Tag Archives: Public Service

Election reporting – Turning bar charts into a multimedia show

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It was federal election time in Germany yesterday. Since this blog isn’t primarily about political commentary, I shall refer you here for a more detailed summary of the results, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) will form a new centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP). Since this blog is primarily concerned with communication and all its related matters, I took a closer look at how the election night was reported by mainstream and social media. Continue reading

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The wanna-be museum of communication

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It was a bit of a let down, really. My dad and I agreed that today’s visit to Berlin’s “Museum of Communication” was properly disappointing. Upon entering the rather impressive (can’t think of a more eloquent word to describe architecture) building, we found ourselves surrounded by old telephones and telegraphs – lots of them, too, in roughly chronological order.

In the circular open space in the middle of the impressive building, two robots were bored to death kicking around an orange-colored plastic ball. For no immediately obvious reason, the curators then skipped over the invention of radio and television, guiding us visitors quickly to the 21st century. The new media age was represented by roughly 10 stationary personal computers, which my dad and I used to check our emails real quick.

The special of the day was a temporary exposition entitled “From diaries to blogs” (or something in that direction… I threw away lost the leaflet), which provided a non-exhaustive list of historical and contemporary figures (Goebbels, Anne Frank, and some other non-Nazi related figures as well) who wrote diaries, arriving promptly at the conclusion that both diaries and blogs can be written for all sorts of purposes. Thank you.

Now, let me wrap it up with some balance-striking words. Admittedly, the whole “Museum of Communication” started of as and is still part of a foundation for “Post and Telecommunication”, with a clear emphasis on the former. In fact, if they call the whole thing “Museum of the German Postal Service (and free internet access on the 2nd floor)”, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Expectation management, hello?!

And on an intellectual note, that was also the only take-home-massage from that museum: Long-distance communication in the form of letters, telegraphs, and later telephone was for a long time considered a responsibility of the German state(s). Hence, it was placed in the hands of a public body run by efficient, mainly Prussian, terribly orderly, German civil servants. No guys in flip-flops from Silicon Valley to provide email services or some foreign invaders buying up German cell phone networks. No, it had to be die Deutsche Bundespost, ja.

In times like these, when we’re about to liberalize and privatize every last bit of telecommunication, this glimpse into the past was rather instructive… Not that instructive though. After all, it was just a bunch of old telephones and telegraphs in roughly chronological order.

Public Service Twitter?

All media eyes have been on Iran during the last few days, where the controversial results of the latest election drew thousands of people to the street and triggered deadly clashes between protestors and police forces. On many news websites, media audiences outside Iran could follow a minute-by-minute coverage of these events – although the incumbent regime attempted to shut down all independent reporting. In a powerful demonstration of the Internet’s liberating potentials, voices, pictures, and videos from inside Iran leaked out into the world. Once again, Twitter (and Youtube) proved to be the most widely used distribution network for this material – decentralized, viral, almost impossible to interfere with.

We should no longer be surprised and astonished by the powers of services such as Twitter. It is time we actively embrace them in our efforts to promote a global political discourse. Given their potentials for freedom of expression and democracy, states should play an active role in supporting and safeguarding them. Twitter still lacks a viable business model. Should we “bail them out” and make it a public service?

There are good reasons why we should. Despite its millions of users, Twitter is still loss-making. As a private business, it will naturally attempt to find ways of generating revenue. Whatever Twitters future business model will be, it will have implications on the accessibility and flow of information on the network. The longstanding debate over corporate influences on media content (see News Corp.) can give an indication of what these implications may look like. Twitter may not be able to dictate what its users are twittering, like a newsroom editor can. However, editorial influence may come disguised as filtering, ranking, and prioritizing algorithms. If Twitter was supported by public funding, it may resist such commercial pressures and embrace norms of professionalism and content neutrality instead. This would not be unprecedented. Public Service Broadcasters, like the BBC, have long been operating based on this argument.

A public stake in Twitter would also provide the service with a strong political backing, which is needed during international conflicts. Any attempt to shut it down would have to be understood as an affront against the international community. Indeed, Twitter can be deployed as a “democratic weapon” that facilitates the transition to democracy in countries like Iran – a transition led by the people of these countries.

Two big questions remain to be answered before we may decide to bail out Twitter. First, who should do the bail out? Twitter is a U.S. company, so President Obama may decide to integrate it into his foreign policy service (but also to promote his domestic political discourse). Alternatively, and more desirably, an inter-governmental organizations may fund the service, for example the United Nations or one of the Internet regulation bodies. This would allow more countries to support the idea and to subscribe to Twitter’s fundamental importance in promoting democracy and freedom of expression.

The second, and possibly more crucial question, is whether Twitter wants to be bailed out. This seems doubtful. Even though they may not generate profits today, they are convinced they eventually will. Even without profits, Twitter is already attracting millions in venture capital. They would hardly see the need, from a business perspective, to be bailed out. Would it have to be a hostile takeover? Not necessarily. Instead of calling it a bail-out, we may go with the more appropriate term “subsidies”, that would relief Twitter of some of its commercial pressures, in exchange for a promise to keep the service as open and democratic as possible. This agreement would also keep the current management structure at Twitter where it is, by no means replacing it by some state or inter-governmental bureaucracy.

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Many news sources still seem astonished by the powers of Twitter and similar services. Without them, there would be far less images and videos from Iran. We should move Twitter closer to the center of our foreign policy and our attempts to facilitate democracy and freedom of expression. Part of this move could be to provide public subsidies and to enforce the protection of Twitter’s openness and democratic nature, before commercial or political pressures take over. This is not a call for a state-controlled take-over of a private business, but a call to use the Internet’s liberating potentials to their fullest extent.

Update: See this NYT article for a more critical appraisal of Twitter’s role in Iran an elsewhere.