Dan Gilmore talks media in Cairo

Annelle Sheline
9 Min Read

Dan Gilmore – journalist, director of the Center for Citizen Media and new media expert – signed Arabic language copies of his book, “We the Media at Diwan Bookstore in Zamalek on Wednesday.

True to his ethic, he held a conversation with interested listeners and responded to questions from the group, mainly AUC students. Gilmore’s speaking engagements in Cairo and Alexandria are sponsored by the US State Department.

Gilmore opened with the question so often posed by the creators of media to themselves: How can the media industry survive the transition to informal, and often unpaid, media sources? Although acknowledging that the industry’s transition has proved “painful for those who once had a monopoly on the dissemination of information, he called new media the “best opportunity we [the media] have ever had.

Speaking to the group, many of whom were active students and disseminators of online news and social networking, he said he felt “jealous of people like you who get to start now. I’ll be learning from you. I always need to be told I’m wrong, it’s how I learn.

He expressed delight at seeing his work translated into Arabic. Since its publication in 2006 he and his publisher, O’Reilly Media, have made the full English text available online for download for free, in keeping with Gillmor’s attempts to counterbalance a copyright system he termed “insane.

Inviting those gathered to engage in “a conversation, not a lecture, both at the Diwan event and in “working with those who were once part of the audience, Gillmor tried to embody the collaborative approach he champions. Still, although the group posed questions, many appeared more eager to listen than offer their own thoughts. Gillmor offered his insights and predictions for the media environment, an “ecosystem he has helped to shape through his involvement in the Silicon Valley tech boom and his subsequent advocacy of citizen-driven journalism.

He called the ability to access any information from any source at any time “the first step to being empowered. The next step is to start talking and publishing.

“We have better tools for publication: video, audio. the older forms of media are either disappearing or moving online. The tech journals, for example, have all migrated to the web, he observed.

Advocacy for a media “ecosystem.not a competition for scarce resources that will have one winner and one loser, he believes necessitates an entrepreneurial spirit among would-be journalists and media producers, tech savvy go-getters willing to experiment and more importantly, willing to fail.

“You must hold fast to certain principles and never let go, he intoned. Questioned about the principles, which he outlines in his book, Gillmor pointed out that “objectivity is not one of the requirements a lay out for a journalist.

Ascribing to this perspective, this reporter would describe his description of the media as ecosystem as betraying a certain insouciance. At least, utter confidence in the ability of media to overcome obstacles, a faith that “the truth will come out. Yet even in an ecosystem, competition for scarce resources remains a motivating factor for action.

Similarly, in a media culture that encourages entrepreneurship – which he admitted will be “necessary, at least for Americans determined to work in media but facing an imploding media job market – Gillmor exhibits none of the fear many journalists currently harbor about the future possibilities for employment and ability to make a living.

He expressed frustration at the continued navel gazing that manifested itself as the journalist/blogger split. “It’s not blogger or journalist, it’s blogger and journalist, he intoned, praising bloggers whose talent for aggregation of sources on various subjects he often considers superior to the journalists reporting on the same topics. He seemed to imply the notion of the blogger as editor, of sometimes offering commentary but more often directing his or her audience to the information that the followers, by choosing to read the blog, have indicated their trust in the bloggers’ taste.

Addressing a question about the Obama campaign’s expert manipulation of new media and social networking to raise money and garner support, Gillmor traced the use of the internet in American politics.

“McCain was actually the first candidate to really use the internet; back in 2000, he raised a lot of money. Meeting McCain, it was clear to me that he knew the importance of internet as a tool, though he understood it in terms of money. In 2004 the breakthrough was Howard Dean. His campaign manager, Joe Trippy, who utterly understood what was going on, helped him.

“But it was Obama who blew it out of the water. Clinton hired good people but she didn’t get it like Obama. The Obama campaign succeeded through the combination of dispersing responsibility for on the ground organizing and money raising to people who dispersed in further. The Facebook groups were not controlled by the central campaign, although they were closely monitored. To learn to do things without permission, it was this without permission part is so important.

“They raised the staggering amount of three quarters of a billion dollars. This is kind of frightening, actually, Gillmor admitted. “The Republicans will come back with sophisticated techniques – they’re always ahead on centralized technology systems.

Although such emphasis on the American system seemed perhaps less relevant for the Cairo audience, a listener asked for more specific information on Obama’s “keys to success.

“Obama just represented what people wanted to be part of. He was different than previous examples of online political action that until that time had been largely negative. Even Moveon.org was more about criticizing than building, Gillmor explained.

Disappointment following the election, felt by many across the US, emerged in Gillmor’s critique of the administration since moving into the White House. “Obama hasn’t moved beyond campaigning to the rest of our lives, the governance part, a conversation between people and government. [Though Obama’s administration has] done a good job of publishing data online. But I can’t help but feel there is vastly more to be done. You’ve heard of web 2.0? Think of government 2.0, a collaborative future for governing.

Transitioning from achieving action in the non-virtual world to activities that remain entirely virtual, Gillmor addressed both Second Life and World of Warcraft (WOW), as technologies that have sometimes unintended effects upon the non-virtual world.

“I begin each of my classes by asking students whether any were WOW players, and if any said yes, he suggested they reconsider either the class or WOW, since they won’t have time for both, he laughed. “It’s run by the most powerful media company in the world. it’s completely addictive.

Gilmore expects news media to do something similar, to somehow make use of a virtual identity. Although such a program would further blur the distinction between “real reality and virtual reality, such examples as mock newspapers such as The Onion already experiment with providing “almost news, or that which pushes news to the cartoon level and so reveals the often unreal aspect of what other papers publish as real.

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