Community Media Discussion – Crafting Community Media

This week at the Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about our experience of industrially produced media, and the opportunity to make and share media outside these systems that have been crafted and created with the care and attention that an individual brings to the material they are working with. Would a craft mindset of thinking be better at explaining the values and purpose of community media than a design and mass media mindset because each programme or article has been uniquely and individually produced?

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A typical strategy for the development of a community media project will often follow a design approach and methodology. It will identify and lay out a set of questions and proposition that need to be asked at the outset, when planning begins. Identifying what the assumed outcomes might be, how these outcomes might be articulated, and how they may be reconciled with a corresponding analytic metric. These rubrics inevitably shape the nature of the project, such as measurable engagement, participation or cost-effectiveness, and in many respects, thereby, limit the scope of what can be achieved by reducing what is valued to what can be measured. Given the nature of community media as a set of DIY and emergent forms of social engagement, and as diverse sets of media across different platforms that are used to articulate different types of creative practice, we might wonder, then, what the benefit will be of working with a single approach to the planning and design of community-focussed communication projects?

The question that is worth exploring here, however, is what happens if we choose a different framework of engagement and evaluation, such as craft and the arts? To relate to community media as a crafted practice, rather than a designed practice, one must try to understand the mindset that motivates much of the way that community media operates. This is a mindset that doesn’t reduce the underpinning participative and creative practices to mere functions, and rejects the ways of organising systems that typify the mass-production ethos – much like the Ikea approach to design, where mass production at scale is regarded as the apotheosis of design, manufacture and mass-consumption and distribution. Scalable distribution is often regarded as the pinnacle of our commercial endeavours, but it is often the opposite of what community media seeks to achieve and is capable of achieving.

Because it is difficult to articulate a unified idea of what community media is about, given there are so many contributory strands to community media, it’s often simpler to push-back against what we think community media is not. This is further complicated because there is a tendency for community media makers and advocates to operate against the grain of the industrial media processes, which itself makes it difficult to bring people together around a common set of experiences and values. Community media intersects across many different practices, processes and modes of engagement, so it resembles a tapestry or mosaic, more than it would resemble a sequential map. The strength of community media, however, is its diversity, but this can also be its greatest challenge, especially when trying to communicate and foster agreement about the purpose and value of the inherent differences of the community-focussed approach to communication. Community media is an approach to communication that is values-driven rather than transactional and outcomes focussed, which makes simple description and evaluation that much harder to encapsulate.

With community media’s focus on expressions of community identity, civic expression, social values and the articulation of a sense of belonging to specific places, it is often difficult to articulate a coherent and logical set of characterisations about what community media makers and advocates are trying to achieve. The enactment of community media is more often demonstrated in the fields of mutual engagement and social communing, where people come together for the sole purpose of being together. Which contrasts with people coming together to satisfy a grand purpose, such as system change or revolution.

Community media promotes, therefore, an intangible sense of socialisation and participation in community life which is based on mutual recognition of our shared needs, and a reciprocal expression of those needs that help us to understand one another. Can this sense of belonging and mutual reciprocation, however, be planned for and systematically designed from the outset? Would it be better, instead, to articulate a different model of engagement that is better suited to crafting as an alternative approach to design as a model for social development? Can we compare craft to design approach and identify which is better suited to what we do?

Trying to account what we get out of community media, in the form of measurable indices, is therefore next to impossible. There are huge disparities in expectations between a mass-communications approach to audience engagement and a community communications approach to social engagement. For example, when we seek funding for community media related projects, we often have to contort the planning approach to fit with the dominant mindset of corporate communications and audience development, rather than working with a community development dynamic in mind.

A project that is experience and values led, rather than products and outputs focussed, requires synthetic rather than analytic tools of evaluation. A community engagement project may only be able to paint a holistic picture of what has been undertaken, as a general expression based on reflection and changes in social awareness. Community media advocates and makers often struggle to break these more dynamic and reflexive processes into constituent components that can be sequentially determined and characterised, and then evaluated as separate constituent parts within a system. How do we come to understand that a community-based project is more than the sum of its parts, and offers something transcendent rather than something functional?

