Hot Spot 5: By Any Media Necessary

 

Henry Jenkins introducing “By Any Media Necessary,” the Spring 2014 Civic Paths Hotspot Vimeo.

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson 

How do we foster a civic imagination? That’s the question Professor Henry Jenkins asks us to consider in his video intro. Of course, there is no one answer to that question. That’s why we’ve kept the topic broad for this Hot Spot, our semesterly collection of mini-blog posts organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group.

We’re calling this collection of posts “By Any Media Necessary” because it gets at the myriad ways that social and political change happen in the age of digital media. Henry explains:

At the heart of the phrase “By Any Media Necessary” we’re building upon Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” but we’re saying today change will come, not through a single media platform, but by the ability to coordinate your message across many different channels, to reach many different publics with multiple messages, all serving some shared vision of what political change needs to be.

In that spirit, we invite you to explore the multiplicity with us through this collection of posts that touches on many interpretations of what it means to effect change “by any media necessary.”

First, Andrew Schrock draws parallels to previous generations of “ethical engineers” to describe how “civic hackers” attempt to bring about institutional change through community-based work and technological production. He argues that civic hacking serves as a mode of political participation closer to civic engagement than hacker cultures aligned with activism or software production.

Diana Lee looks at the recent “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr campaign to shed light on the ways young people are using online spaces and new media platforms to take a stand against their everyday lived experiences of racism as well as institutionalized structures of inequality.

Kari Storla examines how survivors of rape are using a variety of media forms to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and to communicate about a subject matter that is often rendered invisible in public discourse and cultural representations. She considers how humor is employed to open up conversations about rape and rape culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik provides her account of a recent workshop, “Think Critically, Act Creatively,” at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference. She draws on her experiences to think about how tapping into our civic imaginations and engaging in acts of “critical utopianism” can broaden our conceptions of what’s possible for social change.

Raffi Sarkissian shares several case studies of queer activism and shows us how the web is just one arena in which queer-identified and LGBT youth are exerting their voice and garnering visibility. He looks at both on and offline strategies used in contemporary queer activism, urging us to look at the variety of ways LGBT youth are asserting their influence.

Lastly, Yomna Elsayed describes the shifting nature of popular representations of American Muslims, examining their reception both within and without the Muslim community. From the appearance of a veiled Muslim woman in a Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad, to one Muslim woman’s attempt to normalize her experiences as a “Muslim Hipster,” she describes how such representations, however fraught, continue to broaden the national conversation about Muslims in America.

We hope this collection inspires you to think critically about what a kind of activism that relies on “any media necessary” might look like in 2014. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section because we believe you can’t have a theory of change unless it’s also constantly growing and evolving.

 

“Think Critically, Act Creatively”: A workshop on civic imagination

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”)

By Neta Kligler-Vilenchik
(@netakv)

5_neta1

“Mind=blown” – this is the way that @n0anch0r, one of the participants in the “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop at the Digital Media & Learning (DML) Conference in Boston, described his experience. @n0anch0r wasn’t alone. @laurenthebird tweeted:

5_neta_2

As a not-completely-objective, but still external, observer, I can only agree with their judgment. In my years of attending academic conferences, I have never seen people so enthusiastic and excited. Who would have thought what a kick a group of community organizers, educators, and academics investigating digital media would get from imagining the world in 2044, writing a scenario set in that world, and performing it in under one minute?

The “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop was devised by my colleagues Sangita Shresthova and Gabe Peters-Lazaro of the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics project, in collaboration with Susu Attar and Ilse Escobar, community partners, artists, and activists. The conceptualization of this workshop derives from our multi-year examination of diverse youth-driven communities which translate socially and culturally-based affinities into civic and political engagement. Groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters, DREAM Activists, Libertarian Youth, and American Muslim youth, have all taught us important lessons on the role of cultural appropriation, storytelling and remixing, deploying metaphors from popular culture, and drawing on strong social ties. The workshop is an attempt to translate some of these lessons into a format that can be used in both in-school and out-of-school contexts, to reach a wide variety of youth. The goal of the workshop is to imagine a future world in which social inequality can be solved, as a way of sparking youth’s civic imagination. So far, versions of the workshop have been piloted with participants in the Muslim Youth Group Leadership Academy and with the CDF Freedom School. At DML, this was the team’s first attempt to bring the workshop to a variety of educators and academics and get their reactions (with the added challenge of conducting a workshop planned for several days over 90 minutes!). My role as supporter and live-tweeter enabled me to observe the process and share not only my impressions, but those of other participants through their tweets.

The workshop started with an icebreaker that enabled participants to immediately create media. Using Mixbit, an app for video creation, each participant was recorded expressing their one-word response to a one-word provocation. Having barely stepped into the room, participants could already see themselves on the screen along with other participants.
5_neta3

Participants were already excited about this format:

5_neta4
5_neta5
In the description of the rationale of the workshop—a world-building exercise, in which you imagine a world and find the story in it—I was particularly struck by the words of Susu Attar: “Don’t be limited by the imagination of who you are”. The first group activity was to collectively imagine the world in 2044, which is a world without borders. We brainstormed what such a world might look like, in terms of government, communication, or agriculture. Some of the ideas included: flying shoes, apparition, universal translators, intimate relationships with robots, and downloadable food.

Next, workshop participants were divided into small groups of around five to six participants. Each group was to come up with a narrative that was set in our imaginary 2044. The groups received some creative constraints: the story should include a main character, some conflict, a pivotal moment of how this situation came to be, and a resolution. Gabe talked about the importance of creative constraints in enabling productive creativity.

After ten minutes of writing their narratives, the groups received new instructions: their stories should be performed, in any way, in under one minute. Susu explained: particularly for youth, performance helps them to break out of their shells, and say things they might not otherwise. Plus, it cracks everyone up!

And crack everyone up they did! The groups’ performances were imaginative, thought-provoking, and funny. Above all, everyone was having a blast.

5_Neta65_Nera7

5_Neta8

After the groups’ performances, we discussed how principles of improvisational theatre are useful in thinking about digital citizenship. This was also the time for participants to share their impressions of the workshop. Quite surprisingly for the context of a conference on digital media, several participants shared how liberating it felt to put their devices aside and to connect with each other on an interpersonal level. Another participant shared the excitement his group felt – like a bunch of kids – and pondered on how impactful creativity can be. Many of the educators and organizers in the room were already devising ways of bringing this activity “to the youth back home”.

5_Neta9
In the wrap-up to the workshop, Henry Jenkins linked us back to the idea of the civic imagination. The workshop, he explained, is an exercise in critical utopianism – imagining what the world could be like, examining where we are now, and then devising the steps that take us from here to there.

As for me, I can only thank the workshop organizers and all the participants for such an electrifying experience. #DML 2044, coming soon to a youth space near you!

And… long live the Lasagna Revolution!

