Mass self-communication: a dream or a nightmare?

With new technologies redrawing media and society, a deep economic crisis caused by a Wall Street crash, and a democracy that needed to be fought for, the 1930′s scenario was quite similar to today’s. And opinions were as antagonical as today’s.

This is what German political poet and playwright Bertolt Bretch dreamed in 1932:

Radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to Public occasions is a step in the right direction.
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But this is what Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset feared in 1930:

There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilisation.
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Are we now facing Bretch’s dream or Ortega y Gasset’s nigthmare?

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Both our opening and closing sessions deal with this topic:

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New media: A tool for social change?

The rise of new forms of media is one of the major objects of study of the Frankfurt School. In their opinion, new media can give true power to the people, enabling a change in the social balance of power that can benefit the underprivileged.

But, of course, the Frankfurt School was saying this some 80 years ago. And their “new media” was cinema, radio and photography. As we know, they were soon to be disenchanted, as these media turned out to be means of heavy political propaganda in their home country, Germany, and of “vacuous entertainment for the masses” in their host land, the United States.

But their story clearly resembles common thoughts about our time’s new media. Indeed, it seems inevitable to talk about the revolutionary potential of each new media technology, at least in the sense of favoring some form of social change. But usually the communicative potential of a media is not the social use that it organically adopts.

Knowing this, professors Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini were cautious in their outlook of the potential of new media in this article from 2004:

Optimistically, we believe that the erosion of elite gatekeeping and the emergence of multiple axes of information provide new opportunities for citizens to challenge elite control of political issues. Pessimistically, we are skeptical of the abilities of ordinary citizens to make use of these opportunities and suspicious of the degree to which even multiple axes of power are still shaped by more fundamental structures of economic and political power.
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In view of the experience of the Frankfurt School, should we be cautious on our assessment of our new media, despite of the recent events?

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The future of journalism

When a new leap in media technology comes forward, many tend to think it will mean the end of all previous media. Radio, cinema, TV – all were going to kill their immediate predecessor. But they ultimately didn’t: each found a niche, an area of expertise, which the others could not fill.

It happened again with the internet. Indeed, it seemed much more revolutionary, with readily on-demand information, its convergence of different types of media and its interactive capabilities. Many believed it would mean an end to the printed word, but we are now luckily realizing that it won’t. But then, what is the role of journalism in a world where every citizen has the means to report directly what they see?

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times until last month, talks about old and new media in this interview with our media partner El País.

There is a difference between what Wikipedia and The New York Times say: people go to Wikipedia knowing what they want; but they go to The New York Times, BBC or El País not knowing what they want to know. They come to see what intelligent and well educated people has to tell them about what happened, what matters and what does it mean. Noone has the time to do this by themselves; they pay us for our criteria.
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Networked politics and the media: a difficult relationship?

The relationship between traditional media and net-fueled movements is often not easy. The corporate nature of news organizations often clashes with its informational side, and as sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton pointed out, in mass media “he who pays the piper generally calls the tune”.

Is this also the case of The New York Times? After its article “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe“, Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy‘s speaker Micah L. Sifry points out how the newspaper is a little bit late on reporting about net-based activism.

This article could have also been written in 2003 or 2007-8. For argument’s sake, the Times’ story on the rise of the “second superpower,” (“A New Power in the Streets,” February 17, 2003) which focused on the massive wave of international protests against the impending invasion of Iraq, which were loosely coordinated by net-based activists, was the story in 2003, except the Times stopped covering democratic protests after that as its editors and top writers fell in lockstep in support of the Iraq War.
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The rise of citizen journalism

No one doubts by now the impact that citizen journalism is having in the media and the balance of power. Web-streaming videos hit prime-time TV, tweets generate headlines, and pictures taken by anonymous citizens change pieces of history.

In recent days, the grim videos and photos coming out of Libya have been testament to people’s desire to bear witness to cruelty and oppression. Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can not ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit. Yes, they can use technology to stifle freedom, and they do. But media from average people can make a real difference, too, and it does again and again.
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But questions arise. Should news organizations reward citizen journalists if they use their work? What is their role in a world full of user-generated content? Can citizens be good journalists? How can rumor be combated in a world full of anonymous reporters?

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