The meaning of “you” vs. “us”

April 13, 2007

by Bill Thompson, technology critic/blogger (and one of openDemocracy’s external editor)

When Time voted ‘You’ the person of the year the first thing I thought was ‘why not ‘Us’ – are Time and all that they represent so separate from the bloggers and citizen journalists that they belong in a completely separate category?’

And of course, to Time, they do.

This is one of the reasons why so many people feel distanced from the mainstream media, and we see it clearly in the way Christian expresses his unhappiness and makes many criticisms of professional journalism and professional journalists.

Some of these criticisms are merited, of course. They demonstrate what I think is a central point in the current debate, which is that our enthusiasm for ‘user-generated content’ and ‘democratised media’ is a symptom of deep-seated unhappiness with the current disposition, one that finds expression in blogging and photo-sharing sites and other forms of personal publishing.

However dig a little deeper and the desire is not to replace mainstream media but to reform it, to correct the errors and make it better. Even Christian acknowledges that ‘the pros’ have a place, although he seems to feel that the pressure from the citizen journalists will be enough to change things for the better. I wish I could be as optimistic as him about ‘being on the right road again’, because this feels more like what happened with punk rock in the UK in the 1970’s, when the political momentum rapidly dissipated as more and more bands turned their rebellion into money and the attitude and approach was simply appropriated by the industry.

Taking a wider view, there is a real danger that we will confuse the growing availability of access to the means of production of images, sounds or texts with a shift in the balance of power that would merit the term ‘democratisation’. I don’t think that this adequately reflects what is going on. Pluralism is good in itself, and we should encourage everyone to make their voice heard and their images visible. But there is a massive separation between giving people space to express themselves and building forms of governance that can listen and take account of what is being said.

If the growth of self-publishing on the internet is an expression of increased democracy then it is the very earliest stage of that democracy, the gathering of the populace in the marketplace to discuss matters of common interest. The rulers are still asleep in their high castles, and the sound they hear on the wind may as well be the rustling of leaves in the trees as the murmurings of discontent.

Political change will only come if we make it come. The network, in itself, will not deliver it and we must not assume that it will.

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