Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Power Of Open Participatory Media And Why Mass Media Must Be Abandoned

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To promote a more participatory society, it is important to promote participatory media and to challenge, replace and eventually abandon mass media.

Photo credit: Marilyn Barbone

In order to better understand the mass media's inherent lack of democracy, it is useful to imagine a communication system that allows and fosters participation by everyone.

David Andrews did this with his concept of "information routing groups" or IRGs. His discussion predated the vast expansion of computer networks and is worth outlining in its original form.

He imagined a computer network in which everyone is linked to several interest groups, with each group having anywhere from perhaps half a dozen up to several hundred people.

An interest group might deal with anything from growing apples to racism. Each time a person makes a contribution on a topic, whether a short comment, a picture or a substantial piece of writing, they send it to everyone in the group.

A person receiving a message could, if they wished, post it to other groups to which they belonged. Andrews called each of the groups an IRG (information routing group).

In a network of IRGs, everyone can be a writer and publisher at the same time. But there are no guaranteed mass audiences. If a contribution is really important or exciting to those who receive it, they are more likely to post it to other groups. In this way, a piece of writing could end up being read by thousands or even millions of people.

But note that this requires numerous individual decisions about circulating it to further groups. In the case of the mass media, a single editor can make the decision to run or stop an item. In the case of IRGs, lots of people are involved. By deciding whether or not to forward an item to another group, each person acts somewhat like an editor.

Photo credit: Billy W

A system of IRGs can be self-limiting.
If a group has too many active members, then each one might be bombarded with hundreds of messages every day. Some might opt out, as long as there was someone who would select pertinent messages for them. This person then acts as a type of editor. But note that this "editor" has little of the formal power of editors in the mass media.

In an IRG system, anyone can set themselves up as an editor of this sort. Members of this editor's IRG can easily look at the larger body of contributions, should they so wish. One of the main reasons why the IRG editor has relatively little formal power is that there is no substantial investment in terms of subscriptions, advertisers, printing equipment or salaries.

Participating in an IRG is something that can easily be done in a few hours per week. Investments are lower and positions are less entrenched. An IRG editor will maintain an audience only as long as the editing is perceived to be effective. Similarly, quitting is relatively painless.

To anyone familiar with computer networks, especially the Internet, it may seem that to talk about IRGs is simply an awkward way of describing what is actually taking place on existing networks. Indeed, Andrews' account of IRGs can be interpreted as a description of what later took place on the Internet.

While parts of the Internet operate like IRGs, it is unwise to assume that cyberspace is or will remain a model participatory medium. There are ongoing pressures, inequalities and struggles involving access, cost, commercial uses, censorship and surveillance.

IRGs do not have to be based on computers.
They can operate--though more slowly--using the postal system.

Again, this already happens with a number of discussions that operate by post, where each member adds a page or so of comment on the current topic and sends it to the group coordinator, who then makes copies of all contributions for all members. For those who have the technology and know how to use it, computer networks make this process far easier and faster.

Another medium that is inherently participatory is the telephone. Phones are very easy to use--only speaking, not writing, is required--and are widely available. Certainly it is possible for a person to dominate a telephone conversation, but only one person is at the other end of the line, or occasionally more in the case of a conference call. In the mass media, one person speaks and thousands or millions hear.

Ivan Illich proposed the concept of "convivial tools." This includes technologies that foster creative and autonomous interactions between people. Convivial technologies in the case of the media are the ones that foster participation. The postal system, the telephone system, computer networks and short-wave radio are examples of convivial media.

The implication of this analysis is straightforward. To promote a more participatory society, it is important to promote participatory media and to challenge, replace and eventually abandon mass media.

Jerry Mander, in his case against television, gave as one of his four main arguments corporate domination of television used to mould humans for a commercial environment. But all mass media involve centralised power. Mander's argument should be extended: all mass media should be abandoned.

Saying "mass media should be superseded" is easy.
Working out practical implications is the hard part. In my view, although a world without mass media may be a long-term goal, the mass media will be around for quite some time. Therefore, it is necessary to have a strategy to challenge them, from inside and outside, as well as to promote alternatives.

There are already plenty of challenges to the mass media, of course. But these challenges are not to the existence of the mass media, but only to the way they are run. In a way, media criticism is a form of
loyal opposition.

Wait--before looking at strategies, what if the mass media are being whittled away anyway?

Are cable television and the Internet making mass media obsolete by providing more communication channels and creating niche markets?

Will newspapers be replaced by net-based news services that can be individually tailored?

Is the mass audience a relic of the modernist age, while fragmentation of audiences and perspectives is characteristic of the new postmodern era?

