What is Civic Media?

Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007
5 - 7 p.m.
Bartos Theater


In Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam wrote about a generation of Americans cut off from traditional forms of community life and civic engagement, passive consumers of mass media. But others have noted the expansion of participatory cultures and virtual communities on the web, the growth of blogs, podcasts, and other forms of citizen journalism, the rise of new kinds of social affiliations within virtual worlds. What lessons can we learn from these online worlds that will make an impact in the communities where we work, sleep, and vote? What new technologies and practices offer us the best chance of revitalizing civic engagement? This forum marks the launch of the new MIT Center for Future Civic Media, a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program and is the first in a series of events designed to focus attention on the relationship between emerging media and civic engagement. The center has been funded by a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation. Its directors will be Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Mitchel Resnick of the Media Lab and Henry Jenkins of CMS.


Chris Csikszentmihalyi is Muriel R. Cooper Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Laboratory where he directs the Computing Culture group.

Henry Jenkins is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. He is the author of several books on various aspects of media and popular culture including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

Beth Noveck is professor of law at New York Law School where she directs the Institute for Information Law & Policy. She is the founder and organizer of the State of Play conferences, an annual event on virtual worlds research. 

Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School, and co-founder of Global Voices. He is a founder of Geekcorps and is currently working on Global Attention Profiles, which gives graphical portraits of where different media sources are focusing their attention.

Co-sponsors: MIT Comparative Media Studies and the MIT Media Lab.


A podcast of What Is Civic Media? is now available from Comparative Media Studies.


A webcast of What Is Civic Media? is now available from MIT World.


By Greg Peverill-Conti

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

This is the first in a series of Forums that will highlight the activities of the new Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4FCM), a collaboration between MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies and the MIT Media Lab. 

Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, co-director of the new center, offered a broad definition of the term “civic media.”  He illustrated his argument with a series of images drawn from American and global popular culture.  The first image was a black and white photograph of a group of men standing together reading the newspaper and appearing to be in conversation.  The second was of a group of Japanese women taking pictures with their cell phones.  Jenkins asked which of these two groups appeared to be engaged in civic interactions.  Newspapers and males signal politics in some traditional sense, Jenkins, said.  But the women in the second photo may also be using media to connect for social, civic, communal purposes.  The content and context of an image influence what we think.  For example, what are the women photographing? are they connecting their content back to some shared community?

For Jenkins, “civic media” can describe any use of a medium that fosters civic engagement.  It is important to understand “medium” to mean the social practices or protocols that define its cultural uses as well as the technologies that enable it.

Jenkins next went on to discuss the definition of democracy.  He did so with images – illustrations from the Revolution, Norman Rockwell paintings, scenes from Frank Capra movies, etc.  He pointed out that in many cases our contemporary definitions of democracy have retro elements.  So how, he asked, do we define democracy as we think about the future?  One of the goals for the C4FCM is to get people to think about democracy in creative ways.

Turning his attention to the idea of civic engagement, Jenkins used two images to illustrate possible definitions.  Using a photograph of a bowling ally, he cited Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, as providing a view of a time gone by when communities would come together and engage with one another. Television, Putnam argues, is the opposite because it makes people less engaged. This view assumes that TV is a solitary activity and that entertainment can't be the basis for civic engagement. 

Jenkins disagreed with these assumptions, pointing out  TV has been a shared activity and that the bowling alley as a communications medium may provide an opportunity for civic engagement  

With these examples in mind, Jenkins asked what we should make of non-traditional communities?  For example, in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft the various guilds demonstrate a nascent civic engagement – but ones built around communities of interest rather than location.  This assumed dichotomy between real and imagined communities needs to be considered critically.  For example, Benedict Anderson has written about imagined communities that have an understood set of social obligations and a sense of shared values.  Conversely, while newspapers are often viewed as being communal, they, too, represent an imagined community because no one reader will meet all of their fellow readers.

Another reason to rethink the relationship between real and created communities comes from the rise of the diasporic experience.  People displaced by Hurricane Katrina, for example, can use technology to share local concerns and connections beyond the bounds of their current geography. Technologies are allowing for the creation of new kinds of communities of interest – but the imagined community isn't new at all.  As an example, Jenkins pointed to the London coffee houses of the 18th century that were often patronized not by those living nearby but by those with a shared interest – literature, politics, etc.

