Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 4)

Continuing ICA paper, #4 (two installments to go)

Distantiation.

Distantiation is a concept that has a determined pre-internet meaning and existence. The way I would like to use it here stems from cinema studies (and takes its cue from Louis Althusser), and can be understood as a manipulation of the dominant way of doing or understanding things in order to juxtapose, challenge or even subvert the mainstream. On a societal level distantiation manifests itself as hyperindividualization or the extreme fragmentation of contemporary society into personal public spheres within which we only talk to and with ourselves. Such individualization is considered to be a particular feature of the gradual (and structurally incomplete) transition from industrial to information societies in elective democracies around the world. This global shift to individualized societies has been described by Zygmunt Bauman as an inevitable development, as he concludes: the way individual people define individually their individual problems and try to tackle them deploying individual skills and resources is the sole remaining 'public issue' and the sole object of 'public interest' (2000: 72). This means that digital culture can be characterized by the distantiation of the individual from society. This trend is also articulated in the disconnection-participation concept as discussed before, specifically with reference to the co-constituent rise of DIY culture, voluntarist civic engagement and self-righteous media citizenship. Such fragmentation of publics is countered by a recogniztion of Marshall McLuhan's global village or Manual Castells' network society as expressions of our sense of place and identity - especially embraced by multinational mass media corporations in their efforts to bring the globe to our doorstep via satellite news feeds and global news networks customized to regional particularities, adding emphasis to the global nature of local problems and vice versa (Merrill & De Beer, 2004).

We at once belong to ourselves and nothing but ourselves (and this is indeed what consumer culture seems to reinforce), as do we belong to the world in general and thus to everyone else. In the political-economical lingo of globalization: no one is outside anymore. At the same time, our immersement in the global village does not mean we all become the same, nor that an universal identity is likely to emerge. As Zizek (1998) critically points out: what is effectively threatened by globalization is not the cosa nostra (our private secret way of life from which others are excluded, which others want to steal from us), but its exact opposite: universality itself in its eminently political dimension. In this sense, globalization and individualization keep everything and everyone firmly in place and thus constitute each other across time and space. The parallel notions of place and time can be distantiated in that these concepts have become more flexible in a digital, mobile, always-online network society. What are meaningful properties of close and recent in a global economy, or indeed in a network society? Can there be a centralized or dominant system governing our understanding of real-time telepresence? It seems time and place have become arenas of continuous contention, and are increasingly open for all to define. In terms of digital culture it makes sense to look at some of the most successful online applications for everyday individual use - of which weblogs and the various ways in which these are redistributed are an excellent example. Mortensen and Walker (2002: 267-8) opt that blogs encourage a feeling of time, in that on weblogs posts are arranged chronologically, determined by the time of thinking. Weblogs are considered to be more similar to the way we think and act in everyday life - which can be typified by the paradox between inconsistency and chronology - than for example the kind of narrative offered through newspapers or broadcast newscasts - functioning on the basis of (patterned) selectivity and linearity. Indeed, if anything, webloggers define what they do as more or less similar to journalism, but consider their personal voice, subjective style and perhaps un-professional petit-narratives to be of added value, and they feel this sets them apart from the news media (Neuberger, 2004). In fact, webloggers tend to do what they do in distantiation from what journalists do, while at the same time adopting some of journalisms' peculiar strategies and techniques (Lasica, 2001). The same rationale can be said to apply for oppositional media in general, and online alternative media in particular (Eliasoph, 1988; Platon & Deuze, 2003).

