The “participation revolution”?

Anyone who reads this blog fairly often knows that I’ve been getting interested in the way new web technologies (“social software” like blogging, del.icio.us, and Flickr) can be used to encourage more democratic participation both in the States and abroad, and also how those technologies can help people get online and represent themselves and their interests.  Rather than large, multi-national corporations making decisions about representation and democracy for us, the more we gather online, create our own media and representations, and advocate for our interests, the more we can siphon power away from corporations and bring it back to the people.

I’ve been getting really into Flickr recently — a little later than some and ahead of others — and I’ve been impressed by the way it fosters citizen journalism.  For example, I recently wanted to see some pictures from the recent WSIS meeting in Tunisia.   I could rely on the mainstream media, which paid a bit of attention to the summit due the buzz spun up (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) by the $100 laptop, but which basically ignored the meeting, or I could go to Flickr and search for tags relating to WSIS.  I did the latter, and found a wealth of images here.  What I love about this is that as Flickr becomes more popular we can circumvent the mainstream mass media and all of its prejudices, business models, and newsworthiness criteria, and get straight to democratic participation.  It’s all about cutting out the middleman. The same goes for del.icio.us.  I can use Google to find all of the web pages that mention “wsis” (though Google is obviously not a bad solution at all and not analogous to Big Media), or I can find all the users in the del.icio.us system that have tagged web pages with “wsis,” only glimpsing those web pages, but also getting a peak at what those users have also linked to and mostly likely getting a good education in the process. 

And of course I can blog about all of this and tell all of you, my dear readers, all about it.

What I’m describing is a new and, I think, exciting way that the Internet can foster participation on a very new level.   Although Flickr and del.cio.us and blogs can be used to talk about anything (and they are) they have also started to encourage a new, powerful form of civic engagement.  In his book Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig describes the potential effect of blogging on democracy:

As more and more citizens express what they think, and defend it in writing, that will change the way that people understand public issues.

I hope that’s true.

And as I sit here writing this post using Flock, the new web browser that integrates all of the above technologies into one useful application, I wonder if others feel as optimistic.  Bart Decrem, the founder and CEO of Flock, is obviously optimistic as well, but in a different way:

We are part of the participation revolution, a shift of control away from corporations, publishers and others large entities, and towards the individual.

He wrote this in a post that seemed to want to articulate Flock’s place in the growing world of web browsers.  The company has been struggling to do this, in part because I think a lot of people are still confused about what exactly this “participation revolution” is and many others wonder if it’s not just a bunch of hype.  It might be.  And I haven’t read anything that suggests that the Flock folks are thinking as politically about this as I am.  Though maybe they are, and maybe it’s not so bad to be hopelessly optimistic; if only a few of the good things the optimists anticipate come true they’ll have accomplished something.


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