Saturday, May 31, 2008

Being Digital: Internet growing pains

Bell Canada has awkwardly defended its practice of deliberately throttling Internet traffic, in a results of a regulatory audit released today. The phone company argues is necessary to relieve congestion on its network but substantial portions of the audit documents have been blacked out for "competitive reasons". This is a convenient way of avoiding scrutiny of the reasons why they slow down bandwidth-intensive peer-to-peer file-sharing protocols. Bell admits there is congestion, mostly caused by P2P transactions but argues that additional capacity would be "uneconomical since much of it would go unused during non-peak periods".

The report shows that the internet is straining. But while P2P goes under the microscope, the vast acres of blogs and social media go unchecked. The early 21st century appears to be the glory age for the democratisation of news on the Internet. With a rich repository of material online, optimists see the Internet as heralding in a new digital age in which citizens both generate and consume news while the big players no longer control political communication. On the cusp of the Internet age in the mid 1990s, one of those optimists (MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte) said that being digital allows the content provider to deliver a signal with information added to correct errors such as “telephone static, radio hiss or television snow”. This is true, and the quality of digital reproduction is one of its major selling points. But digital transmission doesn’t fix errors of fact, provide newsworthy content, or make dull writing good. The age-old journalistic skills apply as much as ever in the Internet age and may, in the end, be the only way of judging good content in an era when participatory publishing has exploded.

There is no denying there is a sense of power of being able to publish your own news site. An Nguyen defines Participatory Publishing (PP) as the act of the citizen or citizens playing an active role in collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information. PP is attracting people in ever larger numbers. In April 2007, blog search engine Technorati was tracking upwards of 70 million blogs, which represented a doubling in size since 2006 with 1.4 blogs being created every second of the day. The social networking sites also have blogging capability. By October 2007, Facebook had more than 42 million active users worldwide each potentially with their own ability to publish information online. What blogging and the social networks have exposed is the ease of entry to the publishing industry. They are inexpensive to set up and no longer require access to a printing press and retail distribution system. The users of these tools are the people formerly known as the audience as Jay Rosen calls them, or the “passengers on your ship that got a boat of their own”.

Those that remained aboard as readers have also become fractured. Wired’s Chris Anderson used the metaphor of the ‘long tail’ to describe the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream. The key towards successful publication in the long tail is delivering regular content to a niche audience. The 2007 Australian federal election saw many online sites actively promoting local political activism. Most prominent was at Queensland University of Technology, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in partnership with SBS, Online Opinion and the Brisbane Institute. Site co-editor Graham Young said the site’s aim was to use citizen journalists to report on their own electorates to fill the gap left by fewer journalists on the ground, especially in less populated areas. The site is modelled on the successful Korean citizen journalism service OhMyNews which mixes professional and large-scale amateur journalism with strong editorial oversight and professional site management. The key is “strong editorial oversight” which is the part most lacking in the unregulated stream of consciousness that emerges from the blogosphere.

There are also the questions of who reads all this information and for what purpose. In 2005, the researchers Nguyen, Ferrier, Western and McKay performed the first national "uses and gratification" survey of online news consumption in Australia. While they found that the Internet has reached mainstream status in terms of audience size, it tended to be more prevalent among the higher socio-economic segments of society. The study also found that immediacy was the most important feature for readers of online news. Two content-richness related elements also rated highly: the permanent availability of background information and the plethora of news choices available. The study confirms that the Internet is changing our definition of news and how people seek and use it. The most popular websites in Australia are not established news sites but search engines, predominately Google. Google makes money not by trying to keep its audiences but by sending them elsewhere. While most news organisations are wary of outgoing links without an editorial justification, the lesson to learn from Google is that online website owners should not be afraid to add value by including relevant links to other sites in their content.

Nonetheless, as a result of all these innovations, there is a profound groundshift in the way news is generally understood. In 2004, Associated Press CEO Tom Curley said “we [journalists] have to free their content from the expensive containers known as newspapers and broadcast bulletins. It means a change from the news as a lecture to news as conversation”. By this he means that no-one owns the news any more. This takes news back full circle to the turn of the 20th century when modern journalism emerged from the limited public sphere of the era and was directly accountable to its readers. That sense of direct accountability and conversation is built into the blogging platform. But the Internet is suffering growing pains, as the problem with P2P shows. Lets hope it will fit into its new bandwidth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good Article