Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
Fragments in revolution, with no clue
To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
Putting together Heaven, yet we do.

James Merill (Lost in Translation, 1974)

The account in this section primarily rests on making sense of the research findings. It takes stock of the results in relation to theoretical paradigms to evaluate and discuss how the findings stand up against the concepts discussed so far. While doing so, it further unpacks the role of media and participatory democracy in the WSF.


1. Media and Participatory Ecology of the WSF

Looking at the unfolding dynamics of participatory communication at the WSF one discovers a non-linear pattern, without any organizational framework or leadership which may guide the process. A metaphorical tent and a nursery of ideas, WSF’s strength lies in its fragmented and differentiated nature as an incubator of embedded practices of mediated communications be it community radio, radical media, tactical forms and mechanisms of grass-roots participation or the facilitating role of the Internet. All such methods and tools of participation do not exist in closed circuits and compartments but spread out along horizontal axes.

Within the WSF process and the event itself one does not find an established canon of theory and practice to decipher the role of media, although a lot of work of internal mobilization is underway to mainstream the role of mediated communications in the WSF. However, one questions, where is the public sphere in this space? Is it simply the ‘place or the arena’ (Whitaker, Teivainen 2004) that gets activated once a year in Porto Alegre or is it more than that?

What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the media ecology of the WSF based on the research portfolio. It is the outcome of a brief stock-taking exercise of the apparatus and tools available to manoeuver through the space of the WSF.

Three types of communication processes were identified within the WSF. One is 'internal' and related to the tools that can mobilize and facilitate internal communication within the Forum. This process is still being widely debated amongst the Communication Working Group of the WSF set up to design and implement a policy of alternative media for the general configuration of the Forum.

The second process is external which relates to the information and diffusion about the WSF process (WSF-IC report, 2005) to the macro level/wider audience, whereby ‘reaching an audience (of scale) that does not take part directly in the Forum’ (Ibid) is still cited as a challenge. The indifference of the mainstream press to provide coverage to the ‘debates, struggles and articulations’ remains one of the challenges in building possibilities of another world. In this context, the role of the Internet becomes of overriding significance.

A third process is now being instituted which aims to mobilize communications for the Polycentric Asian, African and Latin America chapters of the forum at regional/meso level of activity.

Within these chapters, there exists a wide array of alternative and autonomous forms of media that is still an undefined phantom sphere with one or two exceptions. According to Milan’s (2004) classification there exist two prime categories of alternative media that the WSF space engages with. One is activist’s model and the second is Civil Society media, with the distinction that the first is usually independent with loose organizational structure such as Indymedia, Free Speech TV, while the second is a major Civil Society media having an institutional presence, e.g. World Association of Christian Communication, Oneworld, Free Software Foundation, Inter Press Service, Terra Viva etc

When one tries to situate the Civil Society media or activist’s media within the field of the WSF, an interesting case comes alive. The extent to which participants confine and engage with a particular genre of media in Milan’s (Ibid) ‘Pluralism Sphere’ and ‘Participation Sphere’ is not so much a matter of dependency on the nature of media genre itself than the nature of spaces and the positions of speech the subjects can afford to occupy within the WSF. In this context, one finds two kinds of ‘social formations’ (Habermas, 1976) at the WSF. One relates to ‘self-organized events’ and the other formation exists in the shape of formal panels organized by the International Council and Organising Committee of the WSF. This shows an inherent fissure; a delicate power-play between center and periphery within the organizational principles of a system which seems to deny all kinds of hierarchies. Against all intents and purposes, one cannot help but state that the WSF is a ‘power space’ (Santos, 2004: 69), slightly ‘less inclusive then proclaimed’ (Ibid: 87). So, how does one begin to locate the conditions for a public sphere and participatory democracy? As for Milan (2004), while the Civil Society media presents a new model of communication, it is still roughly configured and not yet coherent.

There are other innumerable forms of mediated spaces active within the WSF from the copy-left model of Ciranda.net to World Association of Community Radio, TV Forum and Laboratory of Free Knowledge for youth. Not to mention, Indymedia is one success story with track-record of information sharing, collaboration and participation. However, while one finds resonances of Fraser’s and Downing’s theoretical models of multiple spheres and radical media lurking somewhere between all these variations of alternative media ecology of the WSF, they seem to exist as quiescent spheres and still need a lot of ‘work of facilitation’ to translate into active spheres of alternative action and pluralism. The laboratory is there, but the spark is missing.

As for Waterman (2005), the communication and cultural state of play at the WSF seems to have caught between two mutually exclusive terrains of dispute – i.e. ‘traditional emancipatory practices’ (Ibid) and ‘new emancipatory libertarian tendencies’ (Ibid). For Roberto Savio ‘communication means organization, participation, and debate of ideas, the lack of which is emblematic’ (Waterman, 2005). For some odd reason, the media ecology within the WSF seems to propagate a unique kind of ‘legitimacy-crisis’ (Habermas in Crossley 2004) of its communicative rationality.

2. Analytical Review

In this section, I will broadly outline analytical review of few of the significant research findings:

The Global Reality of the WSF and the Internet: Is there a Link?
There are several conceptual and structural points of convergence between the reality of the WSF and the Internet. For example, Internet - a network of networks - is a spatial metaphor that defies national boundaries and temporal limits. It is an open space where virtual communities occupy horizontal and decentralized positions of speech, instantiating new forms of interaction and power configurations. Similarly, the WSF - a movement of movements - is a dynamic, fluid, open and expanding ‘meshwork’ (Escobar 2003; Diani 2003; Keck and Sikkink 1998) for the convergence of real world communities beyond national frontiers, where new politics of resistance configure new and innovative human relationships. While the Internet radicalizes the apparatus of social and cultural production, WSF is a space for configuring new and innovative forms of social and cultural expressions. In many ways, the Internet and WSF have a mutually reinforcing relationship.

The research inquiry also leads us to infer that there exists a vital connect between the Internet and the WSF. While 76% of the respondents agree to the notion that global reality of the WSF had not been possible without the Internet, 47% also affirm the positive role of transnational communications and networking in actualizing inclusive and plural spaces within the WSF, and an almost similar strength holds consensus over the possibilities of participatory dialogue through the use of ICTs. There seems a fair amount of positive feedback in striving towards Habermasian model of public sphere. Let us examine this phenomenon in relation to the possibilities of instituting a participatory realm of global (macro) public sphere in the WSF. Considering that Internet deemphasizes the physical subject, it also offers a condition for ‘ideal speech situation’ (Habermas, 1984) to establish consensus through the strength of argument. However, on deeper analysis there are several gaps in the nature of the empirical model presented by the Internet, which is a heterogeneous and fragmented canvas. For Habermas a public sphere is a holistic, homogenous arena where subjects negotiate symmetrical relationships, pursuing consensus through critical rational dialogue, which as a model ‘is systematically denied by the logic of the Internet’ (Poster, 1995). It seems that the heterogeneous logic of the Internet sits well with Fraser’s model of multiple spheres at meso level.

While the above inference may hold true, majority also agrees that the WSF cannot dissolve North-South barriers. This is a ‘global deficit’ (Santos, 2004: 78) within the organization of the WSF and the technology of the Internet. Because of the education disconnect and digital divide, the barriers between North and South are hard to dissolve and therefore the promise of participatory democracy is only partially realized more so in theory than practice.

Coming back to the ‘new media cleavage’ thesis, convergence and fragmentation play out differently in various contexts, whereby there is also a structural threat of the Internet and new communications technologies which may lead towards ghettoisation of micro-level small and alternative media. Similarly, because of the gigantic scale of the WSF, there is a threat of ‘internal balkanization’ (Santos, 2004: 79) within the WSF, which may lead to emergence of ghettos inside the forum. The same logic applies to the isolation between North-South communities through digital divide.

Also, based on my fragmentation thesis, there is also a social deficit that comes into play within the repertoire of the WSF and the space offered by the Internet, whereby those who are at the bottom remain at the bottom of the heap, regardless of the hype about globalization-from-below. That’s why Waterman (2004) takes cautionary approach and calls the WSF as an experiment in ‘globalization from middle’ – because it is not an all-inclusive terrain. So is the logic of mediated communications in this context for instantiating participatory democracy.

The last issue to consider in the context of media-cleavage thesis is the leading question of the relationship between mediated communications, proliferation of participatory democracy and the WSF. There are two views in this context. The optimists configure the Internet and the WSF as a ‘cosmopolis’ where new associational dynamics increase scope for participation, with scope for political and social action. Whereas the ‘citadel’ model infers that the Internet creates new forms of exclusion setting the limits of participatory democracy. That presents a paradox and a conundrum for the negotiating an enabling field of participation within the WSF.

Participatory or radical media
A partial wave of consensus that alternates between both dichotomies shows variation and coexistence of views about radical and participatory democratic media as an agent of change. It seems that movements of confrontation and contestation have to combine and alternate strategies of negotiation and direct protest between various forms of mediated environments – sometimes radical, while at times participatory. The same goes for media as a facilitating catalyst. While there can be ‘moments of dialogue and engagement [that need] long range visions’ (Santos, 2004) there are also instances where tactical pressures need to be used e.g. protest movements against WTO

3. Limitations of the Study

The scope of the study makes it difficult to reach out to a diverse geographical complex. While the best available alternative was used, there is always an element of oversight and hence none of the samples can be perfect. Likewise, there are no perfect methods to an act of discovery to valorize sociology of absences. ‘Reality is always richer than theory’ (Escobar et al: 1992), and one has to live through a research experience as a social act to make it comprehensible or to do course-correction. For this project, there is no room for piloting or pre-testing a method as the process of inquiry unfolds. Nonetheless, this project is only a dip-stick, thumbnail sketch of a wide and rich tapestry that needs deeper and passionate engagement. The nature of the subject of study is too broad to turn into a mini-dissertation, and highly complex to keep the arena of research focused without digressing into research detours. This makes the task more challenging and taxing.


Copyrights © 2005 Sumaira Sagheer Toor
Masters Dissertation, MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication, School of Oriental and African Studies, London