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November 15 2010


DIY Video 2010: Political Remix (Part Two)

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 selections were curated and commented upon by Jonathan McIntosh, who describes himself as "a pop culture hacker, video remix artist and fair use advocate." Sorry for anyone who was inconvenienced by last week's technical difficulty. I still do not know what brought down the blog for several days but we are lucky none of the archived materials were damaged or lost.

Music Videos

Music Videos - Vidding, AMVs and many political remix videos use music and lyrics to complicate or even subvert conventional understanding of a particular series of images. Music and lyrics can significantly change the tone or emotional register of otherwise familiar images, and lyrics in particular can provide a complicated counter-narrative to common-place visuals.

Star Trek: Too Many Dicks

Sloane's first vid is a hilarious visual critique of the 2009 Star Trek movie re-boot. Sloane takes the popular ironically sexist song, "Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor" by Flight of the Concords and edits together clips of the largely male Star Trek cast to critique the male dominated storyline. Sloane says of her vid "I was disappointed that J.J. Abrams had dramatically rewritten so many elements of Star Trek canon - and had largely ignored women. I was surprised how many people didn't seem to think that was a problem, or even that the issue existed." This video also serves as a strong argument for the use of cam recordings for visual criticism and critique. Cam or bootleg recording of current theatrical releases make it possible for fans and critics to make their critiques in a timely fashion while films are still fresh in the collective consciousness of the public. If vidders and political remixers have to wait for a DVD release to make their visual arguments then the window for sparking public debate and discussion might have largely passed.

Video Games: Too Many Dicks

Inspired by Sloane's Star Trek Dance Floor vid Anita Sarkeesian of FeministFrequency.com appropriates the same "ironically sexist" song to critique the male domination, hyper masculinity and glorification of violence in popular video games, using source material from 39 different game titles. Once paired with the misogynist lyrics, the games' imagery of guns, swords and chainsaws become hilarious phallic metaphors for patriarchal power inside virtual worlds. Anita also uses the lyrics to highlight two games as alternatives (both with women of color protagonists) that help counter the genre's male dominance: Portal, a first person action puzzle game which utilizes mostly non-violent problem solving strategies, and Mirror's Edge, a less-violent adventure game involving the navigation of a dystopian city maze.

Club Iraq

A warning before viewing: this remix contains clips of military personal using explicit language, mimicking sexual acts and otherwise being racist bullies. The video will most likely leave you feeling at least slightly ill.

"Club Iraq" is a very disturbing and powerful remix from the Wreck and Salvage video art crew. It combines 50 Cent's famous song "In Da Club" with audio of Bush's invasion speech mixed with scores of home videos uploaded to YouTube by US soldiers stationed in Iraq. The juxtaposition of the song with the amateur footage of US soldiers acting like immature boys and saying horrific things about the Iraqi population makes for a sickening, depressing yet poignant remix video. Wreck and Salvage provide us with a behind the scenes view of US military operations never seen in corporate media. These troubling and deeply unflattering home videos (and the thousands like them posted online) were a PR disaster for the Pentagon and are likely part of the reason the Military banned myspace and YouTube from military bases in 2007.

A supercut is an obsessive video montage created by meticulously collecting every phrase, action or cliche from a television show or movie and then editing those clips together into one single video. This can be a powerful way to reveal or highlight something otherwise missed during casual viewing.

The Price is Creepy

In this remix, Rich Juzwiak illuminates the sexist behavior of the famous TV game show host Bob Barker form the The Price is Right. Rich collected and placed back-to back a series of short clips of Barker making patronizing and downright creepy comments to female contestants. Rich's use of 1970's era episodes of the popular game show demonstrates the potential power of the supercut remix genre perfectly with this remix.

A Whole Day Of Tony Hayward's Obfuscating In Four Minute

In the wake of the gulf oil disaster people all over the Internet worked to creatively counter the public relations machine unleashed on us by the company formally known at British Petroleum. There were hilarious logo re-designs, the very entertaining BPGlobalPR spoof Twitter feed and a swarm of videos remixing BP commercials. Here Ben Craw uses a supercut to reduce many long hours of C-Span hearings down to 4 minutes. We see BP CEO Tony Hayward refusing to answer question after question and giving intentionally ambiguous responses over and over again to the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Synchronized Presidential Debating

Ever wonder why watching the 2008 presidential election debates gave you a funny feeling of déjà vu each time? This re-cut debate video from 236.com (now part of the Huffington Post) might provide some insight. Rather than placing each clip back to back, this supercut uses carefully synched CNN footage from all three presidential debates to highlight the repeated use of well rehearsed talking points by both candidates.

Identity Correction

Identity correction is a term popularized by political pranksters the Yes Men for their many impersonations of corporate officials - when applied to remix video the term refers to re-editing of corporate or government public relations efforts to make them more truthful.

The Red Stripe

YouTuber freeyourpixels offers a short yet eloquent critique of the US Marines "Red Stripe" online advertising campaign. The remix uses still images, commercial clips, new text and precise match-action editing techniques to perfectly mimic the style and tone of the original ad while highlighting the often brutal imperialist history of the US Marine Corps.

World Economic Forum Spoof Videos

The Yes Men spoofed the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with an official looking but erroneous website. As part of the project they created a series of re-dubbed video interviews with global economic, government and corporate leaders. In each video, leaders appears to speak in strikingly honest terms about real global economic problems and solutions. The re-dubs succeed in presenting us with a brief look into a possible alternative world. The remix of Patricia Woertz, CEO of the Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), apparently did not sit well with the agro-business giant because they quickly filed a takedown notice through YouTube. Luckily for us the video is still live on vimeo and elsewhere.

ADM CEO Patricia Woertz
Davos Annual Meeting 2010 - ADM CEO Patricia Woertz from World Economic Forum on Vimeo.

Klaus Schwab (1:03)
Davos Annual Meeting 2010 - Klaus Schwab from World Economic Forum on Vimeo.

Queen Elizabeth II of England (0:52)
Davos Annual Meeting 2010 - Queen Elizabeth II of England from World Economic Forum on Vimeo.

Transformative Storytelling
Transformative storytelling combines existing narratives to create new stories often keeping the popular character's original personalities intact while placing them in new contexts and situations. These are particularly popular when they build on the sympathetic use of fictional characters or narrative and utilize them to critique another source.

The Dark Bailout

Matthew Belinkie remixes one of the most famous scenes from The Dark Knight to present the Joker's take on the big bank bailouts. The gangsters in the blockbuster Batman film are re-cast as taxpayers watching President Bush's September 2008 speech urging Americans to support the $700 billion TARP bailout of Wall Street. Through the Joker, Matthew expresses the widespread public anger at the massive transfer of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street.

Jake Gyllenhaal Challenges the Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

An ambitious remix project by artist Diran Lyons who creates a new narrative critical of President Obama's foreign policy. Diran pulls footage from two films starring actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko & Jarhead) and combines it with news footage of the US President. As Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize, Gyllenhaal's character becomes disillusioned with Obama's seemingly hypocritical pro-war rhetoric, escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the failure to pull all troops from Iraq.

Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed

Lastly I have included one of my own remix videos. It's a remixed narrative in which Edward Cullen from the Twilight Series meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer at Sunnydale High. It's an example of transformative storytelling serving as a visual critique of Edward's character and generally creepy behavior. Created by re-editing and re-combining clips from the Twilight movie and scenes from 36 different television episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Seen through Buffy's eyes, some of the more sexist gender roles and patriarchal themes embedded in the Twilight saga are exposed.

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

November 10 2010


DIY Video 2010: Political Remix (Part One)

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 curator's statement was written by Jonathan McIntosh, who describes himself as "a pop culture hacker, video remix artist and fair use advocate."

Political Remix Video can empower people to assert their creative voice, tell alternative stories and critically engage with mass media systems. It is a form of critical DIY media production which challenges power structures, deconstructs cultural norms and subverts dominant social narratives by transforming fragments of mainstream media and popular culture.

The practice of remixing and re-framing moving images for political purposes has been around since the invention of film. The tradition dates back to the 1920's when Russian re-editors (many of them women) would repurpose American Hollywood films to create different political narratives and class messages. During World War Two, the Allies propaganda machine re-edited footage from Nazi rallies for newsreels to poke fun at the German Army making it seem less threatening. These early re-mixes were painstakingly done by hand, splicing strips of film and setting them to a new audio track.

The 1980s and 1990s brought video tapes and home VCRs allowing artists, activists and fan-vidders to make remixes via tape-to-tape editing. The media tools and technology of the 21st century have made the power of critical remix available to anyone with access to the web, a computer and some extra time.

Increasingly we are becoming a global culture that communicates in an audio-visual language. All political remix videos are made without the permission of the copyright holder and rely on the fair use doctrine. However despite the fact that they should be protected under fair use many critical remixes are especially vulnerable to DMCA takedowns and automatied content ID matching systems.

Today a small number of large corporations own, control and produce most of our popular culture. The remix video process provides creators a powerful way of talking back to this mass media machine. It is a way to communicate using that audio-visual language in poetic, humorous, poignant and entertaining ways.

I curated the political remix portion of the DIY 24/7 Video show at USC in the Spring of 2008. I was asked to put together a new show for 2010 highlighting some of the best remixes of the last two years. Here I have collected videos representing several distinct remix styles, covering a wide variety of social, cultural and political topics. I have focused in particular on re-cut trailers, identity correction, transformative storytelling, supercuts, and music videos. These works comment on, subvert, critique, ridicule, celebrate, illuminate and build on aspects of mass media by utilizing pieces of mass media. The topics of these videos vary widely; some focus on big "P" political issues like war, elections and government policy while others highlight small "P" political issues like race, gender and sexuality.

Re-cut trailers
Re-cut trailers are probably the most popular form of video remix online today. Some dramatically shift the genre and tone of popular movies while others remix straight characters to create new queer relationships and queer narratives from heteronormative Hollywood films.

Pretty Women as a Horror Film

Becca Marcus re-imagines the popular romantic comedy Pretty Woman as a terrifying thriller. The 1990 movie stars Richard Gere as a wealthy businessman endearingly obsessed with a women who prostitutes herself on the streets of New York City played by Julia Roberts. Becca re-cuts the films trailer adding a new soundtrack and transforming Richard Gere's character from "wealthy saviour" to a more appropriate violent controlling predator. Interestingly, the original film was written as a dark drama dealing with the difficult lives of sex workers but prior to production, Walt Disney Motion Pictures rewrote the film making it into a lighthearted Cinderella-story with the tagline "Who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?"

Gay Marriage Storm Chasers

Mary C. Matthews of VideoPancakes remixes the now infamous anti-gay marriage "gathering storm" ad created by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). She couples it with footage from the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers, she creates a promo for a new fictitious reality show called "Gay Marriage Chasers". Matthews' seamless combination produces a hilarious critique of the absurd fear mongering embedded in religious anti-gay PR efforts.

Harry Potter and the Brokeback Mountain

By now there are thousands of Brokeback Mountain parody videos online, some edging on ridicule and homophobia and others successfully subverting heteronormative Hollywood narratives to create new queer relationships. This Harry/Ron slash remix, by 19 year old vidder MissSheenie, re-casts the stars of the heteronormative Harry Potter films as young, queer wizards struggling with magic and their feeling for each other. Slash fiction using film trailers as a foundation allows makers to easily queer nearly any on screen straight relationship and is an especially important tool for LGBT fans who have so few characters to identify with in mass media.

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
Sponsored post

November 05 2010


Podcast: "Communications Forum: Civic Media and the Law"

David Ardia, Daniel Schuman, and Micah Sifry

What do citizens need to know when they publicly address legally challenging or dangerous topics? Journalists have always had the privilege, protected by statute, of not having to reveal their sources. But as more investigative journalism is conducted by so-called amateurs and posted on blogs or websites such as Wikileaks, what are the legal dangers for publishing secrets in the crowdsourced era? We convene an engaging group law scholars to help outline the legal challenges ahead, suggest policies that might help to protect citizens, and describe what steps every civic media practitioner should take to protect themselves and their users.

David Ardia runs the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Micah Sifry is a co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum.

Daniel Schuman is the policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, where he helps develop policies that further Sunlight's mission of catalyzing greater government openness and transparency.


November 03 2010


When Politics Meets Pop Culture: The Mid-Term Election Report

I am writing this well before any election returns have come in. At the moment, I do not know for sure how well any of these candidates fared in the American mid-term elections last night (and given the likely results, I might prefer to remain in blissful ignorance for a bit.) Actually, if you are reading this it is probably because I stayed up way too late last night watching the returns.

Over the past few weeks, I've been picking up a range of political ads which are, in one way or another, inspired by contemporary popular culture. As many of you know, I'm doing research right now on the concept of "fan activism" and the related concept of the "consumer-citizen," both ways of getting at the blurring of the lines between politics and entertainment. This has been a key theme running through the campaign season here -- especially as journalists and academics alike have come to grips with the Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert rally for sanity in Washington last weekend. I thought these spots, drawn from races around the country and a range of organizations, might spark some productive conversations on the day after the election.

Here's one produced by the John Manchin (Democrat) campaign for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia.

Don't blame Manchin. The title of George Lucas's science fiction classic has been linked to missile defense systems since the Reagan era. In this case, the candidate just knows how to build on that imagery to transform the campaign in a space opera.

This spot, produced by GOP Proud, uses knowledge of reality television (in this case, Real Housewives of New Jersey) to construct a critique of three leading Democratic figures.

Here, the Pat Quinn (Dem.) for Governor campaign in Illinois borrows a few notes from Glee to try to catch voters up to what they've missed so far in that election cycle. Of course, Quinn took office after the previous governor Rod Blagojevich resigned (under scandal) and went on Celebrity Apprentice.

Here, Young Republicans take aim at the president who has become famous for campaigning on Facebook, representing youth voters as recovering from a bad online romance with an abusive boyfriend. This seems the logical followup to the celebrity-themed spots which the McCain campaign ran during the 2008 election campaign, though they are created by someone who knows what Facebook is and who is also no doubt aware that The Social Network has been generating buzz at the box office.

This last spot, produced by Jerry Brown, has been credited with helping turn around the Governor's race in California. I've included it not because it features our Terminator governor (we've gotten used to that) but because in many ways, its juxtaposition of Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwartzenegger resembles one of the segments on The Daily Show which digs into the news archive to contextualize contemporary news footage.

So here are some questions to consider about these videos:

  • Which genres or forms of popular culture did they each evoke?
  • What kinds of fan knowledge or consumer interests do they tap?
  • What tone or attitude do they adopt towards the popular culture forms in question?
  • What kinds of rhetorical work are the pop culture references doing here?
  • Do the spots situate the candidate and the viewer as equally in the know about popular culture?
  • Do any of them seem pandering or patronizing in their use of pop culture images? If so, why?
  • How might we relate such spots to the "culture wars" which have long defined national politics? Is there a difference in running against popular culture as "cultural pollution" and mobilizing popular culture towards other political ends?
  • Are there differences in liberal and conservative strategies for deploying pop culture references?

I'd love to have readers send in other examples from this campaign season where candidates drew upon pop culture references to help frame their political messages.

theaskanison, one of my Twitter followers, has added this Twilight Zone themed spot to the mix:

Tags: civic media

November 01 2010


DIY Video 2010: Activist Media (Part Three)

This is the first of 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 an interview with curator Sasha Constanza-Chock designed to more fully map the contexts from which these Activist videos emerged.

Some critics have argued that the corporatized sites of web 2.0 will not allow sufficient room for progressive and radical voices to be heard. Some of the videomakers here, such as Witness, have established their own platforms for sharing their work, while others have deployed YouTube, Vimeo, and some of the other commercial platforms. How have these filmmakers worked through their relationship with commercial portals given their often anti-corporate messages?

I think it really depends. Videomakers who work from within social movements tend to see the rise of commercial videosharing sites (and social network sites) primarily as a major opportunity, but one that presents important challenges. Everyone is glad that DIY movement videos are now able to reach vast audiences that were previously inaccessible. At the same time, commercial portals present problems of 1. censorship, 2. surveillance, 3. exploitation, and 4. closed technology design.

In terms of censorship and free speech, activist videomakers often share stories of having their videos censored (taken down) by YouTube and other commercial sites, most frequently because of copyright issues with music they've used in the videos, and sometimes (especially in human rights documentation) because of graphic depiction of violence or dead bodies. This is especially the case for antiwar videos that try to show the real costs of war and military occupation. There are also many cases where video activists have had their accounts suspended. One of the best resources that documents takedowns is YouTomb. Although YouTomb is focused primarily on the copyfight, the project also documents political takedowns, but it's not emphasized. It would be wonderful to highlight political takedowns more systematically.

