Wednesday, September 21, 2005


The digital media challenge from the periphery

By Milverton Wallace

A new date has been indelibly imprinted on the global memory: 7 July 2005, the day of the first suicide bombings in London.

As with 9/11, people might in future ask each other: "Where were you when you first heard the news on 07/07?" Unlike 9/11, they might also ask: "Which blogs did you read to keep up with the news?" or "Did you see the pictures on Flickr?"

In September 2001, America and the world were informed by newsgroups, mailing lists, bulleting boards, web sites and plain old email, and eyewitnesses shooting amateur video footage. For the first few days after the events, the mainstream media were sidelined and trumped by amateur reporters. It was a major warning to the former media monopolies about the power and reach of the Internet.

On 7 July 2005 in London, they were again caught unawares. TV news programmes and newspaper web sites were reduced to grabbing the images from Flickr and appealing to bloggers to submit pictures to them. On the newsstands, the daily newspapers never looked more outdated and irrelevant. While the Web was buzzing with images and live reports of the events, their front pages trumpeted London’s success in winning the bidding for the 2012 Olympic games the day before.

Even if it was an overstatement to describe the reporting of the July events in London as a revolution in communication, as many mainstream media commentators did, it certainly was a bold announcement that the reporting of major events would never again be the exclusive preserve of the mainstream media. The amateur reporter had made an entrance and would be a permanent guest at the table where the first draft of history is written.

What was the difference between 9/1 New York and 07/07 London? Back then the army of New York citizens who supplied eyewitness reports and pics to the press and who went online to email friends and relations with news about family members, did not see themselves as citizen reporters. They were just ordinary folk caught up in an extraordinary situation who were simply doing their civic duty.

Not so our bloggers, mobloggers and videobloggers of 07/07 in London. Four years on from 9/11, people are conscious of themselves not only as newsmakers but as news reporters and producers. Within minutes of the first blast, commuters were shooting still and video images of the carnage inside the underground trains and posting them on weblogs, complete with copyright notices, as soon as they reached the safety of the streets above ground. The ccpyrights in the images were asserted under the Creative Commons licensing regime. Shortly after the second London bombings on 21 July, a new agency was created specifically to market citizen reports and pics to the world’s media.

What had changed between 2001 and 2005? On that infamous September day in New York, eyewitnesses were happy to hand over their images and first-hand accounts to the traditional news outlets. They had little choice: in 2001 there were fewer than 100,000 blogs and the vast majority were owned by computer geeks. Since then, a combination of technological innovations--easy-to-use blog creation software; cheap web storage; free web photo archives; and affordable mobile camera phones have resulted in a rapid rise in the number of blogs . By the time of the London bombings, Technorati, a leading blog search engine, was tracking over 16 million webblogs, a 160 fold increase since 2001. According to David Sifry, founder of Technotrati, 30,000-40,000 blogs are being created every day and the blogoshere is doubling every five months.

But why was the press caught so unprepared? Afterall, the movement for citizen participation in public newsgathering and reporting has been underway for some time. The November 2004 US presidential election was a wake-up call for the mainstream media, with the Dean campaign demonstrating in a dramatic way the power of social software to turn ordinary citizens into political activists and conservative bloggers probably tipping the balance by mobilising the Republican vote. The second wake-up call was the Asian tsunami of December 2004, when the traditional media had no assets on the ground and the region’s bloggers and videoblogger stepped up to lead the global reporting of the disaster.

It is understandable that the old media find it hard to embrace the new realities of decentralised newsgathering: they have big investments in plant, machinery, distribution channels and monopoly advertising revenues to protect, all of which require centralised control of newsgathering and distribution. (But note that Rupert Murdoch, the biggest media mogul, has recently signalled his recognition that social media is a major threat to News Corps’ global media empire. (See his now famous speech at

The independent media has no such baggage. They can and should convert their readers and viewers from being mere sources to collaborators, not only because they generally know more about most things than professional journalists, but are more likely to be at the scene of events and possess the local knowledge most reporters cannot hope to have.

Start by deciding the level of engagement you want to establish with them. This ranges from inviting readers to comment on stories to fully integrating citizen reporting into your publication. See Steve Outing’s "The 11 layers of citizen journalism " ( for a useful guide to the potential and pitfalls of the different levels of interaction.