5_Neta10

 …Check out all tweets coming out of the workshop – #DML2044…

 

 

It Gets Local: Varied Approaches to Queer Youth Activism

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Raffi Sarkissian
(@rsark)

Queer visibility in the media has come a long way. LGBT rights awareness and activism also seems to be on a fluctuating but steady climb to increasing education, acceptance, and inclusion. While much of these changes can be attributed to an increasingly connected and networked world online, the work being done to bring communities together is also paralleled by the local activism, offline spaces, and lived experiences and circumstances of LGBTQ lives, particularly queer youth.

LGBT and queer-identified individuals have a strong history with the web. Usually among the first to jump on new media and technology, sexual minorities gravitate toward safe and discreet spaces for communication. During times of minimal to invisible media exposure, when the risks of being out in one’s offline world were too high, particularly for queer youth, the web offered those with access a means to connect, to come out, to create, to congregate, and even organize for social and political activism.[1]

While message boards, online journals, social media, and YouTube had become vital spaces for queer youth to assert their voice, it wasn’t until a string of gay teen suicides in September 2010 made national headlines that the lives of queer youth suddenly became more visible and more vulnerable. Due to the reactionary It Gets Better Project, there was a heightened focus on the well-being of at-risk queer youth and some concerted efforts to address the issues of bullying and institutional homophobia. 5_raffi6Yet, much of this discourse did not involve queer youth. In fact, among the critiques of the It Gets Better Project was that youth voices were invoked but largely invisible, especially in the videos that gained the most mainstream media traction (celebrities, politicians, and corporations all “speaking to” queer youth). These well-intentioned messages of hope nonetheless implicated a gap – between relating to being a queer or ostracized teen and offering themselves as proof that it gets better. As many quickly took the project to task, questions surfaced about the now, about current circumstances of queer youth, about education, change, and activism. Where were the voices of queer youth?[2]

Whereas the affordances of online resources and community play a vital role in issues pertaining to queer youth voice and advocacy, my preliminary research has revealed that the local and offline worlds are still places where queer youth are doing a great deal of organizing. Some of these mobilized groups use media and technology as tools (not goals) among their other resources to bring about change and affect the condition of queer lives on the ground. For the remainder of this post, I want to highlight a few of these queer youth-led local organizations that are doing grassroots mobilizing and open a conversation about varying uses of media and communication. Finally, I will come back to It Gets Better and the work of its offshoot project It Gets Better Tour, which is now a traveling stage show, reaching out and engaging with queer youth in local cities across the country.

Queer Youth Space

5_raffi2Highlighting the challenges of finding safe local queer spaces that are not bars or clubs (inaccessible to under 18 and 21 youth), Queer Youth Space (QYS) emerged as a goal, a community, and an ideal when hundreds of youth in Seattle, Washington came together in 2010 to address the issues and needs of queer youth. After two years of searching, QYS found and claimed their spot at 911 E. Pike Street, Capital Hill in Seattle.[3]  Their mission, however, was never confined to physical boundaries. While not a medium in the traditional audiovisual sense, space operates here as both a place and an idea and is constitutive of and constituted in expression and activism. As expressed on the group’s facebook page:


“This project is now and will forever be a rebellion, an uprising, a mutiny… As “queer” exists beyond all boundaries, so do we. Our pace is a kind of space that lies not so much within narrow physical confines, such as a building or a room, but rather wherever and whenever we claim space for ourselves and for the people around us. It follows us wherever we go, it manifests itself wherever we are.”

While the need for an actual physical space for coming together is self-evident in the group’s activities over the years, the above statement reveals that for this group of teens, space operates beyond the physical – and beyond the virtual for that matter – and is taken up, much like the feminist credo, “the personal is political,” when and where queers assert themselves.

Out Now

5_raffi5According to their website, Out Now originated in 1995 – well before the prominence of web 2.0 and political organizing online – as a weekly support group for LGBT youth from the larger Springfield, MA area. Since then, Out Now has grown into a non-profit with an advisory board, staff, and a growing list of campaigns and programs aimed at the local community. Among their activities, Out Now hosts a weekly poetry/spoken word workshop (Breathing Fire, Spitting Verse) for youth (under 22 years of age) that seeks to “empower LGBTQA to harness the power of words and the power of their own voices to engage with their experiences, to heal, to define and reclaim their identities, thus speaking themselves into existence.” Much like space in the previous group, voice and speech here are the operative tools used to assert their identities, a sense of queer activism for many youth. Out Now also puts on “Our Liberation!,” an interactive performance workshop that utilizes Theater of the Oppressed techniques that engage both actors and spectators working together to find ways of combating realities of peer abuse, violence, and harassment.

BreakOUT

BreakOUT is a New Orleans-based youth organization focused on ending the criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth in an effort to establish safety and justice in New Orleans. They use a combination of offline and online social media tactics to counter discrimination, particularly NOPD’s abusive treatment of queer youth of color. On-the-ground efforts include community education training and campaigns (#KnowYourRights), building coalition through attending conferences, and mobilizing with allied organizations and campaigns (such as Congress of Day Laborers andOrleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition). They also use online and social media outlets to spread knowledge and bring focused attention to the problems facing queer youth in New Orleans. Check out their video for the “We Deserve Better” campaigns below and their successful campaign to bring actress (Orange is the New Black) and transgender activist Laverne Fox for a visit.

5_Raffi1

It Gets Better Tour

Finally, I want to come back to the It Gets Better Tour, a collaborative project put together by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Speak Theater Arts, and It Gets Better. This incarnation takes ideas, themes, and responses to the online video phenomenon and incorporates them into a traveling stage show and community outreach program with stops in cities from Ogden, Utah to Houston, Texas, Whitewater, Wisconsin and many more. Written and directed by Liesel Reinhart, the It Gets Better Tour blends music, theater, and multimedia for an original production that addresses issues related to the lives and experiences of queer youth. In addition to the performance, each tour stop includes several days of meeting and workshopping with the local community, high schools, and colleges, engaging with and learning from youth. While this project was not conceived and implemented by youth, it is worth noting that the tour is certainly a step towards building dialogue and coalition between adults and youth by moving beyond distant messages of hope and engaging with youth at the local level. The end-product of these stops yet again reveal the power inherent in mobilized and empowered youth (like collaborating with Lawrence, Kansas middle school kids to produce this PSA). Check out a full log of their first tour stop in Iowa City, Iowa here.

The unifying medium for this iteration of the It Gets Better Project is undeniably its incorporation of music and performance. Song resonates affectively and becomes a way not only to speak to but more importantly work with youth. Like space, voice, and more strategic organizing, it becomes yet but another form of media that is used for outreach, community, and social and political action. Media here is not invoked as the traditional mass communication channels we more often associate it with, but a means for communication nonetheless. The brief cases provided in this post have not been aimed at diminishing the role and uses of traditional or online media as ways to affect change, but trying to broaden the scope of the tools at our disposal, and more particularly, the ways queer youth are participating in social and political activism. As these cases reveal, queer youth are not silent and are not passive; often they are proactive. Just because all their efforts don’t live online does not mean they are invisible. These groups demonstrate that the web and technology are among the many tools at their disposal to organize, mobilize, or simply assert their identities.

