The media is made up of new trends and buzz words. The latest one you may have heard of is ‘New Media’, which is tied in with another buzz phrase, ‘Web 2.0’. This new wave of communication technology supposedly gives more control to the user. But just what is New Media, and how does it relate to democracy? Can somebody change the world with just a click of a mouse, or is there more behind the rhetoric?
The Proletariat is Taking Over Hyperspace
New Media is commonly described by journalists and media analysts as media which can only be created or used with the aid of computer processing power. This encompasses such things as e-mail, text, images and now (with increased bandwidth), audio and video. This is the technical side of New Media – the tools and hardware which allow the new form of networking to take place. The interactive template that is laid on top of this is referred to as Web 2.0. The phrase was coined by O’Reilly Media in 2004 and it has been thrashed by the media ever since, with everyone –from CNN and Time magazine to advertisers –getting in on the action.
New Media denotes the second generation of web-based services such as social networking sites (i.e. MySpace), wikis (i.e.Wikipedia), communication tools and an increase in online collaboration and sharing amongst users. This trend towards user-administered forms of media is reflected in the growing popularity of the Mozilla browser and Linux operating system, both of which are based upon more or less open-source codes which can be modified by users. These systems give users greater control over their access to the media than was possible when only their restricted, commercially controlled alternatives (Internet Explorer and Windows) were available. While many Mozilla users do not know how to write code and are not interested in working to improve their browser, they are at least given the opportunity to do so. New Media sites like Youtube take this opportunity one step further, allowing noobs who have never heard of HTML the chance to direct the online world.
I asked media analyst and media studies lecturer, Dr Geoff Stahl, to explain how the new form of networking differs from what is referred to as Web 1.0. “Web 2.0 is different from Web 1.0, which was sort of the first version of the web in which you had the dot com boom. Increasingly, the users are now seen as central to this aspect of the web and they’re celebrated. The shift came after the dot com bust so when all the web businesses and start up companies went under, what was left were all kinds of networks they were reliant on. So now you have everyday users.”
New Media is information made by the users, for the users – a bottom up process that has replaced the Silicon Valley technology giants of the late ‘90s. Now hundreds of millions of everyday users are all linking together and, as a sector, are having a huge impact on the media, commerce and entertainment industries. Companies such as Youtube, MySpace, iTunes and Google’s Blogger are now entering the popular vernacular.
The Attack of the Blogs
The most popular form of New Media, which is often cited as having the biggest effect on democracy, is that of the humble blog (weblog). First of all, what exactly is a blog?
New Zealand’s most popular blogger, David Farrar, from http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz explains: “A blog is actually just a website where people post their thoughts. But what makes a blog special is that the software does it all for you. Before blogs came about, if you wanted to say what you thought about an issue, you had to know how to write HTML and be really smart technically. Blogs allow you to just go to a site, register and bang – it does it all for you.”
Although blogging has only been popular for about the last five years, it didn’t take long to bring about a political impact. The most famous example of blogs and other forms of New Media having a democratic impact was in last year’s US Congressional election. Virginia’s Republican Senator, George Allen, spotted rival campaign worker Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth video-taping at a public rally and labelled him with a rare racial slur – ‘Macaca’. The outburst was posted on Youtube and viewed thousands of times.
Fueled by blogs everywhere, the incident soon became a major political scandal. James Webb, rival Democrat candidate, then went on to narrowly defeat Allen – giving the control of the Senate to the Democrats for the first time since 1994. As a result, Sidarth was named Person of the Year by online magazine http://www.salon.com in recognition of the way he had changed history with a camcorder. Even before the elections had begun, blogger Lane Hudson posted on his blog, ‘Stop Sex Predators’, some amorous emails which Republican Florida Representative, Mark Foley, had sent to a congressional page. The resulting fallout resulted in Foley resigning from Congress. He dropped out of his re-election campaign five days later.
Other notable casualties of blogger-power include former US Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, who was forced to resign in 2002 after racial allegations relating to his tacit support for former racial segregationist politician, Strom Thurmond.
Dan Rather, long-time CBS anchorman, was also a casualty in 2004 – when forged documents critical of President George W Bush’s service in the US National guard were presented as authentic in a 60 Minutes broadcast. The fact that they were forged documents was highlighted by the the blog http://www.freerepublic.com, and the resulting controversy led to Rather’s early retirement from CBS’ Evening News.
But what about this part of the world? Is there a universal trend towards democracy being strengthened by the New Media?
