Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Media, Old Framework

I attended a taping of Al Jazeera's Empire, at the Columbia School of Journalism yesterday. Some of the panelists were Carl Bernstein, Amy Goodman, Evgeny Morozov, and Clay Shirky. Although some interesting, Twitter-friendly sound-bytes were said, ultimately there was little new or insightful, which was rather disappointing, given the combined (and individual) intelligence and experience onstage.

The main focus was new media and Egypt. But new media, or social media, was never defined, and at one point we watched Al Jazeera (television, which is old media) over the internet (which is new media). Clearly the two are not distinct. Maybe everyone except me knew it was a straw man argument.

Amy Goodman complained how only in two places in the US can you receive Al Jazeera over cable TV, which is a good point, except that you can watch it anywhere you like as long as you have an internet connection: Wasn't that the point of the internet, at least from ten years ago? You can go watch it right now if you like. Given that we had just watched President Obama on Al Jazeera streaming over the internet there in the room, and NYC is not one of the two places you can get Al Jazeera in the US over cable, it was a strange thing to say (although I agreed with her, but still).

Shirky had the odd claim that the cell phone network (which was mostly ignored in the discussion) and the internet were essentially the same, since cell phones can push and pull info over the net. That much is true, from the user's viewpoint, but the way they are run (in terms of organizations and technologically) and the way they are regulated can be very different from country to country. Also, 20 years ago I would sit in my dorm room and connect to BITNET over my modem, but no one would have said the phone system was a part of the internet.

Morozov had the nice point that the internet is neither necessary nor sufficient for revolutions, and he is 100% correct on that point. Revolutions have happened before the year 1990, and they have failed since (Iran is one). He had some nice points about other media being used to aid communication in older revolutions (like tape cassettes, I think). By understanding the common motivations behind using communication technologies to spread messages during different periods of civil upheaval (cassette tapes and broadcast TV in the past; Twitter, SMS, and satellite TV today), we can understand the important features and affordances of the technologies, and can make sure we build those into future technologies and try to protect them legally and technologically. (Much could be written about that, I will not try to do so here.)

Everyone did agree that revolutions are a form of organization, and organization takes communication, and that people will communicate with the best tools they have at hand. Today that is indeed some of the digital, online, internet, Facebook, Twitter, whatever you want to call them, whatever their labels are today, forms. But this media ecology also includes television, cell phones, and face to face, and a good analysis and understanding of human behavior has to include all of the behaviors, not just the newest and coolest ones.

The most annoying part of the taping was at the beginning when we were all told to turn off our cell phones, since the wireless headsets of the camera people and the producers were running into interference problems (I thought this was why we had regulation about these things). No Twitter for you! Tons of people tweeted and re-tweeted the same sound bytes over and over, they may have been in the room or in the overflow room. The needs of old media (TV) had triumphed over new media.

The most amusing part of the taping was when the make-up person powdered Shirky's head.

The biggest let down was that Shirky and Morozov did not come to fisticuffs. People on the internet love to say how they are polar opposites on this Egyptian/revolution/Twitter discussion. They're not. They were seated far apart from each other. They actually agreed on mostly everything. Morozov had a wide range of examples of revolutions. Shirky had a nice analytical point, questioning when do we define the beginning of a revolution? Egypt had several uprisings and riots previously, they could easily be counted as "the start" of this most recent action.

All of this left me wondering about new media and old media. If I can get Al Jazeera (old) over the internet (new), then what does that mean about "old" and "new" media? I think it means the framework is not useful.

The alternate framework, more in use lately, is "social media," such as Facebook. I originally got on Facebook since a friend of mine, in about 2004, wanted to see what her undergraduate students were doing on this new (to UM) medium, but she didn't want her own account: Could she use my email address to sign up? (Facebook was still restricted to selected universities at that point.) She spent the next two hours laughing, reading some things to me (all of which were hysterical), but also exclaiming how some recent find was amazing but totally inappropriate to read to me out loud in a coffeeshop. She would turn the laptop around so I could read the post in question, and indeed, many were completely inappropriate to read out loud with other people around.

If you had told me then that a website, which was restricted to a few American universities and was exclusively used by American undergraduates to post writing that could not be read out loud in a coffeeshop, would, six or seven years later be used to foment revolutions and topple governments, I would have thought you were insane.

