Radical shifts in the media economy:
Social media has delivered an enormous shock to civil society in the West. It has been weaponised by nations who do not love democracy and the freedoms that we have come to enjoy. Back in 2007, when I predicted the great democratization of communication that social media enabled and the death of the traditional news media, I did not also predict that our enemies would use it to spread disinformation and misinformation in an attempt to destroy the foundations of our culture. As with most things, it is all tied to reward and remuneration, so it is all about the economics of attention and the shifts in how audiences interact with their media now.
I am just doing some thinking about this topic here and trying to organise my thoughts.
Changing economics of News
Since the coming of social media, from about 2007 onwards, many things seem to have accelerated. For example the demise of the mainstream news media as we knew it during the twentieth century. I was on a panel in 2010 for a libraries conference, with my friend Bronwen Clune, and we blithely predicted the demise of newspapers. Since that time we have, from time-to-time, mentioned that we did not expect it to happen so quickly (or so bloodily).
The newspapers did not understand the economics of their situation. Lavishly funded by the ‘rivers of gold’ from the newspaper classified advertising they did not understand that this gave them considerable freedom from the vagaries of public opinion. Further, the newspapers thought that they occupied a space whereby they were the arbiters of thought as well as leaders or influencers.
As their ‘rivers of gold’ rapidly dried up in the early twenty-first century the newspapers were very slow to understand that their economic situation was changing drastically. When it finally did dawn on the newspaper industry that the economics of their old world were dead and that they had to radically readjust to the modern world of social media and large platforms like Facebook. Their world shifted very rapidly to one in which they were no longer the arbiter of the debate, but rather one where they were chasing clicks and eyeballs. This was a fundamental shift in the nature of newspaper publishing in a way that had not been seen previously. News media outlets still thought of themselves, even still think of themselves today, as the same as in the olden days in the rivers of gold times. But they are not, and their relationship with their audience has fundamentally changed. No longer are they publishing to passive audience who consume their content and have no means by which to answer back. Just think about how much journalists on Twitter like it when the audience actually wants to have a conversation about something they have published.
Changing economics of publishing on social media
In addition to the shifting economics of the news media industry the other side of the coin was the democratisation of communication that was afforded by social media. Now the audience could answer back, it could publish its own content, and indeed, it could build its own audience that could approach in scale that of the old-style news media outlets.
One of the major phenomena of this growth in democratisation of communication by means of social media is the growth of influencers who have their own audiences and who must customise their messaging to meet their audience demand. This is a very different situation to that of the old-style news media. Where they were able to publish content out to their audience with very little interaction and very little understanding of what that audience cared about, of what that audience liked or did not like. Now every single social media influencer is captive to the economics of pleasing their audience. This is much more akin two television shows which had to meet the demands of the television ratings systems; however it is not a complete analogue.
This new economy where influencers obtain significant amounts of revenue from publishing content to their audiences is perhaps the most significant shift of the early twenty-first century. It means that, particularly in economy like the United states where people do not have a social safety net or affordable health care, there is the growth of an entrepreneurial class of people who are very interested in achieving and maintaining income by means of social media. Thus there has been a rise in content publishers via social media who rely on that platform for their sustenance. We see mega-influencers like Joe Rogan who now publish to mass audiences at a scale previously only possible for old style news media. Further, the proliferation of social media platforms as an income stream for individuals means that many now see building their audience as their primary goal. This means that we are seeing capture of the creators by the audience. This also means that the content creators are encouraged to create more content of the kind that their audience likes and agrees with, and they will necessarily produce less of the kind of content that their audience might disagree with. This phenomenon means that we are creating echo chamber like networks of likeminded content producers and there is little reason why, since their income depends on their audience liking their content, they should present any alternative perspectives or points of view.
Results of democratizing communication
It seems to me that not enough thought has been given to these two shifts in the dynamics of publishing, for both news media and for social media influencers. The democratization of communication has had a huge impact on our society and we are still seeing how this plays out. It is certainly a long way from the techno-utopian days of the early days of social media. Next time I might talk about the grifters that this has given rise to.
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