As for surveillance and privacy, the entire business model of commercial video portals is based on gathering as much information as possible about users in order to serve ads and sell data profiles, and many activist videomakers have problems with that. Many are also concerned about the relationship between commercial video platforms and state intelligence or police forces. We're used to hearing about this as a problem for activists living 'in repressive regimes' but it's an issue everywhere. Just last year, Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) famously said "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities." In activist networks, there have long been many anecdotes, and some documented examples, of corporate platforms sharing detailed information with police and other state agents, which then leads to repression, arrests, or worse. Just recently,
">we have learned even more based on EFF's FOIA for documents about the Department of Homeland Security's SNS surveillance practices.

A third issue, especially for anticorporate activists and critics of global labor and environmental abuses by multinational firms that are hidden behind the glossy surface of brand culture, is that by posting videos to commercial platforms you are providing free labor for the cultural economy (Terranova, and see this excellent presentation by Trebor Scholz).

The fourth problem I hear video activists talk about is the closed nature of commercial video platforms, both in terms of their governance structure (these companies are essentially like dictatorships, where the users don't have voting rights on policies or features, although occasionally they might get polled, they can petition for change, and they can 'flee into exile' in the hinterlands of smaller noncommercial video sites) and in terms of technology design. Although commercial video sites generally run on top of free software, they hide it all in layers of proprietary code and nonfree flash interfaces, and usually don't contribute back to free and open source video software and standards.

Most activist videomakers just live with these problems - it's the tradeoff for reaching more people. But increasingly I think people (not just activists) are also setting up their own, community controlled, noncommercial, free and open source alternatives. For evidence of this just look at the growth of the Open Video Alliance, or the spread of projects like Miro Community or Plumi. Recently, I've been working with Transmission, a network of video makers, programmers and web producers developing online video distribution as a tool for social justice and media democracy, to launch a new free and open source platform to aggregate video from all the activist video organizations that participate in the network. There's a preview up.

For a little bit more of my thoughts on this question check out this post.

You reference here the extended history of DIY activism through film and video production, which we might trace back to, for example, the ways black organizations responded to The Birth of a Nation, if not earlier. To what degree are the new DIY Videomakers conscious of that history? How does it inform the work they are doing?

Honestly, I think that DIY Video has become so much a part of activism and social movement practices that there's no good answer to this question. Some activist videomakers have closely studied the history of radical filmmaking, and go to great lengths to cite and reference that history in their own work. Others have no idea that this history exists and are mostly applying the tools and techniques of present day remix culture to something they're passionate about. Some activist videomakers learn how to shoot and edit by making skate videos, others shot their first video at a street protest and then got hooked, some grew up within communities of radical media makers who took part in key social movement struggles of the previous generation.

I think one aspect of DIY video activism that often gets overlooked is how institutions that were built by a previous generation helped set the stage, build infrastructure, and gain access to channels for broader distribution, and all of this helps encourage the new generation of DIY video activists. For example, check out Dee Dee Halleck's work "Hand Held Visions," on the fight for cable access TV in the US. Cable Access was the victim of a massive smear campaign backed by the corporate networks, but it was actually a space where literally thousands of people learned how to shoot and edit video, and took media democracy into their own hands. Many people active in that movement went on to help cofound local community film centers, activist film festivals, distribution networks like Women Make Movies and even satellite channels like Free Speech TV , and more recently took part in the formation of local Independent Media Centers.

It's also interesting that, as the first generation of digital video activists starts to reach middle age, some are trying to figure out how to create sustainable institutions - be they nonprofits, businesses, worker run co-ops, whatever - so that they can continue to make media without 'selling out' to big media firms. And they are sometimes looking to the previous generation, who in some cases moved from ad hoc collectives to established media arts institutions, to help them think about how to do this.

"Collective Action" was a central theme in the entire DIY 2010 series. In your case, most of these videos come from collectives and political organizations, even as YouTube is often understood as "self branding" and promoted with the slogan, "Broadcast Yourself." How have these collectives taken advantage of the networked nature of online communications in their production process?

More and more, social movement communicators are recognizing the need to shift from top-down, single channel strategies and to engage in what Lina Srivastava calls (echoing your formulation of transmedia storytelling) _transmedia activism_. One important aspect of this is shifting from the role of 'spokesperson for the movement' to 'aggregator, curator, and amplifier' of movement voices. Many of the videos I included were created in networked production processes that explicitly asked movement participants to create media (still images, short videos) and contribute them to a shared pool of resources that serves both as a mobilization archive and as raw material to be remixed into a collaborative work that was then recirculated, illustrating the broad base of support and participation that the movement or movement event enjoyed.

What I'm finding in my own research is that this is part of a broader shift towards _transmedia mobilization_, the critical emerging form for networked social movements to circulate their ideas across platforms:

"Transmedia mobilization involves consciousness building, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different actors across social movement formations; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement, and it is the key strategic media form for an era of networked social movements. While the goal of corporate actors in transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the goal of movement actors in transmedia mobilization is to strengthen movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform consciousness."

More on that here or, in presentation form, here.

In many cases, these videos are simply one resource in much more elaborate campaigns which unfold across a range of different sites and platforms. Can you say a bit more about how online video fits within larger communication strategies for some of the groups you describe?

I already talked about transmedia activism / transmedia mobilization, but I think there's another layer of communication strategy that's important to DIY video activists that we haven't touched on yet, and that's the layer of media and communication policy. Some (but not enough!) movement media activists also end up engaging with these battles - net neutrality, data privacy, media ownership, spectrum access, race and gender inequality in media ownership and employment, etc. Once they've experienced the power of media making, in a very hands-on way, they look around the media landscape and say 'it's not enough to just have our own marginalized spaces or to be visible in the social media space, we need much broader reach!' And unfortunately broader, cross platform reach for is very difficult to achieve for activists making media with values of social, environmental, economic, gender, and racial justice in an environment composed of multibillion dollar, transnational communications conglomerates that are throwing their full weight behind lobbying for media and communications policy that will keep the field tilted towards their own business models - even if those business models rely on advertising that perpetuates values, products, and practices that are literally destroying planet Earth. So that's why more and more DIY media activists are also getting involved in the struggle for media justice, through networks like the Media and Democracy Coalition, organizations like Free Press, and spaces like the Center for Media Justice. Anyone who cares about the potential for DIY video as tool and practice of cultural expression, civic engagement, and social movement mobilization should get connected to these folks. The future of DIY Video - and the future of humanity - might really depend on it :)

Sasha Costanza-Chock
is a researcher and mediamaker who works on the critical political economy of communication and on the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is currently a postdoctoral research associate. He's also a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a member of the community board of VozMob.net.

Tags: civic media

October 29 2010


DIY Video 2010: Activist Media (Part Two)

This is the first of 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 selection was curated and described by Sasha Constanza-Chock.

What follows is the full selection of videos that I sent to the DIY Video 2010 organizers, structured by the 10 social movement categories that I mentioned above. Short clips of many of them were remixed into the screening program, where they were placed in interesting juxtaposition with other kinds of DIY video by style, technique, and narrative and visual strategy. Here, you can watch the complete set of Activist Media videos, as well as some that didn't make it into the theatrical screening. Enjoy, and I hope that they inspire you to action!

DIY Video Activism Program

Meta: Video Activism

The opening selection is a compilation of key clips from the first two years of the human rights video Hub at witness.org. Witness is a widely respected video advocacy organization, based in New York City, that uses video as a tool to defend human rights. They've trained hundreds of video activists, and produced a number of good resource kits around the complex issues raised by video advocacy - representation, privacy, repression, agency, etc. They've also grappled with the tradeoffs between relying on YouTube and video hosted on corporate platforms vs. creating their own space online. I thought it appropriate to start with a retrospective they put together of recent human rights videos that have had an impact.

2 Years of the Hub - A Look Back (1:03), By Witness

2008 Election

The 2008 election was full of DIY video all over the spectrum, but I chose to highlight two works that emphasize the role of DIY video outside the formal political process, and that were connected to activity in the streets and at the polls.

Terrorizing Dissent (Trailer) (2:07), By the Glass Bead Collective

I was invited by a video journalism organization called iWitness Video (not to be confused with Witness, above) to help document protests against both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions during the 2008 campaign cycle. At the RNC in the twin cities, iWitness video was repeatedly raided by federal agents who, among other ludicrous claims, at one point insisted that they didn't need warrants because the DIY media outfit was holding 'hostages.' The raids proved to be totally baseless, but were effective in part at disrupting our video trainings and production schedule. There's at least a 40 year history of mass protest at the national conventions, and every year there seem to be more riot police, with more 'less lethal' weaponry, beating up more nonviolent protestors who oppose both parties of War and Empire. At the same time, every year there's also more and more DIY documentation of police abuse. This is great for legal teams, who in recent years have had a lot of success winning class action lawsuits in city after city over rampant first amendment violations (peacefully assemble!). Activists I was working with managed to pull together nearly a terabyte of video footage for the legal team in the Twin Cities. Over time, people have also found innovative new ways to remix protest footage in ways that can capture attention.

I contributed footage, editing, and coordination work to the feature length documentary Terrorizing Dissent. This trailer for the film (edited by the Glass Bead Collective) uses the giant American flag projected behind McCain's head as a bluescreen to show the police brutality taking place on the streets just outside the convention center.

Video the Vote 2008: Why Would Anyone Want to Stop You from Voting? (3:41), By Video the Vote

After the theft of the 2000 election, and widespread irregularities again in 2004, In 2006, Ian Inaba of Guerrilla News Network, John Ennis of Shoot First, Inc., and James Rucker of ColorOfChange.org launched a nationwide network of citizen videographers to try and document voting problems on election day. They ended up getting buy-in from major foundations, public media, and corporate partners, and thousands of people across the country volunteered to participate and help ensure that young people, low income people, and people of color wouldn't be systematically denied the right to vote again. It was all coordinated via web, email, and conference calls. It was inspiring to participate in and will hopefully keep growing during future elections.


It was obvious that this program would have to include the anonymous video of Neda Aghan-Soltan's death during the mass uprising against the theft of the Iranian election. This DIY video was seen worldwide, won the Polk award in a new 'videography' category, and did more than any other single media text to complicate Western publics' monolithic antipathy to Iran by compelling audiences to differentiate between Iranian leadership and the Iranian people. But I didn't want to just include the clip - I wanted to show it situated within a text that draws from a remix aesthetic familiar from daily cultural practices (slideshows mixed with music and short video clips), but applied to mass mobilization.

Neda Soltan [warning: graphic content] (2:22), By AliJahanii:

Iraq & Afghanistan

The massive, worldwide antiwar movement that generated the largest coordinated protest in human history on February 15th, 2003 (a date decided on via the World Social Forum process - see http://www.wsftv.net/) was unable to avert the US invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of dead soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths later, increasing numbers of US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are getting organized to end the wars - and they're using DIY video as part of their tactical arsenal. These short videos (by IVAW) highlight creative protest tactics and direct moral appeals by veterans against the war. The third clip is from Brave New Films, an activist documentary shop that is a little too big to be called DIY but not big enough to really be 'industry' either. I included it anyway since they often incorporate DIY footage into their projects.

Iraq War Veterans Raid Gas Station
(1:09), By IVAW

Iraq Veterans Against the War: End the War Now
(0:30), By IVAW

Veterans to Obama: Do Not Escalate in Afghanistan
(1:53), By Brave New Films - Rethink Afghanistan

LGBTQ movement

The LGBTQ movement has made great strides over the last decade, but California's Proposition 8 dealt a cruel blow to proponents of full equality. Protests and creative actions against "PropH8" exploded into the streets, and it was all documented by protest participants, DIY videomakers, small online journalism startups, and LGBTQ movement organizations. For more background check out "Tactical Media and Prop H8".

National Equality March Madness
(1:34), By NatlEQMarch:


The successful struggle to defeat the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006 brought immigrant communities to the streets in the largest wave of mass marches in U.S. history. Hopes of legalization for over 11 million undocumented immigrants, fanned by Obama's election, which had heavy backing from Latino voters, have by now been largely derailed. The Obama administration has pursued detention and deportation even more aggressively than the Bush administration, with 370,000 deportations in 2008 and 390,000 in 2009. This DIY video from Detention Watch Network documents a nationwide grassroots effort to lobby Congress for a more just and humane immigration policy. If you're interested in the use of social media by the immigrant rights movement check out "The Immigrant Rights Movement on the Net". If you're _really_ interested, check out my diss, "Se Ve, Se Siente: Transmedia Mobilization in the Los Angeles Immigrant Rights Movement".

Making Our Voices Heard in DC (3:12), By Will Coley for Detention Watch Network:

Police Brutality

When BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale train platform on January 1st, 2009, it was recorded by multiple videographers who documented the event on camera phones and a handheld video camera. Soon, the footage was circulating on YouTube, seen millions of times and reposted across the web, then picked up by broadcast TV news. DIY video is one of the most powerful tools in the ongoing struggle against police brutality, and in response police departments across the country are attempting to enforce laws against filming police. To follow this battle more closely check out and for a gallery of creative memorials to Oscar Grant.

Oscar Grant Shooting (1:59), By ? (multiple reposts)

Economy & Gentrification

Many of the best DIY activist videos have always been music videos. Music videos are woefully underrepresented in this program, I'm not sure how it turned out that way. But this one, produced by an amazing crew of Detroit artists, makes up for it all. It begins with beats and rhymes that highlight issues of neoliberal globalization, deindustrialization, battles against gentrification, community led development, movement building, and more, all without feeling preachy and while keeping your head nodding to lyrics by the D's very own Invincible. Then it morphs into a minidocumentary about Detroit organizers who are taking back their city for the next generation, featuring civil rights legend Grace Lee Boggs . It won the Housing Rights award from Media that Matters.

(6:29) Directed By Iqaa The Olivetone, Produced By Invincible for Emergence Media, Joe Namy, and Rola Nashef


It was incredibly difficult to find DIY video produced by Haitians about what was going in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. A youth film school called Cine Institute started putting out regular short video stories in the days and weeks after the quake. This compilation provides a taste of their work. It's not exactly social movement media but I felt it was important to include some DIY video from Haiti.

After the Earthquake: A Compilation of Cine Institute Coverage (3:45), By Cine Institute:

After the Earthquake: A Compilation of Ciné Institute Coverage from Ciné Institute on Vimeo.

Climate justice

To close the program, I chose two DIY video selections from the climate justice movement, both related to the Copenhagen COP15 climate summit that, unfortunately, failed to deliver a fair and binding agreement. The first is by the 350 movement , and weaves together stills and short clips from people all around the world who participated in a global day of action to demand a carbon target of 350 parts per million. The final clip is an interesting short by the Copenhagen Bike Bloc that provides a visual history of civil disobedience and serves as a a call to tactical innovation. I wanted to end with this because it's a direct commentary on the way that social movements constantly create new tactics - including new forms of tactical media - in order to push forward towards a more just and sustainable world.

The Day the World Came Together: October 29th, 2009
By The 350 Movement

Put the Fun Between Your Legs: Become the Bike Bloc
(1:38), By the Copenhagen Bike Bloc

Sasha Costanza-Chock
is a researcher and mediamaker who works on the critical political economy of communication and on the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is currently a postdoctoral research associate. He's also a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a member of the community board of VozMob.net.

Tags: civic media

October 27 2010


DIY Video 2010: Activist Media (Part One)

This is the first of 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 curator's statement was developed by Sasha Constanza-Chock.

Activist Media: curated by Sasha Costanza-Chock

I was invited by Steve Anderson and Mimi Ito to curate a program of 'Activist Video' for DIY Video 2010. I was happy to get involved since this is an area that I both study (as a postdoc at the ASC&J and a Fellow at the Berkman Center [http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/scostanzachock]) and have been an active participant in for about 10 years now.

I first got connected to DIY activist video through Indymedia, a worldwide network of grassroots journalists working from within the global justice movement that was inspired by the Zapatistas in southern México. Indymedia videographers used cheap video cameras to document the spectacular wave of popular mobilizations that rocked global financial meetings from 1999 forward, edited those videos on personal computers, and used Free/Libre Open Source Software platforms to circulate them transnationally via the net (this was back before the rise of blogs, social network sites, and especially YouTube as the hegemonic web video space).