Do we need, then, a different framework of reference to understand community-focussed communications that is equally respected and valued by community media makers and advocates, their allies and funding agencies? Do we need to develop an account of community media’s purpose that offers equality of esteem for the validation of the wisdom and learning that comes from community-led projects? This may mean pushing aside the often reductive and managerialist processes of evaluation, and embracing forms of reflection that are cognitively diverse and founded on the reciprocal exchange of experience and values. It’s important to note that this can’t be done to a formula in which a strategy is developed and enacted that it is aligned with specific and measurable (and pre-determined) social outcomes. Instead, can we work out through experiment and crafting how our understanding of the value of a community communications project works through combined practice, reflection, evaluation and discussion in a shared wisdom-exchange setting?

Design methodologies are a powerful tool for the manipulation of products, systems and processes. A design methodology is integral to the building of the contemporary world, whereby the matter from which we have manufactured the physical and social world of experience is approached systematically. This approach has a high regard for efficiency, operability, aesthetic congruity and utility. Whether it is architecture, product design, graphic design, systems design, transport flows or data management, we’ve been encouraged for many decades to plan projects in terms of the precepts of design thinking, with the expectation that it’s possible to put our lives right by modelling, testing and adapting human experience and conduct. It is expected that if we get the systems right, then the institutions and social processes that facilitate our lived experiences will follow. This is largely based on an unquestioned acceptance of the utility and validity of the instrumental and behaviourist ideology towards design. This ideology posits that people are process focussed, goal oriented, and seek self-actualisation through the satisfaction of material needs first.

Design thinking has at its core a model of human interaction that is both conceptual and predictable. Even unpredictability is built into the SMART thinking model, with the incorporation of feedback and haptic sensory information positioned within a systems approach that allows for human non-rational behaviour. Le Corbusier famously described a house as a ‘machine for living in,’ which is a model for design thinking that has remained at the forefront of architectural practice since the mid-Twentieth Century, whereby social life and relationships are thought to be regulated and provided for in the design process. This ‘machine’, if designed properly, can provide for the entirety of our human needs because it would be intelligently planned and built along modern, efficient and rationalistic ways of thinking.

In the design mindset, it is held that machines can operate beyond the total of their parts, in a self-regulatory manner that provides coherent operations and a unity of purpose. The machine is a powerful metaphor for modern life, and it is no wonder that it has underpinned the design ethos for such a long period. Who wouldn’t want society and the people who populate it to operate efficiently and coherently? Aldus Huxley famously critiqued the fantasies of the rationalist age in Brave New World, in which the Fordist mindset of logically calculated and measured factory-style production, which sought to achieve the maximum output for the minimum input, was taken to its extremes.

Design, then, is largely about pre-empting how the new things that we want to incorporate into our lives, be it cars, computers, clothing, medicine or media (among many other forms of product and service development), so that we get a noticeable sense of utility from them, and a return on our investment in terms of the affordances that they open up to us. Social media, for example, brings forth a capacity to digitally manage our relationships based on distributed – i.e. non-place dependent co-presence – mobility and movement. We no longer have to cluster in specific places to form and manage social relationships and identities. Instead, we can carry our network tools in our pocket and engage with our community of interest from anywhere. This digital interconnection supposedly gives us access to a cheap and plentiful range of consumer products, more than we could have imagined when we were living in specific localities and dependent on what was available within those specific places.

This efficient and interoperable consumer experience has been made possible by the augmentation of data across networks and systems, to the extent that it is now possible for retailers to predicts and anticipates our wants and needs. The design process has itself become capable of processing high levels of data and matching information across datasets. Design, moreover, has become an all encompassing mindset (ideology), and anyone who suggests that we might forego the obvious benefits that a design mindset might bring, is often questioned for their sanity, regarded as a Luddite, or regarded as a risk-taker for daring to step outside the safe and established mode of thinking that defines modern life. And yet, this is what we must do if we are to avail ourselves of different, and no less valuable ways of thinking and acting, thereby decentering any dogmatic approach to design that emphasises fixed and narrow experience.

