I’ve just arrived back in New York after three thought-provoking days at the 24/7, DIY Video Summit, a great event put together by Mimi Ito and a team of organizers and curators at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC. The panels and discussions streamed live in Second Life and were webcast, and they should be going up on http://www.video24-7.org soon.
I was on a panel called ‘State of the Art’ talking about the Hub, and the human rights implication of online video, alongside Alex Juhasz sharing a YouTube video (appropriately) about her experience teaching in the environment of YouTube and the frustrations of it as a venue for higher learning. Alongside us Thenmozhi Soundarajan presented the work of Third World Majority (where her sister, Theeba who used to be our colleague here at WITNESS, also works :)) and highlighted for me a particularly clear point about how we’ve been pushing in media justice work for access, but now that is not sufficient – when there are 90 versions of Thriller out there, and no meaningful dialogue about healthcare policy then we’ve gained access but without an accompanying ideology of what we do with it. Juan Devis from KCET highlighted local video and mapping initiatives in L.A. and showed his excellent Departures project which provides an immersive experience of an L.A. neighborhood, Boyle Heights.
I framed my presentation as a challenge to us all to draw on the potential of ubiquitous mass-participatory video, but to do so in a manner that protects the most vulnerable and that actually galvanizes real change. After talking about how WITNESS has worked to-date including a theory of action largely based on ‘smart narrowcasting’ I introduced the Hub, and then talked about a range of promises and perils, and how they related to what we are trying to do:
*Why not just use YouTube or its other big commercial equivalents? Drawing particularly on some of what the folks at Transmission have said about ‘Why not just use YouTube?‘ as well as what we’ve learnt as we road-tested the Hub with human rights activists, I talked about the rationales for the creation of the Hub, and other autonomous human rights-focused online video/web 2.0 initiatives. These include issues of small fish/big pond raised by the Center for Social Media’s report last year, opportunities for meaningful community and to generate action, the dilemmas of commercial exploitation of human rights imagery, safety and security for the uploaders and filmed, surveillance by corporations and state, inflexibility in redistribution and sharing, and where editorial control is vested.
This related to some good discussion after about walled gardens vs open systems, led by Henry Jenkins’ response about understanding YouTube as the center of an ecosystem/intersection of existing cultures that allows group organizing, and that Michael Wesch has followed up on in his blog. It’s a pushing out point for video that is then embedded elsewhere and recontextualized. One participant in the audience pushed back on this, wondering how political context can be sustained around a video when it circulates unmoored from where it is first placed.
Much of my presentation focused on the bigger picture implications of image creation and distribution ubiquity for online human rights video. I posed most of these as questions to the audience at the DIY summit – we’d love to hear ideas and feedback on them from any readers of this blog too?
*Does intention matter any more? Many of the most salient ‘human rights’ videos that have generated action recently have been shot by perpetrators. See for example, the torture videos shot by Egyptian police or the Malaysian Squatgate footage – or for that matter Abu Ghraib or the Saddam execution videos.
*Where are the boundaries being redrawn between conflicting values of/rights to freedom of expression and respect for privacy, and what are the human rights implications of these shifts? There’s an overall tendency to assume that people are increasingly transparent in their private lives – but how does this overall tendency apply to situations where either the cultural norms or political context have not changed? Like many human rights contexts… for example, Burma, where the military rulers have been hunting down people who were filmed participating in the popular movements last year.
*How do issues of informed consent and the safety and security of the vulnerable play out in an online human rights video environment? WITNESS has wrestled for years with how to try and ensure that people filmed in human rights contexts understand how the video will be used, and the implications both positive and negative (we produced a whole chapter on ‘Safety and Security’ in our recent ‘Video for Change’ book). But that’s a practice thats impossible to sustain in an online participatory media culture. This sparked some discussion throughout the following days, and sustained by Joi Ito (a WITNESS Board member) in his contributions to the discussion. How do we create norms in the emerging online culture that promote respect, tolerance and an understanding of risks? I just noticed an interesting post by Dan McQuillan (not at the conference, but obviously in sync from across the world) over at Internet Artizans where he talks about “propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice” and suggests “writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service”. This idea of a Digital Bill of Rights was one we batted around during the conference as one approach to norm generation.
*Marc Davis from Yahoo pushed conversation multiple times during the conference towards the questions of how ubiquity of devices in people’s hands, and the ability to stream live will impact all our discussions. He critiqued a general focus within the conference on pre-edited media and on video cameras rather than cellphones. This raises tough questions for human rights video that relate to the whole issue of online norms: How will increasing live eventcasting complicate this issues of consent and safety when more video is streamed immediately rather than edited/uploaded after the fact?
We’d also like to hear about models of using live eventcasting for human rights work and monitoring? Anyone know of a successful usage?
*How does participatory and remix culture relate to human rights culture with its emphasis on the integrity of the survivor and of their story? How can we tap into the creative and action-mobilizing potential of remix culture within human rights work? The conference organizers had put together an exceptional range of screenings throughout the days that show-cased the range of DIY video work going on – and really highlighted the remix quality of everything from political action videos to anime music videos and vidding. This can certainly work in the human rights context too, but how and where does it rub against up ideas of respect for the dignity of a victim of human rights abuses, and for ideas of ethical witnessing. We love seeing George Bush remixed, but where would we draw the line? If you know of powerful examples of human rights remixes that draw on survivor/victim voices with respect and impact let us know? One example of the karaoke remix style I’ve seen in Southeast Asia is a video by one of our Video Advocacy Institute alumni, Dale Kongmonts’s from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers.
And to one of the big questions we’re all trying to answer – how do we create meaningful change using online media. I tried to break this down in three ways – thinking about volume of media, storytelling and messaging, and the possibilities of collaborative production, distribution and advocacy.
*How does the panopticonic world change how we evaluate the ‘veracity’ of a single image or collection of images documenting social injustice? I talked here about our project with LICADHO in Cambodia supporting the use of Flip video cameras to document forced evictions. More on this idea in a future post.
*How do we turn ubiquitous participatory media, particularly online, be used to motivate action? We’ve focused on contextualization and action options on the Hub is a recognition that in the noisy torrent of online video, environments where there are no realistic options or spaces for action and no-one seems to be listening are the opposite of empowering voice.
I proposed two broad strategies for action – firstly, smarter narrowcasting using online video to aggregate publics, and to target audiences; particularly useful for widely dispersed diaspora and solidarity audiences. And always linked to powerful storytelling and clear options for next steps.
Alongside this we can envision a DIWO (Do It With Others) approach drawing on power of networks to engage people to action either in collaboration to create one video, or in collaboration to create many locally-specific and appropriate videos. This would be the netcentered or network-centric advocacy that pioneers like Marty Kearns have pushed for. We’re looking at an exciting possibility of working with the US Campaign for Burma to do that using a collaborative editing platform, Kaltura – for different student organizing groups to create and share video to be used in lobbying for their universities to divest. I’ll share more as this as the project develops.
More in next post about the discussions and ideas sparked off….