This is a quick, very simple follow-up to my presentation at the Media140 conference, where I was on a panel on political journalism with Annabel Crabb, Chris Uhlmann, Caroline Overington and John Kerrison.
Another great term coined at #Media140 by Crikey’s Bernard Keane: “Communities of interest, or ghettos of agreement?” tweeted @matthewsinclair yesterday. My immediate reaction was “what does he mean another???!” but in fact I don’t actually remember using the phrase. Nevertheless, I’m claiming “ghettos of agreement” as mine because it sounds good. Sorry Matthew.
In my quick and dirty presentation to the Media140 conference I avoided talking about the ostensible subject of the panel I was on and talked instead about how I thought Twitter was fulfilling some of the early, and wrong, predictions about new media from a decade ago – both good and bad. I ended up suggesting that empowering media users tended to mean they ended up only seeing what they wanted to see or agreed with, whereas the traditional mass media had a greater variety of viewpoints to which its users were perforce exposed whether they liked it or not. “Digital ghettos” was how I characterised it.
The immediate reaction from a number of my… ahem… followers was to the effect of “bollocks” – they followed people they disagreed with, sometimes violently disagreed with. I’m sure they do. And they probably do for a variety of reasons – because it’s part of their job, or because they like to know their enemy, or because they find hilarious what people of a different ideological hue have to say. But I still suspect, without any evidence, that your average Twitter user – like your average blog reader – mainly navigates toward material they are comfortable with, which is a known quantity, with which they agree.
Even if I’m right, I do wonder whether it is significant. Perhaps in the old days of mass media we navigated the same way as we skipped past columnists with whom we disagreed, or changed the channel on a politician we disliked. But the clash of ideas occurred then on a common battlefield, employing a shared language, culture and method of argument. Fragmentation may end up being of more than just audiences.
But then in the blink of an eye, Twitter can do something no medium has ever done before, at least not as rapidly and successfully. The viral-like spread of information about the ultimately futile attempt by Trafigura and its law firm Carter-Ruck to hide damning information about the company’s role in dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast should worry politicians, corporations and the lawyers they depend on to regulate information the world over. The internet made information harder to hide, but now the information doesn’t just sit on blogs, or sites like Wikileaks; now it has a virus-like capacity to spread rapidly across the globe, propelled by retweeting, beyond the capacity of any one law firm or government to close down.
Yes I know it sounds like that old “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” information libertarianism of the 1990s, but just ask the low-lifes at Carter-Ruck, whose efforts to obtain super-injunction after super-injunction from compliant British judges, including to even shut down reporting of Parliament, came to a very expensive nought, defeated by Twitter.
Lawyers and judges already rail at the internet for the threat it allegedly poses to the legal profession’s obsession with information control and keeping jurors untainted with unwanted facts. Well guys, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Your whole model of control – that there are a small number of “media” and they are well-established and amenable to legal recourse i.e. they’ll comply with your injunctions – has vanished. Now there’s just one giant conversation and most of it isn’t even going on within the borders of your jurisdiction. You can’t control it.
So whatever capacity social media has to erect ghettos of agreement may well be offset by its capacity to significantly undermine the efforts of lawmakers, lawyers and corporations to control information.
As they say in exam papers, discuss.