The Cultures of Citizenship: Exploring the Ties between Media Literacy, Blogging and Democracy

By Lithgow, Michael | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Cultures of Citizenship: Exploring the Ties between Media Literacy, Blogging and Democracy


Lithgow, Michael, Our Schools, Our Selves


Culture = Stories. It's an oversimplification, but a useful one. Our cultures are defined by the stories we tell each other - at bedsides, firesides, meal times, gathered around radios, televisions, and soapboxes in town zocalos [squares], in newspapers, in galleries, online, etc. In today's mass-mediated world, we are confronted by a complicated and polemic global mediascape dominated by organizations deeply involved in a consumerist, individualist, Western and neoliberal project. One of the ways of learning how to navigate and interpret these highly specialized cultural flows is through media literacies - ways of thinking about and engaging in mediated information - that helps to sort out, if nothing else, the informational "wheat from the chaff." But another and less celebrated role for media literacy is in developing the skills of citizenship. Media literacy is essential for cultural citizenship, a relatively new concept that draws attention to the important links between cultural participation and capacities for creating collective identities, redefining social relationships, building social networks, and mobilizing collective action. Blogging (short, serialized commentaries posted online) is an emerging way for people to expand cultural citizenship, and it is one of the ways in which citizens have responded to the failures of corporate media to incorporate widespread participation in their cycles of production.

When I began blogging for Art Threat (www.artthreat.net), an online magazine exploring the nexus between politics and art, the world of blogs was pretty much something unknown to me. I learned to read them and to write them in a matter of weeks, and by doing so, joined the "citizen's newsroom" - the blogosphere - an emergent mass media unconstrained by the traditional political economies of corporate and state-run media. In such a short time I had become a regular part of this new and increasingly influential cultural force. In this article, I explore blogging as a form of media literacy, not only for the individuals who create them, but also as cultural practice. Blogging is one of the ways we can "reteach" mainstream media outlets the art and practice of story-telling free from the whips and chains of market imperatives.

The distinction between media producers and media consumers is, to a certain significant extent, socially constructed. Everyone is a story-teller, but we have come to rely on a model of cultural production that facilitates top-down, one-way flows of cultural goods from centralized points of production to many and dispersed points of reception. Throughout the 20th Century, North Americans (and others around the world) have been inculcated into a cultural system that depends on strong habits of media passivity.

The technologies themselves, however, work just as well for two-way exchanges as they do for one-way impositions, and there were (and always have been) attempts to build two-way media networks: After the Spanish Civil War, for example, radio stations were built in the borderlands of near-by Romania to broadcast Catalan language programs into Catalan communities (as the Catalan language had been outlawed by the Franco government. Rodriguez 2001). After Franco's death, Catalan community television stations were started inside Spain. In the late 50s and early 60s, "pirate" radio stations such as Radio Mercur (from Denmark) and Radio Caroline (from the U.K.) began broadcasting from coastal waters to urban populations in Europe. In Italy, the "free radio" movement in the 70s saw a proliferation of microradio stations, and the mini-FM movement in Japan in the 80s at its peak consisted of thousands of single-watt unlicensed FM stations. Latino communities in the U.S. began creating their own Spanish-language programming on small radio networks in the 1920s. Today, there are more than 600 Spanish-language radio stations in operation country-wide (Rodriguez 2001). During Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile, citizens created underground VCR networks to produce and exchange programs (Rodriguez 2001). …

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