Feeling empowered

Last night I went to a great event hosted by People for the American Way (PFAW) and Demos called “The Republic of Blogs: New Media and Democracy.” I have to admit that at first I thought it would yet another discussion of the blogosphere vs. big media, and not a discussion of the social and political possibilities of blogging.

That subject was on the radar, but to my pleasant surprise the much bigger issue of access and enfranchisement dominated the discussion. The participants — Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices; Lakshmi Chaudhry, co-founder of In These Times and author of the essay, “Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics,” that framed much of the discussion; Christopher Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen; and Drazen Pantic of OpenNet and Location One — all noted that the majority of the blogosphere is comprised of elites: upper middle-class, educated, white males. A tiny minority of bloggers are people of color or people from working class backgrounds. In other words, most bloggers are not so demographically different than the the big media journalists so many of them enjoy lambasting.

I was struck by the panel’s insistence on the fact that, while blogging has suggested exciting possibilities for democracy, it’s adherents are strikingly homogeneous in their social, economic, and ethnic makeup. Rabb, who is African American, believes that this isn’t due to the digital divide — he actually believes that the divide is a myth, something I take issue with — and he noted that African Americans have the highest rate of broadband penetration. The problem is getting disenfranchised people interested in blogging. He believes that social technology signals not a shift in paradigm, as so many believe, but simply a shift in medium. Meaning that it’s still the white, wealthy elites calling the shots for the rest of us; it’s important to make these tools exciting for people of color and the working class.

Chaudhry noted how even Markos from the Daily Kos doesn’t think equal representation is important as long as the issues are there. It was surprising to hear about this distinctly undemocratic utterance of his. She stayed on point about needing to extend tools of empowerment to those who need it, and for me hers was the most important presentation.

Despite this criticism of the blogosphere, this was a panel of bloggers, assembled because they believe that there’s real democratic potential in the medium. It’s not just about getting people access to technology but, in Chaudhry’s words, “it’s about making people feel empowered and using technology to change their lives and those around them.”

I felt empowered myself to hear the panel make such bold statements. As I’ve progressed with my teaching-ESL-students-to-blog project (it’s now much more than that; a web site will be up soon), I’ve never wavered in my belief that blogging and other social technologies are potentially powerful change agents. But I’ve found it hard to communicate this to many people. A lot of non-techie types see this as tech-fetishism, and I’m trying hard to not to be, well, someone like Steve Jobs. And a lot of art-types appear to dismiss the project as not theoretical or artistic enough. So it was wonderful to be in a room with so many kindred spirits. Most of the audience were bloggers or people interested in blogging; but they were also progressive activists who cared deeply about equal representation, social change, and democracy. To me, those terms and blogging go hand in hand, and if the progressive community makes it a priority to make these tools available to everyone, and to convince people of their import, I think just a little change might be possible.

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