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New Article: Revealing the platform politics within community journalism

Originally posted on Centre for Community Journalism website, Cardiff University – 7th October, 2014.

Revealing the platform politics within community journalism: what do we mean by empowerment in the context of digital storytelling and hyperlocal websites?

There is no denying, people have been talking about the ways that the internet and mobile and social media devices allow us to produce and publish content in ways that were not possible even 10 years ago. The citizen can become a journalist, the community can become a newspaper, the journalist can go off the beaten track, research becomes data becomes storytelling then is distributed through existing mainstream channels. The media landscape is shifting, changing, merging and augmenting – causing a disruption in how we both make sense of the media we consume, but also gifting the possibility to create our own – and have our stories heard.

In my work, I look at the act of journalism and how it can be taught to anybody so that they can de-construct and re-construct their own narratives into how media is formed and how stories can be told digitally. Where communities becoming empowered to tell and mediate their own stories, rather than being mediated through alternative modes of existing mediums in a digital format – i.e. blogging sites that look like newspapers or magazines, community radio stations operating out of dedicated facilities or producing television style documentaries for distribution on YouTube.

How we see it, digital storytelling is a method that can be applied to varying degrees of personal social and political contexts, not just a citizen producing their own act or form of journalism. It can be a way in which the stories of individuals can be revealed and amplified whilst gaining access to emerging practice and skill development under the premise of growing digital literacy demands. It offers an alternative to ‘learning digitally’which is beyond form filling, bill paying or online shopping and it is a chance to critically reflect on the importance of storytelling within community settings whilst creatively selecting the right tool to do so.

Hyperlocal models of community journalism tend to require those participating to follow and adhere to a model of delivery that replicates existing forms of media infrastructure in a digital form. An example of this may be using the blogging/content management system WordPress to develop a website in a newspaper-like theme, that is then populated by stories relevant to a specific location, and often delivered by 1-2 keen and driven self-identified community leaders and/or a team of volunteers.

The hyperlocal blog is a service based approach, an attempt to use emerging digital tools and affordable methods of publication as a way of rebooting local news into communities that may have lost access to previous forms of information. The merit is in the economic factors for production and delivery – on the offset, digital is ‘cheaper’than paper in order to develop a publication – but does not take into consideration the human resourcing required in order to source, develop, write, report and promote that content in the first place. Therefore, it could be argued that some forms of hyperlocal operation reflects the principles of the current UK government’s big society model for community development – where keen volunteers will replace paid staff as a method of achieving the same service without a concrete funding model in place, relying on the principle that the community will love the hyperlocal blog so much that they were contribute to it for free – thus developing a thriving journalism site, produced ‘for the community, by the community.’

It is a nice idea in principle, and does work successfully in many contexts, however to apply this model uncritically would leave me feeling uneasy. For instance, the socio-economic background of those participating need to be considered if we are seriously consider this as a default model of rolling out recommendations of emerging forms of community journalism. Often those who set up or contribute to a hyperlocal blog may already have a background in journalism, academia, digital media or communications more generally and can contribute effectively to the publication within their ‘space time’and around existing commitments. They possess platform and network literacies and knowledge of media production to make critical decisions of how and why they participate. It is nice to be able to write something about your community, publish it and not be too restricted by other expectations such as an appeasing an employer or working for a client – but a hyperlocal’s accountability to ethical or the notion that this is an empowering form community journalism requires similar principles and governing documents that would exist in a newsroom or existing media platform. The editorial of the hyperlocal is governed by those who produce it – and if those who produce it have an existing grasp of media production and governance, we need to be aware of what that is and how it may affect the ways in which other voices from that community are heard (or not heard.)

Unlike commercial journalism, the hyperlocal blog can set its own parameters as to what is acceptable coverage on its blog, its accountability is governed by those who participate with in it, so it is worth being careful when making vast claims of community empowerment when it is not entirely transparent who is behind the hyperlocal itself. Volunteers may receive training in return for their participation in the blog – which may lead to further opportunity – but realistically, there is no obligation to publish content that the volunteers produce, nor is there obligation for people to volunteer in the first place. What is the trade of for participation – is it social or monetary capital? is it a form of health or wellbeing? is it an opportunity to learn new skills or gain employment or access to education? In this case, many hyperlocal blogs tend to be ran by one or two people who attempt to find a way to monetise their efforts so what may have started as a ‘hobby’project can draw its own income, mainly through advertising and associated projects.

When we think about sustainability and allowing these sites to become self-financing and self-governing, this should also include reflections on keeping the community engaged both as readers of the content, but also through participation from a community development perspective. Producing media is political, it is not just a commodity to be bought, sold and provided as an uncritical service. There is fantastic opportunity to use forms of media making as a development and learning tool, that can often align with instances of political education, digital citizenship and wider community participation – but there needs to be clarity on the role of the site. If producing local news to a house style and editorial is the aim, and the site begins making money through forms of advertising – don’t be surprised if your volunteers drop off. They need to feel like they can own the site, and community learning and development is as (if not MORE) important than simply producing blog posts that look like local journalism used to look on paper. Do not take this level of community participation for granted.

