In age of new media, where are our civic spaces?

I’ve been meaning for a couple of weeks to post something about the recent community meeting here in Savannah with the Prometheus Radio Project, which is helping grassroots organizations prepare for the fall 2013 awarding of new FCC licenses for low power noncommercial FM radio stations. I previewed that meeting here on the blog, and I wrote a column about that meeting after the fact.

New technologies have spawned many avenues for civic engagement, but the relatively old fashioned medium of radio seems to hold a lot of promise in a relatively small community like Savannah. It’s easy to imagine — but no doubt hard to implement — a volunteer-driven low power station that provides in-depth discussion of local issues, spotlights local groups and individuals, and pays special attention to the local cultural scene, especially music. If that station also had a fairly robust web presence, we could bring see that become a new civic space.

On his blog Groundswell, Josh Stearns — Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director at Free Press — asked some really good questions in a recent post: Building a Civic Layer On Top of the Social Web. An excerpt:

In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, he documents how the Internet has help people accomplish amazing things by leveraging the power of new networks and connections. “We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action,” he writes, “all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.”

However, most of the examples of social and political change that have been amplified or catalyzed via social media are episodic, not lasting (which isn’t to discount their importance). This is in part the nature of social media. The same velocity that makes social media campaigns and memes so powerful, also makes them, for the most part, short-lived or best suited to making immediate change.

As we spend more and more of our time and energy on social networks – recent stats suggest that almost 20% of all time online is spent on social networks with the average person spending 7 hours on Facebook a month – I wonder how we can build a more consistent civic layer over the new digital public square. […]

If these privately controlled networks are becoming our de-facto digital public square, how can we build more horizontal civic layers that bridge these vertical silos? Or, asked another way, how can we leverage the power of commercial networks to help solve the “wicked problems” facing our communities?

Forsyth_Park_FountainI’d highlight here the distinction between public and private control, between the commercial and the noncommercial, between for-profit and non-profit. Think of the differences between in an American shopping mall — which actively and passively regulates choices and expression — and an old-fashioned open-air marketplace in a traditional town center.

Stearns links to a few interesting sites, including MIT Media Lab, which focuses on “Civic Media”: How to create technical and social systems to allow communities to share, understand, and act on civic information.

I don’t really have any clear answers here, but there are obvious dangers in Facebook — a for-profit corporation with astonishing reach that’s also under incredible pressure to add users and sell ads — being our dominant public space on the web.

That’s not to suggest that we shouldn’t utilize Facebook’s capabilities to connect people, but we need other platforms for communication — ones that allow for vigorous public discussion while also somehow keeping in check the kind of derisive rhetoric so prevalent in online communication.