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Creating Social Change Through Digital Media I: Gillmor’s Mediactive

July 21, 2012

I blogged earlier about the International Studies capstone group here at Miami that naively proposed using the Internet to inspire a democratic revolution in Russia. Clearly they had drawn inspiration from the most rabid of cyberutopians, and they quoted Egyptian activist and cyberutopian Wael Ghonim in their presentation.

Yet the notion that electronic media–radio, television, the Internet and especially Web 2.0–can truly be a game changer that transforms the ways people engage in social and political change remains a compelling belief, one to which the Egyptian uprising and other Arab revolutions have contributed.

The issue of emancipatory media poses two crucial questions:

  1. Can media be used in emancipatory ways by social movements and
  2. if so, how is this to be accomplished?

I recently reviewed a two volume series of case studies examining successful as well as not-so-successful efforts at harnessing media to create social change. Since then, my attention has been drawn to several more efforts that answer the first question with a resounding “Yes” and seek to move on to the second.

Here’s the first installment, an assessment of Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive.

Dan Gillmor tackled the first question in his 2004 book We the Media. His new book, Mediactive, tackles the second.

Mediactive attempts to be a ‘“user’s guide” to democratized media’ (p. xvii). His project is based in the principle first noted by Enzenberger way back in 1970 before the Internet even existed–that some media blur the relations between production and consumption.  Firmly rooted in an era of digital, networked communication Gillmor welcomes the decentralization and diversification of media production implied by the growth of new media, and urges citizens to seize and wield its power.

In the new frontier of digital media, with vast quantities of content being created by professionals and amateurs, institutions and individuals,

  1. How do users deal with the sheer quantity of information available to them?
  2. How do users determine the quality of the information out there, recognizing propaganda, public relations and advertising influences when we see them?
  3. How do users determine the reliability and trustworthiness of news and commentary?
  4. How do users know which of their fellow users are who they say they are, when credentials cannot be vetted?

Gillmor writes:

Information overflow requires us to take an active approach to media, in part to manage the flood pouring over us each day, but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we see.

In his introduction, Clay Shirky describes Gillmor’s project thus:

Dan’s proposal for making news useful to us, as citizens and consumers, is the most ambitious one going. He wants us to become mediactive—active users of media—to help us live up to the ideal of literacy. Literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.

Gillmor thus argues that users and producers of information need to use a particular set of critical thinking skills, adopt a skeptical attitude, and insist on the importance of sourcing and verification. In other words, in a world of citizen journalists, citizens need to learn the skills and attitudes long associated with professional journalists.

Do I believe this is what is actually going to happen? New practices arise as people engage with new genres of media, but the current trends, both in terms of how on-line providers are setting up content and practices through which people access it seems to be pushing away from critical thinking not pushing for more of it. It is easier than ever before to seek out content framed in ways that correspond to your previously held beliefs than ever before.

Personally, I think the future of critical thinking in the media is going to belong to programs like The Daily Show,  The Colbert Report, Chaser’s War on Everything, The Norman Gunston Show, Newstopia, Les Guignols de l’info, Headliner, Striscia la Notizia, and, of course, Bassem Youssef’s El Bernameg.

But Gillmor is not trying to describe, analyze, and model Internet literacy practices; he is offering a programmatic statement about how we should proceed–a prescriptive analysis rather than a descriptive one.

If I were in a journalism program at a university, I would actively push this argument, because it suggests that with the decline in journalism as a practical degree in the face of the rapidly changing world of professional journalism, journalism education is more important than ever as a preparation for participation in the publicly produced media sphere of the future world.

And Gillmor has put his copyright where his mouth is by publishing the book under a Creative Commons license, which means that it can be  downloaded free of charge if you don’t want to buy a hard copy or kindle version.


Enzenberger, H. M. 1970. Constituents of a Theory of the Media. New Left Review 64(1): 13-36.

Gillmor, Dan. 2010. Mediactive. The Internet: Creative Commons. Available at:

Gillmor, Dan. 2004. We The Media: Grassroots Journalism, By the People, For the People. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

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