digesting the White Paper

This semester I’m excited to be taking Henry Jenkins’s new Civic Media course at USC. As one of our first assignment, we’re reading a few of the recent white papers that focus on new directions in civic media. These included: The Center for Social Media’s Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics, The Knight Commission’s, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and the Media Consortium’s white paper, The Big Thaw: Charting A New Course for Journalism.

In true white paper fashion, these documents not only describe the phenomena (new directions in civic media), but also deliberately prescribe various actions to take (through efforts of policy, philanthropy, etc.). I found myself reacting to these position papers in various ways — as an academic, citizen, designer, etc. But after reflection, I found these various perspectives to be in dialogue with another identification — that of the frustrated media consumer.

We were asked to document our responses, and I’ve chosen to do it here in blog form in order to practice bridging the gap between my public and academic voices. This attention to voice felt apropos considering the ways that academic authors of white papers shift their register when reframing their ideas in relation to a particular policy position.

Before I delve into my reaction to the white papers, though, it might help to know a bit about the intellectual soup of ideas circulating for me during the first week of class. This week we looked at Clay Shirky’s blog post Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkablea classic post about the past and future of journalism and the nature of technological revolutions. Last week Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities also figured strongly, along with James Carey’s Communication as Culture. During our first day of class, we found intersections between these works by focusing on the practice of reading the newspaper as kind of civic ritual.

For Anderson, the newspaper functions similarly to literature in the way it calls forth an imagined community of readers and fictively traces connections between variously juxtaposed stories. The logic of calendrical coincidence is part of what binds this imagined community together. But the readership is also bound together through their shared identity as an implicit “us” addressed by the newspaper. Anderson sees the newspaper as “an ‘extreme form of the book, a book on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity… one-day best sellers?” (33). And Anderson describes the activity of reading the newspaper — borrowing from Hegel — as a mass ceremony in which the linkages between seemingly unconnected news stories form the backbone of a shared experience.

Carey goes further in describing this relationship between the dramatic role of storytelling and the ritual function of the newspaper. In particular, he underscores the ‘ritual’ features of the newspaper by opposing this interpretation to the more traditional ‘transmission’ model.

A ritual view of communication… view[s] reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.

Taking this ritual understanding of communication as a starting point, what kind of rituals do the white papers, then, advocate?

I think this is a valid question, because even if a particular policy position is couched in the language of a transmission model of communication, the reality — a la Carey — is that any form of civic media will also encourage particular ritual practices. So when interested parties aim to shape a new civic media future, they advocate for particular technological platforms, particular policy efforts, and particular philanthropy models, it’s important to think about what sort of rituals those structures will support and — likewise — what kind of new imagined publics they might call into being.

While Public Media 2.0 and The Big Thaw expressed a sensibility to what Clay Shirky reframes as the question of “saving society” rather than “saving newspapers,” they came across at times as fairly conservative on the question of whether to revisit the ideological work that the newspaper once performed.

Clark’s Public Media 2.0 provided a sophisticated description of our emerging techno-informational milieu and embraced a participatory model of news consumption, distribution, and contribution. But when it came to prescribing a particular ritual model for this civic participation, the paper seemed to rehash more familiar ideological territory where the news is primarily about exposing readers to alternative perspectives.

For both Public Media 2.0 and The Big Thaw there is a sense that what we’re going to lose when we see the decline of traditional news media is the newspapers’s role as the great civilizer. In this view, the news’s primary ritual role is that of information curation and “neutral” representation of the “contending forces in the world.” But does the newspaper’s imagined successor really need to play the role of neutral moderator? This may sound counter intuitive, but for some reason, that model feels a bit stale to me, and I’ll try to explain why.

I thought both white papers over stressed the threat of balkanization in online media. While I’ve raised questions about this premise elsewhere, even if we grant the argument about balkanization, it still seems uncertain to me whether future models of civic media needs to be concerned with serving as a training ground for the discourse of civil diplomacy. Instead, I would argue that there are alternative spaces (both virtual and physical) where this kind of ideological cross-fertilization is much more successful (such as off topic forum threads, for example). News consumers often criticize how civility and balance are distorted into a cookie-cutter model of “he said, she said” journalism where positions of competing interests are superficially given room to counter one another, but where actual analysis of the truth claims of the positions themselves is left up to the reader. The typical criticism here is that balance is actually a convenient pretext for avoiding the risks of conducting independent analysis. I’m concerned, then, that a over-stressing the threat of balkanization might result in more of the same timid “he said, she said” journalistic rituals.

The Big Thaw frames the question of balkanization interestingly by asking “Are balkanized communities an internet or human problem?” I would like to go further, though, to ask: is balkanization really a problem? Do we really need the news to play the kind of “civilizing” role that it currently imagines for itself? Carey seems to point to a tentative alternative by referencing John Dewey’s notion of ‘inquiry.’

What would a public ritual of inquiry look like? I’ve considered this question in an earlier post (where I draw on Maury Povich’s Who’s Your Daddy? television show as an example of how contested objects can serve as public spectacle). For now, I’ll just say that my intuition is that this notion of inquiry as public ritual would look like a sports match does to sports fans — where people have an immense investment in their own side, but even more respect for the methodological procedures that decide which team has won. Even though fans might dispute a referee’s call, they would never go about literally believing that one or another team won, when they didn’t. How might investigations into factual accuracy (like the kind that conducts) become a more participatory spectacle where the drama of competing forces in the world gets resolved through debates about the methodological norms of research?

In Public Media 2.0, the Jessica Clark raises interesting questions about how to measure success in the enabling of public life. “How do we know when a public has formed?”

New impact metrics might include: facts learned; conversations launched; mental frameworks changed; events held; policies proposed, endorsed, or challenged; videos shared; memes spawned; students involved; skills acquired; and submissions posted…. Do Media projects create a sense of trust and buy-in, making audiences feel as though they have a voice and can make a difference?

I would add to this list, that one sign that public life has been enabled might be that there are clear winners and losers in grand spectacles of inquiry, and that a larger public starts to have a shared vocabulary for articulating the methodological rules for inquiry itself.

According to Public Media 2.0, “The resulting platform would not be the only way or place for public media 2.0 to happen, but it would be a default location for engagement.” In other words, the methodological standards, normative work, and technological features of this default location would come to be accepted as social facts (in the same way that the outcome of a sports match is acknowledged as fact — even reluctantly).