Uncertainties in amateur media for 2012

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.

Last post about politics and media, this one less about 2008 than 2012. My final assignment to my ITP class on amateur media and the election (i.e. created by political amateurs, not necessarily media amateurs) was to ask them write a memo with advice on the subject that would be relevant to the 2012 Presidential election The responses ranged in style from a memo to Schwarzenegger to a letter from a young Democrat to Republican friends.

One that became clear from reading those memos were the critical uncertainties — issues that will matter enormously, but whose outcome we don't yet know, something I can describe best using an example the students brought up in class in the early weeks of the semester:

In August of 2008, a video called Sing for Change went up. Made by a Venice, CA music instructor, it featured a couple dozen kids, ages 5 to 12, singing a song their teacher had written about Obama. The video itself was fairly straightforward — it was just the kids standing on stage, wearing "Hope" t-shirts made for the occasion, and singing a song about how wonderful Obama is.

As you might imagine from that brief description, the video is a horror. My class skews liberal, and we all watched it slack-jawed, animated by a single question: "What were they thinking?" When it launched, the Republican blogosphere went nuts, while the Democratic reaction was mostly a muted "Well, I guess she was trying to help…" The public feedback was so intensely negative that the makers quickly took it down, but the warranty ran out on that strategy long ago, and copies were instantly re-posted, many with explicit references to Hitler Youth or North Korea in the title.

The videomaker may have thought she was advancing the cause, but she was actually preaching to (and with) the choir; there was a "Look at me!" quality to the work that destroyed any intended political utility. It's clear that not one person involved said "Let's see…kids too young to vote, in identical costumes, singing words we've literally put in their mouths? Maybe we should re-think this…" before the video was uploaded. It takes a truly jaded mind to understand that people who disagree with you have to be engaged, not just emoted at.

So here are two key uncertainties for 2012 (Congressional as well as Presidential), extrapolating from Sing for Change and my students' work:

1) What happens to the motivational landscape? Amateurs differ from professionals in part because of motivation — Barely Political's Obama Girl video was designed to get attention for…Barely Political; name recognition for Obama himself was a side-effect. In 2012, will the motivations driving amateur political media be more political and strategic, or will they stay largely personal and attention-getting?

2) Will the average quality of politically amateur media rise or fall? Average quality of amateur digital production rises over the long haul, but there are also periods where the in-rush of amateurs floods the zone with dreck (desktop publishing ca. 1990, web design ca 1995) before communities of practice can form.

Two uncertainties produce four possible futures. Consider the future where the motivation of amateurs turns political and average quality rises; we could label this "The New Agora", where online video becomes a key arena of political argument. The opposite of that world would be most amateurs making video for personal motivation, and falling average quality. In this world — call it "Lost in the Noise" — in-jokes and me-tooism would make amateur political video a sideshow, compared to 2008.

One can also imagine a world of mainly personal motivation by the creators, but rising average quality. You could call this "Obama Girl Nation" — there's lots of great political material people tune into, but its effect on the campaign will be secondary to the pursuit of boffo laffs. The opposite would be more political engagement but falling quality. In this future, call it "A Few Gems", most of the work wouldn't be worth the time of day, but there could be a couple of game-changing works by amateurs. (You could also call this future "Status Quo Plus", since it's closest to the election we just had.)

That, of course, is just one set of uncertainties played off on each other (and of course different futures can come true for different groups of people.) There are several other open questions: How much more active will the campaigns be in trying to shape amateur production? (Too much and they risk buzz kill, the FEC, and being damned for work they didn't produce.) How much coordination will we see, away from media mostly produced by individuals and small groups, towards media produced and spread by large organized collectives? How much will mobile devices change the landscape? How much will new archives allow crowdsourced opposition research? And so on.

Some of my students have agreed to let me release their memos; they make good reading for politics junkies trying to think through what's next. As Don Derosby of GBN says "There's no data on the future. That's what makes it interesting."

Zipped file of 2012 Amateur Political memoranda. (The students whose memos are linked here are Alexander Reeder, Amanda Bernsohn, Amit Snyderman, Andrea Dulko, Cheryl Furjanic, Corey Menscher, Dave Spector, John Dimatos, John Randall, Kristen Smart, Matt Parker, Steven Lehrburger, Thomas Robertson.)