On Bernard Keane and Communities of Interest

Political correspondent for Crikey, Bernard Keane, has an interesting piece published yesterday addressing ‘how the internet messes with the game of media and party politics’.

Below are some remarks on Keane’s piece. First, some context: I’ve been teaching my third-year Online News journalism students about how to address a similar set of problems. Their major assessment is to come up with a case-study length pitch for an online media enterprise that targets a niche audience. Their first task was to isolate a specific area of interest around which organises a community of interest, and then build on it from there. Targeting a specific area of interest is relatively familiar to the broader media industry; it is what most magazines do. It is relatively unfamiliar for an ‘analog’ news industry still operating with a ‘pre-Convergence’ mindset, however. I am not sure what a news-based media industry would look like when targeting specific areas of interest as there is no direct homological relation between the news-based content-audience relations and what happens in magazines, or at least there isn’t yet. Except, of course, in the financial industries…

I think some more focus on what Keane means by the ‘community-generating power of the internet’ is needed as it is not properly explained in his piece. He provides an example (Occupy Wall Street protests) and describes one of the qualities of such communities (no longer geographically anchored, or using a phrase from McKenzie Wark, they exist in a ‘virtual geography’). I want to describe two of the primary ways the internet is different from print or broadcast era media for directly contributing to the production of communities. Then I’ll look at how these apply (or not) to the news-media industry.

The first way the internet contributes to the production of communities is best explained by pulling apart what is meant by ‘interest’ in the phrase ‘community of interest’. There is a continuum of ‘interest’ from passing attention-grabbing interest that quickly dissipates to the enduring and sometimes agonistic practices of enthusiasts. This distribution of interest was described by community practioners researching local community groups in Britain in the 1980s as ‘Organising Around Enthusiasm’. Online communities form where enthusiasts search for useful information that will help them solve a problem (what I call a ‘challenge’) combined with an actual community of congruent interests. In terms of ‘community’, the now-classic ‘online forum’ is the established form.

A great deal of research into not only online groups but off-line and pre-internet groups indicates that there is a minority of participants that do the majority of work in these communities. These people may not be the most engaged ‘enthusiasts’ in the sense of the ‘best’ enthusiasts who know how to solve a large degree of problems, rather they are the most involved in communities. It makes sense to talk about communities with strong or weak ties (ala Gladwell, and the risks invovled in participation online vs off-line), but a community only makes sense if you know what challenges characterise a given enthusiasm. What mobilises enthusiasts into action?

The two major reports of the excellent mid-2000s Newspaper Next initiative (2006 and 2008) framed what I am calling ‘challenges’ in a slightly different way. Basing their program for newspaper innovation on the work of business academics Clayton Christensen and Clark Gilbert, they discussed ‘jobs to be done’, rather than challenges:

The concept is surprisingly simple. It holds that customers do not really buy products, they hire them to get jobs done. For example, Intuit’s QuickBooks software made it easy for small business owners to accomplish an important job: Make sure my business doesn’t run out of cash. Some alternatives, such as pen and paper and Excel spreadsheets, were not good enough. Professional accounting software packages were too good — confusing and filled with unnecessary features. QuickBooks did the job better than any alternative and quickly took over the category. […]
Using the jobs-to-be-done concept requires first understanding the problems a customer faces in life or business. The most promising problems are those that people do often and consider important and where current solutions leave them frustrated. (20-21)

‘Jobs-to-be-done’ certainly makes sense for someone who comes out of a ‘business administration’ background. Translate this in a social or political context. Think about the most popular online communities, ‘jobs to be done’ stemming from parenting, working on cars, cooking and foodie culture, information technologies, etc. What ‘jobs-to-be-done’ are there for the Occupy Wall Street protesters? There is the everyday work of maintaining the protest spaces across the world and there are the larger ‘political’ jobs-to-be-done that haven’t not yet been properly articulated, i.e. a list of demands. One of the main jobs-to-be-done of the protesters in say Melbourne or Sydney is to perform solidarity for those in New York. That is, by the way, why I prefer ‘challenge’, as a ‘challenge’ can be articulated or repeated in a number of different ways and still be a singular event.

Secondly, online communities produce multiple publics, but not publics imagined following ‘public sphere’ discourse. The problem with the ‘public sphere’ discourse, adapted from the work of Habermas and others, is that ‘rational deliberation’ or ‘consensus’ is not a challenge — well, it is for people who are insane… — therefore understanding ‘civic engagement’ understood as a function of producing ‘connection’ only addresses one part of community building. The capacity to articulate and then service the challenges that mobilise populations into action is absent.

The current media industry assumes that the mechanisms of liberal representative democracy function properly, therefore their only task is to produce a ‘voice’ or a ‘visibility’ (in the Foucaultian sense) for a given population to air their views in a ‘public sphere’. Rational debate allegedly then happens and a decision is taken that is derived from this debate. Politics does not function like this, if it ever did. Politics is not a mission to produce consensus; that is the challenge of politicians, not the challenge of politics. To appropriate Plato, ‘producing consensus’ is a game of projecting shadows on a wall in a situation designed to fix subjects in a seat of citizenship. Here is the shadow of ‘participation’ produced by airing your views, etc. It is the myth circulated by Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and his comments regarding #OccupyMelbourne protesters having ‘enough time’ to ‘make their point’. Their challenge was to not to express a point, but to occupy a space in solidarity.

To reiterate this point: The shadow game is the challenge of politicians, but it is not the challenge of politics. Politics is a mission to articulate a given challenge that implicates an already concerned cohort of the population so as to mobilise the population and address the challenge, hopefully solving it. The Greens get this. Labor has tried to, but is terrible at articulating the challenges it is engaging with. I have no idea about what challenges the Coalition thinks it needs to address; they seem to be politicians devoid of politics, existing purely within the shadow game. Strangely, the only politician who has done anything innovative about this recently (and I don’t agree with much of his party’s social policies) is Bob Katter. To appropriate Waleed Aly, politics is not like professional sport. I couldn’t care less about what some foolish sportsperson got up to on the weekend and how this might affect their career, but I know others find this interesting. Politicians are tools for addressing the challenges that can not be addressed by individuals, they are not celebrities trying to address ritualised forms of challenge (i.e. sport). By covering politics like sport, the challenges that politicans are meant to address instead become ritualised into ‘goals’, ‘good moves’, etc following a meta-language that an audience is familiar with. By covering politicians like they are playing a sport, the media ritualises that challenges of politics.

Beyond the commentariat no one cares, and my language can not be too strong on this point, about the personal challenges faced by politicians (who will be leader, etc.). The utter stupidity of the MSM’s lampooning of Allan Asher and the Greens for the Senate estimates debacle is a classic example. The media narrative produced in the MSM focused on some alleged indescretion by Asher and Green’s Senator Hansen-Young. Is this the ‘challenge’ that the population is interested in? Some nonsense ‘sideshow’ political stoush? Why did Asher do what he did? What ‘challenge’ was he trying to articulate that lead to him getting ‘resigned’ by the Federal Labor government? Surely this is the only question worth asking for a serious political journalist? The rest is playing the shadow game.

In summary: First, talking about community without a discussion of the challenges that mobilise this community is missing the political point. Second, the current MSM seems content to focus on the challenges faced by politicians, and do not focus on the challenges faced by communities.

We need a news-based media worthy of the challenges faced by an entire population, not worthy of the personal challenges faced by professional politicians. I’ll be very happy if the internet is messing with the shadow game of MSM and party politicians.

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