Jenkins went on to provide examples of the blending of communities of interest and local communities.  The "meetup" is one, as is Flickr, which uses the shared interest in photography and encourages people to find each other by location. In some cases this blending can lead to new forms of localization and activism. The broad media enabled by technology are allowing local content to gain national exposure, which in turn may lead to the creation of new communities and channels for communication. 

Who's involved in civic media, Jenkins asked?  The bloggers, high school journalists, ethnic news sources, those participating in transgenerational activities (shared digital experiences) – can all  form the basis for civic engagement.  The challenge, in Jenkins' eyes, is the need for democracy to be more than a special event that takes place once a year.  It needs to become an everyday challenge and activity; and everyone needs to be asking what are the technologies that will help create this sense of engagement?

Chris Csikszentmihalyi

Chris Csikszentmihalyi began by providing details on the Center and its mission. His hope is that it will serve as a meeting point for community, journalism and technology. The overall goal of the Center is to develop new technologies and social systems.

He referenced Jenkins' description of TV as a communal activity. He pointed out that if he took his television out onto Somerville Street, two things would happen – it would be too small to have much of an impact and the local property value would go down.  We can't, he explained, get hung up on the specifics of a technology because they tend to get used in strange, unusual and unexpected ways. He cited Bruno Latour's view that technology is society made durable and his own view that all technology has political overtones – winners and losers. 

Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that one will never lose money selling a product that empowers the individual but that technology designed for the individual often does not benefit civic society.  He also explained that people who claim that technology is neutral have typically zoomed out so far that the relationship between the individual, society and the technology are lost. He used the argument that while it may be accurate to say that either a gun or a toothbrush can be used to kill, but this theoretical accuracy is so abstract that it loses credibility.

He next went on to further explore two themes – the popularity of individual technology and the secondary or unintended uses or effects of technology. It's much easier, he said, to sell to the individual (an iPod) than to groups (public transportation).  A leaf blower, he explained, can be used to clear one's driveway, put a hole in the Ozone layer or wake one's neighbors.

Product designers and developers also tend to design with themselves (or specific markets) in mind; and, as a result, ignore secondary or unintended applications of their products. The Hummer, for example, is portrayed as safe; but it is bad for the planet, other drivers, etc. He lamented the fact that we keep developing technology that doesn't support civic engagement.

But it isn't just about supporting civic engagement in general - he believes we need to encourage specific types of engagement and offered a number of examples:

FUH2 A site for posting anti-Hummer imagery;

The Melrose Mirror – An intergenerational newspaper that is filling a community need;

Computer Clubhouse – Which provides access to technology; and

Selectricity – For creating and conducting online elections.

Beth Noveck

Beth Noveck offered her own definition of civic media.  According to her, the current assumption is that the media plays a central role in helping foster independent public discussion, checking the government and promoting accountability. She suggested that it may be time to reinvent our conception of the media.

According to Noveck, the deliberative role of the media - and of enhancing or furthering democracy itself - has failed. Reasoned discourse has not led to meaningful civic participation. Harkening back to Putnam's example of the bowling league, she pointed out that participation does not necessarily shift the balance of power.

Civic engagement and conversation do not translate into participation; and talking among neighbors doesn't impact the way government works. The problem is that  community activities don't scale – in part because the technology hasn't been there. Another aspect of the problem is that the issues we face often require a deeper set of knowledge than most people have.  This lack of power has been reinforced by deliberative thinking and the view of the individual as a consumer rather than as a creator of media.  This led her to question whether the public would best be served by a professional or distributed press.  She pointed to OhMyNews and Newsassignment of examples of distributed reporting outside the traditional boundaries of the press.

As this trend continues – fueled largely by technology – she sees it fulfilling de Tocqueville's belief that for active engagement to occur people need to have access to information and the tools for decision making.  This led Noveck to ask: what does civic, rather than deliberative, media look like?  Ultimately it means recasting our conceptualization of the First Amendment to be not simply about talking about talk but also talking about action.  Democracy needs to become about more than voting every four years; it needs to become an everyday lifestyle.

