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Some thoughts on public media in the new year

Scrolling through a backlog of "best of 2007" posts in my Google Reader, I ran across this gem, recommended by blogger and freelance Web designer Jason Kottke.

In My Language by Amanda Baggs--an autistic woman who posts her work to YouTube under the name silentmiaow--is a short film that effectively explains how her repetitive, tactile gestures represent a holistic form of communication with the larger world. The first several minutes of the film present her moving and humming in what she terms her "native language." In the film's second half, she uses a voice synthesizer linked to her keyboard to explain her behaviors.

"This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow," she writes, "as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not."

Fascinating in its own right, the film also speaks to many other social struggles. "There are people being tortured, people dying, because they are considered non-persons, because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all," explains Baggs. "Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible."

This is public media today--posted by its creator on an open video platform, recommended to me by a trusted gleaner and served up via a news reader. Baggs speaks from her own experience in a style that would be familiar to the viewers of documentaries such as those featured on PBS series POV, but her words are not mediated by an outside narrator or editor. Her work has become a tool and an inspiration for an engaged public of autism sufferers and their friends and families. Because of her YouTube posts, Baggs was featured on CNN--but this was by no means the end of the story, some shining moment to reach a broader audience. Instead, it is just one link that shows up when you search her name online, appearing below links to her writings on autistics.org and her personal blog, Ballastexistenz.

What conditions are necessary to allow such new forms of independent public media to flourish? There are many overlapping factors: sustainable and open platforms and distribution protocols, access to low-cost media-making equipment, organizing around the rights of individual media-makers (for example, see the Center's most recent publication, Recut, Reframe, Recycle, for an examination of Fair Use in user-generated video), policy interventions around issues such as net neutrality, and more.

In the coming months, the Center for Social Media will continue to provide profiles of innovative participatory public media projects, analyses of technology and policy changes, and perspectives from other scholars examining the shifting landscape of public media. Stay tuned!