Second, set up panels of citizen contributors drawn from different social strata, occupational groups and professional sectors. These will be your eyes and ears, a way to mobilise the diverse perspectives and local knowledge of your readers/viewers so you’re on top of stories before they become news. There are numerous open source tools to help to manage such networks. (see, for example,

Third, institute a programme to familiarise collaborators with the professional practices and standards of the journalism profession (See There’s nothing extraordinary about being a journalist; the principles we hold dear—trust, duty, freedom—are also cherished by the majority of the people we write for.

All of this does not mean that it’s possible , or even desirable, to turn every citizen into journalists. Nevertheless, it is prudent to educate people about the codes of the profession, including the ethical and legal issues, so that they do a better job of truthfully seeking and reporting the facts. Some citizen journalism operations, e.g., Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere, ask collaborators to sign a "Citizen Journalist Pledge" (see and many bloggers and citizen reporters have signed up to honour tags (see in an effort to establish a framework of trustworthiness in this new frontier.

The independent media must carefully build the infrastructure and the culture of this new practice, because what we have here is not simply a new lifestyle based on the latest digital gadgets. The new form of journalism is a challenge to the prevailing monopoly of knowledge (which is also a monopoly of power) exercised by the mainstream media.

The old order is changing, and it is fitting that this challenge is coming from the periphery—from the former audience who are no longer willing to be mere consumers, and from the new digital media that is destined to replace the old. You can either embrace it or be engulfed by it.

© copyright Milverton Wallace August 2005

Notes towards a literacy for the digital age

by Milverton Wallace

The kid enters the coffee shop and is greeted excitedly by her friends. They jostle to exchange high fives, knuckle greetings and finger snaps with her.

What is the cause of their admiration? Her Rocaway jeans? Her high tan Jimmy Choo boots? Her Armani sun-glasses? Her Karl Lagerfeld jacket? Nah! It's the gleaming silver object dangling from a pair of white wires plugged into her ears.

It’s an iPod, the must-have digital gadget of today's young people. With this tiny digital audio player Apple stole Napster's thunder and replaced the CD player as the cutting-edge portable music player of choice.

But if you think this is just another device for playing pre-recorded music, think again. Within two years of the iPod's debut, developers had created software to allow anyone to produce audio content –- words and music -- for it and other portable digital players. This technology, known as podcasting, turns consumers into producers, and every wannabe DJ and talk-show host into broadcasters. It's a distribution channel that plugs directly into the hippest, hottest communication network on the planet.

In advanced industrial countries, and increasingly in less-developed regions, social life is being digitised. Cheap camera phones and videocams allow everyday activities to be recorded and stored on personal computers or online services; more and more conversations are conducted via email, IM and SMS; private thoughts, opinions and reflections on public affairs or private passions are instantly posted on weblogs. Because they are in digital form, all these different types of record -- moving images, photographs, sounds and texts -- can be stored on computers. And the Internet makes it possible for all of this to be shared with family, friends and strangers.

Welcome to the agora of the 21st century, a space where a diverse array of digital modes of communication intersect in cyberspace -- email, instant messaging, text messaging, multimedia messaging, weblogging, audioblogging, moblogging, mobcasting, podcasting.

Like it or not, this is the new cultural landscape for learning, entertainment, and communicating with each other. And it is being constructed without consultation with, or permission from, regulatory authorities or self-appointed gatekeepers.

All well and good, but what is the point of all this digital g-soup when school-leavers can't spell and do sums, or believe Winston Churchill was an insurance salesman? Relax. This isn't the end of literacy, just a groping towards a new kind of literacy which is capable of fulfilling the knowledge acquisition, informational and cultural needs of the digital age.

There is nothing immutable about the mental and manual competencies that constitute literacy. What it means to be literate has constantly changed throughout the ages as economic, social and cultural necessities impose new demands on the population. In addition, the number and classes of people which needed to possess these competencies have changed. In ancient Egypt, the ability to read and write, and therefore to manage the state, was a monopoly of the priestly caste and court officials. On the other hand, the assembly, the council and the court, the key institutions of the first democracy in Athens, championed by the literate Pericles, were made up primarily of ordinary people1 who were mostly educated in the oral, not the literate, culture of 5th century BC Greece. In both cases the vast majority of the people did not need to be literate; you didn't need reading, writing and arithmetic to be a farmer, an artisan or a soldier2. The same was true in the ancient Chinese, Persian, Babylonian and Roman empires.