It is almost sacrilegious to intimate that a design-led process may not be desirable when founding and establishing a social project, and yet we may need to speak about the limits of all our modes of thinking, so we can ensure that our social projects can thrive in a way that is future focussed and anticipates inclusive change. Design has become a ubiquitous and all-encompassing set of ideas in which everything we interact with is regarded as having been designed in some way. This is similar to the proposition that all communication is marketing and branding. This is clearly a farcical proposition that does not stand up to scrutiny and examination. While design and marketing are clearly effective ways of dealing with problems and challenges, neither design nor marketing are ‘total systems’ capable of manifesting a coherent and meaningful answer across multiple domains of human life. It is sufficient to remark, therefore, that we require more than one lens through which we may view the world and our social activity within it. We need multiple lenses that allow us to view different problems from different perspectives.

Two additional lenses come to mind, one of which will be discussed in more detail here, and the other on later occasions in different places: aesthetics and art being one alternative lens; and craft being another. The artistic mode of thinking requires considerable space for elaboration, but has to be noted as a mode of consciousness on its own terms, despite being conceptually linked with both design and craft in its form of expression and manifestation in the cultural domain. To follow what Carl Jung says about art, we would be expected to follow two congruent pathways: the psychological and the visionary. In these separate pathways, we can conceptualise artistic practice as rooted in social viability, that is, from the perspective of the symbolic realm. Because art is an expression of the psychic forces that are manifest in the collective consciousness, and because they go beyond the definable social realm of tangible forms of expression, based on their emergence from the collective unconscious, they point us towards the ineffable. Art, therefore, is how we bring our intuitions into consciousness, and is what enables us to explore what we are feeling, but can not yet put into words or a designated and designed form in experience.

Alongside art and design sits craft, which has been the dominant mode of creative production prior to the modern, industrial age. Craft is typically small scale, and the product of the work of a single person, or at most, of small groups of people working together. Craft tends to focus on the use of products and material that are ‘at hand,’ and are not remediated by machines that routinise operations. Each action is unique and an expression of the moment of the individual who is making the thing that they have in their hand. While there may be a template and broad expectation that a crafted object will fit specific functions, it is commonly accepted that each iteration of this product will show individual and unique characteristics that come from the hand of the craftsperson undertaking the work.

Typified in the work and writing of William Morris or John Ruskin, who each exemplify the craft mode of working, there is a recognition of the limit of what object can be produced by hand, and for what purpose. Artisanal craftworkers could never meet the demands of industrial-scale production for mass society, but they might meet the needs of personal expression and meaningful objectification, as the craftsperson represents and embodies the creative leadership that points to what is valued in our cultures. The craftsperson has the urge to explore the relationship between form and function in a way that is embodied and personal, and will lead to (possible) unique aesthetic pleasure. It is said that there is an intimate and natural relationship between the craftsperson and the object that they produce, which is then passed to the user of the object as a ‘felt connection,’ often despite the ‘fit’ of the object in the functional repertoire of modern lifestyles.

Craft items are unique. They may follow a general pattern that determine their form because there is space, and indeed an imperative, to follow the inherent characteristics of the material being used to form the product. The crafted object eschews perfection because it stands as a symbol of the space and time in which it was made. The crafted object follows the energy of the material, which is the craftsperson’s job to tease forth. No two items are ever the same. They are made from unique items that only offers consistent form over time, being generationally observable. The mass-produced object is the same regardless of time and the place that it is produced. Each crafted item, however big or small, has an imprint of the person who produced the work.

Because craft is an esoteric activity, moreover, it is highly suited to modes of production that are social and personable, with skills being shared and passed on through intimate forms of social interaction. These forms of interaction are typically experiential and hands-on. Learning is done through attentive watching and listening, and extended periods of trail and error. Craft Guilds would traditionally form around economically essential modes of production, for example stone masons, blacksmiths, tanners, and so on. These guilds would regulate the supply of labour and controlled how apprentices would be enculturated and initiated into the craft mindset of the guild. In less formal settings, typically where women’s labour was needed, the tight-knit social group formed the mechanism for policing the boundaries between those who are part of a craft-focussed social group, and those who are not. To this day, many professions continue to demarcate their territory on the basis that they are either masculine or feminine forms of work, or that they are based on formal or informal modes of social learning.

