Broadcasting is Obsolete
Broadcast media have in recent years increasingly been criticized for a perceived decrease in the quality of information they provide, broadcast tabloidization, irrelevance, and more generally for the concentration of ownership (Bromley, 2001, p. 2).
However there are more optimistic alternative models (Goh & Foo, 2007, p. 137) with implications towards better quality information and an increasingly meaningful discourse accessible to more and more people.
These views could be broadly described as being in the realm of social media, and generally advocate using technical innovations such as the Internet to engage people in a more transparent conversation. As a superior model of communication, social media will increase mediation quality and lead to benefits in several areas over the traditional broadcasting model.
Concerns about the media, and media criticism is not new in the literature. As early as 1920, Lippmann, writing about the powers and failures of the press in his book Liberty and the News, delivered the notion that “the news columns are common carriers. When those who control them [...] determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded” (pp. 5-6). More recently, Baudrillard, one of the most fervent media critics of the century, with more eloquence described the prevalent media model as "speech without response" (1981, p. 172).
Contemporary media cannot be viewed separately from technology; to a great degree it is and has been dependent on technological advances. Because broadcasting media models by the nature of their technology are dependent on some form of one-to-many or few-to-many communication, Baudrillard is right to criticize the media on the grounds that “they fabricate noncommunication” (p. 210) as this is indeed a technical given. However, when working with MacLean, in his later works in 1985, Baudrillard further expanded his critique on the lack of conversation in which he perhaps better described the downfalls of the contemporary media by stating that the “present architecture of the media is founded on this […] definition: they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange” (1985, p. 577). This lack of possibility for conversation is why the broadcast model is obsolete.
Social media models on the other hand are less determined and allow for more flexibility. In 2008, for the most part they include highly technological implementations of mediation on the Internet platform with considerable participatory aspects. These are sites on the Internet where essentially every person becomes the media. The discussion over broadcast media seems to follow from the types of questions Baudrillard poses “what else do the media dream of besides creating the event simply by their presence?” (1994, p. 38), in which the media are seen as something large and unusual that by the sole virtue of its presents creates illusions that fool the public. The discussion in the realm of social media however, is more progressive. In essence, where everyone becomes the media, being mediated is very commonplace for each person, and the effects of being mediated could be anticipated to be less pronounced.
While according to some authors, for example Rheingold, the contemporary institutions of the “mass media [...] have “commoditized” the public sphere, substituting slick public relations for genuine debate” (2000, p. 29), social media implementations can be expected to have intrinsically a greater degree of transparency. Because they are created by the people their existence depends on people actively participating. Effectively, the social media version of the public sphere is controlled by the people to a much greater degree, than the broadcasting version of the sphere. Therefore the scope for access anywhere and for anyone for any need across devices and platforms, and even independent of location, is that much greater for social media than for broadcasting media.
The virtue of giving more power to the people is why from a political perspective social media is more democratic. Following from the premise that media set the political agenda, more accurate information, transparency and participation in this process of every conversation benefits everyone. Moreover, from a psychological viewpoint, research suggests that it is more natural for people to discuss information socially on the Internet, rather than to passively consume media created by broadcasters; according to a recent Morgan Stanley report more than half of the top 10 Internet sites by usage are social, and the usage of television is declining (Morgan Stanley, 2008, pp. 8-12).
Broadcast or Socialize?
Some of the benefits of social media are self-evident. One recent example was the Chinese earthquake in the Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. The news was broken not on mainstream media but reportedly (Bradshaw) by local Chinese in the earthquake zone, on Twitter1, a social networking site that lets people post short messages. In the Twitter realm everyone is a broadcaster. Because the social nature of Twitter and with the help of machine translation, the news reached people around the world before global broadcast media was able to take up the story, and much before Estonian broadcast media was able to copy the story from the global media.