One way to ensure that the community blog can include a array of voices and opinions is to ensure there are multiple avenues to access, share and contribute content – not just replication of journalism style on a blogging platform, but perhaps multimedia forms such as audio recordings, videos, photographs – and showing people how they can access this on their own devices, be it a smart phone or a smart TV, and how they can pass this on to members of their family or social network in a way that it suits them.

Similarly, it doesn’t always have to look like journalism, journalism as we know it today is a constructed form but the essence of research skills, investigative enquiry, ethical use of sources and telling stories are transferable skills than allow for those participating to be creative in their expression of their story – it might not look like a digital version of a newspaper, but believe me, being able to produce rather consume content on your existing devices can be empowering for somebody who thought the only way to have their story heard was to write to a local newspaper and engage in debate through a publishing gatekeeper. Social media and digital storytelling allows the discussion to not only come into existence but the conversation to carry on.

In some ways, it could be argued that those who run and manage hyper-locals could be in danger of being the same form of gatekeepers when it comes to providing an editorial – we must be careful that we don’t ring-fence this form of community journalism, deciding what is considered acceptable content for the hyperlocal and throwing away the rest. What if that ‘rest’ is the emerging evidence of that person contributing their first steps into participating digitally, it might not bring in the site hits, YouTube views and Facebook likes – but it brings that person’s story into existence. They experience mediation, they learn how to communicate digitally and can begin to make critical decisions wherever to participate or not. And most importantly, it is told by them, not on behalf of them. There is a staggering difference.

So my suggestion?

Teach the world to see how media is constructed. Deconstruct it, reconstruct it, ask questions of the process and who is underneath and above and beyond those narratives. Don’t get hung up in replication the forms of familiar journalism rhetoric and technique or even expect those volunteering to adhere to your specific house style, if your desire is to support the development of a hyperlocal site that reflects the voices of the community, co-produce the mediation of events together. Take from journalism the need to be critical of what you are being exposed to, how to develop and ask the right questions, and to capture that investigation in the best way possible – make sure the sound is clear, the image is the right way up and your style suits the platform you are presenting within.

I’m interested in helping people start fires and develop the expectation that they should benefit in someway for doing so – be it confidence in using tools they have already to do something better, become more critical of what they are being told by the media and importantly feel that no story is too small, too irrelevant to be told.

Focus on equipping and supporting people to find the tools and approach so they can speak on behalf of themselves, rather than only let media outlets, even with all good intentions in the world, do it for them. It is then possible to make a critical decision about their decision to participate, much like the practicing journalist who volunteers their time to a hyperlocal blog that allows them to write without pressure but ultimately makes an informed decision about how their labour is being used.

Similarly, it is about notions of content ownership, a gatekeeper can make a decision whether to publish a piece of work on the site that they govern, however, the creator can still self-publish regardless if the gatekeeper choses to use the the post. The main requirement here would be confidence, confidence to know that their position and story matters – and operating and articulating ‘in public’ can often feel a daunting task, regardless of how supposively easy it is to do now using social media.

There is transparency in the purpose of why people may sign up to participate in a community blog, what is the trade of, what are the perimeters and are they able to co-produce the governing outline of the website they are participating within – if one person, with the additional knowledge of how news sites work is deciding the editorial approach of the outlet, how is this being communicated to the volunteers and the public more broadly – how can we ensure that we move beyond simply replicating ‘cheaper’ big society ways of delivering the craft of journalism to increasingly localised communities and instead work towards using community journalism as a form of community development, media & digital literacies and a broader political education

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Seminar: Collaborative learning, collaborative journalism: 6th of June 2013 (Birmingham)

Whilst I was at Birmingham City University I was involved in a research project called “Stories and Streams” which explored ways in which to encounter challenges to media pedagogy and unpick critical ways of teaching media practice subjects such as journalism and alternative media within changing education contexts (read: dirty filthy tories)

The research team (Jon HickmanPaul Bradshaw and myself) produced several academic presentations and publication over the last year – as well as Paul carrying on the process into a second year and completing an e-book on teaching journalism using peer-to-peer learning approaches.

We were lucky to be funded through internal monies from BCU last year to pursue the research – and BCU recently gained some follow-on money  from the Higher Education Academy to work with us (David McGillivray and myself) at UWS to host a seminar along similar themes a year on, building further on university-led collaborative journalism projects in and outside the classroom and using the stories and stream approach to actually host the workshops within the seminar.

It is a free event and can be booked using the HEA’s booking form available for download here and returned to seminar.series@heacademy.ac.uk

Collaborative learning, collaborative journalism

  • Date: 6 Jun 2013
  • Start Time: 10:00 am
  • Location/venue: Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University, City North Campus Franchise Street Perry Barr Birmingham , England, B42 2SU

Journalism is no longer a privileged domain. As the barriers between audience and media worker have broken down, the role of the professional, paid, journalist has changed. What does this mean for teaching and learning methods? This seminar addresses the use of collaborative learning and the teaching of collaborative journalism.

