Are Social Media, Social? (Part Seven)

First let me say that I have really appreciated all of the carefully thought out comments sent in by readers. The last two entries including this one directly and indirectly reference your input.

Go to this site to follow the latest local news in your area. Much like Twitter, FWIX lets you follow the local news based on your interests. This is not dissimilar to the aggregate approach taken by many blogs like the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. The core difference is that news sites select their bloggers, while FWIX relies on entries produced by locals. A site like NowPublic which started in Vancouver but was bought out by a Denver based investment firm, also relies on public participation although there is a good deal more vetting than on other social news sites.

To what degree is the news different on these aggregate sites and what does this say about the use of media? What is the difference between traditional broadcast news and social news? Or, have we all become journalists, writers and commentators on the communities we live in and on the broader political stories that we share?

Part of what makes social media distinct is the *strength* of the ties between people and the stories and messages they exchange. The suggestion that living in a city makes you an expert on local stories depends on many factors not the least of which is what community you belong to, what your work is and where you live. There is no guarantee that being a local confers any greater depth upon a writer or observer. In fact, in some instances the opposite claim can be made. I would suggest that social news broadens the base of potential stories but that the vast majority of what is published is essentially hearsay. In general, with some exceptions, social news sites become a reflection of a small number of users and writers who effectively take on the job for the community of readers.

Digg uses submissions from readers to build a picture of the importance of some topics over others. Numbers count. In 2006 it became apparent that a small number of writers were manipulating the ratings in order to dominate not only the trends of the time, but also to promote their own blogs. An investigation showed that thirty users had taken over.

The internal picture that we have of the Internet makes it appear as if everything we do and say within its confines will have an audience. The network is so large, that news aggregation in particular gives off the impression of connectivity and currency. There is no obvious way of testing these claims other than through a quantitative analysis of visitors and some in-depth studies of usage patterns and learning experiences. Rating a story is not good enough. Feedback is essential to the lifeblood of social news but in reality only a few sites attract the traffic to make them relevant.

This is where Twitter comes in. The brilliance of this short messaging system was all too obvious during the crisis in Iran last year. It has also been very useful in other crisis situations in Africa and Asia. No claims are made to journalistic truth. Twitter entries are newsy without all the baggage of the news attached to them. Recent events in Thailand bore this out, as protesters were able to keep track of their own and the police's movements throughout Bangkok and news agencies used the Twitter entries to explain what was happening.

However, let's delve a bit more deeply into this. The following quote may articulate some of the complications here:

While the standard definition of a social network embodies the notion of all the people with whom one shares a social relationship, in reality people interact with very few of those "listed" as part of their network. One important reason behind this fact is that attention is the scarce resource in the age of the web. Users faced with many daily tasks and large number of social links default to interacting with those few that matter and that reciprocate their attention. For example, a recent study of Facebook showed that users only poke and message a small number of people while they have a large number of declared friends. And a casual search through recent calls made through any mobile phone usually reveals that a small percentage
of the contacts stored in the phone are frequently contacted by the user.
(Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu Social Computing Lab, HP Laboratories, arXiv:0812.1045v1 [cs.CY] 4 Dec 2008)

In the same article, the authors talk about how after analyzing thousands of Twitter users they came to the conclusion that even with a large following, the central motivating factor in most tweets is to keep friends and family updated on both personal and public news. Their analysis also showed that the number of friends and family involved in the exchanges were quite small. Once again, the overall size of the network as a whole is making it appear as if more is actually going on than is possible given the daily habits of most users. As it turns out, a tiny number of Twitter personalities and sites gather in most of the usage. As with the news, over time, readers will default to a small number of acceptable sources.

A December, 2008 PEW study showed that eleven percent of Americans who are online use Twitter. The mental image we have is of something far larger going on and guess where that has come from? Broadcast media, in other words, television, and the twenty or so most visited news sites on the web which are also the most traditional.

More on this in my next posting. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

Part Eight 

  • 5 Innovative Websites That Could Reshape the News (


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    Are social media, social?

    Warning: This is a long article and not necessarily suitable to a glance. (See below on glances.)

    I have been thinking a great deal about social media these days not only because of their importance, but also because of their ubiquity. There are some fundamental contradictions at work here that need more discussion. Let's take Twitter. Some people have thousands of followers. What exactly are they following? And more crucially, what does the word follow mean in this context?