By referring to such examples (as there have been other similar cases that have taken place around the world), one can think of the social media model as a combination of media and social relations. Because news creators are accessible through email, chat applications, and their social networking profiles, it becomes easier to ask any questions and get instant feedback. While this was possible in newspapers trough mail-in letters, the barriers of entry are greatly reduced trough the speed of communication, and high visibility of the news creator. People can interact directly with the news broadcaster on the ground trough services such as Skype and Facebook2; the latter also provides a profile for the person so what one is saying can be qualified against previous experience and commentary.
Social media is possible because the communication platform used – the Internet – is technologically superior to broadcasting in the area of communication. But furthermore, in the areas of media economy, while the broadcast media economics rely on imprecise evaluations to provide the audience numbers to the advertisers, social media implementations can make use of their high technological base and the virtues of the Internet to produce detailed and accurate information for the use of the advertisers. The nature of the conversation and actions of the participants allow advertisers to offer their goods and services at the right time, and take into account personal preferences. This degree of precision creates trust for the advertisers to place more money into the media. Moreover, as the Twitter example illustrates, the bulk of the job of producing journalism can be done by usual people, cutting down on production costs.
In addition to economical benefits, the speedy and precise analysis of media content made possible by computer technology can be utilized for other benefits as important, but perhaps less apparent at the first glance. Having precise statistics helps people visualize their communication streams, and as a part of those information streams news can be increasingly accurate. To take one example, the News Station3 website which is a trend leader in the social media space in Estonia produces streams of analytical data for each news item it indexes from broadcast news providers as well as independent producers such as blogs. The site provides statistics about many measurable aspects of news such as locations, organizations and people mentioned in the news content, and their popularity in media.
As in News Station, other websites in the social media realm will be able to analyze the media and produce story timelines which provide a live visualization of how the story is being created. For example, one could see a press release being released, the coverage being written by a certain person at Postimees, and the coverage being written by a certain person at Äripäev, charted in order of appearance; one could contact those people. One could see live the other stories being spawned in response, as well as opinions being created in the blogosphere.
There are clear benefits to such and open approach. Clear visibility of connections between newsmakers, news creators, and other players in the story would make it increasingly difficult for partial interests and public relations to control the environment and pass constructed news. Clearly identified personalities would increase public recognition of newsmakers. Easy access to newsmakers’ personal opinion in media such as blogs, and other news involving that person, and commentary would allow people to understand “the story behind the story”.
Furthermore, clearly identified locations would emphasize the aspects particular to the place of the news, while still retaining global availability. While News Station is already providing geographic visualizations, taking this technology to mainstream would create emotional connections and involve people in the news to a higher degree than plain text publications. One would understand how specific regions in the country are covered. For example, the statistics of whether news stories conglomerate more often around bigger center such as Tallinn and Tartu, and to what extent smaller places are covered – would become clearly visible. Combined with location aware devices such as the iPhone, social media would allow people to access news relevant to their location. Whether this is information about a traffic jam on the next intersection or a notice of the party that will take place in the club one is driving past, will depend on one’s personal preferences.
By using all these technologies in an open manner, social media can in effect provide the type of information that used to be the domain of government or media statistics bureaus. Combined with speed and ease of access, social media at the disposal of every consumer at every moment to make decision about the content of their communications might have considerable impacts. By that token, it is the ability of media to create open spaces for people to discuss, and the ability to provide the tools for discussion, that qualify the quality of media in the social media realm.
Such open spaces for conversation and computer technologies help people to increase the quality of the media they themselves produce and consume. People put news into context by tagging the information with keywords and by such actions make that piece of information more complete for other people. Moreover, to an extent at the current state of development, but increasingly in the future, the technique allows computers to have a better programmatic understanding of the content. The ideas of the Semantic Web (W3) that tie in with the social media model explore how information in these open spaces can be queried and mashed up in different complex ways to produce added value .
