Take a load for free…and you put the load right on me.
Robbie Robertson (The Weight, Music from Big Pink, 1968)
In 2004 the phrase “citizen journalism”’ made its grand entrance following the aftermath of tsunami in south eastern Asia. Some would argue that citizen journalism is as old if not older than journalism itself but low barriers to portable technologies and social sharing empowered citizens to take back political and documentary storytelling. Greece, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary, the USA, and most such places in the world with political upheaval and decent broadband are amassing large quantities of content captured by on-lookers. Communities on-lookers are spontaneously gathering around ”individual – without any initial store or political authority – who (can) suddenly acquire status as a significant political actor by acting online” (Couldry, pg. 121). “Political actors” or those with ability to create and lead by content creation are becoming influential bloggers, documentarists, activists and photographers. Often, however, according to the World Press Freedom Index , the cost of maintaining the actor’s status in politically volatile landscapes is high. They are targeted. Some killed. Khaled Mohamed Saeed (Egypt), Ferdi Özmen (Turkey), Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das (Bangladeshi, The Atlantic), and many more acting on behalf of community embodied the principles of central social network node.
Political Actors and Socially Networked Landscapes
Social network analysis (SNA) defines society as a web of relationship between individual nodes. Four basic principles determine its architecture: relative actors’ independence; relationships defined as a flow of resources; networks constraining and/or enabling actors and networks being defined by generations of long-lasting ties. The building block of SNA is not singular entities but a dyad – relationship between two actors (Wasserman and Faust, 1999, p. 4). Indeed, bloggers and activists are relatively independent and their relationships are defined by the flow/ transfer of information. Their influence, blogs and websites, are constrained and/or enabled by relative censorship of their political network and their social networks have long-lasting ties. For example, the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” established after his tragic death acquired 307, 000 “likes”, and is considered to be the tipping point leading to Egyptian revolution of 2011.
Another concept, Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (AT, 1996), expands networks to technologies and matter- anything with “the attribution of human, unhuman, nonhuman, inhuman”. The network is “the distribution of properties among these entities; the connections established between them; the circulation entailed by these attributions, distributions and connections; the transformation of those” (1996, pg. 7). In such a complex system of exchanges, language and messages inevitably deviate. Latour argues that not only are there “as many metalanguages as there are frames of reference” but a new one emerged, “an infralanguage which has to be poor, limited, short and simple … translation… the price AT pays to move” (pg. 13).
Certainly, as the process of acquiring and sharing information rapidly and almost exclusively revolves around social media it became “impossible to separate the way that people and their networks acquire and use information from the technologies that they use to do so” (Tactical Technology Collective [TTC] 2015, p. 14). As Latour points out, the attributes of network must include not only the subtle relationships political actors form with their technology but also the relationships of technology to technology itself (e.g. connection technologies), or language to language, and language to infralanguage (e.g. translation from natural language to perpetually shrinking Twitter, currently at 118 characters). It is precisely the prevalence of infralanguage that encouraged rich, more complex visual storytelling to be more assertively used for engagement and advocacy. Audio visual digital media, documentaries in particular, satisfy all requirements of good informational design: they provide presentation of factual information based on solid research and also artistic representation that includes metaphors, analogies and symbols (TTC, pg. 15). Further, as competition for attention in virtual commons is becoming fierce, the representation element may occasionally overpower but the significance of moral, emotional and rational appeal remains unchanged. In intensely competitive media landscapes poor, limited, short and simple infralanguage can provide an impetus but it cannot create the richness of depth to maintain engagement or advocacy.
Political Actors and Burden of Proof
Even moderately informed citizens sense that our online relationships are limited by the accessibility and availability of the network we reside on. “Political actors” and those who follow them agree that the burden of proof has shifted “to the viewer who has to make a judgments call about the authenticity of information they are looking at.” (TTC, pg. 15). Ordinary citizens might feel obliged to take upon that burden occasionally only if they can remain anonymous.
