Abstract submitted to IAMCR’s Community Communication Section

“Representing our Own Reality”: A Qualitative Analysis of a Community Digital Media Project

In a world increasingly constituted by and within networks of communication, an urgent question that arises is how to enable those who have been left out of the “network society” to gain a voice and the opportunity to have their voices heard. Mobile Voices is a project that takes advantage of the widespread availability of low-cost mobile phones and open source software to facilitate storytelling on behalf of individuals who have been marginalized by dominant media channels. This media project provides the knowledge and skills needed to enable participants to tell their stories and to represent their own reality.

More specifically, Mobile Voices is a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA – http://idepsca.org), a nonprofit serving low-income Latino immigrants in Los Angeles; and a group of low-wage day laborers. The project employs a participatory design approach to create an online platform for low-wage immigrants in Los Angeles to use inexpensive mobile phones to take pictures, record audio, and write simple text to create multi-media messages. In other words, Mobile Voices deploys basic mobile phones for digital storytelling, community building, and community organizing as day laborers publish stories about their lives and their communities directly from their mobile phones to an open source multimedia mobile storytelling platform. In this way, recent immigrants who lack computer access are able to gain a voice and participate in the digital public sphere. Mobile Voices is grounded in a Communication for Social Change methodology, which emphasizes the need to analyze the political, technical, and social needs of all participants involved in an alternative media project.

In this paper, we first describe Mobile Voices’ initial goals, methodology, development, and technology design. We then discuss the results of interviews conducted with scholars, community organizers, and day laborers involved in the project. The purpose of the interviews was to evaluate both the successes and challenges that the project faced four months into its initial deployment. Our analysis of the interviews reveals that although individual participants show confidence in their views of the projects’ goals and outcomes, taken as whole the data suggest that a wide range of understandings and assessments of the project exist simultaneously. A key finding is that day laborers express newfound empowerment and voice gained through digital storytelling and a desire to spread their stories to the larger public sphere. At the same time, they also experience frustration with technical glitches and limits on their online access.

This paper provides a case study of one particular community media project, discusses both achievements and challenges thus far, and in so doing serves as a useful resource for other participatory media projects. Through investigating how emerging media tools can best be leveraged to promote digital inclusion and assist marginalized groups, Mobile Voices seeks to change the media stories that are told about immigrants and give voice to the voiceless.

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