Open content creation: the issues of voice and the challenge

This paper revisits research data from a project called Finding a Voice (FaV) where we experimented with participatory (or open) content creation activities across 15 sites in Asia (India, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka) [a research collaboration with UNESCO, UNDP, and with Australian Research Council funding - see]. The focus was on how new digital and traditional technologies can be used to promote participation and voice (especially among the most marginalised). We found that:

• participatory content creation can provide a useful mechanism for participatory development more broadly;
• it is necessary to reach out to and creatively engage with marginalised communities to encourage a diversity of voices;
• locally produced and participatory digital content can usefully create local debate around local issues; and,
• local content produced in this way can have relevance outside of the locality and can utilise networks for distribution.

For FaV we defined ‘voice’ broadly as inclusion and participation in social, political and economic processes, meaning making, autonomy and expression. We worked with a notion of voice as a right to communication and participation in processes that affect ones life. In this paper I consider our research data in terms not just of ‘voice’, but of 'listening'; the ways in which practices of voice (through ICT) are articulated into wider practices of social and/or political action. I examine the new communication environment, its horizontal character and the challenges associated with it's 'openness' in the light of research findings. I question the usefulness of working towards 'participation' and 'voice' if due concern is not given to the articulation through listening of social change. Debate and dialogue can clearly be seen to have happened in many of our research examples, but how is this translated into action, and by whom? Who is actually listening?

These are important questions for social networking sites as well as for development, and harks back to Spivak’s insistence that who will listen is a more urgent and critical question than who will speak. The encouragement and opportunity to participate is not always matched by the attention of listeners. This implies a devaluation of voice, and what Nick Couldry describes as the contemporary ‘crisis of voice’ in economic, political and cultural domains; there are mechanisms for voice, but voices are not listened to, minimising the notion of voice as implying mutual recognition, to voice as isolated act. Paying attention then to listening means focusing on processes and acts of paying attention, giving due recognition to what people have to say, and acknowledging that they should be afforded the opportunity to speak and be heard. Notions of voice and listening are further complicated in the new communication environment afforded by digital networks which demands certain literacies.

I examine these issues through re-examining data from FaV from the perspective of listening. Does this lead to a different understanding of the potential for open ICT4D? I suggest that findings from FaV can contribute to discussions around egalitarianism and sharing, indicating promising pathways towards open development through the use of ICTs, as well as providing an important cautionary note about ICTs and the promise and practice of ‘openness’.

Author: Jo Tacchi

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