Media Space. Punk Rock?

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You’re punk rock.”

That’s how a Microsoft staffer described our digital media Masters program at the conclusion of my recruiting presentation late last year.  Loud, brash, aggressive, simplistic, imperfect?

Actually, punk was a reaction to an old world order of music.  Just caught this passage in the liner notes to the first Cowboy Junkies CD, originally released in 1985:

One of punk’s lasting legacies perhaps the most dramatic of the changes that it brought about, was proving that you don’t need to be signed to a major label to make a major record.  In the early ’70’s, it seemed inconceivable that a band could literally “do it yourself.”…Punk had been a reaction to the 48 track studio system that had taken the means of making records away from new bands in the first place…

Despite my staid upbringing in law and TV journalism, I’m slightly subversive.  So I see opportunity in how digital media disrupts the concentrated power and high barriers to entry of traditional communication.  We named this site with that disruption in mind: flip the media.

And today, we’re rolling out the Media Space, our online collaborative platform — the front door to the community media lab we’re building here at the University of Washington.  Believe it or not, collaboration is not easy in higher education. Academics specialize in niche subject areas, research relies on funding for highly specific deliverables.  The “ivory tower” is actually a collection of silos.

Obviously, that won’t fly in a graduate program where we focus our attention on communication in a networked, interactive world.  And we had to ensure that we’re practicing some of what we’re studying, such as Shirky’s Holy Trinity: sharing, cooperation, collective action.  (My colleague, Kathy Gill’s Twitter book class is an example of how we work and the discussion we provoke)  So we needed an online platform to make that happen.  And it all begins with “Got an idea?”

Over the last two years, I’ve tried Facebook, WordPress, PB Wiki, Google Documents Ning, and I found them all wanting in the classroom environment (see this month’s UW Columns mag for a profile on our use of tech).  We needed something that combined the attributes of all those platforms, but was open, allowed for collaborative work with strong “track changes” features, had multimedia capabilities, and allowed our increasing number of real-world partner “clients” to work with our students.  So I commissioned a small group of students to come up with a strategy early this year in an independent study.

What they accomplished in 10 weeks was astounding.  They quickly discounted the aforementioned off-the-shelf solutions, along with SharePoint and Blackboard as either not meeting all our needs, or too unwieldy.  The settled upon an open-source solution: Elgg. (Read the Media Space Wiki for the behind-the-scenes discussion).  They created an Alpha version, which we ran as a trial in a couple of our classes.  Then we hired a developer this summer, engaged another one of our terrific students to manage the project, and we re-created the site.  What you see now is the first phase of what we’ve been able to create on a shoestring budget.  And we can track changes in our documents that reside “in the cloud” (see Docollab).

The Media Space is open to everyone.  Register, take it for a test spin, look at our About page.  We still need to populate the site (which we’ll do in several of our classes in the coming weeks).  But as we find funding for future iterations, and more partners with whom to collaborate, this platform will become a rich source of experience and experimentation.

We’ll also be launching the physical version of the Media Space in a couple of weeks: a whiteboard-laden place for students, faculty and partners to brainstorm, sketch, design and strategize.  So, for instance, what if a charity approaches us and says, we’re trying to develop a digital communication strategy to alleviate HIV among the homeless, but have no expertise, nor money.  We might reach out to our colleagues in Social Work, Law, Business.  We’ll start a group on Media Space and begin an interdisciplinary conversation.  We’ll recruit students to work on the problem in independent studies and internships.  And we’ll get to work.

Once we submit our new site to the tech transfer folks at the university, I hope to share it as an open-source collaborative solution with other schools and non-profits.  Is that “punk rock?”  Maybe.  But how could a communications program in digital media, at this point in time, have it any other way?

Postscript: that wonderfully eloquent Microsoft employee ended up applying to our program.

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