In 1999, some friends of mine from Big Noise Films were cutting together footage shot by over 100 street videographers at the protests that shut down the WTO in Seattle, and asked me to help work on the soundtrack for a collaborative, DIY documentary called This Is What Democracy Looks Like The film captured the energy of the moment and was seen very widely, subtitled and distributed around the world for thousands of screenings in homes, community centers, and activist spaces. I was inspired and hooked, and over the next few years spent a lot of time helping to organize new Independent Media Centers, getting video cameras and computers into the hands of grassroots activists in the global justice movement, and shooting, editing, and coordinating collaborative DIY video documentaries (for example, check out The Miami Model [http://www.archive.org/details/miamimodel].) I was also part of the editorial collective for video.indymedia.org].

The Indymedia network is really an interesting phenomenon, and one that's often overlooked by academics studying political media, despite the large number of people involved, the technological innovations it produced, and the huge amount of traffic it (still!) actually gets. It has also been a generative space for many people who went on to become innovators in social movement technology spaces as well as web 2.0 firms more broadly. But the still-quite-recent history of innovative DIY video activism on the web, let alone the much longer history of DIY video (and film!) in general, is too often ignored these days when we talk about activist media. For those interested in a little more history and theory of media activism, check out this short article on "New Media Activism: Looking beyond the last 5 minutes", or for a book-length text see John Downing's excellent "Radical Media: Rebellious communication and social movements."

Besides the disappearance of history from narratives about media and social movements, it seems to me that conversations about 'activist media' in general, but especially 'online activism,' all too often begin by asking the wrong question, usually some version of 'does x media technology produce social change?' Just to take a recent example, see Malcom Gladwell's article "Why the revolution will not be tweeted". My response:

> "We can avoid both cyberutopianism and don't-tweet-on-me reactions with a quite simple strategy: look at how 'real' social movements communicate, rather than start with communication tools and then argue about whether they are revolutionary. Start from the social movement, then ask 'how is this movement using ICTs, from old to new, to achieve its goals?' The revolution will be tweeted - but tweets do not the revolution make." (You can read the rest here

This is similar in a lot of ways to the position put forward by Kevin Driscoll, who argues that we should focus on how networked social movements actually use new tools I agree: start from the movements, then look at the media practices. This is the strategy that I used for my work on transmedia mobilization in the immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles, and it's the curatorial strategy I employed when I assembled the 'Activist Media' program for DIY Video 2010.

To put it simply, I started by thinking about mobilizations that took place since the last DIY festival in 2008, and about social movement organizations and networks that had significant impact during that time, then went looking for DIY videos made by participants in these movements. Deciding which movements to include (and exclude) was of course difficult, but also energizing, since despite the persistent pessimism of pundits about the 'decline of civic engagement,' once you actually go looking, there is just an overwhelming amount of diverse movement activity going on everywhere :)

I ended up narrowing it down to 10 categories, most of which felt to me like they just *had* to be included: the 2008 US presidential election cycle; the Green uprising in Iran; the movement against the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the protests against Prop 8 and for GLBTQ rights; the immigrant rights movement; the murder of Oscar Grant and the movement against police brutality; the environmental movement and the Copenhagen climate conference, and struggles against gentrification. I also decided to include a video from Haiti, since DIY and local perspectives on the crisis there were so sorely lacking in both mass media and online coverage, and to look for a 'meta' video about the last few years of video activism.

I then let networks of community organizers and video makers, like the Transmission Network, know that I was pulling together this program, and received lots of video links via email and Internet Relay Chat. Most of the videos that made it into the program came from culling through all this material, although there were a few videos that I knew I wanted to include from the beginning. Some of the videomakers I know personally, and it was simple to let them know that their work would be included in the program. Others I contacted to ask for permission, and everyone who got back to me responded positively. Two, I was not able to reach, but in all cases the context of the videos and their wide circulation across the web made it fairly clear that the makers would want them to be seen as widely as possible.

Sasha Costanza-Chock
is a researcher and mediamaker who works on the critical political economy of communication and on the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is currently a postdoctoral research associate. He's also a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a member of the community board of VozMob.net.

Tags: civic media

October 20 2010


Anatomy of a Shutdown

The blog headline read, "What Works". How ironic. It was published the day a community website I was involved with bit the dust after five-plus years.

read more

Tags: Civic media

October 15 2010


Towards a New Civic Ecology: Addressing the Grand Challenges

Last week, I was asked to deliver one of the keynotes for the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges conference which was hosted on the USC campus. I had not been aware of the Grand Challenges program previously, but it seems to bring together engineering students and faculty to work together to confront some of the major problems of the 21st century, seeking to inspire them to direct their research towards the public good and social betterment. I was asked to open a panel on Communications by telling them what they needed to know about how to share their insights and ideas with key stakeholders in the current media landscape.

What follows is my attempt to capture some of the key insights that I shared during my presentation.

Towards a New Civic Ecology

If you are going to confront and overcome the Grand Challenges, you are going to need to learn how to navigate through an increasing complex communications infrastructure. Communicating your core insights is the responsibility of all of us in this room -- the engineers and educators, the journalists and communicators. As you do so, you are going to need to be able to deploy a range of different media platforms and practices. And like the rest of us, you are going to need to do what you can to build and support a robust, diverse communications system which can allow you to educate and motivate all of the many people you are going to have to work with to overcome the obstacles and achieve the solutions you are here to discuss.

Seen through that lens, the contemporary communications system is at once struggling with the threat that many major news outlets which have been the backbone of civic information over the past century are crumbling in the face of competition from new media. We may not be able to count on the traditional newspaper, news magazine or network newscast to do the work we could take for granted in the past. We are already seeing science, health, and technology reporters as especially vulnerable to lay-offs as the news media struggle to maintain economic viability and cultural relevance. At the same time, we are seeing expanded communications opportunities in the hands of everyday people -- including in the hands of academics and other experts who traditionally had little means of direct communication with the various publics impacted by their work. The problem at the present time is that existing channels of professional journalism are crumbling faster than we are developing alternative solutions which will support the kinds of information and communication needed for a democratic society.

Often, this moment of transition has been framed in terms of the concept of citizen journalism. As someone who blogs, I have many problems with this concept and not simply the one which Morley Safer raised when he said "I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery." This comment was a sharp defense of the professional skills which our students acquire through journalism schools and apply in the course of their working lives in the news media. As I've noted here before, citizen journalism is a transitional concept at best. Like the phrase, horseless carriage, it defines what is emerging in terms of legacy practices. Today, if I asked you to list ten things about your car, it is unlikely most of you would identify the fact that it is not pulled by horses, yet there was a time when the salience of this description was strong enough that it framed our understanding of what an auto was. Now, we seem to be determined to describe what citizens are doing in a language which pits them in competition with rather than in collaboration with professional journalism. In doing so, we set up several false oppositions.

First, last time I looked, most journalists were also citizens and there is a big danger in them abstracting themselves from their status as citizens when they write about the news. Second, there is often an implication that those who are not journalists are amateurs. But, when I write this blog, I am not writing as an amateur journalist. I am writing as a professional in my own right, someone who has expertise which I seek to share with a larger public, and someone whose expertise is only passed along in fragments by the traditional news media. And finally, I see what citizens as building as more expansive than journalism. We are collectively creating a communications system to support our civic engagement. For the purposes of this argument, I am going to be calling this infrastructure the civic ecology.

Thinking about a civic ecology helps us to recognize that while journalists do important work in gathering and vetting the information we need to make appropriate decisions as citizens, they are only part of a larger system through which key ideas get exchanged and discussed. We understand this if we think about the classic coffee houses which Habermaas saw as part of the ideal public sphere. The proprietors, we are told, stocked them with a range of publications -- broadsides, pamplets, newspapers, journals, and magazines -- which are intended to provide resources for debate and discussion among the paper who are gathered there on any given evening. We might think about the ways that the newspapers in colonial America were supplemented by a wide array of different kinds of political speech -- from petitions, resolutions, and proclamations to various kinds of correspondence (both personal and collective), from speeches, parades, sermons, and songs to street corner gossip.

By this same token, the present moment is characterized by both commercial and noncommercial forms of communication. As the comic strip, Zits, explains, "If it wasn't for blogs, podcasts, and twitter, I'd never know whar was going on." And of course part of the joke is that these new forms of communication are part of how his entire generation follows and makes sense of civic discourse, though often, what they are doing is monitoring and directing attention towards information which originated through professional news channels.

The 2010 State of the News report
found that Americans were getting an increasing amount of news and information in the course of their day but they were doing so by "grazing" across the civic ecology -- consuming bits and pieces of information across their day from many different news channels rather than sitting down to read the morning newspaper or watch the evening news from start to finish. They flip on the television to CNN while getting dressed, they catch a few minutes in the radio in the car or listening to their ipod on the subway, they flip across a news app on their iPhone while waiting for class, they pick up a discarded newspaper at lunch and flip through it, they follow a link sent via twitter and brouse around a site on the web, and so it goes across the day and across the week. Their civic education doesn't rest on a single profession, publication, or platform, but is rather constructed across platforms. The news system is porous -- enough so that ideas flow from community to community -- until we do not always know where they originated.

A recent report from the Knight Foundation
on the information needs of local communities identifies three core challenges which impact the future of news which you need to factor into the solutions you propose to the Grand challenges:

  • Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all americans and their communities;
  • Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
  • Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
  • Let's consider each of these challenges in turn as we think about the strategies you need to adopt to reach the folks who will be most effected by your discoveries and innovations.

    Challenge One: Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information

    The good news is that this new civic ecology maximizes the potential of scholars -- scientists, engineers, researchers of all kinds -- to communicate directly with the publics they seek to inform without going through professional intermediaries. The bad news is that most of you are so bad about communicating your ideas in languages that laypeople can understand and most of you see doing so as below your pay grade.

    It is going to be up to the generation currently in graduate school to turn this around -- seeing science writing as something more than scrawling formulas on the blackboard. This means learning how to use the wide array of tools and platforms the digital media makes available to you. This means figuring out how to translate what you know into content which is going to engage the interests of non-specialist readers, and that means figuring out the conversations they are already having and providing the resources they need to conduct those changes better. You need to build a trusted relationship with those readers; they need to recognize the value of the information you provide and learn to respect the expertise you offer.

    When should you start? There's no time like the presence. I regularly encourage my own graduate students to start a blog around their research topics. Doing so expands their research networks. Many of them get jobs based on the reputations they build through these practices. Many of them discover that they have something new and important to add to ongoing conversations. If this is going to be a regular part of your professional practices in the future, graduate school is the best time to practice these skills. Form partnerships with other graduate students either at your own institutions or elsewhere, and see if you can set a regular schedule for sharing what you know with the world.

    But keep in mind that blogs are only one possible mechanism for contributing your expertise to larger conversations. At the talk, I shared a visualization of the science entries on Wikipedia. I did so for two reasons: 1) to encourage scientists, engineers, and educators to contribute what they know to the larger project of collaborative knowledge production that Wikipedia represents and 2) to reflect on the ways that new tools for producing and sharing visualizations, such as those offered by the Many Eyes project, expands the resources through which STEM experts can share what they know with others.

    As you reflect on these new opportunities, you also need to recognize that the new communication environment does not respect national borders. I was struck recently talking to some veteran journalists that they kept insisting that Americans did not value "foreign news" and I responded that part of the problem is that professional journalists still think of it as "foreign," when Americans now come from all of these countries and are often seeking information from their mother countries, when American youth are actively seeking out entertainment content from many corners of the world through digital sharing platforms, and where America's political and economic interests are global and not geographically local. The point is not to construct some "foreign" place -- those people over there -- and try to engage us with it but rather to insert global insights into all of the conversations we are having as a society. And as you do so, also to recognize that American news escapes our borders and because a resource which gets deployed, sometimes embraced, sometimes attacked, in all of these other conversations.

    For many of the problems you want to confront, you are going to have to break through national silos and speak to a global population which needs to understand the changes you are proposing. As you do so, you need to embrace whatever works, whatever constitutes the most appropriate technologies for reaching those varied populations. And that means mixing high tech and low tech communication strategies. What begins as digital content in the developed world may be translated into images which can be printed out and pasted on walls in the developing world. What begins as a podcast in the global north may become a cassette tape which is passed hand to hand in the global south.

    Again, thinking of this as a civic ecology helps us to understand how different channels reach different niches and how communication may occur between different sectors or nations by translating content from one medium to another and passing information from one person to another. This process is central to my forthcoming book on Spreadable Media. There, we distinguish between distribution, which is a top-down process under the control of mass media, and circulation, which is a hybrid process which involves movement between commercial and noncommercial participants.

    Challenge Two: Strengthen the capacity to engage with information

    The Knight commission correctly notes that educational reform should go hand in hand with our efforts to restructure the civic ecology. As I've shown in my work for the MacArthur foundation, young people need to acquire a range of skills and competencies if they are going to meaningfully engage in the new participatory culture. As they scan the media ecology for bits and pieces of information, they need more discernment than ever before and that comes only if they are able to count on their schools to help them overcome the connected concerns of the digital divide, the participation gap, and the civic engagement gap.

    The Digital Divide has to do with access to networked communication technologies -- with many still relying on schools and public libraries to provide them with access. The Participation Gap has to do with access to skills and competencies (as well as the experiences through which they are acquired). And the Civic Engagement Gap has to do with access to a sense of empowerment and entitlement which allows one to feel like your voice matters when you tap into the new communication networks to share your thoughts.

    Unfortunately, we've wired the classrooms in this country and then disabled the computers; we've blocked young people from participating in the new forms of participatory culture; and we've taught them that they are not ready to speak in public by sequestering them to walled gardens rather than allowing them to try their voices through public forums. To overcome these challenges, scientists and engineers may need to work against their own vested interests in the short run. Despite constant cries against scientific illiteracy, our public funding for education has strip-minded the funding for all other subject matters in order to support STEM education decade after decade with devastating effects. Certainly, we need to be more effective at training kids to think in scientific and engineering terms, but that does not mean we should crush humanities, arts, and social science education in order to do so. The problems you identify are as much social problems as they are technical problems and if you want your solutions to work, you have to have an educated and empowered citizenry who are able to act upon the information you provide them.

    As we do so, we need to recognize that in the new civic ecology, we are going to confront conflicting regimes of truth, which is why so many Americans believe that evolution and global warming are myths or that Obama is a secret Muslim, an alien, or even someone who comes from Star Trek's mirror mirror universe. We need to understand those other regimes of truth if we are going to find ways to communicate across them. Again, this may be a social or cultural problem but it can not be left to us humanist and social scientists if you are going to achieve your goals.

    Challenge 3: Promote engagement with information

    It is no longer enough simply to inform. You must inspire and motivate, you must engage and enthrall the public, if you want to cut through the clutter of the new media landscape. I've often talked about the ways entertainment franchises are both creating cultural attractors which draw like-minded people together and cultural activators which gives them something to do.

    Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide have written about Public Media 2.0, suggesting that we should no longer think about public service media (as if the knowledge simply flowed from above) but rather public facilitating and public mobilizing media that creates a context for meaningful conversations and helps point towards actions which the public might take to address its concerns. It is no longer enough to produce science documentaries which point to distance stars without giving the public something it can do to support your efforts and absorb your insights into motivated action.

    I've been inspired lately by the efforts of Brave New Films, the producers of progressive documentaries, to motivate grassroots activism. Initially, the films were distributed via dvds which could be mailed to supporters who would host house parties where they would be discussed and where local activists might point towards concrete steps that could be taken. Now, they are distributing them as online videos which can be embeded into blogs and social networking sites and thus place the burden of their circulation into the hands of their supporters. This strikes me as a strategy which could be embraced by scientists and engineers who want to build a base of support behind their projects.

    Historically, one of the best tools for capturing the imagination and rallying the support of scientifically literate segements of the population was through science fiction. Science fiction was designed as an intervention into the public debates around science and technology -- pushing us to the limits of known science, speculating about the implications of new technological discoveries, and creating a community ready to discuss what they read. The science fiction fan world became major supporters of NASA and remained supporters of manned space flight well after the rest of the public turned their eyes elsewhere. Indeed, several key science fiction blogs still publish NASA photographs of deep space exploration as "space porn" -- that is, images of heavenly bodies that will remain untouched by human hands. As you move forward with your grand challenges, see if you can find ways to engage with science fiction writers and deploy them as key allies helping to shape the public imagination so we as a society are ready for the great discoveries and innovations you generate through your research.