It would be unwise to trust in "natural" processes to cause the demise of mass media. There is nothing automatic about technological and social change.

Powerful groups are doing everything they can to control markets and opinions in the changing information order. Another scenario is that mass media will continue to have a major influence and that governments and corporations will extend their influence into the more fragmented channels. After all, television, video cameras and cassettes did not lead to the collapse of Hollywood and large-scale movie-making.

If the mass media are ever replaced, it will be due to lots of people taking action to help it happen. Hence the need for strategies, both individual and collective.

Photo credit: Gaston Thauvin

Here I outline a number of possible strategies, focusing on what can be done by individuals and small groups to challenge mass media and replace them by participatory network media. It would be easy to make some sweeping recommendations about what should be done, especially by governments. But to be compatible with the goal of a participatory communication system, the methods should be participatory too.

The following ideas are meant to encourage discussion.

  1. Change one's own media consumption patterns
    Many people are such regular and insistent consumers of the mass media--television, radio and newspapers--that it's possible to speak of an addiction. This also includes many of those who are strongly critical of the mass media.

    Cutting down on consumption can be part of a process of imagining and fostering a participatory communications system.

    Some people may object to this recommendation. Surely, they will say, it's quite possible to be an avid mass media consumer--or to work for the media--while still maintaining a critical perspective and also using and promoting alternative media. True enough. Analogously, a factory worker can certainly remain critical of capitalism and promote alternatives.

    My view is not that cutting back mass media consumption is necessary, but that it can be a useful way to change people's consciousness.

    It is similar to animal liberationists reducing their consumption of animal products and environmentalists riding bicycles and composting their organic wastes. Such individual acts cannot by themselves transform the underlying structures of factory farming, industrial society or centralised media: collective action for structural change is needed.

    Nevertheless, changes in individual behaviour serve several important purposes:
    a) they change the perspectives of individuals,
    b) they reinforce concern about the issue and
    c) they provide an example (of consistency) for others.

    Changing media habits can be incredibly difficult.

    Watching the news on television is, for many people, a ritual. For others, reading the daily paper is an essential part of each day. Although Jerry Mander's book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television has become a classic in alternative circles, no social movement has developed to abolish TV. There are only some small groups, such as the Society for the Elimination of Television, producing a few newsletters.

    One reason may be that--according to one argument--watching television changes one's brain waves, reducing the number of fast waves characteristic of thinking and increasing the number of slow waves characteristic of relaxed states.

    This explains why watching television seems so relaxing: it allows the brain to switch off. It also explains why television is so effective at communicating commercial messages. Images go into the brain without processing; the images cannot be recalled, but they can be recognised, for example in a supermarket. (Source: Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery, A Choice of Futures: To Enlighten or Inform (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976).

    Another reason why switching off the television is so difficult is that it becomes part of the household. It seems voluntary, and it is to some extent.

    Action must begin at home.

    It is easier to oppose "alien" technologies such as nuclear power, which are not part of people's everyday lives. Challenging technologies that are personal possessions, used routinely--such as television and cars--is far more difficult.

    Except for some people who must monitor the media as part of their work, mass media consumption is, from a time management view, quite inefficient. Think back on all the television you watched during the past ten years. How much of it was genuinely necessary to be fully informed, or was even genuinely informative? A similar calculation can be made for reading newspapers.

    But what if the aim is not efficiency but simply enjoying life and occasionally learning something along the way? This brings the discussion back to lack of participation. Most people have been turned into passive consumers of the media. This will not change until some people take the initiative to break the pattern.

    Photo credit: Students of Media Studies 212 (Canadian Media Theorists) at Malaspina University-College

  2. Learn how the media construct reality
    If it is essential to consume products of the mass media, a useful antidote is to learn how these media products are created. It is illuminating to spend time with a television film crew or in a newspaper office. It quickly becomes apparent that of the many possible things that could be treated by the media, and of the many possible ways that this could be done, only certain ones actually are chosen.

    It is also useful to gain some experience on the receiving end of media construction of reality, by joining a rally or media conference and seeing how it is reported, or by being interviewed oneself.

    Another way to gain insight into media construction of reality is to undertake a detailed study of some topic, whether it is child rearing, banking, crime or East African politics. This could involve reading books and in-depth articles, investigating alternative viewpoints and consulting with experts and concerned groups. With a good grounding in a range of perspectives and an ability to think confidently about the topic, it is then possible to make an informed assessment of mass media treatments, including biases and omissions.

    It is important to be aware of how the media constructs reality, but that alone does not change the dynamics of the media. Therefore it is valuable to communicate what one learns about media constructions to others.

