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May 30 2013

11:00

Activist Campaign Successfully Targets Facebook's Advertisers

Last week I wrote up the #FBrape campaign's strategy: to hold Facebook accountable for the misogynistic content of its users by pressuring advertisers. Only seven days after the open letter was published, Marne Levine, Facebook's VP of Global Publicy Policy, published a response agreeing to the campaign's demands to better train the company's moderators, improve reporting processes, and hold offending users more accountable for the content they publish.

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The campaigners say they generated 5,000 emails to advertisers, and convinced Nissan to pull its advertising from the platform. This is great initial traction for a social media advocacy campaign, but it represents a miniscule percentage of Facebook's users and advertisers. For people interested in shaping what kinds of speech social media giants allow, the #FBrape campaign quickly confirmed the relative value of targeting companies' revenue sources rather than directly petition the corporations. The #FBrape campaign also had a clear moral high road over the terrible instances of speech it campaigned to censor. But the results are still illuminating, as we struggle to determine how much power companies like Facebook wield over our self expression, and the organizational processes and technical mechanisms of how that power is exterted.

Continued attention will be required to hold Facebook, Inc. to its promises to train its content moderators (and an entire planet of actual users) to flag and remove violent content. Facebook has also promised to establish more direct lines of communication with women's groups organizing against such content. This is the kind of personal relationship and human contact groups have clamored for (see WITNESS and YouTube's relationship).

'fair, thoughtful, scalable'

Technology companies have tended to avoid establishing such relationships, probably because they require relatively large amounts of time in a venture that's taking on an entire planet worth of communications. Facebook itself lists its preferences for solutions to governing speech that are "fair, thoughtful, and scalable." Given the crazy scale of content uploaded every minute, Facebook might look into algorithmic solutions to identify content before users are exposed to it. YouTube has conducted research to automatically categorize some of its own torrent of incoming user content to identify the higher quality material. According to their post, Facebook has "built industry leading technical and human systems to encourage people using Facebook to report violations of our terms and developed sophisticated tools to help our teams evaluate the reports we receive."

This is unlikely to be the last we hear about this. By publishing an official response, Facebook gave 130 media outlets and counting an excuse to cover the campaign, which few had done prior to the company's reply. And whether they relish the position or not, social media companies like Facebook have positioned themselves as arbiters of speech online, subject to the laws of the lands they operate within, but also comfortable codifying their own preferences into their policies. Kudos to Facebook for taking a minute to respond to some of the messy side effects of connecting over a billion human beings.

Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. Matt's interested in location, games, online tools, and other fun things. He's on Twitter @mstem.

This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

January 27 2012

21:30

The Front Line of the U.S. Censorship Battle Is Behind Bars

A longer version of this post first appeared on MIT's Center for Civic Media blog.

In our ongoing quest to trace the outline of the phrase "civic media," we began the Center for Civic Media's 2012 lunch series with Paul Wright, editor and co-founder of Prison Legal News, and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the non-profit umbrella which publishes PLN.

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PLN operates in a unique media environment, where the very act of distributing a magazine to their customers might first require winning a lawsuit. You see, their primary audience is made up of prisoners themselves. Prison Legal News is the longest-running publication put together with the help of people who are incarcerated, and since its first issue in 1990, it has become a critical resource for discussing issues facing these populations. It's an independent, monthly magazine that reviews and analyzes prisoner rights, court rulings, and news about prison issues. PLN focuses on state and federal U.S. prisons, as well as some international coverage. Paul himself has become a distinguished advocate on behalf of the U.S. population. Asked whether we could blog his talk, Paul responded, "Secrecy is the antithesis of publishing."

From Newsletter to National Publication

Prison Legal News started as a newsletter, in 1990, covering only Washington state's prisons. It was 10 pages and hand-typed for 75 subscribers. It launched into the publishing world with a $50 budget. The organization was completely volunteer-run until 1996. The first run of six issues ended up becoming a 22-year, 224-issue run (and still going). Some of their earliest subscribers are still with them -- a great sign for the publication's longevity, but a less great reflection of these subscribers' sentences.

PLN's perseverance has paid off: In 1990, there were 30 or 40 prisoners' rights news publications, but many have since ceased publishing. Prison Legal News has expanded its coverage as its subscriber base expanded. At one point, they realized they had more subscribers in California than in Washington, and that they had graduated to a national publication. Yet Paul considers himself one of the few people in print publishing these days who welcomes competition. He wishes there were other publications and institutions engaged in this work.

Prison Legal News is not light reading -- there's no horoscope, no advice column, just hard news and information. But that's what their customers want. An annual reader survey draws a 30-40% reader survey response, and the feedback is consistently asking for more useful information rather than lighter fare. There was a publication in the 1990s called "Prison Life," which covered prison life and the prison experience, and they were somehow surprised when they were unsuccessful, because prisoners would rather not read about this in their leisure time.

An expansion into book titles has focused on self-help and non-fiction reference books for prisoners, especially titles that aren't viable for traditional book publishers. Paul mentions books including "How to File a Lawsuit and Win," and books on hepatitis C (a dangerous health threat within the incarcerated population). There's great interest in books on health, including "Our Bodies, Ourselves," which Paul notes has been banned in some prison systems. They also provide "radical critiques of the criminal justice system", including edited volumes titled "The Celling of America," "Prison Nation" and
"Prison Profiteers." Paul notes that the books reach a different audience than the magazine, that there are people who prefer reading the long form of arguments.

Who Reads Prison News?

Prison Legal News is a niche publication. It's not trying to reach the whole incarcerated population of the U.S. It's targeting activists and lifers interested in improving prisons. Paul said they want to reach the activists, the 1% of people who make change. Men are 95% of the U.S. prison population, and make up a higher percentage of PLN's readership compared with women. Paul attributed this to the fact that women generally receive shorter sentences, and their subscribers tend to have long sentences ahead of them. Paul has found that it's the people who are in prison for a long period of time that make things happen. These are the lifers, the ones filing the lawsuits and organizing other prisoners. These are people who have accepted that prison is their life now, and who are working to do something to improve it.

There are around 7,000 subscribers to the print publication, but the reach is much broader. Reader surveys suggest that copies reach more than 10 prisoners each -- Paul estimates a readership of 80,000-90,000 readers. Additionally, the website gets around 100,000 visitors per month. The subscriber base includes judges, court officers, lawyers, journalists and academics, including Noam Chomsky, who Paul told us proudly was one of the first subscribers. All the big investment banks subscribe, Paul told us, because they follow news on the private prison industry. "I was happy when Lehman Brothers went under, but we lost a subscriber," he said. Lehman Brothers had been one of the biggest bankrollers of the private prison industry, so it was a happy day when they went down.

Publication Litigation

A big focus these days is making sure the target audience in prisons can actually receive the magazine. This requires extensive litigation. Prison Legal News has obtained consent decrees in nine states, ordering state prisons to deliver the magazine. PLN is currently litigating in New York and Florida to enable subscribers to receive their publication, both the magazine and the books they publish.

Almost every state's prison system has censored and banned the magazine at one point or another, Paul told us. The organization has won nine lawsuits, receiving consent decrees that order state prison systems to deliver the publications. The bans are generally pretextual. They're bans based on postal rates used to deliver magazines, or whether prisoners are allowed to pay for the magazine from their trust accounts. Sometimes there are arbitrary blocks on sending publications to prisoners in certain types of custody. In Washington, PLN discovered they needed to become an "approved vendor" and had a very difficult time figuring out "who's brother-in-law we had to work with" to gain "approved vendor" status, Paul said.

It's not just PLN getting banned. In one case, in South Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union had to sue when a prison banned all books except the Bible. These pretextual excuses can get pretty absurd -- Paul is currently facing an argument that the staples used to bind the magazine might be used as dangerous weapons. While we think it's funny, these are the issues PLN is forced to litigate (marshal the resources to sue the government, and win). "Think of every magazine held together by staples, delivered by mail. TIME, Newsweek. We're the only publisher in America who routinely challenges this censorship," he said.

Many of these rules are designed to prevent prisoners from having material to read, far beyond PLN's magazine. It would help if other American publishers would join in the fight to ensure publications are able to reach prison populations. When an Indiana judge upheld a ban on gay publications "Out" and "The Advocate," Paul asked the publishers to file suit, because it would stand up better in court than a suit from a prisoner. But publishers aren't seeking the prison population. "They tell us that they're not part of our targeted advertising demographic," he said. For PLN, the core audience is prisoners, and there's no point in publishing if the core audience can't get it. In recognition of this, they realized that funding staff attorney positions was a priority.

I noted that some critics of PLN have argued that it's as much a litigation platform as it is a publication. Paul countered that "our initial goal was always just to publish the magazine. But we got to to the point where we're just consuming ever greater amounts of organizational resources just getting the magazine into prisons." Paul estimated that he can spend as much as 40% of his time focusing on being able to distribute the publication, rather than producing and editing it. "The editor should be worried about being (an) editor, not worrying about why one prison system or another is censoring content," he said. For there to be any litigation, the government has to illegally censor the magazine, then PLN has to sue, and then they have to win. "If you don't like the consequences, don't break the law," Paul said.

Isolation from Society

Restrictions on what can be sent in and out of prison harm PLN in another way: It makes it very hard to hear from the incarcerated. In some prisons, prisoners can no longer send or receive information beyond what fits on a postcard. Other layers of draconian restriction include rules that postcard communication has to be in ink, can't use a label, etc. These mechanisms tend to be arbitrary and are designed, Paul argued, to prevent prisoners from having communication to and from the outside world. His organization has challenged a couple of these successfully, with a couple more pending. Paul told us that they are trying to nip this trend in the bud before it gets entrenched.

