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The New Media Epiphany

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Two years ago, I had a personal epiphany at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. I joke about how I was so deep in revelatory thought that I fell down a few stairs. Yet it was the moment when it all clicked for me. The way that new media could change everything... From communications to politics to culture. Since that moment I haven't looked back, convinced that a shift is taking place that is as seismic as the printing press or the Industrial Revolution.

At the PDF conference a month ago, the conversations were light years away from 2008, when the prevailing topics were the election and Mayhill Fowler. There were new speakers and different vendors in attendance, as well as many familiar players. In the welcoming statement in the program folder, Founder/Executive Producer Andrew Rasiej and Editor/Curator Micah L. Sifry wrote,"...the web keeps rewarding those actors who empower ordinary users, eliminate wasteful middleman, share information openly, and shift power from the center to the edges."

Two days of keynotes and panels provided plenty to chew over. Gina Bianchini, co-founder and CEO of Ning, spoke about "Owning Your Identity in Social Media." With 1.3 million people in social networks, she addressed how individuals now had "a means to drive real world events." Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? talked about the interrelationship between government and the Internet. He emphasized that the populace "must give government permission to fail," and allow them to try things and experiment. Jarvis outlined the goal as making government "truly collaborative."

Dave Weinberger took on the issue of truth and transparency in the hyperlinked age of information. He declared, "transparency is the new objectivity," and "we were beyond a paper-based democracy." Regarding the Twittering from Iran, he acknowledged that the source of each Tweet was not verified, but maintained "keeping people connected online was a political act."

Perhaps the biggest buzz of the first day came from Danah Boyd's deconstruction of "The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online." Having just completed a PhD focusing on "How American Youth Use Networked Public [sites] For Sociable Purposes," the Microsoft researcher talked about the digital divide between teenagers using MySpace and those on Facebook. Boyd pointed to "pervasive stratification" where "not everyone is sitting at the table." Referencing the Harvard origins of Facebook, she spoke of the respective communities as places where teens are not only reinforcing their relationships, but also bringing structural and cultural divides to the next generation. In discussing the "cultural wall" between the users of the two sites, she intoned, "I'm telling you this because it matters." The following day, when Randy Zuckerberg from Facebook spoke on "social networks and social revolutions," she responded, "Facebook is a completely neutral platform."

That topic correlated to the dialogue centered on the "Obama broadband initiative and the future of the Internet." Rasiej moderated the debate between Josh Silver, co-founder of the Free Press, James Assey (National Cable & Telelcommunications Associates) and Hank Hultquist (VP Federal Regulatory at at&t). Silver zoned in on the stats about the cable and phone companies protecting a "very lucrative market." He informed the crowd that Verizon had 124 lobbyists working to protect their interests. He said, "The cable and phone companies have been making lots of money, but not reinvesting it. The U.S. wireless market [an extension of the Internet] is a disaster." He was emphatic when he said flatly, "This social policy issue is too important to get wrong."

Rasiej, who has actively supported net equality and is the co-founder of MOUSE.org (a non-profit working to connect public schools to the Internet), advocated for the need to change the dynamics of the country's infrastructure. He wants to see more young and disenfranchised people online. Rasiej said, "People need to get online to break the chains of economic and social inequity."

It was noted that 63 per cent of Americans have broadband, and the states where the higher speeds are available reflect where the more affluent neighborhoods are located." Rasiej stressed his belief that "Internet access was a human right" and that the "public interest was tantamount."

As a senior advisor for "innovation in Hillary Clinton's State Department," Alec Ross, was on hand to tackle "21st Century Statecraft." He asked rhetorically, "How do you get power into the hands of the citizenry?" He posited that technology shows we don't need to have decision making strictly in the model of government to government. It can be "people to government" or "people to people." Ross made the concept visceral when he suggested in a humorous vein, "Paul Revere wouldn't have ridden down Main Street. He would have Twittered."

There were plenty of sound bites to take away. Zuckerberg suggested "the small things we do everyday online prime us for big actions." Dave Troy (Twittervision) asserted, "Old media needs to figure out how to be part of the solution." Amanda Michel (ProPublica) elucidated, "New Media focuses on the principles, rather than the tools."

In addition, there were oft-repeated mantras that floated around from setting to setting, such as: "Information - Share it out" or "Work outside your network."

My personal favorite remains, "Anything can go viral."

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