Tuesday 9 March 2010

Studying Me-dia: the Problem of Method in a Post-Broadcast Age

This is just a first draft of a few thoughts about the problems of methodology in a post-broadcast era in which the totality of broadcast production is supplemented by the entire world of me-dia - of personal communications, collaborative productions, shared information, user-generated content, and networked relationships. It's a pessimistic scenario but I'm convinced the issues are serious ones. Comments and emails welcome.

The question of method is central to many humanities and social sciences. Much thought is given to the question of how to produce and legitimate disciplinary knowledge and many different methodologies have been formalized, discussed and employed. Media studies has a range of favoured methodologies which it uses. Images are subjected to semiotic analysis and texts are analysed using content analysis and discourse analysis, whilst audiences are studied using both qualitative and quantitative methods, from ethnographic observation, open-questionnaires and interviews to more formal, structured questionnaires and interviews. The success of these methods depends, however, on an uncomplicated relationship between the researcher and their object. It is this relationship that gets increasingly muddied by developments in digital media. In particular I’d like to suggest the following challenges to traditional empirical analyses.

The first problem is one of volume. We know the broadcast-era was marked by the industrial factory-line identical, serial mass-production of information, messages and products and their distribution by road, rail or airwaves to encompass and culturally cement together entire populations. Add up all the products of these industries every day and we have a huge volume of media output – an output that broadcast-era media studies could only sample. In the post-broadcast era we have all that plus our own horizontal communications and user-generated content. Add up the almost continuous one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many production of communication, responses, comments and messages we all engage in and we can see that this constitutes a remarkable volume of additional media for the researcher to deal with. And this output is not created by the media factories but through individuals, networks and groups managing their relationships and sharing their lives, thoughts and experiences. It builds up incrementally, with every new message, every post, every update, every comment, every photo, every video and every page. The audience reach of each posting may be tiny but its personal meaning, attention and cumulative effect is huge.

Unlike television, as Raymond Williams famously analyses it in his 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, this isn’t a ‘flow’ – me-dia has a different experiential temporality: both synchronous and asynchronous. It involves the creation of multiple, synchronous, ongoing messages and productions, with many conversations and contributions happening simultaneously, but each of these is also asynchronous as messages are sent and replies are delayed in discovery and response. Many messages disappear and only some take; some take moments to return, others take minutes, hours, days or more; some die after a brief burst whilst others continue with endlessly changing or shifting titles or content over weeks or months.

This is a near-global ongoing process of the production and pushing of personal messages that can barely be charted other than through abstract company data chronicling the quantity involved, the information flows and the user numbers. The Mobile Data Association, for example, reported in January 2010 that British people sent 874m texts on New Year’s Eve 2009 (up from 400m on the same day in 2008); that they sent 96.8bn texts in the whole of 2009 (up from 78.9bn in 2008 and 56.9bn in 2007); that they sent 601m picture and video messages in 2009 (up from 553m in 2008 and 449m in 2007); with an average in 2009 of 265m texts and 1.6m picture messages a day. By 2010 Youtube’s factsheet was reporting that 20 hours of new video was being uploaded every minute, whilst the production of social networking content is obviously greater. In March 2010 the Facebook website was claiming over 400m active users with more than 60 million status updates being posted every day; 3bn photos uploaded every month; more than 5 billion pieces of content (web-links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums etc.) shared each week, and more than 3.5m events being created every month.

If we add to this all our other personal messaging services, forums, blogs and other activity this begins to give us some idea of the volume involved but it doesn’t help us deal with it. If broadcasting already overwhelmed the researcher, the post-broadcast output eclipses it. Whilst broadcast production was predictable enough to be sampled (in genres such as rom-com, sci-fi and action-movies etc. or categories such as broadsheet and tabloid), the complexity of much of our digital production arguably resists this. We simply can’t keep up with me-dia: media researchers are overwhelmed by the scale of production.

Even comprehending how much is being produced is something that is beyond any academic researcher. The figures of user-production I quoted above came either from private data collection and analysis companies (who release very little information for free, requiring payment for their detailed evidence and reports), or from the web-sites themselves. Whilst Facebook and Youtube are perhaps the only ones who can gain accurate figures regarding the use of their sites one could be suspicious of their neutrality or objectivity given that there is no way to verify any of their claims. An additional problem arising from the volume of production, therefore, is the position of the researcher compared to private companies in discovering and disseminating accurate information about such large phenomena.

The second problem is that of dispersal. Broadcasting was dominated by mainstream, well-known, widely-publicised publishers and distribution channels. The ‘publisher’ of the material, whether a book publishing company, television company, film studio etc., made themselves known and had an official point of contact, making their material available through the expected channels – bookshops, newsagents, cinema, radio frequencies, television channels etc. In contrast much of today’s digital production is atomistic and decentralized. It is happening wherever there are people and wherever there is a connection. Even if the technological channels are identifiable – the mobile network, the broadband connection – the dispersal of its availability and place of ‘publication’ makes it difficult to find or follow. Produced for another’s phone or for a specific website or page we have no conceivable way of mapping all the places me-dia are available. This is the age of thin media: of media spread over every digital outlet.

