Become the Media!

On November 2, 2005, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released the results from a large-scale survey among US teenagers. "More than half of online teens are Content Creators. Some 57% of online teens create content for the internet. That amounts to half of all teens ages 12-17, or about 12 million youth. These Content Creators report having done one or more of the following activities: create a blog; create or work on a personal webpage; create or work on a webpage for school, a friend, or an organization; share original content such as artwork, photos, stories, or videos online; or remix content found online into a new creation." This is the first time in history when using media has become synonymous with, or perhaps been replaced by, producing media.

Now some of you 'older' folks may think this is a rather exclusive and temporary phenomenon. Perhaps you think this is just a fad, a passing trend. Once these youngsters marry, get a job and build a family, they will return to the fold of more or less passive media consumers. You are wrong. A year earlier, on February 29, 2004, the same reputable research organization reported the results of a national phone survey among American adults, finding that more than 53 million of them "have used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online. Some 44% of Internet users have created content for the online world through building or posting to Web sites, creating blogs, and sharing files."

Let's take this kind of massively emerging behavior a step further and look at what the media industry increasingly seems to be doing: including us, simple consumers, into making their product (work). We have to vote (via e-mail or mobile phone) for our favorite Idol or Survivor, we are being polled (online or offline) to contribute our views to the news, we are supposed to modify our own versions of computer games, we are encouraged to spread the word of advertising campaigns that make use of word-of-mouth or viral marketing. And yes, let's go just a little bit further even: just about everything we do with media equipment - televisions, computers, video recorders, mobile phones - is based on our mass customization of these products. We download, install and constantly renew an endless array of wallpapers, desktop images and icons, screensavers, ringtones, personal favorites and bookmarks, program profiles, and so on, and so forth.

We are willingly seduced into 'prosumption' and 'produsing': consuming media by producing media (and vice versa). On the one hand, this means we are all becoming easier targets for media corporations, who truly benefit from our surrender (without a fight) of our uttermost private preferences to stimulate this personal information economy, where we have all become 'glass consumers': each and everyone of us has become a totally transparent target market. On the other hand, all this access to and making of our own media increasingly empowers us to take matters into our own hands. If we do not like it, we cannot only change the channel - we can start broadcasting our own content!

There are some who lament this trend, pointing at the proliferation of meaningless babble online (and offline), the increasingly superficiality of everyday face-to-face interaction and the growing power of consolidated multinational media corporations. Yochai Benkler calls this the Berlusconi Effect, warning us against "the disproportionate political power that ownership over mass media outlets gives its owners or those who can pay them." Yet there are others who sing and dance, now that they (and everybody else with some skill and access to new media resources like a computer with broadband internet connection) can free themselves from the shackles of dumbed down mainstream media content aimed at the lowest common denominator of risk-free entertainment - which Benkler describes as the Baywatch Effect: "the systematic displacement of public discourse by the distribution of commodifiable entertainment products."

Considering the sheer necessity for social hope as an antidote to a cultural pessimism about the times we live in, I would like to add third possible effect of the sketched trend towards media prosumption: a Wiki Effect, named after the hugely successful, free, and completely collaboratively authored online encyclopedia Wikipedia. In a wiki environment everyone is an author, a broadcaster, a storyteller. This can and should not be limited to what people do on internet - it is extremely important that we all become aware of what Douglas Rushkoff writes: "just how much of our reality is open source and up for discussion." Sure, we have stopped believing in ultimate truths. Agreed, traditional authorities - the church (sex scandals), the state (more sex scandals), big corporations (corruption) - seem to have failed us. But we can do something about all of that, and the internet is only showing us the tip of the iceberg of what such action can look like. Paraphrasing Jello Biafra's call to arms: be somebody - become the media!


Sources:

1. Yochai Benkler (2003). The Political Economy of Commons.
2. Jello Biafra (2000). Become the Media.
3. Pew Internet & American Life Project (2004). Content Creation Online.
4. Pew Internet & American Life Project (2005). Teen Content Creators and Consumers.
5. Douglas Rushkoff (2003). Open Source Democracy.