    So there you have it, the three core challenges of communication. Each of these requires bold action just as much as will be needed to solve the energy crisis or to confront global hunger or climate change. This is why it becomes so important for you to forge cross-disciplinary partnerships throughout your graduate career. You need to walk across campus and engage in conversation with people who are pursuing other majors, who are trying to make a difference through other sectors.

Tags: civic media

October 14 2010


Wanted: Post-Doc to Help Research Youth and Civic Engagement

I sent word via Twitter and Facebook a few days ago that we are now searching for a Post Doc who can work with out Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group. This is a project that is being funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of a larger network of affiliated researchers seeking to understand young people's civic engagement. You can learn more about our research here and our group blog is here.

USC's Annenberg School for Communication is seeking a Postdoctoral Research Associate to join its Media, Activism, Participatory Politics (MAPP) Case Studies Project.

The Postdoctoral Research Associate will assume significant responsibility in conducting case study based research for the Project. This research will investigate the continuities between participatory culture and civic engagement. As such, qualified candidates should be aware of current research trends in fan studies, civics, globalization and/or media studies and should be ready to apply that knowledge to the case study research.

The Postdoctoral Research Associate will have earned an advanced degree and/or conducted previous qualitative research in one or more of the above listed areas. Successful candidates must be able to work independently and apply knowledge of domestic and international participatory cultures and civic action to the development of innovative models of civic learning and identity. Fluency in one foreign language, especially Spanish, is strongly preferred. The Postdoctoral Research Associate will report to the Project's Research Director.

The University of Southern California (USC), founded in 1880, is located in the heart of downtown L.A. and is the largest private employer in the City of Los Angeles. As an employee of USC, you will be a part of a world-class research university and a member of the "Trojan Family," which is comprised of the faculty, students and staff that make the university what it is.

Job Accountabilities:

  • Serves as a research trainee for the purpose of enhancing and developing research competencies. Participates in planning, designing and conducting highly technical and complex research projects under the direction of a supervisor. May or may not work independently.
  • Identifies, researches, compiles and evaluates data sources, background information and/or technology related to area of specialization.
  • Analyzes and evaluates research data utilizing computers and provides interpretations requiring significant knowledge of a specialized area of research. Searches literature, utilizing all available resources including electronic, regarding new methodology and designs experiments accordingly.
  • Contributes to the development of research documentation for publication and/or prepares technical reports, papers and/or records.
  • Performs other related duties as assigned or requested. The University reserves the right to add or change duties at any time.
  • The University of Southern California values diversity and is committed to equal opportunity in employment.

Start date is as soon as possible.
Position is open until filled.

more information about posted position and application details

Tags: civic media

October 06 2010


Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

A few weeks ago, Malcolm Gladwell, he of the Tipping Point, set off a fire storm in the blogosphere and twitterverse in response to a pointed critique of the political value of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Gladwell's comments drew a sharp comparison between the kinds of activism which fueled the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the kinds of activism which emerge through the new digital platforms. From where I sit, Gladwell is comparing apples to oranges or in this case, movements and platforms. The Civil Rights Movement certainly tapped into networks of all kinds -- from the congregations of churches to the sisterhood of sororities, and deployed a broad range of communications technologies available at the time. Twitter is however simply one of many communications platforms through which we forge politics in the 21st century. There's a tendency to look at it and try to read its features as totally embodying a new kind of public, but that is profoundly misleading. We do not live on a platform; we live across platforms. We choose the right tools for the right jobs. We need to look at the full range of tools a movement deploys at any given moment -- including some old fashion ones like door to door canvasing, public oratory, and street corner petitions, to understand the work which goes into campaigns for social change.

In any case, I think critiques like Gladwell's does important work -- it stirs the pot; it forces us to articulate what we really mean; the debates which follow clears away old stereotypes and cliches. That's why I am as interested in what people are saying in response to Gladwell as I am interest in Gladwell's original comments. So, for example, my former student, Ramesh Srinivasan, now a faculty member at UCLA and someone who spends lots of time getting new media technologies and practices into the hands of marginalized and disenfranchised groups around the world, has written an excellent post over at his blog. Here's a little of what he had to say:

It's hard for me to think about revolutions without remembering the incredible Battle of Algiers film, which apparently the CIA studied when the government was deciding to take the curious step of invading Afghanistan. The success of the resistance network in Algiers was its horizontal structure. There was no point of centrality that could be attacked to then take down the overall network. Classic studies of effective movements of this sort have been conducted by the Rand Corporation, for example, in their research on Information Wars and Networks. Examples as these show that even if Gladwell is correct in that networks largely lack organization, they certainly are difficult to stifle, as we see throughout history around examples of guerilla, distributed wars.

What is notable in the Algerian example is that this effective movement was not hierarchical, but a coordinated network! And that these networks are actually extremely well organized. Organization and decentralization thus need not be mutually exclusive, though of course in some cases they may be (as did indeed seem to be the case in the iran example as well). Thus, perhaps Gladwell is making the mistake of comparing apples and oranges by contrasting most uses of social media (which are passive, require little commitment and are indeed weak ties) with the committment and organization needed within successful revolutions.

Instead, I would suggest that some elements of social media *can be utilized* to generate and cement ties and coordination between those committed to the revolutionary cause. Moreover, by spreading awareness via weak ties, other social roles can be defined and filled, perhaps by some individuals less strongly committed the cause but important in terms of their positions within the network (hit the 'donate here' button!). This is exactly what my colleague Adam Fish and I uncovered in our analysis of oppositional political bloggers in Kyrgyzstan (Internet Authorship in Kyrgyzstan: Social and Political Implications). We found that while it was not the medium itself that 'tweeted revolution', it did serve a purpose of refining a message and philosophy, and most importantly connecting a small but influential group of activists. It was the strong, not weak ties, associated with social media, that made the difference.

There's more great insights on his blog.

Speaking of blogs, we recently launched a blog to support the ongoing research my team at Annnenberg School of Communications and Journalism have been doing around youth, activism, and participatory politics. Here, too, we've been closely dissecting Gladwell's arguments. Kevin Driscoll, an alum of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program and now an Annenberg PHD Candidate, offers his perspectives below, including links to a wide array of other reactions and critiques of the original New Yorker piece.

Perhaps a revolution is not what we need
by Kevin Driscoll

Malcolm Gladwell joins a rising chorus of skeptics in his latest piece for the New Yorker, Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Responding to what he calls an "outsized enthusiasm" for social media technologies as activist tools, he argues that the weak ties enabled by services like Twitter cannot inspire the kind of commitment and bravery required of "high-risk activism" like the civil rights movement.

It's a compelling argument and, to his credit, Gladwell works hard to name the sources of this "enthusiasm". Among his slacktivist hall of shame: oversold "Twitter Revolutions" in Moldova and Iran, massive awareness campaigns on Facebook, and the Legend of the Stolen Cellphone (as told by Clay Shirky).

Despite careful attention to some very real weaknesses of network activism, Gladwell's argument suffers from a lack of detail in two important areas: technology and history.

What is "Twitter"?

Three different Twitter clients

Twitter is the representative social media technology throughout most of Gladwell's article. But as an admitted non-user, Gladwell overlooks features and user scenarios that would add a critical complexity to his argument. Like email or the telephone, Twitter is a non-prescriptive communication platform. Each user experiences "Twitter" differently depending on the time of day and frequency she checks her feed, the other people she follows, and the interface(s) she uses to access the network. Because of this flexibility, norms emerge, mutate, collide, and fade away among Twitter users with a fluidity that may not be easily apprehendable to a non-user like Gladwell.

Twitter may feel like a new phenomenon but listen closely and you will find echoes of older technological paradigms at its borders. A Twitter feed is expressed using the same protocols that syndicate blog content and its famous 140-character limit ensures compatibility with a text messaging standard from 1985. These design decisions afford Twitter data a powerful mobility. You can subscribe to a Twitter feed with an blog reader and send a tweet from any old mobile phone. Technically speaking, there is little "new" about it.

Although Andrew Sullivan and others initially reported that the 2009 protests in Iran were coordinated by Twitter, it turns out that most of the Twitter activity was taking place in Europe and the U.S.. This narrative meets the needs of Gladwell's argument - Twitter use did not contribute to direct action on the streets of Tehran - but misses an opportunity to investigate an odd parallel: thousands of people with internet access spent days fixated on a geographically-remote street protest.

Who was that fixated population? Amin Vafa suggests that young diasporic Iranians like himself ("lucky enough to move to the US back in the late 1980s") may have played a critical role in the flurry of English-language activity on Twitter. He recalls obsessively seeking information to retweet, "I knew at the time it wasn’t much, but it was something." Messages sent among family and friends within and without Iran provided countless small bridges between the primarily SMS-based communication paradigm in Iran and the tweet-based ecology of the US/EU.

Such connections among far-flung members of Iranian families represent strong ties of a type similar to those that Gladwell admires in the civil-rights movement. And Vafa's experience suggests that the specific technological affordances of Twitter enabled people to exercise those ties on a transnational scale. This is not to recommend either Twitter or SMS as effective tools for organizing an uprising (when things get hectic, cell phone service is the first to go) but instead to highlight the critical importance of including technical detail in any discussion of social media activism.

What is "the civil-rights movement"?

Leaves blowing away

Gladwell presents the civil-rights movement as a touchstone for "traditional" activism. In vivid narrative passages, he recounts moments of breathtaking heroism among black activists in the face of hate, discrimination, and brutality. This bravery, he argues, was inspired by strong local ties and enabled by support from hierarchically-structured organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. The movement, as he finds it, was "disciplined", "precise", and "strategic"; systematically mobilizing thousands of participants in the execution of long-term plans toward well-defined goals. "If you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment," he concludes, "you have to be a hierarchy."

Absent from this discussion, however, is consideration for the role of history in our present-day understanding of the civil-rights movement. During a visit to our research group last week, Steven Classen reminded us that our cultural memory of the civil-rights era is built on an incomplete record. Civil-rights activism was, in Gladwell's terms, "high-risk" activism and carried the threat of injury or death. For this reason, activist communication was covert and empheral; the kind that does not leave traces to be collected and preserved in an archive.

Before the civil-rights movement can provide data to support an analysis of hierarchical activist organizations, consideration must be made for the thousands of "silent heroes" whose whose risks and labor were not recorded in any official history. Classen's interviews and archival research revealed an enlarged history of the civil-rights movement in which the highly-visible actions of centralized organizations were accompanied by small acts of resistance among seemingly autonomous groups in rural communities throughout Mississippi. How should researchers account for these gaps and discrepancies? In spite of the sheer quantity of data produced by today's social media use, there will always be aspects of social movements that are lost, forgotten, obscured, and excluded.

The same risk of injury that once obscured many human stories from the dominant history of the civil-rights movement is fundamental to Gladwell's categorization of different types of activism. On one hand, he is right to distinguish "high-risk" activism like the civil-rights movement from comparatively safe acts like joining a Facebook Cause but when he writes that, "activism that challenges the status quo [...] is not for the faint of heart", he seems to imply that violence is a necessary condition for effecting social change. In response, Linda Raftree recalls the nerve-wracking experience of carrying a politically-themed t-shirt through the streets of El Salvador in the early 1990s. The very same act that seems innocuous to a U.S. citizen can be extremely risky within a different political regime. As social media networks and their users increasingly cross national boundaries, the line between "high" and "low" risks will blur. Depending on one's geographic, cultural, and religious position, participation in social media activism may involve considerable risks: social ostracization, joblessness, displacement, or spiritual alienation.

What works?

Screenshot from an It Gets Better video

The most hierarchical organizations in the civil-rights movement focused on (and succeeded in changing) the most hierarchical problems they faced: discriminatory laws and policies. But racism is not a highly-structured problem. In fact, racism is a dispersed, slippery evil that circulates, mutates, and evolves as it moves through groups of people across time and space. The hierarchical civil-rights movement defeated Jim Crow, an instantiation of racism, but could not eradicate racism itself.

Perhaps network problems like racism require non-hierarchical, network solutions. Stetson Kennedy's "Frown Power" campaign of the 1940s and 1950s was an effort to address racism in a network fashion. To combat everyday racism, Kennedy encouraged anti-racist whites to respond to racist remarks simply by frowning. Dan Savage's It Gets Better project is a similar present-day example. Angered and saddened by the persistence of homophobic bullying among high school students, Savage asks queer adults to speak directly to victimized teens using web video. Both campaigns are activism for the "faint of heart". They effect a slow, quiet change rather than large-scale revolution.

And maybe a focus on outcomes is what this conversation needs. Creating a hard distinction between "traditional" activism and "social media" activism is a dead end. Whether the medium is Twitter, pirate radio, a drum, or lanterns hung in a Boston church tower, "real world" activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies. Rather than fret about "slacktivism" or dismiss popular new tools because of their hype, we should be looking critically at history for examples of network campaigns like Frown Power that take advantage of their culture and technological circumstances to effect new kinds of social change.

Tags: civic media

September 22 2010


Avatar Activism and Beyond

A few weeks ago, I published an op-ed piece in Le Monde Diplomatique about what I am calling "Avatar Activism."

The ideas in this piece emerged from the conversations I've been having at the University of Southern California with an amazing team of PhD candidates, drawn from both the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and the Cinema School and managed by our research director, Sangita Shreshtova (an alum of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program). Every week, this volunteer army gets together and explores the blurring line between participatory culture (especially as manisfested through fandom) and participatory politics (with a strong focus on youth engagement). Collectively, we've begun to generate conference presentations and publications, including jointly editing a forthcoming issue of Transformative Works and Culture, which is going to deal with fan activism. We've now received funding from the MacArthur and Spencer Foundations to do field work looking at political organizations which are engaging youth with the political process often through unconventional means. Our current focus is on Invisible Children and The Harry Potter Alliance, though other members of our group have been looking at a range of other examples. You can see some of our earliest accounts of this process on the web here.

Those of you who follow my Twitter account will already have seen the Avatar Activism piece in its published form, but I thought I would share here the extended version, including the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor. And after the article, I want to talk about an interesting response to the piece which was recently posted.

Avatar Activism
By Henry Jenkins

In February, five Palestinian, Israeli and International Activists painted themselves blue to resemble the Nav'I from James Cameron's science fiction blockbuster, Avatar, and marched through the occupied village of Bil'n. The Israeli military assaulted the Azure-skinned protestors, whose garb combined traditional Keffiyeh and Hijab scarfs with tails and pointy ears, with tear gas and sound bombs. The camcorder footage of the incident was juxtaposed with borrowed shots from the Hollywood film and circulated on YouTube. We hear the movie characters proclaim, "We will show the Sky People that they can not take whatever they want! This, this is our land!"

By now, most of us have read more than we ever wanted to read about Avatar so rest assured that this essay is not about the film, its use of 3D cinematography and digital effects, or its box office. Rather, my focus is citizens around the world are mobilizing icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech. Call it Avatar Activism.

Even relatively apolitical critics for local newspapers recognized that Avatar spoke to contemporary political concerns. Conservative publications, such as The National Review or the Weekly Standard, denounced Avatar as anti-American, Anti-military, and Anti-capitalist. A Vatican film critic argued that it promoted "nature worship," while some environmentalists embraced Avatar as "the most epic piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid." Many on the left ridiculed the film's contradictory critique of colonialism and embrace of white liberal guilt fantasies, calling it "Dances with Smurfs." One of the most nuanced critiques of the film came from Daniel Heath Justice, an activist from the Cherokee nation, who felt that Avatar was directing attention on the rights of indigeneous people even as Cameron over-simplified the evils of colonialism, creating embodiments of the military-industrial complex which are easy to hate and hard to understand.

Such ideological critiques encourage a healthy skepticism towards the production of popular mythologies and are a step above critics who see popular culture as essentially trivial and meaningless, as offering only distractions from our real world problems. The meaning of a popular film like Avatar lies at the intersection between what the author wants to say and how the audience deploys his creation for their own communicative purposes.

The Bel'in protestors recognized potential parallels between the Nav'I's struggles to defend their Eden against the Sky People and their own attempts to regain lands they feel were unjustly taken from them. (The YouTube video makes clear the contrast between the lush jungles of Pandora and the arid, dusty landscape of the occupied territories.) The film's larger-than-life imagery offered them an empowered image of their own struggles. Thanks to Hollywood's publicity machine, Images from Avatar would be recognized world-wide. The site of a blue-skinned alien writhing in the dust, choking on tear gas, shocked many into paying attention to messages we too often turn off and tune out, much as Iranian protestors used Twitter to grab the interest of the digitally aware outside their country.

