“Media is complicated.” Or not.
[Editor's note: This post was written by Keith Hammonds, director of Ashoka's News & Knowledge Program.]
At the recent MIT | Knight Civic Media Conference, Ethan Zuckerman – brand-new director of the Center for Civic Media and co-founder of the relentlessly innovative site Global Voices – offered a pretty brilliant state-of-the-field address. Media, he observed:
is complicated, and media is especially complicated now, at a moment when changes in technology make it possible for hundreds of millions of people to share their thoughts, perspectives and ideas and where some of the systems we had for aggregating and filtering people’s stories are facing challenges to their sustainability … We seem to be rapidly going beyond black and white questions of whether citizen media has legitimacy, or whether new media will crush old media, and into the murky gray of discovering what’s actually going on in a world where the distinction between publisher and reader, broadcaster and audience is disappearing.
At the same event, we were introduced to this year’s winners of the Knight News Challenge, an annual competition that aims to source and fund new ways to digitally inform communities. The 16 winning innovations proved Zuckerman’s point: In the very near future, news will come from anywhere. Citizens will produce, share, distribute, and deploy whatever content is credible and relevant to them, in competition or partnership with — or in obliviousness to — historical journalistic institutions.
At the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, for example, a bunch of young cartographers, designers, ethnographers, and anthropologists (note: not a journalist among them) is creating a toolkit for grassroots data gathering and research. They specialize in aerial mapping – literally tethering cameras to weather balloons and kites to document oil-spill-affected areas off the Gulf Coast and other at-risk ecological sites.
NextDrop, founded by civil engineer Anu Sridharan, plans to launch a service in conjunction with local utilities in Hubli, India, that will inform residents by text whenever water valves are turned on, so they don’t have to wait for infrequent and unpredictable service. Adaptive Path, an experience design firm, is creating a web-based tool that aggregates user-generated content from social media during big news events.
These projects confront some central challenges to full information citizenship – the promise that everyone, everywhere can engage powerfully with the information they need to participate and make change in society. They operate in Zuckerman’s “murky gray,” where old distinctions are fading and new tensions are emerging: How do we reconcile efficient access to information with personal privacy? When we have all the data, all the time, how do we make sure content is accurate, credible, and relevant?
These are some of the issues we look forward to exploring in Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition, run by Ashoka Changemakers® with the support of Google. It’s a tantalizing opportunity to identify new solutions at a moment of unparalleled turmoil in the media field — and to seize an unparalleled explosion of entrepreneurial activity.