Communications and Society Program
Communications and Society Program
Obama Girl laughs
In the flickr of my cellphone
Lost in the Twitter
—Anonymous, early 21st Century
Obama Girl, a cellphone haiku, critiqued two streams of thought prevalent at the time (1) a dystopian analysis that social fragmentation was causing individuals to retreat from meaningful civic engagement with others, and (2) a utopian view that innovations in media and communications were powering new forms of social engagement.
Literary critics agree the author was untrained in haiku and confused flickr, Twitter and YouTube. Unresolved is intent: Was the author dismissing technology, or simply confessing his own inability to cope with change?
Obama Girl (the poem) captures the fears, realities and dreams expressed by a hand-picked group of smart people during the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Mobile Media and Civic Engagement, which was convened by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and San Francisco State University's Center for Renaissance Journalism. They were asked to untangle a puzzle: How can we take advantage of the dramatic surge in the use of cellphones and other mobile media devices to draw people out of their cocoons and into activities that benefit community?
The event was held December 10-12, 2007 in San Francisco, the virtual epicenter of the digital revolution. It drew 25 leaders from digital media, journalism, the non-profit sector, philanthropy, academia and government. Some are experts in digital media, journalism and communications technologies; others are leaders in the broader society affected by these innovations. Through a roundtable discussion format, they were asked to focus their wide range of experiences and expertise on the puzzle.
In the following report, J.D. Lasica, author of Darknet and co-founder of Ourmedia.org, skillfully captures and contextualizes the flow and spirit of the discussions. I was privileged to play a small role in this endeavor. Charles Firestone, the executive director of the Communications and Society Program, was the real mastermind. As moderator, he guided the participants through the maze of issues and opportunities. It began with a sobering reminder of some of the social changes taking place in today’s society, from the well-documented decline in voting participation to the troubling conclusions of Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam that increasing diversity within a community leads to decreasing tolerance and trust of one another. It moved on to an examination of the startling growth in cell phone use, both domestically and globally, and their potential, seemingly unlimited capabilities.
The roundtable format led to disclosures and insights about problems and barriers that impede the implementation of many good ideas about how to use cell phones to serve community needs and to energize the civic process. For starters, the closed nature of U.S. cell phone networks creates barriers that make it necessary for the experimenter to negotiate separate deals with each carrier. Vast swathes of rural America still lack broadband service. Some nonprofit groups say the rates charged by cell phone companies for text messages are too high for them to use this technology effectively. Compared to their counterparts in Japan and the United Kingdom, U.S. schools and their teachers have been slow—some conference participants said afraid—to embrace the potential of cell phones as learning devices. The list seemed to go on forever.
Add to these problems the human dimension: for every individual who is eager to try the next gadget, gizmo or breakthrough, there are others who are uninterested, unable or simply lagging behind. I confirmed this in an informal survey of friends and associates, most of whom are quite technically literate, yet limit their use of cell phones to calls and an occasional text message or snapshot. "Having never tried Twitter, I can say that it looks like my worst nightmare—an endless source of distraction by minutiae," said one colleague. One interesting use that turned up in my survey: Some women use cell phone cameras "like a mirror" to check their hair and makeup, said one friend, who quickly added that she doesn't do this. Finally, one friend nearly harrumphed back in an email message, "Sometimes it’s a useful paperweight on my desk."
In other words, for some people, the cell phone remains a device for personal communications and purposes, not a civic tool.
On the other hand, inspiring news came in the stories about how leading edge practitioners are using mobile media to engage citizens to solve problems, bridge differences, report, give voice and strengthen community. In San Francisco, the SexINFO project provides teenagers with information about sexual health issues by sending private text messages—free from the prying eyes of others—to their personal cell phones. In Myanmar, citizen journalists used their cell phones to expose to the world the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
There was mounting evidence that many people—especially youth and the previously disempowered—were learning to use cell phone messages, snapshots and videos as a way to express their political views. Certainly that was being demonstrated by the thousands of young people and others drawn into the 2008 Presidential primary campaign. The Obama Girl video was released about six months prior to the Aspen Institute conference. Although more of a publicity stunt than an act of political activism, it certainly generated interest in the election process. More to the point, the campaigns of Senators Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all turned to the Internet to woo new supporters and donors. In Spain, the Philippines and Iran, people use blogs, texting and email to vent political opinions or organize protests, sometimes surreptitiously and at great personal risk.
Armed with the insights shared across the table, the participants joined in a kind of incubator exercise, proposing some new ways to use mobile media devices and even offering to develop some pilot projects. The ideas and potential solutions that arose are quite interesting. Taken all together, the conference and this report offer a snapshot in time of the role that mobile media are playing in community and the civic process. It also offers some ideas about where we might go in the future, with the post-conference launch of the EdText application demonstrating how these ideas can become reality. We hope that the socially beneficial and innovative projects and ideas described here inspire others to strengthen connections within their own communities. We invite you to read, to post and to Twitter. Obama Girl would be happy.
On behalf of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and our partner, the Center for Renaissance Journalism, I would like to thank the Ford Foundation for its sponsorship of the Roundtable on Mobile Media and Civic Engagement. We appreciate the Foundation's long-standing commitment to strengthen and promote civic engagement around the world.
I gratefully acknowledge the participants in the Roundtable—all are listed in the Appendix —and thank them for their valuable insights and participation. Each person brought to the conference a wealth of experience and a dynamic, positive energy to thinking about adapting mobile media to the challenge of strengthening civic engagement. I want to acknowledge and thank J.D. Lasica, our gifted rapporteur, for integrating a wide-ranging set of discussions into a well-written, interesting report. We acknowledge and thank the participants who contributed the additional resource materials that appear in this publication: Jed Alpert for "A Mobile User's Guide," Joaquin Alvarado for the Ed Text segment, Barbara Cohn-Berman for the ComNet case study, Deb Levine for the SexINFO case study, and Katrin Verclas for the "Mobile Advocacy Dos and Don'ts."
Jon Funabiki, director of the Center for Renaissance Journalism at San Francisco State University, has been a valued partner and the source of great encouragement and wisdom in exploring the civic implications of new media technologies and new social practices. We thank him for his contributions, not the least of which is the Foreword to this report.
Finally, I want to acknowledge with appreciation the management and hard work of the Communications and Society Program team who produced the Roundtable and this report: Kate Aishton, project manager; Patricia Kelly, assistant director of the Communications and Society Program; and, with special thanks, Amy Korzick Garmer for designing the agenda and editing the report.
Charles M. Firestone
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute