Monthly Archives: October 2010

Money, money, money, money: How much is the global commodification of culture costing us?

The chorus of the “The Money Song” from the Broadway musical Cabaret sums up the “cents” of this week’s readings:

Money makes the world go round
The world go round, the world go round
Money makes the world go round
It makes the world go round

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound
A buck or a pound, a buck or a pound
Is all that makes the world go round
That clinking, clanking sound
Can make the world go round

Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money, money (Kander, 1966)

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

In contemporary American civilization, everything is a commodity. The only value is economic: What is it worth in dollars and cents? Can it be produced, circulated, and consumed? And it’s not enough to enjoy our commodified culture here in the United States; we produce it for export worldwide so that everyone on Earth can consume it, whether they want to or not. And it’s the advent of new media – the Internet, smart cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – that has enabled us to do this.

Graham (2000) argues that these new media have created a world where “the spheres of production, circulation, and consumption” overlap (p. 133).

[S]ince the ascendancy of digital ICTs [information and communication technologies], the monetary system of exchange appears to have taken on an autonomous trajectory and existence; it appears to have become an end in itself. … It derives its conception as a system of “wealth creation” purely by the authority of the experts who concoct the abstractions upon which this global financial system thrives. … This massive and parasitic system of speculation includes trade in the most abstract of commodities, such as “credit derivatives, call warrants, roubles, and baht.” … But financial “commodities” have no intrinsic use-value whatsoever. They generate value only as long as they are continuously exchanged. (p. 134).

Graham could be describing the financial meltdown of 2008, which began when trading in similar ephemeral financial commodities ground to a halt because they lost their “use-value” in the minds of investors around the world. He continues:

Today, the “globalized” financial system of exchange values quite overtly mediates social perceptions of the relationships between space, time, power, and persons. … [P]eople’s perceptions, rather than concrete “things,” appear to be the primary objects of production in developed countries today. This is made possible by the advanced technological facility for people to commodify increasingly intimate aspects of social life, combined with the intrinsically human nature and functions of language and thought. (p. 134-135)

Thought has become a commodity, with language the way it is promoted.

Systemic capital has steadily increased its pervasiveness, and “free time” has become more and more a “shadowy continuation of labour [sic],” a complex space of economically productive “pseudo-activities.” In hypercapitalism, economically “productive” activities can now consume the entire waking life of people. (p. 136).

‘Exchange value’ vs. ‘use value’

So, they’ve got us right about where they want us. Everything we do is “economically productive,” though probably not for us. We’re consuming things, whether concrete or abstract, and things are commodities, meaning we have to exchange something of economic value for them: money or its equivalent. Or as Pink Floyd bassist Roger Water (1973) puts it in “Money“:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay
And you’re O.K.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands
And make a stash

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack (Waters, 1973)

Graham (2000) discusses Karl Marx’s views of production and consumption, especially Marx’s concept that a commodity has an “exchange value” – what the commodity is worth in the marketplace – that is separate from its “use value” – what the commodity can be used for. If everything is a commodity, its usefulness is mediated by its marketplace value. “And that is what has happened: hypercapitalist production processes have commodified and industrialized almost every conceivable aspect of human social life, including life, birth, death, sex and thought” (p. 138).

Poster for the 1975 film, "Jaws."

It’s apt that I’m writing this on Halloween, because I find this scarier than all the fear generated by “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Jaws,” “Poltergeist,” and “Alien.” I’m much more afraid of the consequences of the commodification of everything than I am of a demonically possessed great white shark invading a haunted suburban development along with its sidekick, an unearthly reptilian with rows of razor-sharp teeth embedded in an extendable jaw.

Access to privileged knowledge

While new media have shaken up the existing order of things throughout history, today’s new media allow knowledge commodities to be produced, consumed, distributed, and exchanged almost instantaneously on a global scale, according to Graham (2000). And, just as in times past, this doesn’t herald the advent of an egalitarian Utopia, where knowledge and information is available to all. “The logic of a system historically based on more and less valuable and valid knowledges presupposes an intrinsic assumption of inequality between social contexts of knowledge production, and so between individual persons: it presupposes an economy of access to privileged knowledge” (p. 149).

According to Graham (2000), the illusion of value trumps utility: what is important is what something is worth in the marketplace, not whether it has any usefulness. “The role of value has become inverted, and social utility now appears to be mediated by a mute, brutal and illusory value system which is increasingly alienated from its source” (p. 152). This explains much about our society, from the obsession with Paris Hilton and other vapid celebrities who are famous for being famous, to the popularity of Fox News, with its hyperventilating commentators who market fear to build ratings.

In Crick’s (2009) poorly copy-edited article – it was obvious that it was spell-checked but there were too many typos for someone to have read it carefully for errors – he argues that we have to move beyond “corporate liberalism” in our discussion of how news will be produced and delivered in a way that will support democracy in this new media age. He cites Thomas Streeter’s definition of corporate liberalism as “the belief that democracy thrives in an unregulated sphere of ‘business entrepreneurialism’ guided by ‘a safely liberal vision of private profit-oriented individuals in an open, competitive marketplace’” (p. 482).

Lippman vs. Dewey

Crick (2009) frames his argument by analyzing a philosophical debate between journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann and philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey that occurred in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. Lippmann thought the war showed the limits of a democracy based upon the idea that citizens should be knowledgeable and informed about issues and leaders so that they can make rational decisions about public policy. Lippmann thought modern capitalist society was too complicated for that to work. Dewey thought it still was possible, with the aid of some publicly funded agencies of “social inquiry” (p. 494).

Crick applies the perspectives of the two men to today’s Internet, especially the blogosphere, concluding that – surprise! – freedom to communicate may be a “core democratic principle” but you need more to ensure democracy in today’s complex world. “[T]he blogosphere itself cannot provide answers to our problems. It is a tool only” (p. 495). Crick concludes that neither Dewey nor Lippmann gives us a blueprint for action, but they help us think outside the box, so to speak.

The financial theme also runs through the three other articles by Fisher (2009), Gahran (2010), and Moore (2010). Fisher outlines how converged newsrooms are likely to be more successful if they are organized in a way that supports convergence, and if managers receive training in how to run a converged newsroom. Good advice, but not likely to happen on a large scale. In my experience, even back in the good old days when newspapers’ profit margins topped 20 percent, newspaper management didn’t put much money into training. Now that newspapers are losing money and staffs are smaller, I just can’t see media companies hiring and training more managers. Gahran discusses how to structure stories by adding dates and links so that they have more value.

Moore talks about how pay walls – offering specific news or information for a price – aren’t productive in the long run. Instead, he describes how some news organizations are embedding information in their articles that allows them to track the articles as they spin around the Internet. Intriguing, but I don’t really see how it translates into money for publishers.

So, does money make the world go around? Or is it just a nice thing to have, as The Barenaked Ladies contend?

References

Crick, N. (2009). The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippmann Debate in an Internet Age. [Article]. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26(5), 480-497. doi: 10.1080/15295030903325321

Fisher, H. (2009). Developing media managers for convergence: A study of management theory and practice for managers of converged newsrooms. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 135-150. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gahran, A. (2010, August 19). Structure news: Make useful connections to build your news business [Web blog post].Retrieved from: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20100819_structured_news_make_useful_connections_to_build_your_news_busines/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+KnightDigitalMediaCenter+Knight+Digital+Media+Center&utm_content=Google+Reader#When:22:32:34Z

Graham, P. (2000). Hypercapitalism: A political economy of informational idealism. New Media & Society, 2(2), 131.

Kander, J. [Composer] & Ebb, F. [Lyricist]. (1966). The money song. [Recorded by J. Grey & L. Minelli]. On Cabaret. New York: ABC Records.

Moore, M. (2010, August 18). Media shift: How metadata can eliminate the need for pay walls [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/how-metadata-can-eliminate-the-need-for-pay-walls230.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+pbs/mediashift-blog+(mediashift-blog)&utm_content=Google+Reader

Page, S. & Robertson, E. (1993). If I had a million dollars. [Recorded by The Barenaked Ladies]. On Gordon [Record]. New York: Reprise Records.

Waters, R. (1973). Money. [Recorded by Pink Floyd]. On The Dark Side of the Moon [Record]. London: Abbey Road Studios.

