No ABC in 1st 2011 Canadian Election Debates
No Australian Broadband for Canada, or much to do with the Internet, media, telecoms and copyright issues at all in tonight’s federal election debate.
Before I go any further, though, let me confess that I did not watch all of the federal election debate tonight. I’m sorry, I had other things to do. But I did catch about a half-hour of the debates on tv, another 10 minutes on radio while in the car, and another 15 minutes of video with no sound while at the gym. I may have missed something. Zygmunt Bauman calls it the ‘liquid life’ — that is, cobbling things together to make up your life on the fly.
But, I think I caught the gist of things and that is that none of the leaders really had much to say on media and Internet issues. Nothing about copyright or the uproar over Usage-Based Billing. In other words, none of the ABCs of ‘digital media policy’ merited much attention.
To be sure, I didn’t expect broadband Internet, media, copyright and UBB to be at the top of the agenda in tonight’s federal election debates. In fact, such issues probably should not be at the top of the agenda and generally I agree that funding pensions, healthcare, the general state of the economy, widening economic inequality, and the moral integrity of the Government-of-the-day are probably more important. Still, though, I didn’t expect digital media and Internet issues to be left out altogether, either.
There are a great many who wield fancy labels like the digital media economy, creative industries and the lot to give such issues a lustre and limelight they may not deserve. Big economic numbers for the media, telecom and Internet industries, and their contributions to the economy, culture and society, are often wielded about to underscore the impressiveness of these things. There is, truth be told, a great deal of puffery involved when it comes to talking about these things.
All of which is to say, that while I agree that digital media and Internet issues probably should not be artificially hyped, they should not be peripheral too the election, or just a blip that gets twittered about opportunistically amongst the twitterati. Why should we care if these issues are not at the centre of televised electoral debates?
First, because as a study by Canadian Media Research Consortium just released underscores, television is still people’s preferred medium for information and news. Television still plays an extraordinary powerful role in bringing things to people’s attention. This not just true for old people or couch dwellers, either. The fact of the matter is that those who spend the most time online are also the heaviest traditional media users, too.
Second, most of the primary news sources behind online news sites are creatures of the dominant traditonal news providers: CTV, Global, CBC-Radio-Canada, Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Le Presse, Quebecor Media Inc. These entities largely, although not exclusively, play a big role in setting the news agenda for the country’s media as a whole, including the ‘news aggregators’ and blogosphere that thrive off of their efforts.
Of course, we can gain access to the New York Times, Le Monde and the Guardian or the Huffington Post, but they aren’t going to be much help on matters specifically Canadian in focus. Elections are one just such crucial matter.
For issues to be taken as a going concern in a democracy, they must be on the media screen, and in today’s world that means being on at least three different screens: the ‘big screen’ of tv, the glowing screen of the computer, and the wee screen of portable ‘devices’.
Third, media and Internet issues have been central themes in other national elections and politics. Network neutrality and broadband development were cornerstones of the Obama campaign in 2008, for instance; his administration has also paid considerable attention to issues surrounding the so-called ‘crisis of journalism’ and media concentration since then.
In Australia, the Government’s creation of a National Broadband Network to do an end-run around a recalcitrant incumbent — Telstra — in order to bring about a ultra high speed, broadband Internet service to ninety-plus percent of all Australians was extremely prominent and divisive in the 2010 federal elections. The Labour Government now in power supported the initiative, as did the Greens, a few independents, Microsoft and Google.
In Canada, the Usage Based Billing issue has received pretty good coverage in general, but broader media and Internet-related issues and, specifically, their place within the context of the elections, have not fared so well. The link between the media and Internet, on the one side, and electoral politics, on the other, has mostly been made on the Internet and Twitter.
This is important because, as the Canadian Media Research Consortium study pointed to above states, if stranded on a desert island, the internet is the least likely of all media to be let go by people. The importance of the internet in general is reflected in the uses of Facebook and Twitter in particular.
Facebook has been central to the efforts of the advocacy group OpenMedia.ca to make these issues an important part of the election campaign and all the political parties have responded rather eagerly, even if sometimes opportunistically, to ‘trending Twitter topics’ and Facebook-based campaigns.
At the end of 2010,Twitter had an impressive average number of monthly users in Canada of around 3.5 million, according to Comscore (p. 19). That’s a lot. Many fear Twitter-induced attention deficits and depraved forms of journalism will be the natural upshot of Twitter’s 140 character per tweet format, but Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian in the UK, offers a rousing defense of its contributions to journalism and to public discourse.
However, we also must remember to keep things in perspective. The number of people who use Twitter — roughly 3.5 million a month — is less than the number of people who watched the debates last night or that buy a newspaper every day. In terms of credibility and trust, the press blows away online sources, and television still fares somewhat better as well — although not much (see p. 14 of the Canadian Media Research Consortium study).
The Twitterverse is also a lot smaller than Facebook. With 22 million unique users a month, Facebook has nearly 7 times the number of unique monthly viewers in Canada (22 million) than Twitter has.
Interestingly, the Broadcast Consortium overseeing the organization of the federal election debates had the foresight to add a Facebook page to the mix of how political debate is circulated in the emergent network media ecology. The development suggests an interesting attempt to meet people where they are.
Facebook also raises anew questions about the relationship between popular culture, the media and politics. Its increasing pivotal role has drawn it closer to traditional conceptions of news and politics. Its inclusion as a formal part of the ‘operational machinery’ of the first televised English-language debates are one indicator of that. Recent overtures by Facebook to news executives is another.
Indeed, as a story on the Globe and Mail’s technology website the other day relayed, Facebook “is looking to strengthen its relationship with the news media and has already helped boost traffic to news websites” (see here). It also created a special Facebook page just for journalists who want to integrate social media into the journalism process.
The New Yorker drew the connection a step further this month by requiring online readers of the magazine to use Facebook’s “Like” icon to gain access to one of its articles. The experiment essentially sets up the “Like” button as a kind of “paywall”, but one that tries to translate the ‘social capital’ of Facebook users into a real pot of gold that many commercial media providers hope exists at the end of the digital rainbow.
All of this, of course, adds yet another wrinkle in the ‘evolution of the news’, to put it somewhat grandiosely. To date, the debate has been much about the impact of ‘content aggregators’ like Google and Yahoo on the news industry, and wails from many stalwarts in the latter that the blogosphere lives parasitically off the hard labour of real news organizations and journalists. Enter Facebook stage left.
There is something in all this related to the ‘functional convergence’ between ‘search’ and ‘social’ that I spoke about last week in relation to what I called the Google Switch — i.e. Google’s response to increasing competition from Facebook by increasingly adding ‘social capabilities’ such as ‘+1’ to its ballooning suite of functions such as Orkut, YouTube, Blogger. However, in the circumstances just outlined, the drift is not from search to social, but rather the other way around. If such a ‘functional convergence’ is in fact taking place, then perhaps it is not just Google, but Facebook and other social networking sites, that will emerge as pivotal to the ‘future of the news’.
Communication researchers have always understood how media and information flows are nestled within existing networks of personal relationships. Now the process is being digitized, fully commercialized, and rendered visible. Through all of this, will Google and Facebook be good for the News, good for democracy? Hmm, now there’s a question ripe for pondering in the context of the 2011 election.