This was the final piece of assessment for “People and Practices”, possibly the most wanky name for a subject after “Media Myth Busting”. The thesis statement was as follows:
“The internet is increasingly becoming a place where information and creative ideas are shared. This essay will argue that this ability to share information and ideas increases society’s capacity to create new and valuable products and services.”
Initially I was going to argue that disparities in wealth worldwide mean that the internet is filled with an overwhelmingly ‘Western’ voice. This would thus limit the diversity of ideas, “products and services” online. However, a study I found conducted by Cherian George challenged this view. George compared internet accessibility and the volume and quality of ‘contentious journalism’ online in Malaysia and it’s more affluent neighbour, Singapore. He found that although Singapore had much greater rates of internet access, it was the poorer Malaysia which hosted a greater range and quality of online ‘contentious journalism’. Both countries had very similar political situations. All very interesting. Anyway, I argued in the affirmative in the context of online professional and citizen journalism.
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The exceptionally interactive nature of the internet provides the ability to, and indeed promotes, the sharing of information and creative ideas. Humans are naturally social beings, and the evolution of our collective intelligence owes much to our ability to communicate ideas (Madden, 2004, 16). The internet takes our ability to communicate and broadens it to include anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. This globalisation of “place” has had profound impacts on the Creative Industries. In particular, the move to an online format has been exceptionally good for journalism and thus for society at large. This is because it allows citizens to create and access news content from anywhere in the world. This essay will argue that the internet has provided a platform for the explosion of citizen journalism. This provides a far greater diversity of information than traditional journalism (Carpenter, 2010, 1079), and gives a voice to ordinary people. It will explore the online availability of professional journalism, and how it provides a credible antidote to the “amateur” nature of citizen journalism. Finally, it will concede that while the non-universality of internet access does, to some extent, limit the diversity of ideas and perspectives available (Karabell, 2011, 14; Pew Research Center, 2010, para. 6), it will prove that greater internet access does not always positively correlate with the output of ‘contentious journalism’ (George, 2005, 918).
The internet has provided an accessible platform for citizen journalism in the form of blogs and social media websites like ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’. The most recent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the Egyptian revolution of February 2011. In a video interview with the New York Times (2011), Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim said it was “important for me to be a citizen journalist, because with our press here (in Egypt) not everything gets broadcast”. Ibrahim “tweets” in English because “a lot of (her) followers are from outside Egypt”. Hence without Twitter, Facebook and other social media, the only Egyptian voice available to the outside world during the revolution would be that of the autocratic regime and the traditional Egyptian press, which is subject to heavy censorship (Andelman, 2010, 118). Lebanese blogger and freelance journalist Habib Battah described to CNN (2007) how the spread of the internet has allowed people across the Arab world to “tell our side of the story of what’s going on in the Middle East today … not from the Arab media point of view, which is full of censorship. This gives us a way to express ourselves freely”. Hence the advent of social media has promoted the sharing of information and ideas outside the strictly regulated traditional Arab media (Kuttab, 2011) culminating with mass protests demanding democracy this year (Blight and Pulham, 2011). This in a region historically associated with autocratic rule and “where there is clear caution, if not outright reluctance to make (the internet) available to the wider public” (Houissa, 2000, 60).
Ifukor (2010, 407) argues that “electronic empowerment is a direct result of access to social media”, and will lead to increased political participation. He notes social media users acting as “watchdogs” during Nigeria’s 2007 election, effectively performing the role of the Fourth Estate, therefore becoming citizen journalists. Thus we see citizens with limited free speech provided with the opportunity to create or consume journalism broadcast via a medium far more difficult to regulate than traditional newspapers, television and radio. Additionally, Carpenter (2010, 1079) finds citizen journalism webpages offer greater diversity of information than traditional news sources based on story topics, links to other websites and degree of graphic, as well as textual content. This fulfils Graber’s (2003, 147) call for journalism to be “a smorgasbord, rather than a hearty one-course meal”, referring to the news media’s need to cover a broad diversity of issues. In a broader context, Florida (2002, 35) sees diversity as an essential component of a society where creativity, and thus new and valuable products and ideas can flourish. The argument that the rise of citizen journalism on the internet will see professional journalism experience an “erosion of competitive advantage” (Tucci and Afuah, 2003, 395) is misplaced. The existence of competition from bloggers and other citizen journalists, made possible by the level playing field that the internet provides, expose the vulnerabilities of journalism in its present form. However, “optimism over the role of blogging seems justified” (Lowrey, 2006, 491). This is because exposing the vulnerabilities of journalism in its present form means “journalists are more likely to reconstruct and redefine the practice and processes of journalism in order to protect the occupation” (Lowrey, 2006, 492). The competition of bloggers and citizen journalists force the industry to reform in order to stay relevant, enhancing journalism’s value within society.
