crushed by our choices?

Our group project (which ended up being about "re-imagining the imagined community" was originally going to be about the nichification of media and how it divides society. Even though we had to change gears, I really liked some of the discussions my group and I had about the idea that as the choices grow, people tend to retreat into comfort zones- and a great example of this would be news media. 

We tend to assume that having more choices is preferable to fewer choices, especially here in America. You need look no further than your local Walmart to see that there are about 2453 different kinds of cereal. All in one aisle. The students I used to work with in Ohio used to be so overwhelmed at their first trip to an American store that they often just stood around and stared until I would force them to start consulting their lists. The important thing is, that we as consumers tend to buy the same things every week. Even though there are a ton of different kinds of cereal, I only eat honey nut cheerios. Its not that I don't like frosted flakes, or cocoa puffs. It just never occurs to me to buy them, even though I walk past them to get to the cheerios. I feel that it is the same thing with news media. Satellite tv, cable tv, you name it, they come equipped with enough channels to make your head spin. Most people, however, spend their time on a select few channels. People find the one they like, with the reporter or anchor or journalist that they like and trust, and they stay. They hear their people (who become opinion leaders) criticize someone, and they believe it. They hear that something or other is great, and again, they're all ears. Its comfortable. And who has the time to flip through all of those other bloody channels to find out if something better is on? 

The Powers and El-Naway piece entitled, "Al-Jazeera English and global news networks: clash of civilizations or cross-cultural dialogue?" really reminded me of some of the arguments we as a group had put forth about the nichification, or balkanization of audiences while we were discussing our group project. Even though we were speaking about the American public as a general rule, I don't see why it couldn't be expanded to reflect the international platform. While I wasn't necessarily surprised to read that people tend to become more dependent on their news media platform (think of the cheerios!), I was intrigued but the statement that viewers of Al-Jazeera English were "less dogmatic" over time. I would just have liked to have had that statement expanded on a little more- I know they went over it a bit but I would like to know what implications they feel this might have for the future- and also how might CNNi or BBC World go about emulating this success? I felt as though the article was a little one sided and slanted favoring Al-Jazeera without going into much detail about how CNNi and BBC could improve or where specifically they might make changes. Is it even possible? And if not, then what is the point? So what? Viewers of Al-Jazeera might be less dogmatic but does that mean that they are going to change anything? And if not, then what can be done? I think I need to start you tubing this network to see for myself.

Rethinking the Role of the international student

This week one of the groups gave a presentation about public diplomacy. I really enjoyed the presentation because they actually got me thinking about my role as an international student from Nigeria. I still remember when I came to the US as a freshman in college. I was excited for the opportunity to learn in an healthy stable environment with access to so many resources. Leaving Nigeria, I knew I wouldn't have to deal with strikes, religious riots etc. For me, the purpose was to get as much as I could from this new educational experience.

But little did I know that to my classmates, faculty and staff, I was more than a international student who was looking forward to a great educational experience. To them, I was a student from 'Nigeria' with a lot to contribute. As I learned about life in the US from my American friends, they also learned about life in Nigeria.

As I reflect on the exchanges I still have till date with some of my colleagues, I realize that consciously and/or unconsciously I have been a tool for Nigeria's public diplomacy. I have been the face of Nigeria for some of the people that I have met who might never be able to make it to Nigeria. It is really important for international students to understand that they play a role in their country's public diplomacy. I had never thought about it that way. I not only representing me but my nation as well. Of course, I represent my country whenever I can, but it is more than that.

Public Diplomacy 3.0?

While I don't want to jump the gun on the public diplomacy lecture in a couple weeks, I thought this week's group presentation on PD took an interesting tack: that we are all, in a sense, engaging in it. In his speech to the New America Foundation in December 2008, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman discusses the so-called Public Diplomacy 2.0 recognition that, in the Internet age, messengers can no longer exert complete control over the message. Social media gives voice to many, and Glassman argues that the open competition of ideas that springs from this inclusiveness will give the United States an advantage over oppressive regimes whose message requires tight control and insulation from criticism.

