While the topic of much contemporary debate, there is little agreement over the future power relations of the media industry. Although the adoption and development of new media has begun to challenge the hegemonic models of socio-economics (Freeman and Louç̃a), there is no guarantee that commonsense practices will emerge and produce a democratic revolution of the industry. Certainly, new media and technologies have provided consumers with more agency than ever, yet this idea of media convergence (Jenkins) introduces the potential for new realms of monopolisation. This essay will investigate the negotiation between the democratic nature of new media and corporate efforts to maintain concentration of industrial power, deliberating between the possibility for equal opportunities, collaborative insights and unmediated representations, and the continued quest for profits- a negotiation that Eugenia Siapera describes as ‘a tension between the tendency of user contents towards diversity, and the tendency of ‘monetization’ or capitalization over such contents to impose certain limits and controls to this kind of diversity and online exchanges’ (Siapera: 53). The concepts of consumer control and media reform will be studied alongside the idea of longstanding media conglomeration and the issue of, and ethical struggle against, monetisation of new media and the continued control of media corporations.
From video on-demand to user-generated content, new media is increasingly passing control over to the consumer. Next generation users represent the empowered consumer, allowing them to demand what, when and how they consume media, creating a continued struggle for the industry to attract attention and monetize consumption. Henry Jenkins speaks about the age of participatory culture and collective intelligence (Jenkins), noting the increasing agency of the general public in the production, distribution and consumption of media. Certainly, this creates scope for major change in the media industry because, as Siapera finds, it is with user empowerment ‘that we may locate the potential for change, for struggle towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power’ (Siapera: 60). Already shifts in media power are occurring, with 70% of survey respondents trusting consumer reviews posted online in the decision process of consumption (Nielson) . However, it must be noted that a similar 70% of these consumers say they trust branded websites (Nielson). Thus, the change corporate to consumer power is tangible yet slight.
Additionally, new media and technologies have led to globalisation and the breaking down of spatial and temporal barriers, thus creating freers flow of media images and information. The consequent trend of widespread user-generated content has undermined the traditional media business model of selling content to users, and has opened up the possibility of bottom-up flows of information with the ability to bypass mass media monopolies. Moreover, this has invigorated the call for free rather than dictatorial flow of information and the public’s entitlement to intellectual property that may allow global democracy through collective intelligence. Certainly, aggregate blogs such as the Huffington Post depict this change in the production of media content, moving towards a more inclusive circulation of information. This trend is also accompanied by the continuous decline of national newspapers of 5-20% year on year (The Guardian). However, these figures reflect the increasing reliance on the internet as a source of news, as well as the adoption of tablets. Evidently, major media corporations are able to harness this new media trend by investing in online and mobile editions, following the consumer wherever he goes.
In ‘The Long Tail’, Chris Anderson notes the increased revenue of niche products with cheap distribution, exhibition and availability through the internet (Anderson). The implication is that smaller companies are able to produce, promote and circulate their products with the use of new media, with the prevailing trend of viral marketing yielding a fairer chance for small or start-up businesses in the competitive market. An obvious example for this would be the YouTube sensation, Justin Beiber, and his launch to fame through new media outlets. Indeed, Jose van Dijick notes how sites like YouTube originally intended to provide a democratic forum for ordinary people to launch their talent, observing that these video-sharing sites are essentially ‘mediating platforms between the masses of aspiring amateurs and the ‘old’ Hollywood media moguls…they provide a new link in the upward mobility chain of the commercially driven star-system’ (van Dijick: 52). Yet, in practice traditional media is left far from redundant since ‘viral’ fame is only recognised by the mainstream when it is acknowledged by traditional mass media. Thus, ‘old’ media remains an integral part of the industry, with new media merely representing a more level starting point.
Richard Barbrook writes about new media’s ‘gift economy’ for information exchange and goes as far as to refer to the internet as a ‘really existing form of anarcho-communism’ (Barbrook) with the idea of collective effort of the masses. Although the emergence of the ‘prosumer’ may provide what some view as a less hierarchical and more meritocratic model, with the idea of peering and transparency in ‘wikinomics’ (Tapscott and Williams), one may also consider the implication of exploitative crowdsourcing for private gain. Indeed, to link it to the previous point regarding video-sharing sites, media corporations are able to harness this bottom-up model by using these supposedly ‘democratic’ forums as bait for talent- a free, ‘gift’ economy. Certainly, notable sites such as YouTube are owned by the major corporations, and Google’s conditions for use make uploaded content their property, giving them the rights for promotion, distribution, and censorship (van Dijick: 49). So when Jenkins discusses how Web 2.0 ‘was envisioned as a new frontier space where grassroots initiatives, communal spirit and ‘free’ amateur culture had a chance to blossom’, one must question how free the resulting platforms are. Furthermore, Elizabeth Van Couvering notes that the concentration of new media companies mirrors that of traditional media (Van Couvering, 2003), meaning the same hierarchical pressures remain. Clearly, even ‘user-generated’ content does not necessarily denote user power over display and circulation. Therefore, what has changed is the way in which media is picked up, but a truly democratic model is far off. The corporations have been able to turn ‘commons-like structures towards commercially driven platforms’ (van Dijick: 51), meaning that the guise of democratic media production is actually orchestrated by the same elitist power of the media owners. Thus, ‘UGC is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), illustrating little change towards the democratising of the industry.