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What is newsroom culture? And why should anyone care?

During the 20 or so years I spent working as an editor and reporter at two small daily papers in Texas, there was one ritual that seldom varied. One or more reporters and/or editors would gather around the newsroom television to watch the local evening news. The purpose was to make sure the TV stations hadn’t scooped us, that tomorrow’s paper would have all the important news that readers had seen on local TV the night before.

WNBC-TV news anchor Chuck Scarborough, right, with co-anchor Lynda Baquero at NBC Studios in Manhattan.

Well, that was the stated reason we watched the newscasts. However, it was also an opportunity for us to smugly note how many of the stories on those newscasts had been published in that day’s paper. What would the TV reporters do if they didn’t have us to get their stories for them, we’d ask. They just rip their stories from our headlines, we’d say. The irony that we were doing exactly the same thing – watching their news broadcast for any stories we might have missed – escaped us. It was (and probably is) part of the newsroom culture in newspapers to disparage TV reporters and their stations. We were just expressing our cultural solidarity by reaffirming our superiority as print journalists.

This week’s readings focus on newsroom culture and how it can advance or hinder journalists’ innovative use of the Internet and their willingness to work with journalists from other media in a convergent environment.

The Jetsons

Steensen (2009) examines the cultural forces that prevent new Web-based technology from being fully exploited in newsrooms, as well as the factors that influence the development of innovation in online newsrooms. He is concerned with “the firm grounding of theoretical abstractions in empirically based newsroom production studies, rather than the technological determinism and utopian prophesies that marked earlier new media research” (p.821). In other words, despite the amazingly rapid creation and transformation of the Internet – which was almost unknown to the general public until the 1990s – we’re not living in the media equivalent of the world of “The Jetsons.”

How innovations develop

In his review of literature on innovation, Steensen (2009) argues that the way to investigate innovation is by examining “the interaction of structural influences” and the actions of individuals (Slappendale, 1996, p. 109)” (p. 823). He cites work by Boczkowski published in 2004:

(Bockzkowski) identified three factors as important in how such innovations develop – all focusing on the structural characteristics of the organizations: the closeness of the relationship between the print and online newsrooms; whether the online newsroom reproduces editorial gatekeeping or finds alternative work cultures; and whether the intended audience is represented as consumers or producers, as technically savvy or unsavvy (Boczkowski, 2004, pp. 171-172). (p. 824)

Steensen conducted an ethnographic study of dagbladet.no, a Swedish online newspaper that launched an online feature section in 2002. He conducted four months of ethnographic observation of the newsroom – as well as extensive interviews – over a three year period. I was fascinated by his study and his insights about issues of autonomy and democratic leadership. He contends that a theory of innovation in online newspapers has to include “newsroom autonomy, work culture, the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals” (2009, p. 821). Steensen says the factors that influence innovation are both integrated and complex, and they often depend on the actions of individuals. Each newsroom work culture is unique, and an approach to innovation that works in one newsroom may not work in another one.

Newspaper newsroom

Filak (2009) discusses newsroom culture and how it has been and continues to be an impediment to change. Eighty percent of newsrooms have a defensive culture, Filak says, citing a 2001 study by the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. “Defensive cultures resist change and eschew collaboration outside of their cultural group” (p. 118). As a thoroughly indoctrinated former member of newsroom culture, I think Filak is mostly correct: journalists tend to be defensive and so they create a defensive culture.

However, there are concrete reasons for this. Many citizens have an “us versus them” attitude about the media and its representatives. They belittle journalists – sometimes to their faces – and disparage the job that they do, while at the same time consuming articles written by the people they profess to despise. Journalists are like cops: many of them grow defensive and cynical because they deal with people every day who they know are lying to them about something. Journalists also tend to be outsiders; they see themselves as observers, not necessarily as active participants in the world around them. And then there are the people who let you know that your story has ruined their lives. Few journalists have been spared this condemnation.

Journalist as ‘confidence man’

Finally, for many journalists, there’s that uncomfortable feeling of guilt that maybe you have ruined someone’s life. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm strips away the platitudes that journalists hide behind, such as their stated dedication to ferreting out the truth and the public’s right to know. She bares the journalist’s soul.

