Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 6)

Final part of ICA paper, #6

For comments, criticism and a copy of the bibliography, please send me an e-mail.


In the final section of this essay I discuss the ways in which digital culture can be seen as a self-organizing property of Indymedia and journalism. With self-organization or autopoiesis I consider the various ways in which social groups (families, neighbourhoods, circles of friends) and social systems (medicine, law, politics, journalism) continually reproduce themselves by internalizing particular values, beliefs and practices operationally independent from the outside world yet at the same time structurally coupled with other groups and systems within that world. This notion was originally introduced in the 1970s by Chilean biologists Herbert Maturana and Fracisco Varela and has been introduced in the social sciences most prominently by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Self-organization is not particular to digital culture, as much as distantiation, participation and bricolage have manifestations before or next digital culture as well. Indeed, I consider all (social) systems to have autopoietic properties. Niklas Luhmann (1990) primarily considers the communicative acts and relationships within a social system as self-organizing, rather than the actors (that is: people) themselves. My argument therefore maintains that a digital culture is created, reproduced, sustained and recognized as such through the ways in which people establish relationships and communicate about these relationships. What is amazing about a digital culture - rather than a print, visual or information culture - is that it fosters community while at the same time can be fueled by isolation. In other words: we can be (or feel) connected to everyone else within the system - for example through chatrooms, Instant Messaging, group weblogs, Trackback systems and RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) feeds on individual weblogs, Usenet discussion groups, Bulletin Boards Systems, SMS-tv, and so on - while at the same time being isolated as individuals sitting at a desk in front of a computer at home, at the office, in a public library or internet cafe. Yet digital culture is not self-created and self-maintained through connected devices and access alone - it also has self-referential properties in that certain values, beliefs and practices are preferred over others. A good example is the emergence of a Netiquette as an evolving set of ethical guidelines for communicating and publishing online. These values are sometimes formulated in opposition to (and thus distantiated from) those upheld by mainstream corporate media: preferring the personal experiental account rather than professional detached observation, heralding openness for all rather than access based on expertise claimed on the basis of institutional authority, attributing more weight to providing a bottom-up platform for individual voices instead of top-down delivering of messages based on a consensual perception of the common denominator. Again we must realize that such values have not sprung into existence when the first Bulletin Board System went online. What has happened, though, is an acceleration of acceptance of these values through the ongoing proliferation of internet access and usage, and a corresponding process of infusing disparate social systems like oppositional social movements and professional journalism, inspiring the emergence of Indymedia and participatory news. If publics increasingly demand to have a say in the news, even though they do not know what they talk about nor are they generally interested in that news, it must be seen as a communicative act and thus an autopoietic component of digital culture. Digital culture, in other words, can be characterized by participation, distantiation and bricolage as its key elements, whih self-organizing properties are part of online (Indymedia) as well as offline (journalism) news media phenomena.

We live in a digital culture. That culture is still evolving - as all cultures are and always will be - in the directions as outlined in this essay. This will have consequences for the way we work, communicate, give meaning to our lives. We are at once local and global, individual and collective, isolated and connected, engaged and apathetic. I hope to have showed that this seemingly eclectic and paradoxical mix of values and charactertistics are by no means mutually exclusive, but rather must be seen as constituents of each other, and parts of a whole that is digital culture. Some of the most pressing debates of today - about authenticity and originality, self-determination and social cohesion, equity and equality - are already influenced by this emerging cultural system all over the world. Social systems in society are feeling the impact of this emerging cultural consensus as well - especially the traditional institutions of modernity: parliamentary democracy and journalism. With a discussion set against the backdrop of Indymedia and journalism I have aimed to synthesize the core elements of digital culture with the often-voiced concerns about the decline or change of national politics and mainstream news media, in order to show how new types of citizenship, participation, activism, dialogue and interactive communication have emerged. There is a message of hope here somewhere.

This sweeping overview of what in my opinion are the three core elements of contemporary digital culture - participation, distantiation, and bricolage - hopefully shows effectively that the phenomena we observe in daily life online have their emergent properties in the offline of days gone by. I realize I am not suggesting anything new or original here - I am merely offering my own bricolage in order participate in the self-organizing system that is academia, and by referring to authors before me building on their ideas and publications, I hope to become part of a creative commons that inherently consists of multiple authorship and collaborative control over the concepts we discuss.

[The End].

Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 5)

Continuing ICA paper, #5


John Hartley (2002: 22ff), referring to Claude Levi-Strauss, defines bricolage as the creation of objects with materials to hand, re-using existing artefacts and incorporating bits and pieces. According to Hartley, bricolage incorporates practices and notions like borrowing, hybridity, mixture, and plagiarism. Most scholars in media and cultural studies invoke bricolage when describing the mixing, reconstructing and re-using of separate artifacts, actions, ideas, signs, symbols and styles in order to create new insights or meanings. Bricolage has many manifestations: as in the various ways in which (sub-) cultures constitute their 'new' identity by borrowing artefacts - clothes, hairstyles, accessories - and ritualistic activities - dancing, communicating, performing - from a wide variety of groups and time periods. The extreme metal scene for example combines Biblical with oppositional references (the inverted cross) in order to distinguish itself from the mainstream, to that purpose also wearing shirts with gory pictures or offensive words printed on front and back (Purcell, 2003, p.29). This kind of blending to achieve new - if only temporary - styles, indentities or subcultures has also been associated with the supposed end of Grand Narratives as a typical feature of Lyotards' postmodern era.

With bricolage originality or a modernist emphasis on 'first things' as an emblem of quality is thrown out of the window in favor of an attitude that prefers an assemblage of good copies over a single bad original. The international resistance against the efforts of the media publishing, recording and distributing industries to defend the copyrights of their materials is a good example of a phenomenon that is tied in with bricolage as the legitimate way of doing things in today’s emerging digital culture. Again I must emphasize how bricolage has its roots in mid- to late 20th century developments in for instance the arts and sciences. Examples of people openly embracing the identity of a bricoleur can be found from popular music to postmodern philosopy. In music, bricolage is applied by artists in all genres, from a mainstream artist like David Bowie changing faces every four years or so to a marginal band like black metallers Dimmu Borgir from Norway mixing classical music, pop melodies, extreme hard rock music with a highly decorative band image reminiscent of the days of Kiss and Alice Cooper. Another excellent example of a late 20th century celebration of bricolage is the popularity of disk-jockeys who mix, cut, edit and re-assemble bits and pieces of music to shape new soundscapes fueling parties and raves all over the world. In philosophy we find the bricoleur embraced by pragmatism’s leading philosopher Richard Rorty from the United States, while online the ultimate bricoleurs are the individual webloggers of the world with their daily musings, linkdumps and ramblings.

Bricolage plays an important role in the realm of politics and political citizenship, as although people may recognize Left from Right, Progressive from Conservative or for example Democrat from Republican, they also experience problems when having to identify themselves (as voters) exclusively or explicitly with a single side. People assemble political positions on just about everything rather than follow the guidelines of a single party program or political ideology. As Anthony Giddens has argued, today we are immersed in our highly personal life politics - another building block the individualized society - through which the multiple private and public spheres we (assume we) belong to get meaning. Those meanings are not necessary consistent, nor are our convictions implicitly rational and deliberate. The bricoleur-citizen identifies with many issues, images and symbols before (or, heaven forbid, after) voting or enacting some other kind of civic engagement.

On the World Wide Web bricolage is evident in the ways in which we click, publish and link our way online. Chandler (1998) applies bricolage in a textual analysis of personal Home Pages: especially in a virtual medium one may reselect and rearrange elements until a pattern emerges which seems to satisfy the contraints of the task and the current purposes of the user. Indeed, no version of the resulting text need be regarded as final - completion may be endlessly deferred in the medium in which everything is always 'under construction'. In (online) journalism bricolage is acknowledged in the common practice of shovelware: the repurposing or windowing of content. Online, journalists re-use and re-distribute edited and otherwise manipulated versions of content originally produced for offline media. News sites generally offer repurposed or aggregated content that was previously produced and used in other media, such as audio and video clips, still image galleries, logos and icons, bits and pieces of written text. When online journalists acknowledge their sources and offer internal or external hyperlinks to a vast array of materials, documents, related stories, archival content, and other sites, they attribute an active bricoleur-identity to their users as they give people a chance to find their own way through the information at hand (Deuze, 2003). Indymedia websites are also a good example of this practice, as IMC sites tend to offer a bewildering array of links to topics, sources (sometimes including Web radio and video), issues and places all over the world. To the average journalist or politician this chaotic, disorganized and seemingly random display and practice of online information is pure horror. How to make sense of it all? What is credible information? Help! Credible and manageable or not: this is the way people behave online (and increasingly offline as well: constantly zapping, browsing, switching and even multitasking between and within different media types, genres and formats).

Digital culture consists of the practices and beliefs of the bricoleur - whose activities should not be confused with boundless freedom and endless creativity, however: The bricoleur’s strategies are constrained not only by pragmatic considerations such as suitability-to-purpose and readiness-to-hand but by the experience and competence of the individual in selecting and using 'appropriate' materials (Chandler, 1998). Again, bricolage as an emerging praxis can be considered to be a principal component of digital culture, as well as an instigator, engine, and accelerator of it.

