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Online Media and Democracy?

The next speaker at ECREA 2010 is Natalie Fenton, who highlights four key themes in research on media and democracy during the online age. There is a need for deeper contextualisation of the available research, she sees, which will also help realise the full potential of what is happening here.

The first dimension is the idea that social media are communication-led rather than information-driven. Social media are used for a variety of reasons, with the sense of being connected, being part of a community, as a key driver. What’s missing from a lot of that is that some basic questions aren’t yet asked – especially, who is communicating what to whom. There often remains an elite which is guiding and even dominating the discussion – and of course the majority of users are using the Net for non-political uses.

This communicative nirvana is a means of self-expression organised around class affiliations and categories of taste, and therefore also reinforces pre-existing hierarchies. Our activities here leave footprints which are captured and analysed by various corporations; the participative turn does not necessarily entail a democratisation of activity.

The second dimension is that there is an expansion of autonomous spaces which we can identify; a greater variety of views can be expressed. This may be liberating, but also creates new problems in identifying what are the true facts underlying any debate. Dissent, too, has been further marginalised even though the media space itself has expanded; the communicative exchanges taking place here don’t amount to much.

Third, these spaces allow a greater autonomy of the self; a greater expression of identity, which has been imbued with greater emancipatory possibilities. But not everybody has the capacities to engage in this, and social media can’t escape the stratified online eyeball economy. Political participation is construed via the individual, but this misses an enormous and important part of what it means to deliver more democracy.

The individual needs to develop new technologies of the self, but this needs to take place in coordination with others, beyond mere networking, and the collective dimension of political participation must not be negated. The underlying question is who is telling what to whom.

The Net as a technology does not transcend the social structures of which it is a part. Networks aren’t inherently liberatory, and the practices of new media may be liberating for the user, but not necessarily democratising for society.