You knew something interesting might happen at this afternoonâ€™s Personal Democracy Forum panel on citizen-generated content right from the start as the crowd gathered, a confrontational flier put together by MoveOn.org circulated through the room, accusing MySpace of censoring site membersâ€™ words and pictures. Once the discussion got rolling, MoveOnâ€™s Eli Pariser wasnâ€™t shy about repeating the points as a part of his discussion of the strengths and drawbacks of social media. Also on the panel? MySpaceâ€™s Jeff Berman, who defended his site as a democratic community that thrived on user-generated content and which would be foolish to poison its own well.
You can read more about MoveOnâ€™s accusations on their petition page, but Iâ€™ll summarize Eliâ€™s points here: as more and more political expression moves onto commercial platforms such as MySpace or YouTube, we risk running afoul of what he characterized as â€œunreliable mediators.â€? He described our ongoing online debate as a new town hall, but one in which we have no protection against â€œarbitrary and capriciousâ€? decisions made by companies on whose sites the conversation depends. For instance, he pointed to MySpaceâ€™s blocking of videos hosted on Revver as well as the brief disappearance of a profile devoted to net neutrality. No habeas corpus exists for your MySpace profile! Time for a userâ€™s bill of rightsâ€¦if a medium is effectively going to become â€œa new email,â€? itâ€™s not healthy for the political system for it to be controlled by a company not beholden to the people who rely on it.
Discussing Revver, a site that embeds ads in its videos, Berman said that MySpace had the right to control commercial uses of its site the company canâ€™t allow outside entities to â€œmonetizeâ€? the siteâ€™s audience. He described instances in which social networking sites such as Facebook HAD incurred usersâ€™ wrath and had been forced to come out in public and either justify their decisions or to backtrack entirely.
In the end, the conversation was an excellent airing of the issues involved and gives a taste of the sorts of conflicts that are likely to spring up around online communities of all sorts. But, it wasnâ€™t all that happened in the panel. Steve Urquehardt of the Utah Legislature and the site Politicopia talked about the importance of simply letting citizens read legislation, something he championed in the face of resistance from his political peers (when he started in the legislature, he was told that people would only â€œmisinterpret the dataâ€?). He also discussed the use of sites like Politicopia to encourage discussion in the middle rather than on the fringes of the political spectrum, though judging from the audience questions, the crowd was a bit more skeptical about the potential for getting moderates to speak up (i.e., theyâ€™re moderate because theyâ€™re not strongly involved).
Other points raised included Josh Marshallâ€™s mention of the power of distributed researchers to gather and filter information quickly (shades of the Dan Rather memo-explosion from â€™04) and a brief discussion by Berman of the Obama MySpace profile flap and the inherent problems that arise when a campaign doesnâ€™t control a vital resource. Eli also made several broad points about social media, noting that it both raised the highs and lowered the lows of quality compared with professional material, and that it may not reach its full potential until the media and the political culture got out of a â€œgotchaâ€? mentality (judging an entire campaign or an entire movement by the actions of a single supporter, for instance remember the Hitler ad?). All in all, an interesting hour and the fur didnâ€™t fly far enough to hurt anyone for real.