I urge readers to add, expand, and complicate this post by sharing (in the comments below) more ways queer youth are using media to assert their identities, to build communities, to combat violence and discrimination, and to affect change.

Footnotes

[1] For more on queer users’ uptake of web resources and technology, check out Larry Gross’s article, “Gideon Who Will be 25 in the Year 2012: Growing Up Gay Today” in the International Journal of Communication (2007) ; also check out Christopher Pullen and Margaret Cooper’s edited volume on LGBT Identity and Online New Media for a variety of chapters on LGBT uses of the Internet and Youtube (Routledge: New York, 2010).

 [2] This is not to say that there weren’t queer youth who were engaged and active in these issues. In addition to cases in the post, youth-led campaigns like Make It Better and Reteaching Gender and Sexuality offered some albeit less visible counter-balance to the apparent absence of queer youth voices in the mainstream media. And, of course, GSA Network has long been a vital resource for connecting and empowering queer youth in California and increasingly across the nation.

[3] As of March 2014, the facebook page for QYS revealed that they will be moving out of their current space and on the search for another.

 

 

Coke-Flavored Diversity and Veiled Hipsters

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Yomna Elsayed

This year, Coca Cola aired a 60 second ad during the Super Bowl stirring a controversy that extended far beyond the football game. The commercial ostensibly celebrated America’s diversity in the different languages of American immigrants and featured — to the surprise of many Muslims including myself — a fleeting image of a veiled Muslim woman. 5_yomna1But, perhaps it was the intermingling of neo-liberal for-profit corporate goals with the social cause of acceptance and celebration of diversity that sat uneasy with me, at least until the uproar started. Ironically, the ad that was supposed to celebrate America’s diversity ended up showing the not-so-tolerant side of white conservative America, whereby “America the Beautiful” can and must only be sung in English. That was the time when I decided suppress my anti-corporate cynical take on it. I decided not to speak about it because, irrespective of the double barreled tactics of the company, I do desire a change in media representation of Muslim minorities even if it is a fleeting corporate sponsored representation!

This was not the first time that Muslim inclusion in an ad campaign causes such an uproar. Recently, a company selling anti-snoring products featured a real US-soldier and his face-veiled Muslim wife as an unlikely couple kept together by the anti-snoring product. The ad was described by some as offensive and an insult to the military. Another uproar started when a video titled “Mipsterz: Muslim Hipsters” went viral on the internet. Co-producer Layla Shaikley relates: “I was sick of telling ‘my story.’ Every time I did, I was contending with Islamphobes and terrorists alike, who had equally hijacked the popular narrative about Muslims. So I tried to [do] something else: creative action.” According to Shaikley, the video featured a couple dozen Muslim women in veils “showcasing their fashion sensibilities and having a good time. Whether biking, laughing, or just hanging out, the people in the video were asked to be themselves when they were not shot candidly”. The subjects in the video ranged from “an Olympian fencer to a Harvard Dental School student to an attorney” to herself.

5_yomna2

Unsurprisingly, Mipsterz too sparked debate, but not only among the American mainstream who were the main target of the video, but also among the Muslim community itself. According to Shaikley, who was surprised by the uproar, “[r]eactions ranged from awesome to objectifying, from liberating to professionally hot, from saying we were proudly American to accusing us of stripping ourselves of authentic Eastern substance, from inclusive to fat-shaming, from shattering stereotypes to perpetuating new ones.” The video was criticized for representing only a sub-section of Muslim women, for focusing on fashion and a Western lifestyle, and for not representing all socioeconomic classes (Shaikley, 2014, Chaudry, 2014). The questions of who represents what and how were raised by the same under-represented Muslim minority complaining of lack of representation. According to Rabia Chaudry, the video was accused of being “too American!” The work was not merely received as a subjective work of art – as a personal story of the lives of some Muslim women “somewhere in America” – but was overburdened with the onus of representing Islam, Muslims and Muslim women from every racial and socioeconomic class (Chaudry, 2014).

However, the question remains as to how effective such ads and videos are in changing long-held convictions and attitudes? Aren’t they merely a superficial representations that would collapse at the first remembrance of the September 11th events —in which Muslims and Christians alike were victims to a terrorist mentality capable of turning any religious text into war-sanctioning decrees? Is TV representation enough to alter a status quo or is it a mere reflection of that status quo? Can we say that the media representation of African Americans changed attitudes about racism in society? According to a Topos Partnership report on black males’ media representations, “[d]espite the widely held idea that racism has become socially unacceptable, large percentages of the population harbor very traditional prejudiced views in which Black males tend more than non-blacks toward violence, criminality, irresponsibility, hypersexuality, and so on” (p. 31). So, on whose shoulders lay the responsibility of altering the status quo?

The trouble with representations lies in the fact that they will never be immaculate and will never please everyone. They are usually subjective cross-sections of the lives of those who could afford to tell their stories through monetary or technical resources. Nonetheless, they are necessary in enabling underrepresented minorities to enter into a nation’s stream of consciousness. What is common between most cases of discrimination and stereotyping (at least in their beginnings) is that they are simply not talked about. The silence is what perpetuates isolated incidents into phenomena. These videos, on the other hand, force issues of silent discrimination and stereotyping into discussion. They materialize isolated incoherent debates or complaints into shared objects that we can agree with or criticize. When a debate ensues, individuals are driven to question the reasons for why they hold certain beliefs, to question the reason for their silence and whether they should be silent anymore. They may even be tempted to produce their own versions and represent their stories the way they see them. Perhaps the story is more spiritual and less hip than Mipsterz’ fashionable headscarves and skateboards. What is important is that the debate goes on, by any means necessary. I say this with complete faith as I glance over my precious red Coke bottle that I unwittingly purchased while humming America!

Sources

Layla Shaikley. The Surprising Lessons of the ‘Muslim Hipsters’ Backlash. The Atlantic (March 13th, 2014). http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-lessons-of-the-muslim-hipsters-backlash/284298/

Rabia Chaudry. Somewhere on the Internet Muslim Women are being Shamed. altmuslim (December, 3rd, 2013) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/altmuslim/2013/12/somewhere-on-the-internet-muslim-women-are-being-shamed/

 

 

The Contested World of Civic Hacking

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Andrew Richard Schrock
(@aschrock)
Ethical Engineers?

