Chapters 6 & 7 (The End of the Story?)

I found the idea of Jenkins’ “civic imagination” intriguing – and I would imagine that for the majority of us, we never emerge from that state. Imagining a better world is a dream for all of humanity but, as is pointed out, the difficulty is in taking up the mantle of change agent.The report that he refers to points out the forms of participatory politics, including 1) sharing info through social media 2) engaging in online conversations 3)creating original online content 4) using tools like Twitter to rally people toward a collective activity 5) building databases that can investigate an ongoing concern.

It seems to me that by doing all these things, you=can= participate in social action, albeit from the comfort of your living room. Is there a component of this kind of participatory politics that needs to be more personal and active in the sense of physically going out into one’s community? My initial sense says there must be, but perhaps that is because I have not developed my sense of what it is to be connected to others in my community through social media. It makes sense that language should then be adjusted to take the field of participatory politics out of the hands of wonks and put it in the hands of the average person.

Interesting though that when we look at our TV screens we still tend to see politics as an exclusive club. Yes, we see grassroots organizations springing up – and yes, when it comes to local actions I feel there is some impact. Pressure over the LGBT bathroom law in North Carolina seems to be raising the possibility that the bill will be repealed. When it comes to national politics, we are seeing huge groups of people trying to upend the status quo. It remains to be seen if it will happen. I know through my own research that the ability to reach voters on a personal level , even by targeting them through non-political interests (like reaching them through websites they frequent) has revolutionized the way campaigns are run. Obama first grasped that back in 2008. We will have to see how it changes the election this time around. My guess is that if it’s Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump that the Clinton team, having been taken down by web savvy campaign managers once before, will have a better strategy this time around. Will Trump’s people realize how important it is to have a web-centered strategy as well?

I found it interesting that Mimi was so concerned about “delegating authority to big corporations and governments”. although I agree that there has been a startling decline in support for things like social welfare and education. But I think that trend is mirrored by the public at large, not just big companies. I feel like companies are more inclined to try to make attempts at being more socially responsible because their profiles are so much more readily available than they were in years past. I don’t think companies are able to hide what they do the same way they used to. Besides, as the author points out, I think people are more and more apt to pick up the slack when it comes to supporting causes if only because it’s so much easier to be connected to one and to be “active” from the privacy and comfort of their own homes (using the tools listed above).

The whole story about the DREAM act is informative. We covered that extensively and I was surprised by how much that movement was driven by locals. We had a number of people on our air who were not professional talking heads, but instead were real people with stories to tell about how current legislation had impacted them and how they needed change. I have found throughout my career that people telling real-life stories are typically the best way to illustrate movements or define an organizations’ activities.

I find it interesting that the authors make the distinction between dealing in the real of big-P politics (like our presidential campaigns) and little-P politics which basically means that they are operating outside of or against traditional power structures. I think this distinction is critical when we consider what to do with our current political system. For years, we have listened to politicians talk about reform (working within big-P political structures) and each election I think we see a larger and larger chunk of the public disillusioned by that kind of talk. if politicians were going to reform the system, they would have done it already. Instead they simply find new ways to keep the power in the hands of the powerful. Perhaps this election will be the tipping point. I am no fan of Trump, but he is rightly calling out both the Democratic and republican political systems for putting their thumbs on the scales. To this point, young people have tried to change the system from within. I don’t think it will be long before people decide that the system must be changed in a more radical way. Not surprising then that the authors make the point that young people are more apt to favor online spaces that value their voice and where they can actually produce change – something that rarely happens within traditional power structures. I wonder, at the same time, whether in previous generations, the agency that the authors say is so desperately craved by young people was found in other situations – perhaps neighborhood clubs and games? Pickup baseball? Garage bands? I don’t know. But it seems that power structures have always been the same and that young people have always craved the need to lead as opposed to follow. There were opportunities for that, I’m sure, long before the Internet came along.