For example, emerging Silicon Valley technology startups such as Freebase and Powerset4 use a combination of social participation by the people and computer algorithms to allow users to ask complex questions the like of “What were the names of Karl Marx's children?” and allow the user to get a clear listing with names “Laura Marx, Eleanor Marx, Jenny Longuet” (Powerset) and pictures. Powerset can be accessed over an iPhone, which in essence makes the information portable.
Because of the idea of information portability the social media model has no prerequisites for prominent television channels such as the BBC or prominent newspapers such as the New York Times to be the premiere destination because they have the means to broadcast content; on the contrary, conversation can take place across different channels independent of their size and wealth. In simple terms this means that conversation is not restricted to Postimees, Äripäev, TV3, or any other channel; the comments one makes at Postimees become accessible trough Äripäev, TV3, and vice versa. The conversation does not necessarily have to be fragmented and discontinuous with each camp claiming its territory.
Today people around the world are increasingly likely to be actively participating in the conversation on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter; instead of passively consuming the news. In 2008, Facebook passed the 100 million user mark (Morgan Stanley, p. 10); if it were a country, it would be the 12th by population size. Trough sites like these, and trough social media in general people become part of the conversation because they are not secluded; the conversation is portable and accessible by everyone and everywhere. “The ability of anyone to make the news will give new voice to people who’ve felt voiceless—and whose words we need to hear. They are showing all of us—citizen, journalist, newsmaker—new ways of talking, of learning” (Gillmor, p. 12).
Social media technologies create possibilities for increased public understanding what is happening in their societies. Around the world services such as Twitter allow faster communication of news content and commentary. Some institutions have taken note of these possibilities; the UK government uses Twitter to have a conversation with citizens. In Estonia, the News Station website is revolutionizing how media can be contextualized and analyzed. And the Estonian Foreign Ministry uses Second Life to communicate with its virtual tenants. In all examples social media models bring benefits over their broadcast counterparts, and the expectation is that they increase media literacy by providing a better understanding of the connections between players on the media landscape.
While the ideas around social media models may be immature and in development, they are actively being experimented with, and as the various services mentioned demonstrate, there are several measurable qualitative benefits that the social media model brings to the forefront of the discussion. While there may be criticisms, one can remember what the media visionary Marshall McLuhan once said “the student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who have acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be” (McLuhan, p. 216)
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
Baudrillard, J., & Levin, C. (1981). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. New York: Telos Press Publishing.
Baudrillard, J., & Maclean, M. (1985). The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media. New Literary History , 577-589.
Bradshaw, P. (n.d.). OJB. Retrieved June 12, 2008, from http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2008/05/12/twitter-and-the-chinese-earthquake/
Bromley, M. (2001). No News is Bad News: Radio, Television, and the Public. New York: Pearson Education.
Gillmor, D. (2004). We The Media. New York: O'Reilly .
Goh, D., & Foo, S. (2007). Social Information Retrieval Systems: Emerging Technologies and Applications.Philadelphia: Idea Group Inc.
Lipmann, W. (2007). Liberty and the News. New York: Princeton University Press.
McLuhan, M. (2001). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Routledge Press.
Morgan Stanley. (2008). Internet Trends. New York: Morgan Stanley.
Powerset. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2008, from http://www.powerset.com/explore/go/What-were-the-names-of-Karl-Marx's-children%3F
Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community. Cambridge: MIT Press.
W3. (2008, June 10). W3C Semantic Web Activity. Retrieved June 14, 2008, from http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/
1 For a further explanation of the Twitter service, please see twitter.com
2 For an explanation of Skype, see about.skype.com, for Facebook, please go to facebook.com
3 Please see news.station.ee for further information, available in Estonian only
4 For an explanation about services provided by Freebase and Powerset, see freebase.com/helpand powerset.com/about respectively
Written on June 14, 2008 for English Composition Class with James Thurlow at the Baltic Film & Media School, as an undergraduate student.∎ Back to Index