"People shouldn’t be mere consumers, but producers of information as well"
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Hundreds of anonymous citizens are becoming digital-content creators as the result of an initiative developed in Brest (France).
In recent years, some 70 e-publishing sites have been created in the Brest region, not by journalists, but by motivated citizens who wish to participate. This is an interesting example of the social appropriation of the Internet. This interview sets out the opinion of Michel Briand, the person in charge of the Brest.net programme.
What kinds of portals have been created by citizens?
There is a wide variety. There are sites such as Arts dans la rue (The Arts in the Street) where young people write reports on street performances. The site Brest Ouvert, devoted to ecology, posts some 20 articles a week on-line. You can find a lot of examples on La ronde des sites coopératifs au pays de Brest (The Round-up of Cooperative Sites in the Brest Region).
To what extent can it be said that these are ‘local’ initiatives that only concern a very specific public?
They are by no means marginal issues. To take an example from outside the Brest network: Futura-Sciences is a site that seeks to popularise science, fostered by a student from the National Telecommunications School, the ENST (École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications) One million, five hundred thousand pages of the site are read every month. Just because these texts are published jointly and written for a certain number of people does not make them second-rate pieces of writing.
And how can we make the community into writers?
The starting point is the network that provides 60 public access points to the Internet in Brest, and the 20 or so projects supported every year by the call to submit local projects. The first initiatives that led to the discovery of joint-publication three years ago originated from this network. And so, some 15 people took up the projects the following year. After two years, we had 45 joint-publication sites.
Which tools do you provide for the citizens who are content creators?
There are new publication tools available on the Internet that make it easier, to get published without having a knowledge of computing. One of the main tools is SPIP, système de publication par Internet (Internet Publication System), which is freely distributed on the site Uzine.net. The fact that there is a publication tool available opens up hitherto inaccessible possibilities for expression. However, and this has happened very quickly, the question being asked is no longer how to master the tool, but to dare to write and learn how to write a text that is going to be seen by everybody.
Sometimes, writing isn’t as easy as it seems …
Writing is a learning process that needs guidance. For instance, at first, people used to write ‘Minutes of the Meeting’ as a heading, which is pointless. So we have taught people to try to put keywords in their titles so that they will be of interest to others.
I expect you’ve set up a training programme.
Yes, four monthly workshops alternate training on how to use the publication tool with training in journalistic writing, either at the city hall or in different neighbourhoods. Then there are more specialised workshops with guest lecturers: hypermedia writing, Wikipedia, blogs, copyright and intellectual property etc. The diversity of these workshops makes it possible to have new people constantly available and to expand on collective appropriation.
What was the involvement of Brest City Council in this initiative?
Things take time. But I was struck by how quickly the city council’s district offices agreed to post the reports of council meetings on-line. Previously, they just wrote a text and sent it to the deputy-mayor and a number of individuals. Nowadays, everybody reads what they write (visit the site Participation à Brest (Participation in Brest)). And their writers sign the texts. Their work is recognised and valued by being posted on the Internet.
To what extent does widespread publication on the Internet favour the establishment of a new form of democratic participation?
It represents a change, because we are opening up expression, something seldom found in a culture of local authorities and public services that often leave little room for their inhabitants to have their say. Making what people say interesting also impels them to become involved in city life, thereby reappraising the value of politics. From the very outset, we have had a desire for social appropriation. It seemed to us to be an excellent means whereby people would not be mere consumers, but producers of information as well.
How many people have you been able to involve?
There are maybe 300 writers in the city, out of a population of 200,000. There is still a long way to go.
Michel Briand is deputy-mayor of Brest in charge of citizenship and new technologies, chairman of Créatif, collective of public access networks to the Internet, and treasurer of AVICAM, association of cities for cable television and multimedia.
Ecrit public, publication about writing on the Internet.
Place Public, association facilitating the exchange of experiences among citizens.
Créatif, collective of public access networks to the Internet.
SPIP, Internet publication system.
AVICAM, association of cities for cable television and multimedia.
Infini webhosting, a non-profit web hosting and assistance platform.
Marsouin, laboratory for Internet users in Brittany accessible from ENST Bretagne.