Communications 305: A Digital Media Journey


Life often dishes out irony as if humans required it for sustenance.  I began this class thinking myself a digital native, although I had yet to hear the term.  Working for major software corporation for many years, I ran successful Content Management and Collaboration technology consulting practices that helped our customers take advantage of web technologies and thought myself well-versed in the implications of digital communication on things like security, identity, brand, presence, and other dimensions of the implementation discussion.  I expected to come into this class and excel simply based on the fact that this was a realm I understood and I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  For while my understanding was perhaps sufficient to help a customer address a need, I missed the big picture that a solid theoretical foundation provides.  In addition, I could have likely added far more value to my customers by helping them think through the implications of digital media on their business, relationships with customers, relationships with partners, and opportunities and risk to their brand reputation.  Life is full of ironies.

             During the course, I started a blog to chronicle my personal journey to graduate with honors, but more importantly as a personal exploration of digital media, and found myself grappling with issues I had previously only encountered as a thought experiment during the class; a powerful way to learn, indeed (Rock, 2011a).

There are a number of perspectives that have influenced my thinking during the course.  I was struck by the simplicity and elegance of Symbolic Interactionism as a theoretical framework, and because it leads to an important philosophical question about the growth of meaning; how will humanity transform as the volume of interactions grow exponentially as the rest of the world joins the network?  In the past, interactions tended largely to be bound in both time and space and now neither is true, there are very few boundaries in the virtual world.

Social shaping of technology is another theoretical perspective that influenced me during the course.  I believe there are deterministic elements of technology that ties to the capabilities that technology affords, and yet observe that often people use technology in ways that designers never envisioned.  Who would have thought during design that Twitter could help overturn an authoritarian regime?  From a purely business point of view, social shaping theory means that we in the software engineering business need to pay close attention to how our products are used.

Of course, the question that most dominated my thoughts during the course was the democratic nature of the medium.  The Arab Spring opened my eyes to the fact that something very different was happening in the world and digital media was at the center of it.  I realized very quickly, that digital media was having profound implications on humanity and wondered at the implications for family, my business, nations, and myself.  It appears to me that Internet and the World Wide Web are significantly shifting the balance of power between individuals, minorities, and dominant hierarchies and believe that humanity may be on the cusp of a new understanding of what it means to be human.  Long have our differences been used as a means of controlling access to resources and our entire system of economics is based on that idea.  I think that the Web is going to give us an opportunity to rethink what it means to be human and how to share.  I know that others see the Web as simply a reflection of humanity, but I do not ascribe to that view because the balance of power is changing, myths are being exposed for what they are, and once dominant entities have given way, while others continue to fight.  It may sound like I am subscribing to some utopian view, and in the end, perhaps I am.  However, throughout history, most power struggles have been violent, and if we look to the example of Libya, this power struggle between Netizens and the dominant hierarchies that control them has the same potential.  I am a firm believer that the natural state of humanity is freedom and so the idea of such a powerful equalizing force appeals strongly to my ideals.


New Media, New Perspectives


Image from : Patrick Hoesly

In an era characterized by technologies that enabled one-to-one and one-to-many communication, media studies have been dominated by the relationship between producers and consumers of information, focusing on the effects of media.  Digital media, whose communication paradigm includes one-to-one and one-to-many, also includes many-to-many communication, forcing those involved in media studies to reconsider commonly held beliefs and theoretical frameworks in light of the new technology (Quinn, 2011).  Which theoretical approaches are most useful to cultivate in accounting for the fundamental changes brought about by new media, and conversely, which theoretical approaches may no longer be relevant?  In order to account for the fundamental changes that have occurred and are likely to occur, it is useful to consider the media ecology to understand the how changes in the media technology may alter society as a new equilibrium is achieved.  Already, the introduction of digital media has wrought unanticipated changes in the ecology and had a surprising impact on the world.

The introduction of many-to-many relationships in media is based on the internet; ubiquitous, global, social, and cheap, digital media allows consumers to also be producers and share information in ways not possible in the era of broadcast (Shirky, 2009).   Additionally, the number of possible interactions in the network is the number of participants squared; meaning the number of interactions will larger than ever before in human history (Shirky, 2009).  Symbolic interactionism states that meaning is created as a process negotiated through interaction between people (Nelson, 1998).  As the number of interactions grows, what new meaning will be created and what possible impacts can it have on society?

Photograph: Magharebia / Creative Commons

Consider the recent Arab Spring, where millions of people across many countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, organized, protested, in most cases created significant social change, both intended and unintended.  “It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator” (Nelson, 1998, p. 1).   Suddenly, people throughout the region were sharing their discontent and inspiration via social media, and in the process, circumventing traditional state-sponsored media entirely.  What new meaning did the image of the shopkeeper convey and how did it galvanize a country and ultimately an entire region?  A recent report from the Dubai School of Government found “empirical evidence suggesting that the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change” (Dubai School of Government, 2011, p. 24).  The democratization of media ultimately led to the democratization of some countries long known for autocratic rule.