"Part of the goal is to get prisoners information. But conversely, we want to hear from them," he said. The bulk of the magazine's content is provided by contributing writers, who are mostly prisoners, some of whom have been working with PLN for over a decade. In the hopes of ensuring widespread distribution of the information, PLN doesn't demand exclusive publishing rights -- and people are free to copy and disseminate the information.

This is an area of close overlap with one of the Center for Civic Media's projects, "Between the Bars." BTB is a blogging platform for prisoners that gets around the lack of Internet access by scanning and publishing letters to a blog, and then mailing comments back to the authors on postcards. In addition to helping the incarcerated publish to the web, it helps the rest of the U.S. population by ensuring that we are able to hear from these voices, who comprise 1% of our entire populace.

Prison News Online

The Internet has greatly improved the visibility of Prison Legal News. Paul told us he conducts 3-4 interviews a week about the publication and the issues it raises. He's fluent in Spanish and noted that there's a great deal of interest in these issues from programs in Colombia and Venezuela. One of his associate gives interviews in Russian media, which seems to have an endless appetite for stories about the U.S. prison system. Some have observed that the U.S. prison system must be pretty bad when the Russians enjoy making fun of it.

The online presence of the magazine has allowed PLN to build a publication library online, with more than 6,000 documents available in its Brief Bank. "We've got the biggest, and I would say, the best, repository of prison documents online," Paul said. As a result, PLN generally shows up in Google's first page for prison-related queries, except sometimes when the "Prison Break" program is on TV.

At the same time, few prisoners have access to the web from their cell. Six prison systems allowed web access in 1990, but by 2000, that number was zero. Paul noted that not one of the prisoners who took part in a program to learn to use computers receded.

Prisons can be a bit of a timeless place, said Paul, where the equipment you see is 50-60 years old. PLN's print publishing business still thrives here (advertising levels for the print magazine are actually going up), and web publishing is almost nonexistent. PLN hasn't figured out how to make money online, like other publishers. Its content performs poorly with online advertising. On the site, the news content is free, legal content is paid, and these fees cover basic staff time put into the site. Advertising and subscription income and book distribution bring in about the same amount. Payroll is the biggest expense. They get some foundation funding and donations, and when all of this revenue is cobbled together, it's enough to move forward.

Staying Human

The acts of reading and writing are core to helping prisoners maintain their humanity, especially when everything else in these punitive systems is working to degrade that humanity. A publication like PLN lets prisoners connect with others, when the rest of the system is designed to isolate and alienate.

Paul is wary of the dehumanization that takes place before genocides and in prisons. We lose sight of the people in prison. We need to keep in mind that they're someone's father, someone's son, regardless of what they've done. When someone's been murdered in a prison, it's almost always that person's mother who calls PLN.

Paul closed his presentation by noting that he's now 264 issues into this project, and that since 1990, "everything to do with the criminal justice system, by objective or subjective standard, has gotten worse."

This post was written with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. For more information about PLN, see their Frequently Asked Questions and get in touch.

September 15 2011

18:00

Community PlanIt turns civic engagement into a game — and the prize is better discourse

If you’ve ever attended a Boston school committee meeting, you know that it can be the opposite of “bowling alone.”

Community PlanIt logoThis community is not only engaged but raucous: At one meeting, protestors carried in a casket and tombstone to symbolize budget cuts. At another, parents fought with police trying to block a packed chamber. Fed up with the booing and shouting and constant interruptions, the committee drafted a code of conduct to try to keep people in line.

But along with trying to curb negative behavior, the committee is trying a civic-media experiment aimed at generating positive behavior. Today the Boston Public Schools is adopting Community PlanIt, a web-based social network that turns planning — in this case, designing standards for gauging school performance — into a big game. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators alike are encouraged to play (nicely), and participation is rewarded with virtual currency. It’s an attempt to apply game dynamics to the pedestrian world of public comment.

The platform was created by Eric Gordon, an Emerson College professor who has done a lot of work with civic media and gameification at his Engagement Game Lab. (See also: Participatory Chinatown.) It’s a nonprofit, Knight Foundation-funded project that Gordon plans to make open-source. He walked me through the project a few days ahead of the launch.

Users log in to find a familiar social dashboard that displays recent activity. Every few days, BPS assigns a new “mission” that includes dozens of thought exercises based around one of the ways local schools are evaluated. For example, a mission called “Proficiency” leads with a secret-agent-style video introducing the concept (which will be broadcast in homerooms at Boston’s English High every week).

Participants are asked to answer cerebral multiple-choice questions and essays, some with graphics and maps. An example: “How much do you agree with the following statement: Some students should get more than 4 years to graduate — and schools should be given credit for getting these students to graduate eventually? Explain your answer in a comment.”

Users earn “tokens” for completing activities. The more tokens you earn, the higher you ascend on the community leaderboard. (Kids love racking up points, Gordon said, even if there’s no actual prize.) You spend the tokens on the values you support, such as “School Environment and Safety” or “Family and Community Engagement.”

At the end of a 35-day trial, all of the participants will gather at a special meeting — in real life — to talk about what they learned. At that point, Gordon hopes, the issues will have been explained and hashed out, and people will already know each other. A pie chart of aggregate token spending will demonstrate visually how the community prioritizes its values.

Gordon said 600 people have pre-registered.

The key to making this work, he says, is student involvement. Kids don’t necessarily like to hang out online where the adults are. Those kids in the secret-agent video? They are being paid small stipends to serve as “technology interpreters,” sort of the educational equivalent of guerilla marketers. They are spreading the word about the platform and helping people use it.

“The youth are the ones who are going to know how to use this thing without even thinking, and they’re going to be much more savvy, even though the content may not be as interesting to them,” Gordon said. “Setting up a place where the adults rely on the youth to make this process meaningful is really what we want to do.”

The students will attend the meeting at the end of the trial, and Gordon said BPS will make a point of highlighting the most interesting contributions to come from youth. And to make sure everyone has a shot, BPS has contributed about $5,000 to the project to translate all of the content into Spanish and Haitian Creole, the other languages most commonly spoken at home.

“What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things.”

The first Community PlanIt pilot happened earlier this year in Lowell, Mass., which sought community input on that city’s master plan. In that nine-day trial, 175 participants contributed more than 1,000 comments and spent more than 400 tokens, he said.

Gordon has since redesigned the user interface in response to user feedback and made other adjustments. For example, Lowell did not require participants to provide demographic data such as race, ethnicity, geographic location, and income. Hardly anyone filled it out, and the city said much of the data was unusable as a result. On the Boston Public Schools site, users will have to fill that out upfront — which could deter participation. That’s the trade-off, Gordon says: low barriers to participation versus high-quality data.

So what if the Boston project is wildly successful? Might Gordon have a wonderful problem — too much community feedback? It might sound cynical, he says, but a lot of city planners don’t want a lot of community feedback. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I mean, Apple makes great products and never does focus groups. So there can be resistance at the government level to projects like his.

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Gordon does not see his platform as more so much as better. “What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things. So this does a couple of things: It creates a public record of those comments so that they’re there and they will continue to be there, and then it has a clear sort of path between conversation and values.”  Community PlanIt is a like a long pre-meeting, a place to separate the wheat from the chaff, a place to filter out the back-chatter and squabbling that steamrolls progress. Gordon said he is “under no illusions this will absolve the vitriol” at school committee meetings, but it’s a start.

There are some websites doing similar work, such as Change By Us, which is live in New York and expanding soon to Seattle and Philadelphia, and the Nebraska for-profit MindMixer. Gordon said he is in talks with Boston’s southern neighbor, Quincy, to bring Community PlanIt to that city.

July 29 2011

15:00

Questions for Baratunde Thurston: What The Onion can teach real news organizations about social media

Baratunde Thurston, Director of Digital, The Onion

The Onion is funny because it looks and feels like real news. To do that well, The Onion has to act like a real news organization.

So when Baratunde Thurston, the newspaper’s 30-something digital director who “resides in Brooklyn and lives in Twitter,” describes the evolution of the Onion’s social-media strategy, it sounds pretty familiar.

“The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process,” Thurston told me. “It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey.”

Over the past four years, Thurston has worked to bring both structure and experimentation to social media. The success is enviable: nearly 3 million Twitter followers, nearly 2 million Facebook fans, and an unusually loyal and engaged audience.

“When we look at social media we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms,” Thurston said.

I met Thurston last month at MIT’s Civic Media Conference, where he was a featured speaker and a judge for the 2011 Knight News Challenge. I was surprised to see a stand-up comic who works at The Onion address a group of journalists — that is, until it became clear that The Onion is dead serious about civic media. (Thurston himself will be delivering the keynote at the next SXSW festival.)

In a recent phone interview, Thurston outlined his three-pronged approach to live event “coverage,” hinted at The Onion’s state-of-the-art predictive news technology, and discussed the making of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden. What follows are lightly edited excerpts (long excerpts!) from our conversation.

Baratunde Thurston: It’s important to remember that The Onion is, overall, a satirical news organization. That extends across everything the organization does, not just social media. It starts with the content. The Onion works, and it’s funny, because it reads like real news, it looks like real news, and it promotes itself like a real news organization. So when you think about, you know, a story that The Onion does and think, “Oh, that’s really realistic!” that’s part of the joke. When we look at social media, we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms.

With social media, we started with promoting our material. “Let’s set up an RSS feed that points to Twitter that lets those people know what we’re doing.” That wasn’t revolutionary, it was just a basic plug-and-play, let’s-not-ignore-this-community kind of thing.

Over time, though, what’s become more fun, more interesting, more creative, is: “How do we take the unique thing that we do and sprinkle our own little Onion voice and fairy dust into this world?” Where we start to differ from actual news is that we’re not actually reporting actual news. What we’re often doing is building a parallel universe that people like to play with, and we are giving them more of an opportunity to play in that world than they previously had when we were just in print….

