Role of New Media
The society we live in is referred to as an “information society” (a post-industrial society). This definition seems to be very appropriate as the information has become a product, a currency and the most valuable resource. It permeates all spheres of the social life in different countries separately and on the international level. The information can be described as the fuel. It moves the society and media (in all its forms, both traditional and new) function as its vessels, moving the information and spreading it. As the role of the media in the society gradually increases, it becomes more and more important to study how new and old forms of media coexist and merge, as well as how they change the way we communicate and think. As the information spreads on newer territories, its impact on the culture increases. The information penetrates the society on the deepest levels. This merging of information and culture is so close and deep, our mind is unable to subtract the information from surroundings.
Old and New Media
With the Internet spreading across the globe that becomes more accessible even for people from lower layers of the society, it has started reaching the countries which had been for years culturally separated from the whole world. It would be a mistake to say that traditional and old forms of media had no such social effect. Traditional media for ages had remained a method of communication, spreading the information and ideological control over the population. They had served to preserve and spread the information, maintain the communication between separate people and the whole countries. With new technologies, the basic principles of communication with the help of media had remained the same. What changed this was the accessibility and speed of spreading the information. New media are based on the heritage of traditional ones. The only advantages they have are the wider availability and relative interactivity. The old and new forms of media are very closely connected. They work by the same rules; they are closely interrelated, sometimes co-dependent. Thus, it would be a mistake to totally dismiss the old media in favor of the newer ones. The evolution of them is a dynamic process. Some forms of media, which are now considered to be “old”, were actually considered as new just few years ago. With the pace of the technological development none of the so-called “new media” is immune from sudden “aging”.
The term “old media” is traditionally referred to books, magazines, newspapers, audio records, and radio, broadcasting, cable and satellite TV (the latter one has become “old” only recently). Basically, these are all pre Internet forms of media. The new media forms include information websites, social networks, blogs, online video streaming, websites, and etc. Various communication devices, especially multi-functional, like smart-phones, are also mentioned as the new media forms. When compared, these two “opposite parties” appear to be very similar. The differences are primarily connected with the technical means of distribution. The new forms of media mirror the old ones: the information websites match the newspapers and magazines; blogs match the individual writer’s columns; audio podcasts match the radio broadcasting; and video streaming websites match the TV channels. The content provided by most of them: written articles, audio broadcasts, and video shows are mostly the same. They simply have a different level of professionalism and quality; the difference is mostly in distribution. Some other differences must also be singled out:
- The new online media provide an opportunity to instantly discuss or comment on the provided information;
- The new online media are more open and accessible for content creators, even for the people without any professional training and professional technical equipment: anyone with a cell phone with the Internet connection can post articles and submit videos.
- The new media are not too dependent on centralization. A blogger can post his articles from any part of the world, without being dependent on an editorial center. The distribution of the new media is not connected with a publishing or broadcasting center. Even the smaller local media can be reached from a distance; thus, news from distant regions can easily become the center of the international informational attention.
- The online media provide more diversity in both quality and origin of the content, breaking the borders between countries, classes and cultures. This makes these media more accessible outside the closed elitist circle.
- Self-financing is achieved in various ways, from using commercials to “pay pal” system and crowd-funding. Self-financing makes the online media independent from economic regulation of the state, and, as a result, more ideologically free.
The quality online media also work by the rules of the traditional one; they require costly production values, editorial approval and quality control. They study the market and their target audience in order to provide the appropriate content according to public demand.
On the negative side, the availability of the information on the Internet has given birth to a unique phenomenon of “Internet piracy”. It is basically a stealing of intellectual property. But with numerous gaps in the information sharing system it has become a real problem, which requires various regulatory mechanisms (both technical and legal) to be introduced.
The traditional media, even those which are called outdated, mostly have their own websites, with most of the provided content available online and for a digital download. So even these old forms of media keep in touch with the progress and use the provided possibilities.
New forms of media merge, often resulting in the creation of new formats. In this way, the gap between the personal communication and impersonal media like television decreases.
Some words should be said about the unique forms of new media, especially those, which have the biggest impact on social processes. This refers to the social networks and websites which created a large community around them, such as Facebook (a quintessential social network, which provides not only communication and sharing information, but vast possibilities for community creation); and Twitter (a mini-blog website, which gives its users an opportunity to quickly created and share short informative messages, not more than 140 characters, with a possibility to add pictures and video-links). Besides, there are such as: : YouTube (the most well-known and widespread video-streaming website, easily available even for casual users) and Google (the most popular search-engine in the Internet). These new media provide some unique features, such as instant messaging available for a large audience with the usage of hashtags; creating large international communities, devoted to selected issues; and the instant search of information all over the Internet. They are multifunctional and have a multi-million audience of both casual users and content providers. These media are also interconnected, thus, creating the much information and social networks. Such media plexus provide unlimited possibilities for communication, spreading information and group organizing. There are numerous examples of this system used to set, to direct and to manage huge social processes.
Breaking the Digital Divide
The term “digital divide” serves to describe a gap between the so called “civilized” world and the countries in which the political regime and economical state prevent the general audience from accessing the Internet and other sources of digital information. This gap has two causes: political and economic.
The governments of the countries with dictatorships or limited democracy understand the danger, which comes from the freedom provided by the accessibility of the information from the outside sources. That is why limiting the Internet access serves to restrict the freedom of speech (a characteristic feature of all non-democratic regimes). In the democratic world, the Internet is utilized by the government in various ways: for economic regulations, for informing the population of the government’s work, for gathering the important information and for investigating of the public dispositions. Although the democratic regimes take into consideration the dangers of information leaks and possibilities of terrorist attacks with the usage of the Internet, they consider the new media to be a useful tool and an ally, unlike the dictatorships supposing them to be a threat.
The situation is summed up perfectly by Stein and Sinha (2006), “Democracies and non-democracies alike recognize the role of communication systems in conveying information to their citizens. Democracies depend on communication systems to generate the social knowledge necessary to collective decision-making and to ensure citizens communication rights. At the same time, global media and interactions have worldwide effects that are in the interests of all nations to regulate.”
So, breaking the digital divide is an absolute imperative for spreading the democratic values around the world.
The other cause of the digital divide is an economical state of the “developing countries”. In the countries which have most of their population living in poverty, the access to the international communication networks is mostly out of the discussion. This is directly connected not only with the inability of the most of the population to buy devices, needed to connect to the Internet. This is also caused by the low educational level. With most of the population being illiterate, it is hard to expect many people using the web to gain information.
Breaking the information divide is an important goal for the international community and for corporations which produce the electronic hardware, software and digital content (they are interested in increasing their market for the newer territories). To solve this problem, numerous international programs have been created (“Close the Gap,” “BiblioNet,” etc.). These programs provide the population of the above mentioned countries with the much needed computers and also conduct educational actions on raising digital literacy. These practices, together with the overall spreading of digital technologies and the reduction of their costs, result in decreasing the digital divide. It is early to say that this gap has been completely closed, but spreading of digital technologies also resulted in increasing an area covered by the new media. Thus, the cultural and social changes brought by these media have their impact on these “developing” countries. Cultural Changes Caused by the New Media
The numerous ways in which new media change the culture cannot be determined easily. The Internet and other forms of digital communications transformed the ways people in the modern society interact. The goal of this research is not to define some general philosophical transformations, caused by these technologies, but to outline more practical, direct effects that these new media have. These changes are obvious and lie on the surface. The analysis is needed to understand how deep, substantial and lasting these changes will be. So let’s outline the most important of them:
- Availability of information. Due to the widespread of the Internet, all sorts of information are easily and quickly accessible. Most of the information archives, books, films, and audio recordings can be easily found within minutes. This information is mostly free or not very expensive. So the information in different areas of knowledge is no longer a privilege of the few well educated and wealthy people, but a public domain.
- Everyone has his right to express his opinion. The ability to comment and discuss any ongoing social processes is a great opportunity for gathering information and its analysis. Based on reactions on different events in the Internet, the public mood and the attitude towards these events can be easily traced. Also, this provides a unique possibility to hear different points of views on different subjects, not limiting to possibly preconceived journalists, writers and public announcers.
- Self-organization. The popularity of social networks has created a great possibility for both small and large groups of self-organization. In some cases, even a leader, who unites and leads the crowd, is not required, as this has been proved by the popularity of a “flash-mob” movement. Self organization is spread across the social networks, beginning from the small groups united by cultural and personal interests (fan-pages), and to the large, numerous communities led by common goals and beliefs. These communities often leave the boundaries of online communication and serve as a basis of important social processes.
- Open world. Although online space is still divided by different language regions, laws of regulation and level of accessibility, it is safe to say that with the help of the Internet, information is easily accessible from different parts of the world. This opens some new, basically unlimited possibilities for international and intercultural communications; thus, the world gets to become more open.
- Absolute freedom of speech. The Internet provides the public with a great opportunity to break free from the boundaries of censorship. This does not mean that anything can be said, and nothing can be punished. Internet community has become a self-regulating system, which restricts the freedom of speech without taking it away. In other words, every website has its own rules, limitations and user policies. Its creators and community defines the borders of the permissible. Some websites have no borders at all; some clearly define them; and newcomers can easily understand these inside rules, by just looking at the “FAQ Page”. This flexible system provides users with a freedom of choice.
