This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Personal Democracy Forum in New York – a conference about all things digital and democracy – now in its sixth year. I went to learn from thought-leaders focused on social media and its impact on politics, in the hopes that many of the lessons would be relevant for nonprofits, foundations, grassroots activists, and for our emerging networks practice at the Monitor Institute. As I discovered, PDF is very much a gathering of the “digerati”: politicos, pundits, journalists, techies, bloggers, consultants, activists, and of course vendors and sponsors. Speakers ranged from Mayor Michael Bloomberg (via Skype), to online ethnographer danah boyd, consultants from the Obama and McCain ’08 campaigns (and the Obama Whitehouse), academics and thoughtleaders such as Mark Pesce and Clay Shirky, and techno-celebrities such as Craig Newmark (Craigslist) and Gina Bianchini (Ning).
However, there were astonishingly few nonprofits or foundations present at PDF (unless you count academics from universities). I ran into a few here and there, but my guess is they represented less than 10% of attendees. Vince Stehle of Surdna was present, along with Chris Gates of PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement); and there were some grassroots organizers such as ACORN in breakout sessions. The audience was also more male than female (60%, according to one estimate), certainly more liberal than conservative (at one point someone asked how many Republicans were in the audience and only 10 people raised their hands, out of 1000+!), and disconcertingly white. The lack of diversity was a fact not lost on some speakers, who issued an invitation for any grassroots communities of color to attend next year, although whether or not they meant for free was unclear. I say all this not to harp on political correctness, but rather to point out that there seems to be a disconnect in the discourse about politics and technology with the actual grassroots, civil society groups who are so often organizing “on the ground”—and the very civil society groups who are doing the hard work of building democracy everyday. We need to start connecting these dots.
These themes of race and class were not lost on ethnographer danah boyd, who gave one of the most provocative presentations of the conference – quoting both Habermas and inner-city teens! She talked about how online social networks mirror off-line social dynamics, and described the phenomenon of “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook. While some have a Utopian vision of the Internet as the Great Integrator, or Ultimate Public Space, boyd cautioned against this naïve illusion and pushes us to work harder to cross the digital divide. (My teammate and fellow attendee Jake Samuelson has more on boyd’s talk in the following post.)
The other most compelling presentation of the conference was by Michael Wesch, from Kansas State, who talked about how YouTube and online video is shaping our notions of self and identity, allowing for new possibilities of connection and community. (He’s most known for his YouTube video: The Machine is Us/ing Us viewed 10 million times). He quoted the famous Marshall McLuhan: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” He also talked about the modern day problems of alienation, narcissism, and anomie, embodied in the ever-popular flippant phrase of adolescents everywhere: “Whatever.” He believes that YouTube might hold the antidote to these problems of self-absorption: we know ourselves through our relations with others, and this new media is creating new ways of relating to others, hence new ways of knowing ourselves. He showed clips where people are unafraid to express their deepest hopes and fears to millions of strangers. With 20 hours of video being uploaded every minute to YouTube (up to 500,000 videos a day), let’s hope he’s right to think that YouTube can bring us closer together rather than driving us further apart.
A few other interesting highlights of the conference:
· Mayor Bloomberg, who joined by video since he couldn’t make it in person. (How appropriate for this audience!) He shared the New York City government’s efforts to make the local bureaucracy much more transparent and connected, a theme that echoed through several other plenary sessions exploring the White House’s use of online tools for engaging citizens in policy and local governments’ attempts to become more open and accessible.
· A breakout panel on how demographics are driving politics, where Simon Rosenberg, Morley Winograd (of NDN.org), and Jose Vargas of the Washington Post shared research on how the Millennial generation, and Hispanic voters are critical groups to cultivate for both parties. Currently both lean heavily Democratic and voted for Obama in ‘08. If their projections are to be believed, the increasing shift to southwest states, coupled with the rise of these two voting blocks means that Democrats are much more favored to win going forward than Republicans, who have an aging, white, south-eastern base.
· Randi Zuckerberg from Facebook, who talked about how social networks are being used for social change, particularly as an organizing tool for local revolutions such as those in Columbia and Iran. Facebook now has 200M users, the majority of whom are outside of the US. She sees social networking sites as the outlet for people to forge connections on many levels: “People want to connect not just to each other, but to issues, causes and movements… The small actions we take every day on Facebook are the ones that prime us for big actions.”
· Alec Ross from the State Department, who talked about “21st Century Statecraft,” a concept of foreign relations that is focused on the power of networks. “Technology says that power and input doesn’t have to be the exclusive privilege of the few, but can be used to empower citizens,” he said. Most interesting was his ambition to broaden diplomacy to include not only state-to-state communication but also communication that is state-to-people and people-to-people. As an example of this new approach he highlighted how Obama’s speech in Cairo was translated live and broadcast on TV, the Internet, and mobile phones. “Now what we’re looking at is the potential of citizens to push governments,” he said. “It’s a dynamic that is dominating the mindshare of diplomats.”
I’d like to close, on an appropriate note for Independence Day, with these insightful words from Ross: “If Paul Revere was a modern citizen, he wouldn’t have ridden down Main Street, he would have just tweeted – and we would have never known his name. Everyone who lives in our network society now has the power to be a Paul Revere. Everyone who has Twitter now has a global distribution network.”
This article was originally posted on Working Wikily at http://workingwikily.net/?p=832 by Heather McLeod Grant:
Heather is a published author, speaker, and advisor to high-impact organizations; she recently joined the Monitor Institute as a senior consultant. She is the co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, which was named a Top Ten Book of 2007 by the Economist.