When media executives (and the occasional columnist on a deadline) talk about ‘the problem with the web’ they often revert to a series of recurring themes. In doing so they draw on a range of discourses that betray assumptions, institutional positions and ideological leanings. I thought I’d put together a list of some common memes of hatred directed towards the internet at various points by publishers and journalists, along with some critical context.
If you can think of any other common complaints, or responses to the ones below, post them in the comments and I’ll add them in. I’ll also update this blog post whenever I come across new evidence on any of the topics.
Meanwhile, here’s a table of contents for easy access:
- Undemocratic and unrepresentative (The ‘Twitterati’)
- ‘The death of common culture’
- The ‘echo chamber’/death of serendipity (homophily)
- ‘Google are parasites’
- ‘Bloggers are parasites’
- ‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with’
- Rumour and hearsay ‘magically become gospel’
- ‘Unregulated’ lack of accountability
- Cult of the amateur
The presumption here is that the media as a whole is more representative and democratic than users of the web. You know, geeks. The ‘Twitterati’ (a fantastic ideologically-loaded neologism that conjures up images of unelected elites). A variant of this is the position that sees any online-based protest as ‘organised’ and therefore illegitimate.
Of course the media is hardly representative or democratic on any level. In every general election in the UK during the twentieth century, for example, editorial opinion was to the right of electoral opinion (apart from 1997). In 1983, 1987 and 1992 press support exceeded by at least half the Conservative Party’s share of the vote. Similar stats can be found in US election coverage. The reasons are obvious: media owners are not representative or democratic: by definition they are part of a particular social class: wealthy proprietors or shareholders (although there are other factors such as advertiser influence and organisational efficiencies).
But neither is the web a level playing field. Sadly, it has inherited most of the same barriers to entry that permeate the media: lack of literacy, lack of access and lack of time prevent a significant proportion of the population from having any voice at all online. And those who are civically engaged online share many of the characteristics of vocal community members offline (although the research at that link notes “there are hints that the new forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites could alter long-standing patterns.”)
UPDATE [12 Jan 2012]: David Brake’s presentation on the ‘representativeness’ of online voices provides more useful resources and frameworks.
So any treatment of internet-based opinion should be done with caution. But just as not everyone has a voice online, even fewer people have a voice in print and broadcast. To accuse the web of being unrepresentative can be a smokescreen for the lack of representation in the mainstream media. When a journalist uses the unrepresentative nature of the web as a stick, ask how their news selection process presents a solution to that: is there a PR agency for the poor? Do they seek out a response from the elderly on every story?
And there is a key difference: while journalism becomes less representative, web access becomes more so, with governments in a number of countries moving towards providing universal broadband and access to computers through schools and libraries (and public media organisations). There is also evidence that social media in particular is more representative of the wider population in terms of ethnicity and age – although as the link above suggests, this is by no means comprehensive.
The internet, this argument runs, is preventing us from having a common culture we can all relate to. Because we are no longer restricted to a few terrestrial channels and a few newspapers – which all share similar editorial values – we are fragmented into a million niches and unable to relate to each other.
This is essentially an argument about culture and the public sphere. The literature here is copious, but one of the key planks is ‘Who defines the public sphere? Who decides what is shared culture?’ Commercial considerations and the needs of elite groups play a key role in both. And of course, what happens if you don’t buy into that shared culture? Alternative media has long attempted to reflect and create culture outside of that mainstream consensus.
You might also argue that new forms of common culture are being created – amateur YouTube videos that get millions of hits; BoingBoing posts; Lolcats; Twitter discussions around jokey hashtag memes – or that old forms of common culture are being given new life: how many people are watching The Apprentice or X Factor because of simultaneous chatter on Twitter?
UPDATE: From Nick in the comments:
When we read the newspapers or watched TV news, this argument runs, we encountered information we wouldn’t otherwise know about. But when we go online, we are restricted to what we seek out – and we seek out views to reinforce our own (homophily or cyberbalkanisation).
