Alienated Masses, Alienated Media By William Bowles

8 May 2006

Imagine an infinitely long high street composed of nothing but shops, situated along the high street effectively in a random order. Each shop can be reached from an equally infinite number of side streets that let on to the high street.

The shop window browser can enter the high street anywhere along its length ‘guided’ by who knows what, perhaps a link from a shop they have already visited or word-of-mouth and finally—because they know what they are looking for—a search that hopefully directs them to the content they want.

Internet Websites, aside from the handful of corporate ‘portals’, reach what are called vertical, niche markets, that is to say, each site targets a very specific audience or in the case of products, specific markets.

The niche is vertical because it targets a very specific visitor with what might be described as content that appeals to a finite number of potential customers or in the case of an online journal, readers.

This is the dilemma the independent media confronts: setting up shop is easy, almost too easy but unlike corporate media websites which not only have the resources to market their online presence along the length of the high street, because they also own and control traditional media; print, radio and tv, they are able to reach their already captive markets via a plethora of outlets.

Effectively, each independent media site sits in ‘splendid isolation’ in spite of links to other sites, simply because the sheer volume of choices is overwhelming. Inevitably the visitor will settle with one site or perhaps a handful of sites that come closest to addressing their needs. Which is all well and good but it has several drawbacks:

Firstly, it fragments the independent media audience, which when taken collectively numbers in the millions and one which is global in scope, an unprecedented event;

Each site is for the most part fiercely territorial refusing for example to reveal actual visitor numbers aside from the hype of ‘hits’ which is a completely meaningless and misleading measure of the number of actual visitors a site gets and perhaps most important, doesn’t reveal what gets read or in what numbers;

Even networks of independent media, for example, IndyMedia are effectively drowned in a sea of content with each site having its loyal supporters. Thus in spite of being broadly united by a set of common objectives—social change or anti-war—we all compete with each other for an audience;

Worse still from the perspective of the independent media site, it dilutes the financial support base. It’s simply not realistic to assume that readers will send money in the form of donations or subscriptions to so many sites, even they wanted to. In any case, even if they did, the net result would be tiny amounts of money spread over hundreds if not thousands of websites.

Here is last week’s log for InI covering a seven-day period, at first glance, a pretty impressive collection of statistics:

  • Successful requests: 147,470
  • Average successful requests per day: 21,069
  • Successful requests for pages: 74,931
  • Average successful requests for pages per day: 10,705
  • Distinct files requested: 9,655
  • Distinct hosts served: 17,001
  • Data transferred: 9.30 gigabytes
  • Average data transferred per day: 1.33 gigabytes

But in fact the only really meaningful statistic represented here is the one which measures the number of distinct hosts served, 17,001, which comes closest to measuring the actual number of individual visitors but even this number assumes that it represents one visit by one person. So let’s round it down and say that over the seven-day period something like 15,000 people visited the site and accessed 75,000 pages.

But consider that InI is but one of perhaps tens of thousands of independent media sources which if taken collectively must serve many millions of people but who are effectively isolated from each other! I have no idea what other sites these visitors went to or to what degree we duplicate each other’s efforts.

Unlike corporate media sites which often are simply re-packaging content that has already made a profit via advertising revenues generated from print or tv, independent media sites rely totally on their readers for income.

Meanwhile, the corporate media is moving in on ‘our space’ big time, able to utilise the cross-connections it has via its other media outlets to shift its traditional audience/customers to this new hunting ground. It even appropriates the language and form of the independent media, in its use of ‘citizen journalism’ or so-called bottom-up content.

As fellow media activist Danny Schecter says in his essay:

Leading executives are now interested in moving beyond broadcasting into broadband, integrating so-called user-generated content like citizens journalism including blogs, podcasts, videos and photos. They are opening their doors to “the people” while insisting, at they same time, they will not “lower standards” of accuracy, impartiality, balance and other boilerplate blah-blah. – ‘THE MEDIA SHIFT FROM THEM TO US

I think it’s true to describe the Web as a ‘poisoned chalice’ largely because by its very nature it has two distinct and contradictory aspects; one leads directly to monopoly, the other to fragmentation and dilution of message.

It’s all well and good presenting many ‘points of view’ but in the real world, these POVs are reflections of real world situations, very often life and death situations.

Having been involved in this ‘movement’ for such a long period, around twenty-five years, I have had a long time to experiment and develop a variety of online content solutions, from the corporate to the activist. I have also developed ‘cross-over’ solutions, print-to-web/web-to-print, web-to-radio/radio-to-web, web-to-tv and so forth.

One thing emerged from this process: the independent media need some kind of ‘syndication’ solution but even this begs a number of questions, not the least of which is income generation and distribution to content creators if we are to maintain a viable and increasingly effective presence.

And paradoxically, the explosion of independent media online reflects the situation in the real world, one of thousands of ‘single interest’ groups that lack a coherent collective vision of social change.

So I think it’s true to say that in spite of our best efforts and the fact that the corporate media have lost a great deal of legitimacy and trust, until such time as the independent media are the reflection of a coherent movement for social change, we will continue to operate in an alienated environment.

I say this not out of pessimism but because it describes the real situation ‘out there’. In the meantime, it is imperative that we continue to increase our effectiveness through the accuracy and quality of our writing; by building links and sharing of information and most importantly in this crucial period, exposing the nature of the role of the corporate and state-run media as weapons of state and corporate power.

Finally, I’d like to encourage debate on this subject and perhaps as a challenge to the hundreds of other independent media sources to think about their role in this process and what we can collectively do about it. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious?

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