When viewed through a lens of media ecology, it appears that in certain autocracies, like Egypt and Tunisia, digital media has given people a capability to circumvent traditional broadcast media, ultimately becoming an agent of social change. What new equilibrium will come about as governments grapple with digital media?  Will governments embrace social media to develop a more participatory political process or perhaps seek new media technologies that allow them to control or shape the new flow of meaning?  Of course, both are already occurring in different parts of the world.  Shirkey described President Obama using social media to mobilize his base of supporters and engage them in the political process during his campaign and described China’s wholesale shutdown of Twitter on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in an attempt to control the risk of digital media.   It is clear that both governments and mainstream media will seek ways to tap into the vast flows of meaning that span the network interactions in an attempt to either harness, subvert, or control digital media in an effort to maintain their gatekeeper role.

Image: curiouslee via Creative Commons

Given that digital media has begun to erode the power of traditional media gatekeepers, what of the gatekeeper theory, associated theories like agenda-setting, framing, and semantics and their relevance for the future?  Some suggest the internet has rendered gatekeeping passé (Williams & Carpini, 2000), however, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant as along as mainstream media are part of the media ecology, albeit with less significance given that information flows freely.  Additionally, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant in media-savvy countries like China that maintain tight control of all media.

It is clear that digital media will be a revolution in media unlike any the world has seen.  Perhaps generations from now, media historians will discuss digital media as more revolutionary than even the printing press.  Those in media studies have an unparalleled opportunity to rethink existing media theory in light of the changes taking place all over the world as society comes to terms with the new technology.  Many existing perspectives, like media ecology and symbolic interactionism, will continue to provide useful insights to media scholars, while others, like gatekeeping may become less germane.

References

Dubai School of Government. (2011). Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter Arab Social Media Report (Vol. 1, pp. 1-30). Dubai: Dubai School of Government.

Nelson, L. D. (1998). Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionsm  Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/Papers/App_Papers/Nelson.htm

Quinn, S. (2011). Module 2: theoretical perspectives and challenges of digital communication, from http://csuglobal.blackboard.com/courses/1/FALL11A-8-COM305-1/content/_320329_1/dir_xid-44757_2/com305_2.html

Shirky, C. (Producer). (2009, July 23, 2011). How Social Media Can Make History. Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

Williams, B. A., & Carpini, M. X. D. (2000). Unchained reaction: the collapse of media gatekeeping and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Journalism, 1(1), 61-85.


Hypothesis: Liminal business


Major U.S. corporations that predate the Internet are liminal businesses that exist in the space between the traditional economics of the 20th century and an emergent economy characterized by fundamentally different human behaviors and values; as a result, many are likely to experience significant business disruption by new competitors that understand how the world is changing and have the flexibility to align their products and services to the new value system.

In a nutshell, I think that many mainstream businesses are embracing social media as tools without necessarily having an understanding of how human behavior is changing as a result.  Examples are all over the place, of people getting together in unique ways with their own agenda for change.
  • Open source versus corporate built: Linux, Wikipedia, Firefox, Shareware, Freeware
  • Product-service systems versus product manufacturers: hardware and software solutions versus SaaS
  • redistribution versus hyperconsumption
  • carrot and stick versus autonomy, mastery and purpose
  • peer recommended versus brand identity
  • trusted behaviors versus credit report
  • friction versus flow
  • me versus we
  • and on and on.
Early in the class I was struck by symbolic interactionism and the implication of the idea that meaning is created through the interaction between people.  What does that mean for a society that has developed an exponential capability to interact through many-to-many communication mechanisms when interaction volumes increase astronomically?  I suspect it means a period of rapid change where new ideas take hold and are implemented by people rather than institutions (open source, arab spring, collaborative consumption, etc), simply because of rapid growth of cognitive surplus applied in altruistic ways (e.g. microfinancing) to address pervasive problems that mainstream institutions can’t seem to solve.  I think there is evidence (on web sites) that many businesses do not understand how fundamental the changes are and simply view social media as a new set of tools by which to market, advertise, and reach people, rather than applying social media strategically to address fundamental shifts in behavior and values.

Symbolic Interactionism – meaning arises out of interaction with each other a.k.a. When ideas have sex


Just watched Matt Ridley’s optimistic TED talk on the power of exchange, relating law of comparative advantage to the realm of ideas and meaning. 

 I have been musing on social interactionism since my first sociology class, because the idea of meaning created through interaction resonated in my mind.  Made me curious about the impact of many-to-many communication made possible by Internet, digital media, and peer to peer technology allowing a never-before-seen-in-human-history volume of interactions.  What does it portend for meaning?  Ridley sees it as the exchange of ideas (or as he puts it, when ideas have sex and reproduce) creating greater prosperity a.l.a. Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage.  Pretty compelling argument, makes me believe that rise of collaborative consumption and other altruistic notions made possible by crowd, network, p2p, is the result of our ideas having sex.


Mainstream business institutions woefully behind the times


Just saw Botsman’s point of view on how human behavior is being changed by technology and evolving from hyper-consumption to collaborative consumption,

 because of peer to peer technology, unresolved environmental problems, global recession and renewed focus on community.  It’s a brilliant talk and provides a new insight into the appeal of SaaS.  Also has me thinking about other products that have require high investment and large idle capacity and how mainstream businesses likely don’t understand some of the human behavior behind the trends.