Countering this, it is worth pointing out that in print people tended to buy one newspaper that also supported their own views* with one particular political leaning, whereas online people switch from publication to publication with differing political orientations. It’s also worth pointing out that over 80% of people have come across a news article online while searching for something else entirely. Many websites have ‘related/popular articles/posts/videos’ features that introduce some serendipity. And finally, there is the role of social media in introducing stories we otherwise wouldn’t encounter (a good example here is the Iran elections – how many people would have skimmed over that in a publication or broadcast, but clicked through because someone was tweeting #cnnfail).
There’s also evidence that people seem to become more broadly and locally connected when they connect to the internet. From a Pew study:
“Ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks … Social media activities are associated with … having discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds. For instance, frequent internet users, and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race. Those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party … Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with having a more diverse social network.”
That’s not to say homophily doesn’t exist – there is evidence to suggest that people do seek out reinforcements for their own views online – but that doesn’t mean the same trend didn’t exist in print and broadcast, and it doesn’t make that true of everyone. I’d argue that the serendipity of print/broadcast depends on an editor’s news agenda and the serendipity of online depends on algorithms and social networks. So, not worse, not better, just different.
“Overall, it would be incorrect to conclude that liberal bloggers are ignoring conservative bloggers or vice versa. Certainly, liberal bloggers are more likely to address liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers are more likely to link to conservative bloggers. But people from both groups are certainly reading across the ideological divide to some extent. There is no clear trend toward becoming more isolated in conversations over time.”
*UPDATE: From Stuart in the comments:
“I’d dispute the claim “people tended to buy a newspaper that also supported their own views” – Sun readers have always been considerably to the left of their paper (MORI research in the guardian). There’s quite a lot of research in network formation in the political blogosphere, and research suggests that left-wingers in particular read/link almost exclusively to left-wing blogs (example) whereas they’re far more likely to read right-wing papers – at the 2005 election 40% of Mail readers and more than half of Times readers voted Labour or Lib Dem.”
Fair point – I’ve clarified the sentence quoted. I would, however, argue that the evidence above (in the ‘unrepresentative’ section) about the political formation of the broader population vs that of the press would lead to that result anyway: if there are more right-wing papers than there are right-wing voters, then a significant proportion of readers will be to the left of the editorial position. The fact that they are more likely to read left-wing material online merely suggests that there is more opportunity to do so than there is in print.
UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis meditates on serendipity.
UPDATE: Axel Bruns explores this concept in some depth in his wonderful book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond (2008) where he says:
“Such threats have been thematized ever since taste subcultures first came to be studied, and have as yet failed to materialise as dramatically as may have been expected; a reason for this is that no taste subculture ever operates on its own, and that no one community member ever serves as part of only one taste culture. In reality, our tastes and interests are always multiple, and more or less diverse and contradictory, our personas never unified or uniform; through our everyday interactions with others, and with culture itself, we sustain the continued engagement between the different cultural and social perspectives and communities in our society.” (more from this quote here)
“[E]ven though people are more likely to consume and share information that comes from close contacts that they interact with frequently (like discussing a photo from last night’s party), the vast majority of information comes from contacts that they interact with infrequently. These distant contacts are also more likely to share novel information, demonstrating that social networks can act as a powerful medium for sharing new ideas, highlighting new products and discussing current events.”
UPDATE [Jan 24 2012]: More research on serendipity in news consumption here.
This argues that Google’s profits are based on other people’s content. I’ve tackled the Google argument previously: in short, Google is more like a map than a publication, and its profits are based on selling advertising very effectively against searches, rather than against content (which is the publisher’s model). It’s also worth pointing out that news content only forms around 0.01% of indexed content, and that news-related searches don’t tend to attract much advertising anyway. (If it was, Google would try to monetise Google News).
It’s often worth looking at the discourses underlying much of the Google-parasite meme. Often these revolve around it being ‘not fair’ that Google makes so much money; around ‘the value of our content’ as if that is set by publishers rather than what the market is willing to pay; and around ‘taking our content’ despite the fact that publishers invite Google to do just that through a) deciding not to use the Robots Exclusion Protocol (ACAP appears to be an attempt to dictate terms, although it’s not technically capable of doing so yet) and b) employing SEO practices.
Another useful experiment with these complaints is to look at what result publishers are really aiming for. Painting Google as a parasite can, variously, be used as an argument to relax ownership rules; to change copyright law to exclude fair comment; or to gain public subsidy (for instance, via a tax on Google or other online operators). In a nutshell, this argument is used to try to re-acquire the monopoly over distribution that publishers had in the physical world, and the consequent ability to set the price of advertising.
A different argument to the one above, this one seeks to play down the role of bloggers by saying they are reliant on content from mainstream media. This draws on discourses of ‘original’ and ‘authorship’ to assert authority.
Of course, you could equally point out that mainstream media is reliant on content from PR agencies, government departments, and, most of all, each other. The reliance of local broadcasters on local newspaper content is notorious; the lifting of quotes from other publications equally common. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – journalists often lift quotes for the same reasons as bloggers – to contextualise and analyse. The difference is that bloggers tend to link to the source.
Calling bloggers ‘parasites’ also betrays a perception of bloggers as ‘publishers’. The blog platform, however, combines publication with conversation. The vast majority of bloggers do not see themselves as publishers but rather as simply having conversations, in public. You wouldn’t accuse readers who gather round the water cooler to discuss the latest report on Iraq of being “parasites”, and yet the water cooler analogy holds for a lot of blogging. The difference, of course, is that by holding those conversations in public you become a competitor, which is why people may draw on the ‘Bloggers as parasites’ argument. Of course, if a blogger’s analysis or contextualisation is better-informed than the mainstream version, you hold an even greater threat, particularly to those claims to ‘authority’ that people using these arguments wish to defend.
Another point to make along these lines is some blogs’ role as ‘Estate 4.5‘, monitoring the media in the same way that the media is supposed to monitor the powerful. “We can fact-check your ass!” (see comments on Ken Layne)
Identity is a complex thing. While it’s easy to be anonymous online, the assertions that people make online are generally judged by their identities, just as in the real world.
However, an identity is more than just a name – online, more than anything, it is about reputation. And while names can be faked, reputations are built over time. Forum communities, for example, are notorious for having a particularly high threshold when it comes to buying into contributions from anyone who has not been an active part of that community for some time. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a rich history of anonymous/pseudonymous writing in newspapers).
Users of the web rely on a range of cues and signals to verify identity and reputation, just as they do in the physical world. There’s a literacy to this, of course, which not everyone has at the same levels. Judith Donath’s paper ‘Signals in Social Supernets‘ is a very good overview of how we use different signals in establishing trust online – and the levels of risk we take in judging those signals:
“When the costs of being deceived are low, people may not care if something is an exaggeration. However, when the costs are high, they may demand a more reliable signal…
“Trustworthiness itself is not directly perceivable (Bacharach & Gambetti, 2001). People trust new information and acquaintances that come to them via people they trust…
“SNSs can actually increase trustworthiness, by placing people within a context that can enforce social mores. SNSs make people aware that their friends and colleagues are looking at their self-presentation.”
You might argue that it is in some ways easier to establish the background of a writer online than it was for their print or broadcast counterparts. On the radio, nobody knows you’re a dog.
They say “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it’s fair to say that there is more rumour and hearsay online for the simple reason that there is more content and communication online (and so there’s also more factual and accurate information online too). But of course myths aren’t restricted to one medium – think of the various ‘Winterval’ stories propagated by a range of newspapers that have gained such common currency. Or how about these classics:
The interactive nature of the web does make it easier for others to debunk hearsay through comments, responses on forums, linkbacks, hashtagged tweets and so on. But interactivity is a quality of use, not of the thing itself, so it depends on the critical and interactive nature of those browsing and publishing the content. Publishers who don’t read their comments, take note.
