Thursday, June 19, 2008

The New Watchdogs

I’m sitting in a movie theater just outside Washington that is jammed with cause advocates, filmmakers, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders. It’s the second day of SilverDOCS, one of the nation's top documentary film conferences, and attendees are buzzing about the transformative power of digital storytelling to engage audiences and create social change locally and globally. This is an edgy, influential crowd: 108 long and short documentaries from 64 countries are being screened here this week; most were made to expose global social ills.

I’m thinking about Tom Bettag—a lot. In May 2001, some four months before 9/11—a day the world got smaller—Bettag, then the executive producer of ABC's Nightline, invited me to attend a conference at Columbia University. Ironically, he and other top journalists were meeting to explore how new digital video technologies—then just emerging—could be used to fight moves by network cost-cutters to slash foreign news budgets and close overseas news bureaus.

Bettag did not hide his frustration. "They (TV executives) say Americans don’t care much about foreign news but that’s a canard put out by the accountants," he told those gathered at Columbia. Presciently, Bettag knew the digital video revolution would make foreign news-gathering far less costly and give more power to those in the field. Why not move immediately, then, to proliferate the technology and give Americans a more authentic, urgent knowledge of the world?

Fast-forward seven years. Much has changed—and hasn't. Digital video documentaries—"cause news docs"—are the hot new medium of the moment. News budgets are still under assault.

Bettag's 2001 activism came to mind this morning, when Michael Markarian, the executive vice president of The Humane Society of the United States and author of a blog called Animals and Politics, spoke on a SilverDOCS panel about the erosion of traditional news gathering, this time by newspapers. “Big cuts in news journalism staff, in funding for investigative journalism and the rapid decline of newspapers is affecting advocacy and is having an impact on documentary filmmakers, as well,” Markarian said.

Markarian knows this well. One of today's "cause-news docs" producers, Markarian in January famously drummed up more than a half-million hits to the Humane Society's fundraising Web site after posting a digital video investigation by his staff that reported the abuse of downed cattle at a California slaughterhouse. In the video, Humane Society executives said the poking, prodding, and forklifting of sick and downed cows there endangered food safety in school lunchrooms across America. CNN and The Associated Press picked up the humane society's story, pretty much unquestioned, and it led to the recall of 145 million pounds of ground beef, the temporary removal of beef from many school lunch menus, and eight congressional hearings exploring the possibility of a link between animal cruelty and food safety. The story also helped the Humane Society raise millions of dollars in new and expanded donations.

“Obviously,” Markarian said, “the news media is changing but the issues remain—so it’s falling more and more to advocacy groups to investigate and uncover what’s happening and play the role of the watchdog in society, which the media are playing less and less.”

Maybe so. Hooray for a concerned, enlivened citizenry. But is this new "cause-news docs" movement entirely a good thing? When does advocacy become propaganda?

Seven years ago, Bettag and other journalists worried about whether the American public was getting enough information. Now—with nonprofits and philanthropists increasingly using digital video technologies to create their own news stories on social issues near and dear to their hearts—there’s a question of whether the public is getting enough of the right information.

Markarian's story, for example, did not include interviews with outside experts, independent food safety officials, meatpacking officials, slaughterhouse managers, or government regulators. It did not investigate the source of the problem nor prove that the abuse had, in fact, tainted the public food supply. (The slaughterhouse, for example, when finally questioned much later, said the cows in question were never processed into food and that forklifts were required to move them, since they couldn't walk or stand by themselves.) Further, the only people quoted in the Humane Society video were employees of the Humane Society, convinced that what was happening at the slaughterhouse was abuse and that the abuse was threatening the health of millions. (see video clip, below)

Appropriately, one SilverDOCS panel was entitled “Is it Propaganda? Using Media as a Tool for Social Change.” Markarian was there. So was Sameer Padania, the director of The Hub, a Web site that debuted in December that offers video training to citizen news documentarians. The Hub is part of the nonprofit Witness, which gives people digital video cameras so they can document human rights abuses around the world. Padania says that ideally, The Hub “will be a platform eventually for citizens, filmmakers, and news organizations to pull together.” Its motto: See it. Film it. Change it.

To be sure, this is a critical, exciting time for filmmakers and journalists—one filled with tremendous opportunity. But even some of the new citizen journalists are starting to question the rise of partisan media. Ethan Zuckerman, the cofounder of Global Voices Online, a new international news site that aggregates news blogs from around the world, asked recently: “Should we expect that people are aware that media has changed and that they should expect every voice to have strong, visible bias? Or is there a need to re-learn how to read/view both online and offline media to understand that we’ve got far more activist media and far less neutrality?”

