… Gastforscher Dr Axel Bruns, Future Fellow am Australian Research Council und Professor am Digital Media Research Centre der Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australien.
Interview by Kirsten Gollatz, HIIG.
Question: Axel, time’s flying and your visit at the Humboldt Institute is almost over, unfortunately! What are the questions that brought you to Berlin, and did you find some answers?
Axel Bruns: I’m currently working on a book that picks up the story of citizen journalism from where my 2005 monograph Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production left off: the transformation of journalism and our overall engagement with the news in a rapidly changing media environment. My time visiting the HIIG has been great – many stimulating conversations, fascinating projects, as well as new insights into the German and European news environment that weren’t as easy to gain from a greater distance. Speaking with HIIG colleagues who are observing media industry trends has helped me understand better how journalists and the media themselves are adjusting – some grudgingly, some with more enthusiasm – to new disruptions arising from Internet technologies. This is, in addition to the comparatively better understood audience side of the story, where many of us have already conducted major studies of how audiences – especially on social media – engage with the news. But there’s still plenty more to do: the digital transformation of journalism and the news is continuing, so we’re dealing with a rapidly moving target!
Q. Back in 2005 you published your book, Gatewatching, introducing an alternative to the seminal paradigm of journalistic gatekeeping. Today, a decade later, you are working on a revision of the book. Why the update?
So much has happened in the meantime: at the time I finished the 2005 book, Facebook had barely moved beyond a handful of elite universities on the U.S. East Coast, and Twitter hadn’t even been born yet. Today, to put it simply, no major event is news unless it trends on Twitter and gets its own hashtag. This has also substantially changed the face of user engagement with the news. The fundamental problem for the first generation of citizen journalism had always been that it required a great deal of commitment: you had to set up your own blog, write lengthy posts, promote your site, and attract and maintain an active readership. This meant that citizen journalism tended to attract the usual suspects: “political junkies”, as Stephen Coleman has called them, who would have engaged with and commented on politics in one way or another anyway, even if they hadn’t had blogs as their platform. It also created some very clear and deep distinctions between professional and citizen journalists: they had their own, separate spaces, demarcated by imprints and domain names.
Today, social media plays a crucial role as a third space, a neutral space, which is used by journalists, ordinary users, politicians, political junkies, experts, sources, and other parties alike, and where those different stakeholders can and do actually engage with one another directly. And they’re easy to join and easy to use: it doesn’t take much effort to share some relevant information on a news topic by posting a tweet or Facebook update – far less effort than it took to write a blog post, with potentially far more visibility and engagement in return. Blogs never were the ‘random acts of journalism’ that JD Lasica envisaged in 2003 – but social media posts are; in fact, given how many users engage in sharing and commenting on newsworthy information via social media, I would argue that we’ve moved beyond random, and towards committing habitual acts of journalism in such spaces.
Q. In one of your workshops you held at the institute in the past weeks you introduced to us the term “demoticisation”. In relation to your work on social media and the public sphere, what do you mean by it?
Demotic derives from the Greek demos, ‘the people’: it means something like ‘of the people’, or ‘popular’ in its literal sense (without the affective dimension that the term has acquired more recently). Ancient Egypt, for instance, developed a demotic script: a set of characters used by ordinary people, as opposed to the formal hieroglyphs of official texts and inscriptions. I’ve begun to use the term to express the argument above, that social media have enabled a demoticisation of gatewatching and citizen journalism practices: a substantial increase in the population of users who are engaging in habitual acts of (citizen) journalism, well beyond the political junkies from whom the blogosphere recruited its participants.
At the same time, demoticisation still retains a distinction from democratisation, which was one of the more utopian expectations associated with citizen journalism: neither citizen journalism through blogs nor news engagement through social media are likely to lead to a democratisation of the news, if by that term we mean that they accurately reflect and represent popular opinion in society. The userbase of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter isn’t simply representative of society as such, and they are not mechanisms for making democratic decisions, so they won’t ever reflect the opinions of the people in a direct and straightforward way. But they have made it possible for a much broader range of people to engage with and comment on the news, compared to earlier generations of citizen journalism – and in this way, they’ve demoticised such engagement. (Note that there is some overlap between my use of ‘demotic’, and Graeme Turner’s work on the ‘demotic turn’ especially in formats such as talkback radio and reality-TV – but where we differ, I think, is in our evaluation of such developments.)
Q. “Social media is a first draft of the present” — is an expression we also heard from you, and one which you and a colleague likewise used in a recent paper. It indicates that popular online platforms have taken on the role as important sources of our social interactions. What follows when the locus of real-time communication and news engagement shifts to these platforms?
Whatever we might think of the quality of the interpretations of current events – from #Brexit to #EURO2016 – that are shared by ordinary people through social media, Katrin Weller and I argue that these are important reflections of how these people responded to these events; collectively, they express at least part of the contemporary public mood, and they do so at an unusually fine resolution that is measured in the second-by-second timestamps attached to each post.
For #Brexit, for instance, the stream of social media posts carrying the term traces the shift in perspectives, addressing developments from the first exit polls pointing to a narrow loss for the Leave campaign through to Nigel Farage’s late-night concession speech, new prognoses on the following morning, the confirmed Leave win, the commencing economic and political meltdown, the growing buyer’s remorse amongst some Leave voters, and so on. This is not just of interest right now: for future historians studying this pivotal point in European history, the social media data offers an insight into the popular response to world events just as they were playing out in front of the public. We have no comparable source of historical data from pre-social media days: ordinary people are largely absent from a historical record that favours kings and queens, democrats and dictators, until universal literacy popularised (indeed, demoticised) the writing of personal diaries and letters in relatively recent times, and even then such personal records have been far less likely to survive than official documents and news media reports.
Since it began to be archived and preserved, the news media has provided us with a more comprehensive record of the times, written closely to the events themselves, and that’s why it’s been described as “a first rough draft of history” – but of course for all the appeals to objectivity, news reports are ultimately written from the perspective of journalists (and sometimes, media proprietors), and cannot fully reflect the breadth of views that are held by the wider public. Social media content, however, is even closer to real time, and represents more immediate responses – that’s why we suggest that social media is a first draft of the present. And what follows from this is that we must now work seriously on preserving this material as an important resource for future historians: we cannot rely on social media platforms themselves to do so, because they have a habit of going out of business, and the experience with the U.S. Library of Congress’s much-delayed Twitter Archive shows that we can’t even necessarily trust major national institutions to get it right. (If you think Berlin’s new BER airport is taking forever to be finished, try talking to a Twitter researcher about waiting for the LoC archive to open…)
Q. As we all know, Berlin is always worth a visit. When will you be back?
Fairly soon: I’m back, of course, for the Association of Internet Researchers conference that HIIG is hosting on 5-8 October 2016. And that’s not just because I’m currently the Vice-President of AoIR, but because it genuinely is the best, consistently most interesting, and most fun conference in the field. I’ve attended AoIR every year since 2003, and have always found highly current, high-quality, fascinating scholarship here; I’m delighted that working with the HIIG we’ve managed to bring the conference to Germany for the first time. I’m hoping that a very significant number of researchers from Germany and Europe, as well as from further afield, will join us for this year’s conference – and remember, early-bird registration rates for the conference are only available until 1 August!
Thank you Axel, it was a true pleasure having you visit the Humboldt Institute.