I think the Harry Potter is fascinating and something I hadn’t known existed. But I do recognize some historical precedent in the phone or letter writing campaigns mentioned in the article. In fact, there are several instances in which TV shows were brought back by letter writing campaigns (or the modern equivalent) – as far back as Cagney and Lacey and including one of my favorites, Arrested Development. In looking up other campaigns like this, I also came across instances in which Amnesty International helped organize letter writing campaigns for prisoners to be freed, although those campaigns existed within a pre-existing structure. Of course, it is one thing to call on people to write letters. They still have to write them.

The idea of these kinds of activities honing both skills that can be translated across the “activist” spectrum is important. I think that, as with anything, you figure out what to do and what not to do. Or what works and what doesn’t. One thing that I’ve noticed is that some of these grassroots campaigns (like a Black Lives Matter) have trouble when they reach a certain point of exposure or size – at that point, it seems someone or some set of someones needs to take over to give the group direction and shape its message. The problem is that when a group becomes so large that it is any number of disparate messages (not voices – messages) it begins to collapse inward on itself. I believe that Black Lives Matter was effective up to a point but was co-opted by some and its message was obscured by others. A simple parallel is when a group of rebels takes over a country or topples a dictatorship. If no one is in charge, then the group tends to fail to take advantage of its own momentum. I leave it up to others to tell me if I’m wrong. Simply put, do activist movements, particularly grassroots ones, need a functioning head? Do they need a leader? The authors make this point aptly when they discuss what happened with the Kony 2012 video. It spread so far and so fast that the organization that created it was unable to keep pace and, as the authors explain “the young people who had passed the video along through their social networks were forced to confront these critiques on their own, without access to adequate information, without any real training or experience in the skills of rebuttal.” This is particularly problematic when the people who would have these kinds of skills look down on the young people who are participating – either marginalizing their impact or the consequences inherent in their participation. Adults need to recognize the power of young people in not only communicating but shaping a message – and help them learn how to do it. Once we take an active role in perpetuating an idea or a concept (or a video that does so), we put ourselves in a position of responsibility for that content, even having to defend or explain it if necessary. It makes it very clear that it’s easier to start a movement than it is to sustain it. And one more thing – the authors point out that “activism is cultivated”… Can a movement be successful simply if it empowers more activists? Or does it have to have a goal and achieve it? Can making people socially and politically active be a successful outcome in and of itself?

I thought it was fascinating and a little sad to realize the kinds of risks that young people are taking when they take part in social activism. It kind of encapsulates the risk I think some of us, as parents, feel about the Internet at large – that kids can share a little too much of themselves without realizing that there are people out there that will take it and twist it and potentially use that which was revealed at great personal risk against the person who revealed it. So the conversation then needs to be that actions we take online – and they use the example of a teenager supporting same-sex marriage online even if it causes real-life consequences in her neighborhood – carry weight and help to define us not only online but in the world around us too. I don’t have any personal experience with this because I don’t put too much of myself online and as a journalist I am actually prevented from doing so, but I know that when I am looking through Facebook or Twitter, one little comment or political diatribe can define (in my mind) the person who is giving it. It is particularly risky online (as opposed to a face-to-face conversation) not only because you don’t know who is reading or reacting to what you have to say, but you have little or no opportunity to add context or answer questions. Like it or not, you are defined by what you put out there.

Conclusion: The authors talk about reimagining participatory culture. This book helped open my eyes to the possibilities available to us when it comes to engaging all different kinds of groups online, but it also showed me how much effort and time needs to be put into making mindful decisions about how we engage, what responsibilities we take on and how our decisions shape the larger online communities around us. I found it particularly fascinating that they said that “participatory culture risks being both everything and nothing”. It =can= have all this transformative power if more and more people become actively involved – something I believe will happen in the future, although it’s not a foregone conclusion. But I agree that if all people do is tag photos and take pictures of what they’re having for dinner, our online communities risk becoming a vacuous replacement for real relationships. As with everything, it depends on who gets involved and how and for a person like me who is undoubtably a lurker, it is also a challenge to seek out my own place within these communities.