Traditional news outlets, such as newspapers and news channels, have largely moved into an online format to complement their original medium (Scott, 2005, 92). The presence of traditional news sources online makes up for where social media is lacking, as it is delivered by professionally trained journalists who will theoretically adhere to the principles of impartiality more readily than their civilian counterparts. Online newspapers are a more engaging medium for the consumer, in that they provide the ability to interact with other people by commenting on a story and be entertained, as well as gain information (Yoo, 2011, 82). Thus, the potential for new and valuable products and services is enhanced, as “many studies have found a relationship between informational uses of the internet and social capital, political participation, and civic engagement” (Puig-I-Abril, Gil De Zúñiga and Rojas, 2009, 558). Online portals for news sources such as the BBC, Al-Jazeera, the Australian, the ABC and other established outlets are seen as credible by the public, largely immune to overall concerns of bias in regards to online reporting (Abdulla et al., 2002, 20). The combined credibility, accessibility and enhanced interactivity of online journalism allows a greater engagement with the audience. This provides audiences with information that can be used to participate in political activism or vote on an issue. In other words, online journalism makes information more accessible and digestible, thus providing the potential for political participation within a society.
While it’s true that limited internet access among disadvantaged populations can limit the diversity of online journalism, other important factors do weigh in heavily on how much, and what kind of content is produced. Karabell (2011, 14) argues that “people who use (the internet) are the ones with higher education and income to spend on technology, not the tens of millions whose position in today’s world has eroded so sharply”, and concludes that “social media contribute to economic bifurcation”. Statistics do support this claim, as only “57% of Americans earning less than $30,000 and roughly a third of those with less than a high school education use the internet” (Pew Research Center, 2008, para. 7). However, it is incorrect to assume higher internet access automatically means greater social and political engagement. The internet only increases society’s capacity to create new and valuable products and services – whether society takes advantage of this opportunity is another matter. George (2005, 903) points out this “penetration participation paradox” in Malaysia and Singapore, showing that “once the diffusion of a communication technology has reached a certain critical threshold, every additional unit of that technology does not generate improved use, either quantitatively or qualitatively”. The two nations are politically quite similar, whilst the fact that “in 2000, Singapore had 32 internet users and 48 personal computers per 100 inhabitants, while Malaysia had 17 and 9, respectively” (George, 2005, 903) is exemplary of Malaysia’s smaller economic wealth. However, Malaysia’s limited online voices produce far more “politically contentious journalism”, and with greater quality than their Singaporean neighbours (George, 2005, 909). The idea that the quality and quantity of online journalism has a linear relationship with internet accessibility ignores the fact that it is the qualities of the people who use the internet that determines its effect. Education is an important variable here. The internet provides a platform for people to create quality journalism. In other words, it gives people the capacity to create new and valuable products and services, it doesn’t create them of its own accord. George (2005, 917) asserts that “the internet cannot be treated as an independent variable” and “the relationship between new media and political actors is far too dynamic and interdependent to be reduced to simple causal statements”. Furthermore, internet accessibility is a spreading phenomenon, as governments and non-state organisations push to improve accessibility in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa and India (Niang et. al, 2005, 9; Harmantzis and Gunasekaran, 2007, 37). Therefore, the argument that limited internet access leads to social and economic bifurcation is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Ifukor (2010, 399) points out how internet access in Nigeria grew at a “71% compound annual growth rate” taking “a mere 200,000 internet users in the year 2000” to “42 million internet users (as of December 2009)”. Internet access is spreading, and although internet access does not necessarily lead to greater quantitative or qualitative output of “contentious journalism”, it does give society the capacity to create and share.
Journalism has benefitted from the advent of social media, traditional news outlets embracing an online format, and the competition created by bringing the two to a level playing field. Furthermore, the internet’s limited accessibility has been proven to not totally restrict the quantity or quality of online journalism, and the initiatives of governments and non-government organisations to spread access gives that argument increasing irrelevance. Indeed, the internet as a level playing field for professionals and amateurs alike extends to the Creative Industries as a whole, creating collaboration and cooperation that transcends physical proximity. Place is an important factor in one’s creativity, and “existing theory on the creative industries emphasises creativity as a collective process” (Drake, 2003, 522). What the internet does is break down physical barriers between creative professionals and practitioners and allow the sharing of ideas on a global scale. Collaboration and information access can extend across continents, broadening our base of information. We must be careful to assume that this will automatically create new and valuable products and services. Instead, we must acknowledge that the internet merely creates the capacity to create value by sharing information, and it is up to creative people to take advantage of it.
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P.S. I love how multicultural my reference list is here. From Chan Yun Yoo to Eulàlia Puig-I-Abril, Homero Gil De Zúñiga and Hernando Rojas, via Daoud Kuttab and Presely Ifukor. Truly a sign that the internet allows people from all over the place, regardless of the wealth of their respective regions, to contribute to the collection of human ideas that the internet is becoming.