As they appropriate Avatar, the actvists rendered some of the most familiar ideological critiques beside the point. Conservative critics worried that Avatar might foster Anti-Americanism, but as the image of the Nav'I has been taken up by protest groups in many parts of the world, the myth has been rewritten to focus on local embodiments of the military-industrial complex: in Bel'in, the focus was on the Israeli army; in China, it was on the struggles of indigeneous people against the Chinese government; In Brazil, it was the Amazon Indians against logging companies. Without painting themselves blue, intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy and Slavoj Zizek have used discussions around Avatar to call attention to the plight of the Dongria Kondh peoples of India, who are struggling with their government over access to traditional territories which are rich in Bauxite. It turns out that America isn't the only "evil empire" left on Planet Earth. Leftist critics worry that the focus on white human protagonists gives an easy point of identification, yet protestors consistently seek to occupy the blue skins of the Nav'I,.

The Avatar activists are tapping into a very old language of popular protest. Cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminds us in her now classic essay "Woman on Top" that protestors in early Modern Europe often masked their identity through various forms of role play, often dressing as peoples, both real (the Moor) and imagined (The Amazons), who were a perceived threat to the civilized order. The good citizens of Boston continued this tradition in the New World when they dressed as native Americans to dump tea in the harbor. And African-Americans in New Orleans formed their own Mardi Gras Indian tribes, taking imagery from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, to signify their own struggles for respect and dignity (a cultural practice being reconsidered in HBO's Treme).

In his book, Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy, media theorist Stephen Duncombe argues that the American Left has adopted a rationalist language which can seem cold and exclusionary, speaking to the head and not the heart. Duncombe argues that the contemporary cultural context, with its focus on appropriation and remixing, may offer a new model for activism which is spectacular and participatory, rejects the wonkish vocabulary of most policy discourse, and draws emotional power from its engagement with stories that already matter to a mass public. Duncombe cites, for example, a group called Billionaires for Bush, which posed as mega-tycoons straight out of a Monopoly game, in order to call attention to the corporate interests shaping Republican positions. Yet, he might have been writing about protestors painting themselves blue or Twitter users turning their icons green in solidarity with the Iranian opposition party.

Working with a team of researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, we have been mapping many recent examples of groups repurposing pop culture towards social justice. Our focus is on what we call participatory culture: in contrast to mass media's spectator culture, digital media has allowed many more consumers to take media in their own hands, highjacking culture for their own purposes. Shared narratives provide the foundation for strong social networks, generating spaces where ideas get discussed, knowledge gets produced, and culture gets created. In this process, fans are acquiring skills and building a grassroots infrastructure for sharing their perspectives on the world. Much as young people growing up in a hunting society may play with bows and arrows, young people coming of age in an information society play with information.

The Harry Potter Alliance's Andrew Slack calls this process "cultural acupuncture," suggesting that his organization has identified a vital "pressure point" in the popular imagination and sought to link it to larger social concerns. The Harry Potter Alliance has mobilized more than 100,000 young people world wide to participate in campaigns against genocide in Africa, in support of workers rights and gay marriage, to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti, to call attention to media concentration, and many other causes. Young Harry Potter, Slack argues, realized that the government and the media were lying to the public in order to mask evil in their midst and he organized his classmates to form Dumbledore's Army and went out to change the world. Slack asks his followers what evils Dumbledore's Army would be battling in our world. In Maine, for example, the Alliance organized a competition between fans affiliated with Griffindor, Ravenclaw, and the other Hogwarts houses, to see who could get the most voters to the polls in a referendum on equal marriage rights. The group's playful posture may mobilize young people who have traditionally felt excluded or marginalized from the political process.

Sack acknowledges that journalists are apt to pay much more attention to what's happening at Hogwarts (or at least the opening of the new Harry Potter theme park) than what's happening in Darfer. Such efforts may sound either cynical (giving up on the power of reason to convert the masses) or naïve (believing in myths rather than realities). Actually, these new style activists show a sophisticated understanding of how utopian fantasy often motivates our desires to change the world. In traditional activism, there has been less and less room to imagine what we are fighting for rather than becoming overwhelmed by what we are fighting against. In such movements, there is always a moment when participants push aside the comforting fantasy to deal with the complexities of what's happening on the ground.

This new style of activism doesn't necessarily require us to paint ourselves blue; it does ask that we think in creative ways about the iconography which comes to us through every available media channel. Consider, for example, the ways that Dora the Explorer, the Latina girl at the center of a popular American public television series, has been deployed by both the right and the left to dramatize the likely consequences of Arizona's new "Immigration Reform" law or for that matter, how the American "Tea Parties" have embraced a mash-up of Obama and the Joker from Dark Knight Returns as a recurring image in their battle against health care reform.

Such analogies no more capture the complexities of these policy debates than we can reduce the distinctions between American political parties to, say, the differences between elephants and donkeys (icons from an earlier decade's political cartoonists). Such tactics work only if we read these images as metaphors, standing in for something bigger than they can fully express. Avatar can't do justice to the century old struggle over the occupied territory and the YouTube video the protestors produced is no substitute for informed discourse about what's at stake there. Yet their spectacular and participatory performance does provide the emotional energy they need to keep on fighting and it may direct attention to other resources.

A growing number of people know how to Photoshop images, sample and remix sound, and deploy digital editing tools to mash up footage from their favorite film or television shows. This public is developing a new kind of media literacy, learning to read such deployments of popular icons for what they express about ourselves and our times. And where Photoshop fails us, protestors are turning to blue body paint in their effort to get the attention of potential supporters on Facebook and YouTube.

So, that's where I left it in the original draft of the essay, but the great thing about the blogosphere is that others add to your ideas in unexpected ways and they do so with much more rapid turnaround than would be possible in the sluggish realm of traditional academic publishing. Over the weekend, a response to my essay appeared on line, written by an expert about the tactics and rhetoric shaping politics in the Occupied Territories, and placing the Avatar video from Bilen into the larger context of the ongoing tactics of the group of protestors who created it. The entire post is must-read for anyone who cares about either the politics of the region or the general theme I am exploring here, how activists can use participatory media practices in order to direct greater attention onto their struggles and engage with new supporters. But I thought I would share a few chunks here in the hopes of enticing more of you to check out what Simon's Teaching Blog has to say.

Thus viewers of a video of the Bil'in demonstration on YouTube, or photographs of the same demonstration on Flickr might turn to text-based forms of communication as a means of informing themselves about why these images were produced. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have suggested that the Abu Ghraib photographs disseminated internationally in 2004 encouraged people to read documents that were already in the public realm, but which had not gained as much attention as they should. Thus they state: 'Strong images can activate strong reading.' (Robert Harimen and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, 2007)

The organisers of the Avatar demonstration in Bil'in aimed to produce strong images that would have an impact upon those who saw them and would attract the attention of a much wider audience. The video of this demonstration posted on YouTube by Bil'in based video maker Haitam Al Katib has received 245,440 views, at the time of writing, as opposed to the video of Naomi Klein's visit to Bil'in in August 2009 which has received 9,498 views. Taking the motif of blue aliens from a science fiction film and relocating it within the political reality of the West Bank could not be anything but a strong image, generating an uncanny effect and one hopes encouraging reflection and 'strong reading' that might help explain what was being seen. But the potential effects of strong images are not restricted to media audiences. The strength of these images can also shape how these audiences encounter them in the media. Thus Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples have argued that the strong images created by acts of symbolic violence performed by anarchists during the protests against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999 focussed the media spotlight on the concerns of the demonstrators, allowing their ideas to be aired and given a greater degree of serious attention (Kevin Michael DeLua and Jennifer Peeples, 'From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the "Violence" of Seattle', Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 19, Number 2, June 2002). With these considerations in mind, it can be suggested that whatever loss of conceptual understanding occurs through the immediate impact of the images of 'Avatar activism' can be made up for in how these images relate to the written word.

Considering Jenkin's fleeting discussion of Bil'in it should be added that the Avatar demonstration was just one instance in which demonstrators in the village appropriated motifs from other contexts, most of which were not related to popular culture. More usual has been imagery related to the broad historical frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current events related to the occupation. Thus the Bil'in Popular Committee have set up demonstrations themed to reference, for example, the iconography of the Holocaust and the storming of the Free Gaza flotilla. This affirms that the image repertoire of the Bil'in demonstrators is much broader and more historically and politically aware than the appropriation of imagery from a Hollywood blockbuster might suggest.

The key point here is that the people of Bil'in have repeatedly appropriated imagery for their demonstrations that is in some way relevant to their cause and that enables them to not only keep going, but also to break out of their isolation. To do this they have had to constantly innovate themes for their demonstrations and develop new props that can become the focal point for demonstrators and the media alike. What this suggests is that although the imagery used in the demonstrations is often simple and involves the reinforcement of crude binaries between oppression and freedom defined in terms of a contrast between the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggle, this mobilisation of simple imagery is the result of a sophisticated understanding of what resources politically weak agents can mobilise in a long term struggle against the power of a sovereign state. The people of Bil'in have committed themselves to non-violence and consequently have had to turn to other media oriented means of resistance to the classic 'weapons of the weak' utilised in the armed struggles of guerrilla and national liberation movements.

It was fantastic to see someone place the Avatar protest in this larger context of other interventions and tactics deployed by this same group of protesters. As someone who lacks expertise on the Middle East, I didn't know anything more about this situation than I had read in existing news reports, though it spoke to the global context where these appropriations are occuring. When we launched our paper call for the Transformative Works and Culture special issue on "Fan Activism," we were surprised that the overwhelming number of submissions on this issue came from researchers working outside of the United States and recounting very powerful examples of such tactics being deployed all over the world. I look forward to sharing more about these issues in future blog posts.

Tags: civic media

August 06 2010


Re-imagining Gaza: Youth Video Evaluation and Community Screenings

With the end of our youth media program in Jabaliya refugee camp last week, we conducted evaluations and screenings of the films with the families and local community, along with a photography exhibition and large public screening hosted at the Mat’haf (Gaza Museum) from August 1 - 13, 2010.

The workshop evaluations were conducted in focus groups through follow-up questionnaires and group discussions, as well as video-based interviews conducted by youth among themselves. See a brief excerpt of evaluation interviews edited by youth in the 4-min video below.

Both the community and public exhibition and screenings were a huge success with nearly 250-300 people in the audience, Q&A with the young filmmakers, a diploma ceremony that the youth and their families looked forward to, and interviews with youth conducted by Al Jazeera’s Arabic language TV correspondent. The images on the Voices Beyond Walls blog give a sense of excitement about these events.

The youth continue to work on independent media projects and short films, with the support of their trainers through an on-going follow-up program. It’s been an exhilarating summer for everyone involved and we’re proud to have an extraordinary team of young filmmakers pushing the boundaries of participatory media in Gaza.

July 30 2010


Re-imagining Gaza: Youth Photo Exhibit & Films Premiere :: Aug 1st

The “Re-imagining Project” is a program of digital video, photography and storytelling workshops that supports Palestinian children and youth in expressing their cultural identity, personal narratives, and creative visions through participatory digital media.

The photo exhibit and screening events showcase work emerging from two 3-week digital media and storytelling workshops conducted from July 4 – 25, 2010 with 10-15 year old children, in collaboration with the Women’s Program Center in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza and the Al Aroub Play and Animation Center in Al Aroub refugee camp, West Bank.

West Bank Event: Al Aroub Camp, Hebron, July 29, 2010

Gaza Event: Al Mat’haf, Sodaniya, Beach Road, Gaza
Photo Exhibit: August 1st – 13th, 2010

Exhibit Opening Reception and Film Screenings:
Sunday 5:30pm – 8:30pm, August 1, 2010

The program has been conducted by Voices Beyond Walls with community centers in refugee camps in the West Bank since 2006. In June-July 2010, the project was launched in Gaza in collaboration with Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) and participating community centers.

The program is led by an international and local team of filmmakers, artists, photographers, educators, and youth community animators. The project is supported in part by Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE), Sharek Youth Forum, Tamer Institute, Canaan Institute for New Pedagogy, the French Cultural Center in Gaza, UNRWA, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and the Genevieve McMillan-Reba Stewart Foundation.

The photo exhibition is hosted at Al Mat’haf (the Museum), a one-of-a-kind recreation and cultural center that showcases Gaza’s rich historical past and seamlessly blends it into the context of contemporary life in Gaza. At a time when many in Gaza have forgotten its rich cultural heritage, Al-Mathaf aims to preserve the region’s historical treasures, provide a venue for modern cultural dialogue, and support the new generation in creating a brighter future.

More on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

July 23 2010


Filming and Editing with youth in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 3

The final week of our workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza focused on getting youth narratives filmed on-location along with editing the video shorts. In the upcoming days we plan to finalize all films and screen them in the local community, along with post-workshop evaluations.

More photos and updates on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

The following summarizes our experiences in the final week:

Day 11: A day of ups and downs shooting video in the camp…

A day with many ups and downs - we had left video cameras with all groups and trainers to continue filming over the weekend. All but one group reported in their morning check-in that they were nearly done with their primary shooting. Many had worked hard on the weekend in new locations and reworked narratives.

However, during our video footage review it became clear nearly all had critical challenges, which nearly left their films either unusable or fairly flat. These included very poor audio and lighting for many crucial scenes; interestingly at least 2 groups shot scenes in the center (when they were unable to get permission to shoot elsewhere) but somehow failed to notice the roaring diesel generator running in the background, muting all but the loudest characters in the scenes. Others shot indoors in very poor lightning or composition and outdoor shots at a distance had little or no expression seen in the characters. Natural and dramatic acting was also turning out to be a challenge for many groups in difficult locations with little preparation, coaching or rehearsal.

There seems to be a dilemma to get the right balance between indoor/outdoor shooting to handle light and the inevitable noise in the camp. So we suggested good "location scouting" was most crucial for all groups, along with getting compelling characters in desirable roles. In some cases, simply casting other individuals in critical roles that are more authentic, was the only solution to make the films seem compelling. Finally, we urged some trainers to work closer with the other teams to provide more guidance and support.

One could feel the exasperation of the teams as they watched their footage and we noticed that many scenes re-shot had only gotten worse. This was certainly not an outcome we all wished at this stage of the workshop with all the training and critical reviews we had done. So we simply went around and got everyone to give constructive suggestions to each group as they presented their work; clearly seeing it on large format screen really helps each time. At least two groups decided to completely re-write their stories or choose a new concept, as they saw their current work fall flat. We decided to work intensively with the two groups most in need to get them back on track.

The only group that finished shooting all footage was the one doing the silent abstract film which they shot in a new location around destroyed buildings by the sea - the effect was quite moving and everyone clapped at the end. I suggested they combine their footage from the previous location to retain the urgency and dramatic character they originally achieved. Overall, this group appears to have some powerful footage to go into editing.

With the inspiration from the last group's footage, we got all other groups to meet separately with us to consider how to improve their work. Roger and Maha worked closely with a group where the children quickly developed refreshing new story, which they are excited to shoot tomorrow.

I had one group, which was a bit demoralized due to internal dynamics and trainer issues, to revert back to a piece they originally developed in the first week, focusing on human rights issues and persons injured in Jabaliya camp during the war. They were psyched to get back on-location and begin shooting. So we developed a new angle where we would have one team interview and shoot the emerging story, while another "camera crew" would film them doing so, thus creating a film inside a film. We had the "camera crew" of a 11-year old boy (Mohammed) and girl from another group use Roger's professional Panasonic video camera for the secondary shoot; they both took to it readily panning gracefully between the interview and the team filming it.

The pairing worked really well as we re-interviewed the Hammad family who suffered during the war; they welcomed us back in their home as both teams filmed them in a somewhat odd fashion (one saying "action" after the other). They understood the concept and that it was for training purposes as well. The camera team also filmed the group making decisions about their shots and preparing for interviews while walking along, so the film may turn out to be fairly compelling once it’s completed. The team plans to meet Mezan, the human rights center in the camp and film two other cases as part of their documentary narrative.

This was a great high-point for the frustrating day as the group felt a sense of satisfaction at seeing a concept come together quickly and having a workable plan of action to produce something effective in a short time. Let’s see how the rest goes with all other groups as they wrap up shooting tomorrow, and get into editing...