The approach we’ve taken that’s most interesting is in the area of rapid-response news creation and promotion. We look at it in three levels. The first is, How do we get our take on actual breaking-news events out quickly? (And sometimes even before other media organizations.) So you look at a situation like Tiger Woods — this is obviously a while ago now — and he announces there’s going to be a press conference Friday at 11 a.m. So the whole world — a big chunk of the wealthy, developing world, at least — pauses and waits for what Tiger Woods has to say. And people are at their offices literally not working because it’s, like, a State of the Union for Tiger Woods address, and both houses of Congress convene to listen to Tiger.

And there’s a big, gaping news hole — and we shoot into it using social media as a rapid-delivery system to publish a story that says: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Sex. And that becomes, for awhile, the news, because no one else knows what’s going to happen, and we have predictive news technology, which allows us to get ahead of that story and dominate, for a term, the interest in what Tiger Woods has to say.

Andrew Phelps: I’m sorry, predictive news technology? Is that an Onion “technology” or is that a real thing?
BT: No, it’s Onion technology. We built it, yeah. It’s proprietary, so….
AP: Right, right, can’t get into too much detail about that. So while the world is in suspended-animation waiting, The Onion dominates the conversation.
BT: People, when they’re in search of information, will violently and radically attach themselves to the first hint of it. And they help spread that message. Our most successful example of that is with Donald Trump and the day that President Obama released his birth certificate. We immediately published just a photo with a headline: Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He’s Not… um…
AP: Festering Pile Of S—?
BT: Festering Pile Of S—, yeah. So that got almost 800,000 likes on Facebook, which is absurd. That’s just ridiculous. And it got retweeted tens of thousands of times. We got over a million pageviews to that thing, because it struck a chord with the real world.

The second thing I think we’ve pushed the envelope on is live event coverage. This is just fun. And it’s slightly insane. One of the things that we have done as a society is become more fragmented, more atomized — more selfish, to some degree — and our society is somewhat predicated on everyone having their own version of a thing. “I want my own car, my own driveway, my own pool, my own home theater system, my own music delivery system.” So shared experiences are harder to come by. People also work more, they don’t see their families as much. The water cooler is dying as a common ground for discussion of anything together. Social media helps reconstruct that water cooler and that shared experience. You see it on television shows, you see it around big news stories, you see it around celebrity silliness, and you especially see it around major cultural events like the Super Bowl, like the award shows, State of the Union addresses.

And what we’ve done is lend our voice and our massive platform in service of covering those events in real time — and so experimenting with a real-time flavor of journalism. Whenever there’s a big event like the Oscars — I think we do about five a year at this point, in a major way — we will live-tweet the hell out of that event. And that’s been a good way for us to increase our reach and our audience, because we’re attaching ourselves to an existing conversation and often — always, I’d say at this point — dominating it. Having the “top tweets” on a trending topic is a valuable thing and a low-cost thing if you have good material. So we’re exposing new people to what we have to say, and we’re giving people who already know us another way of finding us and hearing us and seeing us. And it’s also creatively fun. It gives the writer a different way to think about writing and about “journalism” (in big quotation marks).

AP: With Tiger Woods, no one knew what the news was yet, so you could make it up and make a little bit of a point. But when it’s live, everyone’s watching what’s really happening in real life. So what does The Onion do? Does it add more of a spin, or does it pretend to report facts as though they are happening even though they aren’t?
BT: In general, The Onion is not Daily Show-ish. We don’t cover the real world, per se. We often comment on things that feel like the real world. In the live event world, part of what we have as our advantage is 22 years of coverage already. And a lot of what we’ve written in the past is still relevant today. Because most of what is written in The Onion is written in kind of an evergreen fashion. So it’s about digging those things up.

For example, we started covering the Oscars by me doing a personal live-tweet session of the Oscars through my account. Just being silly, being funny, whatever; I wasn’t thinking about the Onion. And then I saw a celebrity (I think it was Queen Latifah) take to the stage to present something, and I was like, “Wait, The Onion has a story about Queen Latifah. And the story is really just a headline and a photo that says ‘King Latifah returns to claim queen.’ And that’s funny.”

I tweeted it out as The Onion, and people reacted very positively, and I thought, “I wonder if I can just keep doing this.” And so I was kind of watching the TV screen, listening for key words, searching the Onion website, manually digging up the story, tweeting it through our custom Bit.ly link, and you start to see the reaction, like, “Oh, wow, The Onion’s live-tweeting the Oscars!” And it’s like, well, sort of. We’re live archive-reposting the Oscars.

That was the first version of it. And then second version was, “Why don’t we actually intentionally prepare for this?” And so we gathered all the material we had that would be related to the films or the actors or the actual event of the Oscars itself and then we actually wrote for the event, things you know are going to happen.

And then there’s actually live stuff. With the Super Bowl, a sporting event is much more difficult to cover in advance, so you write for conditions, you write for, “Well, if there’s an interception, if there’s a kickoff return, if there’s a safety…” and then it’s a matter of mentally connecting what actually happens with what you’ve written for possibly happening and getting it out quickly enough. And then the layer beyond that is actually writing in the moment. So you have a sort of real-time writers’ room — at someone’s apartment, in some cases, or just over e-mail and instant messaging — that allows you to react truly in real time. And so I think the combination of those things lends itself to a feeling of comprehensive, real-event coverage.

AP: It’s funny, because it doesn’t sound all that different from what an old-school wire reporter would do to cover the outcome of a big trial or some live event that he needs to file quickly.
BT: Exactly. News organizations have troves of obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. We’re doing the same thing. Even if it’s not a formal process in a newsroom or a news organization, you are prewriting. You do have conditional headlines. We’ve just, in some cases, formalized that process and made it much, much funnier.

The third way that I think we have learned to play with this is to apply what we’ve learned from those first two completely to the world of news that we’ve created. And in this case, it’s about, OK, if we do a story, if we know we have a story coming up, how do we stretch it out? How do we massage it and promote it and tease it as if it were an actual breaking-news event?

The recent case where we did this pretty well was a story we had of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden returning from the sea to destroy America. And I was like OK, this is a Big Story. What does a Big Story deserve? Big coverage. You don’t just want to just put that out there; you spend weeks thinking about this stuff. Our graphics department — I’m sorry, our photojournalists — but our graphics department has done some impressive work to make this look super-realistic, so let’s give the story the big coverage it deserves. So in that case we are applying the lessons especially of the last event coverage in the breaking news to the alternate reality. So we start that story with a rumor: “BREAKING: Seismic activity detected in the Indian Ocean near site of bin Laden burial. More coming.”

And it’s like, What? And people see that tweet and that Facebook post and think, What’s going on here? Some people already get where it’s going, because their minds move more quickly. Others are just totally confused. And then we start adding in a layer of more commentary than coverage. We have our character Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles… “I’m just getting in word that the Air Force whatever unit has been deployed off the East Coast of the states… We’ll give you more… Unconfirmed reports of missiles fired… Spotting of bin Laden figure emerging from…” You’re like, What is–? So then it’s really starting to roll out. We have a layer of quotes that we’re attributing to generals and citizens and merchant marines out on the ocean. And then finally you get a version of the story with a link back saying, “Confirmed: 500-foot bin Laden spotted off the coast head towards Atlantic region of U.S.,” and there’s this big picture of bin Laden emerging from the sea.

And then we’ve got people reporting what they’re seeing. And this is all under the hash tag #500FootBinLaden. And where I think this differs from the breaking-news coverage and the live event coverage is, this is more open-ended. This is treated as, like, We don’t really know what’s going on here, we need your help. This is calling on the community to help fill in the blanks. And so we’re asking, actively, People, tell us what you’re seeing where you are. Have you spotted #500FootBinLaden? And people love to play along. They love to play along with real news, they love to play along with ours even more, because it doesn’t require actual fact-finding. And so people are Photoshopping Osama Bin Laden in the Boston Harbor, saying, “He’s in Boston right now, oh my God!” and adding their own flavor to it and using Twitpic and what not, and that is super satisfying. It becomes a collaborative news event. It has a full arc and life, just like “real news.”

You see another example of this, even when it’s not prompted, in our story about Planned Parenthood building an $8 billion Abortionplex.

AP: …which really happened.
BT: Right. And we didn’t really build any layers around it, we just put the story out, but the community wants to play along. Also, people want to write for The Onion (that’s probably not going to happen; it’s a very small team), but they can help build out this world that was previously limited to our writers’ individual creativity and minds. So someone on Yelp created an Abortionplex “venue” in Topeka, Kan., where the story said it existed, and they took details from the story and added it, and then the world just ran with it. There are, at this point, over 400 reviews of this thing we created. And it’s been inspiring. That’s a different level, when you don’t even prompt the collaboration with the audience, they just run with it, because they can. And it doesn’t require your permission, but it also doesn’t undermine your mission.
AP: I think a lot of news organizations would hear this interview and think: “Well, great, The Onion is very successful at engaging people, but they have the advantage of being hilarious and not having to talk about real news. The debt ceiling might not be so interesting, but it’s really important. So what are we supposed to do?” I just wonder if you have any kind of advice for real news organizations who are struggling a little bit.
BT: Think flexibly. Think loosely. I think there’s a lot of fear and conservatism — not political conservatism, but brand conservatism — around letting loose your team or your voice in this new environment. We’ve done journalism this way for a really long time, we’re really nervous about breaking it up. Not everybody thinks this way, but a lot do, and you can see it reflected. Sometimes you see the social media policy of Media Organization X, and it’s like the 20-point bullet list of “don’ts.” It doesn’t leave much room for what you can do. I don’t remember the organization, but one of them had a very fun post, like, “Our social media policy” — and it was just blank. That’s the kind of open-ended attitude that lends itself to finding value in this space.

