This was originally written for the (almost) weekly Rising Voices newsletter. You can subscribe here.

I haven’t found a citation to verify this myself, but I’ve been told by quite a few people that when Alexander Bell was trying to promote his latest invention, the telephone, he assured anyone who would listen that this new communication technology would bring about world peace. Rather than engaging in destructive and costly wars, he argued, leaders of nations would now simply pick up their phones and discuss their differing opinions. That was at the end of the 19th century. Other technological inventions like the machine gun and atom bomb would contribute to the 20th century becoming the deadliest and most destructive century our planet has witnessed.

100 years after Bell’s telephone a similar enthusiasm has surrounded the internet and the tools it has enabled like blogs, podcasts, and online video, which have expanded exponentially and internationally over the past ten years. These tools, many claim, will democratize communication in a way that facilitates the best content to rise to the top regardless of who creates that content. By removing editorial gatekeepers citizen media connect individuals and encourage real empathy. If the telephone didn’t lead to world peace at the beginning of the 20th century, then new media would surely do the trick at the beginning of the 21st century.

We have many reasons to be hopeful. Groundviews.org, a Sri Lankan citizen journalism website, empowers everyday Sri Lankan citizens to cover under-represented stories related to peace and conflict resolution. The Orizonturi Foundation in Campulung Moldovenesc, Romania is using citizen media to empower mental health patients to speak for themselves to a potentially international audience. And we have already seen how the HiperBarrio project in Colombia and Foko project in Madagascar have used new media to create global campaigns to support disadvantaged members from their communities.

However, in the case of the recent conflicts in Georgia and Palestine, we have also seen how citizen media can be used by both sides of a conflict as propaganda tools to win international support rather than engage in meaningful dialogue.

Whether we are talking about the birth of the telephone at the start of the 20th century or today’s ever-expanding Twittersphere, it’s not the technology that matters, it is what you do with it.

Rising Voices aims to encourage deep thinking about how we can use today’s citizen media tools to affect positive social change. We all agree that the current conflicts in Sri Lanka and Gaza are bad, but how can we use communication tools to help make things better? We know that every two weeks that we lose another language forever, all of humanity has lost a special part of its heritage. But how can we use new media to preserve and honor our endangered heritage? We understand that AIDS and TB are destructive, but can we use new media to spread awareness about health issues and empower those who are affected?

Not only does Rising Voices aim to encourage deep thinking about these questions, but we want to put the answers into action. We are currently accepting microgrant proposals for citizen media-related projects up to $5,000. I hope that everyone on this mailing list considers applying. And please help spread the word. Applications are due no later than Sunday, January 18, 2009. The five selected grantees will be announced in early February.

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