A third problem is ephemerality. Digital media have a particular relationship with time. As I’ll argue in a later chapter, they can be seen as ephemeral in their physical fragility (the failing hard-rive or USB stick) and loss (the dropped memory stick, the mobile phone left behind in a club or taxi) and in the continued upgrading of obsolete technology (the photos of my children left on my last mobile phone). They are ephemeral in their use and attention: they are the messages and photos that are read, viewed, consumed, passed on, replied to, ignored, deleted, moved on from and almost immediately forgotten (how much of our personal media even survives to the next day?). They are also ephemeral in their relevance and meaning: they relate to present and immediate concerns and personal issues; they relate to what is happening now and one’s personal relations in that moment. Finally they are also ephemeral in their personal and public availability: messages and posts are deleted by ourselves or by administrative individuals on websites and forums. Messages are buried and left behind and sites and pages are left for dead, with their contents and comments forgotten, even inaccessible. In all these ways the ephemerality of much of our digital media impacts upon our ability to study our productions.

Of course in other ways our media aren’t ephemeral. As we’ll see, the retention of electronic trails, of records and copies and archives by hosting companies, websites and ISPs; the long life of our postings and productions (with even long-forgotten pages and comments remaining discoverable); the availability of back-up services (such as Itextuploader which stores texts and personal information), together with the physical survivability of media (the problem of completely wiping or destroying hard-drives), can all ensure the continued survival of media. Broadly, however, we can say that the ephemerality of more personal productions and communication causes problems for their study that don’t exist as much for broadcast media.

The fourth problem is one of access. Whereas the major broadcast media were publicly accessible many of our digital media productions and communications are not. Broadcast products were designed to be open and accessible to the majority of the population: they were made to be seen, were made available through the expected channels and were widely advertised to maximise audiences and revenue. In contrast an individual’s texts, IMs, PMs, social-networking messages, comments, updates, activities and photos are inaccessible without permission and much of it is specifically made not to be seen. This causes a significant problem for media studies which depends upon the ability to recognise and see and analyse media production and consumption. Embedded in private relationships and networks, with highly personal meanings and content and with individuals reluctant to open these spheres up for greater public scrutiny, a significant part of our media productions are invisible to and unavailable for the researcher. Even if they gain access to part of this sphere of media there is no way of ascertaining whether the material is representative: only a miniscule amount could ever be sampled. The key question, therefore, is whether the world of post-broadcast media can ever be adequately studied?

The fifth problem is that of discovery. Alongside questions of access there are questions over how we even find the material we’d like to study. In the broadcast-era that wasn’t a problem. With a limited number of channels of information, listings magazines and advertising pushing the products of the media industries at the population discovery was simple. If anything was missed, reviews and word-of-mouth soon ensured those who missed something would find out about it. The post-broadcast era is very different. We see here a fractal splitting of media interest and attention into entire personalized and optional worlds of specific cultural forms in which we individually sample very little. Our limited interests ensure we miss what all others are interested in. Entire media worlds, interests, fads, jokes, knowledges, arguments and expertise pass silently by us without gaining our attention. Media lecturers are in no privileged position to know about and trace these worlds. Like anyone else they rely upon a limited number of methods – their own interests and hobbies; viral processes such as link-sharing among peers; filter sites such as Digg and mass media reporting of net ‘hits’. For all that these are imperfect tools: we are always missing things and struggle to reflect the diversity of media activities and phenomena today.

A sixth problem is that of content. Traditional media studies studied broadcast content. This was material produced for mass, public consumption, being created for particular reasons, being designed for mass comprehensibility and meaning and possessing prestige and potential cultural significance as an expression of a major productive outlet and its creative staff. In contrast much of our personal, user or peer-produced content is often intended for private or limited consumption, having different modes of meaning, comprehensibility and relevance. It is material with personal or peer significance with few claims to cultural significance or impact. This is a challenge for contemporary media studies: how do you study the ordinariness, incomprehensibility, banality or offensiveness of personal media production. How do you study, and what meaning or significance do we derive from, ‘LOL”, ‘You Suck’, Twat’ and ‘Where RU’?

A seventh problem is the question of ethics. There are, for example, ethical issues in studying individual and peer media production, given the personal nature of the communications and production, the fact that much involves young people (or the age cannot be determined) and much will involve illegal or sensitive activities. Studying media consumer and productive habits that can involve copying and downloading, pornography, libel and abuse and other criminal actions is very difficult yet today studying media consumption and production without including these activities will most likely result in a skewed representation of many people’s behaviour.

The eighth problem is that of production. Broadcast producers were public and locatable whereas me-dia producers may not even be found. Who precisely is the user-name on the sharing sites or forums? How do you establish with certainty the origins and reality of the me-dia content you study? How do you study anonymous, inaccessible producers? In the Post-broadcast era production is often private and identities are hidden.

The ninth, related, problem is that of the audience. As I’ll argue later the concept itself is in need of revision but even on its own terms we are still faced with the problem of how we find these people: how we know about them, identify them, follow their activities and sample and study them. Media studies has often treated the audience as the truth of media – as the teleological end-point and use of a form or message and hence as its ultimate reality and significance, a perspective that both elides the significance of other aspects of communication and mediation and that overlooks the existence of that audience within broader social and cultural and political and economic structures. In this perspective the ‘reality’ of media is discovered by studying individual real-world audience members and asking them about their use and relationship with the text, a method that is seriously compromised by developments in digital media and its anonymity, dispersal and volume. When the ‘audience’ can’t be accurately located, distinguished, claimed as representative or known and questioned with any certainty then this model of academic research is of limited use.

The tenth problem is that of generalisability. A central assumption of natural empirical science was that results obtained and confirmed by observation were spatially and temporally generalisable. Natural ‘laws’ did not vary according to where you were or when it was. Phenomena recorded in one space and time could also be recorded at any place and at any time. The social sciences that emerged in the 19th century were influenced by positivist ideas, taking the practical success of science during that century as the model for their own methods of knowledge production and legitimation. In dealing with human activity and social and cultural phenomena these ‘sciences’ could not realistically produce similar spatially and temporarily generalisable laws but their truth claims did rest on observations that could claim to be objective and that could, they hoped, help to build into a broader picture of media use and meaning. If the evidence couldn’t be absolutely generalized, the broadcast model nevertheless offered enough predictable processes and operations for a broad faith in the truth, value and relevance of the research.

Once we consider media use in the post-broadcast era we realize that we lose even that broad faith. It is more likely that patterns of use, habits and behaviours will increasingly vary once we take into account developments in me-dia and peer or horizontal communication. Plus the fragmentation of users into interest groups with their personalized and optionalised media worlds will reinforce this problem of generalisability. But the real problem is temporal generalisability. The perpetual upgrading and hybridization of digital media technologies, capacities and uses and the variety and ongoing transformation of user behaviours and pleasures means that any knowledge we accrue very rapidly risks being out of date soon after publication. The more specific and detailed the case-study the more it risks its ability to stand for anything other than its own moment and place of capture and its own culture. Our empirical methods, therefore, do exactly what they promise: they tell us, through our observations, what has taken place, but they don’t necessarily tell us about what is happening now.

A final problem I want to suggest is that of accumulation. The Liberal model of science always had a solution to the problems I’ve discussed above: unforced and undirected, freely-chosen scientific enquiry would, it was believed, accumulate into a greater whole, leading (as in the market model, as if directed by an invisible hand) to the most efficient system of knowledge. This model, however, can’t serve media studies today. No amount of individual researchers can cope with the products of me-dia creation and sharing; no amount of researchers can sample, or study, or discover or access, or find enough out about these media worlds. With its more formulaic production, broadcast media could be sampled through studying genres and categories that broadly identified products, demographics and markets. Post-broadcast production doesn’t follow these market-led conventions and is harder to classify and categorise and hence it is harder to sample. Moreover, any sample that is found – types of Youtube video, particular tweeting habits around specific events – is less likely to help contribute to a single, valid, meaningful, coherent view of the media world, constituting a proportionately smaller representation of the media ecology than ever before. The media researcher’s year-long project looking in detail at one carefully-isolated aspect of the media world is increasingly like studying a cup of water to understand the sea.

These are serious problems that media studies, as an academic discipline, needs to address. They are not insurmountable and do not mean the end of any attempts at producing or legitimating knowledge but they do suggest that a greater degree of awareness is needed as regards the reliability and value of more empirically-minded approaches.

Saturday 6 March 2010



A few years ago I considered adding a lecture on the telephone onto a module on media history. I'd already covered the electric telegraph a few weeks earlier and thought the telephone would represent a good extension of that topic. The problem was I couldn't find any books in media studies on the telephone. In fact media studies seemed to have almost no interest in the telephone. There was a growing literature on mobile phones but most of the history of the telephone had been ignored. Thinking about it the reasons seemed to be: (1) It was a technology and media studies doesn't like technologies. (2) There was no public content to analyse: telephone conversations were private and not available to study. (3) The telephone wasn't a mass medium. Admittedly nor was the telegraph and there were texts on that but media studies wasn't overly impressed with the telegraph either: It was mainly McLuhanists or science journalists who liked the telegraph. No, media studies as a broadcast era discipline liked mass media, with mass-produced, publicly disseminated content. Personal communications were irrelevant to it. Letters weren't part of media studies, the telegraph was barely covered and the telephone certainly wasn't. (4) Finally the telephone wasn't important because no matter how socially important it was for the individuals using it, it contained trivial information. People chatted. Probably about rubbish. None of which mattered. Newspapers and radio contained serious or important content and television and film contained culturally important programming; the telephone, however, contained personal gossip. In the end I didn't put on a lecture about the telephone.

What I've since come to realise is that media studies has intentionally ignored an entire mode of media communication. As a product of the broadcast-era media studies has always been a reflection of the forms and processes of the broadcast model, concentrating on print, cinema, radio and television: on mass-produced, mass-disseminated content mass-consumed by a large audience. What this leaves out is mediated interpersonal communication: the entire realm of peer-to-peer, horizontal, personal communications. This has always been outside the sphere of broadcast-era media studies. Admittedly it has always been a limited sphere - letters, telegrams and telephone calls account for the majority of mediated interpersonal communications prior to the development of modern digital media. But even then it was still significant; in part because of the amount of communication; in part because of the real commercial industries built upon it and in part because of the intense personal meaning and impact the communication held for those who took part.

One of the most important aspects of the rise of digital media has been the explosion of this realm of horizontal, peer-to-peer, mediated interpersonal communication. As that's a bit of a mouthful I suggest calling it 'me-dia'. I like this term because it emphasises the fact that I am at the centre of this communication. And that I really means me, myself, we, my friends, my contacts and our gossip and communication. It encompasses all media content produced and shared between ourselves outside of the structures of public broadcasting. It includes that form and content built into the structures of our everyday lives and at the centre of our personal relationships and sense of self. There are media and outside that there is me-dia.