Back in 2001, Bettag (now the top documentary film producer for the Discovery Channel, a cosponsor of the SilverDOCS festival) and Parisa Khosravi, CNN's chief of international news gathering, warned that the digital storytelling movement would bring with it a critical need to guard against staged news events, misleading and one-sided reporting, inaccurate assertions and lack of context. “It’s going to take some people who have great journalistic voices who know how to tell a story extremely well” to do it properly, Bettag had said. “There are going to be a lot of people who are going to do it irresponsibly, and they will make people hesistant.”

The Humane Society's Markarian, today defending his efforts and those of other nonprofits to break news, says he's confident that viewers "know propaganda when they see it."

But do they? If propaganda is really good, it feels like fact. Let’s hope that citizen media activists of all stripes keep trying, at least, to recognize the difference.

To view the Humane Society's digital video investigation, click on the screen below:

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Crystal Ball

Here's one of the latest Web sites to tap into the wisdom of crowds: Predictify. It asks users to guess the future, based on the idea that crowds are smarter than individuals. If, say, 1,733 people out of 2,000 think Delaware Senator Joe Biden will become Barack Obama's running mate, odds are it will happen, right? (There are now more than 4,600 people on the site who are competing to win a $5,500 pot for guessing the right answer.)

So far, the site has correctly predicted the outcome of nearly every playoff football game. It's also been fairly accurate guessing which films do best at the box office. Wired crowds also do pretty well guessing the fate of politicians: more than 6,000 people accurately predicted that Barack Obama would become the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—months before it happened.

Companies, nonprofits, and political strategists are taking notice. General Motors Corp. and Paramount Pictures, for example, are sponsoring customized questions on the site, apparently frustrated by their own missed efforts to spot trends and "read" the mindset of Web-wired consumers. Stanford University graduate and cofounder Mike Agnich says some politicians and advocacy groups are using the site to hone their cause-marketing strategies.

Questions on the site range from the silly to the scientific. Will Australian Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey utter more than 80 profanities in any original episode of his cooking show, "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" by September 1, 2008? (176 predictions so far). Will life be found on Mars before July 15?

But there is more here than meets the eye: over time, Agnich says, Predictify will be able to identify some of the best natural prognosticators in cyberspace—and then hire them out to paying clients looking for help with their hunches and market strategies.

Clever. For more on Predictify, take a look at Robert Scoble's interview with Agnich on Fast Company TV.

(Photograph of crystal ball by Ben Dan Hawks on Zooomr)

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Sunday, June 8, 2008


Architecture writer Jim Lewis writes a provocative essay in today's Sunday New York Times Magazine on the future of global cities. It's not about the new "green building" movement nor the billowy, chrome-and-glass confections of today's cutting-edge urban visionaries. Instead, Lewis focuses on what he calls the proliferation and expansion of exigent cities, those mostly blue polyethylene plastic "emergency" tent cities and refugee camps that are home to a growing number of children among the world's religious, political, and economic refugees. (see Bosnian refugees in 2002 photo, above)

"Increasingly, refugee camps have become
de facto cities," Lewis writes, "and cities have become extended refugee camps. Is there a place here for architects?" It's a timely question, especially as recent cyclones, earthquakes, and economic and political dislocations continue to force record migrations of Asians, Africans—and yes, even Americans—into makeshift camps from Cambodia to the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Is there a place here for social media?

"There are scores of such camps dotting the surface of the planet," Lewis writes, "... a sort of semi-sovereign archipelago spread out around the world, some managed by the United Nations and sustained by NGOs. The people who live there are refugees, noncitizens confined to ad hoc cities, perhaps the purest form of a growing and global phenomenon: makeshift architecture, last-ditch living, emergency urbanism." The U.N. says there are about 12 million refugees, mostly children, in the world: Lewis urges architects to start designing for these vast new urban clusters, understanding that even as the need for relief grows, humanitarian space is shrinking—both in the physical size of the camps and in the ability of aid workers and philanthropists to intervene. Consider Burma, where the ruling junta has been trying to horde for itself food, trucks, tents, and medicine meant for the victims of the May 2 cyclone that killed 90,000 and left some 2.4 million struggling for survival. (
See "Empty-handed," the May 14 post on this blog.)

Social media can help. Citizen journalists were able to evade the Burmese junta's imposed news blackout during last fall's democracy protests in Rangoon, even after government attempts to disconnect the Internet. Six months later, Burmese aid workers, Buddhist monks, and victims of Cyclone Nargis were able to alert the world once more to the junta's anti-democracy policies—this time its blockade of aid to victims of the storm. The junta's inability to hide its actions underscores the potential of social media to foil the efforts of those in power to silence those without.

In America, tent cities now perch on the edges of Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Nashville, among other cities. For a while last year, a MySpace page, now obsolete, offered St. Petersburg, Fla., tent city residents a list on which to post their needs, such as water, toilet paper, and portable showers. One resident, a 32-year-old woman named Tina May, used a $30 disposable plastic videocamera to document a mid-morning police raid meant to break up the camp. May's video of the raid—which showed police officers using box cutters to slash the tops off the tents—was posted on YouTube and got more than 13,000 hits over the span of three days. Once again, even the most destitute were able to draw attention to their lives with borrowed and inexpensive technology.