Day 12: Wrapping up shooting and brief editing tutorial

The day started with all the groups eagerly waiting in the courtyard of the center holding tripods and cameras ready to go for their final shoot. I came in with a large tray of Bakhalava to celebrate the arrival of my little sister's baby boy this morning. Just enough sugar to get everyone recharged for their filming on-location all morning.

Each team went out to their final locations; I took our group to the Mezan Center for Human Rights to see if we could get them to take us out for an interview with a family. No one was around, so we instead went to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), also nearby... they too were hesitant (and asked for formal letters of request), but the young team persisted and the staff finally asked a field officer to take us out to a site in Beit Lahiya where several families and schools had been hard hit. The group worked in two teams conducting the interviews and filming the film; I was impressed at their clockwork dynamic. Even the 11-year old Mohammed closely held his professional Panasonic DVX camera (which was way bigger than his sholders) and shot footage indoors and in the streets, walking rapidly backwards to frame the shots.

The group filmed 3 families two of which were in Jabaliya camp, each with devastating stories of loss and inspiring resilience. Abeer, the 15-year old girl directing the group, conducted most interviews along with Nour, while others assisted with photography and basic production work - a natural team with each one taking turns to manage the shoot. We did many interviews indoors, with several shots in the open to capture the destroyed homes and conversing while walking with our characters in the narrow alleys of the camp. Both cameras captured multiple angles of the shots; with nearly 3 hours of video it will be quite a bit of work for the group to begin sorting out and trimming their final scenes during editing.

In the afternoon, I conducted a brief hour-long tutorial of the VideoStudio editing software using an example of the "Rabbit City" film this group had shot last week. They have subsequently abandoned the story in favor of the human rights piece. So it made for a good example that was fun to edit. They learned the key elements of editing, trimming, sound tracks, audio recording, titling and transitions with only a few special effects in the context of this narrative. They suggested slow motion and repeat takes in some scenes, which all added nicely to the final film rendered.

Tomorrow all groups will begin organizing and capturing their footage to begin editing in groups, so we hope to get them off on a good track, though some may still insist on re-shooting a few scenes with audio/lighting issues. Let’s hope we can keep the full group engaged in the editing process somehow or find other constructive video/photo activities as the Al Aroub team has been trying.

Day 13: Power cuts and video editing...

A frustrating day for many groups as we struggled to begin video editing with just 3 laptops available for 5 groups. One finally finished shooting its last 2 scenes, while the others tried to review their footage, logging scenes, writing up key descriptions, and sequencing them on paper.

The center had no power for most of the day - later we heard it was a scheduled power outage throughout the camp, and the center's only diesel generator simply broke-down. So we tried to use laptops with whatever battery charge was remaining, while some groups reviewed their footage on the tiny video camera screens. At some point 2-3 groups tried to move to other buildings (a nearby UN office and a special needs center) for an hour or so to continue working, however most simply fizzled out by early afternoon with all the logistical challenges and resource constraints.

Only one group managed to finish most of their initial editing (for the abstract silent film) while 2 others made it part way through their footage. My group had shot nearly 3 hours of interviews (using two cameras), so it took a great deal of time to sort through and select some key scenes from just one camera - turns out to be a more ambitious effort than expected. We have a great deal more to do tomorrow. The remaining two groups are still essentially beginning their editing work tomorrow.

So the next 2 days will remain intensive if we can keep groups focused and manage with the power outages; our plan B is simply to move to another center temporarily. We'll review rough cuts tomorrow late afternoon, and hope to get all shorts completed by the end of the week for final screenings.

I expect we'll do our post-workshop evaluations on Sunday morning, so all groups have enough time to wrap-up prior to it. I'm working on a new questionnaire for the evaluation.

We plan to do a community screening in Jabaliya camp early next week with families (Monday), and hopefully a public screening in Gaza the following weekend. That should give us more time to refine and finalize all films with subtitles, print a selection of photos (from both workshops) and arrange some publicity to attract local audiences in Gaza.

Day 14: Power back on and video editing progressing

Today was much better as we miraculously had power nearly all day at the woman's center in Jabaliya camp. After a quick warm-up we asked everyone to discuss their editing and shooting experience thus far, to get some feedback on things we can improve - of course power and access to working laptops on-time were their biggest concerns.

We then broke up into our editing teams and tried to get everyone back on track; two groups waited around for new laptops to arrive which we had to setup with the editing software , both of them had to switch mid-stream twice, as their laptops crashed... and lost their initial edits. This was quite disruptive and frustrating, but the groups pressed ahead.

My group spent a great deal of time reviewing and capturing a selection of key scenes from over 6 hours of video they shot using the two cameras. We finally got through most of it by the end of the day and made an initial rough-cut which fairly coherent. It’s the story about 3 families in Gaza devastated during the war, as captured through interviews by a team of young girls and their camera crew.

We made a brief review of 4 out of 5 films that completed rough-cuts today in a small group of children and trainers remaining late this afternoon. The feedback was very helpful to the groups. One group with the silent abstract film decided to lay a music track over it which nearly destroyed the overall effect of the power footage they shot. Many of us suggested they try creating another version with just natural sounds of the locations and spaces they used, and see what resonates better with everyone in the final reviews tomorrow.

After the long day, I spent another few hours in Gaza city meeting folks at the French Cultural Center, YMCA and Palestinian Red Crescent Society trying to get a venue for our exhibit and screening. I’m also checking with the Museum in Gaza (the "Mathaf") - a newly renovated private space by the sea near Beit Lahiya. Lets see what works out in the next few days. The event will likely be on August 1st for the opening, with the exhibit on for 2 weeks hopefully.

Day 15: youth video shorts making progress....

I think we got a lot done today as all groups were more focused on completing their editing. In the morning, we reviewed a check-list of things each one had to consider for their final pieces, including:

1. Writing up a title, summary, brief synopsis, and group names for each film
2. Ensuring their video sequences are coherent and concise to represent the intended storyline
3. Completing all voice recordings, soundtrack and adjusting audio levels for all scenes
4. Simplifying any transitions and effects to maintain a seamless flow in the visual narrative (and not distract the viewer)
5. Add the title and credits including acknowledging the community center and voices beyond walls
6. Writing up an Arabic dialog script with timestamps for the entire film, and translating it to English for subtitles
7. Ensuring any images or music in the film are copyright free or get permission or credit them. This year we need to ensure that copyrighted material is well handled if we plan to post the youth shorts on YouTube and submit them to film festivals.

The groups got through most items on the checklist, though many still need to adjust audio levels, and complete the Arabic/English scripting and subtitles. We plan to extend the workshop into Saturday to finalize their films (given the power cuts and laptop issues all week). All groups and trainers are eager to wrap up their films and are willing to work through the weekend.

On Sunday we plan to do our evaluations in focus groups for both the video workshop and the Dabke workshop kids (our comparison group). I'm working on the questionnaire this weekend.

Finally, we plan to do our community screenings with the families and distribute diplomas to all children at an event in the center on Monday evening, followed by a more public screening in Gaza at the “Mat’haf” (Museum) next Sunday. A satisfying close for a long and productive week; we are on our last stretch to complete the youth films by early next week.

July 17 2010


Creative Writing & Filming with youth in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 2

In our second week of the workshop the children and trainers in all groups began developing their story concepts and storyboards, along with acting and shooting video on-location for their films. Below is a day-by-day summary of our experiences with the workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza.

More photos and updates on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

Day 6: Creative story-writing

We began the workshop with a focus on creative story-writing; the session was lead by Asmaa Elghoul, an award winning writer and journalist in Gaza, who's been volunteering some time with our workshops.

After a quick warm-up yoga stance and physical ice-breaker, Asmaa began the session with having everyone introduce themselves to her and describe their dream the previous night; this elicited some hilarious and touching thoughts. She then discussed what children felt were key story elements like place, climax, plot, ending, turning point, dialog, writing style, characters, context etc. We noted these points on a large sheet and referred to them often during the day as they spoke about their own narratives.

We then broke-up in 5 groups and Asmaa handed each one an illustrated storybook to read and decompose the key story elements we had discussed. Each group leader spoke a summary of the story (often acted out in funny ways) followed by one of the children presenting key elements. We then had each group participate in a rapid story-writing game we developed as follows:

1. Children in each group wrote a character, object and place on separate pieces of paper and threw then into 3 baskets.
2. We shuffled each one and handed them back to children in all groups (3 for each person).
3. Then children worked in their groups to quickly write a story comprising of these elements in 15 minutes.
4. Trainers reviewed the stories written among the groups asking about key story elements and the narratives were refined.
5. We collected the pieces of paper and re-shuffled them in the baskets, handing them back once again to children in all groups.
6. Children repeated the exercise and wrote new narratives from the elements they received.
7. After a quick review among the groups, we then collected everyone for a class wide activity called "story chains". Here we asked one person to read their story and then using elements in their narrative, someone else with similar elements (each a character, place or object) had to read their story... this continued till nearly everyone read theirs, while we often chose children who were shy or had not spoken earlier.

The entire activity was devised by us on the fly and it went really well; it got all the groups really engaged and internalizing some of the story elements we discussed earlier.

After lunch we watched two short films made by youth in previous workshops, Lamees Daydream and Street Lesson, to discuss story elements in the films, using the later to develop a storyboard of key scenes. This went quite well as the children understood the reasons for storyboarding, to better communicate ideas and break narratives down to the visual elements for filming.

The final exercise was to discuss stories they wrote over the weekend in their groups; there was less time for this and given the long day I think children were less creative and energetic at this stage. The narratives they read were typical of a day in their life with few if any imaginative elements (though one was about dreaming a trip to the moon). One that struck me was about a magic stick and a couple seeking counseling from a psychiatrist... though the story was under-developed, I suggested making the psychiatrist the one needing help - visiting families in the families in his neighborhood to figure out his dilemma :-)

Trainers felt this was the hardest activity for the children and many thought it would take a long time to get children into a more creative space. They were less optimistic but I mentioned that we've always experienced these challenges at this stage of the workshop.

Overall, I think our creative exercises in the morning were valuable but we need to spurn the children into more imaginative thinking; we'll try a few other exercises the next day, like developing narratives from photographs, story circles where children start a story and others in the circle have to complete it, improvisational stories by acting out character roles assigned to them, and perhaps going back to their neighborhoods or a brief field-trip to activate their imagination.

Day 7: Improvisational play - The psychiatrist and the donkey...

Our day began with the usual warm-up; this time children lined up along a cross-bar and playing a game of swapping themselves like musical chairs quite rapidly. I could barely make sense of it all. I'm just amazing with the creative new exercises they keep devising each day.

Asmaa and I then led our next stage of creative narrative sessions; this time we played the "story-chain" in the full circle of the group of 20 children and their trainers. Asmaa started with one example phrase "One day as I was on my way home ..." and then asked me to continue as I said "I met an elephant" .. and so on. The children at first were a bit slow to keep up the pace but eventually got the hang of it and created quite an imaginative storyline towards the end of the circle.

I then suggested we repeat the "story-circle" and I started with a more specific context to spur a richer storyline. I said "There was once a psychiatrist in Jabaliya camp, who thought he was going crazy and wanted help ..." and then the next person said "and he ran down the street and met a donkey" ... "who told him about his problems" ... and so on... by the end we had a hilarious and touching storyline that had a rich array of characters including "donkeys who protested their working conditions (i.e. DR - or donkey rights)", "mice who stole their petitions", and "a magician on a broom stick" who tried to solve their dilemma. In the end the psychiatrist wakes up from his "dream" but as he washes his face sees a "donkey" in the mirror... and runs back into the street seeing donkeys everywhere... I think they wanted to imply that the psychiatrists' problem was inside him and only he could solve it by introspection - yet instead of a direct message, the children suggested an "open ending" - leaving that up to the audience. It felt more like a version of the "Twilight Zone" :-)

We than asked the children to script-out and storyboard the tale they devised for practice... this worked well as we went through key details for each potential scene devising better characters and transitions within the story. We got the children to make a play with the storyline. We selected Abeer (one of our best participants) as the director and got the children to "audition" for each of the roles, rehearsing key scenes several times, with a virtual film crew. Finally, Roger decided to film the full play and it went surprisingly smoothly (after many chaotic rehearsal takes). The acting was amazing with Abeer finally playing the psychiatrist (after directing many actors to do it) and little Hammad acting as the cool donkey wearing shades. I was impressed that everyone played their roles so well; feels like many children opened up in the exercise and there's pretty good working dynamics within the group.

We then screened the video and children got to see a complete concept to video example in less than 2 hours. It was a huge morale boost and hilariously fun to perform. They also talked about the difficult job of the director and importance of a really detailed script. We then watched another example youth video short "Mother of Palestine" (Jenin 2007) which also had a good storyline and discussed various aspects of the narrative and video shooting thereafter.

In the last hour we broke up into newly selected groups (we thought mixing them up again would bring fresh ideas) and had them each try developing new stories for their films the next day. The groups struggled a bit at first but then after we asked some of the children to close their eyes and imagine a few key characters and situations, got them to develop narrative scripts and storyboards together.

We plan to review the storyboards in the morning and have them act out the key scenes, before doing a sample video shoot in the afternoon. I expect many of their stories tomorrow will still be rather preliminary so they may get better refined/expanded as they shoot or they can simply develop a new one after this initial video trial. I think its best not to push the groups too hard to have coherent narratives in the first go, but let them get comfortable with the full process of concept to video and later develop better narratives as they mature their ideas.

Day 8: Refining story ideas, animation and video tutorial

Today the groups presented their storyboards and scripts for potential films they plan to work on. Here's a quick summary of the key ideas emerging thus far:

1. A folk tale about a lion that harasses a colony of rabbits ("Rabbit City"), asking for one delivered and sacrificed to him each day for his meal; finally the rabbits protest and devise a way to trick the lion into thinking another lion is vying for his share. The lion sees his own reflection in a pool of water and jumps in; it’s a simple tale but the group narrated it with a lot of symbolism and metaphors about Palestinian children under occupation.

2. A film about the "noise" in the camp from generators to street vendors selling watermelons... it was an unfinished story until I suggested bridging it with one they worked on about the deaf girl Amna. Here they story would transition from an annoying noise filled day in the life of a child in the camp to meeting Amna and transforming her world through Amna's impairment, and thus learning to appreciate the richness of the soundscape around her.

3. A child experiences nightmares and is unable to sleep, while his parents complain about his performance in school. The story drifted a bit with an accident experienced by the boy, after which the parents are sympathetic to the boy. We suggested the issue of problems with sleep in the camp may actually be useful to emphasize in the film (as we heard it from many of the mothers in our focus groups). The children are refining their narrative (including perhaps an animated dream sequence) and may try to make the script more dramatic.

4. A story about Ahmad and Anna on their last day in school. Ahmad is a poor child living in the camp and Anna in a more affluent neighborhood in the city. A series of events happen in their lives until Ahmad finds a jewel on the beach - a turning point in the story, after which their roles may switch after which they may both appreciate each other lives better.

5. A story about separation among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It shows children walking lonely and confused in both places looking for each other, with Palestine being their mother. The film is a rather abstract performative piece with much symbolism.

After some long and constructive critique the narratives appear to be shaping up a bit - lets see what the groups try to make of them.

In the afternoon we watched an animated film presented by a guest speaker, Tilda, a photographer from Belgium, who worked with children in Nablus on the short. The kids got excited to try such animations for some scenes in their own films though they were well aware of the efforts needed.

Finally, Roger conducted the video session as planned quite thoroughly with some camera demonstrations on-screen, watching scenes from shorts like the Pole, Lamees Daydream, Theater of Stones and Take it or Leave it, to reinforce camera angles and composition. The session was long and needed to be a bit more interactive and hands-on.

By the end the children were losing steam and we ended the day with a quick review of their scripts in groups to start video shooting the following morning.

Day 9: First day of video shooting on-location

Today we began preparing groups for their first video shoot on-location. After revising their scripts and reviewing them with us, they had to develop detailed production plans with key characters and locations of scenes and also assign roles for the director, photo/video camera persons and actors. In some cases groups had to find extras for their films in the locations itself.

Before leaving we also asked all trainers to conduct brief hands-on video camera trainings with all children in their groups, reinforcing lessons learned on shot framing, angles and composition in the video tutorial by Roger the previous day. Finally, we asked all groups to register themselves in a sign-up sheet with the center so we knew who was on-location and what equipment they took along. We insisted on all group members wearing their badges on-location as well. All the preparations were meant to get them to take their shooting seriously and think through their efforts more professionally as they go forward.