So, the conclusions of this week's presenters seem to be the logical extension of the State Department's embrace of Public Diplomacy 2.0—you could even call it "3.0." Yet, while it's important to recognize that any American who travels abroad takes on the unofficial role of representative for his or her country, I worry that in elevating everyone to "diplomat" status, we risk ceding too much control over the message to "unofficial diplomats" (hat tip to Joanne Huskey for the phrase). This sort of cession by default risks devaluing public diplomacy in the public mind, and in turn puts already at-risk PD funding in further danger. It remains essential for official representatives of the United States to maintain the primary leadership role when it comes to message-shaping and dissemination. It's true that PD is happening these days in government agencies (like the Department of Defense) in which it traditionally had no place; however, rather than over-extend the concept, we ought to carefully rethink the structure of our PD operations government-wide.

Media and Humanitarian Aid

I think that Robinson discusses an interesting topic in his article about the role of the media in determining policy initiatives, he writes about some policies being seen as "undoable" while others are "media friendly" preferred polices. My job working in a Public Affairs Bureau puts me front in center of understanding how the CNN effect occurs in terms of the policy responses to domestic issues, such as the recent protests against Transcanada Keystone XL Pipeline. Foreign policy issues, however, where Americans plead for the U.S. to intervene to humanitarian crises vary in severity and cause, from the November 2, 2011 Freedom Flotilla 2 Stay Human, to the last summer's cruel drought bringing famine to the Horn of Africa. Between the role of technologies and quick access to information, we are the media contributors that are changing the dynamic of global governance. Or do we just think that we are? Are the actions that we strike up in protest that gain media attention really taken into account in Congress? First of all it all has to do with the numbers, the more we contribute the more we will be heard. In that sense, I like to believe that garnering enough attention can help humanitarian efforts make policies seem “doable” and bring enough support to where it is really needed. This happened with the famine in the Horn of Africa and hopefully will continue where humans basic human rights are infringed, we’re America after all, so its our job, right?

Liked and retweeted to ineffectiveness

Robinson discusses an interesting possible outcome of “the new media environment” in his article, “The CNN effect reconsidered.”  One is the possible fragmentation and reduction of “the potential power of media to influence both policy makers and publics.”  Robinson suggests that more research be done in this area.   In general, the discourse about the new media, including the internet, satellite TV and hand-held communication devices seems to be that it will bring more power to more people and allow the opinions and interests of the non-elite to be heard and acted on.  
Robinson’s suggestion that the new media environment will disempower media instead of empower is very interesting to consider.  The ease of using media to show solidarity and share your opinion may actually lower the effectiveness of certain campaigns.  For example, when a person ‘likes’ a page on Facebook about a certain political movement they may feel empowered in their ability to engage in a political ‘act.’  But, are these ‘acts’ really as effective as traditional protests or calls to action, such as a march, a sit in or writing a letter to your representative?  You could say they are the new “writing a letter to your representative”  And it is true that politicians are paying great attention to the opinions and thoughts found on Facebook and Tweeter and spend a great amount of energy controlling and adhering to the information found in these new social media sources.
However, I personally feel a great disconnect between ‘liking’ a Facebook page or ‘retweeting’ a tweet and the actual changing of a policy or law.  While people may feel engaged, the actual personal sacrifice and effort put in to these actions do not pack the same punch as physically standing up to march for something you believe in or taking the time to discuss a complicated policy with a neighbor. 

Irrational Politics

In the article, “From Steamed Bun to Gras Mud Horse” Bingchun Meng states that when seeking to locate political discourse, “we need to go beyond the rational, information content directly linked to policy deliberation or political mobilization in a conventional sense.”  Increasingly, the political opinions of Chinese citizens are formed beyond the traditional sources of information.  To understand the mind-set and political arena of China, scholars must enter into the world of parody, sarcasm, irony and entertainment.
 This reminds me very much of what is happening in the political discourse of the US.  I have increasingly felt that the political opinions formed and information obtained by my generation of Americans is increasingly received through sources of strong parody, irony and otherwise sources meant mainly for entertainment. 
Entertainment news such as the newspaper and internet site The Onion and television program, The Daily Show are often meant as critical social commentaries in the form of parody, irony and entertainment.  Indeed, one of the strongest powers these programs have is their unwillingness to drop the farce and confess that the information (presumably presented solely as entertainment) does have strong and real world effects on the political opinions and most importantly actions of a large population of American citizens.  Many American citizens consider these as real news sources, or in daily practice end up being one of the main ways Americans learn about current events of the US and world. 
One of the largest rallies seen on the National Mall in Washington, DC in recent years was supported, promoted and encouraged by John Stewart of the Daily Show and even then, he refused to admit that it was nothing more than entertainment, though at the same time being wholly serious and passionate about the opinions his show promotes. 
It is a strange and odd world of politics.  Current policy makers and representatives must take into consideration the strong effect these ‘sources’ of news and political news have and their constituents and not be afraid to enter into the world of irrationality and entertainment themselves.

The Distributor vs The Creator

This past week, the readings in class made me rethink the role of the media as both a distributor and a creator of the news. The media's role as a distributor is quite obvious. For many years news stations, magazines, and even most recently blogs have distributed news and information to many homes and various individuals.

When I served as an intern at WOOD TV8 in Grand Rapids (an NBC affiliate), one of the roles I played during my internship was to monitor the competition. I observed and took notes on what the other news stations in the area were distributing to their viewers. Sometimes if our competition carried a news story or if we got a tip that our competition was headed to a certain area to cover a story, our crew immediately headed out to that same location. So sometimes even before the news was distributed to the viewers, these news stories were distributed between news carriers.

But I find the role of the media as a 'creator' very interesting. When I first got interested in media and journalism, I was excited about how I would be a part of distributing stories that had not been heard before. But journalism is really changing today especially with the rise of bloggers who draw from other news sources to create their own news. These bloggers are now playing two roles- distributors and creators. I guess journalism keeps taking different twists and turns as the years go by. Will journalism end up being driven by the creators or the distributors?

To tweet or not to it even a question?

The reading that struck me the most this week was the Castells reading on Mobile Civil Society. The topic of the paper is one that is extremely relevant to those of us in IC, not just for the sake of looking at how mobile phones affects communication and society, but also in how the conversation about new media and technology is played out. I think it is so important to recognize that yes, these outstanding incidents of civil coherence and mobility did take place- in some cases almost overnight. The people of the Philippines stood together in their pajamas to voice their complaints, and the South Koreans who were tired of someone they viewed as moral and courageous banded together to ensure enough votes would be cast in their favor. That being said, however, does that necessarily mean that Estrada was the monster he was ported to be? And what about the poor people who didn't have cell phones? As Castells rightly points out, their voice was never a part of the equation, and English media discredited them from the beginning when they stood behind their leader. In South Korea, its great that so many decided to vote, but was it because they really felt conviction in the righteousness of Roh or was it because they wanted to jump on a bandwagon with their peer group?

I may be cynical but I feel it is so important to discuss what is really happening on all levels with these incidents because I don't like the idea that all of a sudden mobile technology = freedom of expression for all and the ability to mobilize for revolution. The fact is, when I think of "flash mobs" I think of those weird cell phone commercials where people get together in Grand Central Station and do dances all at the same time and freak out all of the other passengers. Or, worse, I think about the groups of young people in Philadelphia and other US cities who would gather quickly in one spot and jump innocent bystanders, injuring many people and prompting a curfew in many cities, including Cleveland. The idea was the same... a short, snappy message including a location sent out to members of the individuals phone books. The end result? Violence, terror and chaos. The cell phones were not to blame, they were merely instruments. And I don't know about other people's parents, but my parent's are not tech savvy. They do know how to read text messages, however, but are extremely wary of anything that seems "mass produced". My father actually gets angry when people he doesn't already have in his phonebook text him; "big brother" and whatnot.

The point I guess I'm trying to make here is that cell phones in the hands of "the people" does not necessarily equal independent, moral justice for all. It is a tool that has become so common place in our lives that we use it to play games, call our mothers, and yes, text. It is great that in some instances, such as in the Arab Spring, that mobile technology helped the masses generate an outcome that they found favorable to the former government... but now what? Is it possible to replicate such success? And what about, as Castells mentions, governments like US and China who have anticipated these sorts of forms of communication and have already found ways to use it to their own advantage?