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. (Malcolm, 1990, p. 3)

When the article is published or the story airs, the subject of the story realizes that his story has not been told; the journalist has instead told her interpretation of the subject’s story. Malcolm contends that what really upsets the subject is the deception the journalist uses. The journalist who seemed so sympathetic and supportive while interviewing or shadowing the subject as he went about his daily life was just feigning compassion to get the story.

Filak (2009) discusses several theories that have been used to study newsroom convergence, where print and broadcast reporters and editors are trying to work together to survive and thrive in today’s complex and confusing media world. He describes social identity theory, which argues that each individual is defined by the groups that he or she belongs to or identifies with. Then he outlines three different models that can be applied to newsroom culture:

  • decategorized contact model – individuals’ awareness of their group identity fosters group-based biases;
  • common in-group identity model – previously competing factions are encouraged to create a common in-group; it’s no longer “us” versus “them”; it’s now “we.”
  • mutual intergroup differentiation model – rather than breaking down boundaries between groups, you emphasize the positive aspects of each group and promote interaction to reach a common goal.

Filak favors the mutual intergroup differentiation model because it lets individuals play “to their strengths while advancing a common goal of information gathering and storytelling” (p. 129).

Today journalists in all media are having difficulty finding their footing in the shifting sands of news delivery and consumption. How will news and information be delivered? Who will decide what is news and what information is needed? Who, if anyone, will pay for this information or for the analysis of this information? Answers to these questions remain elusive, and it’s hard to see what the “new normal” will be in this field in five or 10 years. But Steensen and Filak offer insight into how we might be able to figure it out.

References

Filak, V.F. (2009). Culture, conflict, convergence: A theoretical discussion of group-based identity and bias reduction in a converged newsroom. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 117-134. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malcolm, J. (1990). The journalist and the murderer. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

Steensen, S. (2009). What’s stopping them? [Article]. Journalism Studies, 10(6), 821-836. doi: 10.1080/14616700902975087

Journalism: What Value Does It Have, Anyway?

Unlike the readings from last week, week seven, these articles did not require the literary equivalent of a machete to slash a way through pages and pages of impenetrable prose in order to arrive at the sacred temple of understanding. This week’s readings were relatively straightforward. Yet they still left me feeling bewildered, not knowing which way to go, in a metaphorical sense, and despairing of ever finding my way.

The more I know about the wonders and miracles of the new media and its Internet connections, the less I seem to understand. There are so many shiny bells and whistles and distractions, all clamoring for my attention. And it seems the shiniest ones with the latest technical gadgets are often the least important. For example, watch the video promoting Flipboard for iPAD. Note how the guy using Flipboard is so intent on seeing what his friends have sent him to read or view on his iPad, that he ignores them when they walk up to him.

My bewilderment began with the article by Legrand (2010) on how to make videos more interactive. Some of his suggestions are quite simple, such as allowing viewers to comment on a video and then responding to their comments. But others involve building a virtual studio in Second Life – a virtual reality site – or using wikis or a “collaborative mindmap” (???) to ask for help from potential viewers when preparing a video interview. It seems the ways to interact with your audience are limitless, but the time you can devote to mastering them is not.

And will the content that is communicated matter to anyone? So much of the focus in new media is on the channels of communication, not the content. There’s also a tendency, I think, to “dress up” the content to make it as dazzling as the channels it’s flowing through. Scandal, gossip, and titillating revelations lend themselves to bells and whistles. The danger is that the “information” or “news” may be the new media equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: when you look at it closely, there’s nothing there.

Social movement organizations and alternative media

Photo of the 1976 Philadelphia Bicentennial Celebration, by Jim Ryan

No one talks about all the time spent perfecting how your content is presented and communicated, how it looks and sounds. We only have so much time, and time spent creating a stunning presentation is time not spent creating meaningful content.

Stein (2009) discusses how – and if – social movement organizations (SMOs) are using the Internet to communicate their messages to potential supporters and donors and to receive feedback from these audiences. In her research, conducted from February through May of 2006, Stein doesn’t mention social media, per se. Rather she focuses on how the SMOs’ use their websites to interact with their audience.

