In my other life I make a living that requires me to look over news articles a fair bit. I try to keep this sort of thing out of my blogs but today I came across one that made me think in a “bloggy” way.
Blogs have been characterised as the great democratizer of the fourth estate; an opportunity for the common wo(man) to speak to the world through the wonder of mass media. Numerous scholarly articles have been written on the topic and it ties in with the political concept of ‘information and communication polity’. There is some truth to the claims (loaded as they are) but I can’t help think that they may well be overstating things a bit.
True, the potential for an individual to rant and rave until their heart’s content with limited censorship (provided their activities are legal) is greater now than it has been in the past (at least in regards to the written word). You don’t need to be peer reviewed (though you will be) and you don’t need an editor and someone to bankroll the printing. Theoretically, your agenda isn’t set by the media to which you are responding. In fact, you CaN iGnoRe aLL WriTtEn Con.VeNShOnz… if you want. Liberal democracy is flourishing in a new Periclean golden age of free information. Or is it?
Let’s take the rose-coloured glasses off for a moment.
Blogging relies on technology. In fact, the growing dynamism of blogging is becoming more and more reliant upon faster, more portable cutting edge technology. Bloggers are utilising Twitter (most effectively done from smartphones), YouTube (you’re going to need a camera or video editing gear or both), SoundCloud etc. This technology, in turn, is becoming more and more the province of the wealthy and/or aspirational mass of the developed first world. These same people also make up the largest media consuming demographic (which raises interesting questions about preaching to the converted). Furthermore, the skills associated with blogging make it more readily accessible to individuals that possess a certain quotient of computer literacy, language literacy and social literacy. These are qualities that are developed (though not exclusively) by formal education systems. Of course, formal education is a continuum defined by engagement. Some groups do not have any access to formal education (and, hence, do not engage) whilst others have complete access, extensive support structures and a context of social expectation which sees them engage fully. Most people fall somewhere in between and, unfortunately, one of the key determining factors as to which end of the spectrum an individual will favour is the socio-economic status of the individual (their “class” if you want to use a twentieth century term).
The article that sparked these thoughts discusses the relative impact on voter behaviour of particular media identities in Australia. Blogging factors into it but the ultimate conclusion that the article draws is that the media is not as influential as you may think. Well, that’s plain wrong. Australia has a notoriously small range of media owners. There are very few independent media outlets in Australia. Those that do exist rely on syndicated reporting to greater or lesser degrees. The power of the media to control the information that is expressed en masse to the populace is no more prevalent (in first world countries) than in Australia.
“So,” you may say, “that makes bloggers more important than ever, right?”
The best answer I can give is: sometimes.
Unfortunately, in a country like Australia, there’s no avoiding the fact that the traditional media forms dictate the focus and issues of the day. Bloggers overwhelmingly respond to these issues. Sometimes it happens the other way. Sometimes bloggers break news and the traditional media jumps on board. Unfortunately, social media of all forms is much more favourable to viral phenomena such as bad drawings of spiders, film clips of men on exercise machines and terrible, terrible 14 year old singers. Hardly the buliding blocks of transparent democracy.
“Common” people have broken stories since long before the interweb ever parsed it’s first data packet. Information has never been totally controlled. It never can be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t need to be totally controlled; a media outlet’s message need only achieve critical mass in the social consciousness. And, as the primary article that sparked this post demonstrates, traditional media outlets are using the power of blogs to reinforce their power rather than democratize it.