Category Archives: Media Power

The promises and obstacles of process journalism

Process journalism somehow reminds me of cell membranes becoming more permeable.

I’ve been lazy about this blog, I know. No excuse, really. I wrote the last post after appearing on a DRadio Wissen radio show where I discussed virtual communities. Yesterday, I went back on that show to talk about process journalism. And again, the discussion – this time with Julia Hildebrand, Ulrike Langer, and Lorenz Matzat – triggered a number of interesting thoughts that are worth writing down. Continue reading if you would like to find out why process journalism is great and what obstacles it’s still facing. Continue reading

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Crawling the news

google

A few weeks ago, I had to read through a bunch of blogs and websites covering the UK newspaper industry. It made me feel very sorry for those guys. Basically, articles and posts on those websites fall into one of two categories. The first is “disastrous revenue reports/circulation figures” – any sign that the decline in these numbers is slowing is taken as a sign of hope these days. The second category may be called “where are you, new business model?”. One of the hot topics at the moment: news aggregators, in particular Google News. Newspaper websites like those links to their articles but they grow increasingly uncomfortable over Google taking their content for free. And Google has responded… Continue reading

Who Needs Information?

Radio KAOS

Pink Floyd has been with me all my life. My dad was listening to “Animals” when I was born. In the first 17 years of my life, I was involuntarily introduced to all of their other albums. Ever since they helped be overcome the worst moments of homesickness in the U.S. at the age of 18 – in particular “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” – I have started to discover them for myself. Much to the liking of my dad, of course. When I asked last.fm to play me some Pink Floyd-like music the other day, it came up with “Who Needs Information?” by Roger Waters, a solo piece by one of the band members. Listening more closely, I thought it provides a very interesting perspective on communication – and the ever so timely warning that more information won’t solve all the world’s problems. Continue reading

Behind the screens – Broadcasters going digital

videotape

These days, I’m working with a small company that basically helps TV stations to adopt the latest technology. The latest technology in broadcasting is digital and “tapeless”. Gone will be the days when films, shows, and commercials were recorded onto video tapes and ultimately stored as such on endless shelves in the basement (see picture). Tapes will be replaced by computer files and the basement shelves by a few fancy hard drives. Of course, this doesn’t happen over night and not all tapes and basement shelves will disappear, but that’s pretty much the direction the industry is going in.

Will the average TV viewer notice the difference? I doubt it. In fact, when I told friends and family about what I’m up to these days and how TV stations are only now beginning to abandon their video cassettes, most of them were surprised. They would ask, “I thought they’re all already doing it that way?” But they are not. Little does the average TV viewer know about how those films, shows, and commercials on his screen come about. A whole new world opens up for me these days, as I discover what goes on behind the screen.

Ordinary people

I will spare you any intriguing discussion of how to build “tapeless” broadcasting systems or how it may completely change TV stations as organizations. I’m just trying to come to terms with this separation between those who make television and those who watch it. It’s the same with stage performances, for example musicals. As somebody in the audience, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes or “how they do it”. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t know, because if I did, the show wouldn’t be the same.

That’s the magic of television (and other media as well) – the separation between “ordinary people” and those who make it. Nick Couldry, a leading media professor, has said that without this separation the whole media world as we know it wouldn’t work. We only trust the news and feel entertained by the latest sitcom because we have no clue how they’ve done it. He’s pretty critical of this because only those who do know how it’s done have the power to do it again and to produce the films, shows, and commercials they like. The ordinary viewer is confined to being an ordinary viewer.

Everything like Youtube

At this point you may like to point out that millions of Youtube users are making their own little clips and broadcast them to the world (if anybody cares to watch it). It’s almost boring to mention citizen journalism and user generated content now (where did web 2.0 go?). And indeed, some of the technologies that TV stations are now implementing seem a bit more democratic because they use the same standards and follow similar concepts like those that an ordinary person would use. For example, the TV station and the ordinary viewer will both have a hard drive with digital video files in very similar formats – only that the TV station’s hard drive is slightly bigger and surrounded by a bunch of other supporting hardware. But the idea is the same.

