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March 21, 2006

digital media: the audience problem

I'm writing a mini-proposal for a project on the digital media and civic engagement. I'm thinking of exploring the following problem.

A new generation is coming of age at a time when various electronic media are ominipresent, cheap, and sophisticated. Two contradictory aspects of the new media will influence civic development. On one hand, people around the world can, with increasing ease, get access to the same materials--whether music, video, or political speeches and statements. Some items become extraordinarily popular. They often feature talented celebrities who have the support of technical experts. Although some products backed by big corporations fail in the marketplace, corporate investment at least increases the odds of obtaining a large audience. There is also the network-concentration problem that I mentioned last Friday: a few websites draw an enormous amount of traffic, presumably because they are popular; therefore, people (including me) want to know what they're saying. What is popular tends to become more so.

The easy availability of celebrity culture reduces demand for ordinary people's creativity and makes the world more homogeneous, thus frustrating local communities (and even whole nations) that want to govern their own cultures. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value. This phenomenon is relevant to "civic engagement." We participate not only by influencing our governments, but also by helping to shape our cultures.

On the other hand, the same technology that gives billions of human beings instant access to the world's most popular culture also allows the same billions to produce and disseminate their own ideas, which can be diverse and relevant to their communities. Never has it been as cheap or quick to produce text, sound, or moving images. This opportunity for creativity has great civic potential; it could turn people from spectators and consumers into creators.

However, most young people do not have such extraordinary talent (or privileged positions in networks) that they can gain huge followings. If there are several million blogs, then the average blog will attract just a few visitors. The topics that young people know best are very local, and that means that not many other people have an interest in what they say. And even if you attend the same school as someone, you may not be interested in her views about local issues like school uniforms or cafeteria food--not when you can download a professional video for free.

An audience needn't be big, but it must be interested and responsive, or else creativity is discouraging. What can help an ordinary group of kids to build a responsive and interactive audience? Do some technical choices matter? For example, is podcasting promising? Or must we change the context in which youth spend their time? For example, it seems plausible that students who attend a small high school with a coherent academic theme will be more interested in one another's cultural products than students who attend a large "shopping mall" high school with lots of separate cliques. I would like to investigate these topics by looking for online youth products that do and do not have responsive audiences, and asking about the reasons for the differences.

Posted by peterlevine at March 21, 2006 12:01 AM


I would suggest to focus on relationships rather than technology. The relationship of authors to their audience constrains the message. Only after that is clear do media and technology become relevant.

One application: if the students have a group blog then each contributor can attract his or her friendship circle.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 21, 2006 07:38 PM

What can help an ordinary group of kids to build a responsive and interactive audience?

how about put them into connection with another ordinary group of kids looking to build responsive and interactive audiences? seems to me that there's a good chance that a group of students at one school have a ton in common with a group of students at another school: why not build cross-instutionial collaboration directly into the project?

Posted by: david silver [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 22, 2006 08:29 PM

From DK, via email:

I have a HUGE interest in youth media (consumption / creation of) as I'm currently researching writing a book on the issue.

The questions you ask are so relevant - interactivity and responsiveness is what the Net offers but there are other converging technologies such as podcasting and moblogging. I don't think there are hard and fast rules as yet - just enabling young people to understand the limits of the technology is the first step, then making sure they have that access is the second.

I'm also currently working on an online youth portal which does exactly this - enables young people to contribute creatively around themes and issues.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2006 08:32 PM

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