Monday, March 20, 2006

Bring the Noise: Building Indy Media in an Age of Consolidation

What defines our media landscape? Consolidation of ownership and downward commercial pressure on journalists and other media workers; the deaths of old business models and the emergence of new ones; the growth of more personal and participatory formats like talk radio and blogging; the concomitant shift from news to entertainment and opinion; and the fragmentation of media consumer markets. For those of us who are working for a more just and democratic society, these trends offer both threats and opportunities.

I routinely encounter people, many of them liberals and progressives, who openly scorn the proliferation of blogs, Xeroxed zines, and other kinds of grassroots independent media; even professionally run indy outlets with circulations in the quarter-million range like Mother Jones are derided as marginal: "in a cut-throat field with little to protect itself but its good intentions." Last week I heard one person dismiss grassroots media as "mere noise." If you're not making a big impact, she said, you're wasting time. Conservative polemicists like Andrew Keen, meanwhile, attack the participatory technologies that fall under the umbrella term "Web 2.0":

The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts. Its empowering promises play upon that legacy of the '60s--the creeping narcissism that Christopher Lasch described so presciently, with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.

Another word for narcissism is "personalization." Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves...

In the Web 2.0 world... the nightmare is not the scarcity, but the over-abundance of authors. Since everyone will use digital media to express themselves, the only decisive act will be to not mark the paper. Not writing as rebellion sounds bizarre--like a piece of fiction authored by Franz Kafka. But one of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience.


Doubtless Keen - who is a blogger and podcaster - counts himself as one of the Mozarts of his field, denied his rightful audience by an "over-abundance of authors." It's death by a thousand cuts! Or, in this case, hits. Maybe Keen should take his own advice and stop writing? No, I think he should stick with it. He really shows some promise. Of course I agree with Keen's criticisms of Silicon Valley utopianism; I also strongly agree that personalized electronic media can encourage narcissism. But even as grassroots citizen media proliferate, mass media are consolidating. Many Americans of many political and cultural persuasions have stopped trusting and believing in media which is more and more about the bottom line.

And so what do you do, and where do you go, when you don't see anything in the media that resembles your life and values? You make your own media, for a start; that helps you to find other people who are facing the same struggles. You link together; you help each other; you share ideas and sharpen your critique. You get active in your community. Maybe you write books. Maybe what you write is mere noise, but at least it's your noise. Our noise. Separately, we're just telling our stories. Together we are making a big impact.

On Saturday I took my infant son Liko to the Anarchist Book Fair - not a place where you'll find the likes of Andrew Keen. There I met Rahula Janowski (whom I've been seeing out of the corner of my eye with her daughter Natasha for years around the Mission) and bought her parenting zine Joybringer; I also met Tom Moniz and bought his zine Rad Dad. After we got home and I put Liko down for his nap, I read both Joybringer and Rad Dad cover to cover. Neither of them is particularly beautiful or skillfully put together; Joybringer and Rad Dad are produced by people who are doing other things in their lives, raising children, teaching, organizing. Yet I found them both heartening, gateways to a wider community of parents who are trying to raise kids in radical ways.

Rad Dad is full of noise about trying to be a radical dad, raw, honest moments that you're not going find anywhere else:

There is a silence among men about fathering. I experienced this as I've talked with men about it; they are excited and yet scared, nervous about making mistakes, most are dying to parent in ways that many of us weren't fathered. But there are very few role models...


In the second issue, Tom writes that Rad Dad:

Has been a failure...Ultimately I feel I've failed to live up to the potential. Failed the timelines, failed to promote it well enough, failed to make the effort to distribute it in ways that it should be, failed to work hard enough to get people to send in more stuff, to be a part of it more.


Tom is harsh with himself, but as a father I learned a lot from Rad Dad. It helped me feel better about trying to be the dad I want to be, and not the one I'm supposed to be according to the mainstream media. This isn't narcissism; it's a culture: the sum total, says my Webster's, of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to the next. Elites are losing control of the means of cultural transmission - a centrury-old process - and that makes elitist ideologues like Keen uncomfortable.

Salon.com's Scott Rosenberg critiqued a recent panel, chaired by Keen, on elitism and blogging:

"What is the value in sharing experiences?" Keen asked at one point, with a touch of disdain in his voice - as if he wanted to say to the entire universe of millions of bloggers, "I grow weary of your scribblings." My jaw dropped. Isn't "sharing experiences" the root of literature, the heart of conversation, a primal impulse of our humanity? Who would sneer at it?

At the heart of Keen's complaint and others like it is an outmoded habit of thought: an assumption that every blogger seeks and might be owed the same mass-scale readership that old-fashioned media have always commanded. But it just doesn't work that way. Publishing is no longer a scarce resource (as Tim Bishop well put it). The blogger who is telling the story of her final exam or his fraying marriage or her trouble with her two-year old? None of them cares whether Keen reads them, and they certainly don't expect him to. Their "shared experiences" don't diminish the opportunities for the kind of "expert journalism" that Keen values...

A year-and-a-half ago I led a discussion at BloggerCon III about blogging and journalism. I started with the assumption that the "War between Bloggers and Journalists" was over; we were are all - however different our delivery mechanisms and business models - in the same boat, searching for information and voices we can trust, trying to inform and entertain and move the people who read our work, whether it is on paper or screen, whether we're paid or not, whether we're read by ten or ten million.


Exactly. I have nothing else to add. I make my living as a consultant, or as some would have it, a mercenary who flits from project to project. But all the work I do is driven by a single mission: to amplify dissident and disenfranchised voices, and help independent media projects build the business models that can support their diverse editorial missions. In this blog, I plan to share the lessons I learn and models I find, while promoting media reform and media justice efforts like Free Press, Reclaim the Media, and Media Alliance. Welcome; I invite your comments. Let's make noise.

(Both Joybringer and Rad Dad are old school hobby zines; you won't find them online. But you get back issues of Rad Dad by writing to Tom at tom_moniz@riseup.net or 1636 Fairview St., Berkeley, CA 94703. You can get copies of Joybringer at 4104 24th St., PMB #669, San Francisco, CA 94114. Send money: two bucks per copy plus postage should do it.)

4 Comments:

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Nicely put, Jeremy &:^)

~Jessica C.

 
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