The industrial age changed everything. The mass manufacturing of goods, the introduction of machine tools and the technologising of ancient craft skills required a work force which could read, write, and do sums. The ceaseless need to innovate in order to remain competitive forced workers to think critically and creatively about the industrial processes in which they were engaged. This led them to invent new goods and technologies to feed the insatiable engine of industrial capitalism. For the first time in human history, education, both literary and technical, became a job requirement.

Thus the invention of printing was a pre-requisite of the industrial age3. Mechanical reproduction of texts was superseded by mass production of books and newspapers to satisfy the growing need for widespread diffusion of the elements of literacy required for industrial production and social advancement.

Mass production of information and knowledge produced the mass media which, by the end of the 19th century, became a monolith that controlled access to information about everyday life. Other information monopolies arose during the period, most based on close and exclusive control of specialised knowledge: trade guilds, which regulated the transmission of craft skills; learned societies and associations, which regulated access to scientific information and entry into the professions. These and other institutions were important in codifying and regulating the competencies which powered industrial production and commerce. However, the mass media occupy a special place because of their central role in the organisation and control of social communications, and hence the structure of cultural, political and economic life4.

The trouble with monopolies is not only that they tend to centralise power, but they also wield this power to enforce their definitions of reality on the world. So the scientific establishment decrees that a particular body of knowledge is "science", and everything else is hocus-pocus; the medical authorities declare that a favoured corpus of practices is "medicine", and all others are quackery; and the teaching profession holds that literacy is the three "Rs", and evermore shall it be.

But these edicts are losing their force and authority as people first challenge the information/knowledge monopolies and then develop their own communication media to find things out for themselves and explore truths other than received wisdom or the official version. Rather than the established media talking to them, people are talking to one another in their own self-created space, their own time and at their own speed5.

To participate in creating this autonomous space, you must possess not only the print literacy of the industrial age but also the competencies required to engage in online conversations and be at ease with using 21st century digital products and services.

What are the competencies that should be included in any model of literacy for the digital age?

First, you should get used to interacting with screen-based devices for sending, receiving and viewing digital information because this is the way one interacts with the interface -- the collection of words, icons, buttons, menus, and other symbols -- connecting the user to the database which stores the data and the network which transmits it. To interact with your computers, mobile phones, PDAs, media players etc requires that you have the knowledge to understand these symbols and the tactile skills to manipulate them to achieve a desired purpose e.g., open a document, save a file, view a picture, play a song, send a message.

Second, you must be able to create a document, store it and retrieve it at a later date. By "document" is meant any information element or object in digital form -- words, pictures, sounds, still and moving images.

Third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the theory and practice of hypermedia6, because it is in this space that information is communicated on the screens of computers and digital media devices. A paper document allows only text and two dimensional images, while radio and television have been completely linear media. The hypermedia document, now the standard form in which information is displayed and communicated, is changing all that. By allowing interaction with non-linear, multi-dimensional documents to take place, it has radically altered the practice of reading and writing.

Hypermedia is the electronic palette on which diverse information objects -- texts, still and moving images and sound -- combine. Cross-referencing devices called hyperlinks allow us to create a non-linear mode of information production and consumption which more closely follows the patterns of thought. Hyperlinks are gateways to other "objects" -- click on one and the desired object is retrieved and played. This is the typical organisation of a Web document.

But some features of a hypermedia document are counter-intuitive (or, at least, contrary to the processes we have learned through paper-age education) and so require new literacies in order to make sense of the message.

For example, a key feature of a hypermedia composition is that all objects have equal status. They can therefore be read -- and possibly understood -- in any order, so you can enter the hypermedia space at any point, and structure your reading of the story in any manner you choose. As a result, each individual reading experience is different, as are the connections and associations made.