The discussion on whether blogging can or should be considered a form of journalism and whether journalists should become bloggers is alive and well on the Web and in some the literature (Lasica, 2001; Rosen, 2004; Glaser, 2004). In a discussion piece in the Online Journalism Review (of September 24, 2002) column writer Dan Gillmore is quoted as claiming: Weblogs are certainly part of the process that adds up to journalism. I'm talking about the trend of do-it-yourself journalism. We think of journalism in terms of this late 20th Century model of mass media, where gatekeepers gather news from sources and send it out to readers [...] There's this blurring of lines and I don't know where it's going to come out, but I do know that something major is going on that is bringing journalism from the top down and the bottom up. Here, Gillmore connects the emergence of a DIY culture with relatively new kinds of journalism as well as with the signaled trend towards ever-increasing individualization. In the same piece, journalist Paul Andrews implicitly addresses the relationship between participatory media, journalism, and distantiation: A new style of journalism, based on a 'raw feed' directly from the source, is emerging. Journalists testing the new waters are bound to wreak havoc on institutionalized media. If blogging - and Indymedia can be considered to be an example of a oppositional news-oriented group weblog - in some ways is a subversion of the mainstream institutionalized media approach to news, its practice also builds on a long tradition of alternative media, as well as so-called citizen's media based on communication, dialogue and conversation within certain communities. In pre-Web times the popularity of such media - or in terms of distantiation the increasing impopularity of mainstream corporate media - has been embraced by parts of the news industry, adopting the techniques and strategies of so-called public or civic journalism - a movement emerging during the late 1980s (Rosen, 1999). As defined by pundits, public journalism has two prime goals: one is making news organizations listen more closely to their audiences, and two: making news organisations play more active roles in their communities (Merrit, 1995). At the core of this argument seems to be a normative assumption that in order for journalism to survive into the 21st century, participation should be embraced over detachment. Although this does tie in with the cultural importance of participation as discussed earlier in this essay, it must be noted that the popularity of participatory forms of journalism can at least in part be explained by the fact that these run counter to what institutionalized media traditionally offer. As former CNN-reporter Rebecca McKinnon writes: the blog has emerged as an effective vehicle for alternative citizen-journalism, from time to time effectively 'hacking' the mainstream media's spin-cycle and bringing important news to public attention (2004). Heikki Heikkila and Risto Kunelius (2002) suggest the popularity of such dialogical types of journalism can be explained by the failure of mainstream serious journalism to address the experiences of people in a meaningful way. What is important for my argument here is the interconnectedness of distantiation, Indymedia, journalism and digital culture.

Distantiation can be countered by a return to (or, as some say: a retreat into) tradition, where tradition can be seen as the perceived safety or sense of security in sameness, similarity, routines, and deeply entrenched patterns of organization. This notion becomes visible through the increasing problematization of the inevitable by-products of globalization: worldwide migration, resistant social movements (aka: freedom fighters or terrorists), popular consumer culture, and the displacement of labor. But this is just one way of interpreting distantiation dialectically. The examples I have used to discuss distantiation in the context of digital culture vis-a-vis media, journalism, and weblogging also show that distantiation does not necessarily mean different from, or in radical opposition to, the mainstream or dominant ways of doing things. Public journalism is still very much an institutional journalism; group weblogs are most definitely based on consensual ethical behavior (Netiquette) and journalistic quality principles (such as authority, legitimacy, and credibility); Indymedia websites are maintained and sometimes edited, filtered or content-wise managed by so-called editorial collectives where processes of decision-making evolve quite similar to those in the average corporate newsroom (Schudson, 1999; Matheson, 2003; Platon & Deuze, 2003). Distantiation in digital culture perhaps means being deeply immersed in the sytem while at the same time attributing legitimacy and credibililty to a self-definition of working against or outside of the system. Seen as such, I am interested in the ways in which participation and distantiation as somehow mutually exclusive or even self-contradictory aspects of digital culture are sustained and developed over time by people in everyday life, and particularly by people involved in and affected by news media. If participation and distantiation are key concepts in digital culture, how do people recognize each other as such, attribute quality and legitimacy to their actions, and what is different about media production and consumption in a digital culture, rather than a print, visual or information culture? For now, my answer refers to a third principal component of digital culture: bricolage.

[to be continued...]