Engineers of the 1960s and 1970s were vexed by the path their profession had taken. Many leaned to the political left and objected to the “military-industrial complex” that was promoting an agenda of technological progress through an escalating Vietnam War, the rise of nuclear technologies and a wasteful space race. The majority of engineers followed one of two professional paths: they swallowed their objections and continue to buttress the status quo, or quit in protest.

In Engineers for Change Matthew Wisnioski describes an awakening by a cadre of engineers who advocated for ethical reform while working within government and industry. In his words, “a small and vocal minority attempted to redefine engineering by rethinking the nature of technology through collective action” (p. 6).

Stephen H. Unger, one of these reformers, believed that because engineers were key allies for pushing against the tide of a rhetoric based purely on technological progress. His argument was that because engineers understood how technology worked and saw the inside of government, they were key to its improvement. In the introduction to Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer, Unger describes his book as addressing:

7c39b34ab8d7d54653b1c3a6da7b152c.jpg“…the problem of democratically controlling technology for the benefit of mankind. Its central thesis is that such control cannot be accomplished entirely from the outside. Those who are developing and applying technology must take responsibility for the consequences of their work and participate in directing it towards humane ends. This must be done in cooperation with their fellow citizens, and an important part of their task is to ensure that the general public is properly informed about the technological alternatives, as well as about impending problems.”

Tech-savvy geeks in our current cultural moment are confronted with equally ethically dubious uses of technology by our government. Edward Snowden revealed that the same ideologies of openness that drive open data initiatives also enable a hidden back-channel of massive surveillance. Big data is the buzzword for extracting value from information, yet it is unclear what unintended consequences might arise from this speculation. Through a representative democracy we implicitly back the use of drones dropping munitions on targets tracked by no more than a cell phone, leading to civilian casualties.

In the current day hackers, rather than engineers proper, are often first to note and object to the intense contradictions in government’s use of technology and ideology that positions dire consequences as inevitable. Geeks and pre-geeks come to understand themselves as hackers through a variety of paths. Some become involved through free and open-source software (F/OSS), while others discover hacking through involvement in a hackerspace. These cultural offshoots can have vastly different histories, participants, goals and trajectories. Never the less, some boundary drawing is necessary to capture nuance in individual experience while denoting a family resemblance to serve as a provisional definition.

I approach civic hacking as both a system of government entities, organizations and residents cohered through open data and software production, and a set of tactics that seek “thick” or maximal participation in this system. Beyond this, competing definitions are emerging through competing top-down bureaucratic (open data initiatives, claims of politicians, policy making), organizational, and bottom-up (hackathons, decentralized software production) participation.

In this post I focus on the latter question — the nature of civic hackers’ political participation — by comparing civic hacking tactics to those used by two other strands of hacker culture. One employs an model of protest (Anonymous) and another is a corporate production culture that belies political ideologies behind production and a hacker lifestyle (Facebook). These strands serve as comparisons to situate civic hacking as a similar “third way” for political participation similar to Unger’s ethical engineers.

Digital Activism

First there are hacker cultures that are politically active through technology, either overtly or through shared work. Anonymous is a digital protest ensemble that is constantly undergoing changes in membership and technologies while members splinter off to engage in a range of issues and efforts. Their preferred mode of collective action — distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS) — started by being simply technologically disruptive and have moved towards taking advantage of online mediation in other ways. Molly Sauter traces how Anonymous, emerging from online culture, moved from “hacktivist” to distributed digital activism, co-evolving their tactics and enlarging their membership. In this way they moved from being framed as “a tool of direct action to a tool of media manipulation and identity construction.”

Anonymous predominantly operates on the internet, but also use any medium necessary to make themselves heard. As Rhea Vichot argues, offline modes can be equally vital. Her work describes how the emergence of Anonymous through Project Chanology and into the streets coincided with an understanding of themselves as a movement, troubling easy dichotomies of “online” and “offline” communities. In Sauter and Vichot’s work we can see how the digital tools used by Anonymous co-evolved with the needs of the group members’ tactics for protest.

Corporate Hackers

Wall At Check-in Station for Facebook

Then there are hackers for whom technology is simply integrated with their professional life. Facebook famously claims the terms hackathon and hacker. To Mark Zuckerberg, the “hacker way” simply means bootstrapping: “an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration.” At Facebook hacking is a mode of production disguised as a lifestyle. Employees have the luxury of living within a fast-paced world of technical challenges. They are assured by a constant stream of posters produced by their in-house art print shop that they are doing the right thing by connecting everyone in the world. They never have to confront the repercussions of this search for the next billion users.

Hackers have always crossed over into technical occupations as part of professionalization. Yet, Facebook’s love affair with hacking is something new. They invert hacking’s valence as a branding strategy to both drive and deny a political agenda. It’s tempting to lament Facebook as not being “real” hackers. But beyond that many Facebook employees are bright geeks, Facebook’s invoking of hacking has meaning for our current cultural moment. Here might be the sting in the tail of the oft-noted “pragmatism” of hacker culture when applied to corporations: as much as it unites hackers to work on shared political causes, it can also further a neocolonialist vision and easily slide into “solutionism,” in the words of Evengy Morozov.

Rather than lament hacking as being “overloaded,” in the words of McKenzie Wark, I argue we should “see what kinds of social forces are overloading them” (and examine where this might lead). Communication, both informational and ritualized, has been implicit in previous work on hacker cultures, identities, and publics. I’m interested in using communication through, around, and with hacking as an inroad to examining participation and power dynamics during a time of semiotic expansion.

Hacking as Civic Engagement

Long Beach Code for America Brigade, February 28th.

Civic hacking promises a mode of participation that lies between complicity and protest. At best, it might open up space for considering how hackers, geeks and pre-geeks can participate in civic causes. Technology is still an intrinsic part of a geek worldview — a source of intense debate and pleasure. Indeed, similar to other hacker cultures, civic hackers desire participation through technological production that values direct action and expertise over deliberation. As a cursory glance at related movements such as urban prototyping would suggest, there are also key differences. Unlike many hacker cultures, civic hacking confronts community-based social problems and embraces, rather than buries, identity and affiliation. In this sense, civic hacking is a “thick” mode of participation in community issues common to civic engagement.

There is another sense of local in addition to a focus on geographically-situated communities. The recent federal invoking of civic hacking belies how civic hacking and open data initiatives exist mostly at the local level. New York City, San Francisco and Chicago are held up as models of how to distribute open data and create new software, the dual lifeblood of civic hackers. To civic hackers, apps serve as working evidence: to provoke a conversation or encourage an initiative. There are certainly significant disputes among civic hackers as to what outcomes are possible, but center around software as objects that can travel and change opinions and processes. For example, Jacob Solomon (CfA fellow 2013) worked with San Francisco’s human services agency to create an app to improve the complex and difficult experience of receiving food stamps through re-thinking the process and integrating an SMS texting alert system. He describes the most important role of civic hackers is to “raise the value of user centered design in government.” Similar to Unger, he advocates for an humanist shift in the way bureaucrats employ technology.

