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Beyond Broadcast

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February 28th, 2007

By Guest Blogger Anna Clark

First, the bad news.

The sold-out " Beyond Broadcast: From Participatory Culture to Participatory Democracy " conference, held last weekend at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, offered up a slate of presenters that in no way accurately reflected the diversity of conference participants.

Here’s the breakdown:

The morning featured 10 presenters on panels and keynotes. Eight were male; two were female. Eight were white; two were otherwise.

The afternoon was spent in "working groups" gathered around common interests. Sixteen conference participants took the stage to offer their working group feedback to theconference. Fourteen were male; two were female. All sixteen were white.

And yet, looking around me, I saw a much more even-handed breakdown of not only gender and race, but in the age and geography of participants. Seasoned public radio stalwarts from the Midwest communed with high-schoolers from Waterbury, CT with an innovative digitized textbook idea.

It’s terrible that such a range of voices didn’t have an equal opportunity to be heard. The conference mispresented the scope of the participatory culture it discussed, and the consensus celebration of how such a culture leads to participatory democracy was undercut by old habits. ( And don’t be afraid to tell them so, that we might have a better conference next year).

But then, there is good news.

No longer stuck in Revolutionary War paintings and textbooks, keynote speaker Henry Jenkins suggested that our images of political action start looking toward
the future, rather than the past. As the folks at Bitch Magazine have known all along, this means honoring pop culture as valid and vital community spaces. Counterstrike, Flickr, YouTube, blogs, podcasts, mash-ups, cell-phone photos, Survivor, American Idol, Harry Potter–these are arenas where we’re learning the technological skills and role-playing the conversations that lead to active citizenship.

Indeed, we’ve already seen it work. 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 t he photos that made racist coverage of Hurricane Katrina wholly apparent–and it was ‘amateurs’ who spread the news.

It’s an empowering message, that our participatory technology and fan culture translates into both the media and the government moving away from a "one-to-many" model to a "many-to-many" model.

But as we move forward, let’s not repeat the same old mistakes. Let’s not forget that women and racial minorities have voices too–and "Beyond Broadcast" would’ve done well to pay attention to them.

BIO: Guest blogger Anna Clark is a fiction writer and freelance journalist living in Boston, MA. She maintains the literary weblog, Isak and is a live-in member of the intentional community at Haley House. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College.

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