Knight News Challenge Winners Conference
By Sanjeev Chatterjee on the Road
Center for Future Civic Media
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
June 11, 2008
Today I attended the opening session of the Knight News Challenge Winners Conference being held at the Center for Future Civic Media at M.I.T. The conference opened with remarks from Ellen Hume who serves as Research Director at the Center, followed by brief comments by Knight Foundation President and C.E.O. Alberto Ibarguen and Center for Future Civic Media Co-Director Chris Csikszentmihalyi.
The opening roundtable, moderated by Henry Jenkins, one of three co-directors of the Center, focused on the Future of Civic Media. The other participants were Jay Rosen from N.Y.U, Lisa Williams of Placeblogger and Dan Gillmor from the Knight-Kauffman Center. While the discussion focused on technology and civic engagement, it was quite refreshing to find the drift of the conversation to be about the primacy of engagement and not technology.
Although the session was not designed for direct participation in the conversation, technology was constantly used to allow the audience to pose questions and push them into the discussion using a new platform developed at M.I.T. called backcha.nl. Several attendees were Twittering from the session and a compilation can be found if you search #futurecivic on tweetscan.com
Henry Jenkins’ opening remarks drew in the crowd convincingly. He talked about how the use of technology in civic engagement was not only about information transmission but also about creating a collective identity. Jenkins is interested in provoking people to think about the future civic media in new ways.
Jay Rosen spoke about the age-old role of journalism as a way to open up the political system for participation by plenty of people.
Lisa Williams brought in the fact that while technology helps brilliant reporting, good reporting often gets stumped by good spin that uses the same technology to counter the impact of powerful stories.
Gillmor spoke about the rapid evolution of news and the necessity of looking at the news the audience’s personal connection to the news.
The panel concluded that ultimately, engaging civic media was a challenge of creating a “citizen’s assignment desk,” and to be successful there needed to be a sense of connection and passion to the larger narrative or strong cause for which people are willing to expand their efforts to do the small jobs required to complete and sustain civic engagement online. The panel also determined that while ownership of any civic engagement by all participants was extremely important, too often content generators for civic causes often felt exploited and discontinued their participation.
Referring to a quote by John Dewey, Rosen said we have shared problems and one can attempt to solve these problems by either reporting them to superiors or by trying to address the problems personally. He felt that we were at a point in time when politically “we are in a curve of rising participation.”
While Gillmor appreciates the investments made by granting agencies like the Knight Foundation in supporting civic media, he pointed out that the amounts being invested in the civic domain might be similar perhaps to the rounding errors in the commercial realm of venture capitalists. However, he said, the good news is that highly motivated young people all over the world seem to have the required passion to experiment with civic media and engagement.
Following the roundtable attendees had a chance to mill around and have a fairly informal dinner together. This was also an occasion to try out the electronic nametags for the conference designed by nTags. The tags are capable of communication with each other and are a convenient way of exchanging information, conducting polls, taking notes and more.
Following dinner, many civic media projects currently underway at M.I.T. were on display, presented by graduate students who developed them. Projects included ways to map social media networks and analyze the use of keywords to using technology to empower communities being exploited by companies that buy mineral rights from under them. Other projects on display help create telephone and web based communities for youth and another one that triangulates technology, storytelling and civic engagement to create empathy.
Today’s activities highlighted the challenge of harnessing the power of technology for civic engagement. Here at the Center for Future Civic Media the focus is on the social and cultural aspects of the problem that are being addressed through technological experimentation.