For us, what’s been fun over the past few years is seeing the writers and the editors actually embrace social media and get inspired themselves and come to us and say, “Hey, can we do this?” And we’re like, “Yeah! Great — by George, you can do that! We didn’t think of that.” When Brooke Alvarez, the host of Onion News Network on IFC, live-tweets, that’s the writers of that show just doing it. It was a very, very proud moment for me. The way we used to do it, we would ask, “Hey can we get a batch of tweets from you guys around this thing?” And we’d kind of schedule it out and manually post it or use a tool to do it.

The Onion's Brooke Alvarez

Now, we run a training session with them. We say, “Look, people are talking to Brooke. She should have something to say back to them.” Basically give them a kind of framework, and they’re like, “Oh, that could be kind of fun.” And we literally handed over the keys. It was like a ceremony: “I give you the keys to the social media city.”

AP: That’s really funny, because once again you sound like a real news organization, having won over the journalists, so to speak, to social media. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect writers at The Onion to have any kind of resistance to new media the way you might see at newspapers.
BT: The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process. It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey. I come in here like, “TWITTER! FACEBOOK! YAY, STREAMING!” And everybody’s like, “Whoa, slow down, Twitter dude! We’ve got 20 years of awesome here, let’s not just destroy it for the sake of the latest trend.” And I think there’s some healthy tension that allows us to get to a good place.

And what we do does apply to so many news organizations. When you think about live event coverage and how you try to add some kind of value — get your sports writer to cover the Oscars. Mix it up a little bit and do something a little different. It doesn’t have to be funny, but it can be fun. It can be unique. I think the point is not to be funny, but to have a unique voice that stands out in an increasingly commoditized environment and space.

And then there’s exploiting your archives. A lot of media organizations are decades old. You’ve actually been there and done that. This debt ceiling conversation isn’t new. Unemployment isn’t new. Isolationism versus expansionism isn’t new. The role of religion in a democracy isn’t new. When it comes down to it, there’s not much new under the sun. So what have you already done? Basically, get more return on your existing investment. And the advantage that a deep media organization has over just the commentariat layer of cable news and the blogosphere is that you’ve actually done reporting, you’ve actually dug into records, so starting to think about your trove of data and analysis, and How do you slice that up? and How do you make it quotable and Facebookable and Tumblrable? is not exceedingly difficult. It takes some dedication, but it doesn’t take that much money. It’s not that expensive in terms of people and machine hours. That is something that we’re doing, and we’re not breaking the bank to do it.

And lastly, news organizations can open up to their community in some way. I’m not saying you’re going to have your audience become, like, investigative reporters. But there are really interesting things happening on the edges of journalism. You see the Knight Foundation investing through these grant awards in some really cool ways of, not seeing your readers or this digital layer of people as competitors but as collaborators. The fact is, the world is too big for any one news organization to cover comprehensively. And maybe you’re not going to ask your commenters to expose Watergate, but you might ask them to fact-check. You might ask them to help spot a pattern. You can have this sort of distributed research pool that can assist you in your journalistic mission to create an informed public.

We do it in a tongue-in-cheek way. We do it in a way which ultimately isn’t building real institutions. It’s building some intelligence, it’s building a lot of fun, but I think what we’re doing is even more important for an actual journalistic organization. And that’s where we hand off the stick. It’s like, “OK, our work here is done, but dear actual media organization, hey, give it a shot, you might just help our democracy.”

July 05 2011

16:11

The New News Paradigm: 'Pivot or Perish'

At the recent MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking to 16 of the most promising thinkers in the area of digital news. Culled together from myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, some had already established themselves as pioneers in the digital space.Others had come from legacy newsrooms. A few had found their voices in the field.

But regardless of their backgrounds, they all were united by a drive to innovate, inform and empower. In short, these 16 new news entrepreneurs had come to Cambridge, Mass., with a plan: Reinvent the news business.

But if I had just one takeaway I wanted to impart in my talk to the newly knighted 2011 News Challenge winners, it was this: Those carefully crafted plans are about to change.

uturn.jpg

Being Open to Change

There's an old axiom in entrepreneurship, and it goes something like this: Pivot or perish.

"Pivoting" -- the ability (and perhaps more importantly, the willingness) to change your course of action when you realize the ground beneath you is shifting -- isn't just the essence of entrepreneurship, it's the only way you'll survive.

Trust me, we've been at it for just a little over a year now with Stroome, and in that time we've had to pivot plenty.

Now let me be clear -- having a plan for the future is just as important as a good, solid pivot. Looking two, three, even five years down the road is critical, not just because it places your idea in a larger context, but because it forces you to realize that no one really knows what the future has in store. In the end, the best we can do is play the hand that's dealt us. And this is precisely where the concept of pivoting comes in.

When we set out last June to build the next iteration of Stroome, a collaborative online video editing platform to simplify the production of news and video, we sat down and diligently drew up a list of goals. The exact number was just short of a dozen or so, but the three key ones included: increase adoption in journalism schools, forge strategic allegiances, remain open to unforeseen uses.

It didn't take long before those goals started to come to fruition. Within four months of receiving our grant, Stroome was being used by a class of aspiring digital journalists at Columbia College Chicago to comment on the importance of voter registration during the highly anticipated mayoral election. In April, we partnered with USC Stevens Institution, relaunching the site at the third annual TEDxUSC conference.

And who could have possibly foreseen that we'd have found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian revolution? But that's exactly what happened this past January when protesters began using Stroome to get their video out of the country when the government shut down Twitter and Facebook.

More than a 'to-do' list

Remarkably, in less than a year we had accomplished nearly every goal we had set for ourselves. But our goals had became more than just a list of "to-dos'' to be ticked off one-by-one. Instead, they became "listening posts." And by listening to our users, we were able to gain valuable insight into what is truly important to them.

In most instances, their revelations were consistent with our expectations. Yet at times, what we heard was completely incongruous with what we thought we should be building. And when that happened, we had to evaluate which comments to implement, which to set aside for the time being, and which to dismiss altogether. Said another way, we had to pivot.

Because while we may have had many goals, at the end of the day we only had one objective: Create the most intuitive user experience possible. But without those pivots, that objective would never have been achieved.

And as I looked out across the room and into the faces of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, I could see an unmistakable determination, an undaunted doggedness, an unrelenting sense of resolve. There was no mistaking it: Reinvention of an industry many have written off as outdated, archaic and obsolete is a goal well within their grasp.

They're just going to have to pivot to get there.

If you're interested, Los Angeles angel investor Mark Suster has written a great post on the importance of pivoting. Read it here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum.

June 13 2011

12:48

Prep for bean spillage: new website, News Challenge announcement, new everything

On June 22, a lot happens. Don't freak out.

By then, we'll have a new website launched -- courtesy of our fantastic Drupal design team at Civic Actions -- and at 2:30pm that day, Knight Foundation will unveil its 2011 Knight News Challenge winners at our annual MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. In fact, even though it's a small invitation-only conference, we want to make sure you can watch the announcement live:
http://civic.mit.edu/conference2011/livestream

But by way of a teaser, on that same day, we'll have major announcements of our own. Two of them. Probably the biggest pieces of news since Chris, Mitch, and Henry Jenkins proposed the idea for the Center four years ago.

So keep your eyes here, even though they'll have to adjust to Civic Actions' brilliant new design.

May 19 2011

16:21

MIT Sessions Address Prison Blogging, Networked Revolt in Arab World

MIT's Center for Future Civic Media redoubled its public events efforts this past year, thanks to a push by its fellow Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman brings a unique perspective -- a civic one -- to media developments so often dominated by politics and business-model debates.

This approach couldn't be more evident than in the case of two recent Civic Media Sessions, videos of which you'll see below. Our sessions, spread throughout the semester, are conversations around civic media topics we're just now defining, including the coalescing of the field itself around information needs, geographic communities, and replicable, sustainable technical innovation.

"Design for Vulnerable Populations" was a session we held last month, and it addressed the fact that designers of new media -- web-based or otherwise -- seem to have in mind an idealized user, someone who's hungry for news, is digitally connected, and feels one technical solution shy of changing the world.

Sadly, that idealized user hardly exists outside of the New York Times' "Weekender" ad. In fact, civic media innovations, to be truly civic, have to work for the marginalized, poor, the ill -- even for the imprisoned. So "Design for Vulnerable Populations" was moderated by our center's own Charlie DeTar, creator of the prison blogging platform Between the Bars, and featured speakers critiquing how we bring environmental justice, health and sustainability into the design of cutting-edge media tools.

Design for Vulnerable Populations
MIT Tech TV

And then earlier this month, Zuckerman moderated "Civic Disobedience," with Clay Shirky, Zeynep Tufekci and Sami ben Gharbia. Zuckerman addressed a key set of questions: What accounts for the rise of networked revolt in the Arab world and elsewhere, and how is it succeeding in some places while failing in others?

Civic Disobedience
MIT Tech TV

We're awfully proud of the intelligence brought to bear on these often-overlooked but critical issues. So as this spring semester wraps up, be sure to sign up for our center's updates to hear what we're planning for the fall.

May 04 2011

20:08

Video: Civic Media Session, "Design for Vulnerable Populations"

Designers often want to help people that they perceive as being in need -- whether those affected by natural or human-caused disasters, the economically or physically disadvantaged, or those who are on the losing end of a cultural power dynamic. However, naive attempts to "help" through simplistic techno-centric design can be at best ineffective, and at worst counter-productive.

What can designers do to better connect with the communities and individuals they wish to serve? How can design projects avoid patronizing attitudes and economic colonialization? How can a designer be effective in promoting social change while following their conscience?

This panel brings together designers who have worked in the mental health industry, international development, the prison system, and community environmental action to discuss what has worked and what hasn't, and what approaches designers can take to increase their chances of success.

  • Charlie DeTar (Moderator) Co-founder of Between the Bars, a blogging platform for prisoners. Fellow at the Center for Future Civic Media, and PhD student at the MIT Media Lab.
  • Patricia Deegan Creator of the CommonGround web application which supports shared decision making in psychopharmacology consultation. Adjunct Professor at the Dartmouth College School of Medicine and at Boston University, Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
  • Liz Barry Director of Urban Environment at Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a collaborative developing inexpensive and community-led means to explore environmental and social issues; Co-founder of TreeKIT, an initiative to collaboratively measure, map, and manage urban forests.
  • Nathan Cooke Born and raised in California, USA, Cooke works at MIT’s D-Lab documenting technologies and working with students on design projects. He has previous experience working for Frog Design in San Francisco and at Autodesk as part of their Sustainability division.

Download!

read more

April 10 2011

12:56

Cd. Juárez, MEX –CRONICAS DE HEROES– OTRA CARA, OTRA HISTORIA…

A partir de los 90’s Cd. Juárez empezó a formar parte constante del vocabulario global, principalmente como resultado del libre comercio y del establecimiento de cientos de maquiladoras en la ciudad. Muchos cambios se han suscitado en las últimas décadas, incremento acelerado de la población, cambios en mano de obra, altos niveles de contaminación, etc. pero también se ha visto un incremento en crimen, ejemplo de ello son los Femicidios y una ola de violencia en los últimos años los cuales han contribuido a la difusión negativa de Cd. Juárez. A través de diferentes Medios de comunicación los foráneos nos enteramos de esa Ciudad Juárez, esa que muestra o da la imagen de una ciudad brutal. Sin embargo este blog no intenta hablar de esa historia la cual forma parte de la noticia diaria, este blog por lo contrario desea hablar de esa OTRA CARA, de esa OTRA HISTORIA que también existe en la ciudad en la cual más de un millón de individuos continúan con su vida cotidiana de una manera pacífica y responsable.

En los últimos cuatro meses el Centro de Medios ha asesorado en Cd. Juárez una campaña de positivismo –CRONICAS DE HEROES– la cual reporta el valor ciudadano actual, como un ejemplo de colaboración positiva de la sociedad civil. El proyecto se enfoca en pequeñas acciones notorias (actos de amabilidad, de respeto, honestidad, etc.) y las hace públicas, ya que estas pasan por desapercibido, pero en realidad también son parte de bienestar ciudadano.

El centro de Medios creo la página web para Crónicas de Héroes como una herramienta en la que individuos puedan hacer públicos estos actos. Al principio se intento hacer contacto con diferentes instituciones en Juárez vía telefónica o por medio del internet, pero no hubo una gran respuesta. Yesica la Representante Diplomática Cultural y Directora del proyecto decidió que sería importante ir personalmente a Juárez y presentar la propuesta. Ella dio varias pláticas en la ciudad a diferentes A.C.s, ONG’s, Instituciones Educativas, hospitales, etc. En esas primeras pláticas se descubrió que la gente tenía deseos de participar, que aceptaban la propuesta y que estaban listos para ser parte de un cambio. Así pues fue interesante descubrir que el contacto personal por lo menos en esta instancia sigue siendo la herramienta principal para establecer relaciones estrechas y duraderas. En su visita a Juárez, Yesica capacitó a Brenda Guerra y a Marco Betancour para dar seguimiento a la propuesta, ellos fueron nombrados como Representante Local-Brenda y Promotor oficial-Marco.

Después de las primeras charlas informativas otras invitaciones hacia el equipo de Crónicas para hablar acerca del proyecto en diferentes foros se suscitaron. Hubo un momento en que los representantes locales dieron hasta tres talleres por semana, lo cual fue muy grato, pues indicaba que proyectos de este tipo son necesarios y que la ciudadanía los acepta. En estos talleres la gente nos contaba sus historias de esos héroes cotidianos de buena voluntad, ellos nos narraban su crónica en tarjetas postales diseñadas especialmente para la campaña. Igualmente para promover CRONICAS DE HEROES se colocaron espectaculares, así mismo se instalaron posters y se repartieron calcomanías en diferentes áreas en Cd. Juárez.

A mediados de Diciembre 2010 se anunció oficialmente esta campaña a los medios de comunicación. Desde ese día este proyecto ha tenido el privilegio de aparecer en varias redes informativas locales e internacionales entre ellas CNN y BBC. Actualmente se colabora con diferentes medios locales; en varias estaciones de radio se leen estas historias positivas, así mismo periódicos en la ciudad publican semanalmente crónicas existentes en nuestra página web la cual en este momento cuenta con 789 historias positivas. Estas historias han sido leídas por individuos que han entrado a nuestra página desde rincones lejanos del mundo como Japón, Brasil, Colombia, Alemania, Argentina, Francia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Reino Unido, Tailandia, etc.

Últimamente hemos tenido un gran interés por individuos en participar en actividades públicas. El grupo de artistas urbanos – UNION– nos contactó para ser parte de nuestra iniciativa, ellos donaron diferentes espacios en la ciudad y su talento para hacer murales inspirados en estos reportes positivos. Hace tres semanas hubo una pinta pública en el Parque Borunda, en esta hubo varios voluntarios que ayudaron a nuestro equipo en la organización del evento. Después de esta pinta hemos sido invitados a participar en otros eventos públicos como la Feria del la Mujer y un festejo a nivel ciudad por el Día del Niño.

Ha sido muy interesante para el equipo de Crónicas ver como este proyecto el cual originalmente fuera solo una página de internet se ha convertido en una mezcla de mecanismos, en el que los contactos sociales y acciones activas se han visto reflejadas tanto en línea como en participación cotidiana. Es genial ver que proyectos de este tipo pueden conducir a un cambio positivamente constructivo.

La evolución efectiva de esta campaña no hubiera sido posible sin la participación de la población y diferentes organizaciones e instituciones las cuales nos han apoyado, la colaboración es esencial para crear un cambio y más importante aun que ese cambio se inicie desde las raíces –los ciudadanos.

Cotidianamente existen héroes entre todos nosotros y estos no se quedan sentados a esperar tiempos mejores; sigamos su ejemplo, crezcamos juntos como sociedad para un mejor presente…esto es Cd. Juárez, su otra CARA, su otra HISTORIA…

March 29 2011

19:04

Reflections on fostering civic pride in Juarez

Crónicas de Héroes, the Juárez Mexico deployment of Hero Reports, rolled out late last year with incredible success at the local level. Since November more than 700 accounts of generosity, kindness, and empathy have been reported by the Juarenes. Today cronicas are being read over the airwaves by local radio stations and printed in local newspapers. Media from Juárez’s sister city of El Paso and Mexico City have covered the campaign. And the site has attracted visitors from Japan, Brazil, Argentina, France, Venezuela, Thailand, Portugal, Jamaica, and Ecuador. Recently, Alyssa Wright, founder of Hero Reports, and Yesica Guerra, Manager of Crónicas de Héroes Juárez, were invited to speak about the project at TED.

The success of the campaign has been measured by the fact that with these contributions, residents have reclaimed and reauthored the narrative coming out of Juárez. While the news media will continue to print stories about violence, chaos and fear, Cronicas has shown that those incidences are not the whole story. Juárez remains a place where businesses thrive, families raise new generations, and where neighbors take care of one another.

Hoping to bottle some of the success of Juárez, we’ve spent time trying to tease out what worked and to understand how those strategies could be refined and redeployed in Monterrey and Tijuana.

Passion and Personal Connections – Much of the success of Crónicas de Héroes Juárez is attributable to Yesica and her counterparts on the ground in Juárez, local representatives Brenda Guerra and Marco Betancourt. Their shared enthusiasm and dedication to the project coupled with their intimate knowledge of the community and savvy outreach approach undoubtedly opened doors. Early on Yesica realized that her efforts to push an MIT research project via email and phone calls would only get her so far. Using a tag team approach, Yesica would have Brenda and Marco follow-up with her contacts in person to further pitch the campaign, arrange interviews, and deliver postcards in order to maintain momentum, solidify relationships, and reinforce the grassroots legitimacy of the campaign. Yesica and her team also scheduled pre-launch workshops in a variety of businesses, schools, and civic institutions. With Brenda and Marco’s help, Yesica had the manpower she needed to outreach to big tent of users – from school children and college students to nurses and doctors to elderly members of the community. Every workshop attendant filled out a postcard with a report of a kind and generous act, which was then uploaded on the site.

Hyper-local branding – Before Crónicas de Héroes officially launched, we covered the City of Juárez in billboards, posters, and postcards with images reminiscent of iconic pop-culture figures El Santo and Tin Tan. El Santo, the masked wrestler, is a legend and a symbol of justice for the common man with heroic abilities to fight and defend the vulnerable. With a career than spanned nearly five decades, El Santo resonates with multiple generations. Yesica’s poster design includes a masked wrestler from the golden age of wrestling, when fighters were folk heroes, inspired by the image of El Santo. Tin Tan was actor, singer and comedian that began his career in Juárez; the local hero starred in more than 50 movies during his 30-year career. Images of these compelling cultural superheroes asking for stories about positive and kind neighborly acts spoke to the emotions and imagination of a wide array of Juarenes who responded with reports about every day instances of heroism.

Anonymity – Like any good superhero, the campaign was intentionally cloaked in mystery. Crónicas de Héroes Juárez tried to minimize and downplay its true identity as a research project from MIT. Because the focus of the project centered on the general Juarenes community and did not align or closely associate itself with anyone particular group, the campaign could belong to the entire City. The Center felt strongly that this strategy was necessary for the long-term sustainability and viability of the campaign.