The five groups managed to spend 2-3 hours on their first shoot; each seemed quite satisfied with their experience. A de-briefing discussion among all later that afternoon indicated a few points. Groups took care to shoot several scenes in multiple takes to get it right; some had a hard time getting extras on-location or other characters for their films but managed partly - though will need to go back and shoot more with other characters the next day. One group had a hard time getting the hearing impaired girl to be in the film as she was not around and they felt the sign translation would take more effort, so they may have an actor in her place.

My group recruited half a dozen kids on-location to wear masks as rabbits and over 20 spectators (unintentionally) in the station park (apparently the only open green play-space in Gaza) where they shot their lion and rabbit tale. Most people there turned out to be quite helpful. The group managed to use many sections of the park as key locations for different scenes (but had some trouble maintaining scene continuity shooting a forest in an urban space); they generally enjoyed the shoot, despite the blaring sun.

Getting permission to shoot in other locations was not easy e.g. a UN school and a special needs center, so these needed to be negotiated in advance; some eventually worked out through personal connections. One group wanted to shoot in an open desert area, but when they got there, many new homes were being built to their surprise and they felt uncomfortable shooting due to the police there. They finally got assistance from a popular old man in the neighborhood to get access from the community. Most did not give up easily and tried to get many of their scenes done. "Location Scouting" in advance is an important lesson they recognized.

The groups mentioned that everyone took to their roles easily and many got to use the video camera as well, though often only 1-2 were assigned the video camera. Most said they used lessons learned in the video tutorial the previous day, though I expect many mistakes in their shots. I noted some using zoom and rapid movement too often, so I think stable shots maybe something they learn over time. We'll see how their first day of footage turned out during video reviews the following day, and whether they can turn these into their final films. I expect quite a bit may need to be re-shot or scripts re-worked, but its still a good learning exercise.

Day 10: Reviewing Video Footage and Group Critique

In the morning, we had Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, come back to conduct a drama session with the group. This was really refreshing for all after a long day of video shooting the day before. Jehan led them through a series of movements, gestures and role playing exercises. Her goal was to make them less shy, more expressive and improve their body language on-screen while acting out their stories "in character".

We than lead a long session of video footage reviews among all groups. Roger and I had watched and compiled key scenes from the group's footage the night before and we examined these "shot selections" carefully to highlight good and poor examples of camera techniques used, along with overall composition and how the scenes actually convey the narrative intended. We were actually quite impressed with the content and composition of many of their shots (thanks to their photo training), though all noticed critical issues with camera stability and movement. One of the more powerful set of scenes was completely silent, with shots composed of the actors running and searching through a barren and destroyed landscape - almost felt like a surreal David Lynch scene or an apocalyptic Mad Max film.

We downloaded all footage into the VideoStudio software for each group as a separate project to show an overall summary of visual footage shot, and also culled 3-4 shot selections from each for illustrative purposes into its own project folder for review. We had labeled all scenes, shots and takes for all projects and the footage selections over 2-3 hours the night before; this was very helpful during the review as we screened different takes and shots of the same scenes to demonstrate techniques used.

This overall session went really well with much of the critique coming from the children themselves as they saw their footage projected on a large screen, with all of the challenges they encountered on-location including camera movement, shot stability, excessive zooming, sound quality, and acting. Jehan, Roger and I helped summarize key lessons learned on a poster including improving shot stability using a tripod and no zoom, breaking up scenes into multiple shots (instead of zooming midway), using cameras closer to the subjects to get more expressive features and better audio, improving overall shot composition with attention to lightning and framing of subjects, acting tips for being "in character" rather than reading out lines, not looking directly at the camera but not turning ones body to it either etc. We asked them to consider consider when and how the camera itself becomes a unintentional "character" in the film if its used with excessive movement and zooming, while POV shots need to be done intentionally to match story outcomes.

The discussions were very lively and I think the groups loved talking about their shots and recognizing things they had simply not noticed during the shoot. We asked each to refine their storyboards for a visual summary of shots and the dialog in their scripts, before continuing shooting. We've now given cameras to all their trainers over the weekend to continue shooing as they have time to meet, and extended their shooting schedule through Sunday, after which we hope to begin video editing tutorials with them next week.

We are generally going on-track this week and it’s been good to do a critical review of their footage before the weekend to get them to re-think their visual aesthetics and techniques. I have a feeling they'll do a great job on their next days of shooting with trainers, now that there's a higher-bar for what we expect to see. They're really motivated and psyched to work on their films...

July 11 2010


Youth Media Workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 1

Voices Beyond Walls and Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) began its first participatory digital media and storytelling workshop in the UNRWA Woman’s center in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza from July 4 – 25, 2010.

The three-week workshop is being conducted with five local staff members from the woman’s center and 5-6 volunteers (from youth organizations like Tamer and Sharek), all of whom participated in the Training of Trainers (ToT) course previously conducted by Voices Beyond Walls at the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy from June 28-30, 2010. The workshop participants include 25 children (boy and girls aged 10-15) from Jabaliya camp.

Another “comparison group” of 25 children are participating in a Dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) workshop conducted in parallel at the center, as part of the pilot research study led by Dr. Nitin Sawhney, examining the role of interventions supporting participatory media, creative expression, and civic engagement among marginalized children undergoing conditions of protracted conflict.

Pre-workshop Planning and Preliminary Focus Group Evaluations

On July 3rd, one day before the workshops began, we met with the center staff in Jabaliya camp to review all workshop logistics, working guidelines and preparations. We then conducted two preliminary focus group sessions with a small group of six mothers and eight children who planned to participate in the workshop.

We discussed the key issues of critical concern among mothers about the lives of their children in the camp including psychosocial trauma from the war, ongoing political conflict, blockade and everyday concerns regarding the frequent power outages, health, safety and attitudes/behaviors of children at home and in the community. We discussed their hopes and expectations, evidence of creative engagement, and media exposure among their children. The mothers were more than willing to discuss a wide range of issues and appreciated our interest in better understanding these aspects of their lives.

We then probed the group of children (two boys and six girls aged 12-15) about these issues through an exploratory exercise of having them draw their hands on a sheet of paper and noting their background information (name, age, siblings etc) and drawing out a sample daily diary of their everyday lives; this provided some background information on their routines, media consumption patterns, socialization, family life, and sleep, much of it apparently shaped by the nature of power cuts experienced on any given day.

Inevitably, socializing with friends and family through face-to-face and online means constituted an important part of their lives, at least during the summer. When asked about a significant moment in their life over the past year, most discussed effects of the war, personal loss or challenging events at school. As for problems they faced nearly all mentioned power cuts and political situation (particularly factional fighting) as primary issues. Interestingly, children with greater media usage patterns and socialization seemed more open and optimistic – yet this remains anecdotal evidence at this early stage.

The focus groups helped us develop a more detailed questionnaire and approach which we hoped to administer among all children participating in the workshop the following day.

Day 1: Focus Group Evaluations and Introduction to Photography

We began the day with ice-breakers conducted by local trainers, which energized the group of 25 children who came to attend the first day of the workshop. They later watched 2-3 short films including Nablus Tragedy, Memories of Nakba and the Pole (the funny short made in our ToT). The children especially loved the Pole, given its simple message of civic action to keep streets clean.

Maha and Asmaa worked hard to translate the evaluation questionnaire (to Arabic) in time for our focus group sessions. We had at least two facilitators each pair up with a group of 5 children to interview and capture their responses to the questionnaire. The hand drawing exercise worked really well and the daily diary revealed a great deal, though we had to probe some children harder to be more expressive about their opinions. Some questions could be framed better and it would have been helpful to conduct trainings with our evaluators to pose the questions better. All focus groups went well, with reams of hand-written responses and drawings produced by children.

After some home-made pizza at the center we had Jehad from Tamer lead the photo session, which went quite well. He previously had some children take a few shots with his camera over lunch and discussed them, along with youth photos from previous workshops in Jerusalem for review. The children engaged in amazingly critical discussions of photo aesthetics and narratives in the shots. I was quite impressed with their aptitude and they were no longer shy to be expressive.

Our digital cameras arrived just in time (donated by Tamer and Sharek) to begin hands-on photo sessions in groups; with 30 minutes of outdoor shooting, they managed to incorporate many of their ideas from the photo review session. We had an informal discussion in the courtyard about their experience, which seemed both fun and productive. The best part about our first day into the workshop was the genuine enthusiasm and attitude of all the children and trainers involved.

Day 2: Sensing and Mapping Everyday Spaces

We started with a warm-up among the children as usual and quickly moved into focus groups to complete our hopes and expectations evaluation. Shortly thereafter we conducted a photo review of a selection of the children’s work from the previous day, which went very well.

Afterwards Nasser (from EJE) lead a great session on smells, tastes and perceptions by having two children and one trainer blind-folded and passing around various spices and materials; this turned out to be a really fun activity and quite hilarious for all. This lead into each group conducting a mapping exercise within different rooms in the center and presenting their maps after lunch. It was too hot to send children out for fieldwork, so we decided to do some other exercises indoors (despite ongoing power cuts).

We then conducted a session on the rights and responsibilities of children as young journalists in training. Here the children came up with a set of rules and regulations that they would place on their own "press pass". Finally, we watched 2 video shorts "Al Hakawati" (the storyteller) and “Intensive Care Unit” (which they liked most) to prepare them visually for their neighborhood mapping fieldwork the following day.

The first 2 days have been long and tiring for all participants and trainers, but the following days will be more hands-on and fun.

Day 3: Neighborhood Mapping in Groups

Today's workshop was probably the most enjoyable as the teams had a chance to do some fieldwork to develop neighborhood reportage.

We started with a warm-up as usual; I'm amazed to see how many unusual ice-breakers our Jabaliya trainers continue to come up with. Today was the "ship and the lighthouse" - where we gathered in a circle in pairs with one sitting and the other behind, as the "lighthouse" winked to call out someone else in the circle. Hard to describe but quite fun once you get the hang of it.

We then broke out into our teams, this time rearranging the trainers into stable pairs and balancing out the boys/girls and dominant children a bit more, to plan our mapping fieldwork. The center managed to create "press badges" for our young journalists in training as they preferred to call themselves. The badges had the rules and responsibilities that they crafted the day before, on the back.

The 5 groups went out for their neighborhood mapping trips. I "shadowed" one group that decided to examine the human rights situation in their camp through mapping. They met with the PCHR and Mazen offices and interviewed their staff. I was quite impressed with their interview skills and team coordination while some wrote summaries and others photographed. Fortunately, one of the staff at Mazen took them out to meet a family whose home had been bombed during the siege in Jan 2008.

We met the father who lost his right hand and one of his children, while another suffered shrapnel wounds. I only learned about all this as the interview progressed and still taken aback by the warmth and hospitality of the whole family, who insisted on serving tea. The young group conducted their interview tactfully and professionally to the point where I joked with the Mazen staff member that they may make for good recruits in this organization.

While we got back to the center, other groups were already preparing their maps on large sheets; one involved a narrative about a water pollution and a filtration facility near the camp, while another took a field-trip to a Bedouin village nearby. They presented their maps to the groups by the end of the day, which went quite well.

Groups began trying the VideoStudio software in their groups to sequence their photography; some did a quick rough-cut but others got distracted by the software and its playful special effects (mostly due to their trainers). I tried to focus the groups back on the narrative of their neighborhood trips and challenged them to create something they might feature as reportage on Al-Jazeera. Hopefully, their ideas will get more imaginative once we've done more drama and story-writing exercises next week.

Day 4: The Silent Beauty of Amna’s Visual Senses

This was a challenging day for all; we started out fine with the groups going out to their sites to complete their neighborhood narratives.

Roger Hill, a filmmaker from San Francisco who just arrived in Gaza, joined my previous group (doing the human rights story), while I shadowed another one examining special needs children in the camp. We visited a center that introduced us to a young girl Amna who is hearing-impaired. The group managed to conduct an interview with her through a sign translator, which went really well and then proceeded to give her a digital camera to shoot some photos with them to share a part of her world through the language of photography; Amna was really wonderful and the children took a liking to her right away. I asked the children to image a silent world as we walked along with Amna in the busy noisy streets of the camp.

Roger later commented that Amna’s photos were far more engaging; the children in this group plan to work her photos into their narrative (with a silent sound track on her world). They even shot some photos of shadows of their hands doing sign language to add to their montage.

This experience left me to think that we could organize a small workshop with our young Jabaliya team working with some special needs children on joint photo narratives where one does the photo and the other the soundscape, perceiving each differently through their own senses.

That afternoon the children continued to work on their first photomontage using the editing software, despite many frustrating challenges due to power-outages, viruses on laptops, and a steep learning curve to master the technical aspects of the tool without much training. The day took a toll on most of us as we strove to find better ways to tackle such issues going forward.

Day 5: Psychodrama and Screenings of Photomontage

Our final day of the first week in the workshop ended better than expected, after all the chaos and frustration of the previous day.

We managed to address most of the challenges plaguing us over the week regarding computers and pacing of the sessions, though power cuts and trainers out sick are hard to deal with easily.

We started the day with an excellent two hour psychodrama session led by Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, who had attended our ToT in Gaza last week. She was amazing with the group, walking them through a series of exercises that helped them moving and physically expressing themselves in ways we had not seen. She eventually got children to meditate and relax to soothing music and some massage, while having them imagine and draw a scenario describing "home". The children later acted out some short improvisational plays.

Meanwhile a group of 25 children showed up in the morning to take Dabke lessons with a team of staff trainers; they were the "comparison" group we requested. The boys were already quite good at Dabke, while the girls were making a great effort; it was rather touching to watch as one of the young trainers who lost his arm (presumably in the war) taught them vigorous dance moves.

After their two hour session, Amani and Mustafa, lead the evaluation sessions with the children. These were conducted as one large group in the center library as we didn't have enough staff for in-depth focus groups. But remarkably the children took to the evaluation quite well and ended up drawing their hand exercise and daily dairy quite well, subsequently writing brief responses to Amani's questions. While it was not structured as key informant interviews in small focus groups, the children provided some good background info. on 2-3 sheets each.

After lunch our groups were eager to complete their photo-montages, even before we had a chance to fully prepare all the laptops. In the morning we worked with the center staff to have all our laptops scanned for viruses, checked software and data, and labeled each one with group IDs so they had stable machines for photo editing.

We got each group to work in a different room at the center so they could do audio recordings easily. All worked out much more smoothly this time around; the children were much more so in control of the photo editing and managed to record voice narratives for all their shorts. One group had to restart all over after the power went out and their laptop had no battery; their patience was impressive despite it all.

Finally, we got nearly all montages ready to screen and I decided to conduct our evaluation de-briefing with them for 30 mins before the final presentations. I would have preferred a more creative focus group-style evaluation but we just ran out of time...

The children were generally quite happy with the workshop - many remarking that this was their best day as they got to complete their photo narratives. Others felt the workshop got them out in their community getting to understand local issues in ways they never did and they really appreciated being asked to take on a responsible journalistic role. Others really enjoyed the photo reviews and editing techniques, not to mention the calming drama session earlier.

We insisted on hearing some difficulties they encountered; the children were frank to indicate some points including their surprise at some local community folks not wanting to be interviewed or photographed (though some children found that they were able to go back the following day and break the ice with many such folks). They complained about not having enough cameras in their groups and not enough time for editing. Others indicated the days were often long and tiring.

They also felt that the changes among children and trainers in groups (particularly in the first few days) was disruptive and with some trainers having to leave early or miss a day (due to exams or illness) lead to swapping trainers affecting group dynamics, and left the children hanging in their assignments at times. I mentioned that we really appreciated their feedback and would take that into account to improve the coming days, while encouraging us to meet us individually to offer more feedback anytime.

We finally watched the photo montages and this was deeply satisfying for all; below are the five main narratives they produced:

1. A photo montage on keeping the streets clean - the children visited a juice factory to ask about their practices to make better products and produced a piece that highlighted the community's responsibility.

2. A piece about the special needs center in the camp and how the group met a young hearing-impaired girl, Amna, whom they interviewed and trained to use a camera. It was a touching story that the children themselves felt transformed their experience spending time with Amna.

3. A detailed journalistic report on the Abu Rashed Pool, a rain-water collection facility in the camp that was often flooded or polluted. They did a great job producing a fact-filled photo essay with some imaginative writing.

4. A piece on the human rights centers in the camp with intensive interviews of the Hamad family that was devastated during the war. The piece was really well done, especially the interviews and photos with the father who lost his arm. The words and haunting music were powerful and I think it left a mark on the children who produced the piece as well.

5. A visit to a Bedouin village outside the camp and the traditional lives they lived, including mud homes they still continue to build. This group probably enjoyed their field-trip the most and produced the most dazzling photo transitions and music thanks in part to their artistic trainer, though we remarked that the special effects were probably unnecessary.

Overall it was a great screening to close the first full week of the workshop in Jabaliya camp. The children here really seem to be looking forward to the week ahead on creative writing and acting out their fictional narratives.

A selection of photos from the workshop are posted online here:

July 05 2010


Civic Media: A Syllabus

Over the past few terms, I've been sharing here the syllabi of the new courses I am developing at the University of Southern California, courses which build upon my own research interests and are intended to open up space for students to pursue their own projects. In the fall, I am going to be teaching two classes, both graduate seminars -- Civic Media for the Journalism School and Medium Specificity for the Cinema School. I am sharing my Civic Media syllabus here and will share the Medium Specificity syllabus later this summer. I am sharing these in part in hopes they prove useful to other researchers and teachers and in part because I am hoping to help spread the word to USC students who might be interested in learning more on these topics. The Civic Media class is intended, as the syllabus suggests, as a nexus between Communications and Journalism students, but I also assume it may appeal to students in Political Science, History, Education, perhaps even some in Engineering or Computer Science who want to build tools for supporting civic engagement or activism. If you know of someone at USC who might be interested in this class, please pass the word.


JOUR 599 Special Topics: Civic Media
Fall 2010
3 units


Section: 21679D
Day/Time: Tuesday, 2-4:40 p.m.
Classroom: TBD

Professor: Henry Jenkins
Email: hjenkins@usc.edu
Office: ASC 101C
Office hours: By appointment.
Please contact Amanda Ford at: amanda.ford@usc.edu

Course Description and Outcomes:

"Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism...When we shift our attention from 'save newspapers' to 'save society,' the imperative changes from 'preserve the current institutions' to 'do whatever works.' And what works today isn't the same as what used to work."-- Clay Shirky

Civic Media: any use of any technology for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, enabling the exchange of meaningful information, fostering social connectivity, constructing critical perspectives, insuring transparency and accountability, or strengthening citizen agency.

This class on "civic media" is designed to provide a meeting ground between those involved in the cultural study of communications and those invested in the study of journalism as we address a common concern with the current moment of media in transition. We will start our semester by considering a series of recent reports exploring the current state and predicting future directions for journalism, public media, and the information needs of communities. What we hope to develop along the way is a functional understanding of the roles journalism has performed in American society over the past 100 or so years. We see professional journalism as both communicating core data vital for informed citizenship and performing central rituals needed to sustain a democratic culture.

Often, we think about democracy as grounded in a rationalist discourse and shaped by structures of information, but democracy also has strong cultural roots and is shaped by what Raymond Williams would call "a structure of feeling." We may ask in the first instance what citizens need to know in order to make wise decisions and, in the second, what it feels like to be an empowered citizen capable of making a difference and sharing common interests with others. Across the trajectory of the course, we will explore a range of other institutions and practices that have similarly contributed to the public awareness, civic engagement, and social connectivity required for a functioning democracy.

Before we can decide where we are going, though, we need to know where we have been -- we will consider everything from broadsides and ballads to wax museums, "living newspapers," underground comics, photo-shopped collages, circus parades, town pageants, scrapbooks, and toy printing presses, in search of historical models of civic media. Just as newspapers are one form of journalism, journalism is one set of practices that help us to perform these functions.

Our expedition will be historical (looking at how these functions were performed in other times and places), theoretical (focusing on how different writers have conceived of civic engagement, public participation, and social capital), technological (understanding how the affordances and uses of different kinds of media enabled them to achieve one or another of these goals), and applied (seeking future models for how citizens, policy makers, and journalists might collaborate to better meet the informational and cultural needs of our times). We will also consider how new media practices may be altering our conception of democracy, government, citizenship, and community, seeking to better grasp what remains the same and what changes as we interact with each other via virtual worlds and social networks rather than in physical coffee houses and bowling allies.

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Define key concepts, such as "public sphere," "counterpublic," "imagined communities," and "citizen journalism," which have run through debates about the civic functions of media
  • Discuss how professional journalism fits within a larger realm of public and civic communications
  • Identify key positions in current debates about the future of news
  • Describe a range of different mechanisms through which civic functions have been performed across history
  • Recognize alternative conceptions of the role of citizens and their relationship to civic information
  • Analyze major shifts in American and global civic life manifesting through the rise of social networks, virtual worlds, and Web 2.0 practices

Grading and Assignments:
1. Students will contribute questions and comments to the class forum. (20 percent)

2. Students will elect one of the white papers we will have read for Week 2 of the class and write a short five-page response, focusing on the following two questions: What do you see as the strengths and the limits of their approach? What recommendations do you see as realistic and achievable? What obstacles would need to be overcome? (20 percent)
3. Students will develop a five-page report on a civic or activist organization they feel is making innovative use of civic media. (20 percent)
4. Students will develop a final project that applies the broad ideas of the course. This project might be a conventional academic essay, an experiment in new journalistic practice, or the prototype for a new civic media tool. Students should discuss their project with the instructor early in the semester so we can set an appropriate scale for this project. Students will be ready to give a 10-15 minute presentation on their project by the final weeks of the class. (40 percent)

Required Books:
Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown V. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Peter Levine, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens. Tufts (2007).
Beth Noveck, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better,
Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful
, Brookings Institution Press
Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siecle Paris, University of California Press (1999).
Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That
Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse
, MIT Press (2007)
Rahaf Harfoush, Yes We Did: How Social Networks Built the Obama Brand, New Riders Press (2009).
Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New Press (2007)

All other readings will be available through the class blackboard site.

Week 1: Introduction to Civic Media (Tuesday, August 24th)
James W. Carey, "A Cultural Approach to Communication" and "Reconceiving 'Mass'
and 'Media,'" Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1992)
Benedict Anderson, "Introduction," "Cultural Roots," and "Census, Map, Museum,"
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006)
Robert Putnam, "Introduction: Thinking about Social Change in America," Bowling
Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Civic Life
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001)
Handout with quotations from John Milton, John Stuart Mills, Alexis DeTocqville, John
Dewey, Raymond Williams, Benjamin Barber.

Week 2: Does News Have a Future? (Tuesday, August 31st)
Paul Duguid, "Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book" in Geoffrey Nunberg, The Future of the Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
Jessica Clark, "Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics" Center for Social Media
Tony DeFiel, "The Big Thaw: Charting A New Course for Journalism" The Media
Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, "Informing
Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,"

Clay Shirky, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," March 13 2009

Week 3: Where Publics Gather (Tuesday, September 7th)
Nancy Frazier, "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually
Existing Democracy," Social Text, 25-26, 1990
Tom Standage, "Coffee," A History of the World in 6 Glasses (New York: Walker, 2006)
Richard Butsch, "The Politics of Audiences in America," The Citizen Audience: Crowds, Publics and Individuals (New York: Routledge, 2007)
Mary L. Gray, "From Walmart to Websites: Out in Public," Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York: New York University Press, 2009)
Paul Starr, "The Opening of the Public Sphere, 1600-1860,"The Creation of Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic, 2005)
Handout with key passages from Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

Week 4: Why Media Matters (Tuesday, September 14th)
John Fiske, "Introduction" and "Technostruggles," Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996)
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "Constituents of a Theory of the Media" New Left Review 64, 1970, 13-36.
John Hartley, "The Frequencies of Public Writing: Tomb, Tome, and Time as
Technologies of the Public," in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn (eds.)
Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).
Kirsten Drotner, "Media on the Move: Personalized Media and the Transformation of
Publicness," in Sonia Livingstone (ed.) Audiences and Publics: When Cultural
Engagement Matters for the Public
(Bristol: Intellect, 2005).
Paula Petrik. "The Youngest Fourth Estate: The Novelty Toy Printing Press and
Adolescence, 1870-1886," in Elliot West and Paula Petrik (eds.) Small Worlds:
Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950
. (Kansas City: U of Kansas P, 1992)

Week 5: Rethinking the Informed Citizen (Tuesday, September 21st)
Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown V. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Steve Classen, "Introduction", "Conclusion," Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, Durham: Duke University Press.
Michael Schudson, "Click Here for Democracy: A History and Critique of an
Information-Based Model of Citizenship," in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn
(eds.) Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).
Cynthia Gibson, "Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement" The
Case Foundation

Week 6: The Future of Democracy (Tuesday, September 28th)

Peter Levine, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens (Boston: Tufts, 2007)
Sonia Livingstone, "On the Relationship Between Audiences and Publics," and Daniel
Dayan, "Mothers, Midwives and Abortionists: Genealogy, Obstetrics, Audiences and Publics," in Sonia Livingstone (ed.) Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere (London: Intellect, 2005)
Meira Levinson, "The Civic Empowerment Gap" Defining the Problem and Locating
Solutions," in Lonnie Sherrod, Constance Flanagan, and Judith Torney-Purta (eds.) Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth (Boston: John Wiley and Sons 2009)
Henry Jenkins, "A Person's A Person, No Matter How Small: The Democratic
Imagination of Doctor Seuss," in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

Week 7: A Digital Revolution? (Tuesday, October 5th)

Anna Everett, "Digital Women: The Case of the Million Woman March Online and On
Television," Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009)
Roger Hurwitz, "Who Needs Politics? Who Needs People?: The Ironies of Democracy in
Cyberspace," in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn (eds.) Democracy and New
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).
Cass Sunstein, "The Daily We: Is The Internet Really a Blessing for Democracy," and
Responses, The Boston Review, Summer 2001
Richard A. Ryerson, "Committees of Correspondence," The Revolution is Now Begun: the Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978)

Week 8: Collective Action (Tuesday, October 12th)
Beth Noveck, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better,
Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful
(Brookings Institute Press, 2009)
Yochai Benkler, "The Emergence of a Networked Public Sphere," The Wealth of
Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Warren Sack, "What Does a Very Large Scale Conversation Look Like?

," Electronic Book Review, March 7 2005.
Jane McGonigel, "This Is Not A Game': Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play,"

Week 9: Civic Rituals (Tuesday, October 19th)

Victor Turner, "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative
Symbology," Rice University Studies 60(3), 53-92
Janet M. Davis, "Instruct the Minds of All Classes," The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
Marie Ryan, "The American Parade: Representations of 19th Century Social Order,"
in Lynn Hunt (ed.) The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)
Paul Nadler, "Liberty Censored: Black Living Newspapers of the Federal Theatre
Project," African American Review 29 (1995): 615-622
Lynn Hunt, "Pornography and the French Revolution," The Invention of Pornography, 1500-1800: Obscenity and The Origins of Modernity (Cambridge: Zone, 1996)

Week 10: Spectacular Reality (Then and Now) (Tuesday, October 26th)
Vanessa R. Schwartz, "Setting the Stage: The Boulevard, the Press and the Framing of
Everyday Life," "Public Visits to the Morgue: Flanerie in the Service of the
State," "The Musee Grevin: Museum and Newspaper in One," Spectacular
Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siecle Paris
(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1999)
John Hartley, "Reality and the Plebisite," Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in
Popular Culture
(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007)
Aswin Punathambekar, "Television, Participatory Culture, and Politics: the Case of
Indian Idol," Flow 10(5)
Pamela Wilson, "Jamming Big Brother USA: Webcasting, Audience Intervention and
Narrative Activism," in Ernest Mathis, Janet Jones (eds.) Big Brother International: Formats, Critics and Publics (London: Wallflower, 2004)
Marwan M. Kraidy, "A Battle of Nations: Superstar and the Lebanon-Syria Media War,"
Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Week 11: Democracy in Virtual Worlds (Tuesday, November 2nd)

Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That
Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009)
Ian Bogost, "Digital Democracy," Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007)
Joe Kahne, Ellen Middaugh and Chris Evans, The Civic Potential of Video Games (MacArthur Foundation, 2009)

Week 12: Surviving Disasters (Tuesday, November 9th)
Eric Klinenberg, "In the Public Interest," Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control
America's Media
(New York: Holt, 2008)
George Lipsitz, "Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatism
and Competitive Consumer Citizenship," Cultural Anthropology 21(3), August 2006
Elaine Scarry, "Who Defended The Country?," in Daniel J. Sherman and Terry Nardin
(eds.) Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005)
Henry Jenkins, "Captain America Shed His Mighty Tears", in Daniel J. Sherman and
Terry Nardin (eds.) Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005)
Huma Yusuf, "
">Old and New Media: Converging During the Pakistan Emergency (March
2007-February 2008)," Center for Future Civic Media

Week 13: Social Networks and Participatory Culture (Tuesday, November 16th)

Andrew Kohut, "Social Networking and Online Videos Take Off: Internet's Broader
Role in Campaign 2008," Pew Internet and American Life Project
Rahaf Harfoush, Yes We Did: How Social Networks Built the Obama Brand (San Francisco: New Riders Press, 2009)
Ellen Gruber Garvey, "Scissoring and Scrapbooks: 19th Century Reading, Remaking and Recirculating" in Lisa Gitelman (ed.) New Media, 1740-1915 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004)

Week 14: Politics, Fantasy and Parody (Tuesday, November 23rd)

Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: New Press, 2007)
Henry Jenkins, "Photoshop for Democracy" and "Why Mitt Romney Won't Debate a
Snowman," Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New
York: New York University Press, 2006)
Henry Jenkins, "How Dumbledore's Army Is Changing the Real World: An Interview
with Andrew Slack," Confessions of an Aca-Fan, July 23 2009,

Week 15: Final Presentations (Tuesday, November 30th)

Tags: civic media

July 02 2010


Participatory Youth Media Training Conducted in Gaza

Voices Beyond Walls conducted its first ever 3-day Training of Trainers (ToT) course on participatory digital media and storytelling with youth at the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy in Gaza City from June 28-30, 2010. The ToT was led by Dr. Nitin Sawhney, with assistance from Asmaa Al Ghoul, an award-winning writer and journalist in Gaza, and Nasser El Sayyed, the lead coordinator for Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) in Gaza.

While we expected around 20-25 participants, we were surprised to see around 36 young men and woman coming to attend all 3 days of the course. They all had prior experience working on creative programs with youth in local community centers including Canaan, Tamer Institute, Sharek Youth Forum, Right to Play, and the EJE woman and children’s centers in Gaza refugee camps like Al Abraj, Jabaliya and Rafah. Many even had experience with photo, video and drama techniques and contributed to the critical dialogue in the sessions quite well.

In this blog posting I describe the outcomes of the three days of participatory media, photography, neighborhood mapping, child rights, drama, storyboarding and video sessions conducted in the training.

To see more photos and videos visit the Voices Beyond Walls blog here:

read more


Launching the Re-imagining Project in West Bank and Gaza in Summer 2010

Since 2006, I have been leading a participatory media program called Voices Beyond Walls in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a local and international team of artists, filmmakers and educators. This summer our teams are launching a program of parallel workshops in the West Bank and Gaza, as part of our new Re-imagining Project.

The “Re-imagining Project” is a program of digital video, photography and storytelling workshops that supports Palestinian children and youth in expressing their cultural identity, personal narratives, and creative visions through participatory digital media.

This project is a collaboration among Voices Beyond Walls, Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE), UNRWA and participating community centers in Al Aroub and Jabaliya refugee camps.

The program consists of the following key activities in summer 2010:

I. Conducting two 3-day Training of Trainers (ToT) sessions in Ramallah and Gaza City between June 28 to June 30, 2010. It will be conducted with 20-30 Palestinian volunteers from local youth centers, to provide participatory youth media training and prepare them to serve as potential workshop facilitators.

II. Conducting at least two 3-week digital storytelling workshops between July 4th to July 25th, 2010 with around 18-24 children (both boys and girls aged 10-14), in collaboration with community centers in Al Aroub camp in the West Bank and Jabaliya camp in Gaza. Many joint activities will be conducted among children in both workshops via video conferencing and online sharing.

III. Conducting baseline surveys, ongoing monitoring, and follow-up evaluations with all participants in the training and workshops in collaboration with EJE, UNRWA and the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP).

IV. Screenings and exhibitions of the youth media work in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, as well as international festivals and venues abroad in 2010-2011.

We have an exciting international and local team of filmmakers, artists, photographers, researchers, educators and community youth activists involved this year. The project is sponsored in part by the Genevieve McMillan-Reba Stewart Foundation and the MIT Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stay tuned for regular updates on our blog and website:

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