(Transcript below if you can’t follow my polemical prose; and sorry but the synchronisation in this clip has a mind of its own).
I attended the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009 on Friday (18 September) at the Said Business School. The theme of the Convention was ‘assessing the evolution, impact and potential of social media’; a fairly monumental tasks for a one day convention with speakers from both sides of the Atlantic and from the Academy, business, media, and politics. The Convention was ordered around panel discussion with a lot of participation from the audience. At times subversive and always humorous ‘tweets’ from the audience were also projected on the wall behind the speakers (we voted to do this earlier in the day).
Rather than divide my time between all the speakers, I will concentrate on two of the most distinctive speakers that hopefully convey the timbre of the conference. The first speaker is Mathew Hindman, an academic at the University of Phoenix and author of the recently published ‘The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton University Press; 2009). The other speaker I will discuss is Kara Swisher, the Technology Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
Hindman was on the panel titled ‘Social Media so what? Assessing the impact of blogs and social media?’ The main thrust of his argument was that the Internet isn’t inherently democratic and that it is not so much about the medium, but how the medium is institutionalised that makes it democratic. He discussed democracy in the broader sense and asserted that there are a lot of democratic values and they aren’t all about the web. Publishing is an important part of political expression, but as the barriers to publication are so low on the web, anyone can publish creating a cacophony of noise. In other words, a lot of people are publishing but who is listening? Hindman claimed that the very volume of data on line necessitates the need to filter and this may create a new set of ‘gate keepers’ rather than usurp the older gate keeping mechanisms of industrial media. He also discussed (as he does in his book) that the Internet hasn’t partially empowered a new political class and that unequal political expression and organisation remains. The most important lesson from Hindman is that technology is not good nor bad nor is it neutral and that all technological advance isn’t towards the removal of privilege. All technological advances create winners and losers and the increased use of social software isn’t necessarily good for democracy; we must make it good for democracy.
Kara Swisher, on the other hand was a technological determinist. She was on the panel ‘Blogging at 20? The future and potential of social media’. It may have been that it was the end of the day and people were grappling to find anything more to say about blogs (I have been blogging for 10 btw), but the discussion descended into the usual gee-wizz, determinist clap-trap. Swisher embraced the technological determinists’ narrative in a vigorous gravitas that I haven’t heard since the superstitious days of the late 20th Century. She performed brilliantly claiming that politicians and the rest of us don’t use social software such as Facebook then they will become redundant (not sure what ‘redundant’ means here). She made an historical and metaphorical leap that made me dizzy and claimed that as people learned to drive cars and left their ponies behind, democracy must do the same (no donkeys!). The usual catalogue of new gadgets was brought to the fore with the only argument it seems; that if we don’t embrace them then we are doomed!
I twitted a message that was projected on the wall behind her head ‘technological determinism bad; technology good!
In ending, the Convention shouldn’t have concentrated on Blogs so much; they are really not that interesting. Also I would have liked to see a speaker or two from China and other countries as the US and Britain were over-represented. Plus, I would have liked to see more evidence presented (as Bill Dutton; the Director of the Oxford Internet did), as Conventions such as this are in danger of being hijacked by trivia dressed up as revolution. As Dutton argued, the Internet reconfigures rather than changes, it has always been social and even wondered if it is possible to have an overview at all now.
But still, in the words of Bill Thompson, Technology critic, BBC News Online, people will do remarkable things if you remove the need for them to ask permission.