Civic Media is the Message

by Eric Gordon, Director of Engagement Lab – Department of Visual & Media Arts, Emerson College

This blog on Digital Accountability first appeared on Disrupt&Innovate – weekly blogs for civil society professionals, leaders & activists.

The guest authors – digital experts from within the civil society sector – recently took part in a four-day CSO Accountability in the Digital Age workshop, facilitated by the INGO Accountability Charter. Here they share the issues explored and outcomes established during this hands-on event. Lauren’s blog is the first in a series of five.


Individuals, especially young people, tend to interact with other people, mediated by systems or platforms, while being less conscious of the organisation or institution they represent. Likewise, people, again, especially young people, are more commonly motivated to act in the world by personal sharing, rather than collective action taking. I explore these ideas in my recent edited volume, with Paul Mihailidis, called Civic Media, which we define as “the technologies, designs, and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good.” Civic media comprise all the ways in which people make meaning and take action together, while mostly transcending individual outlets and organisations. Today, the individual actor is likely to see the organisation as facilitator rather than creator of meaning.

The medium, not the organisational onus, is the message. People care about getting things done and getting feedback about progress. The individual organisation and its reputation matters a great deal until it gets in the way. Then it doesn’t matter at all. The range of activities that comprise civil society, when labeled as media rather than a sector, can and should be imminently flexible. Digital social networks have blurred the lines between business operations and social assembly, customer and citizen, as billions use online social networks to advocate and connect across borders and technologies. At the same time, governments around the world monitor online activity both to enhance services and to suppress speech and facilitate violence, obviating the need for mediating practices. The actions of an ICSO, an activist group with a Twitter account, or a conscientious government minister, seeking to end poverty in India, are more similar than not.

Organisations comprising the civil society sector are being pushed to question fundamentals. There are real pressures to redefine how they engage in fundraising, governance, and organisational mission. It is this tension that motivated the INGO Accountability Charter to organise a four-day CSO Accountability in the Digital Age workshop in March, in which I had the privilege to participate. We were tasked with answering a simple question: how are civil society organisations accountable to stakeholders in the digital age? Unfortunately, the answer was not so simple, because accountability was tied to these much larger questions about the sector and organisational relevance, much of which has been explored in previous blogs from meeting participants. Lauren Woodman (NetHope) kicked off the blog series with a post about the need for the sector to reconsider accountability, if organisations are claiming to adopt people centered approaches. The more people participate, the more complex accountability becomes. Virginie Coulloudon (Transparency International) and Jed Miller (Open data consultant) followed up with practical advice about organisational innovation. If organisations are to adopt a “people centered approach,” they need to become more flexible to accommodate increased input from more stakeholders, at the same time they need not be distracted by “shiny new innovations.” Jeremey Osborne (350.org) focused on the importance of collaborations across organisations, and acknowledged both how difficult this has been historically and how necessary it is within a media framework. Finally, Gautum Raju (Oxfam) contemplated organisational strategies, specifically for the large INGO, to use media platforms for large scale cooperation.

We came together to understand how civil society organisations can be accountable in the digital age. After days of discussion, it became clear that the organisation didn’t matter so much as the medium. People are communicating via media, not via organisations. Organisations need to respond to this and see their work as connective, collaborative, facilitative of mission-driven actions, not organisational loyalties. In fact, connectivity and collaboration is the only way ICSOs will be able to generate and sustain loyalty. Civil society remains important; in fact, it might be more important now than ever before. And, CSOs still matter, again, perhaps now more than ever, but only if they are able to see themselves for what they are: media platforms that facilitate social connection through “producing and reproducing the sense of being in the world toward common good.” Our goal should be to figure out the features of media that matter and then set out to build them together.

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