Monday, 9 November 2009

Citizen 2.0: cross Arabian Sea

I'm preparing for a lecture/data gathering trip in India.
One stop will be in Bangalore, in this wonderful institute that combines research and advocacy re: the Internet: 
CIS.

In search for some possible research partners for the future, I compiled this short abstract that was meant to outline my interest in the question of participation:

The early and mid 1990s witnessed a surge of academic thinking and public debates around the democratizing power of the Internet. The most hopeful utopias of deliberative online communication and formation of active ‘subaltern counter-publics’ (Fraser 1992/1997) were countered with fears ranging from trivialization, fragmentation, even disappearance of widely and commonly shared issues, to viral distribution of non-democratic, ‘harmful’ content. Now the same debates are re-emerging once again in era that is witnessing the explosion of ‘social production’ in a multitude of digital platforms.The recent examples of the elections in two very different societies, the United States and Iran, provide just two cases where information production by non-professional individuals and loose associations, distributed via informal networks including social networking sites and microblogging, has played a major role in democratic processes.

A question remains: do social networks facilitate platforms for democratic debate and participation in our ‘post-broadcast’ democracies characterized by ‘a networked information economy’? And further, is or can there exist such a phenomenon as a ‘Citizen 2.0’ who actively participates in democratic processes (issue driven and/or local, regional, national, transnational) via digital media? So far academic scholarship has focused on theorization rather than empirical analyses, has tended to emphasise activities of social justice movements that are by default networked and proactive, and thus have ‘romanticised’ the participatory and democratizing nature of the Internet, web 2.0 and mobile communications (while most quantitative indicators tend to point towards concentrated and elite communication, and while digital divide still clearly exists). Needless to say, much of the hopeful theorization is European / Anglo-American, and there seems to be relatively little cultural sensitivity in grand visions of global public spheres.

My talk will not claim to provide answers to these paramount questions. Instead, I wish to raise more questions about (1) what should be researched about mediated democracy and citizenry in our time; what should we know? (2) How could we frame that research theoretically and conceptually? And (3) what kinds of methodological solutions might be useful in this context. Rather than presenting a comprehensive research agenda, I will suggest some ideas that would broadly connect to macro, meso and micro-level view of media, power and citizenship (c.f. Clegg 1989), and I will illustrate  those ideas with some empirical examples of my current pilot work for a planned multi-country study on the theme. I hope to provoke a lively discussion, or, rather, a brainstorming session amongst us who care about the possibility of Citizen 2.0.

Ouch. I should have been more specific, articulate, all that. Some magazine from Bangalore contacted me with a blunt question: You'll lecture here but are you seriously advocating the concept of  "Citizen 2.0" in a country where 3.7% of the population uses the Internet?

So I restate my research aim and interest here: I dislike utopias and big slogans (some described above). I'm interested in re-introducing the concept of citizenship in these debates, and the idea that it embeds the notion of participation. I'm interested in the totally different structural, socio-economic as well as policy  contexts of the US, India and Finland that have to do with people, emdia and participation vis-a-vis people's experiences of participation. 
Crazy or what, but I want policy studies to meet media ethnography, in a comparative context. 
I love policy studies but we know many of the (quantitative) constraints. At the same time, as convincingly argued in
this online essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pol economy scholars look down on cult studies, often for a reason (every CS analysis seems to conclude that everything is a consequence of neo-liberal regime, as the sarcastic comment by, author of the essay Michael Bérubé, reads.) And we surely need to descriptively document practices of both "people" and different kinds of media organisations, to see the choices, and to reflect what might work and in which contexts.

I believe we need a multi-method, multi-theory approach if we want to theorise as well as impact the way we all see ourselves, and are seen, as citizens. When I've presented my research manifesto @CIS, in a few hours, I'll share the actual lecture & reactions.

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