Introduction to New Media
Lev Manovich, who wrote The Language of New Media, described the new media from two different perspectives. According to the popular press, they consist of the Internet, web sites, computer multimedia, computer games, CD-ROMs, DVD and virtual reality (Manovich 19). Furthermore, according to Manovich, “texts distributed on a computer
Manovich consequently considers the general definition as “too limiting” (Manovich 19) and lists the principals of new media in five aspects. The most important one is the numerical representation since the new media are programmed and mathematical calculatable. A further aspect is their modularity which means that they consist of elements which build up an overall modular structure. Automation is another important point: many operations are automated, and hence work automatically. Lastly, variability and transcoding are elements of the new media: each object is variable and can exist in numerous different versions and as a consequence of the four first points, it is transcoded in the code of the computer, according to its logic (Manovich 20).
In this essay, the main focus of interest is the internet and its wide range of possibilities, especially in a socio-political context; the emergence of new media, their history and furthermore, their social and political implications are being explored.
The Development of the Internet and of Communication
These days, people are connected through the new media, actually ‘networked’ and have the possibilities to communicate and spread messages instantly, no matter the distance. However, the internet makes not only private communication much easier but also simplifies collaboration, business and self-education and allows quick access to information. The user, however, needs to differentiate and to choose intelligently from the mass of information provided.
The technology which is located in our everyday world and taken for granted only exists thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, who practically invented the hypertext technology which became the world wide web as well as the first web browser and the beginnings of HTML in the early 1990s (Gillmor 12). The most important thing about the inventor of our web is that he did not patent it; the web and the technology should be available to all people in the world (Gillmor 12). It was the probably most important open protocol for the development of new media.
In general, communication experienced a meaningful transformation. From one-to-one media as for example the telephone and one-to-many media as print and broadcast, the internet emerged as a many-to-many medium with a world wide distribution (Gillmor 13).
For McLuhan, as Gillmor proposes, this exactly is the beginning of the extension of the human body into space (Gillmor 13). We already approach the final stage of this development which is the technological simulation of consciousness, for example virtual reality (Gillmor 13).
Open source projects, as e.g. Linux are comparable to future journalism, like a modern form of collaborative “barn-raising” (Gillmor 17). An open code allows people to find bugs and to repair them collaboratively. This makes the code safer to use in the end, so everyone benefits from this collaboration (Gillmor 17). The Wiki is another form of collaborative creating and information- gathering (Gillmor 18). Problems could be amateurs with insufficient professionalism and the competition of the market, which very probably takes good programmers away from the project since they need to earn money, which is due to the capitalist controlled society.
Compared to open source programmes, also journalism undergoes a similar development (Gillmor 17). Readers can be writers at the same time, contributing essays and opinions; readers can decide which stories come at top of the page (Gillmor 12). Dahlgren claims, in his paper about the Internet, public sphere and political communication, that the Internet facilitates the growth of networks of activists and actually, especially the happenings of 9/11 had started a new era of bloggers, hand in hand with the use of You Tube and mobile phone cameras (Gillmor 18-20).
Bloggers, modern Pamphleteers
Personal journalism, civic minded and controversial, is not a new invention (Gillmor 1). Already in the 18th century, so-called pamphleteers have been publishing their rebel writing, criticising the government under great personal risk when the right of free press had not yet been released (Gillmor 2). They tried to persuade people of their opinions and critiques and they supported the Constitution as well as they helped making a nation essentially (Gillmor 2).
Back in the 19th century, newspapers were the big medium, influencing people widely (Gillmor 3). Their owners did not really care about objectivity, the most important thing was to serve and provide the readers with news that interested them mostly (Gillmor 3). In the 20th century, the so- called “Muckrakers” were the first investigative journalists in history (Gillmor 3). They exposed outrages as cruel working conditions, political corruption and the important things happening in the society in their magazines, which really matter in order to support the public and to achieve reforms (Gillmor 3). Journalism emerged as power in the 20th century, which had not only positive aspects (Gillmor 4). The concurrence between the big newspapers, started by capitalist movements, led the
newspapers to adapt to the readers wants (Gillmor 5). Local broadcasting stations preferred to boost their preference with violence and entertainment instead of gaining trust, sticking to the motto “if it bleeds, it leads” (Gillmor 5). The pace of life quickened, so the attention has decreased (Gillmor 5). Most of the people don’t think enough to consider what they have been told and stay shallow while others lead them by taking advantage of that (Gillmor 6). This behaviour can have dangerous potential, since “a shallow citizenry can be turned into a dangerous mob more easily than an informed one.” (Gillmor 6).