Collaborative methods are being increasingly used within the news industry, from Paul Lewis’s investigative work at The Guardian to Neal Mann’s field reporting for Sky, the Farmers’ Weekly team’s coverage of foot and mouth, and Andy Carvin’s coverage of the Arab Spring at NPR. They are also used within alternative media to generate more extensive community coverage, for example during the 2012 London Olympic summer the #media2012 movement used the olympic lens to encourage new community media hubs, best demonstrated by the #citizenrelay project.

This seminar builds upon previous work undertaken by the Birmingham School of Media and the University of the West of Scotland into the uses of peer learning and collaborative learning as a pedagocial approach to the teaching of collaborative journalism within professional and community media contexts.

As a part of this work we published an ebook resource for teaching collaborative journalism, using collaborative and peer learning as a central part of the pedagogic design. This resource offered journalism educators a model based on our own pilot project ‘stories & streams’. In this seminar three invited speakers will present talks on:

• collaborative journalism in a news industry context;

• collaborative journalism in a community media context;

• collaborative learning and teaching approaches – beyond journalism.

These talks are offered as an impetus for a collaborative afternoon session. During the working lunch delegates will suggest ideas for workshop streams that they will find valuable, and some will volunteer to facilitate learning sessions. In the afternoon a series of parallel streams will run based on the most popular topics. This format echoes the structure of the Stories & Streams methodology and so the exercise in itself informs the theme of the day.

It is hoped that this seminar will be a platform for further development of ideas and pedagogic experimentation and research.

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Reflection: Education for the crisis? Notes from #e4c, 29th March

This blog post has been burning in my head since last week, feeling (rightly so) equally troubled, inspired and generally itchy about the whole subject area so excuse me if I get all ramble-y in places, I’m still working this out in my own head.

Last week I was invited along (with around 40 others) to be part of a discussion group that was looking at education for the crisis. There were some people there who are good friends, people who I had never met but been following for twitter (in some cases, for years), some who I had came across at events and others who I had never met. They ranged from academics, activists and artists (which always seems to go well together) and aimed to open up chatter around particular topics related to technology, economics, social issues and sustainability in education.

Structure

The format was designed not to see if we could provide solutions, but instead to simply talk in a capacity that might often not happen in our existing environments. There were a few ice breakers (where I found out that I was the only Scottish person in the room) and many break out sessions which started as discussions around particular pre-defined topics and then around personal suggestions from members of the group. The final session was focused on action, that is, things that were already happening, could happen or should happen after we left the room.

Background

I’ve been to and followed online a few events of this theme over the last 2 years, mainly as a curious observer, and mostly around pre-occupy education-related activities and more recently, anti-Olympic meets and reactions to changes in HE policy in England.

The link between higher education and, for now, the forthcoming Olympic Games have been a constant for me throughout my PhD, perhaps because it is so close to me in terms of lifestyle, research and online discussions – or just general political context of the UK in 2012, the use of the games as a political tool (or a societal shock doctrine in terms of using mega events implement policy etc) and the almost exact repetition of similar news stories and media themes ahead of the last Olympic Games in Vancouver and the same before that in Beijing in 2008. It is difficult to predict what the impact of direct action might be against the forces of the biggest PR machines in the world.

Reflection

I’ve thought long and hard about my role in fighting/challenging/resisting/opposing the current changes in higher eduction, and more, recently, if I even want to, at least in this way. Not that I am saying I agree with what might happen, but I’m finding myself increasingly intimidated by being in rooms with people who have read more critical theory than others, speak about wanting change, then speaking in a language that turns off supporters (like myself – and I’ve done 3.5 years of a PhD!), let alone reaches out to the people they articulate they want to help – young people predominantly. Very rarely have I seen young people in these spaces, and when I do, they are kept elsewhere whilst the ‘adults’ are speaking. And often being the youngest in the room, at a ripe old age of 27, I feel like I have more in common and therefore, more to say, to the teenagers outside, fiddling with their ipods, than the rest of the group discussing the future. I’ve often walked out of ‘open spaces’ because they make me feel more claustrophobic, drained in fact, than ever, despite finding the subject areas discussed interesting and valuable and entirely appropriate.

Citizen Media in this space.

From spending time working with community media groups such as Citizens Eye, which is grounded heavily in social support and community engagement (such as the work of WotBox Consultancies in schools and the array of news agencies that cover widely personal politics of individuals and brings them together across Leicestershire) as before the actual act of producing media, I’ve learned that one of the best use of energy that I can give is to work in these spaces, with the people who make it feel so rewarding.

The wider networks of citizen media makers that I’ve encountered through these projects (in the UK and further afield) leave me feeling energised and like we can use forward and achieve something, whatever that something is, if something if just waking up in the morning and not wanting to spend it hiding under the covers. Of course, these experiences on their own are not the wider solutions, or even the processes for working towards an ‘alternative’ discourse (that we can somehow own) about how we think about our planet, but in someway, neither is through imposing a new phrase regime to the same old problems.

I’m struggling here. I know, deep down, I am a more useful, passionate person when I go and stand next to somebody who is doing things that gets my gears going. I’m not interested in dominating the agenda at meetings, or to be part of a committee, or trying to force people to think the same as me or the group I have attached myself to. I prefer, and I keep reminding myself this, to take the best bits of what I observe and bring it back into the spaces where so feel like I can actually do something, rather than speak about doing it. Sometimes this works, like teaching and research, and sometimes it doesn’t, in the ways I constantly have to stretch my eyes open with matchsticks and force myself to be places because I know it will be important in the longer run.

Conclusions

Anyway, eduction for the crisis really did confirm for me where I need to be on the scale, and it is out and about doing and carrying on doing stuff, and not worrying too much about the current definition of what things are or might be. It was nice, as an academic like person, to be around others who were doing amazing cross overs between art and media production (if they are one and the same) with political agendas in full scope. Challenging difficult areas and putting young people at the heart of the discussion. Not, as one participant put it, seeing young people as an emerging community that needs to be changed or transformed in understand what it is that might happen in the future. Instead working, in what ever way, to help them feel empowered to challenge that dominant idea that young people need to be schooled to think a different way, either through the system as it stands, or through some alternative system that reflects the politics of ‘the left.’

We do that through citizen media, and currently, reclamation of the olympic games as a context and a reason, but others will definitely have other methods and reasons that work for them. It doesn’t have a grand alternative narrative that can replace the current one(s), but for some people who chose to engage, it’s those tiny little stories that are worth the while. Just like the way that I type this blog post, saying what I wish I could have articulated on the day but struggled to for whatever reason, it might not seem big and important and save the planet in the end, but it’s a platform in a media saturated world that allows one to make sense of it on their own terms. For some, that is an unbelievably massive thing and that is probably what I could bring and emphasis if there is to be further discussions and meet ups of this network.

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Occupying the Olympics: What can be done? (From @tentcityuni) #occupy2012

It was timely to hold a session at the Tent City University within the Occupy London camp on the notion of occupying the Olympics a day prior to the Independent reporting that the government are looking to ban demonstrations during the games next year. It emphasised completely what is going to happen, and what will happen, as the government cannot afford to allow for the games to fail (both financially, politically and internationally) – they will move the (*cringe for sports-related metaphor*) goalposts, whatever they are currently, to ensure that when the eye of the (carefully briefed and paying-customers) world’s media is upon London next summer, there will be conflict-free games and tailored soft power and sponsorship messages to be viewed.

They will not fail. They will do what they can to make sure they don’t fail. Even if it involves state brutality of citizens and changes to long-standing bylaws such as the right to protest and  squatters rights (see Barcelona 1992) It doesn’t come to much surprise, considering they’ve been displacing communities in East London for the last 6 and half years (it takes 7 years to ‘prepare’ for an Olympiad) – and had put in the ‘planning permission’ to do so, long before the winning bid for 2012 were announced in Singapore 2005.

You see, it’s simple things contained within bidding document files (see gamesbids.com for archive.) that can highlight this in advance – 7-10 years in advance, BEFORE your city bids for the games. Figures such as having to show to the IOC that the city can provide over 170,000 hotel beds for visiting fans, are one of the reasons why those who reside in the poorest part of Vancouver were evicted by their landlords from their lower-cost bedsits so they could be renovated and turned into boutique hotels, so that vistors had a place to stay and Vancouver saw the highest level of homelessness during one set period (watch the documentary ‘Five Ring Circus‘ to learn more)

Occupy the Olympics

Photo by @aral

After a skype call with Olympic critic and activist Helen Lenskyj (who have wrote some excellent books on resisting the Olympic Industry) whilst I was at Occupy Nottingham on Friday, she left me thinking about the privatisation of public space and the contrast of the Occupy movement. You see, every ‘public’ mass event you go to (fireworks, the fair, football, carnivals, the royal wedding) gives authorities the opportunity to move in on your civil liberties, it sticks a fence around it and uses security to make you feel ‘safe’ – when in fact, what it is doing is reducing the amount of space where you can actually call it public. For instance, try taking a photograph in your local shopping mall, it won’t be long before you get asked to leave or accused on being a terrorist – that is a perfect example of the local authorities outsourcing land to private companies to manage. As a participant at Occupy Nottingham told me on Friday, the occupations reclaim and raise awareness to the fact that these spaces, are in fact, being occupied by the corporations – not the people. And the Olympics is the biggest, and the baddest, example of this. I’ve met too many people in the last 2.5 years who have lost their home, their communities for the benefits of a 17 day sporting competition. This is the social and political context I am going to work within for my thesis – and probably the hardest thing I have to write, as I do not want to treat these experiences as throw away data for the REF or some other academic medal. The politics is personal.

