When we think about how we can improve public dialog and debate, we have to consider the future of media – that’s where the conversation’s happening, and what we call media has been changing radically over the last couple of decades. In the last century we saw an evolution from print media to broadcast audio via radio and video via television. Costs of production were high, manageable only by companies with sufficient capitalization, so the broadcast model was inherently one to many, top-down, with a very limited number of content sources and channels. As radios and television sets became fixtures in homes and businesses everywhere, we had a sense of shared experience that was very powerful but limited. There was a sense of cultural unity and coherence, but the cultural experience channeled through media was narrow and somewhat constrained by the whatever cultural biases were predominant within media companies. The bandwidth was too limited to carry much diversity.
The Internet and the World Wide Web changed all that. Over the last decade-plus, we’ve seen the emergence of citizen media and user-generated content. Computers, the new means of production for media, are inexpensive and portable, and anyone can acquire the tools to create and distribute fairly sophisticated media. We see iterative media, media that “is always being updated, improved and remixed.” As a result we’re more culturally diverse, far more voices are in the conversation, and you don’t see the broader cultural coherence of the late 20th century. In fact mindshare is fragmented – it’s increasingly difficult to claim a truly mass following. The long tail of bloggers with microaudiences are claiming more attention than professional journalists or “a-list” bloggers.
With so many niches to scratch, it’s easier for echo chambers to develop. Rather than very few channels carrying a limited mix of news and entertainment, we now have myriad channels, each tending to be more narrowly focused. You might choose to mix channels, but it’s even less likely than before that you’d go out of your way to find conversations with which you disagree.
We therefore have more diversity, but at the same time, more “echo chambers.” We have many more conversations, but they don’t intersect, and we see little of the kind of civil debate where opponents actually hear and respond to each other’s points, with the possibility of a synthesis of opinion. So while the increasing proliferation and convergence of media forms is exciting, the sense of a broadly shared public conversation where conflicting ideas are respected and shared is harder to find than ever.
Add to that the fact that this is all so very new and complex. Media literacy is harder to acquire; the media ecology is volatile. Political polarization increases. We think that Internet and Web connections should create opportunities for social and civic engagement, but it’s harder to focus.
I want to encourage discussion here: what are some ways that citizens can engage meaningfully in broader public dialog? Where do those opportunities exist? In the last month before the national election, where are the liveliest debates happening? Are town hall meetings useful and meaningful, or are they no more than photo ops for politicians on the campaign trail?
Post your comments below; more thoughts tomorrow.