Anonymity is important, especially when is related to engagement or advocacy. Couldry argues that it is precisely anonymity or the action at a distance what reduces barriers to citizen engagement because of our human fear of reprisal or embarrassment (p. 121). The challenge here is to develop a concept of community that can provide spaces for the social self and civic engagement for the action at a distance. One can further argue the entire field of what used to be called “community engagement”, being a planned process of consultation, education, participation, communication and partnerships, should be reinvented to accommodate a vast number of distant, anonymous network of on- watchers. Communities of people and technologies that do not belong together geographically but by the interest they share are called communities of practice (vs. community of place). Still, all communities, irrelevant of space they occupy, are agents of accessing relationships (social networks and capital) and relative safety of collective action. Yet, they are also perpetually struggling with engagement and winning over constituency’s apathy and detachment.
In the past the burden of proof was assigned to reliable, trustworthy broadcasters playing the role of political translators and independent verificators. As traditional newspaper empires were replaced by global media conglomerates featuring disposable, short-lived broadcasters and the size of public media shrunk considerably our general trust in media sources deteriorated. As a result, we find ourselves being simultaneously overwhelmed by the quantities of information at our disposal and our diminishing ability to verify simple facts. We seek trustworthy political actors to help us cut through the noise and scrutinize the evidence. We seek solidity of facts because without them our engagement and advocacy is paralyzed. But we do not want to act alone. We also need communities to either maintain connections with independent, trustworthy political actors to help us access the information we need, or to assume a role of one. Having a trustful frame of access to evidence within the safety of our representative community satisfy our needs to advocate anonymously while keeping us engaged.
Burden of Proof and Emotional Appeal
Certainly, the burden of proof is evidence but dry factual evidence is rarely enough. True, even without emotional appeal engagement and advocacy can be ignited, but they will not thrive. We have to feel to make sure we care.
One of the examples of successful advocacy campaign using documentaries and high emotional appeal is the Academy Award-winning Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove that gained a huge following thanks to the well- planned and well-executed activism piece. Over a period of one year oceanic societies, individuals, non-profits and environmental groups have been systematically petitioning Japanese embassies and consulates around the world requesting for this practice to close. At the end of the year, the story of the dolphin hunters in Taiji acquired close to 730 000 Facebook followers, and over a million of petition signatures. Japanese government responded with a three arrest warrants – 2 for the crew members and one for director. Some argue that the dolphin hunt in Taiji continued pretty much unchanged but the ripple effect of the “awareness tide” cannot be underestimated. Strong political actors, such is Louie Psihoyos, are able to generate abundance of “media capital” – an elated media status relevant to the perception of increase of the issue’s importance. “Media capital”, another handy term created by Couldry, is an asset normally controlled by the media corporations largely interested in high media capital they invest in (celebrities, wars, product placement). Advocacy or activism, on the other hand, uncovers, as Couldry phrases, “hidden injuries of voicelessness” that is domain of the low media capital usually delegitimized by omission (2012).
Whenever low media capital rises to the high media capital level (expressed in number of viewers or media consumers) outside of the mainstream, it acts as a potent chain disruptor because it is able to control and direct viewers attention. If the emotional outpour fueling low media capital can be maintained, even more is at stake. Emotionally charged low media capital has potential to be intentionally directed against high media interests e.g calls for boycotting companies or products violating human or animal rights.
An interest in “low media capital” issues rising up to the higher tide is not entirely ignored. In 2014 The Skoll Foundation financed development of The Participant Index report (TPI) intended to measure the audience engagement with entertainment media. TPI was searching for an evidence of citizen engagement to various components of the impact. The survey focused on relationships viewers form with social issues and on actions audience is willing to take, as authors note (cursive mine), “after consuming entertainment”. The survey examined 36 individual “entertainment” titles across documentary and fiction narratives, videos and TV inclusive of 30 social issues. It was found that “more than three in four viewers placed human rights as an important social issue, placing it at the top of the list, followed by healthcare, education, crime, and hunger”( pg.2). The most frequent action taken after viewing the media was “information seeking” in 4 out of 10 cases “viewers are moved to share information in some way as a result of watching a specific title, while nearly that many look for additional information”. 53% of viewers who are impacted emotionally were willing to take some sort of an action although different social issues inspire different types of actions. Community action, for example, is inspired by themes of global health and poverty (55%), national poverty (55%) and human or animal rights (52% and 51%) while information seeking is connected to of online privacy (71%), economic inequality (70%) and health care (68%).
TPI and corresponding Take Part platform carefully wraps low media capital around “conscious consumers” pioneering monetization of “issue – focused entertainment”. Yet, the research and data seem to be unbiased and valuable in proving that a) perceived “low media capital” has indeed a potent “consumers” appeal, and b) social justice, poverty and human rights themes act as disruptors of the high media capital channels by being able to influence individual behavioral patterns and inspire action. Again, infralanguage of the social media or even natural languages of the printed media at least at this moment in history do not influence human behavior in quite same way.
Engagement Gaps and Opportunities – What’s Next
Considering the changes in social networks, new technologies and ways of media creation, production and control we can identify the gaps and opportunities for community engagement and advocacy.
- Engagement is a type of relationship that influences behavior. Engagement can be public or anonymous. It is unpredictable. It could be powerful because it inspires people to act.
- Social media channels connect people and distribute messages across the network but in media –saturated environment cryptic infralanguage is not enough to ignite engagement. Number of followers on social media channels is not a measure of engagement.
- Burden of proof has shifted and citizens (bloggers, activists, change makers) are assuming the role “political actor” influencing opinions and creating media capital outside of the mainstream media. They create and are interested in low media capital.
- Low media capital can rise to the high media capital level if burden of proof is solid and informational design decent and combined with a genuine emotional appeal (e.g. documentaries). We are interested in stories about social justice, human and animal rights.
- Communities, safe spaces with strong (clients, members) and weak (anonymous, distant) social ties have access to and ability to create social capital. Evidence of engagement proves their relevancy. They have access to sources of low media capital but are reluctant to take the role of political actor (perception of funding limits being imposed in engagement pattern changes).
The question here is how to can connect all the vital elements of our communities social networks: maintain relative independence of political actors, establish a free flow of low media capital and censorship-free access to evidence/ burden of proof while creating long lasting ties with engagement and advocacy . There are several possible scenarios.
One is that the existing communities/ agencies in the future will orient themselves toward becoming more prominently developed as Communities of Practice (CoP) focusing their efforts on knowledge sharing, media literacy and media creation. The other is that the existing CoPs will start acquiring pop-up physical places in libraries and community centres more often engaging with event planning and off- and on- partnership with political actors. The third is increase in number of citizen journalists – motivated individuals intentionally creating temporary CoPs around one particular issue over a short period of time.
Advantage to existing agencies is an easy access to physical spaces and inner layer of constituency (walk in, members) that individuals do not have. Existing CoPs have functional layer of known followers (Facebook likes, subscribers) and steady outer layer of anonymous on-watchers they can count on in terms of numbers and promotion but the event planning component might be challenging. Individuals have power of small – a passion and interest that drives efforts at any level although they still need to test their community muscle to see if their issue can gain a voice. But all of them need the same ingredients: a powerful audio-visual story, a space and some technology, some participants and some volunteers to monitor, document and archive, a list of action items and clarity on what constitutes success. Some of the bravest and most radical, tired of complacency and status quo, are already drastically transforming their personal milestones into engagement pieces with unyielding burden of proof and rapidly evolving communities of practice such as are Fethullah Üzümcüoğlu and Esra Polat who shared their wedding feast with Syrian refugees in Turkey.
In fact, there are no real limits to community engagement other than our own imagination and our belief in terms of what is doable (access), or possible (time and skills), or how much of political power as citizens we actually have at our disposal (scale). The good news is that with all the disruptive innovation of systems and value networks at all levels of society we have considerably more than we could imagine.
This could be a bad news, also.
Note: Please join us on October 16th at the Documentaries for Change Conference in Toronto a day of exploration of critical connections between language, community engagement, social justice and documentary media. (Keynote speaker: Min Sook Lee).
- Carrol, W.K., Hackett, R. Democratic media activism through the lens of social movement theory, in Media Culture Society, January 2006 vol. 28 no. 1 83-104 doi: 10.1177/0163443706059289
- Couldry, N. (2012), Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge, England: Polity Press Latour, B. (1990) “On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications” (English version in Soziale Welt, vol. 47, pp. 369-381, 1996)
- Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- The Participant Index report (TPI) Storytelling Matters: Measuring the Social Impact of Entertainment on Audiences (June , 2014)
- Visualizing Information for Advocacy (2014), Tactical Technology Collective, Tactical Studios, Bangalore
- Wasserman, S., Faust, K. (1999). Social network analysis: Methods and applications. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.