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.