What this means for television and the media as a whole remains to be seen. One obvious consequence to me is that it will be easier for content to flow from the viewer/user to professional TV stations, at least from a technological point of view. This doesn’t mean that content will actually flow once we take all legal and organizational barriers into account. But at least there’s now the option of my Youtube video being easily transmitted to the BBC.

However, more democratic technology doesn’t mean that the separation between ordinary viewers and media makers will become permeable. A TV station will remain a little world of its own, a mystery to anybody outside of it. Technology is by no means the only way by which the viewer-producer separation is maintained. Professional conduct of people working in the television industry is another important one. So is the geographical split between places of media production (e.g. the news studio) and media consumption (the living room).

Ultimately, I think many viewers don’t care to know how their program gets to them as long as it does and as long as it keeps them happy and nicely amused.

Manuel Castells at LSE – Mass Self-Communication

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

What do the MP expenses scandal and the protests in Iran have in common? Both of them reflect how communication power can change the world – or rather, change the way we see it – says Manuel Castells.

I had the opportunity to listen to most of Manuel Castells’ public lecture at the LSE tonight. Manuel Castells has recently been the most influential scholar on the subject of communication and technology, announcing the arrival of the “network society” (one of his strengths is finding sticky labels for what he studies, as tonight’s lecture proved again).

Here’s his argument in a nutshell.

For the masses, by the masses

Power is one of the most important topics in any society, as we might all agree. For Castells, one of the most important powers is to “control human minds” and to shape meanings.

The media immediately come to mind as probably the most powerful institution to shape the way we see the world. And we need to understand that the media are mainly big business, says Castells. Globalized, decentralized, but actually highly concentrated business.

And then we got “mass self-communication” nowadays (one of those new sticky labels you should watch out for). Horizontal, many-to-many forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, you name them.

As you can imagine, big media and mass self-communication don’t just peacefully coexist. They interact – somehow, sometimes, somewhere. Castells left it at that during his lecture.

Scandal politics

So far, Castells didn’t really say anything new (although he once again managed to present these points more clearly than you will find them anywhere). The real question was, how does mass self-communication change the distribution of communication power?

To answer this, he first went on to criticize big media for their focus on scandals when reporting politics. In fact, he argues that the media are running a “scandal industry” based on leaked, remixed, half-true information and semi-legal but definitely unethical investigation methods (see phone tapping case in today’s papers). Politicians must play along because they see undermining the opponent’s character as the only reliable political weapon.

Interestingly, there is no conclusive evidence, says Castells, that discrediting your political opponent always pays off. To the contrary, in several cases, it had a negative effect.

More importantly, scandal politics cause massive damage for the entire political system by undermining it’s legitimacy. That is why the vast majority of people around the world believes that democracy is failing and that they are not governed by “the people” (always an exception: Scandinavia). And when mistrust in the political system is met by mistrust in the economic system, we’re in big trouble.

The way out

So too much communication power in the hands of big media is really bad. But can mass self-communication make a difference?

Castells believes it can and it already does. His arguments are pretty well-known though, I must say. The services and technologies facilitating mass self-communication are much harder to control from top down, offer a much wider spectrum of opinion and information, by-pass any corporate or editorial control, and feature close to no entry costs. In other words, mass self-communication is autonomous.

This has already made a huge difference in politics, argues Castells. The success of social movements over the last 15 years would not have been possible without mass self-communication.When these movements go online, they form “instant political communities of practice” (another of those sticky labels).

For example, we don’t know much more about climate change than we did some 30 years ago. However, the Internet has spread the word so that 85% of the world population has now joined the global environmental movement. Another case in point would be the protests in Iran.

Early exit

Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. Until then, Castells had argued that mass self-communication offers an alternative way through which we can see the world and make sense of it – outside any big media with all its scandals.

I had two major problems with his argument up until this point. (Maybe they were mentioned in the Q&A session?)

First, I really question the autonomy of mass self-communication. It has to rely on services which cost billions a year and which are operated by equally big business (News Corp. owns MySpace, etc.). There’s a lot to say about concentration and commercialization on the internet.

Second, I don’t quite see why mass self-communication should be any less susceptible to scandals. In fact, doesn’t it allow them to spread even fast, even more uncontrollably, possibly even more unethical?

I would love to hear your comments and maybe some notes on the last few minutes of Castells’s lecture. Thank you!

