How can we come together as one, strengthen grassroots action, hold leaders accountable and do all the other things we want to do with the new power we have acquired through our electronic networks, when we cannot even get a consensus on essential words defining our practices? What is the difference between citizen journalism, social media, community media, participatory journalism, and civic media? These are just a few names of the wide variety of new terms indicating something 'new' is happening in the way the average man can contribute to public debate. The big problem however, is our collective problem of structuring this debate into something valuable. The terms mentioned above are a clear example of the problem surrounding social media practices. Without a clear overview of the basic agreements in the field, we can never reach the potential of our joint effort to reclaim a strong voice in the public debate. In order to produce an alternative sound to corporate interests being protected by corporate media, a certain level of organization and efficiency is required within the realm of civic media. A consensus on terms used in this realm is a first step in this direction.
Adding another overview of all the different terms and fields within participatory media would probably just ad up to the pile of circulating overviews. Therefore I have decided to stick to terminology used by a well established institute in the field; the MIT school for Future Civic Media. They offer a way to structure my thinking on different forms of civic media and will hopefully be embraced by everyone else interested in the field. This seems to be the only then to start using the same words for the same things and finally start to build a solid base to strengthen all initiatives.
The Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM) is probably the best known research institute involved specifically in civic media studies. It bridges two well established programs at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). The ‘MIT Media lab’ is known for inventing alternate technical possibilities and the ‘MIT comparative Media Studies Program’ works on identifying the cultural and social implications of media change. The center main purpose is innovating civic media tools and practices and testing them in communities. Their use of the term ‘civic media’ refers to any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among the area’s residents. According to Professor Henry Jenkins of the C4FCM, ‘Civic media helps provide people with the skills they need to process, evaluate, and act upon knowledge in circulation and insures a diversity of inputs and mutual respect necessary for democratic deliberation’. Another leading figure in theorizing on civic media is the more Africa-oriented Ethan Zuckerman, who is founder of the Global Voices blog and member of the Berkman center for internet and society at Harvard Law School. The challenge for civic media, according to him, is the need for democracy to be more than a special event that takes place once a year but to reform it into an everyday activity.
From the central term of civic media we can create nodes that signify different strategies within civic media. For example, one strategy is to engage people in the production and reporting of news; within this strategy we can identify citizen journalist, bloggers and commentators, all of who contribute in audio, video or written reports to produce a massive body of information as a possible alternative or addition to the established and traditional information providers. Another form of civic media could be defined as organizational or mobilizing civic media where horizontal communication and networking facilitate civilians in taking on- and off-line action. Activists are increasingly using new media to organize protests or demonstrations. Social-networking sites can act as platforms to create alliances and discuss mutual goals and actions. Good examples of this include the demonstrations organized in Seattle through Indymedia and globally orchestrated action by online social movements like Avaaz. In 2009, mass demonstrations were organized in Iran with the help of Facebook and Twitter. Under the umbrella term of civic media, sub-categories like reporting civic media and mobilizing civic media act as but a few ways of engaging citizens in information gathering, distribution and consequent action.
In this post, I do not intend to present a genealogy of civic media on which many people can comment with their objections and additions. I think it is important for people with an interest in the field to stick to some basics that will lead us to a more mature and effective way of thinking about civic media. Influential institutes like the C4FCM could help by filtering out some of the academic details which feeds the jungle of sub-categories within civic media and create some basic outlines through which the growing collective of bloggers, journalists, organizers and other new media practitioners can identify themselves.