I think that communications scholars need to keep these thoughts in mind as they go forth touting the cell phone (which has been around for quite some time now people) as the new cure-all for oppressed peoples everywhere. I find myself tossing the cliché, "this too shall pass" around in my head. In this case, I think it's appropriate.

Languages of the "Twitterverse"

The concept of collective meaning-making that we discussed in relation to Bingchun Meng's article, "From Steamed Bun to Grass Mud Horse: E Gao as Alternative Political Discourse on the Chinese Internet," holds that communication on the Internet is a tool with which we endeavor to construct ourselves. The lexicon of "E Gao" was created deliberately, in order to subvert existing Chinese cultural norms and to construct a collective identity in opposition to those norms.

Yet could this sort of subversion be happening involuntarily, every day, throughout the world? This map suggests it just might. Created by Eric Fischer, the map visualizes the languages of the "twitterverse;" that is, those languages most frequently used on the microblogging site Twitter. Lit up like one of those composite satellite images of the world at night, this map reveals the density and location of tweets appearing on the site, color-coded by language. In many ways, the frontiers among languages mirror the borders of nation-states.

However, things get interesting when the borders don't match up. As we can see in the close-up above, some national borders seem to disappear entirely—Belgians, for example, speak French in the south and Dutch in the north. The Swiss, likewise, appear to tweet mostly in German, despite their four official languages. Notable outcroppings of Italian appear in southern and central France, and Catalonian pride is apparent in Spain's far northeast.

What do these linguistic communities on Twitter mean for the real world? If, as Meng's article suggests, communication on the Internet is about collective meaning-making, then there are collective identities arising virtually that don't necessarily jive with geographically delineated borders. This can have real-world consequences—political, economic and social. Belgium, for instance, has struggled to form a government for months. Expect more on this idea in our group presentation next Tuesday!

Source: Strange Maps

I never liked geometry.

The last two weeks in class were devoted to the idea of networks, and the network society. I confess that it is still a bit strange for to think of the governments and non governmental institutions of the world as being members of networks. Part of this is that we are not taught about the world in this way. We learn about nations as individual entities- sometimes these entities come together in groups, (like NATO) and some times they don't. I always thought of it as belonging to a club. The other part of it is that I have a really hard time imagining things in three dimensions and last weeks discussion of networks reminded me of atom structures, and that whole thing just freaked me out. I have to confess that I only passed 10th grade geometry because the teacher let us use our notes and "partner up" on the exams. In other words, if I can't visualize it, how can I understand it??

I prefer to think of the network as relationships. For example, in class this week, we talked about how non-state actors are part of the network society- and in particular, Google Earth. It really is interesting to see how countries, which I grew up believing to be the end all be all can really be threatened by a "mere company" through its use of technology and massive audience.We had a discussion in class about the amount of power a company like Google might actually posses, and it was interesting to hear people in the class say that they didn't think it did, relative to a country. I would strongly disagree. First of all, just because a company has "power" doesn't mean it is going to take over the world, or create diabolical robots, or invade Tahiti. It is important though, to remember that though Google doesn't have an army, it does have millions and millions of people using it every day across the globe. Google controls the information that is pulled up when you search something, they store our emails and they have billions of dollars to mess around with. Moreover, when they do enter into a dispute with a country, for example like India, the government finds themselves in an awkward situation.I believe Google submitted to their requests, as they did in the case in Latin America, because popular opinion backed those decisions. If they hadn't, could India have forced them to change it? I honestly don't know, but it is interesting to ponder.
I think it is important to stress the idea of  the worlds power being tied up in networks rather than in individual nation states. There is no reason that this idea couldn't be taught in high school, or even middle school. It might help alleviate some of the overly rampant American nationalism that is so common- precisely because we are not taught that the countries of the world can not stand alone. I think it would really have a positive affect, not just on politics, but in general international relations if the American public understood the way in which countries (and NGOs and corporations) interact to make the world go 'round. Just a thought.

Is there a leader out there??? Call 1-800-OWS

Some of the discussions we had in class this week really brought back vivid memories of my first march and protest. Even though I haven't been a part of the OWS movement, I was on TV early at some point in my life carrying posters protesting against an act of racism that took place at my undergraduate institution. I won't go into the details of what happened, because they are not really good memories, but as we discussed in class this week about how effective the network of the OWS movement has been as regards meeting its goals, I reminisced about the dynamics surrounding the protests at my undergraduate institution.

