Photo by stevestein1982
Marshall Mcluhan once famously proclaimed on both the message and the medium. Most of us have grown up with the accepted truth of the media as an imperious and unshakeable institution; the disseminator of news and views, fact and (occasional) fiction; the property of Barons and magnates, living in castles on the hill or fortresses in the city. But age does not always serve institutions well. Just ask Accrington Stanley, or Hoover.
Today, we set the media not only against a backdrop of eroding trust but also against one of evolving business models and the continued rise of citizen journalism. Much has been written about ‘we the media’ – but perhaps now is the time to question whether the confluence of these three factors (trust, profit, people) and the context of a citizen-empowered, networked, social society demands a more fundamental re-appraisal of the definition of the word ‘media’ itself and its role as a medium, per se?
My contention is that media today is simply one part of a much wider ecology and should therefore be recognised only as such. The claim to be the Fourth Estate looks a little shaky; media should no longer masquerade as one of the great institutions of state and instead accept its role as one of us – another (justly) opinionated node on a hyper-connected sphere of conversation and cross-influence. In this sense, media has lost its monopoly to mediate and therefore its medium status should be re-labelled.
The historical assumption was that ‘we’ all lived in ‘their’ world. This meant that we would only be interested in what they were interested in. This still holds true – but only in part (media influence has been eroded but has not evaporated altogether) because the transparency that is the default setting of a web-empowered world has finally exposed the new truth that the media lives in our world (our ecology) and not vice versa. We saw this early on with the shift from News to Views (the media now follows our time schedules, not theirs) but – more importantly still – the media now also coalesces around our (shared) interests, not theirs. The news is therefore how we make it; how we share it; what interests us, not them. This undercuts the notion of only accepting wisdom from a singular ‘trusted’ media source and is, moreover, fundamentally democratising – even if it does occasionally lean too heavily towards the X-Factorisation of everything.
Power and authority in the spread of information is being levelled at some pace: a natural consequence, partly, of the immediacy of the web. Yet the philosophical issue extends beyond immediacy, to the more core, citizen (renaissance) principles of alignment, community and transparency. The power and the authority lies with the collective ‘we’ and the old assumption that we have no choice but to live in ‘their’ world (whoever and wherever they are) is flawed and non-reversible. There is only one macro ecology now and it is more level-set.
Social, democracy should therefore be hailed as so much more than a political movement. The word ‘social’ speaks not only to a sense of purpose and community but also to the networks within which we all co-exist. In this sense, of course, media is fundamentally social, too. ‘Democracy’ is all about an equalisation of power and influence across all stakeholders and the erosion of old power structures. Again, this is equally applicable to the shifting media landscape. And, this social, democracy is new because it is evolving, advancing and progressive – proof again that the one ecology is as relevant to the more singular (former) institution of media, as it is to the big, wide world and Big Society.
Note: an earlier, film version of this was recorded for the Guardian Changing Advertising Summit 2010 and a vote of thanks is due to David Weinberger for helping frame and sharpen some of this thinking.