  3. Participate in a group to change media consumption patterns
    In a group of two or more people, it can be easier to make some of the individual changes. Individuals can be assigned the task of monitoring particular media and reporting on issues that are important to the group.

    Others can do the same with alternative media. In this way, individuals don't need to worry so much that they have missed some important item. More important, though, is the process of interaction in the group: discussing the issues.

    This is what is missing in the individual consumption of the mass media.

    Of course, quite a bit of discussion occurs already among friends and colleagues. By working in a more directed fashion in a group, a greater commitment to participation and participatory media can be fostered.

    Teachers can contribute to this process by giving guidance on how to analyse the mass media and how to use and develop alternatives.


  4. Use the mass media for one's own purposes

  5. This is the usual approach: writing letters to the editor, putting out press releases, being interviewed, inviting media to meetings, holding rallies to attract media coverage, etc. Numerous action groups, from feminists to farmers, promote their cause this way.

    Such efforts can shift the emphasis in media coverage, for example from coverage of politicians and business to some attention to social issues and movements.

    But this does little or nothing to challenge the fundamental lack of participation in the mass media.

    Furthermore, it can distort social movement agendas. Seeking media attention can be a way of building grassroots support but it can also take priority over building support. Some movement leaders are turned into stars by the media, causing internal stresses and resentments. All in all, this approach, as a means of promoting participatory media, has little to recommend it. Social movements need a strategy on communication, including how to deal with both establishment and alternative media.

    Of course, promoting participatory media is not the only goal of social movements. In a great number of cases, using the existing mass media is a sensible and quite justifiable approach. Furthermore, campaigns such as those by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting to challenge biases in the media are extremely important. But it is important to be aware of the limitations of such campaigns.

    Even "fair and accurate" mass media are far from participatory.

    Participating in the mass media is inevitably limited to only a few people or only to minor contributions. Only a few people have the skills or opportunity to write an article--that will be published--for a large newspaper, or to be interviewed for more than a few seconds on television. Even an occasional article or television appearance is trivial compared to the impact of those who host a television programme or write a regular column in a major paper.

    Furthermore, those who are successful in "breaking in" may actually legitimise the media in which they appear. This is analogous to the way that worker representatives on company boards can legitimise both the decisions made and the hierarchical structure of the company.

    Many progressives want to use the media, or go into it as journalists or producers, to help the causes in which they believe. The intention is good, and the work many of them do is superb. But it should be remembered that this approach perpetuates unequal participation. It needs to be asked whether the aim is mainly to promote a favoured viewpoint or to foster a discussion involving ever more people. These two aims are not always compatible.

  6. Participate in alternative media
    This is an obvious strategy. Possibilities include:
    • subscribing to alternative magazines and supporting small presses

    • writing material for newsletters and small magazines

    • publishing one's own newsletter, magazine or books

    • organising meetings of friends to discuss issues of significance

    • doing community organising with techniques such as public meetings and door-to-door canvassing

    • listening to and producing programmes for community radio and television

    • participating in computer discussion groups

    • producing, collecting and using micrographics (microfiche, microfilm), especially to distribute and save nonstandard works

    • using short-wave radio

    • running workshops on developing skills for network media

    • developing campaigns that help build skills in using alternative media and don't rely on mass media

    • participating in self-managing media enterprises

    These and other initiatives are going on all the time. They need more support and development. This strategy is fully compatible with the goal of participatory media, so there are fewer internal contradictions and traps.

  7. Use nonviolent action to challenge the mass media

  8. Activists have more often used than challenged the mass media. Yet there are numerous methods of nonviolent action that can be used to confront and change mass media, as well as to promote network media.

    For example, boycotts can be organised of particularly offensive publications or shows. Small shareholders can use direct action to present their concerns at shareholders' meetings. Activists can occupy media offices.

    However, it is usually extremely difficult for consumers of the media to organise challenges. The best prospects are for media workers. They can challenge and subvert management by publishing or showing items without permission, allowing humorous mistakes to slip through, resigning as a group, working in against orders, and even taking over media operations and running them participatively.

    Such initiatives can only succeed if there is considerable support from the users of the media. Hence, links between workers and users are essential, for example between journalists and public interest groups.

  9. Undermine institutional support for mass media
    This is a big one. It roughly translates into "undermine monopoly capitalism and the state." The mass media would not be able to maintain their dominant position without special protection.

    Television is the best example. In most countries, governments own and run all channels. In liberal democracies there are some commercial channels, but these must be licensed by the government. Without government regulation, anyone could set up a studio and broadcast at whatever frequency they wanted. For cable systems, government regulations control who gains access.

