Tag Archives: Society and Culture

Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

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Communicating Development I

Why DFID‘s efforts to communicate the 2009 White Paper fail and tell us more about Labour than their approach to development

Communicating development matters. It helps taxpayers know how their money is reducing poverty and helps maintain public support for aid. So when DFID launched their new White Paper, Eliminating World Poverty: Building our Common Future outlining plans for aid and development, they wanted to let people know about it. To their credit, they tried to engage with the ‘communications 2.0’ era we now live in and produced an online video. This turned out to be a good idea done badly:

So why does the video fail to communicate effectively? Well:

– It fails to ‘communicate’ the idea of development. The video features Douglas Alexander speaking to camera. And thats it. First impression? Its more about Douglas than development.

– It fails to make the White Paper’s complex ideas accessible. Douglas’ long, earnest sentences create the impression that development is un-intelligible and boring. For those interested in communication there are some compelling ideas, for example increasing use of mobile phones in development, a commitment to allocating 5% of UK aid to citizen groups, local media and other groups to monitor governments use of development resources.  Sadly the video fails to effectively communicate these exciting ideas.

– Its slooow and visually boring . It takes ages to communicate its key ideas and is all audio. It might just as well have been a podcast.

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the obvious (telling tax payers where their money goes) this a missed opportunity to make a compelling case for aid by communicating why spending that money is so important.

It also suggests Douglas’ isnt interested in increasing development awareness. Or maybe its that for Douglas,  communication through DFID is more about maintaining Labour’s visibility than the development policies the government stands for. More importantly, especially as an election looms, the communication style shows Labour as out of touch and out of sync with the way people communicate today.

But, you may say, surely complex, technical document is inevitably boring. Well, no its not. It is possible to communicate complex ideas about development in a compelling, simple manner. And in my next post I’ll show you how.

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