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Social Media - The Fourth Pillar


Social Media: Reconstructing
the Fourth Pillar

Social media permits multiple identities - tribal, feudal, regional, linguistic, national, religious, ... It allows the material impulses/instincts to be satisfied by proxy, in the virtual world. The very nature of the network allows hierarchical and horizontal connections with others

Recent technological innovations put the tools of production of media content in the hands of common man. It allows anybody with access to the Net to reach across to millions. It gives voice to erstwhile voiceless. Access to these tools empowers the powerless.  

For the traditional large corporate media houses, however, it has been very disempowering. Grandmothers start chitchatting with their grandchildren on the other part of the world, disregarding their favourite serial - because that is the best time to interact with people on the other part of the world. Young householders living in rented flats are attending to their virtual farms and decorating their virtual houses, fulfilling their instincts and dreams. Young children making up animation stories using applications in iPad... Attracting eyeballs to any mass entertainment has never been more difficult.  

From the traditional mass media point of view, the new media is seen as merely another platform for delivery. But the new media is much more than that. It is a platform for interactions, conversations, searching, creating and sharing. Sharing is a two way process but media delivery is a one way street. The traditional business models for media are not yet really ready for this transformation. 

Challenges to traditional media 

The netizens today can now read a large number of newspapers, listen to a very large number of radio stations and see TV shows galore - without touching paper or a transistor radio or buying a TV. The choice of media content is now in the keyboards of the media consumers connected to the net - irrespective of geographic/ linguistic boundaries. The large variety of choices fragments the mass base of a media channel even more. Worse, in any case, than what happened to TV medium in the 90s with the satellite television boom. 

Here is a situation where the readers wanted to be read, the listeners want to be heard, the viewers want to be seen. This is unprecedented. Letters to the editor or feedback of listeners and viewers including “request shows” that announce the names and cities of the requesters in the name of “interactivity” had limits of allocated space or time. The new media removed those barriers. And suddenly, the traditional mass media was losing out on viewers, listeners and readers. 

So the mainstream media tried to overcome the adversity by proactively co-opting the new content to face the threat. UGC - not University Grants Commission, but User Generated Content - became a buzz word in the media Industries during the last decade.  Al Jazeera and BBC vied with each other to showcase videos from video sharing sites. But the growing number of netizens would rather see the videos shared by their friends in Facebook. Or see channels and shows of their choice, at their convenience rather than be bound to couches at broadcast timings. The new subscriptions to cable is falling in many developed markets. And old subscribers are cutting cables.

The media landscape is changing. 

Response to Challenges 

Radio did not wipe out print media. Radio and print media survived the satellite television revolution by re-adjusting the media consumption habits. But just as the growth of consumers stagnated and reversed before the older mass media evolved to meet the challenges of the new media in the past, the future too will retain the old platforms for distribution of media.  

However, what did not happen earlier, is the entry of a large number of consumers who turned into producers with the new technological tools for social discourse. Bloggers, podcasters and netcasters became the new age entrepreneurs. They did not need even a garage, as in the entrepreneurs that developed the IT tools, but just a desktop and a keen vision of the content that compels consumption.

The mainstream media responded.

Flogging citizen journalists for the lack of code of ethics or training was but an initial kneejerk reaction. It had to be dropped because the argument applied to mainstream media professionals too. Fact checking is not practiced quite often by mainstream media: too much of a bother and it comes in the way of breaking news...

So journalists and broadcasters were given their own space for blogging, twittering, ... - it became a part of the job description. But then, the media professions were already quite volatile with a propensity to job hopping. And they took the readership, listenership and viewership along with them, when they left. Some could even strike out on their own and earn advertising revenues. 

The underbelly of the mammoth media houses is being exposed: advertising industry is redistributing their pennies. The smaller portion of advertising pie hurts more than the fragmentation of the mass audiences. 

Changing power structures 

The transition of the media landscape from the state owned, state controlled media to the development of an independent, though commercial profit oriented media, had transformed many societies. The pluralism of voices contributed to the development of a democracy that responded to at least the voices of the rich and the powerful. 

Putting the media tools in the hands of the middle class has suddenly increased the number of voices. The clamour is growing into a din. The political class is now forced to respond. Many leaders responded by jumping into the bandwagon of blogging and twittering, adding to the cacophony. But unlike the earlier decades, the citizens themselves have their voice. And it could be raised on behalf of the less powerful or less privileged. Against injustices and inequities. People could be amassed on the street through exhortations on the Internet... Social activism had new tools: new walls to write on. Middle east reverberated with the will to political transformations into newer democracies. 