Accomplishing this goal will require building bridges between Web 2.0 technology and the institutions of power so that people can be connected and take action.  This kind of connection will require new models that allow us to work with new open sources of information.  These models are not yet defined or understood.  We also need to imagine new ways for this information to be put to work.  For example, she described using technology to identify potential “hot zones” before they flare up, or to develop new models of accountability.  This new civic media isn't characterized by everyone talking all of the time but by tapping into the wisdom of the community.  Finally, Noveck pointed out that we need to determine what works and what doesn't. Peer production offers many benefits but it does not work in all cases.

She went on to provide additional examples of civic media in action:

Peer to patent – which applies the diverse expertise of the community to encourage conversations around the appropriateness of patents and whether exclusivity should, in fact, be granted in all cases;

Sense.us – which provides tools for analyzing census data and provides a means for connecting information, expertise and power;

Democracy Island (in Second Life) – which demonstrates the important role that enthusiasm plays in making civic media work; and

Smartvote.ch – A Swiss site that allows voters to uncover their own assumptions and points of view and to see how they match those of candidates

All of these examples, and hundreds more, are intended to help break government logjams by exposing problems and issues; and by giving people the tools not only to share information but also to do something with it.  The potential for civic media is to foster a new conversation around the first amendment, one focused on doing, not just talking; on making government more accountable through technologies that connect people, information, ideas and power.

Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman began by apologizing for not having a Robert Putnam or bowling reference in his deck.  In his world, though, the world of Global Voices, bowling means cricket which is very different.  This illustrates what Zuckerman sees as a key point – that when you take a technology or concept out of context the results can be very different.  Here in the US,  according to Zuckerman, when we think about citizens media, we often start our history with Howard Dean; and civic media is basically about white guys screaming. 

The key moment for blogging in the developing world occurred a little earlier, in 2001, with Salam Pax .  Written by an Iraqi architect, Salam Pax provided practical details on life in Iraq and personal information on himself.  Zuckerman pointed to the blog as an example of bridge blogging that challenges traditional assumptions about various parts of the world.

Another example of a bridge blog is Mahmood's Den . Written by an entrepreneur in Bahrain, the blog again offers insights that challenge our views of the Gulf region.  On his blog, Mahmood explains that his goal is “to dispel the image that Muslims and Arabs suffer from - mostly by our own doing I have to say - in the rest of the world. I am no missionary and don’t want to be. I run several internet websites that are geared to do just that, create a better understanding that we’re not all nuts hell-bent on world destruction.”  Mahmood's explanation describes why many people get involved with bridge blogging – they want to make sure that their nation and their culture are being represented online.

Over time, Zuckerman realized that bridge blogging was really only a small part of what was happening.  His guide to what else was happening – to a large part – was Manal and Alaa - two Egyptian bloggers. According to Zuckerman, Alaa runs a blogging platform used by many in Egypt, including many in the Kefaya (Enough) movement – a broad movement opposed to Egyptian President Mubarak.  Alaa and his friends found themselves creating an alternative to the mainstream Egyptian press.  This was because no matter how large a protest might occur, they never appeared on the news.  So Alaa had not only to organize the protests, but also their coverage.  At one rally, Alaa was arrested and spent three months in prison.  This was far longer than those arrested with him, perhaps because (thanks to his wife Manal) Alaa continued to blog from prison.  While this may have resulted in a longer time in jail, it also resulted in far more attention on what was happening to him and in Egypt than would otherwise have been possible.

Alaa and his associates also illustrate the “action, not words,” aspect of civic media mentioned by the previous panelists. In one case Zuckerman described a man was arrested and by using Twitter, Alaa and others were able to notify people of the arrest and of the route the police were taking to the station.  Crowds quickly gathered on the route and ended up stopping the police and securing the man's release.

Zuckerman pointed out that citizen media /citizen journalism tends to work best in moderately repressive nations, not so well in highly repressive ones and only to a limited degree in countries with little or no repression.  At the Berkman Center, they are tracking which countries control what people can see, say and do online; and, not surprisingly, limits are most prevalent in countries that also place controls on the traditional media.  He also pointed out that businesses are in on censorship and used Microsoft Spaces as an example – which would not allow the registration of the blog, “Ilovefreedomofspeechhumanrightsanddemocracy” in China, suggesting that a title be used that did not include prohibited language.

Zuckerman explained that the level on online censorship in a country is equal to the level of offline censorship multiplied by the level of Internet adoption.  He pointed out that this illustrates the need for Civic Media – especially in the developing world – to be more than the Internet. SMS is playing a huge role in monitoring governments and other systems of power and sharing information.  For example, mobile phones were used successfully in Ghana to expose voting irregularities.

