Why Mainstream Media matters in the New Media Environment

A man holds up a copy of the "Occupied W

The birth of Occupy Wall Street is often attributed to “social media magic” and the use of Twitter hash tags; however, these claims overemphasize the role social media played in both the mobilization and successes of the movement (Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 102).  It could be argued that due to the rise of social media, mainstream media no longer have a large impact on the actions and successes of counter powers. Castells (2007) defines counter-power as “the capacity by social actors to challenge and eventually change the power relations institutionalized in society” (Castells, 2007, p. 248). The emergence of alternative channels of communication, as seen through the proliferation of various online platforms and social media sites, has become a medium “for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society” (Castells, 2007, p. 249). Moreover, today’s media environment has drastically evolved since Gitlin’s (1980) assertion that “political movements feel called upon to rely on large-scale communication in order to matter […] to become ‘the movement’ for wider publics and institutions who have few alternative course of information, or none at all” (p. 3). However, while the advent of social media and online communication has left new social movements with an abundant source of communication channels at their disposal, it does not render traditional forms of mass media irrelevant.

Social networking sites (SNS) were heavily utilized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, as seen through its initial mobilization and call to action. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine, took to Twitter, Facebook, and their magazine, requesting individuals to gather on September 17th. However, the movement’s initial mobilization lacked shared, organic emotion, and only 300 people showed up on the first day of organization. This need for connection amongst supporters was met by a different social media platform, Tumblr, through the creation of the ‘We are the 99%’ page, where individuals could submit photos of themselves holding signs that spoke of their financial hardships. The Tumblr page became a shared space for the expression of common emotions, and as more and more tents started to fill Zuccotti Park, Twitter continued to “weave together an emotional conversation” and more importantly, helped to “sustain a sense of solidarity between the physical occupiers and their distant to supporters” (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.104).

Media

While the use of social media proved invaluable for the initial mobilization of the movement, it was still imperative for Occupy Wall Street to infiltrate traditional media. The planning leading up to the protests indicated an “elitist attitude in the movement’s communications”, as seen through its “over-reliance on Twitter”, and this became a “major obstacle to raising the awareness of the majority of the population” (Gerbaudo, 2012, p.114). Moreover, limiting communications to social media caused the movement’s message to miss a large portion of the public. As asserted by Castells (2007), “what does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind” (p. 241); therefore, relying solely on social media channels prevented the movement’s objectives from receiving optimal visibility. The importance of mainstream media in gaining public support is illustrated by the events that took place on October 1st, when “more than seven hundred marchers were arrested” on Brooklyn Bridge (Gitlin, 2012, p. 49).  This incident became a “photogenic event”, as it was picked up by many major news outlets and resulted in the “turnout of ten thousand or more” protestors, thus demonstrating the ability of the mass media to mobilize public sympathy and support (Gitlin, 2012, p. 49). Images of police violence despite the passivity of protestors proliferated traditional media outlets, and the media’s attention on cutting government budgets diminished as “focus lurched over to income inequalities and disparity of wealth” (Giltin, 2012, p. 50).

In today’s network society, mainstream media coverage continues to impact social movements through its ability to mobilize supporters, to validate the existence of the movement, and to perform scope enlargement by opening up the issue for debate  (McCurdy, 2012, p. 248). What is significant about the network age, is the ability of social movements to use the Internet as a “potent political weapon”  (Castells, 2007, p. 250) to exert pressure on institutionalized or mainstream media. Moreover, online communication platforms enable movements “to relate to society at large beyond the control of the power holders over communication power” (Castells, 2012, p. 11). Through the strategic use of social media, movements can “improve their visibility through monitoring news coverage and responding to inaccurate stories” (McCurdy, 2012, p. 250), as online technologies enable protestors to efficiently monitor countless news outlets and to disseminate counter narratives in response to inaccurate or disparaging information.

Alternative channels of communication, enabled by the architecture of the Internet, have shifted a degree of influence into the hands of autonomous individuals; however, rather than rendering mainstream media obsolete, new media has enhanced the two-way communication present between protestors and the mass media. The Occupy movement illustrates that while new technologies increased opportunities to mobilize and organize supporters, and to influence the discourses surrounding their activities and objectives, the mainstream media remained prevalent in its ability to bring issues to the attention of the general public, and consequently, to the forefront of the public agenda.

