Emerging media is changing the very mechanics of public debate. Only ten years ago, the news that was reported today, may have happened yesterday or the day before. It would have been gathered by professional photographers and journalists who were trained to look for those things that matter to our lives. They would shed light on those events and compose a rounded look at their costs and benefits. Each piece involved talented reporters, producers, directors and executives, each helping us decide what bearing those events had on us. Now, nearly everyone has cheap access to powerful tools, and a free way to distribute content. With blogs, social networks, boutique news sites, outlets that mix news with sarcasm, humor, or fiction, the news sources that feed our public discourse are more numerous, more diverse, more fragmented, more specialized, and more opinionated than ever.
This instant diffusion of fact into all of these different brands of information makes it increasingly difficult to have a focused public debate. The viewer must now collect their own raw material from as many sources as they can and assemble their own picture of events. Essentially, people have to become their own journalists.
This is not just a new game. This is a new field for public discourse. There are new players, new fans, new referees, new coaches, new owners, new teams and certainly new rules. Let’s look at how emerging media may effect our political process from the point of view of the candidate running for office, from the point of view of the citizen making educated choices, and from the point of view of a government trying to conduct a public conversation.
Naheed Nenshi, the newly-elected Mayor of Calgary, brilliantly leveraged social networks and emerging media to win his election. He engaged over 16,000 followers on Facebook, thousands more on Twitter, provided one-click access to volunteer, donate, download collateral, download apps for mobile devices, view focused video presentations, and read a blog about his daily events. But it is not enough for a small campaign to produce streams of content for people to absorb. The challenge for a small campaign is remaining consistent across all of these streams. Even though the media is diverse, the goal of that campaign is to build and maintain one focused public perception.
Nenshi’s success came from his ability to hold a focused public conversation regardless of medium. Every time Naheed produced something for public consumption, he released content that reinforced a series of main themes, allowed people to comment on it, called people to take specific action, gave people a way to take ownership of the process and gave them a vehicle to pass along his message through whichever medium they were comfortable with. Not only can you read Nenshi’s ideas for change on his Facebook page, but as his base grows, you sense the energy and excitement mount as more people get involved. For hardcore users of these streams, these small organizations can provide a constant stream of excitement for them to consume. As public excitement grows, candidates can make ambassadors out of fans and volunteers out of ambassadors.
The new news is not a one-way feed anymore, it is now a multi-lateral public conversation. The subject of the news articles, the pundits and the consumers of news may all contribute. Lets look at some of the benefits and dangers to this new dynamic.