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I write about digital strategies and communications — and their intersection with culture, politics, journalism and social activism.

Entries in Intangibles (14)

Monday
Dec142009

Does the Web Make Democracy Safer?

In various spots in yesterday's New York Times, and in a variety of forms, the question is raised whether the Web makes democracy safer. I think safer; but taking only the New York Times on one day, albeit a quiet day meant for circumspection, there are troublesome trends . . . and other trends, not so much.

TROUBLESOME

Politicians offended by citizens' scrutiny of their behavior . . . Jean-François Copé, parliamentary chief for France's governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, said in a recent radio interview, "The Internet is a danger for democracy." (quoted in 'As Web Challenges French Leaders, They Push Back' NYT front section). He's referring to a YouTube comment about a government minister being shown to be "a liar", a comment that drew the legal ire of the minister in question.

Police forces acting surreptitiously and provocatively in monitoring Facebook . . . "In some cases, the government appears to be engaged in deception. The Boston Globe recently quoted a Massachusetts district attorney as saying that some police officers were going undercover on Facebook as part of their investigations." ('Twitter Tapping' NYT editorial). The article may have been referring to this event at which 15 police officers invaded a dorm party in which underage drinking was taking place.

NOT SO MUCH

The U.S. government using software to bypass censorial restrictions on the Web . . . "Long before the protests in Iran started, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. civilian international broadcasting, had in place software to counter censorship in countries like Iran, so people could better access the blogosphere. And the State Department financially supports agencies that make it easier for Iranians and others to surf the Web." ('Social Networks as Forerign Policy' NYT Magazine)

Just one day's chat about the ethics of Web discourse. But as long as the debate happens we'll be okay.

Monday
Nov302009

Print Backsliding - Cause for Worry?

It's maybe time to close the book on the reality of the decline in newspapers and get on with the argument about the hole it leaves, or doesn't. The latest is summarized in a blog post on Reflections of a Newsosaur aptly called "Carnage continued in Q3 newspaper sales"

"Continuing 14 straight quarters of mostly accelerating declines, total print advertising in the third period fell a bit less than 29% to $5.8 billion. Interactive advertising sales, which the industry once hoped would be its salvation, dropped nearly 17% in the third quarter to $623 million, marking the sixth quarter in a row of declines in this crucial category."

This is stark evidence that in spite of industry claims to the contrary the legacy media infrastructure is, like Marx's hope for the State, simply withering away, and the end point of the decline isn't yet in sight.

It is what it is and there is likely no going back, even if I share the angst the diminution occasions. The important discussion now is what should be saved and how. In spite of the stupidity of much of today's 'entertainews' , we still need columnists like the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson who keeps the current Canadian governing party in his sights and calls it out for every mendacious and insensitive word and act, which keeps him busy.  Democracy ought to have a vigorous fourth estate. Or, at least, it cant do without wise, critical, often cantankerous, always careful sentinels.

But let's be clear about a few things:

  1. The disappearance of print vehicles isn't the same thing as a flight from the consumption of news and information. People today are consuming more information and news than they ever have in the past. A lot of it is junk like TMZ.com and Perez Hilton's blog. (Then again, there have always been gossip, scandal, heartbreak and blood-first news books.) But it can't be denied that the rate of taking in news, facts and opinion is, in fact, going up.
  2. People are finding niche and important-to-them information, arguing with it, deep diving into it when it concerns them or affects their lives, and forming into groups when the news or chicanery requires action. There may be, to quote the 'Internationale' (there is a theme here you can tell) "a better world in birth."

I am in the camp which thinks the new substructure already exists for a strong new 'estate' of inventive, articulate (even if their metier is the image), critical guardians of democracy and its breeches. All the cream hasn't yet risen to the top as it has in print and television commentary. But there are beachheads, in Canada anyway, with the likes of David Eaves or some of the writers at the online newspaper The Tyee and, occasionally, The Torontoist.

So, there is no cause for worry because, as a recent article by David Carr concludes:

Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful.