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.

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One response to “The Decline of the Public Sphere: Constructing Private Realms in Cyberspace

  1. Your comments on salience remind me of another word that I often see in the literature–explicate. It reminds me of Weaver’s comments on the social sciences. He indicts them for using overly complicated vocabulary to seem relevant. While I think that a lot of people use these words just for precision, I bet there are a few who like to grab onto these token words to easily add credibility to their writing.

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