Publishing Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Social Life

This blog is written in response to Question two.

In the Oscar Award winning movie Avatar, the blue-skin creatures communicate in an unique way – by connecting the end of their hair to other fellow creatures in dialogues and information exchange. This is much similar to E.T., the classical 1982 American science-fiction film directed by Steven Spielberg. There, the extra-terrestrial creature touched the main character Elliot ‘as an offering of friendship’, observed the movie review at AMCFilmsite.


(Picture: Neytiri the Avatar exchanges information with the Tree of Voices by connecting her hair with the tree fibre)

Social media changes people’s social life by a similar touch. Facebook and Twitter act as popular cyber platforms for information exchange and publishing. “But what’s happening today –the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through a traditional intermediary -– is truly transformative”, said Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian newspaper. With latest tools such as iPad and smart phones, people can interact and collaborate with the digital population globally.

Kaplan and Haenlein describe social media as a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and allows for creation and exchange of user generated content. There are three basic requirements of user generated content. First, it is publicly accessible and available to everyone. Secondly, it involves creative effort by the user or re-working on others’ work. Lastly, it is personal, not professional, so the writers do not need to be experts on the matter when they publish. With social media, the mass audience communicate differently and this blog will discuss how social media has changed the role of publishing and its impact on social life.

First, let’s look at how media and publishing used to be like. As described by Rusbridger, it is traditional, hierarchical and authoritative. Wayne Errington and Narelle Miragliotta further elaborated the traditional characteristics of media. These include ‘the preserve of the elite’, meaning that the elite and the powerful decide what will get published. Also, information flows in one direction, in a top-down fashion, hencethe audience is a passive receiver of information or propaganda. They have no control and influence over the media, and cannot participate in debates and discussions.

Historian Raymond Williams points out that “much of what we call communication is…no more…than transmission; that is to say, a one-way sending.” Which Rusbridger echoed that the media used to be a one-way transmission which “involved one person speaking to many”. In fact, the historic timeline of communication, from handwritten scribes, Gutenberg’s printing press to radio and TV broadcasting, adopted the way of information being fed to the readers/audiences.

Through mergers and acquisitions, the media power is concentrated in the hands of a few. To illustrate, apart from its theme parks, Walt Disney Company is one of the Big Six media groups that owns the ABC Television Network, 10 major TV stations, cable networks, 277 radio stations, music, book publishing and film production companies. In Australia, the three giant media conglomerates –Packers, Fairfax and Murdoch, control what we see, hear and read, which are understandably highly biased towards their own economic interest.


(Picture: The cute Mickey mouse has turned greedy by controlling over the flow of news and information from media outlets to us.

Then came the digital revolution, the role of publishing has changed drastically. The global community experiences a paradigm shift from a vertical to horizontal communication. “As the world moves from hierarchies to social networks, people will have fewer rules and more independence. This autonomy opens the door to more opportunities to create, experiment, and be responsible,” said Joan Arehart-Treichel.

There are various social media tools that allow people to interact socially with a wide spectrum of correspondents on diversified media contents as shown by the following table :

With these tools, the audience is now empowered to participate in discussion groups and interacting with others online. The domination and grip of media oligopoly has melted away. “This will likely be remembered as the year that the new social media movement came of age. From the dramatic acquisition of by Google to the choice of Time magazine’s person of the year, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation where creating and expanding social media reach, digital influence or customer engagement is absent,” said public relations expert Rod Amis in 2007.

The new mode of communication can even toppled governments by cyberactivism. “You can’t quash an uprising if millions of people are acting like their own independent news stations,” said Rami Nakhla, a Syrian cyberactivitist, published in the 5th-13th June issue of the Time Magazine. The atrocities of dictatorial regimes can no longer be swept under the carpet, but are exposed and broadcast to the whole world by the iphone, YouTube, Twitters, Facebook, or even WikiLeaks. Protesting events get organized and become viral or pandemic through the social media. As seen in the Jasmine Revolution protests which create a domino effect, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Liberia are miraculously overthrown through the song of birds – Twitter. The Chinese government, with its tight grip on the media, was utterly shocked and embarrassed when hundreds of Falun Gong protesters suddenly appeared at the Forbidden City organized through the use of SMS.

Rusbridger pointed out how communication has become more and more personal. People tend to be more reserved in face-to-face encounters, but become more open and ready to share their feelings and ideas in the virtual world. These published informations combined to form a global infrastructure for monitoring, modelling and memory.