We have to learn how to use this space, to make sense of it. How do we critically evaluate what we see and hear? How do we assign weight and significance to the objects? Clearly, we need to learn to use a range of tools to help us evaluate the accuracy, authority, completeness, bias and timeliness of the information.

This goes against much that we know about written communication since the invention of the codex, the form of the book that succeeded the scroll as the repository of written knowledge and culture.

The codex transformed the way texts were written -- introducing page numbers, chapters, indexing -- and therefore the way authors constructed their work. It also changed the reading process: readers could now navigate from one page to another with ease, quickly find specific items, mark passages for future reference, and write while reading. The codex introduced a linear order and sequence in which texts are to be read and understood and an hierarchy of elements -– title page, imprint, contents page, preface, introduction, main body, references, bibliography, appendices. To be literate meant understanding these elements and what they signify.

The book is both receptacle and transmitter of knowledge. The change in its material form, from scroll to codex, engendered a revolution in writing and reading. People had to learn new skills in order to produce and consume information and knowledge in the new form. The same is the case with the change to a screen-based, hypertext form of information and knowledge creation and dissemination, with one big difference.

The move from an oral to a literary culture was a drastic change from social, collective learning to private, individual learning; from the primacy of the voice to the primacy of the text; from understanding of the world through public performances and storytelling to understanding through private reading and personal reflection. Now these two modes are united in cyberspace as hypermedia combines almost all aspects of oral and literary cultures. Every minute of every day the Internet buzzes with the sound of music and of voices in many tongues; with animations and videos in glorious technicolor; with words and pictures; with the colour of magic, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke7.

Here is the genius of cyberspace: it has created a world of endless possibilities by refusing to be constrained by what went before.

In most cosmologies, the world begins with the Word. In the pre-industrial and industrial eras, two expressions of the Word, reading and writing, have been central to people's notion of literacy. Digital technology doesn't abolish literacy; what it augurs is a radical re-definition of it. This is nothing new -- we have been here before. Think of the momentous, world-changing shift from oral to print culture; think also of the changes in writing instruments (stone, stick, pen), writing materials (bark, leaf, clay tablet, parchment, paper), text production processes (from handwriting to hot-metal printing, from lithography to laser printing) and the intellectual and technical adjustments required to deal with them.

As the digitisation of economic, social and cultural life gathers pace, those who embrace and internalise the literacy of the digital age will be so much better off than those who do not.

So if you are an educator, desperate to interest our iPod kid and her friends in your remedial classes; a health information officer anxious to get the message of safe sex to her and her cohorts; a training instructor eager to recruit them on a job skills programme; get familiar with their world. You won't be able to communicate with them if you don't.

© Milverton Wallace 2005.


1) See C. L. R. James, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Correspondence, 2 (12) June 1956.

2) Even if they wanted to acquire literacy, they couldn’t. Only rich individuals and families could afford to buy books. Papyrus and parchment, the materials on which most books in Europe were written until the introduction of paper from China (via Korea, Japan, India, Baghdad and Damascus) in the 12th century AD, were scarce and expensive commodities. Moreover, several ingredients—the technique of papermaking, the invention of printing, the spread of religion, public education and libraries, the development of the scientific method, the Industrial Revolution etc--had to come together before mass literacy became possible, desirable and necessary for societies. And it took more than two thousand years after the first flowering of Athenian democracy for these conditions to become a reality. (Note that the fabled ancient libraries at Nineveh, Alexandria, Pergamum and Herculaneum were for the use of clerics, scholars and rulers, not the masses).

3) See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1982) for an excellent treatment of the way the spread of printing contributed to the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, and, therefore, modern liberal democracies and the industrial society.

4) See Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (University of Toronto Press, 1972) and The Bias of Communication (University of Toronto Press, 1964) for a discussion of the relationship between the dominant mode and technical properties of communication and the social, political and economic organisation of society. Innis argues that fundamental changes in social structures come about when the old, dominant form of communication is challenged and replaced by new forms.

5) Dan Gillmor, former technology columnist on the San Jose Mercury News, describes this movement in the arena of news gathering and dissemination as "citizen journalism". See his book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (O'Reilly Media, 2004).

6)) Jakob Nielsen, Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond (AP Professional, 1995).

7) "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Quoted in Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz, 1999).

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