And you would have been, since that's not the Facebook we have anymore. It's open to everyone, and millions around the world can use it. And this is, I think, where we find the real difference between the things we are talking about when we talk about new media, old media, and social media.

It is a question of both content production and ease of group formation.

Newspapers have global distribution. They are all over the world. There isn't any one newspaper that you can get everywhere, maybe the International Herald Tribune (aka the New York Times), the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, or the Guardian (yes, all in English, but ok Le Monde maybe). You can write in and maybe they will print your letter to the editor.

The internet, too, is found all over the world. And newspapers are found on it.

But with the internet, so many more people can make content. And although the majority of content is, like so many academic journal articles, unread, it is much easier to find things online, and when you find written things, you often find the person who did the writing.

So I think that is the big difference, which is why "social media" is a better term than "new media." Social media let us create content, find content, and find the people who made that content much easier, and on a much larger scale, than ever before. Once we find those people, we can connect with them in some way: follow their Twitter feed, "like" or join a group they made on Facebook, or some other type of connection. And, thinking of Morozov's warnings about how the internet makes surveillance easy (in the 1990s we would have mentioned Bentham and the Panopticon), notice that I did not mention type of use, or who is finding who and following them: it could be friends, it could be the police arm of an oppressive state. The technology is, to some extent, use-neutral.

A small aside about industry, which wonders why we write-off television:

Television has done well in the last 20 years, there are many, many more channels than there used to be. Al Jazeera is one. In 1980 in the US, most likely you could only get the local, over the air broadcast channels, some of which would be part of a national network like NBC or PBS, however they were all ultimately local channels. Now you can get channels from all over the world, in all sorts of languages (I can get Spanish, various Asian languages, I think I've seen Greek, there are probably others, there's the BBC America of course). And there are many, many more channels (I do not actually know how many I get, well over 100), and most of them are national and have no local presence to speak of. I do not have satellite, but I have friends who do, and I am under the impression that there can be many, many more channels available.

The internet... well in terms of business, it's different. It did very badly ten years ago when the dot-com bubble burst.

But there are different components to both of these industries. The internet has, for instance, backbone providers, local connection providers (so, mine is Time/Warner sans AOL), web site hosting companies, blog posting sites, content providers like Apple/iTunes, Hulu, the New York Times, Gawker, and Salon, but also entities like Amazon who sell physical goods (and yes digital music and digital books). Television (from a US perspective) has local broadcasters, national networks (like NBC), national channels (like AE or Sy Fy), but also all of the production studios, cable providers, and satellite providers. Content production is not enough for success, as public-access cable was a huge failure in the US: the content produced by the local people who cared was generally terrible and no one watched. Yet do the same thing, generally speaking, on YouTube, and it might work--but the distribution is totally different (as is, I suspect, the content of successful non-professional material when compared to local access cable). (Sorting? Wider distribution? Sharing? The "long tail" of terrible material... You can't have the "short head" of great stuff without the long tail, but with searching and "liking" and such you can more easily find the "short head" that you're looking for. Something like that.)

This is, perhaps, an important distinction between "old" media and "new" media: New media such as Facebook and Twitter have corporate structures that are not at all connected to the content-generation of their sites or the editing of that content, but yet many "old" media have the two bound together -- the writers, content creators, and editors are all employees; not so for the masses of FB and tweet-land. Cell phones, as part of the telephone network, are interesting since today "smart phones" are really mini-computers with phones built-in, but phone networks have been around for over 100 years and we have always been able to speak our minds on them. Phones were not a communication tool with an easily-achieved wide reach. Yes you could call anyone, but calling everyone was much harder, even one-at-a-time or with a phone tree, where you call five people (5) who then call five people (5^2=25 + 5 =30) who each then call five more (5^3=125 + 30 = 155), etc. (People invented that method, that system, in order to reach more people--that is simply what we do, via whatever technology, and the current ones are the best we have for doing so.) I cannot fit phones easily into this framework, which shows that the framework isn't quite right, but also that we have diverse communication tools at hand, and that those tools in turn have diverse functions. This, I think, is a good thing.

In the end, it appears that if you put the tools of production into the hands of the people, great things happen.