SOPA & citizenship in a digital age

From citizen lobbyists to citizen regulators, it’s only the beginning of citizens young and old exercising their collective powers outfitted with social media.

By Anne Collier

You could call Internet users “citizen lobbyists.” This week, in a post-Arab Spring sign of how participatory media – and its participants – are powerfully changing things, they successfully went head-to-head with some powerful forces and won. Christopher Dodd, the head of the film industry trade group that lobbied and failed to push through the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with the US Chamber of Commerce and the recording industry) said that “no Washington player can safely assume that a well-wired, heavily financed legislative program is safe from a sudden burst of Web-driven populism,” according to the New York Times. “The startlingly speedy collapse of the antipiracy campaign by some of Washington’s savviest players … signaled deep changes in antipiracy lobbying in the future.”

So it’s an understatement to say that it feels like this year will be a watershed, the way it has started out. But lawmakers won’t be the only ones to feel the power of the people outfitted with social media. I think social media companies themselves will too. In six blog posts, journalist, author and professor John Batelle looks at a variety of indicators of that. The most interesting to me was No. 6: “‘The corporation’ becomes a central societal question mark,” he writes. “Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society,” he writes. “From a balance sheet prospective, corporations are in far, far better shape than just about every country in the world. Even as our personal incomes shrink on a per capita basis, and the world dips in an out of what feels like an eternal recession, corporate profits are up and up again. This feels a bit out of whack.”

“Citizen regulators” next

And author and professor Don Tapscott writes, in his “20 big ideas for 2012,” that “the privacy community is in shambles. In the past the threat was Big Brother (governments) assembling detailed dossiers about us. Then came Little Brother (corporations) creating detailed customer profiles. Today the problem is the individuals themselves. Hundreds of millions are revealing detailed data about themselves, their activities, their likes/dislikes, etc. online every day.” In “Here’s my personal data, marketers. What do I get for it?” Ad Age points to a passel of startups aimed at giving users control over their data.

But what I see so much of, still (maybe this will change now that SOPA-as-we-know-it is reported dead), is a sense of user powerlessness and potential victimization by corporations – like we’re somehow living in a social media world while our heads are stuck back in the mass-media one of the past. Certainly that victimization is a theme of many discussions about consumer privacy and online safety.

What about our growing power? Increasingly, the “product” of these companies is the “content” of our lives. We create the product – through our searches, status updates, tweets, blog posts, photos, videos, avatars, etc. We are their bread and butter. This gives us considerable collective power, once there’s a critical mass of users who get this. We don’t know our own strength! Part of this is the need for a new media literacy, a mindfulness not just about what we upload and download but about our power and our collective place in social and media history. Tapscott’s ninth “big idea” is “the citizen regulator,” and I think that’s next. Governments will be crowd-sourcing regulation, once we all begin to realize and exercise our collective bargaining power as the users of a user-driven social media environment. Certainly the world’s children are learning to! We can start figuring this out by watching our kids – and talking with them about SOPA and how they want to participate going forward. Of course we’ll also be talking with them about self-regulation as a vital part of this new power. [Here’s my own prediction, posted last month: “Anti-social media companies will be obsolete,” including some characteristics of successful pro-social media corporations (please feel free to add characteristics to the list!).]

Related links

* “The New Student Activism” in the New York Times
* How exactly would SOPA change the Internet for us average users anyway? See GOOD News.
* “The week the Web changed Washington” at O’Reilly Radar says “collective action halted SOPA and PIPA. Now we’re in unexplored territory.” It quotes author and tech pundit Clay Shirky as saying that “the risk now is not that SOPA will pass. The risk is that we’ll think we’ve won. We haven’t; they’ll be back. Get ready to have this fight again.”
* “How the Web killed SOPA and PIPA” at TalkingPointsMemo
* Posted almost two years ago: “Social Web privacy: A new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto”
* Past posts on citizenship expressed online, including the fact that all this isn’t just for people aged 13+

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