    Twitter is an endless flow of news and links between friends and strangers. It allows and sometimes encourages exchanges that have varying degrees of value. Twitter is also a tool for people who don't know each other to learn about shared interests. These are valuable aspects of this tightly wrought medium that tend towards the interactivity of human conversation.

    On the other hand, Twitter like many Blogs is really a broadcast medium. Sure, followers can respond. And sometimes, comments on blog entries suggest that a "reading" has taken place. But, individual exchanges in both mediums tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal.

    The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions. So, on Twitter we can make claims or state what we feel with few of the direct results that might occur if we had to face our ‘followers’ in person.

    Blogs and web sites live and die because they can trace and often declare the number of ‘hits’ they receive. What exactly is a hit? Hit is actually an interesting word since its original meaning was to come upon something and to meet with…. In the 21st century, hits are about visits and the more visits you have the more likely you have an important web presence. Dig into Google Analytics and you will notice that they actually count the amount of time ‘hitters” spend on sites. The average across many sites is no more than a few seconds. Does this mean that a hit is really a glance? And what are the implications of glancing at this and that over the period of a day or a month? A glance is by definition short (like Twitter) and quickly forgotten. You don’t spend a long time glancing at someone.

    Let’s look at the term Twitter a bit more closely. It is a noun that means “tremulous excitement.” But, its real origins are related to gossiping. And, gossiping is very much about voyeurism. There is also a pejorative sense to Twitter, chattering, chattering on and on about the same thing. So, we are atwitter with excitement about social media because they seem to extend our capacity to gossip about nearly everything which may explain why Justin Bieber has been at the top of discussions within the twitterverse. I am Canadian and so is he. Enough said.

    Back to follow for a moment. To follow also means to pursue. I will for example twitter about this blog entry in an effort to increase the readership for this article. In a sense, I want you the reader, to pursue your interest in social media with enough energy to actually read this piece! To follow also means to align oneself, to be a follower. You may as a result wish to pursue me @ronburnett.

    But the real intent of the word follow is to create a following. And the real intent of talking about hits is to increase the number of followers. All in all, this is about convincing people that you have something important and valuable to say which means that social media is also about advertising and marketing. This explains why businesses are justifiably interested in using social media and why governments are entering the blogosphere and the twitterverse in such great numbers.

    Here is the irony. After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow. Trends become more important than the actual content. Quantity rules just like Google, where the greater the number of hits, the more likely you will have a site that advertisers want to use. Remember, advertisers assume that a glance will have the impact they need to make you notice that their products exist. It is worth noting that glancing is also derived from the word slippery.

    As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic. I am not trying to be negative here. Twitter me and find out.

    Part Two

    Facebook Lands Patent for News Feed

    Social networking site is awarded patent for news feed activity stream, potentially giving it a monopoly on the technology behind an essential feature on dozens of sites across the social Web.

    Social networking giant Facebook has won a patent for its news feed feature, locking in the intellectual property rights to one of its most popular features.

    The patent describes "a method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment," detailing the flow and filtering of information about people's activities across the site. Read more.....

    To Read (The Kindle)

    Is there a difference between reading and skimming? In some circumstances, skimming web pages for example, a great deal of information can be assimilated quickly and efficiently. The [danger in the digital age]( is that skimming will become the norm for reading and the more detailed and beautiful aspects of the English language, the nuances and shades of meaning found in metaphors and worked over sentences will disappear. Language and the ways in which humans [use writing]( to express the complexity of thoughts and emotions cannot be reduced to a quick look or a quick read. Language is an elastic and infinitely changeable medium. It can accommodate a wide variety of shortcuts (UR for "you are") as well as abuses. But, the ways in which we use writing in particular to express our deepest as well as most profound thoughts requires sensitive and careful readers. As skimming becomes the norm, the question to ask is whether or not we can slow down the process of reading effectively enough to grab its subtleties.

    Ironically, the [Kindle]( which is an [electronic]( reader made by Amazon, does just that. The comfort that we have developed with screens is translated beautifully and simply into the Kindle. This light, thin and carefully thought out technology may just create the balance between skimming and reading that will keep the [power and beauty of language from disappearing](

    The Transformation of Culture (2)

    In my previous post, I talked about the new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

    Gehry and MIT


    Frank Gehry's building at MIT is a wonder to behold. The building is home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Its striking design - featuring tilting towers, many-angled walls and whimsical shapes - challenges much of the conventional wisdom of laboratory and campus building.


    Jaron Lanier and The Hazards of Online Collectivism

    Jaron Lanier, who is famous for having coined the term virtual reality and the concepts that go with it, wrote an essay in late May that has provoked discussion all over the internet. Here is a quote from the piece. The complete article can be found at the EDGE website. The essay is entitled, "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism."

    The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It's been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. At the very least it's a success at revealing what the online people with the most determination and time on their hands are thinking, and that's actually interesting information.

    No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

    The EDGE also has 28 pages of responses to what Lanier says.

    The essence of his argument is that collaborative work on the net has become increasingly hive-like. This leads to a "group mentality" approach to ideas and the notion that the "collective is all-wise." The result is a tyranny of the majority with a simultaneous loss of value both to intellectual depth and the way democracies operate. He is particularly critical of wikipedia— the online encyclopedia which is being built by individuals from all over the world in much the same manner as open source software. I have commented on wikipedia before. Some of Lanier's fears are well-founded, but for the most part, his comments don't explain or clarify why networked forms of knowledge contruction are any more hive-based than most intellectual projects. Generally, irrespective of the type of knowledge or information produced, there are communities of interest that define and reinforce the concepts, categories and arguments that they support. This has been discussed in great depth by people like Bruno Latour and Elias Canetti wrote an important "Crowds and Power," in 1962 on the phenomenon of mass hysteria and the tendency to a kind of viral effect when large groups of people operate in tandem.

    Lanier's points need discussion, not the least because networked forms of interaction on the scale that we are seeing at the moment are still very new. That said, there is not much to his analysis of conventional media. He is too skeptical of Popular Culture and gives too much weight to the role of sites like Wikipedia. His concern, that the aggregative role played by the many sites that are about sites is overstated. He is worried that these meta-sites will play an overly powerful role as arbiters of taste and choice. I think in this, he underestimates the intelligence of Internet users. Nonetheless, an important article to read.

    From Community Media to International Networks

    This blog entry proposes to briefly explore the transformation from the local context of community media to the creation of national and international information networks. This move from traditional community-based forms of media expression to digital, computer mediated communications systems foreshadows not only a shift in social processes, but a profound change in social structure. My objective will be to suggest possible approaches to research in the transitional areas that encompass what we now describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new agenda of research about exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples). The research has to be historical, theoretical and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people’s lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy.

    I would like to propose that urban (and in many cases, rural) FreeNets and community-based networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have generated a radically different public sphere, whose structure and organization presage a profound realignment of what we have traditionally understood as community and as local communications. Shifts of the kind that I am discussing here are never as dramatic as one would assume from the more general claims made about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based digital forms of communications into action and to have some effect, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with and without the media. However, the potential for inter-connection is now so much more developed and profound that the orientation of community activism is more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools.

    The effects of this change on the policy environment and the ways in which citizenship is defined in an information-oriented society, will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future. Conventional notions of advocacy, community work and planning will alter as the practices and efforts of community activists become more and more dependent upon a variety of digital and virtual tools of communication. It will be essential to both recognize and analyze the fact that community activists are making use of a variety of mediums and that each of these mediums has a set of characteristics that both influence and shape the nature of the communications process.

    Community oriented digital networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, but also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives into political engagement, as community networks became the home of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. This has implications for how we think about structuring the policy and regulatory environment. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will have to change. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression and the priorities of the community?

    Community-based networks are defined by a spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good. There are similarities between radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980’s. FreeNets developed from bulletin boards and now a variety of web-based interfaces exist alongside previous efforts to promote grassroots participation in the community. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of these networks. In particular, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tended to see the use of emerging technologies for communications from the rather jaundiced eye of regulatory policies that are based on broadcasting models. Although the CRTC has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian content. “The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today’s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated ‘global’ information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society.

    Yet, the community-based use of digital forms of communications is not necessarily in competition with global interests. Nor is the orientation of these networks defined by commercial gain. The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole. The assumption of convergence, in this case, the combination of a variety of different communications industries, obscures the urgent need for the grassroots to define its own mode and modality of interaction. The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how digital forms of communication transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community in an information-oriented environment can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. It is about spontaneous linkages that create networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. The underlying policy framework for this process has to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity. We have also have to recognize that the freedom to communicate does not come without costs. In saying all of this, I am not advocating a free- for-all strategy. I am suggesting that the conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication and policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. To do this, they will have to alter their research agenda. They will have to ensure that the “freedom to communicate" is not decided upon by the telecommunications giants while at the same time encouraging more and more communities to take responsibility for what they say and how they use the networks they are building.

    A question from a reader

    If Wikipedia were an art school, what would it look like?

    This question was posed by Ian Wojtowicz who has been very active in contributing to this Blog. It is a brilliant thought. For those of you who haven't explored Wikipedia it is one of the largest open source collaborations in the world, an encyclopedia that has been put together by contributors from all over the world.

    I will respond to Ian in greater detail over the next few days.

    Reflections on New Media (9)

    This is the second part of my presentation at the [Refresh Conference in New Media]( at the Banff Centre

    So, the resistance to the appearance of different media forms may explain why media were renamed as new media. It may explain why someone like Lev Manovich relies on the trope of the cinema to explain the many complex levels that make up media landscapes and imageworlds. New in this instance is not only an escape from history, but also suggests that history is not important.

    There is another important question here. What makes a medium specific discipline a discipline in any case? Is it the practice of the creators? Is it the fact that a heritage of production and circulation has built up enough to warrant analysis? I think not. Disciplines are produced through negotiation among a variety of players crossing the boundaries of industry, academia and the state. The term New Media has been built upon this detritus, and is a convenient way in which to develop a nomenclature that designates in a part for whole kind of way, that an entire field has been created. But, what is that field? Is it the sum total of the creative work within its rather fluid boundaries? Is it the sum total of the scholarly work that has been published? Is it the existence of a major journal that both celebrates and promotes not only its own existence but also the discipline itself?

    These issues of boundary making are generally driven by political as well as cultural considerations. They are often governed by curatorial priorities developed through institutions that have very specific stakes in what they are promoting. None of these activities per se may define or even explain the rise, fall and development of various disciplines. But, as a whole, once in place, disciplines close their doors both as a defensive measure, but also to preserve the history of the struggle to come into being.

    I am not suggesting by any means that things have not changed. I am not saying that digital media are simply extensions of existing forms of expression. I am saying that the struggle to define the field or discipline of media studies has always been an ongoing characteristic of both artistic and scholarly work in media. The permanence of this quasi existential crisis interests me. For the most part, for example, media studies ran into a wall when cultural studies appeared as an extension of English Departments, and when Communication Studies grew into an important discipline in its own right in the late 1950’s. Why? Suddenly, everyone was studying the media, commenting about popular culture, appropriating (mushing and mixing) intellectual traditions in a variety of different and often anarchic ways. But, somehow, the discipline as such grew into further and further levels of crisis. Which intellectual model works best? Does one use structural or post-structural modes of analysis? How can we factor in the linguistic, semiotic and ethnographic elements, and also bring in the contextual, political components? So, this is where I return to vantage point.

    Juxtapose the following: The film, The Polar Express by Robert Zemeckis, which bridges the gap between digital worlds and the human body and tries to humanize an entirely artificial world; The American election of 2004 which relied on the Internet both for information and misinformation; the spectacular growth of web sites, like, which extend the way humans interact, communicate and develop relationships; the growth of Blogs, which have pushed publishing from the corporate world to the individual; the growing importance of search engines and popular discussions of how to engage with a sea of information; and finally, the spectacular growth of games, game consoles and on-line gaming.

    Together, these and many other elements constitute image-worlds, which like a sheath cover the planet, allowing and encouraging workers in India to become office employees of large companies in the West and Chinese workers to produce goods and manage inventories on an unimaginable scale. These image-worlds operate at micro and macro levels. They are all encompassing, a bath of sounds and pictures immersing users in the manipulation of information both for exchange and as tools of power.

    Picture these image-worlds as millions of intersecting concentric circles built in pyramidal style, shaped into forms that turn metal into messages and machines into devices that operate at the nano-level. Then imagine using a cell phone/PDA to call up some information that locates humans on a particular street as was done during the crisis in Louisiana and you have processes that are difficult to understand let alone see without a clear and specific choice of vantage point.

    Can I stand, so to speak above the fray? How do I escape from this process long enough to be able to look back or ahead? Does Google represent the vantage point? Since historical analysis is by its very nature retrospective and since time is at best an arbitrary metaphor for continua, am I left with a series of fragments, most of which splay off in different directions? It is an irony that the thrust of this conference has been so archeological, trying to pick up the pieces, show what has been missed, connections that have not been made, as if retrospection is suddenly adequate irrespective of politics, conflict and ethics. Most interesting from my point of view is the use of the cognitive and neurosciences, dominated as they are by positivism and empiricism. Even more to the point, and to give you a sense of how important vantage points are, take the best example of all, the computer sciences which until very recently had transformed subjectivity into that insidious term user and for whom the cybernetic dream of linking input and output has determined the shape and form of most computer programs.

