New Media 4: Implications – digital pessimism

An alternative interpretation – digital pessimism – argues the globalising processes on which new media depends are neither wholly beneficial nor unambiguous; while globalisation involves decentralising processes, for example, it also produces greater centralisation across economic, political and cultural behaviours.

In economic terms “free” business models are only free in the sense they have costs hidden from the consumer. These include:

  • exploiting free labour: The news and opinion site The Huffington Post, for example, was built around the free labour provided by its blogging contributors; the site was, however, sold by its owners for $300m in 2011.
  • driving out quality: companies that can’t rely on cheap or free labour must either cut their costs, thereby potentially undermining quality, or go out of business.
  • privacy: new media that are dependent on free labour, such as social networking sites where consumers create content, make money by selling user data to advertisers.
  • copyright: Some corporate social media sites lay claim to the copyright of user-generated content, such as photographs and videos, that can then be sold to advertisers.
  • Conglomeration is a related process that mirrors the behaviour of old media corporations. The highly-concentrated ownership of new media allows global corporations to buy-up competitors or emerging technologies. This leads, for Schecter (2000), to a decrease in digital diversity in areas such as news production. As he argues “The Internet, is not very diverse, even though it appears to be. The concentration in ownership that is restructuring old media has led to conglomeration in news transmission and a narrowing of sourcing in new media. It is cheaper for Web sites to buy someone else’s news than generate their own”. In a related issue, it is also “cheaper” for global corporations to simply take and republish content generated by individual users with little or no prospect of recompense.

    Politically, mass communication tools can be used by repressive regimes to restrict individual freedoms and enhance various forms of State surveillance. Mobile technologies can, for example, be used to track both the online and offline behaviour of users through things like GPS technology. The “wisdom of crowds” equation has a darker side in terms of the development of a “hive mind”, where individual dissent is not tolerated. In addition the “stupidity of crowds” is emphasised in terms of their being more-prone to moral panics (see below) based on “mob rule”.

    Culturally, this position argues that rather than diversity new media encourages the homogenisation of both thoughts and behaviours. Personalisation processes create a fragmented individualism that has the appearance of community but which actually leads to fear, closed-mindedness and exploitation by large media corporations. Anonymity, rather than simply encouraging openness and freedom of speech also encourages abuse and a lack of accountability.

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