How Going Digital Could Threaten Civil Society

Newsweek announces the digital transition
Newsweek announces the digital transition

Newsweek is going digital. Completely online.  No print product.  The Guardian is considering a similar move.

I admit I have bouts of sentiment for the printed page.  In general, however, I allow my head to rule my heart in thse matters.  The China Mieville quote I posted a few days ago persuades me that we don’t really need to fetishize print.

However, I think that two commentaries on this news from two of my favourite bloggers miss something in their enthusiasm for this transition.

First, Andrew Sullivan (whose blog is hosted by The Daily Beast, Newsweek‘s online presence) welcomes the move, but deploys some elitist reasoning:

And as I ramble down the aisle of Amtrak’s Acela, I see so many reading from tablets or laptops, with the few newspapers and physical magazines seeming almost quaint, like some giant brick of a mobile phone from the 1980s. Almost no one under 30 is reading them. One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle.

… And the tablet is so obviously a more varied, portable, simple vehicle to deliver a group of writers tied together in one actual place, which cannot be disaggregated, than paper, print and staples.

The problem is that not everyone has access to an iPad or one of its rivals.  An electronic tablet is a large up-front cost that not everyone can afford.  And I bet that there is a correlation between people who do not have the spare cash for an iPad, and those doing the manufacturing or service jobs that do not entail sitting in front of an internet-enabled computer.  Someone like me will always be connected to the news and to writers, whether I am at work, at home, in a ‘third space’, or travelling.  But that is not true of everyone.  For them, being able to purchase the news in print is still essential if they want to play a part in civic society.  How does the Newsweek decision or the inevitable Guardian migration help them?  If the only print product that remain on the newsstands are the tabloids, we may lose something from our democracy, as the struggling sections of society find themselves on the wrong side of a digtial wall.

Elsewhere, Jason Kottke points out that much of the content people access is through feeds: Twitter and Facebook, usually.

Now, you may follow Daily Dish or Krugman on Twitter but that’s not quite the same as reading the sites; you’re not getting the whole post/article on Twitter, Krugman items are intermingled & fighting for attention with tweets from @horse_ebooks & Lady Gaga, and if you unfollowed Krugman altogether, you’ll find when he writes something especially good, someone else in your Twitter stream will point you to it pretty quickly. That is, Twitter or Facebook will provide you with the essential Krugman without you having to pay any attention to Krugman at all.

What that means is what blogs and the web are doing to newspapers and magazines, so might Facebook & Twitter do to blogs.

The peril here is the problem of filtering.  Our social media streams tend to be filled with like-minded people, which means the ‘especially good’ content that we are likely to see will have passed through a filter of sorts – the filter of people with whom we agree!  One service that magazines and editors are particularly good at is finding dissident voices and contrarian opinions, which challenge our prejudices and assumptions.  As the ‘bundle’ unravels, it is unlikely that social media will be up to the task of presenting us with that kind of content.  Again, this would be bad news for civic society.

As we move into this brave new era, age it is important that we ensure that everyone has access to digital content, and that we do not let the technology filter out the dissenting voices that every good democracy needs to hear.

2 thoughts on “How Going Digital Could Threaten Civil Society

  1. Digital media for news leaves a lot to be desired.

    I’m amazed that organisations like the BBC do not publish an archive of their pages and their revisions. Paper editions will be archived, but digital editions will not. The fact that the can be modified with ease (and without transparency is shocking). Have a look at the evolution of the following story for a great example of spin in action.

    http://www.newssniffer.co.uk/articles/536185/diff/0/8

    On top of that, we are starting getting customised views of news sites. A lot of media outlets are now running A/B testing on their pages, and most seem to be using maxymiser, although it’s not clear if that’s just for adverts. There’s a good example of the results on this ted talk.

    http://blog.ted.com/2011/05/02/beware-online-filter-bubbles-eli-pariser-on-ted-com/

    We could very much be entering a digital dark age. There were discussions in the past few years about what defines a journalist, and whether bloggers count as such. This in turn had serious legal ramifications. I think transparency and archiving needs to be thrown into this mix, as if you’re calling yourself a news agency you should be obligated to provide here.

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