The Democratization of Media

Some call this phenomenon “open source media.”

The emergence of popular outlets for amateur expression such as YouTube, FaceBook, and MySpace has changed interactive media in an unanticipated way. Who is an authority in an environment where anyone can contribute or edit the vast encyclopedia of human knowledge? Where is the natural barrier of professional status? What will happen to the professional writers, web designers, and videographers?

Of course, what may happen is a general shakeout similar to what happened to many professions as they were changed to digital: typography, publishing, print design, etc. As the amateurs invaded each profession armed with the software program that was supposed to replace the professional, we were suddenly deluged with a great deal of bad work. Did the general public recognize bad design? No. What happened is that the value of the profession to the little client plummeted — “I’ll have my secretary buy the software and make the newsletter, it will save us money.” — and it shook out a lot of designers serving the lower end of the client pond. So, suddenly there were just the big clients, and a whole lot of designers trying to get them.

Where does it go from here? Do we lower our standards to the common denominator? As people get used to seeing amateur work in every media it may be that there will be no recognition or appreciation of professionally produced work. On the other hand, I’m willing to bet that most people would rather trust established brands when they are putting their hard-earned cash down.

It has become evident in the last few years that corporate control of the media has completely eroded the authority of those in publishing. Regardless of whether it is the news from the “authorities” or advertising from brands, or corporate reports, the average person has learned not to trust what he hears in traditional media.

What can you trust, and who can you trust? The emergence of social networking and viral marketing in this same era is provides a clue to what may be happening. The corporations would love to control this amazing way of advertising their products to the consumer, but it can backfire: this area is very sensitive to hype and is quick to expose inconsistencies and flaws. It would be just as easy to get negative as well as positive results using viral marketing and social networking.

The real positive of this movement is that it may allow a real accountability to emerge in the economic as well as the political arena. It has the potential to finally hold responsible those in authority to their word, hold companies accountable to their products and to their way of producing that product, as well as keeping them honest in advertising.

The power of free speech is in the hands of the many instead of the few as publishing becomes democratized. As ever in the past, commercial and political interests will strive to control and utilize this power to their own ends. Already, information on the buying habits and personal preferences of individuals is tracked by many entities. Viral marketing is a hot topic among marketers. They ask themselves how what people talk about can be used for profit and how they can control what is being said. Bloggers are romanced by corporate entities and some even paid to spread the word as if they are independent sources of information.

As the uncle of Spiderman said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Democracy in whatever form has the annoying tendency to mutate into something else, while pretending to have remained true to form. Sometimes I think the book Animal Farm was not really about communism at all, but about how truth gets mutated by those in authority. Truth can only be trusted if independent of commercial or political interests as the debacle of commercial media in present times has proved.

— Copyright 2007 Aliyah Marr


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