[C]ommunication scholars have suggested that the internet can serve as an important resource for social movement communication, providing movements with communication opportunities not available in the mainstream media or alternative forms of movement media. Social movements can use the internet to bypass mainstream media gatekeepers or repressive governments and communicate directly with their constituencies and the broader public. (2009, p.750)

Stein (2009) cites research that equates movement media with alternative media, in that the goal of both is social change and the undermining of the power structure.

Logo of The Rag, an underground newspaper in Austin, Texas, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When she mentioned alternative media, I thought of The Rag, an underground newspaper that operated in Austin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was definitely alternative media, featuring news coverage and commentary on the Vietnamese War and the peace movement, as well as civil rights issues, student freedom issues, and the ‘60s counterculture.

And it was influential, as I know from my own experience as an Austin High School student at the time. Some college-age kids tried to sell The Rag on the Austin High campus one day and were summarily escorted off the property. It was a subversive newspaper, and the Austin power structure at the time didn’t like it. The Rag was published on cheap newsprint and the layout wasn’t very attractive; it was very old media. But its content could motivate people to action, and that is the point of social movements.

The results of Stein’s analysis of a random sampling of websites run by national social movement organizations in the United States reveals that most aren’t taking full advantage of their websites’ potential. While most do provide information about their social movement or cause, only about one-third frequently use their websites to coordinate actions and mobilize their supporters. Just one-third commonly use their websites for fundraising and resource development. And almost half frequently link to other organizations and resources that support or benefit their causes. Very few use interactive techniques or encourage dialog on their sites, or allow for creative expression from their supporters. It may be that they lack the resources needed to fully exploit Internet technology, or their goals and strategies may not fit this technology. For example, some SMOs may not feel that computer-mediated communication is the best way to build trust and reinforce the commitment of its members.

Social movement organizations and social media

This research was done in early 2006, before Twitter and before Facebook was open to the general public. I wonder how the SMOs are using social media to communicate and inspire their followers. Social media seem very well-suited to organizing people, promoting feedback and dialog, and keeping people in touch with what is going on. And a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t cost anything to keep up, except, once again, time.

Finally, Wilkinson (2009) attempts to outline what “our field” – journalism – is, and what unique value it brings to the world. Sadly, much of what he discusses implies that it’s not really worth all that much, and other fields are rapidly invading “our” territory. He examines four professions that are content providers and manipulators in the new media world: art and architecture, law, medicine, education, and government. These areas are developing their own “media specialists” (full disclaimer: I am a media specialist in the medical world). “Practitioners in these fields are also creating messages for mass audiences. By creating content with entertainment and information value, using digital technologies and delivery systems, we have entered a period of social and economic Darwinism” (p. 99). I fear this evolutionary struggle will result in survival of the most entertaining – in other words, the news and information decked out in the trendiest media fashions. And that is probably not a good thing.

Then Wilkinson composes two daunting lists of qualities and expertise that a journalist needs today. No one could possibly master all of these skills well enough to do the associated tasks. And, again, the focus is on the form the information takes, not the information itself. But the form is useless without the content. Wilkinson throws journalists a sop, when he says, “The tools of journalism are the critical thinking and interpersonal skills – dealing with people that journalism educators have championed since the beginning” (p. 110). The problem is that fewer and fewer people seem to understand “critical thinking.” They don’t use it to evaluate the information they receive, so how can they value it in others?

References

Legrand, R. (2010, Aug. 17). 10 Ways to make video a more interactive experience

[Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/10-ways-to-make-video-a-more-interactive-experience-229.html

Stein, L. (2009). Social movement web use in theory and practice: a content analysis of U.S. movement websites. [Article]. New Media & Society, 11(5), 749-771. doi: 10.1177/1461444809105350

Wilkinson, J.S. (2009). Converging communication, colliding cultures: Shifting boundaries and the meaning of “our field.” In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 98-116. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tyler Morning Telegraph publishes editorial on Page One — ABOVE the masthead

In an almost unprecedented move, the Tyler Morning Telegraph — a newspaper with a very conservative editorial stance — published an editorial in the Sunday, Oct. 3, paper chastising Texas Gov. Rick Perry for refusing to meet with any newspaper editorial boards during his current campaign for an umpteenth term.

That the Tyler paper would take Gov. Perry to task is pretty amazing. What is truly stunning is that they did it with a long editorial at the very top of Page One, above the paper’s masthead. And they signed it, from Publisher Nelson Clyde and Editor Dave Berry on down to City Editor Megan Middleton. Click here to read the editorial.

I’ve lived in Tyler for almost 20 years, and as far as I can remember, I have never seen an editorial that was above the masthead. For those of us who are current and former journalists and newspaper people, this is a HUGE deal. As a friend of mine at the paper said, it’s the print equivalent of shouting.

 

Gov. Rick Perry at work

 

Gov. Perry apparently feels that he no longer needs the “old media,” so he doesn’t have to submit himself to the hard questions that newspaper editors and publishers sometimes ask. This year, the hard questions likely would have centered around how he plans to deal with a state budget deficit estimated to be from $18 billion to $21 billion.

An editorial above a paper’s masthead carries a lot of weight because of its prominent position. It’s hard to achieve that level of prominence on a Web page. Maybe you could have the editorial or a really big story drop down over the Web page and open up right in front of you, like some of the really annoying Internet ads do. But, in general, Web pages are full of flashy images and bells and whistles, so it’s hard to identify the  most important story on each page. The print edition is unambiguous; you know the most important article on Page One is the editorial.

The Decline of the Public Sphere: Constructing Private Realms in Cyberspace

The first thing that struck me from this week’s readings is that all the authors really like the word “salient” or “salience.” Everything important in their world is salient, which Merriam-Webster.com defines as “standing out conspicuously, prominent.” It can also mean “leaping or jumping: a salient animal,” according to Dictionary.com. However, I don’t think the authors expect these discussions of the meaning and impact of new media to leap off the page. On another note, it was also a little unsettling to discover that a communication theory could consummate (!!!) as in “Agenda-setting is a cognitive effects theory that has remained applicable since its consummation in McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) seminal Chapel Hill experiment” [emphasis added] (Salinas, 2008, p. 1).

As far as the meaning of salience in the context of new media studies, the much-maligned Wikipedia has a definition that I found useful: “Salience is used as a measure of how prominent or relevant perception coincide with reality.” [emphasis added]. Aha! The veil is lifted from my eyes! I begin to understand why the authors of these articles on new media are so attached to this word. The articles we read this week explore how new media allows individuals to construct their own personal agenda and worldview without relying on mainstream media outlets to tell them what is important. As Wilkinson, McClung, and Sherring (2009) explain so clearly, new media enables individuals to become receiver-senders, both receiving and creating information. We can choose to be consumers, contributors, and/or creators of content.

Brubaker (2008) investigates if the mass media – broadcast and print – continue to set the agenda by determining what the important issues are. “New media’s increased content choices and greater control over exposure provide individuals the freedom to create more personalized information environments. This may separate them from media’s traditional public information agenda” [emphasis added] (para. 6).

The Internet equivalent of gated communities

If each of us his or her own personalized information environment, where is the public space – the public square, if you will – in cyberspace? Where do we stumble upon events and ideas that we were ignorant of? Where do we confront commentary and opinions that challenge our assumptions or that we find deeply disturbing? Few of us will seek out information and points of view that we don’t agree with or that make us uncomfortable. To me, these personalized information environments are the Internet equivalent of gated communities. They allow us to remain blissfully ignorant of viewpoints and ways of life that question our basic beliefs and values.

A look through the bars at a gated community in Plano, Texas.

“Ignorant” is the key word here, because if we don’t know something exists we don’t have to address it. This was the stance of the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s when reports of Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews, gypsies, gays and lesbians, and mentally impaired people began filtering out of Germany. It was the stance adopted by many Germans after World War II ended; they denied knowing about the Holocaust despite the millions of Jews who had disappeared and the trains with boxcars full of people bound for concentration camps that crisscrossed the country on a regular basis. No one wanted to believe the Holocaust was happening, because something so horrendous demanded action.