All of these examples aside, if one looks at what media is being consumed it is coming from the regions one might expect – North America, Western Europe, China, etc.  Convincing people to pay attention to other nations and cultures is about more than just translation.  For people to develop an understanding they need language, context and attention; but even then, when you put the tools for creating content into new hands, the outcomes will not be predictable.

For Zuckerman this is not an optimistic story but he is optimistic about the potential for Civic Media in the developing world.


QUESTION: How will the C4FCM balance social media (talking) with constructive media (doing) and are you going to be looking at anonymity and reputation?

NOVECK: Both points are good for reflection; she shares the view that there is a need for constructive media.  As a lawyer, she believes that the goal of problem solving and social justice is best served by a combination of technology, law and policy.  The goal of this project needs to be about designing for communities rather than designing for individuals.  The technologies behind media – either social or constructive – can't simply be viewed as technologies but also need to be put into a social context.

Beth Noveck and Henry Jenkins

JENKINS: In terms of the C4FCM, both sides, constructive and social – are part of what we believe civic media is; the definition he provided at the start of the panel, was purposefully broad so that it could include both what is being considered at CMS and at the Media Lab.

QUESTION: I'm starting to feel a sense of blog fatigue – stories were slashdotted and misinformation was spread; and as the speed of deliberation increases, what can we do to make civic media civil? 

ZUCKERMAN: I have created a number of guides on blogging anonymously; he's hoping that someone from information theory can prove that misinformation spreads faster than good information. Unfortunately, this is the reality so we have to deal with it. The degree of connectivity means that you have to accept that bad information happens.

JENKINS: The same distortion occurs through the traditional media as well – but reduced to soundbytes and without a means of response.

CSIKSZENTMIHALYI:  Keep the faith.

QUESTION: Have you ever heard of ePetitions and how does that fit into what you are talking about?  Do governments pay attention? 

[The questioner clarified his question by explaining he was referring to a site offered by the British government that allows people to raise issues and to which the government will respond if there are enough people asking.]

NOVECK: I am aware of ePetitions but still do not feel that it is a tool for affecting change.  In fact, in some ways it distracts people from really thinking of solutions by limiting them to expressing opinions rather than sharing information or taking action.

QUESTION: Why is the fact that most media comes from the developed world a bad thing?  Do we need to be involved in the weeds of politics in Madagascar? 

ZUCKERMAN: The Rudy Giuliani answer is 9/11; it changed our view of globalization and demonstrated the interconnectedness and has led to the realization that many previously overlooked regions and issues are actually having an impact on the wider world. 

CSIKSZENTMIHALY: The goal is to game new technology so they can help with civic engagement rather than harming it. Doing that requires observing  technology in multiple environments to understand their potentials and limitations.

QUESTION:  There is a problem with the way the conversation is being framed – consumers vs. citizens; businesses vs. governments – while the fact is that business has greater power over people than government and there are fewer ways to affect change – we can't just focus on the governments. 

CSIKSZENTMIHALYI: Producers of technology are producing things that are in their own interest – Apache is a counter example of a technology with civic goals in mind. 

NOVECK: A good point – a very complicated question - “who is government?”  The problem is that there are no real tools for institutional change – either in government or in the private sector.

QUESTION: There are many people that aren't tied into technology – there are people who aren't connected.  How do you expect them to participate in civic media?

ZUCKERMAN: There do need to be approaches to solving communications disparities or disconnects. 

JENKINS: Most of the gaps are really about social skills and comfort and there are many ways to combine technical skills with ideas and information.  The transgenerational Melrose Mirror is one example and the Center is focused on helping close the participation gap.

QUESTION: It sounds like one measure of the success of civic media is the ability of a community to access the levers of power; but it also involves the creation of group identity and enthusiasm and willingness to act based on information and group identity. 


NOVECK: There are tools that make it easier for us to come together in action.  The ends don't always need to be “political,” we can work together to do anything and do it as community.  As soon as we accomplish something in the world we become powerful. 

CSIKSZENTMIHALYI: The US is unique in having local papers – we have this idea of journalism and neutrality – but that is something that many people have trouble with, especially as individuals begin contributing content.  You can see this in the slow pace that content is contributed to Wikinews.