Civic hackers are re-imagining of how government might operate, and engage with what Henry Jenkins refers to in the video introduction to these blog posts as a “civic imagination.” This notion is by definition speculative. But I should emphasize that civic hackers are not simply “white hats,” a friendly face to be contrasted with “black hats” engaged in activism. This dichotomy commonly used to describe hackers is coarse and perpetuates misunderstandings about groups’ goals and methods. Both activism and civic engagement engage with political causes and both can lead to positive change in law and government. Civic hacking is simply a different mode of engagement than other hacker cultures that engage politically in an activist mode (Anonymous) or not at all (Facebook). And it’s no less fraught with conflict.

High Stakes

Belief in technological progress has only gained momentum with an increasing reliance on code and open data at local, state and federal levels. Civic hackers are thrust on to a different sort of front lines. Despite the long odds, I argue that their voices and diversity of interests are important because they present a competing vision to the more prevalent top-down vision for civic hacking that draws on cyberlibertarianism and emphasizes mutual aid over government improvement.

Nowhere is this vision more palpable than in the rise of “civic tech.” The Knight Foundation recently described “civic tech” as framing for-profit “sharing economy” companies such as AirBNB and Waze as the connection between open government and community action. Even though some rightly saw this as a stretch, benefitting individuals through transactions rather than society, this corporate-friendly notion of “civic tech” is gaining traction. If you ask the corporate partners in hybrid hackathons what they are interested in, you will get vague responses about wanting to “extract value” and “seize opportunities.” This vision of civic hacking aligns with Crabtree’s initial definition from 2007 or O’Reilly’s notion of “algorithmic regulation.” For another day, perhaps, is a fuller discussion of how open data initiatives threaten to recycle perpetually just-on-the-horizon promises of software and sensors doing the heavy lifting of governance.

The second vision for civic hacking is more liberal-democratic and oriented around improving governmental processes. Efficiency is still a motivation, but it recognizes the encroachment of corporate interests as a central cause of concern and prefers limiting their influence, or even seeing open data as a way for governments to gain more control. Anthony Townsend makes such an argument in Smart Cities where he advocates for a “civic code” to go with open data initiatives and services built from them. He advocates for increasing public ownership, transparency, and careful use of crowdsourcing.

Townsend’s point was that relying on civic hackers could slip into their being a long-term source of free labor. Much of the future of civic hackers relies on the movements of corporate and government partnerships. There is ample disagreement here as well. Michal Migurski describes Code for America as part of a “shift in power from abusive tech vendor relationships to something driven by a city’s own digital capabilities.” In other words, quite opposite from David Golumbia, who sees CfA in a cyberlibertarian mode of driving businesses, Migurski argues that city’s production of open data can help it gain ground against these encroachments.

Civic hackers are on the front lines in a tangled world of infrastructure and rhetoric around technological progress and politics. At best, civic hacking evokes an alternative mode of civic engagement, modeling algorithmic citizenship through code and data that is simultaneously locally-instantiated and global. Few participants in hybrid hackathons share a vision of government disintermediation, as it’s difficult to employ solutionism when you encourage cultural specificity and include community organizers and activists in your ranks. Despite this potential, significant risks are emerging as governments fall into previous rhetorics of technological progress, and corporations draw on open data to sap rather than bolster public goods. These tensions through civic hacking and open data represent a critical moment in modernity, demanding engagement and participation even as they produce new and murky ethical dilemmas.

Laughing about the unspeakable: Using humor as a medium to talk about rape

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Kari Storla


Warning: Links in this article will direct you to websites that contain discussions of sexual assault. While nothing explicit is mentioned in this post please proceed with caution.

How do you speak about the unspeakable? When we want to address an issue that is at best often talked around and often not discussed at all, does it matter what medium we use? Magazines, TV, the Internet—if something is a taboo subject, what difference does the technology make? Potentially quite a lot. You can argue—and I certainly would—that the simultaneously lauded and decried potential for being both anonymous and/or physically removed from the conversation can allow for more frank discussions about rape and rape culture. However, talking about things online, however helpful it can be, is by no means a cure-all.

Talking about the taboo requires thinking about how we communicate in new ways. Sometimes that means adopting new technologies, but it can also mean communicating in a different manner. This requires a different way of thinking about what, exactly, a medium is. Often when we think about a medium, we think about a technology. We discuss how the advent of the Internet changed (or didn’t change) the ways that we communicate. We classify our entertainment based on what technology they use—film, video games, written word, etc. Media have become synonymous, in many ways, with technology. All of that is important but it also presents a very constrained view of what a medium can be. Rather than just viewing media as technologies, we can also think of them as ways of communicating, regardless of the technology used.

Presenting things in a non-intuitive way can be one method of generating conversations around a taboo subject, for example, using humor to talk about rape. We won’t expect discussions of rape to use humor—the contrast between the two can be an effective way of talking about something we otherwise have difficulty discussing. Humor is a medium that can be used in order to address issues in ways that non-humorous approaches can’t.

In regards to using humor to talk about rape, a prime example of this is Jessie Kahnweiler’s short film, “Meet My Rapist” (previously available on YouTube but has since been made private; it was recently shown at the Slamdance Film Festival). The film is an imagining of what would happen if Kahnweiler (quite literally) ran into the man who raped her years before. It explores a number of questions that cannot be answered in real life: what would their interactions be like? What would she say to him? How would other people react as the rapist tags along to family dinner? Through the nearly silent but omnipresent figure of the nameless rapist, always in the background as Kahnweiler goes about her day-to-day life, the film explores the ways in which rape can continue to affect someone in the long-term.

According to Kahnweiler, “A lot of what’s out there now makes it really easy for the audience. Like ‘yeah, rape is bad, I don’t like rape either!’ But it’s not doing justice to the reality of rape culture right now. The conversation tends to end before it even has a chance to begin.”  “Meet My Rapist” is an effort to change that, to start up continuing conversations. It does so through the medium of humor.

Ms. Magazine explains that the film works on the basis of “the matter-of-fact nature of each scenario and of Kahnweiler’s dealings with the people around her, who simplify and co-opt her experience to the point of absurdity.”  One scene depicts Kahnweiler informing a friend that she was raped. Her friend immediately launches into a barrage of questions: “But were you like really raped? Were you drunk? Was he cute? Was he white?” The scene is played for laughs, especially a bit later when Kahnweiler’s friend hunches over and sniffs that “as your friend, this just really affects me,” leading Kahnweiler to ask, “can I do anything for you?” It’s certainly not the way we think telling someone that you’ve been sexually assault should go.

And yet, reactions and misconceptions about rape like the ones voiced by Kahnweiler’s friend are unfortunately all too common. The humor of the situation, the fact that such situations seem so absurd on the surface and yet ring so true to the experiences of many who have been sexually assaulted, is what generates conversation.

