Perception Is Reality

Web 2.0, Hegemony, Democracy, and Pluralism

Posted on: March 26, 2009

The “web” was a creation that was meant to allow people to share information openly, freely and easily. Created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee for this very purpose in 1991, only now have people begun to realize this potential of the web (Economist, p31). Democratic participation of audience as creators has been the fundamental principle underlying this creation and this hidden revolution has been romanticized in many ways. What does this mean for the dominant social class and elitist groups in society? How does this affect the practices of main stream media and dealers of public opinion? This paper will attempt to discuss the idea of Web 2.0 and related technologies, their place in political struggle and their role in evolving current media practices.
Even though the fundamental goal of the web may have been to encourage democratic participation, this potential had not been realized until very recently with the emergence of blogs and podcasts, and later wikis, twitter, and similar tools and technologies. These are what we refer to as Web 2.0. With the terminology being tossed around incessantly, it is then necessary to introduce a very basic definition of Web 2.0 before one can move on to discuss its various aspects.
Bill Thompson writes that it is not entirely clear what the term means, encompassing even the most basic forms of dynamic content publishing tools. Everything from “community sites, photo-publishing services, and the wide range of visitor-editable pages [on Wikipedia]” are considered part of the Web 2.0 movement (Thompson, p10). Therefore, any online community or tools that allow for original, user-generated content constitute Web 2.0. These tools allow for the active, democratic participation of members of the online community, and enable audiences to comment on the original content, therefore producing even more of it.
Blogs are perhaps the most common publishing utility that empowers the average user to become an active participant in a new or ongoing discourse about practically anything. Common blogging tools such as Blogger and WordPress allow other users to comment and therefore generate an ad hoc discussion. Hyperlinking to blog posts carries the conversation to another group of audience members (many of which are participants as well), with varying opinions in various regions.
The Cornell University’s Integrated Web Services defines podcasts as a combination of the words, “iPod” and “broadcasting” which allows individuals to publish audio recordings on the internet for audiences to download and listen to on their iPods and portable devices. While podcasting is a different technology from blogs, the fundamentals are still the same: user-generated content.
Similarly, technologies such as Twitter allow for members of its online community to stay abreast about what other members are doing. This information may be seemingly irrelevant, from “twittering” about waking up in the morning, to attending a global conference on eradication of poverty. It is a way for people to communicate and comment on what is being communicated.
We have highlighted various technologies that form part of the institution that is Web 2.0. The recurring notion is user generated content in a public domain. The logical question that follows from the study of these technologies is this: Why is user-generated content important? It is worthwhile to examine this question as it provides insight into the development and evolution of these utilities. The Economist answers this very question: Web 2.0 “has the hallmarks of youthful rebellion against the conventional social order, and is making many traditional media companies tremble (p31).” The attention that user-generated content has been receiving is worth examining in this very respect: it challenges the cultural hegemony of the conventional institutions that create and dispense news. The creation of blogs and podcasts as well as syndicated feeds using the RSS technology have challenged the dominant meaning of the term, “journalist.” As Web 2.0 becomes more and more accessible to more and more audiences around the globe (only 11% of Asia, 4% of Africa has access to the internet) (Economist, p31), the significance of mainstream media is challenged, bringing a shift in the hegemonic order, redefining what it means to be a journalist. Chung et al highlight this shift: these technologies have empowered the audience to become information providers (p305).
The idea of citizen journalism highlights that those who are not professionals, frequently participate in issues of public interest on their web logs and podcasts. Matheson (in Thurman, p140) estimates that approximately 50% of all blogs deal with public affairs. Although this sort of journalism may cover popular contemporary events and common issues, it exists because mainstream journalism is lacking in that it only caters to the dominant bloc of society. In its very existence, citizen journalism challenges this notion. It aims to fill the gaps that mainstream media fails to account for.