If, before, media studies could practically ignore me-dia, today that's more difficult. The spread of networked computing technology, the availability of a range of personal devices carrying it and the growth of personal services aimed at and empowering the individual and their 'expression' (we'll accept that uncritically at the moment) have led to me-dia becoming not just personally important but a major social phenomenon. Of course it always was, but there's so much more of it and it occupies so much more personal time. Digital media didn't invent this but what it has done is amplify our ability to communicate, produce, share, access, send and publish. If we add up the time and attention spent on me-dia I'm willing to wager that for a significant proportion of the population it far outweighs the time and attention spent on mainstream broadcast media. How much time do we spend checking our personal contacts and sending and responding to messages? Even if I'm watching TV or a film I'm checking, sending, composing, and sharing. I still consume these mainstream media but alongside what I consider the more important me-dia. Broadcast content is less important than my contacts and less fascinating than the possibility of a reply.

That’s worth reflecting upon for a moment. If its true for others it means that the broadcast industry and content fore-grounded by media studies is less significant than the sphere of personal me-dia. It means that a different kind of media studies is urgently needed.

What counts as me-dia today? That's pretty obvious: it includes our mobile texts, videos and photos; emails, PMs, IMs; our contribution to chat rooms, forums and mailing lists; our social networking activity (posting, sharing, messaging, writing on walls, updating statuses, twittering, linking); our contribution to social sharing sites (Youtube, Flikr), fan sites and collaborative sites (wikis); our amateur porn videos and texts; our blogs; our media productions (music, images, software), plus all our comments, lists, recommendations, responses... That's a fairly standard list of new media outlets and phenomena but what's interesting is how little attention a lot of this has still received: who, yet, has studied comments, personal messages, IMs, texts etc.? As I'll argue soon I’m not even sure this is possible.

If its treatment of letters, telegrams and telephone calls is anything to go by, media studies won't see most of this as particularly important. In contrast I'd argue that they're as important as and, collectively today, probably more important than the whole of traditional broadcast media. As I've suggested above, this is due to the sheer social fact of the centrality of their use, the volume of attention they receive and the intensity of personal meaning behind them, but there's also a historical reason why they're important.

To date the history of digital media forms and its uses has only partially been written. We have a history of the hardware and software and many of the ideas that underlie developments ('the virtual', 'cyberspace' etc.) but every new possibility of digital media requires us to discover a new history to situate it within. We do, however, need to understand the implications of this history. I was talking to a professor of media history who explained to me he'd been reading an article which showed how elements of social networking could be found in old newspapers and his tone clearly implied the conclusion that this meant none of it was new and thus was perfectly explained and not worth bothering with. 'History' had won again ... In fact, I pointed out, that research didn't exist until the success of social networking which proved the value of the new forms in forcing us to rewrite our histories and create new histories for the world we're living in. History had certainly won but older media historians, desperate to dismiss the present, hadn't.

It's in this spirit that I started to think about the possible histories of what I'm calling me-dia. That history is obviously multi-stranded and complex but there was one element - one historical resonance - in particular that intrigued me and that's what I want to describe here. I want to argue that the contemporary rise of me-dia constitutes a second reformation.

The Second Reformation

If we look back to the medieval world we can see that the Catholic Church had a dominant position in the lives of the European population. Seen from one point of view the Catholic Church can be thought of as a medium. It was a medium in two particular senses. Firstly it was an institutional form that distributed a single, uniform doctrine to the mass of the population, operating in a top-down, hierarchical fashion employing what technologies it had available (monasteries, manuscripts etc.) to mass-distribute its message. Here the Church operated as a broadcasting form, employing the same hub-and-spoke structure that linked people to it, rather than to each other. Secondly the institution acted as a medium for the individual's relationship with the divine. They were the appointed mediators of God's message and will. There were numerous causes of the Protestant Reformation one can point to but at the core were two processes: opposition to an organisational form (the top-down production and mediation of an institutional message) and a new emphasis upon the individual - the internal and the personal.

Martin Luther's objection to the sale of 'indulgences', or remittances for sin, was essentially motivated by the belief that only God could offer forgiveness. What lay behind that was his belief in the centrality of faith – of one's individual relationship to God. It was that, not the intervention or decisions of the church and its priesthood, that determined one's fate after death. His ideas were widely disseminated thanks to the printing press. Of his three famous pamphlets from 1520, 'On the Freedom of a Christian' expresses his ideas well. He asserts here two contradictory claims: 'A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone'. Explaining the first part Luther argues that 'As regards kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, in spiritual power, he is completely lord of all things'. Faith brings a spiritual (though not a corporeal) power: 'this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians'.

In principle, therefore, even if not in fact on earth, the Christian individual is free. 'The inward man' is under no earthly spiritual authority, even if 'the outward man' is . We are, he concludes, 'fellow priests' with Christ. Here, therefore, is Luther's famous assertion that 'we are all equally priests'. He objects in particular to the injustice that took the word 'priests' from the body of Christians and gave it to 'those few'.

Here we see Luther’s two-pronged assault: an attack upon the Church as an organisational form (its priests and their selection and dissemination of God's message) and an emphasis instead upon faith. This faith represented the realm of the interior – the ‘inward’ – the individual’s personal relational existence. It was a realm of direct communication with another – the divine. It was the self itself as simultaneously a mode of being and a mode of expression and evidence. Luther’s attack was clearly unthinkable for an organization that insisted upon the shackling of the individual to it’s structures and doctrine. The claim that everyone was their own priest seemed fundamentally anarchic. And that’s because it was. Centuries later, in 1919 the German Dadaists would launch a journal Jedermann sein eigner fussball – ‘everyone his own football’, presenting us with a similar image of free, uncontrolled, unleashed participation. Imagine a football game in which everyone had their own football. Imagine a medieval world in which everyone really was their own priest.

Of course whatever the result of the Reformation, Luther’s opposition didn’t lead to the end of the Church and didn’t entirely free the individual in the way he’d hoped for. Instead the Reformation brought a fragmentation of the Church into many churches. One had more freedom to choose one’s priests but the organizational form per se survived, albeit it in different ways, within a changed theological and organizational ecology.

In foregrounding the interior self one of the lasting effects of the Reformation was to promote that nascent individualism already developing in Post-Rennaissance Europe and that would be carried forward in philosophical thought over the following centuries. Often this individualism was promoted as part of a theological conception of man. Descartes’ examination of the mind and its existence and concordance with an exterior reality in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy , for example, was advanced with the aim of separating out two spheres, that of mind and matter, which would be the domain, respectively, of religion and science. The Cartesian individual, therefore, was not intended as a secularizing force, although that was perhaps its lasting impact. Science’s emphasis upon the individual’s senses as the basis of knowledge; the Liberal insistence of the centrality of the individual and their natural rights; the enlightenment’s emphasis upon the individual’s intellectual and moral reasoning, and nascent capitalism’s early consumer culture seducing the individual’s desires all propelled this increasingly secular individualism forward.

Slowly, gradually, in the centuries following Luther, all of these forces – the spread of print culture, the rise of modern science, the enlightenment and the industrial revolution – weakened the Church’s position as a culturally dominant organizational form broadcasting a single message to a captive population. It existed in this time in tension not only with a growing secularism but also with alternative sources of knowledge and information. The rise of mass media – through printing and the spread of pamphlets and newspapers – was a challenge to its own hub-and-spoke, mediatory dominance.

There were, of course, many differences between mass media broadcasting and the Catholic Church – the media weren’t unified as a single system to disseminate a single message and had a secular and commercial basis. Nevertheless it is possible to see the broadcast model that developed and intensified through the 18-19th centuries and which became dominant through the 20th century as echoing and playing an equivalent role as the Church. It followed the same broad, top-down model, employing far faster and more powerful technologies to distribute information to the new, modern masses, becoming the central source of all social knowledge beyond immediate experience for its populations. One might even suggest connectedness to its system became an equivalent moral duty. When in his 1988 book The Ecstasy of Communication Jean Baudrillard described the contemporary ‘categorical imperative’ of communication, it was more observation than metaphor.

The idea of mass media as replacing the Church is one that media studies has implicitly understood, even if the full implications were never drawn. There has been a long Durkheimian tradition of analysis of media events as social ‘rituals’, linking the communion of the religious experience to the communion offered by television. The most systematic presentation of this association is Dayan and Katz’’s 1992 Media Events, which presents collective television-watching as equivalent to a religious ceremony. Broadcast television, the message is, functions as our Church.

Interestingly there was an important early religious critique of broadcasting, simultaneously identifying the broadcast model as replacing the Church in its communicative and mediatory role and defending the Lutheran ‘inward man’ against the clamour of the press and ‘the public’. In 1846 Soren Kierkegaard published a book review, The Two Ages, part of which (published separately since as The Present Age) offers a reflection on his own time –a time that saw the beginning of industrial mass society make its mark in Copenhagen and the rise of mass and popular newspapers. Inspired as much by ‘the Corsair Affair’ – his ridicule in a satirical newspaper and the subsequent laughter and commentary upon his trousers by the public on the streets of Copenhagen – Kierkegaard launches a polemic against his age, the press and ‘the public’. The latter doesn’t even exist – it is ‘a phantom’, ‘a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage’, ‘a monstrous nothing’. Only in an age in which the power of association is too weak ‘to give life to concrete realities’ can the press ‘create that abstraction “the public”, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization - and yet are held together as a whole’.

This abstract public ‘becomes everything’ and includes everything, exerting such a pressure that we desire to join it, to identify with it, to become part of its collective phantasmatic power ‘in comparison with which concrete realities seem poor’. More and more individuals, Kierkegaard says, aspire to join this nothing, to be nothing, forming an ‘indolent mass’, a ‘gallery’ that is ‘on the look out for distraction’ and that ‘abandons itself to the idea that everything that one does is done in order to give it (the public) something to gossip about’. If he had to imagine this public as a person, he says, ‘I should perhaps think of one of the Roman emperors , a large-well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter’. Hence the concrete reality of the individual and their inwardness is abolished in the desire to join this abstraction formed by a media organization that levels society, wasting the lives of each who succumbs. ‘The really terrible thing is the thought of all the lives that are or easily may be wasted … the many who are helpless, thoughtless and sensual, who live superior lazy lives and never receive any deeper impression of existence than this meaningless grin.’

