By Rory O'Connor
In just six years, the Personal Democracy Forum has become one of the few truly indispensable annual gatherings — devoted to the nexus of politics, media and technology, as viewed through the prism of the digital revolution that is rapidly transforming the way we create, communicate, campaign and even, in the Age of Obama, govern ourselves.
With half of the members of Congress now running their own YouTube Channel, and many of the rest Twittering their time away, no one questions any longer the primacy of the Internet and its attendant technologies. Instead, attention is now shifting toward how best to use these emerging media — and the social networks that power them — to transform the body politic in ways that are actually useful and meaningful to ‘ordinary’ citizens like you and me.
This year, PDF09 was yes, bigger, but also better than ever before: bigger in numbers — but also in terms of impact and importance, scope and topics, and even in terms of recognition by the powers-that-be such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mayor Mike, slated to give an in-person, opening day keynote speech but deterred by our state government’s ongoing political circus, still made time to appear live via Skype to herald his role as New York City’s chief customer service representative — the Craig Newmark of local politics (“Citizens are our customers!”) — who is now adding online features such as Twitter, Skype, Google Maps and so on to the city’s 311 citizen help line.
Bloomberg was preceded by a ‘conversation’ between master media strategist Mark McKinnon, who helped both Ann Richards and George W. Bush become governor of Texas before moving on to presidential campaigns for Bush and McCain, and Joe Rospars, New Media Director for Barack Obama, on the subject “Did Obama Revolutionize Campaigning? (Short answer: “Yes!”) A series of short talks followed, with the likes of Nate Silver, whose fivethirtyeight.com site rocketed to prominence in the last presidential campaign; Gina Bianchini, co-founder and CEO of Ning, who offered five useful steps for social networking; the ubiquitous Jeff Jarvis, doing his best Oprah imitation while wondering how Google might reinvent government; and the ever-stimulating David Weinberger, blogger, Cluetrain co-author and Berkman fellow, on how “Transparency is the New Objectivity” when you are living in a ‘hyperlinked world of never-ending difference.”
Add numerous panel discussions on topics ranging from “How the Internet Ecosystem Can Improve Journalism” and “Imagining White House 2.0: Making Open Collaborations Work” to “Why Blogging Still Matters” and “Twitter as a Platform,” and you see why there is something for almost anyone interested in the intersection of media, politics and tech. But lots of conferences touch upon such topics in one form or another; PDF is distinguished more by its willingness to go where no other gathering is seemingly willing or capable of going. Such a moment occurred midway through Day One when the inimitable danah boyd – a leading expert in how young people especially use social networks – offered her thoughts on “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online.”
In earlier work, boyd looked at, among others, issues of trust and credibility online, including the influence of brands. But at PDF, she ventured into uncharted territory and discussed one of the last few taboos in American life – namely class – and how it plays out in online environments such as social networks. Despite all the current hype about the “Twitter Revolution,” she reminded the audience that Twitter users are a distinct minority of the population – and “that minority looks exactly like you!” She also pointed out the fact of “second class citizenship in the digital public sphere,” adding that “access is not enough – we also need real media literacy.”
If it’s true, as Boyd says — and I for one am a believer — that “we still don’t have a language to talk about classism in America today,” the problem is only amplified online, where social stratification is as pervasive as everywhere else, where inequality is still entrenched and where “where you go” still very much matters, in a world that sees MySpace as ‘lower class’ and ‘more ghetto” than the Harvard-bred, ‘honors class’ Facebook. In a crowd of true believers – a show of hands revealed almost all in the PDF09 audience were on Facebook and literally none have a MySpace account – her reminder that “there is no universal public online” was a much-needed breath of fresh air — or more accurately, it was like throwing a glass of cold water or issuing a quick slap directly onto our collective Internet face. Sure, we’ve come a long way, baby – but we’ve still got a long way to go before we achieve truly personal democracy…