Connecting New Media and the Political Unconscious

In two podcasts this week I have had the delightful opportunity to talk with colleagues from two distinct worlds about themes ranging from the political unconscious to new media.

Early this week Brad Rourke, whom I know through our mutual association with the Kettering Foundation, engaged me in a conversation on the subject of his own work, new media and civic life, picking up some of the themes in my previous post, Discerning Media. We made a couple of key points: (1) the distinction between professional media and citizen media is less helpful than the distinction between journalism (which one doesn’t need to get paid for to do) that engages the public in its work and news coverage that does not; and (2) perhaps the larger problem we face is that we live in a political culture that offers few spaces and ways for people to shape their own collective future and hence little incentive for people to seek out good journalism. Here’s a link to the podcast.

This morning fellow philosopher Chris Long of Penn State University uploaded a podcast of a conversation we had on my last book, Democracy and the Political Unconscious, the day after the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy held a panel discussion of the book. Chris has been using new media to explore what he calls Socratic Politics and to engage his students in a much deeper pedagogy that uses blogging and other new media formats extensively. Go here to hear our conversation that ranges from the phenomena of trauma and the war on terror to the role of new media in overcoming brutality and strengthening democracy. Also check around on his blog to get a virtual glimpse of his 24/7 class on ancient Greek philosophy.

Both Brad and Chris exemplify how to use new media to not only do one’s own work better but to strengthen public life.  It’s an honor to have both these conversations “go public” this week.

Discerning Media

I spent part of yesterday and today in meetings at the Kettering Foundation thinking about media and democracy. These conversations still, to my chagrin, keep getting tangled up with the debate about old school journalism versus new media.  I’ve blogged about this debate before. But I keep coming back to these meetings because I think that something incredibly promising is happening in this new media environment.  But it won’t happen inevitably; it won’t happen because the new technology just makes it so; it won’t happen unless we discern and aim toward using these new media to create a better environment for democratic politics.

Here’s where I think we need to go next.

First we need to understand that publicly relevant journalism is not beholden to any particular medium — not print, radio, TV, or web.  Publicly relevant journalism is reportage that links information with value. By that I mean linking what the facts are on any given matter with what people’s and communities’ concerns and aspirations are.  Good journalism never just reported what happened.  It reported on how what happened matters to us.  Events matter to us because they impinge or constrain or open up possibilities for us achieving things we care for. This kind of journalism can happen in a newspaper as well as on a blog.

Second, we need to get over this distinction between professional journalism and citizen journalism. It was a twentieth century economic circumstance that gave rise to the penny press (see James Carey on this) and the very model of professional, disinterested journalism. In the last decade or so, two phenomena have converged: (1) the old business model for print journalism cratered and (2) digital media made analogue media obsolete.  Phenomenon 2 certainly exacerbated phenomenon 1.  But it didn’t cause it!  Well before web 1.0 or web 2.0, newspapers were in crisis.  Ten years ago we lamented that two newspaper towns were becoming one newspaper towns.  Now we lament that there are towns without any newspapers at all.  Old-school journalism wants to blame the web.  But the blame lies elsewhere.

Third, we need to understand what drives demand for good journalism.  In today’s meeting, Dan Gillmor made the good point that the old model of journalism was about manufacturing a product (a news article) and distributing it to the passive masses. The old model, which sent news out to people,  trained people to be passive consumers. Now with new media, Dan argues, we have plenty of content but poor demand for good quality since people are trained to wait and settle for whatever news comes at them.

That’s a good point.  But Rich Harwood and I countered that it is not a matter of ginning up demand for better news but creating conditions under which citizens can engage.  As I see it, people aren’t going to seek out good journalism unless they see their own connection to it.

The dominant political culture of the twentieth century trained citizens not to bother with matters of widespread, common concern.  Their officials would take care of it. If their officials didn’t, well then just bitch and moan until they did.  Nary was there a message that common problems call for common deliberation and action.  So we just started delegating it all to officialdom.  This is a recipe for apathy/outrage (two sides of one coin) not engagement.

In that kind of context, why should anyone bother reading the paper?  Why should I bother reading about matters of common concern when what I think about it doesn’t matter at all —  and when I have even less chance to make a difference?

Hence, fourth, and finally for this post, relevant journalism, whether it happens on the web or in print, needs to embedded in a culture — or help create a culture — that sees members of political communities as political agents.  One of or guests in today’s meeting, Jeremy Iggers, who helped found the Twin Cities Daily Planet, has been focused on creating a new platform with just this task. With him, we have to start treating people as actors rather than as consumers and audiences.  Good journalism calls for political transformation.  Not only that, sustainable journalism calls for this. Perhaps in another post I’ll document the places and cases in which media that actually connects with communities’ democratic capacities becomes economically sustainable. Folks will pay for news when it matters to them — and when the political culture considers that what they think does indeed matter.

In short, the future of journalism lies in creating conditions in which the people engage with the news because they think that it matters to them and because they think that their own take will matter back. Also, we need to realize that good journalism knows no particular medium, though I do think that digital media open up exponentially more opportunities and spaces than analogue media ever did.

It’s about context not content

The Havas Media Lab just put out a paper on user-generated context — a significant tweak of the new media mantra about user-generated content (meaning all those videos, blogs, and podcasts that the people formally known as the audience are now making for themselves). The authors argue that most of this new content is really not new information but rather commentary upon professionally-developed content. All those enterprises that are trying to capitalize on the explosion of new user-generated content are in danger because they mistake context for content. And more importantly they don’t see the value that people are providing by their context making. “We discuss the mistaken strategic assumptions behind the idea of user-generated content, and why it’s preventing the media industry from exploring new paths to business model reinvention.”

Most user-generated content, is, in fact, context. The bulk of what connected consumers create isn’t content: its context—information about the value of goods and services. Context, in turn, lets connected consumers search and navigate the exploding universe of media more effectively, and massively amplifies incentives for quality.

The report is a bit thin and not very clear about what it means by context. But I’m happy to leap in and provide some ideas and put their work in a wholly different context. Let someone else worry about business models (but please someone do so) — let’s think about political models.

If we replace the report’s economic language with political language, it gets pretty powerful. Instead of consumers and users, think of citizens, people, political agents, and the public. Then the report becomes good for understanding the political and democratic dimensions of new media.

* citizen media and professional media can complement each other; they needn’t be seen as competitors

* individual citizens don’t and can’t create context; communities do and that’s why new media is so powerful; it let’s the public interconnect:

A naked rating, ranking, or review on its own has little value or meaning—but millions of them, in the aggregate, weave complex and multilayered webs of meaning. Put another way, context is the result of the complex, multilevel, network effects that happen when millions of [people] connect.

* context isn’t really “generated” but is that is “deeply culturally specific and socially bound”

The report gives a nice language for understanding something that’s been apparent for a long time. Professional players feel under siege, but not because the audience has morphed into producers but because the public finally has a way of articulating the sense it has and can make about “all the news that’s fit to print.” No longer are the old, big players the arbiter of what’s news and what’s entertaining; the people themselves can loudly say whether what’s on the news or in other media is actually meaningful and useful for their lives.

If this kind of phenomenon had been going so strong back in the 1990s, the public journalism movement would have been on a whole new footing. But that’s a thought for another post.