Mediactive: a Handbook for Engaged Media Citizenship

It’s become trendy to compare Facebook – with its 500 million users – to a nation. This is a telling metaphor that I think suggests more about our relationship to our media than it says about Facebook itself. We are increasingly understanding our media as a place we inhabit. Think, for example, of the rise of the term “media ecosystem” or even the older idea of a “homepage.”

If we are living in a media nation, then Dan Gillmor’s new book, Mediactive, is a handbook for engaged media citizenship. We might summarize the premise behind Gillmor’s book as: Ask not what your media can do for you, ask what you can do for your media. The book was just released this week, but I have been reviewing it for the past few weeks (Disclosure: Dan is a friend and gave me a copy to review).

At its most basic Mediactive is a clear eyed examination of our rights and responsibilities in this new media nation. This is not another book about the future of media, it is a book about us. As Clay Shirky writes in the forward, “Dan doesn’t make upgrading the sources, or the gatekeepers, or the filters – or any other ‘them’ in the media ecosystem – his only or even primary goal. Dan wants to upgrade us, so we can do our own part. He wants us to encourage media to supply better information by helping us learn to demand better information. And he wants us to participate as creators.”

Yet a nation is not just a the sum of its parts, it is strengthened and expanded by the links that connect us. Gillmor’s book is not just about individual citizens creating better media, it is about our responsibility to each other to build better connections through the news and information we create and share. Gillmor writes, “Why participate in media, beyond becoming a more nuanced reader? Because your communities of geography and interest can benefit from what you know, and because being part of the deeper conversation can deliver so much satisfaction with so little effort.”

While Mediactive is an incredibly practical text, full of in-depth tools, specific suggestions, and solid advice, it is also an argument. In calling on all people to become “mediactive” Gillmor calls for a new definition of media literacy. “In a participatory culture,” writes Gillmor, “none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming.” Throughout the text Gillmor comes back to this point over and over again, but does so in a way that meets people where they are, from beginner to expert. He offers people diverse on-ramps into media creation and honors that different people will engage at various levels. While Gillmor has an extensive knowledge of new online tools, he understands those tools as a means to an end, and even the least tech savvy person will get a lot from his book. After all, Gillmor reminds us, “Don’t forget the most important tools of all – your brain and curiosity.”

Gillmor’s emphasis on the personal and collective role as citizens in our media nation positions Mediactive as an important complement to the recently released Knight Commission report on digital and media literacy. While that report also expanded the notion of literacy beyond smart consumption to active creation, its focus is squarely on structural and policy change. Gillmor is keenly aware of the structures and institutions that shape our media. The last third of Gillmor’s book focuses on how laws shape our consumption and creation of media and how we teach media literacy in schools. But in these sections and throughout his book, he focuses more squarely on how we navigate and interact with those structures – and how we can change them from the bottom up. In fact,

Gillmor’s law and order chapter may be one of the best aggregations on resources on laws, rights, and responsibilities for independent media creators I’ve seen. My only critique here was that I think a key part of being an engaged media citizen is being active in the policy debates that are shaping how we create and consume media. Indeed, in the fight for Net Neutrality it has been independent media creators – posting YouTube videos, creative websites, and other media actions – that have helped use the Internet to save the Internet. Gillmor encourages readers to contact Congress when they are so moved, but provides little in the way of resources for how media creators can help shape media policy.

Finally, there are two themes infused throughout the book that I found invaluable and which added richness and texture to the text. The first is Gillmor’s focus on the need for values, principles and honor. In many discussions about journalistic trust and ethics, too much tends to focus on formal codes, concrete guidelines and specific policies. Gillmor instead focuses on something more ethereal and more aspirational. Over and over again Mediactive calls on us to be better media citizens, to care more deeply about what we consume and create, to treat each other and our content with honor and deep respect. Gillmor writes, “If honor isn’t a part of how we do our work, we’ll forfeit any reason to be trusted.” This is never idealized or romanticized. Gillmor acknowledges that this is hard work in our fast paced digital culture, and that it has real implications.

This last point hints at the other key characteristic of Gillmor’s book that I found refreshing. At a time when so much writing about the future of news is explorative and hypothetical – a search for business models or a prediction of what might be – Mediactive is always grounded in the real world. Gillmor achieves this in large part by drawing on his own mistakes. The text is animated by humble musings about Gillmor’s various experiments and lesson’s learned. Gillmor comes off as colleague sharing ideas and tools, not an expert lecturing to the reader. As mentioned above the book is also full of contemporary examples from news and media and is a wealth of tools. Interestingly, the relatively static text of the book is also augmented by a robust website where Gillmor plans to provide expanded resources and links as well as allow the text to live and grow as the media landscape shifts and new tools are developed.

This is an important book right now. The last few years have witnessed an almost constant stream of writing and debate about the future of media, but Gillmor has provided a fresh contribution that also helps us all to rethink all our roles in this larger debate. We are truly citizens of a new media nation, but that nation is still being built. “The time to work on this is right now,” writes Gillmor. “Our democratized 21st century media are a land of opportunity, and of peril. How we live, work and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on how well we use those media.” Gillmor’s book reminds us, in the end, it is up to us.



UPDATE: I had originally listed Dan Gillmor’s book as MediaActive, but the correct title is Mediactive.

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