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Social Media and Public Service Media

The final keynote at ASMC14 is by the fabulous Hallvard Moe, whose focus is on the intersections between social media and public service broadcasting. How can media researchers contribute to rethinking public service broadcasting? Defining PSB is difficult, but there is often a belief that policy makers know it when they see it; PSB is an inherently contested concept, coined a very long time ago in a very different context – even in Europe alone, how PSBs are positioned and organised is very different across different countries.

What such institutions have in common, though, is the general aim that PSBs should provide vital information and contribute to the public good; they are a policy tool to provide journalism and bring citizens together as a public. PSB institutions around the world do not necessarily always achieve such an ideal – they now exist in almost constant turmoil, due to a range of contextual factors. They can only survive by externalising their internal challenges; these challenges are always present, and in recent years especially associated with the rise of digital media and the media practices such media enable and promote.

This has meant a shift in focus for discussions about PSBs: in addition to discussing the interior worlds of PSBs, their operational contexts in the wider media ecology have also bee increasingly thematised. Who uses, who engages with PSB content is now a constant question: it has become harder to bring together citizens in a unified public as audiences have fragmented and may actively avoid conventional news and journalism.

How can PSBs exploit social media, for example, to become or remain general interest intermediaries? But this is not the most common question currently debated in Europe: instead there are technical, regulatory, and legal discussions (especially around so-called "public value tests" which seek to assess whether proposed new PSB services interfere with commercial players in the open market – this tends to stifle innovation and undermines the ability of PSBs to deliver their services); and there are debates around specific, more or less isolated cases which highlight usually controversial instances of PSB activities (especially on social media, centring on the intersections between public service broadcasting and commercial, usually US-based Internet corporations – placing PSB content inside corporate walled gardens).

Such debates are generally misdirected, centring on the wrong questions, and, Hallvard says, are ultimately boring; they focus on trade policies, existing institutions, and specific services, and conceptualise social media as a problem for PSBs rather than as an opportunity. This is not surprising: these debates are necessary to some extent, but fail to answer how social media contribute to the transformation of public space as constituted by PSBs. Instead, then, we need to consider cultural policy, new institutions, general phenomena, and the transformational and innovative potential of social media.

Hallvard offers a number of suggestions for what alternative approaches may be possible instead. For example, the Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK broadcast 132-hour live coverage of the famous Hurtigruten cruise ship route; this was the world's longest television documentary and earnt NRK a 35% market share towards the end of the broadcast. The broadcast also had a significant online component, adding maps, radar graphs, and various other additional materials; the NRK Facebook page and Twitter accounts were also active and invited user contributions.

Finally, download videos, DVDs, coffee table books, and other materials were also made available, and NRK ran a mash-up competition for users of such content. This was an unusual and highly innovative – as well as successful, importantly – broadcast initiative, then, and NRK has experimented with other 'slow TV' events. In other words, it is possible to do more than just add a hashtag to television programming and call it 'social TV' – and such initiatives need to be studied in much more detail.

But this is just one approach. We may also need to consider the extension of the PSB ethos through other means, for example in the creation of a digital commons – to consider a broader range of cultural institutions which have a public service brief. Considering PSB alongside other public cultural institutions should be obvious, but such connections are made only infrequently.

Thirdly, we might consider sites like Buzzfeed: a site which makes its business by creating viral stories that are widely shared across the social Web – it creates sharebait, not just clickbait. The site is relevant here because it has increasingly focussed on extensive news reporting, with such content sitting alongside its usual fare of cute animal pictures. News is amongst the most shared content in social media, alongside funny material – and Buzzfeed caters to both, with the virality of one bringing eyeballs to the other.

Buzzfeed's advertising model is also innovative; it mixes genuine articles with promoted content and seeks to help advertising brands to tell compelling stories. It is both news publisher and advertising agency, and agnostic about the content it spreads. This is far removed from PSB and journalistic ideals, of course – but it reaches audiences which such older models have failed to reach.

What does this mean for the discussion of PSBs and public space? We should expect existing PSBs to be generous with their content and to offer more opportunities for audience engagement and collaboration, but we should also expect new actors to start filling this space, and should not shy away from examining how these work and what contribution they might make to public debate – whatever these actors may look like, and wherever they might come form. It may not be as easy to know public service broadcasters when we see them, and we should be asking the questions "which public?" and "whose service?"