Think “Local”—New MIT Media Center To Build Tools to Foster Civic Engagement

10/19/07

You don’t have to look far to find signs that participation in local communities is on the decline in the United States. In one obvious example, overall voter turnout in local elections is at a low ebb: according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts survey only 26 percent of Americans aged 18 to 25 claim to vote regularly. Meanwhile, traditional sources of local information are dwindling. More Americans are getting their news from national sources than ever before, and just 16 percent of young Americans say they read any daily newspaper at all.

Now a trio of well-known figures in media and technology at MIT is launching an ambitious center to use technology to build local community engagement. With $5 million in private foundation funding, the new Center for the Future of Civic Media (or C4FCM) is setting out to study the problem, design solutions using new media and technologies, and eventually field test and implement those ideas.

C4FCM is the brainchild of Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, and Mitchel Resnick and Chris Csikszentmihályi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hi), both of MIT’s famous Media Lab. Jenkins, a prolific voice on technology and social networks, brings a wealth of media experience to the team. Resnick’s “Lifelong Kindergarten” group has an impressive track record of building usable technological tools for kids, including the popular, web-based programming language “Scratch.” Meanwhile, Csikszentmihályi is an up-and-coming IT specialist who heads the Media Lab’s Computing Culture group.

Resnick and Jenkins graciously took time out from scrambling to get things going to talk about their plans. The group’s funding, announced last May and spread over the next four years, comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, built from profits from the Knight-Ridder media empire. And Resnick and Jenkins both use the problems faced by traditional local newspapers as a jumping off point for what they’re doing. “In the past local newspapers played an important role in supporting people’s efforts to be engaged in their local communities,” Resnick explains. But today, Jenkins notes, even in Boston, with a strong local paper in the Boston Globe, it is still hard to find out who the candidates are in local elections in his hometown of Cambridge, MA. “This kind of local political coverage is becoming less and less available to many Americans through traditional news sources,” he says.

As Resnick puts it: “We’re looking closely at the conceptual underpinnings of what’s happening today—the shrinking and changing of local media and local connections. And we’re asking: how can we build tools to help engage people in all kinds of active participation in their local community?”

Jenkins and Resnick are both quick to note that this involves a lot more than issues of newspapers and voting. “When we talk about civic engagement,” Jenkins says, “people immediately think about voting. But we’re not just talking about showing up at a polling place every few years.” Rather, he explains, the team is thinking about civic engagement, “not as a special event, but as a lifestyle.” Jenkins says the team seeks to connect all sorts of local entities and individuals with one another: not just government with citizens, but parents with schools, old with young, longstanding local residents with newcomers.

Exactly what kinds of tools are Jenkins and Resnick talking about? At this early stage, the team is looking at all sorts of possibilities, from the growth of locally focused online resources (such as websites like xconomy.com) to prospects for “micro-local” citizen and student journalism focusing on specific neighborhoods or communities—even the possibility for cell phone-based software platforms for resource banks, volunteering, sharing expertise, and exchanging local information.

Jenkins says the team’s first job is to recognize that a number of trends are occurring simultaneously. For instance, he notes, the decline in newspaper circulation no doubt stems at least in part from the fact that people are increasingly getting their news from online sources. But, in terms of local engagement, he says, it is equally important to understand changes brought about by increasing mobility in the United States. According to Jenkins, Americans move an average of once every five years, most often to pursue work opportunities. With that kind of a transient population, he says, it is little wonder that there is diminishing investment in local communities. While digital technologies have made it easier for people to keep social networks intact even when they move, he notes, the same attention hasn’t been paid to connections on the local level.

One goal of the team, therefore, is to take advantage of “more than a decade’s worth of research into the kinds of online communities that can emerge within networked cultures,” Jenkins says. “With this project, we seek to draw on that research to strengthen people’s ties to their own local communities.” In particular, he says, the group is interested in building upon online efforts, like blogs and bulletin boards, in which local residents can take “the flow of information into their own hands,” as well as ventures like Meetup.com that combine online and face-to-face interactions. As Jenkins puts it: “We may live in a so-called digital world and our relationship with our local environment might be changing, but the local needs are still there.”

With the C4FCM still finding its footing, it is too early to say exactly what kinds of technologies the group will develop or what products it might eventually spin off. But Jenkins and Resnick say looking directly at the problem of local involvement is sure to lead them to some interesting new tools. As Resnick puts it: “We’re confident that new media and programming can open up ways for engagement that were not possible before, allowing people to become involved in new ways and through new channels.”

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