Dear Mr Anderson…

(Flickr user "The Rusty Projector")

Read why C. Anderson says we should be like dandelions (Flickr user "The Rusty Projector").

The following is copied from a letter I sent to the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson. In his recent article, he argued that computing power is now abundant and that we need to change our business models and mindset accordingly. While I think he’s to some extent right with that, he (and wired.com in general) like to forget about all of those who don’t keep up with the latest innovations and technologies.*

Dear Mr Anderson

let me first say that I am some sort of fan of yours. You are one of the most articulate proponents of the view that technology will radically change business models and markets to empower the customer and satisfy previously unknown demands. Whatever limitations there might be to this view – I was convinced by, and enjoyed reading, many of your arguments.

However, as I came across your latest essay on wired.com – “Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity” – I couldn’t help but voice come critique. This is not to refute your argument entirely, but rather to introduce some balancing perspectives.

Not everything about computing power and its use is abundant. And although a lot of things may seem like they are, we must not forget the scarcities. I will just touch upon a few of them here, hoping that these points will find more mentioning in your future work.

Computers in every home?

I personally cannot imagine life without a computing device somewhere near me. Yet, for many people this is still the case. Just to give one example, the General Household Survey 2007 in the UK found that “only” 71% of all households had a home computer (disregarding for now that those without might still be using a public one).

So my first objection to perfect abundance is that we do not “have computers in every home—and in every pocket and car and practically everywhere else”, as you suggest.

One of the reasons why we don’t is still cost. Without being too fussy, long distance calls on cell phones are not entirely free on cell phones, as you suggest. They require a cell phone to begin with and at least some form of contractual agreement with a service carrier. And while most of us have some form of cell phone today, only a small minority enjoys the services of a smart phone. The same goes for sufficient broadband bandwidth to enjoy the the internet to its full potential.

The regular folks

I also had to stop for a second when you said that “we changed the world by finding applications for [computers] that the technologists had never dreamed of” (original emphasis). Who is “we”? Who are those “regular folks [who] found new ways to use computers”?

I believe it is open to debate how many of those with access to computing technology are actively driving the development of new applications. Admittedly, this share seems to be increasing in times of the App Store and open source software development.

But from a more sober point of view, those “regular folks” don’t seem to be that regular after all. It seems that many of us are still trying to catch up with everyday desktop software when your website is already praising the latest cloud computing service. The skills to use these services, or even to become “a filmmaker”, are unevenly distributed.

Paying the bill

To be fair, the points I mentioned so far might be irrelevant to somebody who’s business or publication targets the large share of the population with sufficient access and skills to enjoy a bit of abundance. Inevitably, innovation will always leave some people behind.

But maybe businesses find it difficult as well to fully embrace the abundance narrative. Is it really “artificial scarcity” when a cell phone company restricts the size of my voicemail inbox? Or does voicemail traffic actually drive the fixed cost on their balance sheet?

I wonder how many businesses – especially in their early stages – can afford to go through “a lot of fruitless minima” before they hit the jackpot. Youtube, as the classic example, has spent several years and billions of dollars, only to be loss-making until today. Without subsidies from Google, such a financial record would be the end of any other business.

Scarce filters

Finally, I would like to pick up on a point that you stressed in The Long Tail – the incredible importance of content filters and aggregators. These are crucial to sift through the abundance of web content out there.

The problem with them is obvious: there is only a few of them which control a massive share of the market. A few companies and their websites control the mechanisms and algorithms that help us find what we’re looking for. You may be right that they help us explore the end of the Long Tail, but how they do it is largely unknown.

And so…

As I said before, the points I tried to make do not serve the purpose of rejecting your argument completely. I believe you provide a nice description of some of the transitions that are currently going on.

What I’m getting at is that a lot of stuff related to computing powers is not abundant. As you are responsible for driving and reporting many of the advancements in technology, it is important to keep that in mind.

* For all of you who’ve studying at LSE with me, the arguments of this post will sound pretty familiar. Please comment if you like to add anything.

Mediated Mourning

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

Don’t get me wrong. I did feel sad when I found out the King of Pop had passed away. I remember my sister and I singing along to his Best Of album for hours straight, or numerous attempted moon walks after a few beers or so (no, none of this is on Youtube… at least I hope not).