Personal technology allowed people in the 1980s to create media in new and especially less expensive ways (Gillmor 9). Inventions as the PC and Mac brought the medium to a new era (Gillmor 9). The ‘ransom notes style’ of early publishers was one of the negative effects of too many non- professionals at the power (Gillmor 10). However, the “desktop publishing” allowed new players to enter, especially the independent ethnic press (Gillmor 10). They grew both in size and creditability which served the rise of grassroots journalism (Gillmor 10). Conclusively, bloggers are contemporary pamphleteers. The iconic claim “Everyone a pamphleteer” has been, according to Yochai Benkler, a popular assumption about the internet in the early 1990s (Benkler 177).
From the Bourgeois to a Networked Public Sphere
Having another look back, we can see another development, namely that of the public sphere. Jürgen Habermas was the first to write about the Bourgeois Public Sphere. In the 18th century, the bourgeois public sphere was the sphere of private people coming together as a public. The institutions for this were for example coffee houses, of which in London 3000 of them existed by first decade of the 18th century (Habermas 32). In those coffee houses, intellectuals met aristocrats for a critical debate about literature and art (Habermas 33). But this debate soon extended to economic and political disputes (Habermas 33). The whole thing expanded and also for example shopkeepers came to the coffeehouse to make their claim and their argument (Habermas 33). Class and status did not matter in this moment – at least in telling his position – the private was separate from the public and the state separate from society. With their engagement, political actions could be influenced.
However, the emergence of consumerism, the mass media, public relations and advertisement changed the society, „the public sphere of civil society again takes on feudal features“(Habermas 195). The clear separations were blurred and the citizens became consumers again, through „private enterprises evok[ing] in their customers the idea that in their consumption decisions they act in their capacity as citizens“(Habermas 195).
Yochai Benkler later re-engaged with the topic of the public sphere. He defines the public sphere as “the set of practices that members of a society use to communicate about matters they understand to be of public concern and that potentially require collective action or recognition” (Benkler 177). The “networked public sphere” can easily cooperate, observe, give opinions and at the same time serve as a “watchdog” over society (Benkler 261). What belongs to the public sphere depends on the society you live in (Benkler 180).
One of the motivations for public sphere activity is the known problem of state-controlled media: the “power of ownership and money” (Benkler 199) is not to be underestimated, especially in capitalistic-oriented societies. Examples for the importance and the influence of the Public sphere can be found in many countries, as for example the Arab Spring and the recent elections in Russia. They show that investigative journalism is an important motor for political decisions.
The Internet and the Question of Democracy
When talking about the new political freedom which had emerged with the rise of New Media, Yochai Benkler firstly emphasizes that modern democracy and mass media have co-evolved in the 20th century (Benkler 176). The Internet is a network of information, economy, culture and production, and certainly is serving an alternative platform for the public sphere (Benkler 177). The ideal citizen is not only a consumer and spectator of media but involved with it; he is enjoying real democracy (Benkler 272). However, does the internet actually democratize? A general assumption is that the internet is too chaotic; being heard is difficult if everyone is allowed to speak (Benkler 238).
In a democracy, bloggers are an important voice. In dictatorships, they are informing about what really happens in their regime.
One example is the Arab spring, beginning in the end of 2010 in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. It is an example for this new networked public sphere. Thanks to the new kind of investigative journalism through new media, it works as an important motor for political decisions even if those journalists risk their lives.