All these changes in one way or another influence the modern culture, they change how we speak, how we think, and how we communicate. They transform our set of values, and this leads to inevitable cultural changes. The proof of these tendencies can be found in recent events all over the world, precisely in those in the Middle East, named the “Arab Spring.”
The Role of New Media in the “Arab Spring”
“The Arab Spring” is a common name used to describe a series of revolutions, overthrows of ruling regimes and mass civil actions, which took place in numerous countries of the Middle East in 2011. These events resulted in the overthrowing of 5 governments (in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and twice in Egypt), minor to massive protests, changes in governments (in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and etc.) and, unfortunately, an ongoing civil war in Syria. The historical significance of these events is yet to be defined. However, it is clear, that in a traditional and conservative Islam society of Arab countries, they were an unexpected development of events. A new generation of young people has discovered that the world they live in had no boundaries on the level of intellectual communication; their need to spread this perception of freedom has resulted in inevitable social shifts. This caused a quick growth of social society organizations, which managed to use the advantages of social media for their use. Although the results of these massive events vary, and, in many cases, the outcome is still uncertain, it is definite that cultural changes caused by spreading the new forms of media in the region have become in many ways a cause of these events. Also, these local revolutions utilized the instruments provided by the new media.
To understand the cause and circumstances of these events it is important to study the context. Most of the countries involved in the “Arab Spring” for many decades had remained closed societies with a very powerful Islamic tradition and strong governmental regimes, with all the powers usurped in the hands of dictators. The Internet was considered “a threat to local religious and moral sensibilities” by the regimes in the region (Stein, Sinha 2006).
Information conglomerate Al Jazeera (consisting of a satellite TV network, i.e. a number of channels in different languages, Internet network, and etc.) with the headquarters in Qatar, was remaining a media monopolist in the region for years, promoting the traditional values of the Islamic world, and more radical views.
The non-democratic regimes in the region had existed for decades. During these periods, the gap between the rich domineering class and the masses was growing. The need for social changes was obvious; and the young generation, having an access to the outside world with the means of new information technologies, was a catalyst of revolutionary events. Understanding the threats the widespread of the Internet access had on society, the state governments in the region (Egypt, for example) tried to limit this access, but the dependence of the modern economy on information resources did not allow the total information blockade the society. The protests which occurred in these regions were heavily dependent on the new media. They were organized with the help of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (thus, these events are also often referred to as a “twitter revolution”.) The attempts of the state to block these websites only proved their importance in these processes. In recent years, the Internet connection in this region has become easily available, cheaper and less regulated, due to the economic reasons. So protesters used these technologies to gather massive actions, to direct them and to quickly spread information not only among activists, but also across the globe. Not only Internet and the usage of social networks were effectively used, but also such a common source of communication as cell phone connection. All the events of social protests were instantly filmed and posted in the Internet; this helped to involve more participants in the actions, to chronicle the ongoing events, to make them available for the international society. The instants sharing of information about these events also created a domino effect. Similar actions started to occur in other countries of the region.
As described in the work of A. Hollingshead and N. Contractor (2006), the new media can play four roles in organizing small groups: within group communication; group information support; group communication with the outside world and group performance support. The usage of different forms of communication, sometimes within one single device, increases the effectiveness of this group, helps to consolidate it and makes it more flexible. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to quickly react on an ongoing effect. During the events that can become a danger for personal freedom (like the social protest), a sense of anonymity, provided by the social media, raises the confidence in the group making it more effective. All these features were effectively utilized during the events of the Arab Spring.
These events have created a precedent of a massive social event directed, regulated and covered by new forms of media. Although the lasting effect of the social changes in these countries is still to be defined, the methods of self-regulations and crowd control used during the events of the Arab Spring have already become a part of the arsenal of social protests, as proved by the ongoing actions of disobedience and protest in Ukraine.
Outcome and Possible Future
It is impossible to analyze new media as something stable and unchanging, because new technologies replace the outdated ones on a regular basis. With new technological breakthroughs, there come new features and new possibilities of their usage. Thus, new media must be analyzed from a dynamic viewpoint. Recent social changes in different world regions, like the series of revolutionary events in the Middle East, have proved not only the positive effect as opening the Internet to get closer to the traditionally closed or non-democratic societies. However, also a great amount of instruments of these new technologies given to the people of these countries has been provided to oppose the regimes. The world changes, it is no longer a collection of isolated regions. It is a digitally interconnected information system with all clusters that are co-dependent and easily observed.
The new forms of media are described as the most social media forms. The possibility to react, comment and interact instantly, the possibility to unite into small or larger groups, according to common interests, and value each voice and each opinion, has in these communities all these features. This makes the new forms of media as a flexible, effective and influential instrument in social processes.