Kierkegaard’s critique here is founded on a philosophy of communication that values, above all, the subjective individual and their inwardness – understood as a mode of being and a mode of communication: with oneself, with God and with others. This conception opposes the vulgar ‘sensual’ world of talkativeness, gossip, cheap pleasure, public ridicule and sensationalism emphasizing the value of each individual, the ethical and religious dimensions of their existence and the responsibility of the communicator to respect and raise these. At the heart of Kierkegaard’s critique of the press and of ‘the public’, therefore, is the Lutheran individual. Echoing Luther’s critique of the Catholic Church, at the dawn of modern broadcasting he identifies and critiques the abstract social forces it unleashes that abolish the ‘inward man’ and their personal, subjective interiority and individuality.

Stripped of its explicitly religious tone similar ideas made their way into Liberal political thought. By the mid 19th century mass society was increasingly being recognized as a threat to the liberal individual, hence John Stuart Mill’s 1859 defence of ‘individuality’ in On Liberty against the ‘social tyranny’ of ‘public opinion’ and ‘the ape-like faculty of imitation’ that left little room for any other choice of path. Mill’s fears for the effect of this mass society and its mass communication system upon the individual were echoed again in the early 20th century as the apparent success of propaganda in World War One, the success of newspapers and cinema and, very soon, radio, together with the development of the modern advertising and public relations industries all brought a renewed concern with the effect of mass media upon the individual.

By the 1930s the broadcast-era was in full-flower, assembling the combined forces of the ‘culture industry’ against them, under the guise, the Frankfurt School claimed, of expressing their individuality. A direct line can be followed here from Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique in ‘The Culture Industry’ of consumer culture’s ‘pseudo-individualisation’ and the underlying uniformity of broadcast media content; through Marcuse’s 1964 critique of industrially-manufactured and manipulated false needs in One Dimensional Man, to Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle which presents an image of this realm of mass-mediated popular culture and its unilateral pleasures as the height of alienation and separation. The unilaterality of broadcast media becomes an overriding sign of this process; an idea Baudrillard would develop in his own radical Durkheimian symbolic critique of the semiotic.

These critical tradition, however, goes strongly against popular opinion which sees the realm of media-consumer culture precisely as a place and means of individualization. One’s choices, selections, tastes, purchases and identifications express and externalize one’s interior self and individuality. From this perspective, even if these products and programmes are mass produced and mass consumed there is enough variety for a personalized selection and enough common currency for others to recognize one’s choices within niche genres. Moreover the history of media studies is dominated by another tradition of reception and audience studies which, from the beginning, has tried to show how much more complex the consumption of media content is. The contemporary valorization of audience behaviour as a mode of self-production and its denial of media power seems to suggest the mass media didn’t entirely oppose the individual as this historical context claims.

Except what audience studies actually identified in its analysis of broadcast-era fan use and individual reception and what they ultimately valorized was the desire and even the demand for a mode of personal expression and individual meaning. Desperate to assert its reality in the broadcast-era they over-valorised what behaviour they could find. With the rise of contemporary digital media and its interactive and productive potential this audience studies erroneously saw its ideas of the active audience as realized, when actually the rise of the user was precisely at the expense of the audience, signaling a fundamental change in its existence and the value of the concept. Ultimately the greatest effect of the rise of the user wasn’t in the activity of the ‘audience’ member towards mass-produced and broadcast product but in the explosion of me-dia and the realm of personal meaning.

This explosion represents, I want to argue, a ‘Second Reformation’. Just as the first Reformation was marked by an assault upon a broadcast mode of organization in favour of the realm of the personal and interior and its expression, so the second Reformation – even if its secularity, cultural context and technological means are significantly different – directly echoes this. Like the Lutheran assault upon the Church, what we’re living through is a seismic shift in which one entire organizational mode of interconnection and mode of mass production, distribution and consumption of messages is overturned in favour of the emphasis on the personal and its expression. As in the first Reformation this isn’t leading to the final end of the organizational form it opposes, but instead to a fracturing and fragmentation, a proliferation of new ‘churches’ with their own hierarchies and priesthood (Facebook, Youtube, Flickr) and a funneling of individual expression and interiority into new forms.

At its heart though is a Lutheran ideal transformed for a different age. Just as the idea of every man as his own priest represented a fundamental assault upon the system, the institutions, the rules, the hierarchies, the interests and roles and economic, social and cultural privileges and epistemological framework of an entire age, so every man with his own blog, every man with his own video camera and every man with his own cam-phone represents an assault upon a system, a set of institutions, rules, hierarchies, interests, roles, privileges and the social epistemology of our age.

Digital media, of course, not only empower the individual, they are also used against that individual, allowing a greater monitoring, penetration and control of individual behaviour and activity than was possible in relation to broadcast-era technologies and media. From hardware design to the underlying structure of code, to the ability to trace, track, store and sort electronic records of use and the availability of content, the individual pays for their electronic freedom with its opposite. Government and industries use these technological capacities against us, often whilst promoting them as beneficial for us (cookies, for example, are explained as helping provide a better customer service).

Nevertheless there is a palpable confusion about and fear of digital media among all established hierarchies, boundaries, professions and authorities. The cam-phone waved in the face of authority; the conversations we have outside of the dominant communicational structures and messages; the material we share and swap, without a care about its legality or the whining complaints of the broadcast industries; the time we spend chatting to each other rather than buying daily newspapers or watching over-promoted films and TV shows; the ‘reality’ of our lives, footage and opinions that the broadcast media desperately want to co-opt, simulate or gather for themselves, and our lack of respect for the position, experience, opinions or claims of those who are used to having their status respected: in all of this professionals in government and industry are left behind, shocked, angered, and left trying to catch-up, to adjust to new realities or to shut the stable door. One can sense a seismic ripple through each established world, profession, industry, or branch of government as they grapple with this rise of the people.

I’m not sure we’ve even understood how to describe this popular movement. Andrew Keen and Lee Siegal picture this as the rule of the ‘electronic mob’ whilst authors like Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Charles Leadbetter, Jeff Howe, Chris Anderson and Dan Tapscott all implicitly valorize a Liberal individual – aggregated but (contrary to Mill’s fears) not lost in the mass; rational-critical, intelligent, creative and productive and moving in their aggregation to a greater state of enlightenment, whether in collaborative outputs, higher artistic or cultural products or the rise of wisdom to the top of the heap. Both positions are limited: the critical perspective ignores the value and quality of popular collaboration and participation and the Liberal ideal manages to avoid the mess, the filth, the nastiness, the negativity, the lack of rational-critical productivity of collective digital participation. Nor is this a simple democratization, nor a socialist power-to-the people nor anarchist vision: none of these political ideals or agendas fits the situation we find ourselves in. This isn’t a world of equality or agreed representation, nor one in which we are moving towards communal peace and satisfaction, nor self-ordered harmony.

We are closer, perhaps to the avant-garde experiments in participation: the provocations and invitations to interact and participate of the Futurist soirees and the Dadaist evenings and their methods. As I’ve suggested, ‘everyone his own football’ was the spiritual forerunner of the digital age: It is an image of a participatory moment; of a mode of liberatory inclusion whose outcome – whether good or bad – is secondary to the pleasure of the breaking of boundaries, rules and barriers.

If these claims have any validity then they provide a powerful indication of the historical significance of me-dia: the rise of me-dia is an event as momentous as the rise of the broadcast industries. It suggests that today these, the lowest forms of contemporary media – the mangled grammar of quickly-thumbed texts, the hasty video of friends on nights out, the lover’s pornographic ‘sexts’, the PMs and IMs and the wall comments and profile pictures – represent the most important contemporary forms. If pushed, most of us (on a personal level) would admit to this sentiment, even if we hold onto a residual belief that television, radio, cinema and newspapers must be more important really. History, however, might suggest that they’re not: the world of media has been shaken and threatened and, arguably, perhaps already eclipsed by the rise of me-dia.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Digital Media News: April 2009

April 2009


A court case starts about the legality of ‘RealDVD’, a technology allowing users to copy their DVDs onto their hard drive. RealNetworks claims it retains DRM and even adds extra protection but the MPAA and DCCA oppose it (30th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/30/realdvd-trial-dvd


The government plans to monitor all internet use, asking communications forms to record all contacts between people (27th April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8020039.stm


Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle becomes a Youtube internet sensation (26th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/26/susan-boyle-youtube-itv

Social Networking:

A Swiss women is fired after her employers spotted her using Facebook when she had claimed to be too ill to use a computer (25th April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8018329.stm


The government’s plans for universal broadband continue. They’re considering capping the amount of radio spectrum owned by Britain’s mobile phone companies (25th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/25/lord-carter-digital-britain-broadband

A revolutionary new ‘Espresso Book Machine’ launches in
London. It will be able to print any book on its database in the shop as the customer waits (24th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/24/espresso-book-machine-launches


Apple removes a baby-shaking game form its iPhone Apps store (24th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/24/apple-iphone-baby-shaker-application


Google Street-View gets the go ahead from the UK’s Information Commissioner who rejected privacy complaints (23rd April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8014178.stm See also (23rd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/23/google-street-view-data-protection-cleared

Citizen Journalism:

A piece on the rise of sousveillance – ‘when all video all’ – and the use of cameras by ordinary people to hold the police to account during the G20 protests (21st April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8010098.stm


Almost 2 million PCs globally, including machines inside the US and UK governments have been taken over by hackers as part of a botnet operated from the Ukraine (21st April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8010729.stm


The BNP admits that some of its members are oddballs and liars in a memo to activists. Aware of the reputation of some of their members and their poor English they are dissuading them from officially linking themselves to the BNP in blogs and online postings, advising them that independent-looking postings are more persuasive (20th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/20/bnp-handbook-european-elections


Peter Preston argues for an internet license fee to help save newspapers and traditional journalism (19th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/19/internet-licence-fee


Apple’s Ipod Touch is being given out to soldiers to help them make sense of data from drones, satellites and ground sensors (18th April): http://www.newsweek.com/id/194623


A Swedish court hands down prison sentences and fines to four men behind the Pirate Bay website (18th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/18/pirate-bay-prison-sentences-sweden

Mobile Phones:

Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, saw profits fall 90% in the first three months of 2009 as cash-strapped consumers held onto their existing handsets or opted instead for Apple’s iPhone (17th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/apr/17/nokia-profits-drop-iphone-apple


An article on cybercrime and nationalist attacks from China (16th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/16/china-cybercrime-hacking


A survey of cyberwarfare today (16th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/16/internet-hacking-cyber-war-nato

Online Advertising:

Amazon opts out of Phorm’s targeted advertising over the privacy fears of users (16th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/16/amazon-phorm-targeted-advertising