Book Review: Nick Bilton’s ‘I live in the future and here’s how it works’

Nick Bilton’s book is both conversational and clever, making it accessible for readers who are not knowledgeable or well versed with new technologies. However, the title of Bilton’s novel, ‘I live in the future and here’s how it works’, is misleading, as much of what he describes has either already occurred or is applicable to the current media landscape. It is important to note that his novel was written three years ago, which is a lengthy amount of time in the fast paced world of technology; however, a majority of Bilton’s focus is on the presentation of past scientific studies which demonstrate our ability to adapt to technology, instead of speculating on future developments. Therefore, while Bilton’s writing is richly descriptive, it lacks both practical application and technical expertise. While Bilton uses the porn industry to demonstrate the importance of customizing content for consumers, he does not specifically mention what many identify as the key to lost revenues: big data. Although recording user’s actions online (often referred to as clickstream data) has “become a necessity for the success of websites and other online businesses” (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 35), Bilton fails to go into detail about data mining strategies. A discussion on the ability of the Internet to allow for “fast, easy, and unobtrusive collection of detailed information on individual activities” would have fit seamlessly into Bilton’s emphasis on the customization and personalization of consumer experiences (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 35).

Moreover, Bilton offers a thorough description of technology’s ability to offer us personalized options and to improve our cognition, but he does not entertain any arguments surrounding privacy concerns and industry challenges. Bilton is justified in claiming that the customization of content and personalized experiences must be explored by industries, but he does not discuss that the immense amount of clickstream data confronts “researchers with the need to store and process very large amounts of information” (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 45). Moreover, many individuals feel that current EU and U.S. regulatory frameworks “leave consumers privacy and personal data unprotected in the context of profiling and behavioural advertising” (King et al., 2010, p. 604). Due to these skepticisms surrounding online privacy, firms are challenged to “seek ways to overcome these concerns and persuade consumers to share their information”, such as engaging in trust building (Kim et al., 2009, 188). This question of “whether profiling unduly interferes with consumers’ personal autonomy and liberty” highlights the importance of viewing the architecture of the Internet with a critical eye, and would made Bilton’s analysis of the digital revolution more exhaustive (King et al., 2010, p. 595).

Image

Bilton rightly emphasizes the importance of anchoring communities, and their ability to help users navigate mass information flows online. However, he does not consider the assertion that these communities may also limit the perspectives and information sources users encounter. Since media users look to individuals in their network to help filter content, the reliance on these search and recommendation systems exercises a “powerful influence on what users ultimately consume” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 42). Due to this degree of influence, it is important to consider how certain information regimes can “promote or mitigate processes of audience fragmentation.” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 42) Bilton fails to address “growing evidence that despite an abundance of choice, media content tends to be replicated across platforms” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 51). Moreover, despite the enormity of information presented online, many search and recommendation algorithms “direct attention to popular products or outlets” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 52). Therefore, while Bilton’s stance on anchoring communities provides a strong argument for how we are able to manage the overwhelming amount of information online, it fails to speculate whether the architecture of the Internet may at times render the wisdom of our networks unreliable.

Bilton’s praise of new technologies is often unfaltering, leaving the reader with without the knowledge necessary to view digital architectures with a critical eye. According to Lessig (2006), “many of us haven’t a clue about how networks work” and therefore we “have no clue about how they could be different…we assume the way we find things is the way things have to be” (p. 32). Code makes up the architecture of the Internet and regulates our behavior online, as it strategically enables certain functions while disabling others. What is particularly concerning is that the individuals who determine these codes “can achieve regulatory ends, often without suffering the political consequences that the same ends, pursued directly, would yield” (Lessig, 2006, p. 136). In other words, the architecture of the Internet makes “invisible regulation easier” (Lessig, 2006, p. 137). Therefore, while Bilton sees the advent of the digital revolution as an exhilarating time, it is also important consider the invisible hand that guides its construction, with sober eyes.

In many ways, Bilton is a techno-optimist, and as a result, is both thorough and persuasive in convincing the technochondriacs of the world that they have nothing to fear. Bilton richly articulates the advantages of new technology and our ability to adapt to more stimulating forms of digital storytelling; however, he seems to greatly overlook both the challenges and consequences of this new digital landscape, which weakens these arguments. Therefore, while Bilton’s I live in the future and here’s how it works provides a coherent media roadmap for individuals just starting to get their feet wet in the sea of digital innovation, it may leave those who are more immersed with new media wanting more. 