Going forward our community outreach efforts are dedicated to sustaining a culture of reporting through community activities that keep the spirit of Crónicas de Héroes alive, foster pride and enthusiasm, and transcend cynicism. Recently the Juarez team was approached by UNION a local group of street artists interested in painting murals to promote and celebrate Crónicas. They wrote, “"To paint these murals inspired on Cronicas proves that there are good things happening in this city, guns and death is not the only things that occur in Juarez." Using donated materials including some paint and brushes, UNION and more than 20 citizens came together for a mural painting in Park Borunda last weekend. At this event, Brenda along with five volunteers collected more than 75 Cronicas from participants and passersby. Two more murals are planned and this summer Yesica, Marco and Brenda will be promoting the site through a public art competition and at festivals and celebrations. We hope that these activities will cultivate a loyalty and commitment to Cronicas that will inspire new reports and keep the site vibrant and relevant.

March 14 2011

16:05

MIT Produces a String of Civic Media Success Stories

As we wind the way toward the end of our four year grant, I thought it would be nice to describe some of what we've learned at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media (C4). In the coming weeks, I will call on a few of our researchers to offer similar blog reflections on our unique blend of communities, information, and action.

First, though, I want to describe some of the exciting project highlights from the last few weeks. Because C4 is a multi-disciplinary institution, different projects end up affecting different audiences, so I wanted to put them all in one post.

GrassrootsMapping.org
Jeff Warren's project continues to spread, with new maps made in New York, China, and several other places by people with no MIT connection. We have so many continuing uploads from communities in the Gulf that we recently had to purchase new RAID storage. Good Magazine recently wrote about this growing project.

At MIT, we know that research was worth conducting when it spins off into a new enterprise. C4 researchers Jeff and Sara Anne Wylie have done just that, creating a new organization that tries to help communities by generating scientific information. Called the Public Laboratory of Science and Technology, it drives innovation that pushes grassroots mapping in new directions. Check their recent projects, like hacking cameras to view photosynthesis and make spectrograms to detect whether the photos that Gulf communities have been taking are really of BP's spilled oil.

grm.jpg

VoIP Drupal
VoIP Drupal, a project that research scientist Leo Burd has been working on for more than a year, was announced at DrupalCon last week. Several telephony developers have signed on to develop the VoIP side of the project, and they join famous Drupal group Civic Actions, which has been contributing on the Drupal scripting side. In brief: I'll be very surprised if "this isn't a big thing":http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/03/voip-drupal-kicks-off-at-drupalcon072.html.

Sourcemap
Another great project from C4 that is in the process of spinning off is Sourcemap, by Leo Bonanni and Matthew Hockenberry, which recently formed an independent governing foundation. Always popular with journalists and enviro-geeks, the project is now being taken on by businesses. One big development is that Office Depot is officially using Sourcemap on some of their product packaging.

Also, the University of Montana's School of Journalism collaborated with us over the past term by using Sourcemap as part of a class on online news. Our collaborators, Professor Lee Banville and American Public Media's Public Insight Network, wanted to connect journalism students in Banville's class with tools and technologies that construct perspectives and develop narrative frameworks for the web. In practice, this ranged from ideas on crowdsourced feedback and commentary to devices like web mapping that drive new presentations of stories.

BrownBagToolkit / Junkyard Jumbotron
The first part of research scientist Rick Borovoy's project on face-to-face information sharing has launched, and was immediately picked up by BoingBoing and Gizmodo. Check out this video explainer:

Junkyard Jumbotron from chris csik on Vimeo.

extrACT:
In mid-November, we launched the third stage of our extrACT project, WellWatch. A dozen communities in PA and NY have expressed interest in the system, so we are conducting a one-week training tour across the state in March.
wellwatchCollage.jpg

Between the Bars
The world's first blogging system for the incarcerated, who aren't allowed access to the Internet, attracted 400 prisoner users from 18 states before we had to suspend service (for reasons best explained later). Inventor Charles DeTar is now on a clear path to relaunch the system in the next few of weeks.

Cronicas de Heroes
Alyssa Wright created Hero Reports for NY, as an alternative to the City's "see something, say something" campaign. Making citizens suspicious of each other is not the first step toward creating a safer, more civic city. Last December we launched a Juarez version of the project called Cronicas de Heroes, which continues to bustle. Over 700 heroes have been acknowledged, and the press continues to make up for lost good news from a city that usually only gets attention when something bad is happening.

cronicasNewSmall.jpg

Alyssa and Yesica Guerra, who directed the Juarez implementation, were invited to and presented at TEDActive, the global do-gooder wing of the famous TED conference. New communities are asking to run Hero Reports, from Monterrey to South Wood County, Wisconsin. Just last week the project was cloned in Kazakhstan without any help from us!

As you can see, things can get pretty busy here at C4. Several other projects are in the works and should be launched in the next few months. Stay tuned to Idea Lab for updates.

March 04 2011

19:01

Voip Drupal

C4 has done a variety of breakthrough civic systems with phones, from Leo Burd's What's Up platform to the Call4Action class and its cool student projects.

We love these projects, but working with phones has always been a bear. A lot of custom programming is necessary, and in many cases people start with the phone and end up building custom systems that begin to represent a CMS. Projects like Ushahidi or our earlier txtMob are really just simple CMSs with a few custom features for texting inputs. So Leo Burd has been working on making Drupal more friendly for the billions of people around the world who only have access to basic telephony rather than smart phones and the web.

Leo is launching the first release of the VoIP Drupal platform at DrupalCon next week.

VoIP Drupal is an innovative framework that brings the power of voice and Internet-telephony to Drupal sites. It can be used to build hybrid applications combining regular touchtone phones, web, SMS, Twitter, IM and other communication tools in a variety of ways, including:

* Voice- and SMS-based Get Out The Vote campaigns
* 2-1-1 and 3-1-1 lines (information hotlines)
* Phone-based community surveys
* PTA or any meeting reminder calls
* Story recording / playback
* Group voicemail
* Geo-based call-blasts aimed at specific streets or locations
* And much more!

As Leo writes:

Technically speaking, the goal of VoIP Drupal is to provide a common API and scripting system that interoperate with popular Internet-telephony servers (Asterisk, FreeSwitch, Tropo, Twilio, etc) dramatically reducing the learning and development costs associated with the construction of communication systems that combine voice and text technologies together.

The following VoIP servers are currently supported:

* Tropo, through the voiptropo.module (available soon)
* Twilio, through the voiptwilio.module

This project is under continuous development. If you would like to get involved in the project, or ask questions discussion is taking place on the VoIP Drupal Group. You can find more information in the VoIP Drupal Handbook.

The VoIP Drupal platform has originally been conceived and implemented by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, with major contributions from Civic Actions.

February 22 2011

14:02

Civic Media Session Explores Data in Cities

(Cross-posted at MediaShift Idea Lab)

With a redoubled focus on the community in the civic media community, the Center for Future Civic Media has launched a new speaker series. These relaxed, informal conversations about civic media featured ground-level practitioners, activists, hackers, and local leaders.

The first session, "Bustling with Information: Cities, Code, and Civics," brought good friends Nick Grossman, Nigel Jacob, and Max Ogden to our Cambridge campus. As you can see from the video clips below, these sessions are unique opportunities to talk about the amazing work that goes on in this sphere, intriguingly out of earshot of the debates on the future of journalism.

We think this is a great niche for us: Highlighting the do-it-yourself ethic that's always existed in civic media (not to mention at MIT), separate from concerns about paper vs. iPad, MBA-honed business models, etc. Sessions planned for this spring include discussions of intellectual property collaboration, the implications of check-in/location-sharing technology, how local stories spread worldwide, civic media for vulnerable populations, and civic disobedience.

So stay tuned to Idea Lab and civic.mit.edu for updates and scheduling information.

Meanwhile, check out these clips from last week's civic media session, moderated by Center director Chris Csikszentmihályi, for a taste. And, in the comment section below, let us know what other civic media topics warrant more exploration.


MIT Tech TV
Nick Grossman of OpenPlans, Nigel Jacob of the City of Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, and Max Ogden of Code for America respond to questions about how civic tools do (or need to) vary from city to city.


MIT Tech TV
Max Ogden of Code for America discusses taking "treasure troves" of government data sets to bring citizens and friends together, describing it as "enhanced serendipity."

February 17 2011

18:50

Video: From Cities, Code, and Civics: "Enhanced serendipity"

Max Ogden of Code for America discusses taking "treasure troves" of government datasets to bring citizens and friends together.

From "Cities, Code, and Civics", a Civic Media Session of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.

Download!

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18:47

Video: From Cities, Code, and Civics, "Customizing tools from city to city?"

Nick Grossman of OpenPlans, Nigel Jacob of the City of Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, and Max Ogden of Code for America respond to questions about how civic tools do (or need to) vary from city to city.

From "Cities, Code, and Civics", a Civic Media Session of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.

Download!

read more

18:40

Video: Civic Media Session, "Bustling with Information: Cities, Code, and Civics"

Nick Grossman, Nigel Jacob, and Max Ogden

Moderator: Center director Chris Csikszentmihályi

Cities are vibrant, complicated organisms. A still-working 200 year old water pipe might rest underground next to a brand new fiber optic cable, and citizens blithely ignore both if they are working well. Cities are constantly rewriting themselves, redeveloping neighborhoods and replacing infrastructure, but deliberative structures like school boards and city council meetings continue to run much the way they have for generations. In what ways can information systems rewrite our understanding of civics, governance, and communication, to solve old problems and create new opportunities in our communities?

Nick Grossman is Director of Civic Works at OpenPlans. He oversees development of new products around smart transportation, open municipal IT infrastructure, participatory planning, and local civic engagement.

Nigel Jacob serves as the Co-Chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, a group within City Hall focused on delivering transformative services to Boston's residents. Nigel also serves as Mayor Menino's advisor on emerging technologies. In both of these roles Nigel works to develop new models of innovation for cities in the 21st century.

Max Ogden is a fellow at Code for America and develops mapping tools and social software aimed at improving civic participation and communication. This year Max is working with Nigel and the Office of New Urban Mechanics to create technologies that better enable education in Boston's Public Schools.

