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Mit-MediaLab: Citizen and professional media in Italy

Ethan Zuckerman, head of the Mit Center for Civic Media, invited me to share some experiences about civic media and professional media in Italy. Here are some notes. Just notes.

I must confess that I was really flattered but I was also quite worried, because I didn’t think that Italy could be such an interesting subject at the MediaLab…

How did I sort out of that? With a set of questions in two steps:

First step – I sort of forced myself to think what I could say after a title like the following:

Why the Italian civic media landscape matters to you? I mean: why the Italian civic media should be a subject of interest for you, people, who don’t leave in Italy?

Second step – I thought about some questions that I would really like to ask someone who is so lucky to be doing a research at the Mit Center for Civic Media.

At the end I came out with a compromise.

Yes, I know: I could entertain some people by talking about our bizarre
media system, with a strange tycoon acting as political leader. But I
must admit that it is such a sad subject… A much happier subject is the possible interpretation of the civic media space as a possible reaction to the same situation that
made that kind of political leader possible. So maybe I should be asking both global and local questions.

I thought that some questions are global (and quite complicated): is it possible to think an epistemology of the news that emerge in the civic media context? What kind of incentives are leading the use of social media platforms? What does it mean to change that “social media” into a “civic media”? Is it true that civic media initiatives can grow their importance only by growing their ability to be both creative in format and reliable in content? Is there any kind of common methodology that can be developed to improve the efficiency of civic media initiatives?

Those are questions that are useful in Italy, too. But, to apply to Italy, they should be sort of simplified. Italy has an important percentage of functional illiterates and digital illiterates, while it is investing less and less in public education. But education in digital media is always some sort of learnig by doing. Thus, civic media initiatives in Italy could be both important to achieve their results and to spread a sort of general incentive to media literacy.

That said, here are some short ideas.

Italy matters for the media studies because it is a laboratory for testing lots of hypothesis about the consequences of some crucial decisions that shape media structures.

In particular, the Italian media landscape is a lab for testing many ideas that we share about the emergence of a new media landscape, while being an historical example of a rich set of mistakes that other countries still can avoid. On the other hand, Italy needs more than others a new media landscape, thus it may be getting some interesting thoughts about the “civic” in “civic media”.

Italy is not well known for innovation. But it has invented the first law that allows one man to personally own three national television chains out of seven; and has forgot to include a norm stating at least that he should not try and become prime minister. That was a mistake, because now as premier he is owning his three channels and three more through the state controlled public broadcaster. Thus, political action in Italy is more about his agenda than the country’s agenda.

Since 30 years, Italy has entered the Thatcher-Reagan age. By watching Dallas in tv. It was a shock for a catholic country to see a bad guy loaded with money and power to become a popular hero. People called their children Jayar and Sue Ellen. Tons of tabus were demolished. Since then, television became a central part of Italian life. And influenced policy making maybe even more than in other countries.

There are some consequences:
1. growing percentage of functional illiterate
2. diminishing social activities
3. paranoid political agenda
4. diminishing investment in public shools
5. growing importance of social media as a balancing force to a weird media situation.

Referendums in 2011 demonstrated that the social media world can influence an important political decision more than television.

Now, how are Italians developing on that opportunity? I asked friends online to share some of the best examples they knew about civic media in Italy. Here are some examples:

photography as social change tool
critical city
creative ideas about getting together in town for learning and having fun
german speaking community in the North developing its culture and social impact

- kapipal

- percorsi emotivi
tell stories about emotions that you link to places in Bologna
blog sarzano (e altri quartieri genova)

bottom up social service design
adopting a politician to record all her/his decisions and movements

procivibus (kublai)
civil protection withe the help of citizens

- Continuum innovation

a platform to organize discussions while drinking something together
where places are better accessible to everybody
Decoro urbano
citizens share information about the quality of urban services

The new media landscape is a set of hypothesis:
1. the top-down, television based, industrial age, mediasphere is to be balanced by a new bottom-up, internet based, knowledge age, social media ecosystem: sharing and creating ideas and information is as important as learning in the knowledge age; it is the foundation for the energy and the freedom needed to innovate.
2. globalization is the competition between territories which can only win if they find their own special meaning in the global arena; this special meaning starts from their cultural history and is developed by investing in education and media, to end up issuing products, services and ideas that have a perceived value in the world.
3. the new social media ecosystem is very new and has not developed its own conscious epistemology; which means that the social network can risk a possible balkanization in the sense that everybody can be tempted to stick with the people that shares not only information but also values and political ideas, thus weakening the differences that make a cultural context less generative.

The social media context is innovative for its capability to energize the media system with the views and the values of people other than those that are professionally dedicated to the industry of content and those that have a top-down political agenda. But how can this contribution to knowledge and freedom become more important in terms of credibility, ability to influence the political agenda, quality of information that it generates? Incentives are different and competitive rules, personal roles are not the same. Is there anything that we can do to improve the system and the life of people at the same time?

Timu, by Fondazione Ahref, is a sort of platform that should help citizens who want to contribute with quality information. It does so by proposing social information games and learning opportunities, while asking to disclose the sort of methodology that citizens use to research and publish their information.

These where just some notes, for those that want to find the links at what was quoted during my short presentation at the Mit Center for Civic Media.


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Luca De Biase

Knowledge and happiness economy Media and information ecology