It’s easy to find alarming evidence that we’ve lost our way when it comes to civics in the US. But longtime global activist and MIT prof Ethan Zuckerman says there’s a lot to get excited about too, if we’re willing to think in new ways about what it even means to be civically engaged in the digital age.
Ethan’s working with a group of scholars and practitioners (I’m one of them) to track how young people are expressing voice and exerting agency in public spheres through participatory politics. Registering to vote or campaigning for a candidate are obvious and important political moves. But so is appropriating Occupy for hurricane relief, mobilizing Hunger Games fans to organize for real-life civil rights, or producing a libertarian music video professing a crush on the economist Friedrich Hayek, (thanks Liana Gamber Thompson).
But here’s the rub. If we’re willing to take this expansive view of civics, how do we start to make sense of what any given activity really achieves in the world? When does “voice” make a difference? That’s the question Ethan took on this week in his keynote, How Do We Teach Digital Civics? at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago. He offered this diagram as a way to map actions into one of four quadrants.
Want to figure out where your own civic moves fit in the mix? You can watch Ethan’s whole talk here. It’s an attempt to envision an approach to civics that engages young people’s imaginations and networks rather than telling them what to do.
Fourteen-year-old Luna Ito-Fisher started making her own clothes and accessories when she was nine, after attending a friend’s birthday party at a sewing studio in LA.
“I remember at the beginning, threading was so hard and I could never get it through the needle,” Luna tells me as she sets up her machine on her family’s dining room table. Now, she slides the thread through the tiny clips across the top of the machine, guides it up and down the rigging, licks the end and pokes it, like nothing, straight through the eye.
It's one thing for massively popular TV shows like Heroes and Lost to use social media to build characters and infill back-stories. But can a young playwright turn those same viral marketing techniques into art?
Twenty five-year-old Chinaka Hodge's play, Mirrors in Every Corner, is an intimate story of a black family set in West Oakland. But even that simple description doesn't work. By the time the play begins, the mom in the family, who already had three black sons, has inexplicably given birth to a white daughter. (The girl, by the way, is played by the same adult black actress who portrays the mother.) The story explores how race is lived within this family and out in the world, today and across generations. (Here's a long review.)
The play debuted this spring at the small non-profit theater, Intersection for the Arts, in San Francisco. For the next run of Mirrors in Every Corner, even before her characters say their first lines on stage, Chinaka is (as danah boyd might say) "writing them into being" (PDF) via platforms like Twitter, Facebook, GChat, and blogs. Her first attempt---a Twitter version of her play's opening scene (scroll all the way down to get to the first tweet).
You might expect this drawing to win a children's art contest.
It's lovely, technically sophisticated, and positive.
So it's no surprise Mirna's picture won first place, elementary school category, in a contest sponsored by a state museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, not long after the country's authoritarian regime was overthrown by a student-led movement.
Inspired by Boing Boing's strategy of "disemvoweling" hateful comments, we at Youth Radio (where I work) once considered a tactic called "in-consonance." The idea was to remove every consonant from abusive comments, as a way to call out their authors' apparent lack of control over their own waste. In the end, we decided against it. But we still don't always know what to do when the young people we've worked with for days, weeks, months on stories--some of them deeply personal, some exhaustively reported--get slammed in extreme ways, on some of our nation's biggest media outlets (e.g., NPR).
For young people whose personal identities, professional trajectories, and brains are still forming, the "digital afterlife" of their media productions can be especially intense and high-stakes. It used to be that public media's ultimate success was the so-called driveway moment--when a listener can't get out of the car before the story ends, even though he or she is already home. But now that engagement is the holy grail, for youth media producers, a whole new phase of activity starts when our work used to end--at the moment of broadcast or publication.
Charles 'Teenie' Harris (1908-1998) sitting in chair with his son, Charles Harris Jr., c. 1930-1950. Black and white, Agfa Safety Film.
According to those who knew him, the photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris never destroyed a negative. Working from the period just after the Depression through the civil rights movement, Harris amassed nearly 80,000 images.
Just to be clear, the creators of Pop-Up Magazine aren't trying to outdo print mags.
The San Francisco event they've invented--the third issue happened this weekend to a sold-out Herbst Theater--is a stage show aimed to bring the best of magazines into "the medium of live," as Editor-in-Chief Doug McGray told me (his collaborators are Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith, Maili Holiman, Evan Ratliff, and Dave Cerf). Pop-Up's got a masthead and table of contents, shorts, features, even integrated ads, and many of the contributors make their livings through words and images on the page (there are also film-makers and radio producers). There they all were, behind not laptops but a podium, spot-lit and performing.
Disclosures: Doug's a friend, and I worked with my Youth Radio colleague Brandon McFarland on his contribution to Pop-Up's first issue. But this time around, from my vantage point in the audience, I couldn't help but notice five things Pop-Up does better than print.
• Urgency: The show sold out in minutes (while print mags struggle to hold their advertisers). And then there was an after-party (see #5) that required special tickets of its own. I felt myself getting physically riled up booking my own tickets, as each little "available seat" icon blinked off before my eyes. Hate to say it, but that kind of flurry changes the way you think about an evening of journalism.
After spending his youth happily playing computer and table-top role-playing games as pale-grey-skinned elves with long, straight, silver hair (usually over one eye), or "forcing African-coifed robot pilots into the anime world of Macross," Fox Harrell says he started wanting to play characters that expressed and presented themselves in ways that captured his real world cultural values, though still set in those same fantasy worlds.
That hasn't always come easily. I asked Fox, a computer scientist and literary artist, for some examples.
USC Professor Henry Jenkins is a hard-core fan with hard-core fans.
I should know. I'm one of the audience members who stalked him at a conference a few years ago after his keynote, hoping to have a conversation about a paper he'd just published at the time. It was an argument for a whole new way of thinking about literacy. Reading, writing, and understanding words on a page won't cut it anymore. In a digitized world, Henry says young people need new skills that go way beyond basic composition and comprehension. Skills like play ("the capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem-solving"), collective intelligence ("the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal"), and transmedia navigation ("the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities").