When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

The teacher at the front of the classroom lays down a simple plan and all you have to do is follow it. I have a tee-shirt that demonstrates it nicely, with the following pic on the front:

Sometimes, the plans don’t work out how the elders expect they might. At a barbecue recently, I was asked what I plan to do now that I have graduated from uni. The questioner was an older, respectable gentleman and he asked with genuine interest. Nonetheless, my answer – continue studying in digital communications – was subsequently met with an almost startled response: “Whatever that is.”

This person, though an innovator in his time and a very hard worker, does not have any interest or knowledge of net or other digital culture. His incredulity was not surprising. But justification was needed.

I study and am interested in communication, and digital communication in particular, because virtually everything humans do is influenced by our ability to communicate. We categorise, define, share, collude, influence, create, and act on our ability to receive information from other human sources and process it. Digital communications – web 2.0 – is the newest expression of that process, which itself is thousands of years old. But the net – the crazy, collaborative produserly net – is something altogether different from previous human experience. Since the industrial revolution, we have been captive to media companies that controlled the production and flow of information. They decided what we were allowed to see. Clay Shirky described it wonderfully in his recent anti-SOPA video:

The twentieth century was a great time to be a media company because the one thing you really had on your side was scarcity. If you were making a TV show, it didn’t have to be better than all other TV shows ever made. It only had to be better than the two other shows that were on at the same time.

Now, everyone can control that information. For me, studying digital communities, networks and communication is akin to studying human society itself. I describe it most succinctly as digital anthropology, though of course I don’t presume to have all the skills on an anthropologist.