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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

beyond silence « Previous | |Next »
September 20, 2003

This article (link courtesy of Jean over at Creativity Machine) is interesting for its account of the difference between the old world of the mass media and the new world of the Internet.

Clay Shirky says that in relation to the mass media of the 20th century the:

"....historic role of the consumer has been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of the mass media's long conveyer belt, the all-absorbing Yin to mass media's all-producing Yang. Mass media's role has been to package consumers and sell their attention to the advertisers, in bulk. The consumers' appointed role in this system gives them and no way to communicate anything about themselves except their preference between Coke and Pepsi, Bounty and Brawny, Trix and Chex. They have no way to respond to the things they see on television or hear on the radio, and they have no access to any media on their own -- media is something that is done to them, and consuming is how they register their response."

This mass media made us consumers silent. But silence did not mean that the media's message passed unchallenged by us viewers. We did teach ourselves to read the product dished up to us critically. In doing so we became critics of the media. We challenged the media's claim their supply of information the population would enhance its critical consciousness and become a critical public opinin. We became aware that the technological news industry shapes our attention in a special direction and ‘mobilizes’ public opinion in favour of different polices.

What grew out of this was the search for void spaces, holes in the media systems, that would allow alternative story telling to emerge. But we the public as citizens did not become producers of culture because we did not have the media to enable us to do so. Hence there was little by way of public journalism.

Clay Shirkey is pretty upbeat in terms of the new media for alternative narrative to those the technologized news industry. He says that:

"In retrospect, mass media's position in the 20th century was an anomoly and not an inevitability. There have always been both one-way
and two-way media -- pamphlets vs. letters, stock tickers vs. telegraphs -- but in 20th century the TV so outstripped the town square that we came to assume that 'large audience' necessarily meant 'passive audience', even though size and passivity are unrelated."

Clay Shirky then contrasts this passivity of the consumer in a world of mass media with the possibilities opened by the Internet:

"With the Internet, we have the world's first large, active medium, but when it got here no one was ready for it, least of all the people who have learned to rely on the consumer's quiescent attention while the
Lucky Strike boxes tapdance across the screen.... In place of the giant maw are millions of mouths who can all talk back. There are no more consumers, because in a world where an email address constitutes a media channel, we are all producers now."

Clay hangs too much on the email as media. It is too romantic when this form of engaging in a conversation is being killed of by the spam mail that is now choking our email boxes.

Surely it is the weblog that makes the cultural difference as it is this media that enables us as amateurs to become producers of culture. Note that I say culture not news. Saying culture opens up a disturbing phenomenon in cyberspace: the systematic closing of the intellectual commons through the limited public access to online academic journals. The signs read Access Denied even at publicly-funded universities.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:06 PM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (2)

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference beyond silence:

» Power to the people from Evil pundit of doom!
Clay Shirky has some thoughts about the impact of the Internet on mass media and consumer culture. Mass media's role has been to package consumers and sell their atention to the advertisers, in bulk. The consumers' appointed role in this... [Read More]

» The Amateur in History from creativity/machine
Alex from Relevant History provides a nice counterweight to all the mass amateurisation hoopla, reminding us of what Wimbledon tennis commentators never forgot : The notion that being a 'professional' is a good thing, and that professionals know more t... [Read More]



I find the focus on _amateurs_ to be difficult. It creates a false dichotomy between amateurs and "professionals" in terms of the "creation" of culture. The better distinction is probably made between censored and uncensored or filtered and unfiltered. "Professionals" creating culture are people who have been networked into certain systems that have certain powers to produce certain types of media or ideas. Blogs end, as you say, our "silence" and also increase our personal power, wouldn't you agree? But we're never "unprofessional." In fact, I find the concept of professionalism overused and empty.

Academy Girl,
I'm inclined to agree with your comments.
No we bloggers are not unprofessional by any means.
What I had in mind in terms of amateur and professional distinciton was more along the lines of unpaid and paid.


As I said in my post, Shirky is a little too neat in comparing his "passive mass" before picture with his "empowered producers" after picture. He not only falls into the assumption that media audiences were "passive" (as you point out), he also forgot about zines, for example. Of course the web has made zines theoretically available to millions - but that doesn't mean they are more effective either - there is that paradox of plenty, whereby we don't lack choice, but meaningful, deep engagement - intensity I guess.


The prof/amateur divide is of course both an instutional effect and a discursive tactic -and one thing I am very optimistic about is the increasing silliness of even attempting to use it. And Gary, the paid/unpaid distinction is just right - provocatively neutral - and in fact it's the one I'm using in the PhD project I'm about to launch into. Sorry for raving.

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