Tag Archives: mass media

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Democratic Usability: Where to Find Information on Local Elections

Sunset reflected over Chinatown I’m not going to turn this into a full-time political blog, but I just spent the evening researching local issues and candidates and a thought occurred to me – does anyone test the usability and the user experience of the democratic process?

There’s a number of different ways to approach this question.  The usability of voting systems is a big part of it, and in the case of electronic voting machines, this would be identical to traditional usability testing.  I’m going to put that question aside for now since I haven’t studied it very closely and talk about the information seeking portion of the electoral user experience.

Also, I apologize in advance for making this post very U.S.-centric.  Please comment below on how these issues apply in your country.

Political information seeking

We are completely inundated with information and misinformation about the major candidates for national office, from a wide variety of communication media.  Everything from dinner-table conversations and door-to-door canvassing to cable news, candidate web sites, and political blogs can influence how we vote.

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The Internet, the Marketplace of Ideas, and the Public Sphere

This thesis paper was originally written for a journalism course at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2001.

Introduction

Discussions about the Internet are dominated by colorful and often ill-defined metaphors.  One is expected to surf the information superhighway over to the infobahn, on the way to the digital town hall in the global village to peruse the marketplace of ideas.  This last metaphor, the market where ideas are offered, considered and either accepted or rejected like so much fruit, is more than just a colorful image.  Media and cultural studies often examine the marketplace of ideas theory and the public sphere when examining how mass media work in a democracy.  The Internet seems a natural place to look for both.

Often discussions about the marketplace of ideas and the public sphere are confined the question to whether or not they are worthwhile goals- many critics see them as impossible or rife with flaws.  The marketplace of ideas notion of traditional mass media seems out of sync with reality.  High entry costs into the mass media, central ownership by large corporations, the popular media’s tendency to marginalize radical and little-known ideas, etc., all act as barriers to a free flow of ideas.

The Internet, however, could theoretically create or function as a public forum.  Every media consumer can become a media producer on the Internet, and in some ways (newsgroups and mailing lists, for example) the line between consumers and producers of media are blurred.  Unlike other media, the cost of making a web site viewed by millions is not necessarily larger than a web site viewed by only a handful.  Communication is instantaneous and choice is not limited to what is provided by a few large companies.  Radical groups in every subject from terrorism to literary theory are able to publish as easily as mainstream political parties.

But is the Internet the true public forum, or even a real marketplace of ideas?  A quick look at Internet usage statistics shows relatively few large producers dominating traffic.  According to Nielsen/Netratings, for example, AOL Time Warner recorded 65,954,683 unique visitors in March, out of an estimated 101,965,365

active Internet users that month.1 With well over one billion web sites on the web to visit and the average user only visiting 10 unique sites a month, most of the traffic is going to a limited number of places-just as most readership goes to a limited number of magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc.

But why are web sites with less money and fewer corporate ties having a harder time getting viewers?  What barriers have arisen to make it hard to get a large audience, and why has the Internet followed the lead of central corporate ownership like the rest of the mass media?  How is the Internet like a public forum and how is it not?

Thesis

The Internet does not function as a de facto public sphere or marketplace of ideas but it does have enormous potential.  Barriers such as the Digital Divide and website funding problems keep the Internet from being a completely free forum while most users most of the time seem to have no interest in entering the public sphere at all.  A few notable examples, however, prove that the Internet has the power to allow public communication, debate, and opinion formation to flourish when users take advantage of it.

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The Internet and the free trade of information after Napster

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 15

This chapter’s debate is over the internet as a free trade of information (specifically via Napster).  Writing for the affirmative, Andrew Sullivan argues that file trading over the net is not stealing and might just make communism possible.  The lawyers for the recording industry, on the other had, argue that those who own the rights to the files traded need protection and deserve damages.

Sullivan is almost entirely optimistic about the ability of the net to act as a public space open to everyone.  Even the few sites which required payment are now becoming free, and people can copy the pay site’s content and send it outside anyway.  This, for him is a way to get around Marx’s dislike of the way capitalism values people only by monetary worth.  It also abolishes property in some ways, which Sullivan sees as helping to eliminate greed and profit motive in human interaction.  Soon musicians, journalists and others will remember their love for their professions and not mind going without a paycheck.

The recording industry lawyers, however, are not so cheery.  They point out that Napster facilitates music copying without paying copyright holders, that sales in Napster-saturated markets are down, and that Napster does so knowingly and at an enormous scale.  They argue that Napster was designed for the sole purpose of piracy and that it is their current business model as well.  Although Napster has yet to make any revenues, the lawyers argue they have gotten a financial benefit through piracy via venture capital, stock price and audience acquisition.

Sullivan, I think, has missed the point almost entirely.  I could go on for pages (and will in my paper), but basically his notion that the web is divorced from money is ridiculous.  Newspapers don’t charge because they make money off advertising-so they, along with the rest of the net, try to track you, market to you, sell data about you, etc., and if they don’t they fold.  Web traffic is going increasingly to those with money and power.  Also, so long as food and rent cost money, no writer or musician will forgo paychecks.  Sullivan seems to think you can live off MP3s alone.  My paper is about the internet’s function as a public space, it has more limitations than he recognizes-for example, not everyone can afford a computer or a net connection, which leaves a lot of people out of the public debate.

The Napster lawyers are also full of crap in a lot of ways.  These two essays really are at opposite ends of the spectrum-Sullivan is a naïve Marxist and the lawyers are cunning corporate-capitalists.  Note that in their public statements and in much of the press coverage, the recording industry represented this as a case of taking money from Metallica or the Rolling Stones or whoever, but in the brief copyright ownership is the key concept.  Most musicians get pennies for each CD sold, and some get nothing-with giant corporations, who control the entire distribution network, fixing prices at $17 each.  Napster, in fact, does little to nothing to hurt the average musician, but it’s possible (the lawyers’ proof is not rock solid) it hurts the corporate music oligarchy.  So it hurts non-human entities which create nothing but take all the wealth by dominating and controlling the market-excuse me if I’m not crying.  When the lawyers mention that Napster intends to make CD stores and the RIAA obsolete, it becomes pretty clear-since when has it been illegal to make an outdated system obsolete through technological innovation?

If the court is really interested in serving the public interest, it would pursue antitrust action against the RIAA and rewrite the copyright laws.  It is becoming harder and harder for a person who actually creates something, whether it’s an album, photograph, novel or article, to retain ownership to it.  Corporations, via concentration of ownership and agreements, are now demanding perpetual copyright ownership even from freelance workers who are traditionally protected.  Copyright law was intended to encourage creative and inventive people by giving them ownership of their work, but that rarely happens anymore.