Olympic Movement/Industry

What differs the Olympic Games from other mega events of its nature is three-fold – the first, the Olympic charter, the second, its historical context – and the third, Olympic education (the device that I’ve experienced first hand) The fact that they refer to themselves as a ‘movement’ hints at what the charter might contain, it aspires, it claims and it suggests that the Olympics provides a blueprint for living. The movement is governed by an Olympic charter, explicitly laying out the philosophical concept of ‘olympism’ – a way of life. When I was at the International Olympic Academy in September, I wrote about the three assumptions that were being made on my behalf, when discussing the Olympic Charter as document for research:

“1) That we all think that sport is a morally good thing. That is bonds us across communities and it should be considered as something as powerful as saying it is a ‘human right’. The act of sport is a human right.

2) That we see the idea of Olympic education as being a force to carry the message of sport and to help build an understanding that sport is a human right. All people of the world should hear this message and the best way to do this is through education.

3) That through participating in an olympic education program, we are are all advocates for the olympic education movement and will return to our country to spread the universal messages of Olympism. This is why we are here.”

Now I’ve stepped out of that world, and had the time to critically reflect on those experiences, I’m still gravely concerned about what follows such idealistic claims about society, or indeed, the notion that an ideology can be institutionalised through a device such as sport. You see, sport is a sacred cow – it is very rarely critiqued, it is probably one of the last bastians of the 20th century that hasn’t been ripped through the apparent public accountability machine of the mainstream media (or even academia) for the way that it acts. I mean, for the media, even if you aren’t paying for the rights to broadcast the Olympics games, to challenge the sports machine could potentially lose you a quarter of your daily news (and the access that goes along with it.) Furthermore, sport is still very much a television broadcast that remains unfragmented – think about the way football gathers people in spaces, or how big events disrupt existing programming. It very much has to be watched live. Similarly, there are very few academics who find themselves studying the Olympic Games when they detest organised sport and everything that goes with it. There a lot of tensions that come into play – and that could be one of the reasons why sport is a good hiding place for corporations such as McDonalds and CocaCola, corporations that don’t have an ethical bone in their system.

But if you align with an organisation that comes prepackaged with its own philosophy, a philosophy that promotes a healthy body and healthy mind, that also requires a hell of a lot of money before it will part with those ideas (and more importantly, its symbolic ritual, it’s only product essentially) then you know that you are not only going to reach global audiences, you are going to have a better chance of looking and sounding more ethical. The perfect relationship. And that perfect relationship is detailed within the Olympic charter – directly after the bit about friendship, peace and solidarity.

The history of the Olympics

Another factor of distraction is the history of the games, tied up closing to the history of ancient Greece (where relics from 2000 years ago shown the rich greeks enjoyed their stadiums, plays and temples) and where the industry was conceived at the turn of the 20th century by Pierre de Coubertin, a entrepreneur that played on the notion of beauty, religion and sport to introduce the modern Olympic games to the “masses.” I could go on, but if you want to read about the link between resistance and the Olympics, right back to the first modern games in Athens 1896, download @currybet’s brief history of Olympic dissent. The reason why I’m mentioning this is to relate to the political and social context of the games origins – think end of 19th century, imperialism, europe-centric governance, military influence (I’m sure there are historians out there who can tell a better story about this than me, I’m the new media person, remember!)

Olympic Education

And finally, the thing that separates the Olympics from say, the World cup? The Olympics comes packages with an element of Olympic education. There are Olympic education centres all over the place (I live 1 mile away from Loughborough University, it is reeking of Olympic studies) – but also, rather than simply research centres at universities all around the world, you’ve the Olympic games in school – worldwide. The London Games were sold on the aspect of youth (and much of the legacy claims are about just that) and if you keep an eye out for it, you’ll see things like “Get Set” which is the official link between compulsory education and LOCOG. The Olympic movement is embedded in the curriculum, I’m sure if you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the exposure to previous games yourself, in fact – before I took on this topic as a PhD, I had never encountered the Olympics in any other way apart from watching it during the summer holidays. Because it is what you do. Why do you think the IOC want Olympic education in schools? I can’t help but think that it is all related – especially when I encountered G4S at the Podium Further and Higher Education Conference back in February and they asked me advice on using social media to encourage college kids to apply for security jobs during London 2012 (!)

What can be done?

From the discussion at the tent city university on Saturday, we talked about if the Olympics can be occupied next summer – something that somebody on Twitter declared would be a huge stunt that would result in public uproar. Correct. It would. But it also raises questions about what occupy means and who is occupying who. What can I advise – based on what I’ve seen, read and learned over the last two years?

Looking to past games

What is happening in the UK is not in isolation. It doesn’t take much digging around to realise that every games that have came before have came complete with their own set of challenge on the local, national and international scale. Something that the Olympics, in its current format of every 2 years, is good at is being about to neutralise resistance or to distract from a citizen-reclaimed legacy. Think about how a school term works with the student movement, time and organisation of time is good way of killing momentum towards a cause. As we approach each Olympics, we start to care more as it approaches our lens – but it has taken 7 years to get to this stage. Think about the people living on its doorstep, think about the laws that need to be changed to allow the games to happen, think about where the budgets are going and use the Olympics as a mechanism to critique the rest of the government’s strategy. You can do this better if you look at what has happened before. There are some accessible books that you can read, all available on gamesmonitor’s reading list.