After the racist event took place, some organizations immediately gathered together. We had to come up with a list of things that we felt we needed to see change. It wasn't the first time that something of this nature was happening, but I think this was the last straw. We wanted to get the attention of the administration. Hence we decided to march! It was freezing cold and snowing. I thought my fingers were going to fall off. But we made it! We marched to the faculty meeting- almost 200 students. But beyond getting the attention we wanted certain things to change. But we needed some leaders to help us organize this call to action.

The OWS movement has definitely gotten the attention of the present administration. It has even gotten global attention. The next step is however to state what they want to see changed. Most people are not happy with economic inequality. Well the 1% could care less... but at least 99% are not happy with it. How a story is told can call for action as we discussed in class this past week. Right now there are so many stories surrounding the OWS movement. Clearly a network has been established surrounding this movement and from my experience during my undergrad, having a strong network surrounding a movement is a powerful tool. We had the community involved, it was great. But we needed a leader or some leaders who would keep carrying the message along. Look at back at every successful movement, a leader was needed to champion the cause.

It's beginning to get really cold out there, I don't know how many people would keep marching and protesting. I think a leader is needed. I believe this would give validation to the movement and the actors that can get involved in it.

The EU and Network Power

The notions of power explored in Sangeet Kumar's article, "Google Earth and the Nation-State: Sovereignty in the Age of New Media,"are not only instructive for study of the power of new media institutions and non-state actors, but also of institutions of supranational governance. Kumar argues that non-state actors such as Google gain a diffuse form of power in the act of claiming to "speak" for the interests of everyone. It's remarkably reminiscent of the power wielded by certain technocratic transnational institutions; namely, the European Union. The technocrats at the core of the EU have done a remarkable job since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 of fabricating a "European" identity, whole cloth, simply by claiming to act in the interest of all member-states. Member states have, in turn, consented to a gradual but steady loss of sovereignty—subjecting themselves to, as David Grewal called them, "choice-eliminating structures."

In fact, the EU is a perfect example of the exercise of network power as we've discussed over the last few weeks. While it has no collective defense force and thus no military might ("hard" power), the EU wields significant "soft" power. Using the lure of membership—demonstrating Castells' notion of inclusion vs. exclusion—it has pushed states to "harmonize" standards and practices, from railroad track gauges to annual deficits. It then wields additional power in programming the goals, standards and practices of the Union. European states seem to find the benefits of membership (including free movement of labor, capital and services across European borders) worth the corresponding loss of sovereignty—the Union has expanded from 12 member-states after the "founding" Maastricht Treaty in 1992 to 27 today, with plenty more waiting in the wings.

Network Society & the "Other"

I think the power of the networked society intersecting with Google Earth and nation states shows, again, the potential of bottom-up, horizontal organization amongst citizens. Yet, it is also a good illustration of the important role that boundaries that are not only physical, but are those that are socially created, play within society.

India’s perceivably correct boundaries of where Kashmir was located and those boundaries created on Google Earth were widely different; and the story of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute where Google was, “accused of bias” in setting the boundaries of their territory, were both instances of the Google Earth and nation state dispute mentioned in the article. Obviously there are historical bases for nations to “mark territory” and establish boundaries, but what are the sociocultural reasons as well? Adams (2009) argues that boundaries do not merely exist as physical barriers but also exemplify the idea of creating the “other” through constructing particular social categories within a nation state.

Authoritarian governments have recognized the power of the network society in circumventing their socially constructed boundaries, and these networks have made the other accessible. Based on Habermas, Ideal Speech Situation, any person is permitted to discuss, and should not be excluded from, the topic related to truth and justice, and the public sphere is essential for civil society to thrive. I think that governments who block certain parts of websites or Internet gateways, such as China’s Great Firewall, are learning the power of how the network society can work around their loopholes. Despite all of their attempts to keep boundaries intact, the more we connect with the “other” the more we realize how much we are alike. We must also recognize the power of the network and the non state actors (i.e. powerful organizations) that stand behind them.