As On Line Opinion reaches its fifth birthday, it seems an appropriate time to ask “when will alternative media come of age in Australia?” The question is not simply one of introspection, but is deeply political too. Media, in a mass society, forms the basis of the social and political nervous system. If it’s too primitive we flop around like social molluscs. Too specialised, and we're easy prey to simple viruses and rapacious memes of pure ideology.
The explosive growth of the Internet, driven by its unique combination of simple interface, thanks Tim Berners-Lee, and robust interoperability, thanks Bob Kahn and Vinton Cerf, continues to yield new applications for communication and participation. It was not long after the coining of the short lived slogan “information superhighway” that the democratising power of an uncensored, uninterrupted, global communications technology caught the imagination of new social democrats and fringe media proponents to spawn a range of new and alternative media channels across the globe.
The growth of these services reflects our experience in other forms of online commerce. We find an eclectic mix of clicks and mortar. There are pre-existing operators such as Green Left Weekly and Choice Magazine that have successfully leveraged their existing channels into the new environment and wholly new startups like Crikey! and On Line Opinion.
Following the anarchist maxim, the destructive urge is the creative urge, the tendency for the various clicks and bricks and their vernal dot.coms to succeed has not been clearly predictable. What has been predictable is that the media landscape has been changing dramatically, and in any highly dynamic environment entrenched players were never going to remain passive for long. They change, either for reasons of caution, or because they too see something special about going online.
But it is time to question whether the growth of alternative media in Australia has lived up to its proponents' expectations and make some assessment of the potential for these forms of communications vehicles in the future. This is because, at one level, alternative media's role in our society has never been more critical, but at another it's never been more marginal. For all our hopes of an information revolution, an opening of knowledge and shared understanding, the bombs still rained down on Iraq for what we know was at worst an outright lie, and at best the thinnest of pretexts to wage an unholy war. The optimism expressed during the 1990s for a new media dawn driven by the Internet now appears naive and idealistic, foolish even.
We might pose two questions here. First, why does Australia's alternative media landscape remain relatively sparse, with few interesting, dynamic alternative news and current affairs journals and channels online? Second, at the global level, has the rise of an alternative media realised much of its democratising promise?
In Australia we can look to a number of key publications such as On Line Opinion or The Drawing Board, that have expanded the reach of commentators, practitioners, and academics to a far wider audience than ever before. The number of academics who have come down from their ivory towers to write 1,500 words for On Line Opinion show that there's both a demand for expert opinion, and a willingness of experts to place their work before a wider audience. The new popularity of blogging shows the next phase of this cultural shift and RSS syndication promises to open the way for greater control of media content at the desktop level. Take that, you media moguls.
Argumentum a contra we can see this as exception rather than rule. Numbers of new media vehicles remain small and the nature of their coverage erratic. Aspects of popular public policy, information technology and postmodern analysis are well catered for online, but Australia certainly hasn't seen the growth of creative applications for democratic media that have arisen internationally. None of the mainstream media channels online are more than advertising blanks for their offline offerings, and few innovations, such as Margo Kingston's webcast show, have been initiated or lasted long.
Economics, as always, is the reason - or maybe consumer demand. Research conducted by the Australian National University during the last federal election reveals that the major media channels for the political news of the nation are the same as they were before the Internet appeared. There are radio, television and newspapers. What percentage of Victorians in their survey read a blog? Zero. Round that up from the raw figures? Still zero.
But the unrealised potential remains. It is true that the University of Wollongong's Brian Martin noted in his 1998 book Information Liberation that “The futility of seeking media democracy becomes even more apparent when the scale is increased to audiences of hundreds of thousands or millions”, but this is a misconception that the power of the Internet has put down for good.
Systems like Kuro5hin.org's voting system or e-the-people.com's page ranking algorithm have introduced new, democratic publishing systems that have reconfigured the notion of editorial oversight. But we haven't seen these introduced in the Australian environment and Australians interested in these forms of collaborative publishing tend to go to these, largely US, services, a tendency that drains these authors away from Australia into environments that often lack much Australian content. It turns out you don't need to flee to a HECS haven to contribute to the brain drain.
Similarly, informed participants in online publications are limited. Many academics remain loath to move outside of the peer reviewed publication system: a system rich in academic credibility, but poor in the number of readers. The University of California's Bruce Bimber recently chided social scientists at the ANU on this front, arguing that discipline is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. This is not because it is necessarily poorly regarded, but because it doesn't believe that its work is important enough to publish and publish in a timely manner. Vehicles like On Line Opinion and its brethren put this claim to the lie, but we need to question on what basis those of the tenured intelligentsia who fail to publish in these pages believe they offer public value.