A tab on the iPad can link users to the world’s latest breaking news. Another tab on the Kindle allows people to ‘flip’ the page of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. A touch on the smart phone can update someone’s latest status onto social networking sites. The audience is no longer a recipient of information, but can also be producer, editor and transmitter as well. In an interviewMerritt Calaizzi, publisher of SmartBrief, suggested that business should find new ways to integrate readers’ input, where more and more audiences can get involved in the creation of content they consume. For example, the online version of New York Times allows reader participation. Visitors can now communicate with the authors, and even add their own comments to stories or blogs. Customer feedback provides valuable data for improvement of the service contents and quality.

“Social software” is the latest buzz-phrase emanating from technology evangelists, who are concerned with how to apply information technology to the real world, according to Martyn Perks. The key idea behind social software is that by using technology we can reinvigorate interest and participation in the democratic process. Any website or application which connects users with similar interests and ideas together, via the internet, can be described as social software, which its characteristics is summarised by Stewart Butterfield into identity, presence, relationships, conversations and groups. I will explain how social life has changed according to these elements.

First, the virtual identity is a way to identify people uniquely, and can be represented by people’s log-in names of e-mail, online community nicknames, or their behaviour in cyberspace. In Web 2.0 platforms, people tend to carefully craft the character they want to present to others. For example in Facebook, they might share with the public about where they are living, gender, languages spoken, or may display cool profile pictures. People might try to add as much photos or ‘friends’ in Facebook or have as much ‘followers’ from Twitter to make themselves looks popular.

As for presence, it is a way of knowing who is online. It is the main function of Twitter, where people change their status from time to time to let others know what they are up to. For example the popular Apple application Foursquare, according to this blog, it is a geographical location based social network that incorporates gaming elements. Users share their location with friends by “checking in” via a smartphone application, which such update can be posted onto their Twitter and facebook accounts as well.


(Picture: Elements of social life, including identity, presence, relationships, conversations and groups, are redefined as the role of publishing has transformed through these social networking tools.)

Social media changes our relationship too, thus a new way of describing how two users in the system are related is developed. Relationships can be as simple as “contacts”. People can add “friends” which they might not know, or which they sharie the same interests. As for LinkedIn, people get connected to potential employers and mentors by adding them into their networks.

Fourthly, conversation through social media can be real-time or asynchronous. Instead of communicating directly, people can now communicate online through social networking sites, either publicly or privately. The public “tweets” or “wall message” can be viewable by others, who may read and comment on such message ahead of the intended receiver. Thus conversation between two parties has expanded to a many-to-many structure. However such conversation appears on everyone else’s newsfeed may considered as spams, which are the unwanted messages sent to a person’s email account or mobile phone, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Group are a way of forming communities of interest. People can ‘follow’ their interest group on Twitter, so whenever there is new information or events coming up, they will receive notifications. As for Facebook, people can join groups that they feel they belonged to, and there are spaces for online discussions on specific topics.

As for reputation, there is a way to know the status of other people in the system. Everyone leaves electronic footprints that are traceable. “Facebook? It’s where teenagers post all the stuff that will make them unemployable later in life,” said Rusbridger. Users may be judged on their virtual behaviours, interactions, online purchases by their ‘friends’, ‘followers’ and the public.

Lastly, it’s about sharing. The Michigan State University found that over the past few years, file sharing over peer-to-peer networks has become a popular way for people to sample and gather music, movies, and video games. In addition, one can now share articles, news, or even virtual gifts such as a facebook cake by posting such links onto their status, or at the common digital space. Moreover, people take photos and videos and upload them onto various social networking sites. For example, Flickr is for sharing photos, while Slideshare is for sharing presentations, such as Powerpoint. Users can give their publications or photos a “tag” using keywords or category labels, so the content can be searchable by the public, according to instructions given in Flickr help page.

New modes of publishing have changed our social lives. The traditional press has declined as fewer people go for the print version. Alternatively, cyber publication markets such as those for eBooks are prospering as growing number of people download such publications onto their iPad and Kindle. Users can read at their own time and pace, and carry with them the entire library in their palms or pockets. As for the broadcasting industry, downloads of dramas and radio programs online are becoming popular as well. Thus advertisers turn to online marketing and advertising. With less revenue available for production, program quality may decline, and the audience may shift to the social media instead.


(Photo: You can carry unlimited books in the form of pock-sized electronic devices .)

To conclude, the media landscape has undergone a radical transformation from a one-way traffic to an interactive process amongst the global digital population through social media. Information is no longer dominated by giant media companies with their own economic agenda and reduced plurality and balance. With the change in the role of publishing, users of social media are empowered to be both the producer and receiver of user-generated contents. Also, they can openly scrutinise government behaviours and the media industry without having to go through a traditional intermediary. However, credibility and authenticity of data flooding in the digital world is questionable and quality professional journalism is rare. As for the impact of the shift in media consumption habit, I believe the social media gives the press and broadcasting industry greater opportunities to re-engineer and renovate their strategic directions, and they may one day excel in the cyber-world of publishing.


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