Saturday, November 14, 2009

Free Lunch Problem

I have more than a passing interest in critical media theory. Of course, I take the geographic perspective and think mostly about the boundaries of community. So, this map of contemporary public spheres stood out in the historical review of media technologies:

Click on the image for a larger version.

The lecture makes an important point. There is no easy answer to the current woes. I don't intend my critique (forthcoming) to be a "silver bullet". We're in the midst of a major technological transition and the future couldn't be more opaque. I respect the analysis. I don't know which business model might work.

That said, more geographers should join the conversation. The nested scales (local, national, global, etc ...) misrepresents the publics in play. In other words, the map is inaccurate.

The issued-based public might capture the diaspora communities I study. It doesn't address how the boundaries of local, national and even global are changing. The location variable is a given. Static. Frozen in time. Thus, the suggestion to "get your local community to fund local reporting" is troublesome.

How we consume local, national or global media is more akin to an issue-based public than it is defined by some contiguous territory. The political geographic legacy is still important (e.g. local spins on globalization) but there is little recognition of emerging geographies.

I'm sensitive to the displacement going on given the object of my blogging affection: Pittsburgh. I wasn't born there and I currently live in Colorado. How many Rust Belt bloggers don't live in the Rust Belt? There are communities slipping in between the media cracks. Our sense of geography hasn't caught up with our media technologies.

The building of a national community took many innovations that would allow a people to imagine themselves as sharing the same fate as a bunch of other people living far away, folks they would never meet. In a sense, this explains the troubles in Detroit. The geography of Greater Detroit doesn't exist. Yet local newspapers pretend that it does. More apropos is a world city understanding. One central business district looks like all the others. There are wealthy, cosmopolitan neighborhoods; and poor, isolated ones. We haven't even begun to think about how we might weave these disconnected places together.

Instead, we suggest the local is trending towards the hyperlocal or that the middle (national) scale between local and global is disappearing. Whatever your poison, most media innovation involves greater ties between information and place. The premium is on knowledge and utility.

I like to think of knowledge as information plus social capital (trust). It's the difference between a jobs listing aggregator and how to get the job posted that you want. The network has value, but the information is free. However, people won't value networks they don't trust.

Using today's social media for yesterday's geography is a blind alley. What new geographies are possible thanks to these innovations? The current line of inquiry seems to me to be way off the mark.


Mark Arsenal said...

A couple related anecdotes: a buddy of mine DJs and when he started a new club night a few months back he made a Facebook page for it.

Within hours of creating the page, several hundred people had become 'fans'. A couple weeks later, on the first night of the show, the turnout was about 25.

Network trust is perhaps secondary to actually inducing physical action in the age of "click to be involved'. The ease of networking seems to create a self-gratification cycle that actually reduces the chances of involvement. When people click on 'add to my causes' they get a sense of having contributed even though they haven't yet, and that probably reduces the impulse to show up. "I clicked. I did my share."

The question is how 'virtual community' can actually make people better networkers for realsies. Increasing the network market by widening the geographic reach doesn't exactly help when you're trying to get stuff done (as opposed to merely promoted). There has to be a slightly bigger focus on the physical aspect of community - soup kitchens can't be staffed from a dark home-office at 2am from 1000 miles away, no matter how many people click "interested".

Jim Russell said...

The question is how 'virtual community' can actually make people better networkers for realsies.

That's precisely my point. These weak social media ties rarely result in meaningful action. Reminds me of blogging or Farm Aid.

Social innovation lags behind the technological innovation. We haven't figured out how to leverage these virtual network opportunities. But that doesn't mean we should give up and resign ourselves to face-to-face communication. We already have communities of trust (e.g. nations) in which proximity doesn't matter.