Design sturdier dwellings for exigent cities and make social media accessible to their residents, and you create opportunity. Children in refugee camps still will disappear or become the victims of sexual, political, or religious exploitation. But with social media, it becomes harder to hide. And with climate change and economic disparity predicted to accelerate in coming decades, the ranks of these refugees will, no doubt, continue to expand at home and abroad; there is power in numbers.

As the jazz artist and arts advocate Wynton Marsalis told me once in an interview: "If you create something for other people, you create it for yourself. If I'm kind to a person and his or her daughter, that's my daughter or my son. If I'm kind to you, it's not like I am separate from you. We're all part of a big circle; it's just a matter of developing the consciousness to realize it."

What do you think?

For a recent update on America's tent cities, here's a report by the BBC:

(Photos by The Associated Press, Getty Images)

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Change Games

In his 2004 book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," New Yorker columnist James Suroweicki offered the world a simple but profound idea: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few—no matter how brilliant—and are, therefore, much better at problem-solving, innovation, and even predicting the future.

In the four years since Suroweicki's book, the phrases, "the hive mind" and "crowd-sourcing" have entered the lexicon: those inventing the next, "2.0" version of the Web are testing ways that companies, educators, and social change advocates can tap into their thousands of new and expanding social networks—on demand—for better ideas, more money, and greater influence.

Facebook's popular Causes application is already demonstrating what a cause-wired group of colleagues in multiple social networks can do if they share a common goal, like Pave My Street, Elect John Doe, Save the Whales. (Since it debuted a year ago, Causes has some 12 million users supporting more than 80,000 nonprofit causes worldwide.)

Barack Obama's campaign is tapping its "hive mind" of supporters to drum up new bucks and ideas. (OhBoyObama, reports ReadWriteWeb, is an "outsourced think tank." The site asks people to submit policy ideas for a vote by the "crowd" that logs in.)

And at this week's 5th annual Games for Change conference in Manhattan, about 350 video game designers, educators, and change advocates are meeting to create, debate, and demo new types of "cause" games. Suzanne Seggerman, Ben Stokes, and Barry Joseph founded the emerging "games-for-change" movement to enliven public debate and tap players' vast array of social networks for solutions.

Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City , launched yesterday, explores New Orleans' stubborn housing crisis. Created almost entirely by students at Brooklyn's Canarsie High School with Global Kids, a New York City urban youth nonprofit, the game aims to "draw attention to residents' continuing fight for housing in 2008." Players follow the fictional character, Vivica Water, and relive her battle during the 2005 storm to save neighbors from rising floodwaters. (See sketch, below, from an early set design; note the watermark.)

ICED: I Can End Deportation, by the human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, lets players "walk in the shoes" of five teens facing deportation, including Marc of Haiti, who is seeking political asylum; Suki of Japan, who is living in New York on a student visa, and Anna, from Poland, who "thinks she's a (U.S.) citizen." The goal: to show players "how immigration laws deny due process and violate human rights."

But after the role-playing ends, do games like ICED and Tempest really have the power to solve anything?

Designers say that's probably why the most popular (and promising) games stress collaborative problem-solving for the real world. World Without Oil, for example, a year-old game from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has so far logged 60,000 visitors and 1,800 players from 12 countries who prefer to speak up and share their own views about how an oil shock might impact their real-life jobs, housing, mobility, and relationships—a "play it before you really live it" experience, Seggerman says. Peacemaker, a game about the Middle East conflict, lets players take on the role of either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader (or both, ideally), so as to better understand the kinds of decisions either one of them might be forced to make. UNICEF's Ayiti: The Cost of Life, out this month, transforms poverty into a type of strategy game that asks players to "manage a family of five over four years and keep them healthy and alive, educated and out of debt," says co-creator Barry Joseph of Global Kids. It's tough: winning isn't easy without innovative, collaborative problem-solving.

And what do players think? Are they having fun yet? In a recent survey of ICED players, a majority said they liked the adventure of evading immigration police and then having to maneuver themselves out of a detention pen. But a like-sized majority of players said they also "felt a little manipulated" because the game seemed "a little one-sided" and overtly political, says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, which evaluated the game. "Games like ICED represent a good start," Pasnik says, but game content will need to evolve to represent more varied viewpoints and trigger more offline activism.

Viva the evolution. Says MIT professor Henry Jenkins, an expert in youth media and an enthusiastic supporter of crowd-sourcing social change: "We have to think of ways to use games not just to escape reality but to re-engage with reality."

What do you think?

For more on this week's Games for Change festival , see the video below:

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