Nine media trends changing the public sphere in our complex and unstable world

We are in an age where prediction is struggling to cope with a complex, unstable, diverse world. This is especially true of news media and information structures because they are going through profound and relatively rapid change. We can look at the past for some models of media change. ( See Timothy Wu’s MasterSwitch or The Attention Merchants for some interesting analogies that might help us understand future changes) But these are best used, not to model the immediate future, but to help separate the hype from the significant, substantial and sustainable trends.

Technology and news media are particularly prone to myth-making because of the social symbolic value of legacy media institutions and practices as well as the cult of change and ‘disruption’ engendered by the obvious power of recent technological developments (the microchip, mobility, social networks), fuelled by commercial self-interest as well as technological determinism. This might occur to some degree in an industry such as pharma that also promises scientific transformation of our lives, but it’s even more amplified in an industry such as media which is itself a medium for its own self-promotion.

As Tim Harford has pointed out, the most significant disruptions are often the ones we ignore. The simple or more banal changes. We forget, for example, that printing would not have been so revolutionary without paper. Computerisation has transformed retail stock management, but mainly thanks to the humble barcode. So whatever I say next must be treated as suggestions for reflection not promises or bets!

  1. Personalisation. In the face of super overabundance of information and sources there are increasing options for users (and publishers) to customise the consumption of information. People enjoy a mix of curation by themselves, by Alexa or by journalists, or by software. This fundamental shift in the power of information selection offers a whole new relationship between the citizen and editorial selection with all sorts of implications for politics and identity: yet everywhere curation is a mess, from Facebook’s algorithms to programmatic advertising. One of the simplest solutions uses a very old format: email newsletters.
  2. Scale. Big news events or stories are getting bigger amplified by social media. That leaves the rest of the stories or events getting smaller (the ‘long tail’). Major media organisations tell me their strategy is now to do fewer stories but to a greater extent: ‘vertical’ not ‘horizontal’. So major issues or events, such as Brexit or a terror attack, now dominate the public and private media space. This presents a resource challenge for publishers and an attention challenge for consumers. Trend analysis software from companies such as Kaleida can help to track this. Similar data could also help niche publishers identify valuable smaller topics and audiences who want differentiated information with specialist treatment. But how does the citizen find the smaller stuff in the larger crowd? (see Personalisation)
  3. Restriction. While it is getting ‘bigger’, the closing or fencing of the Internet and social networks will accelerate through forms of regulation that seek to separate out ‘good’ and ‘bad’ content. Clearly, this control can be protective or censorious. This is also driven by commercial and social pressure to create less porous content and more sealed communities (or ’filter bubbles’) that can be monetised through, for example, subscription. How will that impact on ‘connectivity’, in all senses?
  4. As the promise of the open Internet is compromised, authoritarian management of media will continue. Not just through top down censorship but by strategies of relativism & populism. Across the globe, as mediatisation of public life such as elections increases, we are seeing increasing trends towards managing public opinion through empathy and ritual as well as stage-management and control. As Will Davies has pointed out, the hope that the Internet would provide an open, democratic, evidence-based framework for accountability and political discourse has been overwhelmed by the instantaneous and instinctive reaction that priorities ‘authenticity’ over rational analysis. Populist politicians love this and have adopted strategies to make it effective by undermining the conventional accountability role of news media and open information. John Lloyd’s forthcoming book on the global battle for news and information suggests to me that the old paradigms of ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ expression are inadequate to measure and resist these strategies that combine manipulation with the disruption of deliberation.
  5. Expertness: part of that trend towards restriction is a shift from public intellectual or technical expert to thought leader intermediaries. This is characterised by deep experts such as scientists or academics becoming cut off from the public by their increasing specialisation of language, professional practice and thought. At the same time a class of more self-interested, media-savvy, TED-talk competent lobbyists for particular causes with easily packaged concepts have arisen to meet the public demand for better understanding of a complex, challenging world.
  6. The emotional, subjective turn: the logic of algorithms and sharing plus increased individualism plus identity lifestyles and politics means communicators are embracing the subjective as the driver of connectivity. Publishers (partly in response to Personalisation — see section 1) are increasingly strategizing identity, sentiment, morality, and emotion as a driver of attention. At its best when interactive and combined with real listening and proper transparency this is a path towards trust. Though transparency might be a more limited concept than might be expected. You only have to think about the limits of ‘fact-checking’ for example. As leadership becomes increasingly mediated it exerts influence through an instinctive “authenticity” not technocratic professionalism. We don’t ‘know’ but we ‘like’. We’ve switched from Rodin’s Thinker to Steve Jobs’ Swiper.
  7. Diversity: Social, cultural and political institutions and publishers are becoming less diverse in more diverse ways. The people producing elite news media, especially, are more homogenous and isolated. At the same time in the wider society, gender, race, faith, class, geography, education and identity politics appear to be creating more diversity and more division and sometimes friction between values, ideas and groups. Research is still unclear as to the role of new information technologies in that process — the answer is probably ‘mixed’- but not inevitable.
  8. Information literacy. Critical to the nature of the effects of diversity changes will be citizen’s ability to assess the credibility of information and their agency in using it. Information literacy is an increasingly important educational need and a civic responsibility (open government etc). But it is most effective when integrated into production and dissemination strategies rather than just left to the classroom. ‘Fake news’ for example has actually been a positive active learning process for consumers when publishers respond effectively. Integrated news literacy can also be an effective commercial tool for those marketing ‘quality’ content or policies (see sections 4,5,6). In that sense it is as much about producer strategies for literacy (engagement, credibility signals etc) as formal education or specialist ‘fact-checking’.
  9. New technologies such as AI &s bots will make algorithms more important and more interactive. VR, AR, etc will create new formats though expect old formats to revive eg text (email newsletters etc). AI especially will be critical in signalling credibility and even generating content. As pointed out above in the introduction, we are often bad at assessing the impacts of technological innovation. Those impacts will almost always bring both positive and negative effects. One much-needed trend is a better conversation between technologists and innovation investors with other social actors and experts. If technologies are only ‘tools’, what choices are we going to make about their use and who will make those decisions? Markets have been extraordinarily successful at developing devices (Apple/iPhone), tools (Google/Search) and networks (Facebook) but when they scale and become integrated into all aspects of individual and social life, who controls them and who assesses their value?

This article by Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis, Department of Media and Communications, LSE


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