I've long blogged about the so-called "digital media revolution." Yet, deploying digital media to praise digital media has always struck me as a bit self-congratulatory. Socrates, in the Gorgias dialogues, accuses orators of flattering their audiences in order to persuade them. This may be the effect, even if it's not the intention, of blogging enthusiastically about blogging.
To be sure, a meaningful and consequential revolution of our media universe is underway. This revolution's technological front has been well chronicled and analyzed (and is represented) by this blog and others like it. The revolution's economic front -- specifically, the global transformation of media systems from statist to capitalist models -- has, I think, been critically under-appreciated.
What Sprung the Arab Spring?
How attributable is the Arab Spring to Twitter and Facebook, really? After a wave of news commentary and academic research that have back-patted Western social media companies, some observers now question how much credit digital media truly deserve for engendering social movements. It's undeniable that the Internet does, in fact, provide a relatively autonomous space for interaction and mobilization, and that revolutionary ideas have a new vehicle for diffusing throughout a population. But the salience of these revolutionary ideas may have its origin in other media that are more prevalent in the daily life of ordinary Arab citizens.
With limited Internet access but high satellite TV penetration throughout much of the Arab world, the proliferation of privately owned television networks may, in fact, have been more responsible for creating the kind of cosmopolitan attitudes and democratic mindset that were foundational for popular uprisings in that region.
Authoritarian regimes are sensitive to this phenomenon and, as my colleague Philip Seib points out, Hosni Mubarak responded to protests early on in the Egyptian revolution by pulling the plug on private broadcasters like ON-TV and Dream-TV, preventing them from airing their regular broadcasts. Of the more than 500 satellite TV channels in the region (more than two-thirds of which are now privately owned!), Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are two news networks that have redefined Middle Eastern journalism and enjoy broad, pan-Arab influence.
The Internet, which represents technological progress and individual interaction, may have emerged as a powerful symbol of democratic protests in the Arab world even while "old media," with their new (relative) independence from government coercion may be more responsible for planting the seeds of those protests.
America Online? Cultural Exchange On and Off the Web
Is YouTube really exporting American culture abroad? The prevailing wisdom, fueled by a mix of empirical research and a culture of enthusiasm for digital media, is that the global nature of the Web has opened up creative content for sharing with new international audiences. Yet, in light of restrictive censorship laws and media consumers' homophilic tendencies, we may be overstating the broad multicultural exchange that has resulted.
What has signficantly increased the influence of American cultural products, however, is the liberalization of entertainment markets internationally. As international trade barriers loosen, Hollywood films are pouring into foreign countries. Just last year, China relaxed its restrictions on imported films, now allowing 20 imported films per year (most of which come from the United States). This freer trade model, combined with the dramatic expansion of the movie theater market in China (American film studios can expect to generate $20 to $40 million per film these days, as opposed to $1 million per film 10 years ago) is a boon for America's cross-cultural influence in China.
It's true that rampant piracy, enabled by digital technologies, further increases the reach and influence of American movies and music. To the extent that the demand for pirated cultural products may be driven by the promotional activity of film studios or record labels, this practice may be seen more as an (illegal) extension of new international trade activity than as a natural extension of any multicultural exchange occurring online.
The cultural influence of trade doesn't just move in one direction though. As Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, insisted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, economic globalization is as much responsible for bringing other cultures to Hollywood as it is for bringing Hollywood to other cultures.
Put otherwise, media systems are both the cause and the effect of culture.
The Cycle of Cultural Production and Consumption
To use a concept from sociology, media are performative. They enable new social solidarities, create new constituencies and, in some cases, even redefine political participation. Nothing sows the idea of political dissent like the spectacle of an opposition leader publicly criticizing the a country's leader on an independent television channel. And, on some level, nothing creates a sense of individual economic agency like widespread television advertisements for Adidas and Nike sneakers, competing for the viewer's preference.
Sociologists also discuss the "embeddedness" of markets within social and political contexts. From this angle, the proliferation of commercial broadcasters and media liberalization are enabled by the kind of social and political progress that they, in turn, spur.
Despite the above examples of how the media universe's new economic models are transforming public opinion and cultural identity, we remain transfixed on the new technological models, the digital media revolution. It's perhaps understandable that reports of deregulation and trade agreements often take a backseat to the more trendy tales of the Internet's global impact. The Internet is, after all, a uniform and universal medium and the causes and consequences of its introduction to different parts of the world are easily imagined.
In contrast, the increased privatization of media, while a global phenomenon, is constituted differently in different national contexts. The private ownership of newspapers in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe looks different than the multinational conglomerates that own television channels in Latin America. Like globalization itself, this global phenomenon is being expressed in variegated and culturally situated ways.
Finally, the story of this "other" media revolution is also a bit counterintuitive to an American audience, which readily identifies the Internet as an empowering and democratizing medium, but has a different experience domestically with the commercialization of news journalism. We haven't confronted an autocratic state-run media environment and our commercial media don't always live up to the high ideals of American journalism. To a country like ours, which has grown accustomed to an independent press, it's not always easy to see, as our founders once did, the potential of a free market of ideas (and creative content) as a foundation for independent thought, democratic participation, and cultural identity.
This column was originally published on the Aca-Fan blog of Henry Jenkins.