Media responsibility

Credit to @aral via instagram

It was ironic that Jon Snow came into my session, right at the moment when we was discussing media responsibility and the games. You see, the media have no responsibility to report critically on the games. If you look at research on media events (Dayan and Katz, 1994) even the most critical of journalists (erm-hm) are suspected in critique around events of this nature. Do not expect them to tell your story. Even if they do, they are in the pocket of the event. They need that access. So they will spin it to suit the general frame. You must tell your own.

Citizen Media and the Games

That why citizen media, social media and independent journalists are your friends – and why no story is too small to be captured. You see, there is one thing that LOCOG and the government can’t control in terms of the Olympic narrative (and what is remembered) is the digital footprint that is left behind. They can evict the Occupy London camp, but the digital trail will tell us more than the statues that were discovered around ancient Greece. You had to win a race to be remembered, to be immortalised, but as long as there are GPS satellites in the sky, data that we leave behind could be the answer to decentralising the narrative around megaevents (read Capalan, 2010 for more.)

Staying safe

Returning to the independent article to conclude, the government and LOCOG are expecting resistance. They are bigger and more aggressive than you can ever imagine. If you take them head on, they will come down on you like a ton of bricks. We’ve seen it with the royal wedding earlier this year, preemptive arrests and threats of rubber bullets and water cannons (sparked from the response to August riots) – you need to and must stay safe. Know your rights, read load about what has happened before and be clever about how you subvert the games. As Chris Shaw advises (Prof. at University of British Columbia, member of the NOGAMES network – and author of the five ring circus, Vancouver’s story) the best way to stop the games is to stop them before you ‘win’ them, when they have been awarded, there is no going back (unless you are Denver 1976, the only games where the citizens stopped it happening) They will do whatever it takes to make sure it goes ahead. The best you can do is to stay safe and make sure that whatever you do this time can be passed on to the next city – a legacy of protest and resistance.

 

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On being wrong.

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The results of a group work project where the olympic charter was used to fulfill identity stereotypes.

A mere 7.5 days to go until the end of the postgraduate session here at the International Olympic Academy. As we approach the home straight, a week of philosophy and ethical debate, we (the participants) are afforded the opportunity to to reflect on your experiences and our (now-‘informed’) interpretations of olympism and the olympic charter. Which is great if you found yourself travelling towards a direction that approves of the benefits of olympic education and the likes.

For me, what little support I had for olympic education is on critical low levels – where at the start of my PhD I was indifferent about the olympic movement – it was something that people who liked sport enjoyed. Later, after reading the key literature about the olympic movement and the media, I was surprised by how huge an event this was and the lack of interest in studying/discussing the media in this space – so found media technology to be my focus on research (hence the topic of my paper I submitted of the IOA) – and, importantly, that you could study the Olympic Games without touching the sport *at all*. Which is good – considering the amount of hoops that you have to jump through just to be exposed to it (think the olympic tickets lottery in London for instance – I didn’t get any, which could have been problematic if I was to focus my PhD on the access to a type of sport.)

So I thought new media and technology would be my *safe space* – that is, I use the Olympic games as a lens to access/understand the fast paced changes to media technology  – as the Olympics happened every 2 years, you can use set timeframes to describe what happened then and during the event – rather than attempting to grab a moving target.

But the thing is with new media is that it exposes you to alternative ideas, narratives, the fringes of discussions to the dominant, mainstream media narratives that have made it all to easy in the past to focus on key ideas that have framed the modern olympic games since the beginning (the charter for one) and consistant focus on sport – as if it is a non-political entity, free from critical engagement. I could not help but be affected by the ‘other side’ of the olympics that I was uncovering – if I was to ignore them, then I would be actively ignoring a huge and gaping hole in my research. I mean I *could* just study how the IOC are now using twitter – but that again would support the under-criticised power of the IOC and their ability to fold subversion back into the system.

Two years of working in this space has *changed* the way I think and how I consider myself in society –  by un-picking the Olympics, something that I was previously not bothered by (or could understand the extent of the impact it has on communities, countries and internationally), has let to unpicking other things (such as education and politics) – as if I can finally find the words to express the “whys” of how I am feeling much clearer and with more social and political context. This is the path I have found myself on – and now I find it hard to just accept what I am being told. So to be told that universal Olympic education is a thing that we should be working together in achieving – all I can ask is “Why?” 

Now – this isn’t me saying “no, this is wrong.” this is me asking about the assumed status of those within the room. From what I gather, there are three things that are being assumed on our behalf when we are receiving our lectures from the visiting professors:

1) That we all think that sport is a morally good thing. That is bonds us across communities and it should be considered as something as powerful as saying it is a ‘human right’. The act of sport is a human right

2) That we see the idea of Olympic education as being a force to carry the message of sport and to help build an understanding that sport is a human right. All people of the world should hear this message and the best way to do this is through education.