Of course, the use of humor in regards to discussions of rape isn’t something that everyone approves of. There are ongoing debates about whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny and, if they can be, what does a “good” rape joke look like. (Here are a few samples). Issues surrounding rape jokes have recently popped up in the news again, being featured in an episode of Law & Order: SVU and also being part of a school news report on rape culture that led to future content of the school’s publications needing to be approved by administrators. Still, regardless of whether or not a rape joke is good or not, or whether any humor about rape is well intentioned, there are going to be some people and some circumstances where humor isn’t the right approach.

Sure, humor can open up a lot of doors to conversations that might not otherwise happen. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only medium we employ to speak about the unspeakable. More solemn modes of communication have their purpose as well: Patricia Lockwood’s poem, “Rape Joke,” for example, or Project Unbreakable, which showcases photographs of people who have been sexually assaulted holding up signs that describe their experience

The idea isn’t that one of these methods is better than the other. Rather, it’s that they each do different things. The use of humor doesn’t negate the possibility for “real” discussion, but it isn’t the only avenue for it either. What’s important isn’t that one medium is always chosen over another, but that all appropriate media are used in order to communicate effectively and generate dialogues. Talking about rape, rape culture, and what we can about them, are important, however we start those conversations. It’s not so much a matter of “by any media necessary” as it is “by every media necessary.”

I, Too, Am USC

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Diana Lee
 

“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned – this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”

Launched on March 1, 2014, “I, Too, Am Harvard” is a photo campaign that features portraits of over 50 black students at Harvard College holding up dry-erase boards with handwritten examples of racist comments, microaggressions, talk-back messages and quotes, or other difficult interpersonal and institutional interactions they’ve experienced as students at Harvard College. Touching on issues of tokenism, assumption of lack of intelligence, the myth of meritocracy, color blindness, devalued and dismissed perspectives, stereotypical exchanges, and other problematic interactions, the visually impactful campaign resonated with many people and rapidly spread across the Internet, including inspiring minority students on other campuses to create and share similar projects (e.g., “I, Too, Am Oxford,” and “I, Too, Am OSU”).

Through the powerful images of black college students holding the racist comments or response statements in their hands, with “#itooamharvard” boldly printed next to their faces, the Tumblr campaign challenges stereotypic representations and public imaginings of who attends and belongs at our nation’s universities, increasing visibility of not only a diverse group of black students on Harvard campus, but also working to shed light on the kinds of institutionalized and interpersonal racism students of color face on a daily basis.

Race (together with other aspects of identity, like gender) is a fundamental, hierarchical organizing system in U.S. society, and the way we interact within our institutions, systems, and interpersonally are governed by our respective positions (or perceived positions) in the matrix. The extent to which these identities and positions are challenged also changes depending on context. Contrary to the idea that race doesn’t matter anymore because we have a black president and are post-Civil Rights, racism is unequivocally not a thing of the past, nor does it only manifest in intentional, individual, overt acts of discrimination. As illustrated by the many examples in “I, Too, Am Harvard,” racism oftentimes takes the form of microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010, p. 5).  The key here is that unlike overt, deliberate acts of discrimination, microaggressions are frequently unintentionally committed, with the perpetrator either unaware of the actions or comments, or considering them to be neutral or even positive (for example: “You’re so articulate for a black person”). Although each individual microaggression may seem to be small and easily brushed off, the impact comes from the cumulative experiencing of these interactions, which “have the lifelong insidious effects of silencing, invalidating, and humiliating the identity and/or voices of those who are oppressed” (Sue, 2010, p. 66). Microaggressions have tremendous effects on the well-being of individuals, including impacting short and long-term psychological and physical health, and impeding equitable access to educational and employment opportunities (Pierce, 1995; Solórzano et al., 2000; Steele, 1997; Sue et al., 2007; Sue, 2010; Yasso et al., 2009).

For those of us who care about access, justice, and equity in formal and informal educational spaces, this is something we should take seriously and work to address, now.

Aside from first understanding and acknowledging that these interactions occur and are in fact important (which is another thing “I, Too, Am Harvard” effectively makes you do), it is also important to think about how best to support students who have already been experiencing these kinds of interactions, for years. Some of the key protective factors against microaggressions have increasingly been researched by scholars, and they include helping people cope and learn to navigate these situations through building supportive peer and mentoring relationships, and communing with communities of people with similar experiences.

“I, Too, Am Harvard” is an example of young people anchored in supportive peer groups and communities, coming together to take a stand both on and offline against institutionalized, systemic, and interpersonal racism. The photo project is part of a larger campus movement seeking to raise awareness and change institutional practices and policies regarding racism on college campuses. Like the genesis of so many other powerful movements, the organizers came up with the idea for the campaign rooted in their own experiences and in conversation with friends and community members. Sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence wrote a play called, I, Too, Am Harvard, based off of 40 interviews with black students on campus she conducted last semester, and fellow student Carol Powell photographed the Tumblr photo project participants. Both students are members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the oldest existing Black organization at Harvard, whose website states that “Kuumba strives to do what we can with what we have to leave a space better than it was when we inherited it. This essence permeates our performances, our community work, and the relationships we build with others.” Where are these spaces and people on your own campus, workplace, or community?

Young people are increasingly using the Internet – through blogs, spoken word, comics, gifs, Facebook and Twitter hashtags, Instagram and Tumblr movements, videos on YouTube, and more – to connect and organize online and offline, using whatever tools and resources they have to actively participate in their world, including, in this case, challenging limited and problematic conceptualizations of race in the U.S. and beyond. The students that started “I, Too, Am Harvard” used their experiences and resources and put forth this campaign that resonated with a lot of people domestically and internationally, inside and outside of college campuses. They came together, organized, and stood up, collectively saying, “This is not ok, we are here, and we belong too. This is a problem. What are you going to do to help?”

Administrators, faculty, and school staff can ask what structures, systems, and organizations are in place for students to share and learn how to address these kinds of experiences in a receptive environment that does not silence their voices and invalidate their experiences, nor unfairly place the burden of change on the students experiencing these daily forms of racism (and other forms of -isms). Students of color are already asked explicitly or taken implicitly to speak on behalf of their racial, ethnic, or national groups. In addition to the cumulative everyday burden and stress of micraoggressive and oppressive institutionalized interactions, a top-down approach to addressing these kinds of issues perpetuates the inequities and misses an opportunity to collectively address these problems. And furthermore, this false dichotomy I’ve emphasized so far, between students and staff, is only used to illustrate different power dynamics and positionalities within colleges and universities. Faculty and staff of color (and those of other marginalized groups) also experience microaggressions in multiple directions (from bosses, peers, students, etc.). This is a huge issue that impacts the everyday lived realities of a lot of people.