    The digital age or perhaps better put, the algorithmic age, makes these issues all the more urgent because if the fundamental tropes for human subjectivity can so easily be reduced to terms like user, then not to understand the origins of the research in engineering that went into the trope pose many dangers. Tor Norretranders brilliant book, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (1998) investigates this problem in great depth and it is clear to me that richer paradigms of computer/human interaction are needed if we are to move beyond the limitations of mechanical modes of thinking about digital technologies and their impact on human consciousness. Yet, “ user is also an outgrowth of devalued models of subjectivity within media studies itself, a confluence of the media’s own evaluation of its viewers (ie the couch potato metaphor) as well as the challenge of studying viewing itself. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the ebb and flow of analysis in media studies. At times, particularly in the early to mid-seventies with the advent and growth of feminism, subjectivity became a site of contestation with a variety of methods from psychoanalysis to sociology to linguistics used as avenues into analysis, criticism and interpretation. All of that heterogeneity is now built into the analysis of new media with varying degrees of success and often with no reference to the historical origins of the intellectual models in use. Subjectivity remains a site of contestation as a concept, explanation and framework for understanding what humans do with the technologies and objects they use.

    The conflation of user with experience, the reduction of subjectivity to action and reaction, is only possible if theory and analysis put to the side the far more complex side of human thought and that is the imagination. Digital experiences are highly mediated by technology but imagination, fantasy and daydreams increase the levels of complexity and add many more levels of mediation to the rich interrelationships that humans have with their cultures. All of these levels need to be disentangled if a variety of vantage points are to be constructed. Perhaps then, media studies can begin to make some claims about a paradigm shift of enough strength to warrant the use of the term new…..

    Reflections on New Media (8)

    This is the first part of my presentation at the recent Refresh Conference in New Media at the Banff Centre . For those of you who have read my book, there is a wonderful discussion taking place in Professor Dene Grigar's graduate class at the Texas Woman's University

    Moments in time — is that what remains of each event that the media covers? There is no giant archive in the sky or database on earth that could possibly record, organize and present the extraordinary wealth of information that now processes itself through every day, every instant, in tandem with every breath that humans take (with all due respect to Google). The flow of information is both circular and endless. To me this flow is an inherent part of what I call imagescapes and imageworlds. The challenge is how to find one or many vantage points that will facilitate analysis, interpretation and description and that will permit imageworlds and imagescapes to be understood beyond a simple phenomenological scrutiny of their surface characteristics. What methods of analysis will work best here and which methods have become less relevant? I would suggest that method (the many ways in which the analysis of phenomena is approached, analyzed and synthesized) is largely dependent on vantage point, which is a concept that is closely related to perspective and attitude. This means that not only is the phenomenon important, but also position, placement, who one is and why one has chosen one form of analysis over another (ideological, philosophical or personal) needs to be transparently visible.

    The continuum that links real events with their transformation into images and media forms knows few limits. This is largely because of the power of digital media and digital mediation and is something that has been commented upon in this meeting. It is perhaps not an accident that terrorists, governments and corporations all make use of the same mediated space. We call this the Internet, but that now seems a rather quaint way of describing the multi-leveled network that connects individuals and societies with often-unpredictable outcomes. Networks, to varying degrees, have always been a characteristic of most social contexts. But, the activity of networking as an everyday experience and pursuit has never been as intense as what we have now, nor have the number of mediated experiences been so great. This may well be one of the cornerstones of the new media environment. However, new media as a term, name, or metaphor is too vague to be that useful. There are many different ways of characterizing the creative process, many different methods available to talk about the evolution of networks and technologies and the ways in which creative work is distributed, and the extraordinarily intense way in which communities and individuals look for and create connections to each other. The activities that are encapsulated by the term media are broad and extend across so many areas, that the danger is that no process of categorization may work. Typologies (of which we have been shown many at this conference) become encyclopedic so that what we end up with are lists that describe an evolving field but no vantage points to question the methodological choices being made. What distinguishes one list from another?

