Blog Post

Mobile Voices: Creating a Voice for Day Laborers

Prabhas Pokharel of MobileActive.org has written the second of two articles (both excellent) about Mobiles Voices (first post is here), a 2009 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning competition project based in Southern California.

 

 

Voces Móviles / Mobile Voices is a Los Angeles-based citizen media project, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (ASC) and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). Mobile Voices describes itself as "a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones. [The project] helps people with limited computer access gain greater participation in the digital public sphere."

Previously, I wrote about how Mobile Voices developed the software for its citizen-media platform using mobile phones. Recently, I talked to Amanda Garces of the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), and Madelou, who is a blogger with Mobile Voices, to find out more about how laborers are actually using the platform. I wanted to find out what is working well for the project, and some of the challenges it faces in bringing marginalized voices to the public.

Telling Stories

Mobile Voices is motivated by the desire to enable day laborers to tell their stories from their own perspectives. It was born to provide day laborers and migrant workers a chance to write their own histories, as Garces puts it, when many others are trying to write it for them.

It was created by the desire to counteract negative images of day laborers and immigrants by anti-immigrant propaganda. Anti-immigrant voices have long used blogs and websites to further their agenda. Sites such as daylaborers.org present pictures of day laborers showing the camera the middle finger, and lists day laborers with criminal histories prominently on the page as "WANTED" figures. Day laborers, on the other hand, hardly have a presence on the internet. There is a stark digital divide.

Mobile Voices aims to close this divide. Once surveys revealed that most day laborers were using cell phones, the Mobile Voices project began brainstorming a platform to use mobile phones to project stories of day laborers. Five active day laborers in the IDEPSCA community were selected as pilot users, and Mobile Voices began building the platform. As of now, three more bloggers have signed up via word of mounth.

The Audience

Garces describes the audience of the Mobile Voices project as being multi-layered. One audience is the public and media, who do not have a good perspective on what lives of day laborers' look like.  "They need to see these stories," Garces says, "and Mobile Voices is a platform that will generate these stories." Another audience is the day laborer and immigrant community itself, of course. And finally, two of the bloggers want to show the life of a day laborer and the workers' center to city officials and employers.

However, much of the work that is aimed towards addressing broader audiences than the immigrant community itself is still in the brainstorming phase. It is very unclear what the immediate audience is like--the project hasn't started tracking traffic on the site systematically. Sasha Constanza-Chock, who works on the platform, had explained to me that the site has yet to be redesigned to appear more presentable and welcoming to visitors. Social media tools that allow easy dissemination of content are yet to be added as well. And before the site will go viral, more day laborers will need to start blogging using the platform.

What Has Worked?

When I asked Garces what has worked well with Mobile Voices, she noted right away the dedication of the bloggers. She told me that their commitment to the project, and the dedication and hard work in creating content has been impressive. As if to prove the point, Madelou told me that there were many days when she spent more than 8 hours covering events: creating, editing, and submitting content to Mobile Voices. Recently, for example, she visited Phoenix to cover a march against the notorious, local anti-immigrant Sherrif there, Joe Arapaio.  She generated eight posts, reporting with text, audio, video, and photos.  Other bloggers seem similarly committed. Adolfo has written more than two blog posts a day on average since at least August 2009.

Talking to Madelou, it was clear that the project has also had positive personal impact on the bloggers. Besides covering events, Madelou covers stories of others in the day laborer and immigrant community she interacts with. To her, the most important thing is the need to write people's stories as they tell it. She complains that American mass media doesn't do a good job of presenting laborers' stories from their perspective. She wants others to listen to the voices of those whose stories she is telling. To her, Mobile Voices provides a platform through which she can broadcast the voices of the silenced, a way to break through the dominating lens of mass media and how it sees the immigrant community.

For Madelou at least, Mobile Voices filled a sorely missing gap. She was so hungry to broadcast and project voices of the immigrant community that she spent all that time blogging without even knowing who read or saw what she wrote. When I asked her who read what she wrote, she simply said she didn't know, but that she hoped whoever came across it would find a new perspective. Other bloggers' reflections were similar.
They were all glad to find a platform in which to voice themselves; not one mentioned audience.

Of course, it is not as if the Mobile Voices team has had no immediate audience. Even though Constanza-Chock said Mobile Voices hasn't started measuring site traffic, responses to the project are generally positive, and it is likely that some activists follow the laborers' blogs. Many of the laborers were also involved in producing an IDEPSCA newspaper before they started blogging for Mobile Voices. In their latest installment, they published some of their blog posts adapted for print (The PDF is here).

What Has Been Challenging?

So far, many of the challenges have been technical--Garces pointed to many of the same issues I highlighted previously. (Our first article is here) .This is partly because Mobile Voices is still in its pilot phases. More challenges may come as Mobile Voices expands the number of day laborers blogging, or the audience reading and viewing the content coming out.

To expand the base of day laborers that will use Mobile Voices, IDEPSCA is currently designing training material. The training material will cover three broad sections--a section on how to use phones better and how to make sense of phone plans, a section on documenting abuses like unpaid wages with cell phones, and a section on using the Mobile Voices platform for blogging. A challenge that Garces foresees in giving out this training is the revolving-door nature of the resource centers. Laborers are bound by work schedules and may be very irregular at visiting the center, which may make it hard for IDEPSCA to run sustained training programmes.

Sustained training might be needed, however: Garces noted that learning how to use Mobile Voices has been a process for the bloggers. Some of the bloggers are sophisticated enough to edit audio before posting, while others are still just taking one picture and uploading it (the earliest bloggers have now been on the system for almost a year and a half). The time Madelou spent on some of her blogging seems indicative of the fact that rich media uploads may require a large time commitment and initial training. As more bloggers join, the advantage of having individuals who are already dedicated to writing and telling stories will be gone.

Another thing Garces worries about is the discovery of new phones and plans that don't work well, especially to post MMS messages. In this pilot phase, all but two of the bloggers are using the same model of Nokia phones donated by Nokia for the project. When using these phones, their MMS messages are also paid for by the project. Having already had problems configuring phones, Garces worries that new ones will come up when a greater diversity of user with their phones enter the mix.

And finally, there is the challenge of increasing the audience of Mobile Voices. Garces told me that they are still brainstorming answers to questions David Sasaki asked in his blog post: "If one of the objectives of the blogging component of the project is to challenge the negative stereotypes against migrant workers then how do they plan on reaching readers [who are now informed by anti-immigrant sites]?"

Summary

For now, Mobile Voices has created a project where a few dedicated bloggers from the day laborer community have produced an incredible amount of content about their lives. Since November 2008, there have been more than 3000 posts on the platform. There are many questions that remain before the project's most general goal of bringing day laborers' voices to the American public is met. But even without those answers, Mobile Voices has already enabled parts of the day laborer and immigrant communities to write their own histories.

Image is the top of the newspaper that Mobile Voices bloggers produced in November 2009.

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