Leveraging Media for the Democratic Process: Inside the Engagement Lab at Emerson College

| Eric Gordon and Gabriel Mugar, Engagement Lab at Emerson College

Government agencies, news outlets, and community-based organizations (CBOs) play an important role in mediating civic life, however most are now struggling with their relevance in an increasingly networked and polarized society.

In this climate of distrust, the Engagement Lab at Emerson College conducted a study to learn how activists and civic institutions are leveraging media and digital technology to rebuild and reimagine new approaches to civic discourse and action. Through our conversations with over 40 civic media practitioners in Boston, Chicago, and Oakland, we provide a way of identifying and evaluating media and technology designed to facilitate democratic process.

Prioritizing the Social in Media

The practitioners we spoke with looked to media and technology not to solve a particular problem, but to facilitate discourse and build relationships around a problem space. By encouraging this socializing and network building around a problem, civic media can be described as the work of making media and technology that supports democratic process. The work is in itself a democratic proposition, requiring people to come together and understand and negotiate their collective interests within a problem space in such a way that they improve how they communicate and collaborate to address those problems.

Social infrastructure as objective

Social infrastructure is defined as the “people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support.” In our research, we found that practitioners were either creating new civic media practices from a position of having strong relationships with members of the community they were working in or they were prioritizing the cultivation of strong social infrastructure.

One of the ways that social infrastructure presented itself in our research is network building, where practitioners place a premium on convening people as part of their practice. They often place value on informal gathering spaces that bypass some of the strictures of formal meetings or input sessions. Such spaces, including community centers or social media interactions support encounters between stakeholders and allow people to identify critical mass around local issues as well as explore possible approaches for taking on particular challenges. These sorts of encounters, whether on or offline, build networks that further enable opportunities for sharing experiences and knowledge.

Such informal spaces were described as essential to people’s work. In Oakland, there was a collective fear that, with the rising cost of real estate, the economic feasibility of preserving such physical spaces was being threatened. For the Anti-Eviction Mapping, success is described as being part of a broader network of people working to address rampant eviction.

“Since doing this work, my own sense of community in the Bay Area has shifted dramatically, and it’s really nice to know – to have good relationships with people in different neighborhood coalitions.”

We see similar dynamics in the technology sector, with Microsoft being an interesting example. With Civic Engagement Managers spread across multiple cities in the United States, charged with supporting local ecosystems of civic technologists, the value proposition is in building a network of practitioners, scholars and activists in order to support strong social infrastructure. While the individual tools the company supports might be seen as traditional civic tech, each with a specific outcome, the primary activity of Microsoft’s civic tech units is to build localized networks that strengthen social infrastructure.

The Civic Media Practice report provides language to articulate this value proposition, so organizations from activists groups to technology companies can reframe the way they communicate how media and technology is used for social impact.

To learn more about our research on civic media practice, please read the full report here.

Eric Gordon is a professor of media art at Emerson College and the executive director of the Engagement Lab. His research focuses on how groups employ emerging media for civic participation, with a particular focus on games and play. He is the author of Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Blackwell 2011), and the editor (with Paul Mihailidis) of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (MIT Press, 2016). His new book, Meaningful In- efficiencies, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

Gabriel Mugar is a research associate and affiliate faculty member at the Emerson College Engagement Lab. His research explores the experience of volunteers on digital platforms for knowledge production and civic engagement and how such platforms construct opportunities for participation and learning. He received his PhD from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies.