At the "Beyond Broadcast: Participatory Culture to Participatory Democracy" conference last weekend, I (and the $100 ticket I won!) rubbed elbows with a whole lot of smart, independent, public-minded, wired folks of all ages. I found myself roused by the conference's thesis, which was best (and with a great deal of humor) put by keynote speaker Henry Jenkins: that "what happens when traditional 'top-down' media meets the explosive growth of 'bottom-up” participatory media'" is that the skills, vocabulary, and imagination trained in pop culture will ultimately manifest as forceful citizen engagement.
In fact, it already has. It was 'amateurs,' not professionals, who
captured the incendiary images of Abu Ghraib, Michael
Richards' racist tirade, the tasering of a UCLA
student by campus police, and the Thai
coup. The "we're
sorry" campaign after the 2004 election emerged from participatory
culture, as did MoveOn.org's "Bush in 30
seconds" contest. It was 'amateurs' who used Flickr to juxtapose the photos that made
racist coverage of Hurricane Katrina wholly apparent--and it was 'amateurs'
As Jenkins puts it:
“Right now, we are learning how to apply these new participatory skills through our relations to commercial entertainment—or more precisely, right now, some groups of early adapters are testing the waters and mapping out directions where many more of us are apt to follow. ...
“The emergence of new media technologies supports a democratic urge to allow more people to create and circulate media. Sometimes the media is designed to respond to mass media content—positively or negatively—and sometimes grassroots creativity goes places no one in the media industry could have imagined.”
Among the treasures to take away is the Free Culture wiki timeline put together by one of the working groups. The result is a crazy map of the media ecosystem we exist within, running from 1998 to the present. It includes the release and death of Napster, the WTO / IMF street protests and the birth of Indymedia, and the Howard Dean campaign.
Also useful was the comparison of the early days of radio to our present moment's relationship with the Internet. A century ago, radio was in the hand of amateurs. Person-to-person connections were made, and nonprofit radio stations out of church basements were ordinary. It was a series of legal and political decisions that chose to place the power of radio into the hands of corporations and other for-profit businesses--and made it harder for the average person to use the new technology herself.
At this moment, we're in a similarly crucial point with the Internet. Decisions are being made now. But we don't have to wait around for them.