The challenge faced by politicians and business persons is now creating a new employment niche of new media “experts”. Powered by a netbook and dongle, the propaganda machinery is quite often manned by twenty somethings. The press officers have a difficult task cut out for them. 

During the Nehru era, keeping track of a few national dailies - mostly English ones - was enough. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power, the vernacular press was quite attention worthy. But when there are voices from a few million households that cannot be disregarded without political (or business) disaster, democracy becomes firmly embedded in the society. 

Previously marginalised sections of people - like gay and lesbians or supporters of cannabis use - have started coming out and forcing changes in the laws of the land. Gender inequality and patriarchal, parochial attitudes are being questioned in public forums... Corruption, accepted by generations as a fact of life, suddenly became a rallying point.  

By changing the very structure of the fourth pillar of democracy, social media redefines and enriches democratic discourse. But then, simultaneously it blurs national borders. Social media is forging relationships that transcends kinship, creed and country. Nationalism, the foundation on which a strong democracy can be built is no more stable or dependable as focal points for social development. Is a new kind of democracy evolving? Is it really possible to separate voting, having a voice and opportunities to participate in socio-economic development, previously integral to the concept of democracy?  

Amplification of information and its diffusion in space through the printed media and the diffusion of information through waves in time, as happens in broadcast media, are quite different from the packet switching and amplification in a network. Early morning rituals of reading newspapers - the same news that most of your neighbours read, news selected by a staff or a stringer, subedited, edited, laid out and printed, distributed by a publisher. The old system of being entertained by the same serial (Buniyad or Ramayan) as everybody else, at the same time. These phenomena may not entirely disappear. But today more people are consuming a wide diversity of media content. Because there is a diversity of content being produced. 

Not because of the will to control, nor the will to get rich, but to fulfil the need to interact, communicate, share... And these activities are creating communities, new niches in social environment.  

The flow of information in space and time in a network cannot be understood by either diffusion or wave models. The mathematical understanding of networks, physics of networks and technological frameworks on which the Internet works presently, would of course, be subsumed by a new world order of fractal structures. At least that is what theoretically we must expect. 

The flow of viral videos and continuous flow of “forwards” create a new brand of leaders and followers of the information society. “Status” in this society depends on information and communication rather than money - yet it wields power. The more “connected” the nodes, the less the freedom, restricted by peer interactions. Less the degrees of freedom, less the degrees of separation. 

From the sword to pen to camera and keyboard, the shift in social perceptions of what is mighty and great is but a natural transformation. From the kings’ scribe to paid journalist to the narrator of one’s life, work and society: the sources for tomorrow’s historians is being generated at a very rapid pace in magnetic and optic media inscribed 0s 1s,in digital space. 

Enriching the narratives 

The threads of conversations, photographs, shared jokes, information, weave a pattern of interactions that are quite human. That cannot be coded in 0s and 1s.

Food, sex, social dominance and identity as well as other human concerns - health, education,... - would obviously emerge as the mainstay of the narratives. Talking at cross purposes and hate speech also would be as common in the virtual world as it is in the real world. Cyber attacks and malware are testimony that it is we who create the virtual world. You will find scamsters and thieves equally on highways as much as on the information highway. 

Social media permits multiple identities - tribal, feudal, regional, linguistic, national, religious, ... It satisfies the material impulses/ instincts to be satisfied by proxy, in the virtual world. The very nature of the network allows hierarchical and horizontal connections with others. Six degrees of separation  will perhaps soon be overcome by less than six clicks. Anthropologists argue that the rise and fall of civilisations of the past were caused by climatic changes. This climatic change in media is unifying human civilisation by creating a digital memory networked across the earth. In social ecology new niches are possible, and a larger variety of sub-cultures are evolving. The dependence of cultural diversity on geographies has been overcome by the tools of social media.  

Just like the transportation networks disrupted the feudal and even family structures, the Internet is also a disruptive technology. Unlike the network of roads, electric lines, telephone lines, the Internet is a network of networks. Control or regulation by the state is limited to blocking of sites. Mirrors of sites with alternative URLs circumvent the attempts at even that. It would take all Governments of the world to come together to create any reasonable regulation. In other words, a world government.

Imagine - in all its diversities, world will be one. And I am not the only dreamer. 

K P Madhu The author In-Charge, Science Media Centre, IISER, Pune.


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