The traditional media are used to being the experts who decide what people watch and read. That approach excludes people who hunger to participate.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 30, 2008
On Thursday, April 17, I had the fortune of participating in a panel discussion sponsored by the Art Gallery of Hamilton entitled, "Local Media - Voice of the Few, or Mouthpiece of the Masses?"
On the panel with me were Mike Katrycz, news director for CHCH News, Dave Kuruc, publisher of H Magazine, Tor Lukasik-Foss, an artist and a columnist for Hamilton Magazine, Jim Polling, managing news editor for the Hamilton Spectator, and Ted Kennedy, the chief of staff for CBC English Radio. The debate was moderated skillfully by Terry Cooke, former regional chair of Hamilton-Wentworth.
As you can imagine, the discussion was feisty and at times even heated. The audience, a self-selected group who take their media seriously enough to spend a Thursday evening on it, asked some hard-hitting questions, directed mainly at Katrycz and Polling.
Give Katrycz and Polling credit: they strode willingly into the lion's den.
Polling started things by asserting that he felt proud of the Spectator and insisting it's doing a good job of local coverage. Kuruc shot back [all quotes are paraphrased from memory; if I've remembered wrong, let me know and I'll fix it], "We need you to do an excellent job, not just a good job."
This effectively set the tone for the evening: the mainstream media defending their organizations against the charge that people don't feel like they have a voice, and the independent media filling a void by producing news and commentary by and about people, not just for consumers.
During one particularly heated exchange, Katrycz smirked at Kuruc and asked, "Okay, since you've appointed yourself the spokesman of all these dissatisfied citizens, you tell me specifically what we should have done differently" in its coverage of the collapse of the Balfour Building on King William.
Kuruc asked why CHCH didn't report the event on its 11 PM news show. Then he held up a newspaper from April 17 [PDF] with the headline "DOWNTOWN CAVE-IN" blaring from the front page and denounced the sensational coverage that ignored the political factors responsible for the collapse.
I came out of that meeting with a very strong sense that the traditional media - print and television - are terrified of the internet. They don't understand it, they can't control it, and it's eating into their mindshare.
At the time, this seemed like a minor point, but since the meeting, I've been thinking about the entire discussion in these terms, trying to get a handle on what tied everything together: defensive traditional media, frustrated, disaffected readers/viewers, and independent media producing their own content to fill the void.
I finally put my finger on it after reading a transcript of a remarkable lecture by Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, in which he discusses what he calls the "cognitive surplus" - AKA free time - made available by industrialization.
For much of the 20th century, that surplus was largely mopped up by television: content created by a small group of people in a top-down corporate hierarchy and distributed through a one-way medium.
More recently, the advent of the internet has made it possible for many more people to create their own content and share it - essays, musings, photographs, cartoons, videos, fan fiction, reports, tools and applications, code snippets, and cutesy pictures of cats superimposed with cutesy text written in pidgin (I CAN HAS LITE RALE?).
People can start websites called "[company name] sucks" in which they vent their frustration with corporations that have useless, unaccountable "customer service" departments and get in contact with other people experiencing the same frustration.
They can discuss just about any issue imaginable on a forum, participate in online role-playing games, comment on articles they read, ask questions both technical and personal, flirt, provoke, outrage, sooth, comfort, and mollify.
Set aside, for now, whether it's healthy or appropriate to socialize through a computer rather than in person. My point is that people like to create things and share them.
Before the internet, people who didn't break into the mainstream media were limited to self-publishing zines, joining clubs, and so on. This is slower, harder and more expensive than creating a blog or joining a forum, so fewer people did it.
The internet has made it much easier to create things and share them, so more people do it. More importantly: once people get a taste for creativity, it's frustrating to go back to being a passive recipient in a one-way communication.
This is why so many people open their newspapers straight to the letters to the editor page and, indeed, why that page is always full. Newspaper readers don't just want to read the news; they want to respond as well, to create content and share it.
It's also why people go to public lectures and panel discussions and use their 'question' to deliver a mini-lecture instead. For some reason organizers tend to regard this as a problem, something to be discouraged.
I'm not sure why; for many people this is a rare opportunity to be heard in a public setting - in other words, to create content and share it (live and in person, to boot).
It's why they came to the lecture. It's why Dave Kuruc launched H Magazine. It's why Maggie Hughes started The Other Side. It's why we formed Raise the Hammer.
Shirky points out that the entire Wikipedia project took something on the order of 100 million person-hours to create. If that sounds like a remarkable outpouring of collective effort, bear in mind that television consumes 200 billion person-hours a year in the USA alone.
The fact is that some of that time - that cognitive surplus - is now shifting from passive television viewing to active participation. Depending on how you measure it, TV viewing has been in decline for several years. So has newspaper readership.
Shirky suggests that this represents a structural shift in how people use their cognitive surplus:
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen.
That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.
We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.
Again, the important issue is not the internet per se; it's the fact that many people want their media to be participatory. As a rule, the mainstream media don't work this way, and they're frightened by people who demand it.
Even Nicole MacIntyre's Hall Marks blog, while providing an excellent resource for political junkies, still insists on moderating comments. This top-down comment management intermediates rather obtrusively - and, I would argue, unnecessarily - in the discussion, breaking its continuity.
The traditional media are used to being the professionals, the experts who decide what people watch and read. By definition that approach excludes and alienates people who hunger to participate, to create and share.
This is folly. In their desperation to preserve their relevance by asserting their role as gatekeepers, the mainstream media will simply find themselves circumvented and ultimately abandoned as creative, resourceful citizens find other ways to engage themselves.
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