Media is the New Community Organizing Tool

Yesterday, I attended a roundtable discussion at Google, hosted by the Knight Commission, which was about “Meeting the Public’s Information Needs.” It was very interesting brainstorming, and was the first time I had seen different parts of the media and community landscape in the same room—from managing editors of the Mercury News to folks who had just started neighborhood news websites.

Invariably, the conversation got to the topic of new media—all the new forms of how information is being shared. I’m always interested in what happens at this point of a conversation because it’s here that a forum either makes the internet seem like salvation, or the end of civil and moral life as we know it. Usually it depends who’s in the room. I remember being in similar forums with community organizers and non-profits, and digging my heels in to say that you can’t email your way into a social movement. There is no such thing as e-activism, and regardless of how fast your internet connection is, organizing will ultimately necessitate your getting off your ass and talking to someone.

On the other hand, in rooms with media folk, I often end up playing the other role. I understand their grief. They are seeing their newsrooms being cut in half, the audiences all going elsewhere for information, and the professional craft that they trained for essentially becoming a commonly accepted casual activity. You may have gone to graduate school and honed your skills for years, but in this day and age the bottom line is you have less hits on YouTube than your neighbor’s son who just vlogged about matching his shirt to his pen on his first day of school (I actually saw this vlog yesterday too. He’s all green and apparently dislikes haters.)

What they have to understand, though, is that this shift in information access and dissemination is bigger than the industry, and is ultimately about democratic practice. They should be thrilled that not only do people now want to know about the world and their community, but actually want to be active participants in the information sharing field.

In today’s Silicon Valley, the only real way marginalized communities have been able to find a reflective representation of themselves is to make it themselves. The growth of ethnic media tells the story. And being a receiver of information is not enough. You must become a communicator. It is the only way to ensure inclusion.

Young people who are not from the dot-com fast-track—having either not seen themselves in the traditional media, or having only seen themselves portrayed as criminals, drop-outs, or detractors to the community—have taken this work to another level through an embrace of newer technologies. One can become a media mogul (blogger, video blogger, internet radio producer, and so on) with few resources, and no resumé is required. It is an equalized tool, and through it, the polarized Valley seems more flat.

For the most part, young people in Silicon Valley have used the new technologies to communicate to each other. A consequence of not being included in the news world is an abandonment of it all together, and an impulse to simply have your own. The attraction to online social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, is a foreshadowing of how the next generation will relate to news and information. First, it allows people to define themselves in their own terms—interests, identity and community (which for this new generation can often time be multi-layered, like Latino/Rock/Skater, or Desi/hiphop musician). Second, it facilitates what young people want information to become: grounds for a conversation.

For Silicon Valley’s youth, media has become synonymous with community organizing. Their impulse is to post an online bulletin rather than paint a placard.

And all this is not to say that Facebook can ever replace the value of face to face. Personal interaction is ultimately how relationships are built, which, on the ground level, is the cornerstone of the democratic process. One practical challenge that we will face in this process of using local media to help strengthen democracy is the transient nature communities are forced to deal with, given the economic pressures. The truth is much of the Silicon Valley community now lives in the Central Valley and just works here. If media is the glue for a community, we need to find ways for communities to be more stable, or find more elastic adhesives.


  1. I work with young people in East Palo Alto who get their news off the same websites they use to communicate with their friends—myspace, facebook, youtube.  It’s also the same websites they use to post bulletins on rallies and protests.  When the high school walkouts happened two years ago, they spread the word through myspace.  When tenants in apartment buildings were (are) being kicked out of their homes, youth spread the word also through myspace.  No press release went out, no press calls made.  I think it also speaks to a lack of trust in mainstream media outlets to report the news that is reflective of what they truly care about.  So why go through traditional outlets, when you can use the spaces that’s there for free and get to report the news yourself.

  2. Someone is confusing MySpace with journalism, but I’m not sure that it’s the young people.

    When has journalism had anything to do with community organizing?  Back in the days when Fremont Older ran the SF Call-Bulletin?

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