3) That through participating in an olympic education program, we are are all advocates for the olympic education movement and will return to our country to spread the universal messages of Olympism. This is why we are here.

If I was going to be skeptical about this, I would say that, yes, this is the truth and I would write off what is being said on the basis that I have found myself at some missionary religious sect and my criticism/questions is the same as walking into a church and telling them that their god doesn’t exist. I’m not going to do that – because I do not believe that this space is simply a space of indoctrination.

Last week for instance, I found a friend (and an allie) in one of the visiting professors who, despite being ‘pro-olympics’ was anti-olympic education (at least in current guise). And that is a crude binary that we are working on – in many ways, I could be considered pro-olympics (those from the Vancouver Media Coop – through me working with cultural olympiad projects – certainly thought so), but I would like to think that it is more complex than that – which is why I will not write off the IOA as borderline cult phenomena. If it was, I would not be here – unless I am only here to be bullied into submission through living with, socialising with and studying with olympic peers. On the bad days, the days when I miss having my support around me, I certain feel that way. 

But I have to remember this is a controlled environment – and probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to the boarding school experience. Despite ages ranging from 22-40, and the insistance that we are called ‘participants’ – not students – and we collectively refer to the teachers as “professors” – there is definitely power relationships that I have not felt since the days of walking out of english class aged 16 and never going back. We are here to be learned something – that’s why 80 percent of the lectures are the powerpoint version of 60 mins of chalk-and-talk followed by a strict 15 minutes for questions (apparently to get us used to international conferences – ha!) – we are told what we should be thinking about topics such as multiculturalism – not being asked to discuss it. In the exercises that do involve student participation – we are separated into groups in order to find common ground about topics such as the olympic charter – an appropriate way to facilitate group discussion so the key learning outcomes are addressed in a timely fashion.

Perhaps I would expect this in an undergraduate seminar (which I’m beginning to disagree with now I am back in the classroom as a student, rather than a teacher) but as a roomful of graduate students, it boggles my mind that some of the ideas are so blindly accepted. Of course, if there is only one, now pretty unpopular, person vocalising questions (I emphasis questions, not opinion – I don’t think I have actually told anyone what I *really* think of the games since I’ve got here – only asked questions) then I can see why it is not appealing to break out from the community. 30 days is a long time to be away from home – especially when you are not only studying/debating with people, but you are living with them. If this was a conference, I would probably not sacrifice so much of myself for the subject area (both in class – and online, where I feel that the only place I can talk about it is on twitter – despite being entirely public and the easiest platform to be taken out of context.) 

But really? This is about me being wrong – being told that my attitude to the materials is incorrect, that my ‘limited’ view point on the world is restricting my understanding of the wider picture, that I simply don’t get the importance of sport in the context of global solidarity. You are right. I am wrong. I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong about neo-liberal assault on the values we hold so dear to us. Wrong about how corporations use such an idealistic philosophy to peddle exploitation on behalf of their own profit. I want to be wrong about education being nothing more than a training ground for the labour market. I want to be wrong that governments are using things the olympics to push other agendas to the global stage, something that is more important than looking after their citizens. Being wrong is ok.

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On not being an ambassador for the “it’s a cultural thing(tm)” thing.

I’ve not been having such a great time at Olympic school. This week should have really been my week – the topic of this week’s lectures are on the social, political and economic factors of the modern Olympic Games – and it is *technically* where my PhD topic should fit on the program. It is day 4. On the first day, I asked too many questions. On the second, I asked too many questions and when I got asked to stop asking questions (or shusht! the technical term), I was approached in such a way that suggested a telling off, a request to stop asking questions that were not relevant or logical to the discussion. So yesterday I sat out of the learning so not to disrupt the group’s overall experience. I felt I had to. Anyway, the easiest way to understand what happened is to equate it to being a ‘cultural thing’ – my expectations didn’t match the professors expectations didn’t match the other student’s expectations. And if that was true, it means it is probably down to me being Scottish. 

It didn’t make make be feel too great. In fact, it totally sucked. I’m taken back to secondary school and my schizophrenic report card – where I would receive referrals and detentions in the same weeks are winning an award for academic excellence at the school’s prize giving. It is my contradiction, I live with the fuck ups – of which there have been many – and there will be many more, I’m sure. 

I’m not going to talk about me (yet), I’m going to talk the reactions that I received from the rest of the group. The group. I’ve referred to the rest of the participants at the academy as ‘the group’ already. The group is an interesting concept – as if we all move together, as one – believing roughly the same ideas and having a similar general overview of the world. Brought together, internationally, to because of our love and/or research into the Olympic Games. We share the values of tolerance, respect and solidarity that are the foundations of the Olympic movement – and we reflect this in how we behave and act towards each other, regardless of our cultural backgrounds. This is easy to prescribe with words, but as a group (a singular entity) it is much harder in practice. Of course it is – to not address the complexities in how individual’s form bonds that transcend institutionalised practice and concepts is madness. At least for me. Is that me failing to be tolerant? 

