I went to a cool panel on “Democratization of the Networked Public
Sphere” at the New School featuring Danah Boyd, Ethan Zuckerman and
Trebor Scholz. So many thought provoking ideas flying all around the
room, I was dizzy by the end. Ethan’s talk was closest to my heart, talking about the potential of
networked, remixed media to participate in political discourse in new
and powerful ways. But they were all really great.
More notes and comments after the jump…
Ethan Zuckerman is one of the co-founders of the amazing global blog aggregator Global Voices Online and former principal at the company Tripod. Ethan always has such an animated and grounded way of viewing the world that I find fascinating, often based on real world contacts with bloggers, activists and citizen journalists in far-flung places.
Ethan observed that activists around the world were using Web2.0 technologies as a form of political discourse. He played a YouTube video that came out last month, a clever mash-up of an old Apple ad with modern images of Hilary Clinton in support of Barack Obama’s campaign. Then he contrasted this with a video produced in 2004 by a Tunisian activist that used the same Apple ad to comment on the dictatorship of Ben Ali in that country.
He gave a number of other examples from around the world of net-powered activism:
- Bahraini citizens using Google Earth to compare the size of royal palaces to crowded villages.
- Filipinos taking a soundbite of the Philippine president talking about rigging the upcoming election and remixing it as a ring tone!
- Egyptian dissidents using Twitter to tell their supporters when they were being hauled off to jail.
Danah Boyd (School of Information, UC Berkeley and graduate fellow, Annenberg Center, USC) spoke about the new notions of “public” and “private” spaces online. She observed that we were losing any sense of public life, a space where you were exposed to people of differing views, backgrounds and experiences. Instead these online spaces isolate us into smaller groupings of people who are just like us.
People who have no access to public life don’t see a reason to engage in public life, I.e. to vote. And they aren’t exposed to people who aren’t like them, so they don’t learn about tolerance and understanding of other’s views. This is a problem for our democracy where the main public spaces are commercial.
Trebor Scolz (NY artist and scholar) put Web 2.0 into a socialist framework. He characterized the new economy as exploiting people’s free “labor” (i.e. contributing to MySpace, YouTube and Flickr) to benefit a very small number of megacorporations.
He cited the incredible statistic that ten websites are responsible for 40% of all web activity. According to Alexa.com those ten are:
- Microsoft Network (MSN)
- Windows Live
In addition, 12% of all time spent online in the US is spent on MySpace alone! These are commercial companies that own your content, can sell your data. He didn’t propose any answers to this situation, just noting that people should have more control over their own content, there should be more transparency about these issues, and that people should benefit more from all of these profits generated by these corporations from your content.
Personally, I am interested in how these new notions of “Public Sphere” will shake down during the 2008 Presidential elections. I would like to see these technologies used to help people make more informed choices, to engage more with each other in civic dialogue, and to participate in the planks of their parties in a more broad-based way. I certainly know enough e-activists trying to do just this in their own ways.
In this election, we may see “Politics 2.0” emerge, where the winner will be decided by the contendor best able to mobilize a base of support using these new technologies. They spoke of Reagan as the “telegenic” president. Will our next leader be the “webgenic” President? Or will there be a “Macaca Moment” for a front-runner, these technologies serving a spoiler effect rather than as a means of mobilization?
I don’t know, but I have my doubts and concerns.