Accountability is a curious one. Often those making this assertion are used to particular, formal, forms of accountability: the Press Complaints Commission; Ofcom; the market; your boss. Online the forms of accountability are less formal, but can be quite savage. A ream of critical comments makes you accountable very quickly. Look at what happened to Robert Scoble when he posted something inaccurate; or to Jan Moir when she wrote something people felt was in bad taste. That accountability didn’t exist in the formal structures of mainstream media.
Related to this is the idea that the internet is ‘unregulated’. Of course it is regulated – you have (ironically, relatively unaccountable) organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and the law applies just as much online and in the physical world. Indeed, there is a particular problem with one country’s laws being used to pursue people abroad – see, for example, how Russian businessmen have sued American publishers in London for articles which were accessed a few times online. On the other hand, people can escape the attentions of lawyers by mirroring content in other jurisdictions, by simply being too small a target to be worth a lawyer’s time, or by being so many that it is impractical to pursue. These characteristics of the web can be used in the defence of freedoms (see Trafigura) as much as for attacks (hate literature).
UPDATE: More on a variant of this argument in ‘Journalism is not a zero-sum game’.
Trivial is defined as “of very little importance or value”. This is of course a subjective value judgement depending on what you feel is important or valuable. The objection to the perceived triviality of online content – particularly those of social networks and blogs – is another way to deprecate an upstart rival based on a normative ideal of the importance of journalism. And while there is plenty of ‘important’ information in the media, there is also plenty of ‘trivial’ material too, from the 3am girls to gift ideas and travel supplements.
The web has a similar mix. To focus on the trivial is to intentionally overlook the incredibly important. And it is also to ignore the importance of so much apparently ‘trivial’ information – what my friends are doing right now may be trivial to a journalist, but it’s useful ‘news’ or content to me. And in a conversational medium, the exchange of that information is important social glue, what Bonnie Nardi refers to (PDF) as “the work of connection”
To take journalists’ own news values: people within your social circle are ‘powerful’ within that circle, and therefore newsworthy, to those people, regardless of their power in the wider world.
Some historical perspective is useful here, too. Each new technology comes with a fear of the trivial: below is a snapshot from an 1858 article about the telegraph bemoaning the triviality the new technology imposed on news reporting.
This argument has, for me, strange echoes of the arguments against universal suffrage at various points in history. Replace ‘bloggers’ with ‘women’ or ‘the masses’ and ‘professionals’ with ‘men’ or ‘the aristocracy’ in these arguments and you have some idea of the ideology underlying them. It’s the notion that only a select portion of the population are entitled to a voice in the exercise of power.
The discourse of ‘amateur’ is particularly curious. The implication is that amateur means poor quality, whereas it simply means not paid. The Olympics is built on amateurism, but you’d hardly question the quality of Olympic achievement throughout time. In the 19th century much scientific discovery was done by amateur scientists.
Professional, on the other hand, is equated with ‘good’. But professionalism has its own weaknesses: the pressures of deadlines, pressures of standardisation and efficiency, commercialism and market pressures, organisational culture.
That’s not to say that professionalism is bad, either, but that both amateurism and professionalism have different characteristics which can be positive or negative in different situations.
There’s an economic variant to this argument which suggests that people volunteering their efforts for nothing undermines the economic value of those who do the same as part of a paid job. This is superficially true, but some of the reasons for paying people to do work are because you can expect it to be finished within a particular timeframe to a particular quality – you cannot guarantee those with amateur labour (also, amateurs choose what they want to work on), so the threat is not so large as it is painted. The second point is that jobs may have to adapt to this supply of volunteer information. So instead of or as well as creating content the role is to verify it, contextualise it, link it, analyse it, filter it, or manage it. After all, we don’t complain about the ‘cult of the volunteer’ undermining charity work, do we?
UPDATE: I deal with a variant of this argument – the ‘Bad Experience view of UGC’, in the second part of this post.
UPDATE 2: Clay Shirky writes particularly eloquently about the dumbing down meme: “Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type … Whenever media become more abundant, average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World’s Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus are still early and special cases.”
UPDATE: Cory Doctorow responds to 3 common groans about social media in this Guardian column.