The European Commission calls for the UK’s privacy laws to be strengthened to protect internet surfers, as it launches legal action against the government for breaching data protection and ePrivacy rules (15th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/15/internet-privacy-eu-legal-action

Future technology/Interfaces:

A demonstration of MIT’s new ‘SixthSense’ wearable, gesture-driven computing platform (14th April): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7997961.stm


Amazon is discovered to have stripped many books of their sales rank, removing them from their charts and affecting customer search results. The books all have an adult content but gay and lesbian texts are hit especially hard. Complaints force an apology and an explanation (13th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/apr/13/amazon-gay-writers

See also (14th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/14/amazon-gay-sex-ranking (19th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/19/amazon-com-adult-content


On the rise of the iPhone applications (12th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/12/iphone-applications-music-industry


A crisis engulfs Gordon Brown’s government as a key aide is forced to resign after leaked emails reveal his attempt to provide sexual smears against Conservative politicians for a pro-Labour blog (12th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/12/damien-mc-bride-labour-smear

Citizen Journalism:

On 1st April 2009 Ian Tomlinson collapses and dies at the G20 protests in London. What follows is a remarkable example of old and new media working together. The Guardian follows up claims that he was struck by police before he died and their story attracts footage by people at the protests that cause the story offered by the police and much of the media’s account to collapse. Traditional journalism boosted by citizen journalism pursuing the facts of the case revealed considerable police mistreatment of protestors. Follow the story at:

(27th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/27/ipcc-police-g20-death-media

(26th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/26/g20-police-blog-assault

(21st April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/21/g20-video-protest-policing

(20th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/20/police-assault-g20-protests

(19th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/19/police-g20-tomlinson-assault

(18th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/18/g20-ian-tomlinson-death

(18th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/18/ian-tomlinson-g20-police-officer

(17th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/17/ian-tomlinson-new-pictures-g20

(15th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/15/g20-police-assault-tomlinson-ipcc

(11th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/11/video-g20-ian-tomlinson

(9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/09/g20-ian-tomlinson-police-video

(9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/09/g20-police-assault-ian-tomlinson-g20

(9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/09/g20-video-ian-tomlinson-death

(8th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/08/ian-tomlinson-g20-police-assault-footage

(8th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/08/ian-tomlinson-cameraman-inquiry

(7th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/07/video-g20-police-assault

Citizen Journalism:

An opinion piece on the ‘unstoppable rise’ of the citizen cameraman (11th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/11/public-camera-video-technology


The UK government’s plans for broadband for all are at risk (10th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/apr/10/telecoms-broadband


Microsoft and Yahoo revive talks about a search engine partnership to combat the growing power of Google (10th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/apr/10/microsoft-yahoo-merger-talks


An article about how online content is going to enter the home through the TV (9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/08/intenet-on-demand-tv-youtube

Virtual Worlds/Video Games:

An article about Sony’s new virtual world for kids ‘Free realms’ (9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/09/sony-games-free-realms


An article on the World Digital Library to be launched this month (9th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/09/world-digital-library


US prosecutors strike a deal to end a three-year clampdown on online gambling sites (8th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/apr/08/online-gambling-partygaming-settlement


An uprising in Moldova is dubbed the ‘Twitter revolution’ after mass protests which began as a flash mob organised by Twitter, SMS and other social networking sites (8th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/08/moldova-protest-election-chisinau See also (16th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/15/moldova-activist-hiding-protests


Amazon’s challenge to iTunes continues. After launching its own DRM-free MP3 download store it now slashes prices on some downloads to 29p (8the April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/apr/08/amazon-itunes-music-downlads-mp3


The Australian government launches a plan to extend broadband access across the country (7th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/07/broadband-internet-australia


US news agency Associated Press threatens legal action against websites appropriating its content (7th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/07/associated-press-legal-action


The Huffington post, the New York based Liberal blog, sets up a fund to hire staff to preserve journalistic standards (6th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/06/huffington-post-us-newspaper-industry


The head of new service Spotify says fans will still buy music (6th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/06/spotify-digital-music-downloads


John Naughton defends Wikipedia (5th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/05/digital-media-referenceandlanguages


Demi Moore used twitter to intervene in the case of a woman who was feeling suicidal (4th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/04/demi-moore-twitter-avert-suicide-california


Swedish internet use plummets after the introduction of a law banning online piracy (4th April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/04/sweden-pirate-bay-filesharing-internet


Villagers in a UK town force the Google streetview camera car to retreat (3rd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/03/google-street-view-broughton


An article on the problems of local journalism and the possible impact on local democracy (3rd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/03/local-newspapers-journalism-democracy


A rough edit of the new X-Men movie Origins:Wolverine is leaked onto the internet a month before its release (2nd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/02/wolverine-xmen-leak-online-piracy

Online Advertising:

The digital technology company Phorm is facing a setback with many major dotcom companies considering boycotting its online advertising technology due to privacy concerns (2nd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/02/dotcom-boycott-advertising-phorm

Virtual Worlds:

An article about changes at Second Life to rejuvenate its business (2nd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/02/second-life-mark-kingdon


An article about the threat to privacy the mobile phone industry (2nd April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/02/google-privacy-mobile-phone-industry


The Guardian’s April fool joke is its claim that it’s switching to Twitter, digitising its archive and compressing every story into less than 140 characters. What’s good here is the obvious anxiety of the ‘old’ medium at the social use and significance of the newer one (1st April): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/01/guardian-twitter-media-technology