Following the news in the days after his death, I was continuously assured that I wasn’t alone in my grief. Rather, the entire world was mourning with me. If the media’s job is to tell me what’s going on around the world, then there wasn’t anything else going on at all. In that sense, MJ’s death is the best thing that could have happened to the regime in Iran.

We are currently witnessing a so-called “media event” – something nearly everybody in society (or nowadays in the world?) is following through the mass media – or maybe has to follow because there isn’t anything else on TV when they occur. There was no escaping Billie Jean when I drove home from Berlin this week.

I always thought the term “media event” is a strange one. It seems to imply that there are ordinary events, and then there are “media events”, which are somehow really, really important for everyone. But who says so? And are they really?

Supply, Demand

Of course, it’s not always easy to judge whether something qualifies as a media event or not. For me, maybe half a dozen come to mind for the last ten years or so (9/11, Diana’s funeral, Obama’s inauguration, etc.). However, if one carefully watches news programs (especially U.S. and tabloid-like ones), you quickly get the idea that they try to sell you some kind of media event all the time. Everything is “Breaking News”.

Hadley Freeman from The Guardian puts it very eloquently:

The 24-hour news culture and the explosion of the gossip magazine industry – both of which require either constant change or, more commonly, heightened emotion, combined with a fragmented media and the diminished importance of religion in most people’s lives – have made the idea of a collectively shared Big Moment more desired than ever (…).

He points out both the supply side and the demand side of media events, or “Big Moments”, as he calls them. On the supply side, the news industry loves Big Moments because they love the revenues viewers they attract. So they are more than happy to blow anything out of proportion that is remotely scandalous or newsworthy.

But maybe we, the audience, love media events as well. Indeed, we may need them as a society to maintain a sense of collectivity and integration. That’s just a fancy way of saying that it somehow makes us feel at home in society when everybody else is mourning too. Funerals bring families back together. This funeral is a massive media spectacle, but with similar social effects.

John Rash from AdvertisingAge reminisces about the power of Michael Jackson to bring people together, already long before his death. We all have our Michael Jackson memories (see mine above). Is there any artist or band today that may even dream about selling 50 million copies of a physical (!) record? Probably not. And why not? Because the market for music, news, and culture in general, is fragmented and individualized (think iPod). Rash puts it most polemically

[M]aybe, deep down, with shared cultural experiences also expiring, we’re also mourning because we miss each other.

“Am I part of the cure…?”

So everybody’s happy, right? The news industry attracts the viewers it needs and the audiences celebrate their societal reunion. We may well leave it at that. Or we can go get another coffee and use this Sunday morning to think about two more issues. Which is what I did.

Who decides whether something qualifies as a media event, i.e. as something everybody has to watch and that is worth changing the program or front page for?

9/11 was an obvious one. Obama was almost as obvious. He was elected American President. Still, his moment was somehow bigger that those of previous presidents. Lady Diana? Fair enough, she was Princess Diana and married to Charles. But that doesn’t really explain why her death was one of the biggest media events in recent years. Finally Michael. Although he was enormously talented and recorded some great music, we may still wonder where his big moment came from.

Here’s one explanation. Media events are events involving individuals/groups/objects/things that everybody in society can relate to, probably in some highly emotional way. And why can everybody relate to these things? Because they’ve been in the media all the time!

Michael was born through the media and lived through the media right until his death. That’s how we know him, that’s why we are united in his death. Obama’s moment was bigger, because he created more media attention than any president before him. Diana’s media event was what it was because every second of her life had been covered in celebrity magazines.

In other words, the news industry is responsible for the build-up of media events, it doesn’t just cover them when they take place. And it is guilty in a more general sense as well. Enabled by technology, it drives social fragmentation by catering to every single individual taste. We can use the media to construct our own personalized and customized world. Paradoxically, this makes the news industry and its media events both a disease and part of the cure.

A final note to all those out there who cannot relate to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. I’m sorry that you were completely forgotten for about two days or so. The news didn’t mention you and so you didn’t exist for a while. I’m even more sorry that everybody on TV probably made you feel really bad for not relating to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. That’s another thing about media events. Even if you never thought you cared about something – when it’s on TV 24/7, you think it’s time that you do.