The mainstream media has certain news values that are characteristic to it. For example, those events that are simple and unambiguous receive precedence over those that are complex and require more explanation (Golding and Elliot, p636). Web 2.0 technologies allow like-minded individuals to comment and create a discourse around a range of topics and issues that the mainstream media does not cover, even creating an entire discourse around why this is so.
Another aspect of the mainstream media is that it gives a higher priority to events and circumstances involving the elite members of society, including elite organizations and countries (Golding and Elliot, p638). Bloggers, podcasters, video loggers, and twitter members continuously highlight issues and events within local communities. These things may be of less interest to a national media agency, but of significant interest to the participating audience who relies more and more on these online resources to receive their news. This is reiterated in the New Statesman, “Indeed, members increasingly rely not on post and the press, but on websites, e-mail, blogs, text messages, and social networking services such as Facebook (New Statesman, p3).”
With these challenges in mind, it is no surprise that news reporting has taken this direction to broaden the meaning of journalism, and even what constitutes news. Citizen journalists, bloggers in particular, claim that “mainstream journalists are often arrogant elitists who do not want to include the public in deciding what’s important and what’s not (Chung et al, p306).” However, this has not been a one-way street. Journalists too, have highlighted their concerns dealing with news values and standards. Journalists have held strong opinions on the quality of the news value in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, accuracy and balance (Thurman, p144). Some journalists believe that what one must sift through content be selective as to what is published in the first place. This may tie back to the news values that cater to the dominant public sphere due to time and space constraints. Other issues such as credibility, mediocrity, and lack of professionalism have also been raised.
Nevertheless, with Web 2.0 empowering the people, and more people getting their news and information from the internet, mainstream media have come face to face with issues that are economic and political in nature. As a result, the mainstream media has had to adapt to the Web 2.0 framework to incorporate audiences in a more active way. This is reiterated by Bill Thompson, “It is hard to imagine a website that does not provide user engagement and interaction (Thompson, p10).” Today, even professional online news websites as well as online versions of traditional, mainstream media incorporate this aspect. There are two major differences, however. First, the incorporation of traditional journalistic values, and secondly, the bottom line dealing with profit.
News websites such as CNN.com sift through user comments to filter out what is worth publishing based on certain criteria. This is traditional journalistic practice applied on the web. Mark highlights Peter Picton’s (the editor of theSun.co.uk) reiteration of this practice, in that people prefer to “read a well-crafted news story or feature by someone who is trained and experienced in that field (Thurman, p144.)” The idea is to not only reduce recycled content, but also to keep a check on whether the contribution comes at par with news values.
Users still contribute based on their willingness to write about their experiences and point of view. Their contributions are still treated in a traditional way. However, with public involvement in news reporting, it can become a resource and cost intensive task to monitor and control the flow of information. Questions about remuneration may also come up (Thurman, p147-8).
In terms of the bottom line, even though these news agencies may utilize the Web 2.0 framework, the idea to generate a profit and to cover costs is key. User forums have yet to be commercialized in a way that is innovative and effective, and sites like the DailyMail.co.uk have tried various advertising and sponsorship methods to capitalize on this technology (Thurman, p148).
It is worthwhile to appreciate the path that journalism has taken. Chung et all comment on technology’s role on journalism from the invention of the Gutenberg press, to developments in photography and radio. For them, it is just another technology that will affect the meaning of journalism and how it is practiced (p306). Industry leaders and opinion dealers may seek to incorporate these technologies with their current practices to reap maximum benefit and reach the widest audience. One thing is clear however: the increasingly active, democratic participation of the audience members marks a significant, albeit steady shift from the current status quo. Smaller, local or regional blogs, podcasts, etc. cater to the local community, certain niches, and non-dominant groups. These groups collectively constitute a significant portion of the civil society. Awareness and development of the Web 2.0 framework by participants will seek to strengthen this society, bring in to light the existence of diversity and plurality, and perhaps act as effective counter public spheres.

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About the Author…

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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