Civic Media Sessions
Hosted by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, these open sessions highlight cutting-edge media research and tools for community and political engagement.

Download!

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January 07 2011

14:26

Q&A: The MIT Global Challenge

The Center for Future Civic Media has established some great relationships across groups at MIT with overlapping interests. In fact, those groups are wonderful presences at our regular Thursday meetings, teasing us with well-timed eye-rolls when our researchers' geek out five minutes too long about, say, Django libraries or KML data.

Two of these groups--the Community Innovators Lab and the MIT Global Challenge--have helped put together a "Q&A triangle", featuring Alexa Mills of CoLab and Kate Mytty of the IDEAS Competition and the MIT Global Challenge, to help our blogs' readers understand civic and community work through the perspective of our own groups.

First up is Kate. The IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge are an annual invention and entrepreneurship competition that support and encourage innovation in overcoming barriers to well-being in communities around the world. They are powered by the MIT Public Service Center to spur innovation as public service. Teams work in a variety of areas -- water, sanitation, disaster relief, access to health care, education, energy and much more.

1.) What are you most surprised that works well in the Global Challenge? And what are you most surprised doesn’t work as well as you’d think?

Through the MIT Global Challenge site, what suprises me most are the connections that are possible. We’re just in the beginning and a lot of people are offering their and asking for help. That shows the potential of the community. When any platform is started to connect people around a shared purpose you hope and anticipate people will benefit from that platform. Seeing it in practice -- and I was here for very little of the development process -- is powerful.

We’re still in the learning phase and there’s a lot to be gained in the next year by watching how people use the site to push forward their ideas, connect and discover opportunites. The one space I’m hoping takes off more is a lot of community partners (NGOs, MIT alumni and much more) have spent a lot of time defining the gaps they see in their communities -- problems to be solved . I’d love to see a time come when “problems” and “solvers” will meet with more speed and urgency.

2.) What circumstances are conducive to good competitions?

Ask me again in a year and I’ll be better prepared to answer (I’ve been doing this for six months now). My gut response says, at least for our competition, a shared purpose, a sense of urgency, a community of support and development for the teams entering the competition, enough money to make it worth their while, and probably an ethos of celebration. There are a lot of incredible ideas out there -- in any competition -- and sometimes, by the nature a competition, those ideas are lost and the winners are celebrated. I see it as important to celebrate the work that goes into entering the competition and then join together as a community to support furthering the efforts of ongoing teams and projects.

3.) How would you describe the process of getting sponsorship and the ongoing role of sponsors?

Great question. We have a set of sponsors -- organizations and individuals -- that are passionate about innovation, entpreneuership, and public service. Two of the key sponsors I point out are Monster Worldwide and the Yunus Challenge supported by supported by MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel (who also supports J-PAL and IDI ). With their sponsorship, they support innovation in certain areas -- for Monster this year, it’s around information technologies for empowering migrant workers and the Yunus Challenge, it’s innovation in agricultural processes. Giles Phillips, the MIT alum, we work with through Monster is involved every step of the way and is every bit as invested as we are. That’s a key strength and there’s room for other sponsors to come on board and support innovation in other broad areas -- whether mobiles, disaster relief, entrepreneurship or what have you.

- - - - - -

This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

• CoLab interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews CoLab

January 05 2011

21:20

Konbit: Connecting orgs in Haiti to Haitian labor, whether online, offline, literate, illiterate...

One of the intriguing developments following the earthquake in Haiti a year ago was NGOs' coming to terms with the fact that their dependance on technology allowed them to overlook local labor. Konbit, a remarkable project developed by Media Lab students, took this to heart.

After the earthquake, many new NGOs arrived to help, yet only the established ones had reliable access to a key labor resource: speakers of Haitian Creole.

So despite being surrounded by countless Creole speakers, the NGOs flew translators in, at high cost.

The Media Lab's Greg Elliot and Aaron Zinman developed Konbit in response. Konbit allows any local with a mobile phone to call a number and record a narrative of their skills--Creole, midwifery, whatever the skills may be. That short narrative is then translated by volunteers, and NGOs can search those translations for the workers they need.

Earlier today, Public Radio International reported on Konbit:

You can dial into Konbit from anywhere in Haiti, courtesy of local cell provider Digicel. You are then greeted by what’s probably a familiar voice, at least if you’re Haitian. The team got veteran broadcaster Bob Lemoine to record the voice prompts.

“His voice is great,” says Zinman. “It was good to have a voice that Haitians would trust.”

After a brief welcome message, Konbit then leads you through a series of those all too familiar voice prompts, asking if you have certain kinds of work experience.

Engineering, leadership and nursing are Konbit categories. So, too, are babysitting and sewing. When you find an area where you have expertise, you can leave a detailed voice mail message highlighting your skills.

“We wanted to figure out how we could help people tell stories about their lives,” Eliot says.

PRI reports that Konbit has been running in beta for just two weeks but has already handled 500 calls.

Center for Future Civic Media director Chris Csikszentmihályi served as one of Konbit's collaborators

December 21 2010

18:00

Jennifer 8. Lee on raw data, APIs, and the growth of “Little Brother”

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Jennifer 8. Lee gives us predictions, about the growing role of raw data, the importance of APIs, and the need for a break-out civic mobile app.

Raw data and the rise of “Little Brother”

In 2011 there will be a slew of riffs on the WikiLeaks anonymous dropbox scheme, sans gender drama — at least one of them by former WikiLeakers themselves. It will remain to be seen how protective the technologies are.

Basically, this codifies the rise of primary source materials — documents, video, photos — as cohesive units of consumable journalism. Turns out, despite the great push for citizen journalism, citizens are not, on average, great at “journalism.” But they are excellent conduits for raw material — those documents, videos, or photos. They record events digitally as an eyewitness, obtain documents through Freedom of Information requests, or have access to files through the work they do. We are seeing an important element of accountability journalism emerge.

Big Brother has long been raised as a threat of technological advancement (and certainly the National Security Agency has done its fair share of snooping). But in reality, it is the encroachment of Little Brother that average Americans are more likely to feel in our day-to-day lives — that people around us carry digital devices that can be pulled out for photo or videos, or they can easily copy digital files (compared to the months of covert photocopying that Ellsberg did for 7,000 pages) that others would rather not have shared with the world.

One notable strength of raw material is that it has a natural viral lift for two reasons: audience engagement, and the way legacy media operates with regard to sourcing and competition. Social media is a three-legged stool: create, consume, and share content. Because original material often feels more like an original discovery, it is more appealing to share. Documents, videos, and photos are there for anyone to examine and experience firsthand. The audience can interpret, debate, comment as they choose, and they feel greater freedom to reupload and remix that material, especially video.

The importance of APIs

There will also be an explosion in shift from raw data to information made available by application programming interfaces. A good example is ScraperWiki, out of the United Kingdom, which scrapes government data into repositories and then makes it available in an API.

Government agencies are hearing the public cry for data, and they are making raw data available. Sometimes it’s in friendlier formats like .csv or .xls. Sometimes it is in less usable formats, like PDF (as the House of Representatives did with a 3,000-page PDF of expenses) and even .exe files. (As the Coast Guard’s National Response Center has done with its incident data. It’s an extractable .xls with a readme. I know. It makes a lot of people cringe. At least their site isn’t also in Flash.) As part of this open push, the Obama administration has set up data.gov.

As that comes out, people are realizing that it’s not enough to get the public to bite, even though the underlying data might contain interesting material. It needs to be even easier to access. A good example of what happens when something becomes easily searchable: ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, on payments doctors received from pharmaceutical companies, generated an explosion of interest/investigations by taking data that was already technically public and standardizing it to make it searchable on the Internet.

What we need: the great civic mobile app

What we’re still waiting for: The break-out civic mobile app, a combination of Craigslist and Foursquare, where a critical mass of people can “check in” with comments, photos and complaints about their local community. It’s unclear how this will happen. Perhaps it will be built on the geolocation tools offered by Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps it will be an extension of Craigslist, which already has a brand associated with local community. Perhaps it’ll be something like SeeClickFix, which allows people to register complaint about potholes or graffiti, or CitySeed, a mobile app the Knight Foundation has given a grant to develop.

[Disclosure: Both the Knight Foundation and Lee are financial supporters of the Lab.]

November 17 2010

14:15

DIY Video 2010: Political Remix (Part Three)

This is the second in an ongoing series of curated selections of DIY Video prepared in relation to the screening of DIY Video 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and organized by Mimi Ito, Steve Anderson, and the good folks at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The following is my interview with Jonathan McIntosh, who describes himself as "a pop culture hacker, video remix artist and fair use advocate." McIntosh was the curator for the Political Remix track of this series.

Your selections here suggest a strong over-lap between fan vidding and political remix. Can you tell us something of the relationship which has emerged between the two DIY video communities?

The overlap in my curated examples is definitely intentional on my part, though I'm not sure how much of a self-conscious relationship there is between the two genres. I can say little about the impact of political remix on vidding but I can detail the impact of vidding on political remix work.

Many of my favorite political remix videos are created by people from a wide range of DIY communities who felt inspired or compelled to make one (or several) remixes addressing a political/social issue. I think many of these people creating remixes with a critical edge would not necessarily describe themselves or their remixes as being part of the political genre.

There are of course, a relatively small group of remixers who primarily do political work, and I am one of them. Unfortunately, within this self-identified group I still find some resistance to include vidding as a legitimate part of the political/critical remix tradition.

From my point of view it seems clear that vidding is not only an integral part of remix history but vidding practice can also can teach political remixers an enormous amount on a wide range of practices and techniques. Through my engagement with vids and vidders I have gained invaluable insights about the fannish use of narratives and pop culture characters in remix videos. When I look at vidding I see as a core element the idea that it is possible to simultaneously enjoy and love a television show while also being critical of aspects of the show's writing, characters, story arc, embedded messages etc.

Most people engage with mass media stories in a subtle and complex way - we both love it and are critical of it. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit this now but I didn't really understand this tension very well before I learned about vidding. I think that part of the resistance to vidding I encounter from other political remixers might be related to this point. They may be uncomfortable with the fannish and or sympathetic relationship that vidders have to their source because self-conscious political remixers often have a relationship of ridicule or animosity to their source.

Political remix video can be a blunt tool that uses ridicule as a way to expose hypocrisy, illuminate tropes, and talk back to power - but it is a little harder to use the form in more subtle ways (especially if you still want to get the lolz).

Learning about vidding really gave me permission to embrace my fannish-side as a political remixer instead of hiding or being ashamed of it. It would have been impossible for me to conceive of making either "Buffy vs Edward" or "Right Wing Radio Duck" without the positive influence of vidding on me and on my work. In both I rely on my fannish (and therefore sympathetic) view of one pop culture icon (The Slayer and Donald Duck) which I use to critique another popular culture character or story (Glenn Beck and Twilight/Edward Cullen).

I would also say that political remix video does not really have a self-conscious or intentional community, at least not in the same way that communities have coalesced around vidding, AMVs or machinima. The love of source material(s) seems to be part of the glue that holds vidding, AMV and machinima communities together. Political remix video as a genre on the other hand does not have a fandom at its core - but rather rallies around a deep shared suspicion of powerful institutions, structures and the media itself. This base of criticism is what, I think, poses challenges to building a larger sustained online community organized specifically around political remix video.

It was really fascinating to hear Glenn Beck concoct a conspiracy theory live on the air involving me, the stimulus package, the NEA, the "communist union organizers" and Donald Duck. But honestly it was even more exciting to see another remixer on YouTube take what Glenn Beck said and combine that with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. That remixed response - which built on my video to further the conversation - was ultimately much more a badge of honor for me. That along with the thousands of supportive, insightful, hilarious and sometimes scary comments left by people all over the Internet in response to my video was far more satisfying.


What does this controversy say about the blurring lines between DIY and professional media production? There have been, after all, some "astroturf" videos, such as Al Gore's Penguin Army which also sought to imitate the look and feel of DIY political video.
AND
I recently showcased on my blog a range of mainstream political ads which deploy pop culture references, parody, and the remixing of news clips to make their case, most often against their political opponents. What do such videos suggest about the influence which Political Remix might be having on the rhetoric and imagination of American politics?

There is no question that powerful corporate and political interests are actively attempting to co-opt the DIY video and remix aesthetic. (I also see this co-optation extending to the re-use of actual viral videos for corporate advertising campaigns like the recent Honda Odyssey ad built around David After Dentist and Kitten Afraid of Remote Control Mouse.)

Powerful institutions understand that they have a serious crisis of legitimacy on their hands resulting from widespread public cynicism about advertising. So as genuine DIY videos become enormously popular online, marketers are desperately trying to capture and bottle that sense of authenticity for their own brands.

This type of co-option has been happening for decades. Marketers have long been coming in and stealing from various DIY subcultures. But, though advertisers may be able to copy the mechanics of DIY video to mimic the look and feel of low/no budget viral videos, it's obvious to almost everyone (especially DIY video makers) that these poser videos are made for a very different purpose and with very different messages.

The Jerry Brown for Governor ad you posted which mixed footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger with Meg Whitman may be political, and remix, and video but there is no escaping the fact that it was produced by an establishment politician with a campaign budget of millions. The ad was also shown ad-nauseam on television here in California - to the point where even people that may have agreed with the critique became incredibly annoyed by the video.

What the marketers don't understand is that there is much more to political remix video than the aesthetics, style and production techniques. In my view the most interesting videos in the genre don't just remix the source material, they also remix the larger dominant messages, power relations and social norms embedded inside that media.

In some of my work, I've argued that appropriation -- the meaningful remixing of borrowed materials as a form of critical commentary -- constitutes one of the core New Media Literacies skills. What kinds of knowledge and insight do you think emerges when young people create political remixes?

I often facilitate workshops with youth using remix video with the aim of empowering young people to both understand and creatively talk back to the massive media propaganda machine targeting them. Earlier this year I taught a workshop on gender and remix with young women at Reel Grrls in Seattle.

We looked at several dozen highly gendered toy commercials recorded off the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. In our first discussion, the young women quickly identified some of what the ads were telling us about what is normal, valued and expected in terms of gender roles.

I then asked the participants to form small groups and remix the commercials by simply switching the audio and video of some of the ads directed at boys with those of the ads directed at girls.

We all had a lot of fun as we literally de-constructed and re-constructed the ads and marveled at the hilarious and insightful juxtapositions that resulted from the process. Through remix, the representations of young women in the ads were made into the heroes of epic barbie battles while the representations of young men were made to express nurturing and caring feelings for the world around them.

Before the workshop ended we screened their transformed ads and the young women pointed out further insights discovered during their editing. We discussed how, without exception, the "boys ads" focused on action, making, doing, building, competition and often engaging in battle. While the "girls ads" (even the ones for pink tech-toys) tended to focus on care-giving, child rearing, domestic tasks, physical appearance, shopping and finding a boyfriend. As they left for the day all the participants expressed interest in making more remixes in the future.

Sahar & Diana's video remix from ReelGrrls Workshops on Vimeo.

I think this workshop and others like it are are a fantastic way to empower young people to look behind the curtain the see the mass media wizard and to better understand the manipulation that is being directed at them. In the process participants also learn critical media literacy skills, new media technology, video editing and fair use rights.

After engaging in remix culture, people young and old, find it nearly impossible to experience media in a passive or uncritical way. As members of that remix culture even if we never make a remix video ourselves, we can't help but make imaginary mash-ups in our heads when watching television or movies.

Most of the best known political remixes are progressive. Are there right wing groups who are also creating political remixes? If so, is there any relationships between these two DIY communities?

This question starts to get at what is classified as political remix video, which can be a somewhat complicated answer. There are a wide range of big 'P' and small 'p' topics, beyond the narrow election arena, that are often the subject of DIY videos. I define political remix video to include a broad range of government, social, cultural, corporate, economic, privacy, gender, race, sexuality and media related issues that don't necessarily all fit neatly in the current left/right dichotomy.

When considering if a transformative work fits into the political remix video genre I use the follow criteria:

1) Does it remix or transform the source material(s) used?
2) Does it remix, subvert or comment on some of the messages embedded in the source?
3) Does it subvert larger dominate social or political power structures and messages?

Before categorizing a work as part of the political remix tradition - I also like to consider if the work is DIY or created by a powerful institution or if it is hate speech, targeting marginalized groups or just totally batshit insane (I'm kidding about this last point, sorta).

While some remixers might be intentionally creating progressive messages, many others may not be self-consciously setting out to do that. They may simply want to comment on an issue or topic they are particularly passionate about and feel is missing, under-represented or marginalized by existing mainstream media conversations.

For me, political remix video has at its core a basic power analysis and a suspicion of powerful institutions. The goal is often to challenge oppressive norms, stereotypes and dominant media messages. Remixes dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, don't simply follow red/blue lines but rather critique government policy, empire and military power from all sides of the political spectrum.

When it comes specifically to "right-wing" remix videos, many look and feel a lot like amateur commercials in support of existing power structures. The DIY aesthetic might feel subversive but the messages are often indistinguishable from public relations industry campaigns. Sometimes these works take a more extreme tone or position than even commercial media advertising would deem appropriate. An example would be GrouchyMedia who makes pro-war and pro-military mash-ups mostly in the form of music videos. He uses lyrically violent tracks to accompany violent imagery - like the videos "Die Terrorist Die" or "Taliban Bodies" - both of which celebrate killing, revenge and military power.

Similar mash-ups that ride the edge of online hate speech are works that promote or celebrate racism, sexism, homophobia and violence. Many of these pull clips, themes and messages from movies like Zack Snyder's 300 in very uncritical ways to ridicule different peoples and cultures around the world. I don't consider these videos part of the critical tradition because they are replicating or amplifying established systems of power and oppression.

It would feel rather absurd, for example, for someone to make a remix about how there just aren't enough heterosexual characters or white men on TV. There might be people who are delusional enough to believe that but I don't think such a mash-up would be taken seriously as a critique.

Examples of remix works that reinforce established sexist and patriarchal norms are everywhere online. The LazyTown mash-ups made popular by 4chan and Something Awful are some of the most disturbing in terms of gender. Typically, these works appropriate images or video clips featuring young actress Julianna Mauriello, who at age 12 starred in the hit Nickelodeon children's television show LazyTown. The most popular of the videos combines Mauriello singing the song "Cooking by the Book" with a misogynist, hyper sexual music video by Lil' John. It re-edits and manipulates her dancing to make her move in intensely sexualized ways in time to the beat and lyrics.

Though not all the media appropriating Mauriello's image is sexually objectifying, it is not uncommon for her images to be photoshopped onto hardcore pornography. Not only is this practice horrifying - it also amounts to the virtual sexual harassment of a child via remix.

There is nothing subversive in sexualizing a young actress on a television show for young children. We have a word for people or institutions that use there physical, social, economic or institutional power to demean and target those with less power - and that word is "bully".

The DIY remix video medium is a tool for communication, which can be used for either oppressive or liberatory purposes. At its best political remix video has the potential to transform our relationship with the new media landscape(s) and help us re-imagine our shared sociopolitical systems.

Jonathan McIntosh is a pop culture hacker, video remix artist and fair use advocate. He blogs at PoliticalRemixVideo.com and is a member of the Open Video Alliance. He also facilitates workshops with youth that utilize remix video and a crucial media literacy tool. His latest remix "Right Wing Radio Duck" along with the rest of his work, can be found on his website RebelliousPixels.com.

Tags: civic media
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