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January 11, 2006

promise of public media

At a meeting tomorrow, I'm supposed to reflect briefly on this question:

Citizen Media: Enthusiasts claim that new media, with their anti-top-down structure, tend to more democratic. Critics claim that they just make for finer niches of communication and more opportunities for marketing and consumerism. Not enough attention has been paid to how these new ventures can create more public space and invigorate public media. In what ways can these media be used to create a more robust public?

Since four others are also slated to speak and will probably cover the main points, I think I will focus on kids. I'll say:

Developmental psychology tells us that civic experiences in adolescence have profound, lifelong effects on civic participation, whereas experiences in adulthood tend not to affect people much. Therefore, if you want to build a public, you must give teenagers positive civic opportunities.

Creating public media can be an excellent civic experience. Such creativity takes many forms, from community mapping research to positive hip-hop. There is insufficient research on the impact of this work, but my personal experience with kids and some survey data indicate that it can be very powerful pedagogy.

However, contrary to popular opinion, youth do not take to computers naturally and with ease. Many of the teenagers I have worked with--including many with computers and Internet access at home--are very ignorant about, and intimidated by, computers. At school, they merely learn "keyboarding." Their voluntary use of digital media is completely passive. Besides, the Internet is still largely a written medium, and youth with poor literacy skills cannot participate effectively.

Therefore, if we're thinking about government support for "public media," I would argue that media courses and extracurricular programs should be funded. The new media may cost less than the old, but they require more human capital. That's where investment is most needed.

The state is not the only source of support for youth media. Voluntary associations can also teach media skills and motivate young people to participate. I have elsewhere advanced a rather elaborate argument that associations are essential to the development of a robust online commons; the commons cannot be built by individuals alone.

It's important not to romanticize youth media, since most of what kids produce is not "hot," award-winning material: it's amateurish and even dorky. In general, people (especially kids) want cultural products produced by celebrities. They don't want to hear amateur music if they can easily listen to the world's most famous singer on a digital recording that costs 99 cents.

However, what people demand depends on whether they are engaged in their own local communities. For instance, in a large, anonymous, internally segregated American high school, most students do not see the student body as a community or themselves as active members. If a few students produce a music video, only their friends will be motivated to watch it. For most other students, the video will be simply an inferior alternative to slickly produced Hollywood shows. However, if a high school supports a genuine community in which students deliberate about common concerns, know one another, and feel they can make a difference, then everyone may be quite interested in a music video that is made by their peers and that investigates local concerns. Thus the small-schools movement (and kindred educational reforms) are actually central to the question of public media.

This example illustrates a more general theory that Scott Dinsmore made in a comment yesterday: strong civil society, rooted in local communities, may increase demand for locally produced cultural products.

Posted by peterlevine at January 11, 2006 11:02 AM

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