beyond broadcast took place saturday in frank gehry's wonderful strata building at MIT. it was organized by three entities - MIT's comparative media studies, harvard's berkman center for internet & society, and yale's information society project - and was sponsored by the center for social media. the conference was convened, according to the web site, to explore "how participatory culture is putting the tools of media creation and critique in the hands of citizens themselves." with over 400 people in attendance, ranging from media artists, media activists, academics, bloggers, and industry people, expectations were high.
conference keynote speaker henry jenkins got things started right. smart, engaging, energetic, and funny, jenkins is a joy to behold and when it comes to ideas, the guy is on fire. drawing from convergence culture as well as his career's worth of work on fan culture, jenkins bounced from big idea to big idea, reminding us - a bit too optimistically for my tastes - that the kids are alright.
the talk included the seemingly requisite feed into second life. however, in a very unparticipatory culture move, questions and comments from second lifers went largely ignored. it seems to me that if conference organizers are going to arrange feeds into second life, they really should design feeds out of second life. without such interaction, the second lifers become observers, not participants. for me, that's sort of creepy. for a conference on participatory democracy, that's just wrong.
john palfrey, executive director of the berkman center for internet and society, followed jenkins with a brief yet insightful overview of politics and the internet. this was, perhaps, the most traditionally academic segment of the conference, with palfrey offering ideas regarding participatory democracy, economic democracy, and semiotic democracy. (todd mundt provides an excellent overview of john's talk here.)
but then things dimmed. the first panel, "participatory culture," was dull at best. elizabeth osder, senior director of product development at yahoo, said little, if anything, besides reminding the audience that yahoo owns flickr, delicious, and now mybloglog. kenny miller, executive vp and creative director at MTV, said even less and said it in a much less organized way. fortunately, the third panelist, arin crumley, one half of the creative team behind the film four-eyed monster, saved the panel. fed through a stream from LA, arin recounted his and his partner susan buice's experiences with, on the one hand, the traditional film festival circuit, and, on the other hand, posting parts of the film to blogs and myspace. arin's energy and ideas woke up the crowd.
unfortunately, however, the excitement was short-lived as the panel moderator, reason magazine's jesse walker, largely shut out both the first life and second life audience from the Q and A and instead used the time to ask his own questions. the only exciting - not to mention telling - part of the Q and A was when an online participant's question made it to the stage: "how do panelists," the questioner asked more or less, "see the needs of advertisers matching the needs of users?" elizabeth either understood the question and deferred or did not understand the question and was mum; kenny said, "great question," and answered that ultimately it's up to users. ok. as a user who creates plenty of user-generated content, i've got an idea - how about not matching my content to advertising? how about letting me converse and create without constant reminders and nudges to consume? it was strange, and depressing, that a large auditorium filled with really smart people could not even conceive of an advertising-free participatory culture.
after a much needed coffee break (during which i met rick burnes, part of the team behind the terrific and free mapping tool atlas), we reconvened for the second panel which featured jennifer harris (from the center for digital democracy), tad hirsch (MIT media lab), and chuck defeo (e-campaign manager for bush/cheney 2004). jennifer offered a brief yet on target reminder that all the nastiness found in old media (consolidation, commercialization, consumerism) is found, naturally, in new media. tad provided an overview of some of the really interesting projects he's working on - sort of an annotated resume. and chuck explained the importance of social media in the political process in general and republican political process in particular. i had mixed feelings regarding chuck. on the one hand, it was great to have a conservative voice among a sea of traditional liberals; on the other hand, saying that people like bush and cheney want "conversations" and "feedback" and "user-generated content" is just plain false. the best part of the panel was near the end when jennifer, perhaps channelling the frustration felt by many of us, had enough of chuck and tore into his argument. finally, a little conversation.
the panel's moderator was drew clark, from the center for public integrity, and he did his best to give the speakers ample time, entertain questions from the physical audience, and integrate questions from the online participants. the most telling question was also the most disturbing - something like "all this activism is great and all, but what are the business models?"
can you stand it?
can you imagine asking a question like that to, oh, say, the brave people who took a stand at stonewall? can you imagine approaching the freedom riders and asking them, "um, what is your business model?" how about the abolitionists? or the suffragists?
since when did democratic movements require business models? and while we're here, since when did marketing gurus become our go-to guys for democracy? maybe we need less conferences about web 2.0 and more conferences about activism 1.0 - good old fashioned people-powered movements, in the streets not on our screens.
the day's highlight was lunch - not because of the tasty sandwiches but because of my company: barbara abrash, director of public programs for the center for media, culture, and history at NYU and a member of the center for social media. at lunch, barbara told me about a project she's working on that examines documentary films and the communities that form around them. she mentioned one example - a documentary film about children with cancer. the filmmakers (and pbs?) got together with organizations like the lance armstrong foundation to foster dialogue. dialogue about america's number one taboo subject: death. dialogue about the grief experienced by the children, their families, and their friends. dialogue about early detection and prevention of cancer in general and cancer in children in particular. what barbara has been studying are the networks - online and offline - that form around such powerful films. having sat through a few hours of talks about technology, i was moved by barbara's discussion of people. talking to barbara made me think that perhaps in our mad dash towards everything 2.0, we've lost sight of the more human elements.
i'd never been to MIT, and i was growing impatient with the conference's level of discourse, so i skipped the afternoon working group sessions and walked aimlessly around campus. the best part was stumbling upon a huge auditorium packed with over 500 high school students competing in the harvard-mit math tournament! the kids were psyched to be there and i could literally feel their excitement. i stayed for a while - just to feed off of some of the buzz that was missing at my own conference.
about two hours later, the conference reconvened, this time to share the fruits of the working groups' collective intelligence. the ideas were good - some great, some inspired - but without any coherence or links between them.
the conference ended with a "wrap up" by david weinberger. as a leading proponent of everything-as-conversation, david surprised me by conversing very little about the ideas expressed in the conference. instead, he talked a lot about the complexity of the concept of "ours."
i have been attending conferences for the last twelve years and the majority are, unfortunately, uneventful and uninspired. i wanted beyond broadcast to be different. and, with heavy hitters like harvard, yale, and MIT as organizers, i expected it to be different.
i don't regret attending beyond broadcast and i hope the organizers, with help from the center for social media, will continue to plan future conferences. at the same time, i hope they think hard about what works and what doesn't, who attends and who doesn't, who participates and who doesn't. but perhaps more importantly, we - we who care about these issues, we who care about democracy - need to think hard about these questions. gone are the days when we turn to harvard, MIT, and yale for answers. these are the days when we turn to each other.