If I was to be rationalise the dynamics of the group (something I’ve been encouraged to do this week when talking about other circumstances related to the Olympic Games and its indirect effects that it has on society, politics and culture – human emotion is a *bad* thing and not a factor in research) then I would consider it as followed. Each of us has been selected and nominated to attend through national committees within our country. Each of us, directly or indirectly, is encouraged to represent our country – some have tracksuits with our country emblem on them (including me!), some are athletes (so are down with the competitive national sport element), some have brought their own materials that identify their nation state in a way that can be translated easily to other participants through the process of cultural evening – an example of this would be for me to represent Scotland with a picture of a kilt (“lol – he has no pants”) and convincing others that a haggis was a real animal (#haggislols) – all cultural devices that are easy to understand because they are dominant ideas that have been translated globally. Together, we are brought together as a group, specifically known as the 18th IOA postgraduate seminar participants/alumni, identified by our bright blue lanyard and our red baseball caps – the only thing that we can say that we have in common is our attendance here in Greece, everything else (the tolerance, respect and solidarity) was decided before we got here, before we were all born. 

We are encouraged to learn about other cultures through spending time with each other. This is slightly different than building relationships based on trust, this is building relationships based on shared experiences. There are some experiences which equate to making sure that the experience that you have at the IOA is the experience that you are suppose to have. Play sports, hang out by the pool, visit the beach, run naked at the ancient Olympia stadium. It is what you are expected to do together as part of a collective group experience.

If the idea fills you with dread, it could be seen as a problem in a context of a group rather than simply wanting to opt out of the activity. For instance, friends that know you well enough can read when you are upset, worried, angry, happy, calm and don’t require as much signal as people you’ve only just met. This takes time and personal understanding of a person to get to this stage of subtly. As we are living closely together here, it is expected to form bonds as quick as you can, with many different people – so national and cultural stereotypes can play a big part in accelerating relationships because there are lightweight enough to understand across a group, not as much work as getting to know somebody individually. Much like who you sit with at the first day of school has a major influence in how you behave, who you get to know through interacting, bonding and learning from your peers. The coincidence of knowing each other is through a shared locale – not necessary through shared interest, complementary personalities etc that we tend to find when we least expect it (this has been accelerated because of the Internet of course!)

What I am truly missing here is the opportunity to be myself. Not a PhD student, not a representation of the UK, not part of the 18th IOA PG seminar group, not somebody who seems to be working all the time, not a person who is allergic to mosquitos so therefore doesn’t want to go swimming, not a person who asks questions in class that are not relevant to discussions – all devices that I can use to publicly identify myself within the group, but it’s not really me. It is a performance of me. A performance of me that gives me something to say and a way to behave within a group – but as I’ve had limited space to really get to know people beyond their own performance, it is not a performance at all. I’d rather not have to perform at all. This is not possible, of course, but I have to keep myself safe when I know that most interactions are going to be with more than one person with not enough context to spread around.

So, to simply say that it is a cultural thing that causes the similarities and differences in approach is problematic. We could make it a cultural thing – we could make it an excuse for the reasons behind dissent individual behaviour in a group setting – but this group is situated in a context of a Western ideal. The Olympics, born in Europe, steeped in the notion of empire, power, development, growth in GDP, neoliberalism, sport as a human right, capitalist rhetoric – if any culture was going to reflect the Olympic games through stereotypes alone, I’m sure Great Britain would be close to the top of the list. Culturally, I should be the embodiment of such principles. In reality – I am struggling with the notion of alternatives and rethinking about such ideology that we take for granted and allow to haunt our necessarily lives I can’t embody my ‘alternative vision’ neither – nor force my way of thinking onto the rest of the group because I don’t even know if there is a correct and complete answer to be forced. Instead, I ask questions in order to reveal something more about ideas presented some confidently as being a correct one. And such questioning creates tensions – tensions so apparent that they are equated to inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. Where appropriate and acceptable is not dictated by some higher being or institution, but by each other. 

But saying that, today is day 4. And day 4 was ok. It was the first lecture we’ve had that was not a lecture. It was a conversation. And I’m glad I decided to make myself go. We were asked to write down what we though where the three most pivotal games in history and to share them (and our reasons for choosing them) with the class. I picked 1968, 1972 and 1984. Some were looking for the right answer, so therefore a measure of being the ‘best’ games – when really, the exercise had no correct response at all. The professor argued that all of the games were capable of being pivotal, due to the nature of their global response – and our selections and reasons were all a reflection on how we thought about the world. This wasn’t a ‘cultural thing’ at all, this was just better, more engaging teaching – and a chance to break down some of those stereotypes that we’ve let ourselves inflict on each other. I’ve been looking for more chances to support the Olympics/megaevents as a context to see the world, or a catalyst for doing something else – and this is the first time I’ve found it at the academy. Amongst the indoctrination and the desire for the easy, most accessible group answer, there is small pockets were the dominant ideas (and excuses for difference) don’t necessarily prevail. 

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