Participation requires a bit of give and take

Originally published by The Press Gazette, 2 Jun 06

The Internet is cool again. After the long hangover following the dotcom crash, the world wide web is once more abuzz: start-ups are starting up, venture capitalists are dipping into their pockets, and millions of people are rushing to launch blogs and podcasts. People are spending more and more time online, playing World of Warcraft, watching videos on YouTube and editing wikis.

In the ’90s, the traditional media saw the web as one vast publishing platform, a new place for them to sell advertising; and that was all they wanted it to be. But while the web evolves into web 2.0, they are struggling: newspaper circulation is declining and broadcasters are losing viewers.

The world isn’t what it was five years ago and the traditional media, having woken up a little late, are desperately trying to get a piece of the action, trying to buy a clue.

But buying a clue and having a clue are entirely different things. Big media are repeating many of the same mistakes that they made in the mid and late 1990s. In trying to understand the internet through the filter of what they already know, they miss an opportunity to learn what makes the Net — and the people on it — tick.

Take blogs, for example. For a long time, the traditional media dismissed blogs because they didn’t seem to be successful. During the 1990s, businesses learnt a whole new language, that of page impressions, hits and unique users. The data provided by web servers allowed publishers and advertisers to analyse who they thought was visiting their site and clicking on their ads. It was a numbers game — the more impressions and the more users, the better. Of the millions of blogs that had been started, however, only a tiny minority drew serious traffic, so blogs were dismissed as insignificant.

After a while, the media realised something important: blogs don’t exist in isolation but as a part of a community, and bloggers are more influential than the media could have imagined. This point was rammed home by the loss of high-profile journalists’ jobs such as Dan Rather and CNN’s Eason Jordan in the US. Suddenly, they wanted to blog, to regain their status as influencers and, more importantly, to regain control.

“Blogs. Snarky opinion, right?” said the editors and execs. “We’ve got plenty of opinionated columnists. Give ’em a blog.”

But the media were creating blogs in their own image, and in doing so the majority got it wrong.

They took content they had already produced, chopped it up into bite-sized pieces and published it in reverse chronological order, as if trying to create news sushi out of fish and chips. They decided comments weren’t cool, and their blogs felt like a bad date with a narcissist who only ever talked about themselves.

In getting it wrong, they were met with confusion from their audience and disapproval from bloggers.

Had they engaged with bloggers beforehand, had they attempted to understand blogging culture instead of just wading in with their own pre- and misconceptions, perhaps they wouldn’t now be feeling so out on a limb.

It seems that there is a chasm that the media needs to cross to ‘get’ what’s going on online at the moment, but it’s not the one they think it is. They are thinking primarily in terms of journalist versus blogger, but they fail to see that blogging is simply one aspect of the live organic web ecosystem in which the ‘people formerly called the audience’ participate. The chasm is not between blogger and journalist, but between the giver and the taker.

Participation is not defined by simply leaving a comment on a blog, sending in a photograph or phoning in to a radio show. They are all steps along the road, but the movement is all one way: the public give the media their material, which just gets repackaged and shoved back out at them. But if audiences come to believe that they are being taken advantage of, at the very least they will stop sharing their pictures and stories, and at worst they may resent the companies they once trusted.

Real participation is a two-way conversation. And the media has an intrinsic problem with conversations because, historically, the television and the printing press have not answered back. Viewers have been treated as passive consumers, but you can’t have a conversation if you don’t engage with your audience, and if you don’t respect your audience, engagement is impossible.

The media need to open their eyes and start looking at what is in front of them, uncoloured by their own assumptions and biases.

When the media see sites such as Wikipedia, they immediately see a flawed and unreliable news source; what they fail to see is a thriving group of people enthusiastically adding information to a community venture for the benefit of strangers. When the media look at Flickr, they ask questions about provenance; they fail to see the millions of people sharing millions of photographs and creating communities based on imagery. They look at classified advertising sites such as Craigslist, and just like music sharing, they think people use it because it’s free; they fail to see that people flock to Craigslist because of a sense of trust that develops within a community. When they look at podcasting, they see time-shifted radio; they fail to see the time-shifted conversations.

Why is this? It’s because they believe that all media must be mass-media, and they are stuck in the one-to-many broadcast model. They are so obsessed with producing content for a passive audience to consume that they don’t notice the fact that not only do the audience produce their own content, but also that they expect to.

So what does the media need to do? Ideally, go back to the beginning, to fundamentals. The media need to re-evaluate their relationship with their audience. They also need to listen, to their audience, to the experts, and to those isolated voices within the industry who understand the internet.

But most importantly, the media must learn to respect their audience and to reciprocate. When someone takes part in a media project, what are they getting for their time and effort? Without reciprocation, without respect, no participatory media project has a future.

Is it hard? No. Some media organisations are already doing it. Some people within the media already know what is going on, and what comes next. And if they can do it, so can everyone else.