Beyond Visibility/Learning from Ghana (August 20, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post marks my online dialogue with the new media activists and scholars working in Africa and other developing countries through projects of media literacy, activism, and empowerment, whom I met at the OurMedia7 Conference in Ghana.
Media activism has long played a part in international social movements with diverse goals and tactics including: empowering local people to tell their own stories, documenting social movements for the historical record, intervening in mainstream discourse to ensure fair representation, engaging in media literacy education, creating alternative media, and engaging in research about the role of media in development and activism. For example: "Appalshop is dedicated to the proposition that the world is immeasurably enriched when local cultures garner the resources, including new technologies, to tell their own stories and to listen to the unique stories of others."[cit]

The Internet has increased the opportunities for local media efforts to share ideas and resources and build communities. For example, "OURMedia conferences provide a space for the development of knowledge, strategies and collaborations to advance community empowerment, social justice and human rights through grassroots use and control of media and information/communication technologies (ICTs)"[cit] and AMIC Alternative Media Portal "believes that there are no hard and fast rules that define alternative media. There is however some commonalities, with the overriding factor being, the idea that alternative media outlets will take on stories and topics that more traditional media outlets will not touch, mainly due to the traditional media's relationship with the corporate sector, the government or the need to protect the status quo."[cit]

One of my ten founding terms for this project is process. How we make and receive media is as important as the object itself.

One of my three founding calls for this project is integrating theory and practice with the local and global. YouTube's users should lead and learn from conversations in real communities about the impacts, meanings, and power of the media. This should be done through site-specific and problem-based projects where we create solutions communally.
I recently returned from the OurMedia7 conference in Ghana, a loose network of international academics, activists, and professionals working in social justice/development/NGOs who have met annually seven times to share and discuss their varied community-based, citizen's media practices (ourmedia not their [corporate] media).

Beyond healing from the extreme side effects I endured from my should-be-banned antimalarial medication larium (drug-induced bad dreams were just the beginning), I am still reeling from the many profound encounters I experienced in Ghana and at the conference.

While I do not believe this is the place where I want to play out the scope of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, cross-technological challenges that I encountered during my first trip to Africa, I do want to raise the issue of visibility which might serve to crystalize many of these more discrete (if life-changing) incidents. I've been writing for a while, critically, about the paltry offerings on display on YouTube. I've been trying to name and theorize my dissatisfaction, coming as I did from a commitment to community-based media and a belief in its capacities for world and self-changing.

All along, I've been not only critical of YouTube's serious inabilities to deliver what I believe in, but also self-critical about what I can deliver. I've wondered: am I snob (above the offerings of "real people"), a gadfly (buzzing around the giddy claims of the techno-euphorics), a bore (unwilling to enjoy the fun of it all). However, I believe that I gained some insight about my position from the very tensions exhibited between my high-tech YouTube work (which I presented) and that of the more low-bandwidth work (like radio) that was presented by other media activists in Ghana.

As I watched (or listened to or about) Modilbo Coulibaly from Cameroon present on the community-based media projects of farmers in remote African villages, or Norbert Salty speak on battery-operated radio programs—in their language, about environment, health, school, and culture for the Makushi in Guyana—my first thought was that my findings about YouTube (a set of programs that can only be viewed on high-end computers and through broadband and therefore unavailable to the people served by the projects mentioned above) were both elitist and irrelevant to their experiences and communities.

The very fact of speaking, beyond their remote village, to each other and the world, through technology, was without question a revolution that I could not ignore. And yet, as I thought through it more (attempting to get beyond my embarrassment over my crass assumption that everyone at the conference would have seen YouTube and yet further been able to use it with their communities), I became more firm in my convictions.

Media-justice movements have always struggled for visibility. When it arrived via YouTube (for many, and yet really just for the prvileged), it became clear that this condition in itself, although better than invisibility or voicelessness, can be neither the term nor the actual end-goal for emancipatory media. Media justice, media empowerment and media community are a result of processes, not an effect of technology nor an end-product contained in a piece of media.

This is to say, the radical and emancipatory nature of the projects I've mentioned above, and countless others like them around the world, occur in their making and in what is done with them.

Visibility is a neutral condition.

For visibility to have meaning, impact, or power (beyond the indisputable pleasures of self-recognition), it needs to be connected to specific social-change goals and to a real community, it needs to do more than provide information or images. Once visible: how are you seen, what do you say, to whom, why, and with what results? To make visibility work, you have to organize, educate, interact. You have to link that image to ideas, people, and actions.

In her talk on the videos that flooded YouTube during the Safron Rebellion in Myanmar (several of these were the most-viewed for days), Melissa Brough, while certain that the visibility of their protest was enhanced by YouTube popularity, cautioned that this also resulted in extreme censorship for them (closing down the Internet in the country), greater endangerment for vulnerable groups (violent crackdowns against protesters seen in the videos), and a loss of control of the videos (where they went, in what context) as they did what everyone wants: to go viral. As a result of this popular, corporate-driven viewing, this visibility was reduced to spectacle, which itself raises my largest concern.

Once visible, how are you seen, what do you say, to whom, why, and with what results? To make visibility work you have to organize, educate, interact. You have to link that image to ideas, people, actions.

Kofi Anyidoho, a renowned Ghanaian poet, gave the conference's invocation. He more succinctly explains the causality I attempt to explain above.

"Mother: They have caught our voice and given it over to people of the night.

Mother: There are stories waiting for voices. Mother: There are visions waiting for cloudless skies."