[to be continued]

Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 4)

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


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...]

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...]

Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 2)

Continuing ICA paper, #2

Digital culture

It is important to note that a sketch of characteristics common to a culture does not presuppose that all individuals located within that culture behave or act in similar ways. What I do want to suggest however, is that the actions and behaviours of peoples within digital culture can be summarized into a set of common elements, which we can use to study and understand the role of media and journalism in particular. In other words: a digital culture does not imply that everyone is or sooner or later will be online, but it assumes that the increasing computerization and digitalisation of society has consequences on a shared social level, both online as well as offline. I consider these consequences as these manifest \themselves in our current ways of thinking about journalism and internet.

In this context Lev Manovich (2001: 13) introduced the concept of an information culture as constituted through the visual language of the 20th century, incorporating several new ways in which information is presented and consumed, for example via displays in empty spaces like hotel lounges, airports, and shopping malls, the design of information carriers (varying from books to PDAs), and last but not least: computers. According to Manovich all these representations converge as shops are outfitted with computer screens and digital video displays, computers are outfitted for television and movie viewing, and paper, broadcast technologies and computer networks all merge into mobile wireless applications. This has consequences for the way we see and perceive the world around us. After traveling around the world, media historian Mitchell Stephens (1998) signaled the omnipresence of edited, manipulated and tweaked images as meaning-makers in the daily lives of people across the globe. The many scrambled, edited and converged ways in which we produce and consume information worldwide are gradually changing the way people interact and give meaning to their lives, according to such authors. But the emergence of such a manipulated and edited worldview in itself is not so much part of the digital culture I aim to describe here – it is an accelerator or amplifier of digital culture. As Jean Baudrillard foresaw in a famous essay of 1981, a hyperreal world is emerging in an age of simulation, typified by the realization that images seem to bear no relation to reality whatsoever, leading to a corresponding proliferation of second-hand truth (2001 [1981: 173-4). Scholars like Manovich, Stephens, Castells, and Baudrillard all seem to point at the same phenomenon: something is going on in the daily lives of media users worldwide that makes them (us) accept the fact that reality is constructed, assembled and subverted by media, and that the only way to make sense of that mediated world is to adjust our worldview accordingly, which in turn shapes and renews the properties of media. Media are not changing our worldview, but the ways we engage with, make use of, and produce our own media are changing our values and practices and thus are changing our culture. Or, as Douglas Rushkoff reminds us: reality is open source. As screen-based, networked and digital media proliferate and saturate our lives, we reconstitute ourselves as active agents in the process of meaning-making (we are participants); we adopt but at the same time modify and manipulate the consensual way of understanding reality (we engage in distantiation); and we assemble our own particular versions of such reality (we become bricoleurs). It is this process that is central to my synthesis, and which in my mind defines our contemporary yet still emerging digital culture.

Digital culture is by no means only connected to or spawned by the convergence and omnipresence of devices, it is also reproduced by us as our perceptions of reality (or for lack of a better concept: authenticity) are evolving. I see this digital culture as emerging from practices and communicative acts both online and offline, shaping and being shaped by artifacts, arrangements and activities in new and old media (which distinction becomes superfluous as all media are converging). Seen as such, digital culture is an emergent convergence of previous media cultures: print culture (cf. newspapers, books and magazines), visual culture (cf. broadcast media), and information culture (cf. an analog and digital combination of display and research media). This presupposes digital culture carries some or all of the properties of other media cultures, so let me emphasize that I do not claim to have found characteristics unique or particular to digital culture. I would like to suggest that a digital culture has emerged from the mid-20th century onwards, which development accelerated through the widespread global proliferation of internet. The core characteristics of this digital culture can be caught in three concepts, which should be seen as articulated with each other: participation, distantiation, and bricolage. In decribing these concepts, I make use of recent literature on Indymedia, alternative and oppositional media, journalism and globalization. On a side note I have to point out, that each of these elements embodies its own contradiction: with participation comes disconnection, distantiation goes hand-in-hand with tradition, and bricolage is mediated by its opposite: originality. These are not dichotomies, but must be seen as distinctions on a continuum, or as mutual constitutive parts of a whole.

[to be continued...]

Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 1)

Sunday May 30th I will be presenting a paper at the ICA 2004 conference in New Orleans, USA. Over the coming days, I will post (parts of) this paper chronologically - that is, in linear mode - on this blog. Its a 6.000+ words paper, so please bear with me as I experiment with this mode of publishing online. The title of the presentation is: "Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture". Below is the introduction and opening comments.

start ICA paper, #1

In this presentation I aim to connect the proliferation of Independent Media Centres (IMC, or: Indymedia) around the world since the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle to the emergence of a global digital culture, and to the rise and establishment of new forms of participatory journalism. In doing so, I assume Indymedia to be a journalistic platform, as its main functions can be considered to be to serve as a platform for the production and dissemination of (alternative) news and information. Yet it is also a form of participatory user-generated content or we media, as it allows anyone to post and upload files, information, and news generally without an editorial moderation or filtering process (Platon & Deuze, 2003; Bowman & Willis, 2003). In the context of this essay I define digital culture as an emerging set of values, practices and beliefs regarding the way people act and interact within digital and networked media environments in contemporary society. As all media are or soon will be digital, and these electronic media can be considered to be omnipresent or even embedded in everyday life, culture can be seen as both digital, and mediated. In the context of these considerations, I treat Indymedia, journalism and digital culture as social practices of particular wired peoples emerging in societies all over the world, which practices should be seen as mutually constituent.

Leah Lievrouw (2002) urges us to look at our new media surroundings in terms of: [t]he artifacts or devices that enable and extend our abilities to communicate; the communication activities or practices we engage in to develop and use these devices, and the social arrangements or organizations that form around the devices and practices. It is in this recombinant context that my argument for the articulations of digital culture, Indymedia, and journalism can be read. Indymedia should be seen as a loosely organized set of social arrangements developing around the practices and ideals of open publishing and collective non-hierarchical storytelling (Platon & Deuze, 2003). Yet its praxis is also tied into the roles and functions of journalism and alternative news (Hyde, 2002). As a form of alternative journalism it has its roots in radical and oppositional media pre-dating the Web, both in the United States and elsewhere across the globe (Downing, 2001; Atton, 2002). In terms of the open publishing model of Indymedia online where anyone can post messages, news and information to the site without (formal) editorial filtering or intervention, and IMC site functions as a so-called group weblog. According to a much-linked to and IMHO comprehensive definition by Jill Walker (University of Bergen, Norway), a weblog is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first <> though weblogs are primarily textual, experimentation with sound, images, and videos has resulted in related genres such as photoblogs, videoblogs, and audioblogs <> Most weblogs use links generously <> Many weblogs allow readers to enter their own comments to individual posts (2003). Interestingly, weblogs and more specifically group weblogs have been considered to be quite similar to pirate radio stations of the 1970s and 1980s in that they broadcast unfiltered perspectives legitimized by their existence outside of, or in opposition to, mainstream media corporations (Katz, 1999). Beyond similarities and roots in online and offline genres and structures, Indymedia must also be seen as a phenomenon particular to internet. The 100+ Indymedia sites all over the world are enabled and maintained by the particularities of the World Wide Web and its users/ producers, at once connecting local communities and issues with global ones, manifesting itself both as a particular community tied in to local interests (as different countries, regions or cities each have their own version and interpretation of Indymedia up and running), and as a general brand, easily recognizable as such through its logo and the freely downloadable IMC source code (determining the look and feel of the site all over the world). Jim Hall (2001) places news and journalism online in the social context of a changing information society, where he particularly emphasizes the reciprocal links between news providers and readers (p.25), as one of the features of this new media environment the journalistic profession finds itself in. Using examples such as the role of online information in reporting the Columbina high school killings and the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Hall goes on to suggest that online journalism is both more tied to (small) localities, and has a more global reach than ever before. In doing so, Hall closes the gap between Indymedia and journalism by implicitly referencing to an emerging digital culture within which global/local and producer/consumer distinctions are gradually fading (see for a similar argument Pavlik, 2001).

In this essay I discuss the building blocks of digital culture on the basis of contemporary discussions about journalism, (the politics of) globalization, and alternative media as these pertain to specific internet phenomena such as online journalism, (group) weblogs, and Indymedia. As the basis of this argument I use a by no means exhaustive literature review (see the bibliography of this essay), a series of interviews with online journalists and Indymedia activists across Europe, Australia and the United States between 1999 and 2002 (see: Deuze & Yeshua, 2001; Platon & Deuze, 2003; Deuze, Neuberger & Paulussen, 2004), and my ongoing cross-national research among journalists in general, and about Web-based journalisms in particular (see: Deuze, 2002a, 2002b and 2003). In doing so, I assume that digital culture has emergent properties with roots both in online and offline phenomena, with links to trends and developments pre-dating the World Wide Web, yet at the same having an immediate impact felt all over the world, particularly changing the ways in which we use and giving meaning to the omnipresent media in our daily lives.

[to be continued...]