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Faculty’s New Book Explores Human Element of Digital Engagement

Emerson’s Civic Media and Journalism Professor Paul Mihailidis delves deep into the values that support human connection in today’s digital culture throughout his new book, Civic Media Literacies: Re-Imagining Human Connection in an Age of Digital Abundance.

“The notion of the book is that we’ve hit this kind of breaking point in terms of our dependence on social technologies for all types of communication information needs,” said Mihailidis, whose research explores the nexus of media literacies, community activism and engagement in civic life.

“It’s about the values that support human connection in digital culture, and media interventions that can be designed to support these values. I hope it contributes to our current dialogue at Emerson around engagement, connection, and presence in our current media age.”

Mihailidis, director of the Civic Media: Art & Practice graduate program and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, explained the idea for the book came from working with young people. He observed their perceptions and use of media, and concluded they had a heavy dependency on social media technologies in daily life and had made it central to their existence – from political opinions to social advocacy work to personal communications to receiving information in general.

“These tools have embedded themselves so squarely in all facets of life that there was a need to re-evaluate the relationship between our use of these tools and our perception of how we can meaningfully participate in democracy in communities today,” Mihailidis said.

“The premise of the book was to evaluate the way in which we prepare young people for lives of meaningful engagement, how we prepare people to use media, and then to put forth a new set of values that we may use when working with communities or organizations invested in positive civic and social change.”

A Disconnect

Mihailidis’s findings revealed a major disconnect, or what he refers to as an “agency gap,” for how people utilize technology. This is particularly true when it comes to the “media literacy civic problem,” in which the focus of the access and analyzing of media fails to be connected with any civic value, explained Mihailidis.

“[People use social media] a lot to be informed, but they are also beholden to the algorithm of the technology, which actually actively makes it harder for them to engage in a meaningful community of civic activity. [People often] assume technology will drive the engagement when it’s actually the opposite. My book is setting up that problem and trying to articulate a value-driven approach to using media for positive engagement,” Mihailidis said.

To address the disconnect, Mihailidis formed a framework outlining ways to design civic media literacy focused on uniting people toward a common good. This consists of a system of five constructs: care, imagination, critical consciousness, persistence, and emancipation. Making use of these values could be organizers, activists, stakeholders, and educators when designing media initiatives for civic change.

“A lot of times we differentiate between caring about and caring for, and technologies are really good at making us care about things. We click things, we like things, we express, we share – but caring for is relational – it takes effort, it takes dialogue, it takes interaction, it takes commitment,” Mihailidis said.

“If young people are trying to reform or change a community problem, they should focus on how to care for that problem.”

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