David Farrar is a strong believer in the idea that the New Media can indeed help democracy everywhere. As a blogger, he adds: “In New Zealand, it’s [about] getting more people involved and participating. But if you look at places like Fiji, you actually have bloggers who are the only people telling the truth about what’s happening there, because the military has suppressed the media. You’ve got this in Iraq; some of the best reporting from Iraq has come from bloggers on either side, etc. And this actually empowers citizens to have as big a readership as the biggest company in the world. Your blog posts, if they’re on the right topic, can end up with millions of readers.”
The impact of bloggers is most clearly seen in the case of the Salam Pax. Pax, a happily gay and irreligious Iraqi IT specialist, created the blog ‘Where is Raed?’ shortly before the US invasion of Iraq as a way of keeping in touch with a friend. The blog quickly became the best source of information about the war from inside Iraq, receiving over a million hits a day. All too often, Pax found himself pointing out the errors in BBC and CNN broadcasts from the region.
The New Media may be having an effect on democracy in the sense that individuals can have an effect on events and election outcomes. But is this also affecting how the traditional media operates? Is there any evidence that bloggers and Youtube are changing the rules, threatening what Noam Chomsky coined the ‘Manufacturing of Consent’? Dr Stahl does not believe this to be the case.
“No, I don’t think they are becoming more democratic at all. If you are thinking of corporate media – no, because they’re buying the stuff up. They’re scrambling to make themselves look relevant. They’re often using stuff from the New Media. I was recently watching the news on TVNZ and it’s obvious that they’d gotten footage right off of Youtube – they’ve just got some kind of capture software. So it’s a resource for them, too. I don’t think that it necessarily has them running scared at the moment; they’re pretty shrewd at making things work in their favour.”
Indeed, in a March 5 post on Public Address (http://www.publicadress.net), Hard News blogger Russell Brown noted that the Sunday Star Times, in a story on police officers in jail, had lifted a quote verbatim from Bomber Bradbury’s blog (http://tumeke.blogspot.com), then pretended that he had “told” them the information in an interview. This would confirm what Stahl suggests – that Old Media is making New Media work in its favour, as print journalists are no longer forced to go in search of their own stories.
New Media, Auld Consumption
The effects of the New Media are not just limited to our relationship with the state and the traditional bastion of corporate media. Our relationship with companies as consumers is another area. One dissatisfied customer can now affect the bottom line of a major corporation. Farrar pointed out one interesting local example of how a single blog post can effect the public perception of a company.
“There was a guy who posted that Ticketek’s website was really crap. Then, some posts appeared on his blog, attacking him – saying he’s just too stupid to use it and that it’s a great website. He traced that they came from the Auckland office of Ticketek and included this in his blog. Other local Kiwi bloggers aged approximately 20-25, myself included, all thought, ‘well, Ticketek’s been caught out here!’ So we all blogged about it. Eventually, millions of people were linked to this little story. And what happened to Ticketek? Their reputation went down the plunger, in front of millions of people.”
Considering that journalism originally evolved out of the idea of making news-worthy information freely available to the widest possible audience, I wondered whether the New Media was giving many opportunities for non-trained journalists to actually have an impact on the media. I asked James Hollings of the Massey School of Journalism, what his views were on the notion that an amateur journalist could become a professional – for example, getting a scoop using Youtube.
“Well, yes and no. It certainly gives you a chance to get your footage shown, but a little bit of footage doesn’t make a journalist. Just because you are happening to be passing by and get a good video clip doesn’t mean you are going to get a job the next day as a journalist. The news outlets are still going to want to give their work to people that they know have been through training and are going to get the basics right. If you are the first person on the spot and happen to get the footage and/or interview, great – it may be worth something. But in terms of an ongoing basis, whether you can succeed is going to depend on how consistently you can produce that kind of stuff.”
Like all forms of media, the so called New Media is something that has yet to settle. As Stahl concluded: “The changes are much more subtle than we are able to recognise – once this kind of media and technology works itself into the background, that’s when it becomes part of everyday life. Overall I don’t think it’s transforming the media in ways that are amazingly different than what television did to radio, or what radio did to newspapers.”
He may be correct. Certainly the New Media is adding to the democratic process and the evolution of the media, but it is too early to tell how these will play out. We are all, however, part of it and can help shape it – never let the media tell you otherwise. As Time Magazine said last year – You are the Person of the Year. Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.