    To understand why New Media may have been convenient for both scholars and artists one need only look at the evolution of media studies. Although humans have always used a variety of media forms to express themselves and although these forms have been an integral part of culture, and in some instances the foundation upon which certain economies have been built, the study of media only developed into a discipline in the 20th century. There are many reasons for this including and perhaps most importantly, the growth of printing from a text-based activity to the mass reproduction of images (something that has been commented on by many different theorists and practitioners). The convergence of technology and reproduction has been the subject of intense artistic scrutiny for 150 years. Yet, aside from Museums like MOMA the disciplines that we now take for granted, like film, photography, television and so on, came into being in universities only after an intense fight and the quarrel continues to this day. The arguments were not only around the value of works in these areas, (photography for example, was not bought by serious art collectors until the latter half of the 20th century which may or may not be a validation of photography’s importance), but around the legitimacy of studying various media forms given their designation as the antithesis of high culture. Film was studied in English Departments. Photography was often a part of Art History Departments. Twenty years after television started to broadcast to mass audiences in the early 1950’s there were only a handful of texts that had been written, and aside from extremely critical assertions about the negative effects of TV on an unsuspecting populace (the Postman-Chomsky phenomenon), most of the discourse was descriptive. The irony is that even Critical Theory in the 1930’s which was very concerned with media didn’t really break the scholarly iceberg that had been built around various media forms. It took the convergence of structuralism, semiotics and linguistics in the late 1960’s, a resurgence of phenomenology and a reconceptualization of the social and political role of the state to provoke a new era of media study. In Canada, this was felt most fully through the work of McLuhan and Edmond Carpenter and was brought to a head by the powerful convergence of experimentation in cinema and video combined with the work of artists in Intermedia, performance and music. Another way of thinking about this is to ask how many people were studying rock and roll in 1971? After all, rock and roll was disseminated through radio, another medium that was not studied seriously until well after its invention (sound based media have always been the step-children of visual media).

    Part Nine…

    Bad News, Richard Posner and New Media

    Richard Posner, who is a Federal Appeals court Judge as well as Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and an active Blogger, is one of the most prolific writers in the United States. He has a lengthy article in the New York Times Book Review, Sunday, July 31, 2005.

    It is a superb piece of writing and a profound analysis of the role that the media play in the everyday lives of the American people. He makes a series of points that I would like to comment on: the proliferation of Blogs means that audiences have more power; that the traditional press has lost a significant percentage of its readership, especially among the generation of twenty to forty-year olds; that the media have become more sensational and polarized along traditional political fault lines of right and left. There is a great deal more in the article, but these three points are central to the Posner’s direction and orientation.

    It is interesting the Posner has the stated aim of reviving and enriching public discourse and that he has on numerous occasions commented on the weakening of the role of the public intellectual in American life.


    The vast majority of Blogs are directed towards a very small readership. They are really more like old style bulletin boards, written sometimes for the pleasure of writing and other times to proclaim allegiance to one or another of the many ideologies that surround us. In general, however, the vast majority of Blogs are private and confessional in orientation. They testify to the everyday experiences that people have, but more importantly Blogs are a sign of the extraordinary importance that Bloggers place on the activities of writing. Ironically, it is the news media, which has highlighted a relatively small number of Blogs and made them the reference point for what is happening in the Blogosphere as a whole. Clearly, publicity is a good thing for those Blogs that receive it. But, for the most part, Blogs are private affairs, diaries that have the potential to be read by a large number of people, but generally are read by family and friends. Are they important? Absolutely. Are they a significant shift in the way the public (which is an amorphous term anyway) sees itself and its neighbors? Yes. Is news being disseminated in a different way because there are now so many people commenting on nearly every aspect of American life? Yes, but here I depart from Posner’s analysis, because my own feeling is that that it is almost impossible to summarize what is being said with the kind of accuracy that is needed to explain and comment upon most Blogs.

    Blogs, in my opinion are not about the creation of large communities of interest. They are about communities dividing into smaller and smaller groups with people sharing their interests and concerns through the written word and sometimes through the use of visuals. Blogs reflect and represent something akin to what happens among people when they use the telephone to talk to friends and family. They are about telling stories and more often than not, the stories aren’t that interesting to anyone outside the group. Posner makes a common error in media analysis. He uses the mainstream media themselves as the source for commentary on Blogs. What we need, I believe, is a more historical overview, which links Blogs to nineteenth and twentieth century reading clubs and other organized community based clubs and groups.