Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 3)

Continuing ICA paper, #3


In a time when political scientists become internationally famous by claiming that the social capital of society is in decline because American people do not participate in league bowling as much as they used to (Putnam, 1999), it may be counter-intuitive to claim that a more engaged and participatory culture is emerging. Yet that is exactly what is going on if one looks at the field of media. Ever since the mid-20th century so-called alternative media have flourished and in some cases even gained mass acceptance and popularity (Atton, 2001). I am talking about pirate radio stations, small-scale print magazines (often originating in less-than-affluent social contexts such as squatters and the homeless), local newspapers and radio stations, since the 1980s community-based Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet newsgroups on internet, and later on a wide range of genres on the Web such as community portal sites, group weblogs, voluntary news services, and so on. The level of participation within the media system has increased throughout the years; perhaps people stopped bowling in order to have more time to go online, build low-tech short-wave transmission stations, or to establish citizen's media? Rodriguez (2004) explicitly connects participation as a defining principle of digital culture with the emergence of Indymedia (or IMC: Independent Media Centers): From the beginning, the IMC was not thought as a communication centre where information products were designed for the un-informed majorities, but more as a hub of exchange, dialogue, and articulation to be used by all. Yet this is not just an aspect of alternative or citizen's media – participation as a principal component of contemporary culture has also been established and acknowledged in the mainstream media, with (also from the late 20th century) functions like newspaper ombudsmen and reader representatives becoming an accepted part of newsroom organization, at the same time when journalists, scholars and media critics alike increasingly call for journalism to become more responsible, responsive and transparent (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). In digital culture, participation and journalism meet in different ways, leading some industry observers to claim that journalism must prepare itself for an upcoming era of participatory news, as Dale Peskin (2002) predicts it: [n]ews evolves into collaborative, a participatory activity. Everyone is a journalist, or can be. Peer-to-peer news will eclipse business-to-consumer news.

A remarkable characteristic of this kind of participation is that its often communal. People working on such efforts generally do it for different reasons, but essentially do it together in groups or even (virtual and/or physical) communities. Translated in terms of journalism this would mean they enjoy a system of multiple authorship and ownership over their media - which Beam (1990) considers to be a defining element of professionalism for journalism. Coupled with the widespread proliferation of computers and internet connections to the home (and to handheld mobile devices), a recognition of this culture of participatory authorship has come from software developers where they have introduced the concept of open design. The most advanced form of this type of design is advocated by the Open Source Movement, based on the principle of shared and collaborative access to and control over software, and using (or rather: tweaking) it to improve the product for the benefit of other users. This perceived necessity of user-participation in product-development and productivity has also been acknowledged in the realms of marketing, management, and even news media (Bar, 2001; Bowman & Willis, 2003; Gillmor, 2004).

Participation has a distinctly political dimension, as it ties in with a shift in the identity of citizens in contemporary elective democracies from a rather passive informed or informational citizenry to a rights-based, cultural and voluntary citizenry. This shift, taking place from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century as for example Hartley (1999), Schudson (1999), and Norris (2001) document, basically entails a notion of citizens who have become increasingly willing and able to voice their concerns and claim their place in society but do so (and often only) whenever they feel their personal (including familial, communal, and sometimes regional or national) interests are at stake. As fas as media go, this means people can be apathic, passive couch potatoes for ninety percent of their time, but become directly engaged participants in some local or global Habermasian public sphere when issues are involved which they have prioritised for themselves (hence my earlier suggestion of a necessary interdependency of participation and disconnection).

Participation as a core element of digital culture also has its roots in an emerging DIY (Do-It-Yourself) culture, particularly flourishing during the 1990s, with people increasingly claiming the right to be heard rather than be spoken to - such as in the case of the traditional mass media broadcasting model - there is even a DIY channel on the US cable television network. Hartley (2002: 75-77) describes how this kind of self-righteous media citizenship also incorporates notions of mutuality, solidarity and interactivity. Interactivity is generally considered to be one of the unique characteristics of networked digital technologies such as internet (Dahlgren, 1996; King, 1998). On the other hand, varying levels of interactivity exist in all media, with online media perhaps featuring the most advanced, multiple way options for interaction. Participation as a meaning-making value has specific internet exponents, for example present in the praxis of individual and collaborative weblogging. Tim Dunlop summarizes how weblogs have political and cultural dimensions, possibly interpellating our understanding of democracy, journalism, and other (exclusive, top-down, elitist) expert systems in society: To some people, weblogs (blogs, as the word is almost universally abbreviated to) are a geek hula-hoop, a fad that will pass once the novelty wears off; a bit of fun, but not something to get too excited about. To others they represent a rebirth of participatory democracy, a new form of journalism, and even the home of the new public intellectuals (2003).

It is tempting to claim people in (Western) democracies have become nothing but complacent consumers hell-bent on shopping and watching reality television, celebrity news or soap operas, if a narrow definition of social capital and civic engagement is used. Yet I would like to argue that today's citizen is more engaged than ever before, even if it is not within the confines of membership-based political parties, civic organizations and amateur bowling-league teams. Participation, not in the least enabled and amplified by the real-time interconnectedness of internet and however voluntaristic, non-linear, and perhaps solely fueled by particular interests is a core aspect of digital culture, and thus of an emerging (global) consciousness. I am not claiming this is good or better than other ways of circulating and producing meaning, but I do feel a sense of participation is what people have come to expect from those aspects of society they wish to engage (cf. perform) in.

[to be continued...]