It’s in our long-term interests to know about other opinions and ways of life, because we can’t shut out the rest of the world forever. Eventually some of those threatening ideas and values will break down the metaphorical gates and invade our idyllic realm. Without a common public agenda, we cannot address the problems and inequities of our society. Problems rarely go away; if you ignore them, they tend to get worse. This lack of a common agenda is one reason why Congress – as well as state and local political entities – are having such difficulty finding solutions to society’s current problems.

YouTube and the audience’s agenda

Salinas (2008) also investigates the new media’s role in setting the public agenda. He deconstructs the “underhanded form of agenda-setting that poses as audience-generated interest” (p. 4) inherent in the structure of YouTube. He discusses how Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification offers insight into what compels audiences to consume media content:

The audience chooses to seek and consume artifacts that suit their [sic] personal identities which offers an opportunity for the structure of YouTube to create an artificial, yet no less influential agenda of similar artifacts for the user to consume. (p. 5)

On YouTube, the individual initially chooses which video to watch – which media to consume. Then YouTube recommends videos similar to the one originally chosen.

… [O]pting to view any of the related videos starts the process over again through a different artifact. This is an ingenious and cunning form of agenda-setting that relies on the audience to determine its own agenda. … [but] the alternatives have still been defined for the audience. …  T]he algorithm of the search engine defines the audience (p. 6)

Yikes! Agenda-setting by search engine algorithms; sounds like a dystopian scenario in a science fiction novel. Salinas is making the point that “[t]o assume that there is no agenda in new media outlets is to ignore the bias inherent in all media and technology” (p. 8).

The difference between old and new media is that the user has determined what the agenda presented is going to be. That does not make the agenda any less insidious. In fact, it may even be more so if the user maintains the mistaken belief that he or she is engaging in personalized content free of media influence. … The pull nature of new media relies on what the user is already thinking about. Once that is defined in the search window, the suggestive facility of new media sets the subsequent agenda by providing relevant links and guiding the user toward specific content. (Salinas, 2008, p. 10)

This fits in with Kornegay’s (2009) discussion of the unintended consequences that are intrinsic to every new technology. He cites Tenner’s (1996) book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Tenner calls these unintended consequences “revenge effects.” They happen when people use a new technology in a real-world situation in ways that were not foreseen. The revenge effects often subvert the original purpose of the new invention or new media.

Thus, the inner workings of new media may subtly guide the construction of our personalized information environments and this personalized environment may have the unintended effect of isolating us from our neighbors and communities.

The emerging value system of digital culture

Finally, Deuze (2006) takes the new media one step further: it becomes the foundation of a digital culture. He draws a distinction between new communication technologies and a new digital culture. The new technology or new media provide the means, but the digital culture is:

an emerging value system and set of expectations as particularly expressed in the activities of news and information media makers and users online, whereas I see the praxis of digital culture as an expression of individualization, postnationalism, and globalization. … Digital culture gets expressed in electronic or digital media that are so deeply embedded in everyday life that they disappear.” (pp. 63-64)

We aren’t aware of this digital culture that is changing how we live. For example, the iPhone and other smart phones were truly amazing just a few years ago. Now they are just one unremarkable piece of the new media landscape. Our worldview is simultaneously fragmented and connected, separated and yet part of a network.

References

Brubaker, J. (2008). The freedom to choose a personal agenda: Removing our reliance on the media agenda. [Article]. American Communication Journal, 10(3), 1-1.

Deuze, M. (2006). Participation, remediation, bricolage: Considering principal components of a digital culture. [Article]. Information Society, 22(2), 63-75. doi: 10.1080/01972240600567170

Kornegay, V. (2009). Media convergence and the Neo-Dark Age. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 84-97. New York: Oxford University Press.

Salinas, C. (2008). WhoTube? Identification and Agenda-Setting in New Media. Paper presented at the Conference Papers – National Communication Association, 1-24. Article retrieved from http://ezproxy.uttyler.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=44852569&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Tenner, E. (1996). Why things bite back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. New York: Knopf.

Wilkinson, J.S., McClung, S.R., & Sherring, V.A. (2009). The converged audience: Receiver-Senders and Content Creators. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 64-83. New York: Oxford University Press.