Opinions on Occupy: Analysing a Movement that Occupies a Space Outside Past Theorisations

In Gamson et al.’s  Movements and Media as Interacting Systems (1993), the authors assert that although public discourse is carried out through multiple channels, such as “the movement’s own publications and meetings”, mass media’s discourse remains “indispensable for most movements because most of the people they wish to reach are part of the mass media gallery, while many are missed by movement-oriented outlets” (p. 116). Similarly, in Giltin’s The Whole World is Watching (1980), the significance of alternative outlets is overlooked, as seen through his assertion that “political movements feel called upon to rely on large-scale communication in order to matter […] to become ‘the movement’ for wider publics and institutions who have few alternative course of information, or none at all” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 3). Moreover, both Gamson and Gitlin argue that the mass media is imperative for mobilization due to the limitations or lack thereof of alternate channels; however, these arguments were made before the mass adoption of social networking sites (SNS), which played a large role in the Occupy movement’s initial mobilization, as well as its organization and strategies.

The role of SNS can be seen from the Occupy movement’s initial origin, which can be traced back to Adbuster’s call to action. The magazine took to Twitter asking individuals to gather on September 17th. While only 300 people showed up on the first day, social media continued to be a channel where the movement could communicate its motivations and gain supporters. The ‘We are the 99%” Tumblr page became a shared space for the expression of frustrations; an emotional diary that united people with common concerns and broadened the movement’s ability to gain attention and support. Additionally, it is important to note that a lot of recruitment took place in the streets, as many people were inspired by what they saw, and through their face-to-face contact with protesters, found they shared in the common frustrations and hopes of the movement.

It remains undeniable that the mass media played a strong role in spotlighting the movement and mobilizing supporters, as exemplified by the outpouring of pubic sympathy and protesters after news broke of the 700 arrests on Brooklyn Bridge; however, both the role of new media channels and the community-feel of Occupy campsites were irreplaceable in their ability to attract and organize supporters. The hegemonic power of mass media as articulated by Gitlin and Gamson is bound to the existing media environments at the time of their publication, thus limiting their application to movements originating in today’s network society. Online spaces allow protesters and supporters of a movement to have a voice, and to contest mass media framing. This counter power does not trump the public’s trust and reliability in traditional media, but it does provide mass audiences with alternative sources of information, and can serve as a tool to pressure media institutions into being more conscious of their framing.

Image

 

In more recent scholarship, Cottle’s (2008) Reporting demonstrations: the changing media politics of dissent, Cottle (2008) emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that protests “are invariably a means to an end, not the end themselves, and we therefore need to understand how their communicative aims have been realized or derailed in their encounter with media” (Cottle, 2008, p. 866). Applying this assertion to Occupy is problematic, as the movement never made any ‘tangible demands’, making it difficult to determine, by Cottle’s definition, whether the movement achieved its goals. Cottle goes on to say that “the politics of spectacle does not subsist in spectacle alone” (866). In other words, occupying a physical space is simply tactic to draw public attention; it is part of a larger strategy to achieve specific aims. However, the various campgrounds of Occupy often became much more than a spectacle for the media to consume, they became fully functioning communities and homes to the protestors.

The lack of specific demands made by the movement frustrated many and lead to the criticism that the movement was unorganized, and unfocused; however, much of Occupy’s success can be seen in the successful day-to-day upkeep of its encampments, and the hope this inspired in others. The camps or ‘occupied areas’ were equipped with everything from libraries to medical tents, and the General Assemblies (GAs) and people’s mic were aimed at fostering consensus and cohesiveness amongst members. The success of the Occupy movement cannot then be measured or quantified strictly by Cottle’s definition, or as a ‘means to an ends’, as it did not aim to immediately impact specific policies. Instead, Occupy focused on shifting attitudes, and by bringing people together through the creation of communities that could thrive (even if only for several months) outside of the institutions they distrusted. We should look to better understand the successes of the movement by polling both the changing attitudes of citizens and issues at the forefront of political debate, as well as talking to those who were both involved with and impacted by the movement. The construction and maintenance of Occupy camps served to show the public that alternative systems were possible; Occupy gave the world a glimpse of a society that at the very least caused many to reflect and even question the one we live in today.