8 May 2008

In defense of Alternative Media

By Rodney Lim

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Although the Internet has been around for so many years now, it still has its critics and detractors in this country. Mention the word ‘Alternative Media’, and you might get a snickering remark like “You cannot believe everything on the Internet”, especially from some of the old guards.

The astounding outcome of the recent national elections, however, has raised some eyebrows over the power and influence of this communication phenomenon.

While the new media is no stranger among the e-generation, for many others, it is a paradigm-shifting force that they are just coming to grips with.

Technically, Alternative Media applies to media types outside the mainstream categories of broadcast, print, transit and outdoor which are typically controlled by governments and large businesses.

Although the term can encompass things like talk radio and the various commercial tools like multi-media kiosks and in-store video ads, in this country Alternative Media refers largely to blogs, online forums and other Internet-enabled communications in general.

Old media like newspapers and television are linear, passive and unidirectional forms of communications where messages are basically pushed to audiences. Although some forms of direct-response mechanisms can allow feedback, they are largely one-way-street monologues where the sender speaks and the audience leans back to listen.

Their value is measured in their ability to reach mass audiences with standard messages, rather than enabling individualized interactions.

The new media, on the other hand, is highly participative. Their content is, for the most part, user-generated and their existence user-sustained. Audiences are not mere receivers of messages but are lean-forward participants in a networked, 360-degree all-around communication environment.

Thus information is not centrally controlled and owned, but is created, shared and consumed by the members of the communication community.

Although this sort of ‘media democracy’ gives computer-mediated communications tremendous appeal (and potency), it is also the focal point of attacks by cynics. Since anyone can write a blog or post on an online forum, so the thinking goes, you will get all kinds of lies, rumours and half-truths

Surely, people who depend on the Internet for news and information are at risk of being misled and misinformed. The lack of regulations and journalistic standards, critics charge, jeopardizes information quality and calls into question the credibility of these Alternative Media.

Criticisms like these indicate a lack of understanding and appreciation of how the Alternative Media work. A closer look at the unique communication capabilities of Alternative Media forms like blogs and forums should dispel these myths.

In the new media, the reliability of information is essentially assured by interaction among the masses. These days, people do not just go online to read the news or get information. They also go online to report the news, post information and tell others what they think.

Whether it is a dramatic real-time video footage of tidal waves crashing into a Thai resort during the 2004 Tsunami or blog pictures of monks in Myanmar being beaten on the streets, the new media makes Net users into reporters who create and share news and stories from their unique ground-level perspectives.

Taken together, these citizen journalists often weave a richer and more complete picture than the traditional media.
The wild, wild Web is an open market for ideas to compete and gain acceptance. Truth is not dictated by a central authority with exclusive access to vital information, but it is the result of intensive discourse.

Collaboration among users provides the mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff. It facilitates a form of loose consensus decision-making where all sorts of news, events, stories and ideas can be offered for users to rigorously analyze, dissect, trash and refine to ascertain their merit. Whatever survives the scrutiny is worthy of consideration as truth.

The dynamics of online interactions are often something to behold. Take a debate on a hot topic for instance. On an asynchronous communication platform like a forum, participants can take their time to read arguments posted, think through and articulate their own ideas, gather supporting points from all corners of the Web, compose responses and be continuously engaged in the conversation.

The stupendous amount of information usually generated, the numerous participants that can be involved, and the kinds of insights unearthed in these exchanges are vastly superior to anything that the old media is capable of.
Alternative Media junkies are generally a smart lot, and are not easy to fool. They know their way around the knowledge-rich Web, and with Google as their best friend, information about virtually anything is constantly at their fingertips.

They usually come from diverse backgrounds, have varied expertise and interests, and are able to offer fascinating perspectives that enrich the online discourse. Their collaborative (and competitive) engagement with each other produces a collective intelligence – a cache of novel insights, knowledge and understanding – which individuals can draw from to make informed decisions.

Thus, while it is relatively easy to go online and declare that Company ABC is crap or that Political Party XYZ is corrupt, you had better be sure you have plenty of ammunition to back up what you say or you could be made to look very bad indeed.

Some people believe that a sense of anonymity online – whether real or perceived – is a license for anyone to say practically anything you want on the Internet, but the more seasoned blogger or forum poster will tell you that in the online world, your reputation is all you have, and you are judged on what you write. Write rubbish, and you will be taken out like yesterday’s garbage. Write lies, and you could end up like another road-kill on the information superhighway.

Alternative Media is here to stay. Even as blogs and other online channels continue to steamroll along, established media like newspapers have recorded declines in places like North America and Europe (Malaysian newspaper circulation actually grew about 12 percent over the past year or so), and are rushing online to remain relevant.

It is becoming clear that in time, what we now call Alternative Media will probably be just Media. There is no choice but to embrace it.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my.