News from the Field

Funder Rebellion — PopTech Reflections

Media Impact Funders recently went to Camden, Maine for PopTech 18 — Rebellion. We convened a small group of funders and made our way to that very rainy and quaint coastal village for an exploration of media innovation, especially as it relates to the conference theme of rebellion and its place in social change.

Before PopTech officially kicked off we were fortunate to hear from a terrific group of media innovators for a private discussion about new ways to think of media investments and their impacts. Leetha Filderman, President of PopTech; Beth Cohen, Director of Media at PopTech; Trent Gilliss Executive Editor and Chief Content Officer of On Being; Courtney Martin, Author and Co-Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network; and Sean Flynn, Director of the Points North Documentary Forum at the Camden International Film Festival got our funder group into the PopTech mindset and set the tone for an excellent few days ahead.

We planned this special session as a time to explore the ways nonprofits are becoming trusted media makers and distributors, creating opportunities to communicate directly with their supporters; how innovative practice is transforming newsrooms and the way we engage with news; and how PopTech works with social innovation fellows to develop their communications skills and effectively tell stories for social change.

The big theme for our session was participatory media — because participatory media is rebellious. Creating media that uses communities as media makers, respondents and opinion shapers is a welcome shift from one-to-many and top down authoritative communications.  We heard about projects that used a range of platforms — from radio and mobile phones to sophisticated web storytelling. At their core, though, is the understanding that when community is part of a solution, or even just part of a conversation, deeply-rooted change can happen quickly.

For example, two huge, global problems like HIV/AIDS and global climate change are being met with community-oriented solutions that are changing the landscape. Leetha and Beth told us about two important PopTech projects. Project Masiluleke uses mobile community members and mobile phones to combat the HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis crisis in South Africa, whereas Climate Resilience uses in-person community game playing to address climate change preparedness.

Sean Flynn shared some examples of interactive documentary projects including Docubase, a project of the MIT Open Documentary Lab that showcases a wide array of interactive and experimental documentary projects. One such project is Hollow, which examines population decline in a small town in West Virginia through community video, data, photography, history and more. In Hollow, the project is less a documentary about decline than a community project about change, resilience and shared futures that allow residents to actively contribute to the story of their community.

How about the seemingly traditional radio format? When On Being decided to consider itself a social innovation project that happened to include a radio component, really interesting things happened. Producers freed themselves from the constraints of the established public radio model, including the gatekeeper role that station managers play in determining programming.

Courtney Martin of the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) got right to the point — journalism that only shows what’s broken doesn’t tell the full story and perpetuates cynicism. Solutions are empowering. Take for example the SJN Education Lab partnership with the Seattle Times. The project has a clear journalistic goal that empowers the entire community through dialogue and opportunities to engage, rather than failing and tragedies. Here’s some info from the About Us page:

Over the next year, Seattle Times reporters and editors will identify and assess emerging responses to the challenges facing schools in Washington state. These stories will build on the Times’ longstanding coverage of the problems in schools. But their emphasis will be on examining, with the same journalistic rigor, potential solutions to those problems. The goal: A changed public discourse that connects teachers, parents, students, and others around education innovations.

We covered a lot of ground in a short time, but nothing compared to the actual conference. Check out our Storify from Wednesday and Thursday.

Here are some of the big themes and ideas that we heard and absorbed at PopTech:

Rebellion and free thought are interconnected. You need some disobedience over compliance because, as Joi Ito said, ‘You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you’re told.’

That said, rebellion is, in many ways, easier than ever to organize via the Internet. But true change comes from deep networks that are anti-fragile – Joi’s term for systems that increase in strength and resilience while under pressure. Think of a healthy immune system – it actually strengthens when under attack. Finally, Joi talked creativity and the need to bring it back to our education system. He said, “Education is what people do to you, and learning is what you do to yourself.”  Rebellion for real change is something that is deeply rooted in anti-fragile networks and supports and encourages creativity. If Joi’s comments on education don’t resonate with you, check out this chart he showed. The nearly flat lines indicate very little brain activity, which is when the student was in class.

When we heard about democracy from David Burstein and Alec Ross three ideas stood out. First, we need exceptional leaders to run for office. Second, it’s a terrible time to be a control freak because top-down institutions are failing. Third, the only way to success in innovation and governance is to include women in all phases of the work.

Lack of diversity was brought front and center when Anil Dash took the stage. The technologies that are on one hand empowering and used democratically are built and controlled by a very small handful of men.

We’re not holding tech companies accountable. We’re submissively accepting the Terms of Service and not demanding anything of tech giants. When I spoke with Anil after his talk I asked what someone in the non-tech community could feasibly do. We had a great discussion about consumer power and talked about ways that tech could have the equivalent of fair trade certification like coffee and chocolate. Mindful consumers go further and spend more to get products they want to support and the same should be true for apps and programs.

But it’s not just consumer choice. The Internet lacks public space and public conversations – the equivalent of our nation’s public parks. Without a public common we the people lack a stake in technological governance, norms and a belief that technology belongs to us, not the other way around. Later on we heard from Erin McKean about her work to change Wordnik.com into a nonprofit, “With the mission of collecting and sharing data for every word in the English language.” In other words, the biggest, most complete public dictionary.

Public access to information and interaction with technologies were undercurrents in both Anil and Erin’s talks.

Ayah Bdeir took the need for greater transparency and accountability in technology further. Her discussion focused on the need for all of us to actually learn how to make and create, rather than passively receive what the tech companies give to us.

Being at PopTech with a funder frame of mind had me thinking broadly about the role that philanthropy can play in addressing some of the issues the speakers raised, but also the theme of rebellion itself. Joi’s comments about disobedience made me wonder whether that could (or should) be a new framework by which funders evaluate grant proposals. How does philanthropy consider rebelliousness and its connection to creativity? Funders have an opportunity – and perhaps obligation – to support institutions and people who are eschewing obedience to old ways of doing and thinking in order to address society’s most pressing and complicated problems. But that’s easier said than done. How does institutional philanthropy handle rebellion, with all the complexities between expected outcomes, risk aversion and the inherent power structure that exists between the donor and the recipient?

On a less abstract note, philanthropy, with its convening power and resources, could make huge impacts on the ways that the tech and business sectors serve our diverse public. One idea is for funders to explore the creation of online commons. Like public broadcasting and public parks, philanthropy has a long tradition of supporting common spaces for public benefit. What a public space looks like – or how it functions and is supported – would require a rebellious rethink about the possibilities and perils of public cyber assets.

We’ll be exploring some of these issues in upcoming programs, particularly looking at the intersection of journalism and democracy at our June 2015 Media Impact Forum. Stay tuned to our website for details next spring.

Finally, quietness was a running theme throughout our days in Camden. I very nearly live tweeted a meditation led by Donna D’Cruz, until she said that our busy, frenetic lives are not serving our planet or our creative humanity. Stillness is an act of rebellion at this point and the most successful leaders, businesses and cultures will be those that can and do make space for quiet.

That’s only a small fraction of the extraordinary thinkers and creators we heard from. Be sure to explore PopTech’s conference page with highlights, videos and more.

For more of a visual representation of our time in Camden, see Alphachimp’s (Peter Durand) graphic record.

Photo credit: Asa Mathat

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