The relevance of the craft model for community media, therefore, is borne in the degree to which one might expect media to be crafted or created as part of a dominating industrial process. While the industrial distribution systems of media have afforded us great benefits, in that we can now share and distribute forms of personalised media that are highly engaging and entertaining, the industrial media production process is less forthcoming in enabling individualised and esoteric forms of media. The large-scale offerings of the industrial media producers have swamped us with media products that are the equivalent of Ikea flatpacks. It is cost-efficient to industrialise the media production process, and to seek large-scale and mass audiences to sell these products to, but the result is that niche, small-scale and esoteric producers have to work much harder to gain attention across different consumer networks.

When projects that related to community media and communications set their objectives, there is a tendency to resort to the evaluation criteria that are used in mass and industrialised media products. We can only produce media products that can be counted in the mass-media domain. This limits the range of forms of media that we may wish to initiate and use that engage our fellow citizens because our expectations have been narrowed even before we start. Questions of identity and cultural fit are notoriously difficult to measure and account for, and forms of media that fit outside the industrial media model remain outside due to a lack of recognition and affinity with the legacy forms of media that people are used to. Seldom, moreover, do we give unequivocal recognition to objects and media that come from a craft tradition, unless they are designated within the bounds of the craft fair, the museum or the workshop, and the expectations of the restricted number of buyers who are interested in non-industrially produced things, with the additional cost that is associated with them.

Community media has a significant inheritance from the crafts movement, particularly in its social democratic form. William Morris asked us to consider not what we got for our efforts, but what we become by them. It is the same for community media. We should always be asking what our contribution might be, and as a unique expression of ourselves, what will we become because we are making that expression? In an industrial and mass-market approach, however, we would be focussed on the profit margins of what we can buy and sell. In a craft economy, we are considering an alternative to monetary value, such as found in the gift economy, which is based on the love, social care and cultural attentiveness. The gift economy values not only the skill that went into making a product, but also the intent and motivation for exchanging that product. Standardised products exchanged for monetary value in the market, therefore, will never elucidate much passion and are hence inherently disposable.

The lesson for community media is that we must learn to be more confident at recognising that industrial templates and design models for media production and distribution do not make meaningful content, but that meaningful content is bourn from the manifestation of care and attention that someone, a beginner or a practised hand, has taken to create something of character and integrity. There’s plenty of space for people to make and use industrial media products, but we may need to carve-out some protected spaces to ensure that we can conceptualise, manage and evaluate media that is made in accordance with the principle of craft because that is where we will find the imprint of the people who care sufficiently to make it.

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  1. Hi Rob,

    An interesting article for looking at a craft approach rather than an industrial approach to community media.

    Although not the main thrust of your argument, I was interested in the bit about design and having a designer and planning for what we wanted rather than things just developing and happening more haphazardly. It reminded me of the Argument of Design for the existence of God. “The universe is like a machine, machines have intelligent designers, therefore the universe has an intelligent designer.” This argument completely ignores the explanation of self organisation and evolution to explain the apparent design.
    Like you say, we can be forced into thinking that a project must always have a plan and that we must all stick to the plan and do the jobs that need doing so that the final item looks like the plan.
    I worked for a short time in a hosiery factory in Leicester and the owner was a huge fan on Henry Ford and believed that his employees could earn good money by doing boring repetitive work and then spend their money on their leisure time and have acceptable living standards. It doesn’t work because it assumes that awful dichotomy between the working class and himself as the managerial class (this regardless of having working class origins) where work and particularly decision making is the main focus of his life.

    • Thanks Helen. I’ve updated the post and revised it to make some points flow better. I find writing and editing an ongoing process of iteration. I think we have plenty of scope for discussion about how we interpret these terms and what the implication is of their use in different contexts. Lot to discus on Thursday.

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