Another example is the blogging scene in Russia, criticizing the Russian government significantly, especially now after the election in 2011. In a ZDF Europa documentary about this topic, the life of political bloggers in Russia is depicted as very dangerous, but at the same time crucial, which is the reason why they still continue their work. One of the most important bloggers is Roman Dobrochotov. Citizens appreciate blogs like his to get independent news instead of governmentally ruled mass media. Unfortunately, also the government makes use of new media and employs bloggers to manipulate the truth. For that reason, people nevertheless need to take care of what they rely on.
Neutrality of the media is especially in political context a crucial issue. Projects as wiki leaks2 work against state corruption and cover-ups. Hackers on either side try to manipulate. Even harmless operations as for example search engine optimization, and of course search engine marketing, are further manipulations, depending on money spent.
Jürgen Habermas’ democracy was achieved but after that destroyed through mass media, public relations and capitalism. However, mass media should not only be seen as “evil giants” (Benkler 211). Now they can be the platform for the public sphere in a many-to-many form (Benkler 198). The improved contact to these new platforms can “complement the mass media” and improve the public sphere significantly (Benkler 211). The difference to mass media is the multi-linked environment and the exclusion of communication costs, which certainly improve the capacity of the “networked information economy” (Benkler 212).
There are many concepts of the internet being democratizing, i.e. the networked information economy is democratizing the public sphere (Benkler 241). But how does it achieve this universal democracy? The actual power law distribution is desillusionating the contemporary “pamphleteers” (Benkler 247). Web topology shows that only a very small amount of websites have really steady and current access – and with that, success (Benkler 244). This fact supports Benkler’s view on the democratic qualities of the internet.
Peter Dahlgren’s paper from 2005 is also concerned with the democracy topic. He claims that „The kinds of interaction [in the Internet] can only to a small degree be considered manifestations of the public sphere; democratic liberation is completely overshadowed by consumerism, entertainment, non-political networking and chat…. “(Dahlgren 151). The virtual community can thicken relations but also can raise fear of disintegration, for example cyber bullying and the rise of radical groups.
Dahlgren moreover claims that the public sphere constitutes of three dimensions (Dahlgren 148). The first dimension is the one of structure, i.e. the formal institutional features, which includes media organizations and legal frameworks (Dahlgren 148). It tells us about the accessibility for the civic use (Dahlgren 149). Furthermore, there is the representational dimension, which will be weak in less democratic societies (Dahlgren 149). In the dimension of representation in regard to online contexts, issues as fairness and accuracy are raised, as well as ideological tendencies and modes of address (Dahlgren 149). The third dimension is the dimension of interaction; it consists of two aspects, the citizens encountering with the media and the interaction among citizens (Dahlgren 149). This dimension is especially crucial for the internet. With these classifications, the public sphere of a given society can be analysed easily (Dahlgren 150).
In conclusion, new media brought a new era with them. Citizens are ‘networked’ now, since the development of communication made great effort. They are also closer to what happens in their country as well as to what happens in other countries.
Bloggers can be seen as contemporary pamphleteers who use the advantages of the new media. There are new possibilities of journalism and the emergence of a new ‘networked public sphere’, which can help to show what really happens in the world. Political bloggers can make use of them for investigative journalism; it serves as an important communication channel for countries which have the social need of protest against their government.
Still, the question of the democratizing function is difficult to answer; money and ownership mean power, but at least with that new channel of communication, this circumstance can be fought against. Nevertheless, we should not forget the fact that the single voice disappears very quickly in the mass of contributions.
Conclusively, the new media have to be handled with care and thoughtfulness, since they can be dangerous as well. Therefore, the most important aim is to make people more aware of what happens in their world, make them involved and interested. If the new media can fight political apathy, a major problem of many of today’s democracies can thus be reduced. In the end, citizens should not only be consumers of new media, but critical thinkers, questioning what they are told.
Benkler, Y., (2006) The Wealth of Networks. How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
Dahlgren, P., (2005) The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation. In: Political Communication, 22:147-162. Taylor & Francis, Inc.
Gillmor, D., (2004) We the media. Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people. Sebastopol (CA): O‘Reilly Media.
Habermas, J., (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translation from German by T. Burger/F. Lawrence. Great Britain: Polity Press.
Manovich, L., (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge (MA)/London: MIT Press.