Five years ago, the American academic Robert Putnam published one of the most influential pieces of social criticism of recent times. It was called Bowling Alone, and offered ample evidence that the fabric of American society was disintegrating. Everywhere Putnam looked, he found solitary individuals, engaged in isolated activities. And as he dug deeper, the cause became clearer: changes in media and technology.
In both the US and Western Europe, trends in media consumption are moving away from newspapers and mass media, and towards more personalised experiences where the individual is constantly in control. The “trend toward market segmentation provides choice and presumably thus enhances consumer satisfaction,” Putnam wrote, “but it also under cuts TV’s once vaunted role in bringing us together”. The digital age may be one of greater freedom, but it is also potentially one of social fragmentation.
The digital, multi-channel age will no doubt continue to consist partly of major, mass market television events, such as big news stories, major sporting events, and ‘water-cooler TV’. But it also allows people to shut out the shared experiences that they can’t be bothered with. An ippr seminar, the last in the Digital Manifesto research programme, recently looked at how news broadcasters were having to adapt as a result of technological change. One participant from the broadcasting world pointed to how news agencies used to force issues further up the agenda – such as the Balkans conflict – on the basis that they mattered, rather than that there was strong demand for coverage. He wondered how easy this would be, as viewers gained a greater plurality of news sources.
So where do new media fit into this? At the time of Bowling Alone, Putnam thought it was too early to say, but felt the critical question was whether the internet turned out to be “a niftier telephone or a niftier television”. It’s an interesting question, but doesn’t capture what is most interesting about the internet as a force in public life: it merges the function of a telephone with the function of a television, the experience of a broadcast with the experience of a conversation. It was in anticipation of this that OfCom was established as a single, integrated communications regulator.
The internet has already demonstrated its ability to change the way in which news is disseminated, and even what counts as news. Weblogs (“blogs”) have received a great deal of media attention, as a possible rival to established journalism. But what we all struggle to do is to describe this new phenomenon of decentralised publishing. Two criticisms of bloggers are repeated ad nauseam: “they’re not real journalists so how can you trust them” and “they only wirte about themselves ”.
Both criticisms are founded on an outdated worldview, that splits media into public and private, televisions and telephones. Critics either view webloggers as publishers, and therefore “not real journalists”; or they view them as private diarists, and therefore narcissistic. What they don’t understand is that they are operating between public and private, in the manner that the internet is ideally suited to. Bloggers are clustering in communities of interest and knowledge. And if you don’t like them, why are you reading them?
In time, we will develop the language to describe this new sphere of communication better than we do at present. Established news sources and regulators look on with a mixture of bemusement and anxiety. They’re uncertain whether network media offer an opportunity or a threat, a new opening or a new rival. What is needed is to recognise these new media forums for what they are: communities selecting themselves, defining themselves and enjoying their autonomy. When they grow very large, they will morph into regular publishing institutions, and when they shrink very small, they are little more than group emails. But in between they can’t be bracketed as either.
The most significant policy question to have emerged from our seminar was whether there may be a need for a new type of institution or brand here. Should society and government recognise a new type of publisher or broadcaster, that is recognised as semi-public, or semi-regulated (be it self-regulation or otherwise)? As bandwidth increases, the phenomenon we currently see in blogging will be accompanied by similar behaviour in radio and television broadcasting. OfCom already distributes Community Radio licenses, but may soon need to do the same for television.
The good news is that this is a vibrant, socially engaged part of our media landscape. It involves individuals as participants, not just as audiences. It mustn’t be suppressed, but correctly understood. It is a welcome step beyond the pessimistic vision of the consumer, zapping through endless channels of digital television. If we get this right, Robert Putnam might soon be pleasantly surprised.