    The power of commercial television comes, of course, from corporate sponsorship, typically via advertisements. Without sponsorship from wealthy corporations, a few channels would be unlikely to be able to maintain their dominant positions. If a society of small enterprises is imagined--whether run by owners or worker collectives--there would be no basis or reason for large-scale sponsorship of mass media.

    Corporations and governments also are crucial in maintaining the position of large-circulation newspapers. In many countries the dominant newspapers are government owned and produced. In capitalist societies, advertisements are essential to keep the purchase price down.

    Without advertisements, the size of the papers would shrink and the price would jump, leading to a decline in circulation. This would make the newspapers more similar to current-day alternative newspapers and magazines, which typically require contributions above and beyond subscription fees in order to stay afloat.

    Governments also help maintain large-circulation commercial newspapers in various indirect ways, including high postal rates for alternative media, defamation law (which can bankrupt small publishers), and copyright (which enables monopoly profits).

    Governments and large corporations support the mass media, and vice versa. Of course, there are many conflicts between these powerful groups, such as when the media criticise particular government decisions or corporate actions, and when government or corporations try to muzzle or manipulate the media. But at a more fundamental level, these institutions reinforce each other.

    Without government and corporate support, the mass media would disintegrate.

    With participatory media instead of mass media, governments and corporations would be far less able to control information and maintain their legitimacy.

    In terms of strategy, the implication of this analysis is that challenges to the mass media, and the strengthening of network media, should be linked to challenges to monopoly capitalism and the state.

    To bring about true participatory media, it is also necessary to bring about participatory alternatives to present economic and political structures.

In order for any significant shift away from the mass media to occur, there must be a dramatic shift in attitudes and behaviours.

People who neither watch television nor read newspapers are now commonly seen as eccentrics.

A shift needs to occur so that they are supported, and it is the heavy consumers of the mass media who are given little reinforcement. Such shifts are possible. For example, anti-smoking activism has dramatically changed attitudes and policies in a few countries about smoking in public.

In order for withdrawal from using the mass media to become more popular, participatory media must become more attractive: cheaper, more accessible, more fun, more relevant. In such an atmosphere, nonviolent action campaigns against the mass media and in support of participatory media become more feasible. Such campaigns, especially if supported by social movements, in turn make changes in personal media habits more likely and acceptable. This, in outline, is one way that the mass media might be undermined.

But it will not be an easy or quick operation.

In so far as modern society is ever more based on information and knowledge, the mass media are increasingly central to the maintenance of unequal power and wealth. This is all the more reason to give special attention to the task of achieving a society without mass media.

End of Part II (of two)

Part I: Why Mass Media Are Bad: Weaknesses And Limitations Of Commercial Mainstream Media


Lichtenberg, Judith. 1987. "Foundations and limits of freedom of the press," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall.

Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (New York: Carol, 1990).

George Comstock, Television in America (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980)

John Keane, The Media and Democracy (London: Polity Press, 1991).

David Andrews, The IRG Solution: Hierarchical Incompetence and How to Overcome It (London: Souvenir Press, 1984).

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973).

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow, 1978).

Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery, A Choice of Futures: To Enlighten or Inform (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976).

Frances Moore Lappé and Family, What to Do After You Turn Off the TV: Fresh Ideas for Enjoying Family Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985);

Martin Large, Who's Bringing Them Up? Television and Child Development (Gloucester: Martin Large, 1980).

Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Marc Raboy, Movements and Messages: Media and Radical Politics in Quebec (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1984).

John Downing, Radical Media: The Political Experience of Alternative Communication (Boston: South End Press, 1984);

Edward Herman, "Democratic media," Z Papers, Vol. 1, No. 1, January-March 1992.

originally published as: "Beyond Mass Media, Chapter 2 of Information Liberation"
1998, Published by London: Freedom Press

Read Part I

About the author:
Dr Brian Martin is associate professor in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Wollongong. His formal training is in physics, with a BA from Rice University and a PhD from Sydney University. This was followed by ten years working at the Australian National University as an applied mathematician. Most of his scientific research was in stratospheric modelling, astrophysics, numerical methods, and wind power in electricity grids. During this time, he also studied the politics, sociology and other aspects of science. Dr. Martin also became involved in the radical science movement, the anti-uranium movement and the peace movement. All this provided stimulation to study and write on a range of issues, including the politics of science, education, environmental and peace issues. He has published numerous publications within these topics, including Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Information Liberation, and Suppression Stories. He joined Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong in 1986.

Brian Martin -
Reference: University of Wollongong [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2006-03-21 15:51:18


The perfect place to start participating in alternative media is Linkadelic Magazine

It is totally democratic. The content is submitted entirely by volunteer readers and the layout is decided by reader's votes.

Link: Linkadelic Magazine

posted by Robin Good on Monday, March 20 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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