Evidently, for every step new media takes in the direction of unmediated consumer control, traditional media corporations are close behind with profit-driven plans. New media outlets represent further potential for vertical monopolisation, thus hindering the progression towards a democratic media industry. Through this, these firms are able to ‘operate in ways commensurable with industrial capitalism, based on mass production and control of distribution’ (Siapera: 49), rather than an egalitarian system of disintermediation. Their monetizing efforts, then, towards copyrighting and pay walls means the ‘dynamics of the new media are infused with power relations’ (Mansell: 98), mirroring the unequal distribution of power and wealth in society in the same way that the old media industry did.
To this extent, it seems that the political economy of the media has merely shifted online. Indeed, new media revenue is subject to the same financial strains as traditional media, relying on the sale of advertising space and consumer analytics (Siapera: 49). For example, the extreme success of Facebook is based on the implementation of such a model, with Facebook continually looking for new ways to convert new user dynamics into a profitable platform using this revenue system. In the third quarter of 2013 the social media giant’s revenue from advertising grew by 66% to $1.8 billion, with nearly half of that accounting for mobile advertisements (BBC News, 2013). One can here observe that the company is continuing to harness consumer trends that see a consistent rise in mobile interaction, allowing them to capitalise on social media use rather than looking to provide a felicitous forum for grassroots conversation and collaboration. This institutionalisation of new media means that the fundamental economic system remains unchanged. Evidently, open source sites are trailing behind privatised platforms, which challenges the predictions of a public-led media industry.
Initially, new media systems such as the search engine were imagined to further empower the consumer with the ability to control one’s access to information. However, corporate sovereignty can here also be observed; through additional monopolisation, publishers retained overarching autonomy. For example, Google’s acquisition of YouTube gives them the power to saturate further advertising space, as well as the ability to manipulate supposedly organic searches across these platforms. As Siapera notes, ‘online corporations prioritize the mainstream…in opting for traffic maximization they steer clear of any substantial controversy’ (Siapera: 57). Certainly, it remains in their interest to provide a platform most desirable to fellow corporate initiatives, with an inclusive, ‘natural’ user experience pushed to the side-lines. Powerful brands are able to invest more, and in turn media owners manipulate search queries to allow their clients to capitalise. Consequently, alternative viewpoints are made harder to find; clearly, the dictated flow of traditional media has made its way online. Bergquist and Ljungberg corroborate with this, arguing that ‘some of the user/developers experience power relationships that are expressed as an elitism of the inner circle and exercised as the right to hinder a person in contributing to the common good’ (Bergquist and Ljungberg: 315), as is illustrated with the example of search engine manipulation. Thus, the concentration of media ownership remains an overriding feature of the industry. This carry-over of top-down structure into new media leaves corporate media with ever-more autocratic and hegemonic power, which as Herman and Chomsky discuss in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ (Herman and Chomsky), has created (and patently sustained) an unequal hierarchical society despite an ostensibly more consumer-controlled media.
In addition, new media has seemingly, by its egalitarian premise, provided a voice for those previously denied. Certainly, developing countries have increased their share in world internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011 (ITU Telecommunications). However, this change has altered (and improved) but not removed the digital divide; the defining line between those with and without a voice has changed from socio-economic factors to that of digital literacy, generational factors and willing participation. So, although changes have been made that begin to blur class lines the media remains unequal, with those lacking new media cultural capital left in the ‘old’ media one-way flow of information.
Siapera’s insistence ‘on a plurality of engines, a diversity of portals and providers, and clear criteria for inclusion/exclusion of different points of view’ (Siapera: 58) aligns with Jenkins’ sentiments. He emphasises the importance of ‘[fighting] against the copyright regime…to expand access and participation to groups that are otherwise left behind, and to promote forms of media literacy education that help all children to develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture’ (Jenkins: 259). Both conclusions on this subject require intervention by the general public, yet it seems that the lure of commodities and services provided by companies overtakes the instinct to redistribute power. The questions of whether the public care enough about how ‘authentic’ the images they see are or if everyone has a voice in the world is somewhat contentious. As in his criticisms of the culture industry, Adorno cynically observes the ‘passive dupes’ of commodity culture who have no intellectual engagement with the media and instead relish in the passivity of dictated messages (Adorno, 2002: 492). Ultimately, new media has brought about major changes in the industry, most notably with the introduction of consumer empowerment. Yet, dominant new media has a similar capitalist model of profit-driven incentives, despite the fact that more democratic grassroots platforms have potential to become socially resourceful forums, allowing equal opportunities for all. As discussed, mass media are able to compete with free models using personalised consumer targeting and native advertising, which creates a more desirable experience for users. Therefore, due to societal focus on the individual, users are more likely to support what best suits their consuming experience, rather than what will result in public benefit.
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