We live in a society where multiple, interlocking, hierarchical organizing systems (such as race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, ability) are systematically working to maintain and perpetuate privileged groups benefiting unequally over others, and these systems are replicated in our institutions (such as schools) and interactions (such as with microaggressions) at the political, economic, and cultural levels. If we can agree that putting the common good above individual interests ultimately serves to benefit us all, once again the question then becomes, what can we each do, with where we are and what we’ve got, to help make this whole system work better for more people? Whose voices are being heard? How are people at all levels being included in the process of working together to identify issues and come up with short and long-term solutions? The students have spoken. What will be the response?

References

Pierce, C. M. (1995). Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster. In Willie, C., Rieker, P.P., Kramer, B., Brown, B.S., (Eds.), Mental health, racism, and sexism (277-293). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press.

Solorzano, D. G. (1998). Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 121-136.

Solórzano , D., Ceja, M., Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: the experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69, No. 1/2, 60-73.

Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

Hotspot 4 – Astroturfing

Grass, Plastic, and Authenticity

grassroots_astroturf2

Grass is an interesting plant. When you look at a lawn from above, it looks simply like a very thick cluster of individual plants. But when you get down to the roots, you realize grass is actually a very complex network. This sophisticated root system makes grass a very hardy plant, able to withstand grazing, mowing and getting forever trampled underfoot while still continuing to grow. It’s not surprising, then, that we use the metaphor “grassroots” to refer to movements that arise from networks of people who, working together, can share resources to reach a common goal.

“Astroturfing” flips this metaphor on its head. Unlike an organic network of nodes that grow from the ground up, astroturf is a single, homogenous sheet of plastic that is laid over the ground. It is inauthentic grass, made to look like the “real thing” while at the same time supplanting or even suffocating the real thing beneath it.

This Hot Spot will take us through some various considerations of astroturf to explore what it is we mean when we label something as such. Kari discusses how transparency differentiates representative organizations and astroturf ones, especially in the world of politics and advocacy. Andrew considers recent corporate and governmental attempts to create astroturf hacking events. Xam writes a piece of advice for astroturf groups looking to use the Internet, using a Hong Kong group as an example, while Yomna takes us to Egypt to have a closer look at the movements that have shaken the country over the last few years, and blurred lines there between grassroots and astroturf. Sam asks us why we even care about the distinction at all, arguing that maybe the issue of astroturf is actually distracting us from more important concerns.

These posts are just some brief attempts to explore the importance (or not) of authenticity in movements. Here we begin to answer some questions, and provoke many others. We hope these first steps inspire others to contribute their thoughts and experiences on astroturf and the many overt and covert ways it is changing civic society.

- Michelle C Forelle

[1] Mowing the Astroturf, by Kari Storla

[2] Turf Wars: What is a Civic Hacker, by Andrew Schrock

[3] Astroturfing 101, by Xam Chan

[4] Regime Activism, by Yomna Elsayed

[5] Getting to the Dirt, by Samantha Close

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words. Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

Civic Kickstarters

If you’ve ever wished for a trebuchet that could fire erasers at the cubicles across the aisle–or wished you had the capital to mass produce the one you made in your garage, crowdfunding wants to talk to you. The basic idea behind crowdsourcing, as coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for WIRED, is that a large task can be accomplished by parceling it out among a “network of people in the form of an open call.” Crowdfunding modifies this idea by making the “large task” the production budget of a project. People who answer the call for participation in crowdfunding, called backers, contribute small to large amounts of money so the crowd can collectively raise the needed sum. Yet, “crowds” are, ironically, probably the wrong way to think about what’s happening with crowdfunding in general and its most visible offspring, Kickstarter.com.  Rather, Daren Brabham, in his definitive book Crowdsourcing, links crowdfunding success to online communities, calling them “fertile sources of innovation and genius.”

To understand how all of this works, we need to meet Kickstarter.  Kickstarter.com hosts projects and campaigns by independent creators, organizing project pitches and facilitating payments. They also lay down rules for what kinds of things can be pitched. Backing typically takes place over a month, overt charities are not allowed, and projects must have a finite endpoint: producing an iSomething accessory, printing a comic book, or turning an abandoned house in New Orleans into a ball pit. Many types of goals and endeavors are therefore collapsed together as projects. Project backers are kept appraised of a project’s progress, consulted for key decisions, and get an exclusive channel to communicate with project creators through the Kickstarter site. Project creators become more committed to a project that they know has generated interest. This process is closer to co-creation, where  fans and producers come together with interest and enthusiasm around a shared culture.

Although a Kickstarter campaign invitation is open to anyone browsing the web, it takes a relatively small number of people to make a project successful: all funds donated (minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee) go to the project creator rather than being funneled through a foundation, production company, PayPal, or other edifice of red tape.  Kickstarter’s “crowd,” then, is more often an activation of a community or subculture than a random assortment of people on the virtual street. Once we re-frame Kickstarter as invoking community interests rather than those of a faceless crowd, we can start to more clearly think through how crowdfunding works.

Kickstarter.com argues strongly that they are not a store and designs their policies and site to avoid the appearance of being an online storefront. These are obviously muddy waters, particularly as one of Kickstarter’s most notable additions to the traditional investment funding model is a system of “backer rewards.”  These rewards vary tremendously from material to immaterial to symbolic to somewhere in-between, and are set up by project creators to thank backers who contribute different tiers of money.  Rewards can become an unexpected burden for project creators, who deliver them later than expected over 75% the time. The best rewards are intrinsically linked to the project at hand, rather than being unrelated additions that create unnecessary work rather than deepening the excitement among backers and commitment by creators.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

The one particularly dedicated fan who found $10,000 to donate to Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Movie campaign, for example, will get a small speaking role in the film.  The more modest $10 donation level (selected by a less modest 8,423 people) receive a smaller reward (a digital copy of the film’s shooting script), but one that is still tied to the making of the movie.  The Veronica Mars campaign raised the most money of any project, ever, on Kickstarter and ignited both controversy and a lot of useful debate about the crowdfunding model. Today’s hotspot* features Civic Paths members diving into the fray and continuing the crowdfunding conversation.

One theme across posts is to follow the money:  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  How does it get there?  Why does it go?  Kickstarter projects complicate a simple dichotomy of commercial goals vs. creative endeavors, which were previously compartmentalized and personalized by such terms as “fans” and “producers.” According to Samantha Close, Kickstarter lays bare tensions that were always there in the entertainment industry but hidden by layers of production and distribution. Liana Gamber Thompson unpacks the implications of the new Donald Trump-branded site, Fund Anything. In true Trump style, it’s an extreme caricature of crowdfunding where anything goes, from medical procedures to a party for kids displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Its emergence provokes difficult questions about what gets funded and why in the larger crowdfunding world. Despite the prominence of project hosting sites like Kickstarter, all crowdfunding also requires the backing of a payment system.  As Lana Swartz reveals, these systems can have politics of their own, resulting in funds being frozen, reducing trust in crowdfunding platforms, and frustrating all participants.

Spreadability, discussion, and debate that bridges communities is another theme of interest. Unlike Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, where the number of jellybeans in a bowl can be most accurately estimated by taking an average across a large number of observers, there isn’t necessarily a best solution to find in crowdfunding. Rather, projects spark conversations and debates that take place elsewhere, often necessarily as Kickstarter has a fairly strict moderation policy on the site’s discussion sections that, for example, frowns on negative comments. Kevin Driscoll connects projects focusing on saving media with the politics of preservation, noting how debates about stuff are also difficult conversations about what should be archived, how, and by whom. Mike Ananny questions how crowdfunding is being incorporated into news.  It troubles existing dynamics of journalism that evolved to promote the spread of meaningful information at the same time as some have taken the cue to openly and explicitly focus on underserved communities. Benjamin Stokes makes the point that feelings of community affiliation are imagined as well as geographically-proximate.  Thus, online projects can also directly impact offline civic well-being. However, both Stokes and Ananny point out that there remain significant participation gaps on Kickstarter that affect how networks of privilege are connected to isolated communities, exacerbating the politics of financial support. Andrew Schrock provides examples of success stories in the spread of Hacker and Maker Spaces (HMSs) that act as centers for informal learning and creativity in geographically-situated communities. These democratically-run collective organizations buck the stereotype of HMSs being confined to western male geeks more interested in picking locks than helping others.

Kickstarter’s popularity has brought with it significant controversies and legitimate questions of who gets to contribute, how, to what, and who really benefits in the end. We hope that with careful consideration crowdfunding can be viewed as and truly become a way to connect backers and creators more closely over tables (made of robotically sculpted Zen sand or not) that are meaningful to all parties involved. Crowdfunded projects can drive awareness and, even in their imperfection, spark conversations about what needs doing across various communities. These emergent debates are vital for us to have in this moment of economic transition and cultural shift.

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

[1] Why All Kickstarters are Civic Kickstarters, by Samantha Close

[2] Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[3] Getting the Funds from the Crowd: The Politics of Payment Infrastructure, by Lana Swartz

[4] Crowdfunding an Archive: What’s Worth Saving and Who’s Gonna Pay for It?, by Kevin Driscoll

[5] Crowd-Funded Journalism and Dynamics of Visibility, by Mike Ananny

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock

 

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.  Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

Civic Data Hacking and Government Open Data Initiatives

This is an initial post thinking through the implications of “civic data hacking” as part of an ongoing collaborative research project.

James Crabtree positioned civic hacking in 2007 as “not primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers.” Rather, it’s about “mutual-aid and self-help.” The central idea is that reciprocity and knowledge aggregation on the internet can be leveraged to improve community well-being through work on shared projects. This is a personal, thick and impactful form of participation, in Ethan Zuckerman’s terms. More recently, civic hacking has been used to describe efforts working within government efforts, particularly the Obama administration’s alignment with “Gov 2.0,” which includes leveraging social media and transparency for social change. Governmental organizations have taken to using hackathons to increase citizen involvement with data, working within limited resources to accomplish complex tasks in a short period of time. To government entities, “hackathons” can be a way to employ data sets, involve outside participants, and serve as PR. In this reading, civic hacking is a seamless melding of government goals for efficiency and community improvement and hackers’ relishing of a challenge and venue to demonstrate technical prowess. I’m calling this practice “civic data hacking” to differentiate itself from other ways hackers become civically engaged, such as activism (hacktivism), and encounters with different types of materials (hardware hacking, bio-hacking).

Hackers have a long history of using technology to develop expertise and bring about change. While the term refers to many different types of motivations and affiliations, code is their primary voice, and they are united in a belief that “information should be free.” This gives meaning to Lawrence Lessig’s coining of “code is law” to describe how computer programs are a powerful mode of regulation on the Internet. Through Gabriella Coleman’s perspective, the politicization of hackers is a relatively new development and doesn’t fall neatly along a traditional left-right axis. Hacker subcultures have come to understand the importance of code as free speech through legal conflicts that criminalize activities of members. From quite a different place, hundreds of hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) have emerged worldwide to provide a physical space for tinkering and collaborative learning. Here there is – as with hackers more broadly – a wide range of types of civic engagement. Some HMSs closely align with local organizations and donate effort to charities, while others exist mainly as for socialization. Still, I would argue that even these HMSs serve as significant spaces for members to connect with technical knowledge and collaborative possibilities. These shifts in hacker culture have reduced barriers to entry, encouraging possibilities for political awareness and self-expression.

Government players imagine hackers as interested in solving pressing social dilemmas by sorting through and crunching piles of data. Indeed, hackers have always been interested in organizing around causes that threaten a free flow of information. However, this redefinition clashes with hackers’ distain of authority and enthusiasm for openness during the current cultural moment. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, widely viewed as stemming from an over-zealous prosecution, the government is seen as an unreliable steward of the people’s interests. Because the government can use sufficiently vague laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to prosecute individuals, they are able to define acceptable uses of information in various ways to suit political goals. This makes hackers and F/OSS enthusiasts nervous, as “open access” is a radical and complete transparency, not just a convenient way to crowdsource work. Transparency is a political imperative and the rules are non-negotiable. In response, many hackers have dismissed civic hacking as a move to co-opt the term. However, this neglects what could be beneficial outcomes. Hackathons can reach outside the scope of groups who would traditionally consider themselves hackers, which tend to be closed and paranoid. Results of hackathons include code, functional apps, and other assets that be instructive to more diffuse, internet-based publics. The term “hacker” has already been repurposed to describe various types of groups that don’t share much in the way of common lineage. If anything, the term “hacker” has proven to be infinitely mutable and slippery.

Might civic data hacking’s invitation to participate and code serve as a meaningful form of “thick and impactful” civic engagement, despite these conflicts? Government entities see hacking as a motivation and opportunity to partner with various local organizations to promote various open data initiatives. As Kevin Driscoll points out, government has a long history of taking an interest in amateur technical cultures. Yet, hackers have political perspectives of their own, even around many of the same terms such as open-access, and many bristle at the attention. While it’s clear that the government won’t permit embarrassing information to come out of hackathons, working with code and data is a qualitatively different type of civic engagement. It seems reasonable that hackathons could lead to positive effects to citizens such as learning and more direct relationships with government entities. Apps are currently a buzzword tied to hackathons (there is even a “Civic Apps Competition Handbook”) but are really no more than mobile software that can be easily developed and deployed to increasingly popular mobile devices. Government entities can lack forethought about the last mile of open access, and put information online in obscure locations or locked in formats like PDFs. Perhaps civic data hacking is best framed as a kind of investigative journalism, where participants are free to uncover more effective ways for citizens to view data and access government services, even if they retain a certain cynicism about the endeavor.