I just read this interesting article by Henry Jenkins, the well-known media scholar.
Even though this piece dates back to three years ago, it is still very relevant to the debate on the democratic impact that new media might have on the functioning of our democracies. Jenkins responds to some authors who bemoan the fragmentation of audiences across a wide variety of sources, arguing that the marginalization of mainstream broadcasters will undermine social cohesion and democratic participation.
First, Jenkins says, new media won’t replace traditional media. The two will coexist . It is an argument that he previously developed in this editorial for the Technology Review in June 2001. Delivery technologies might converge and overtime we might access all sorts of media through the same machine, but the media themselves will survive.
Although I’m pretty convinced, one can’t ignore that traditional media (namely TV networks and newspapers) are having a lot of issues adapting to the arrival of new competitors and the subsequent diverting of ad revenues (think not only to online media but also to the arrival of new digital TV channels, free press and innovative services such as VOD).
New technologies are going to spark a huge restructuring of this once secure industry. Although these media will remain, their organization is likely to be significantly modified in this new media architecture.
Secondly, Jenkins refutes the view that new media are detrimental to social cohesion, saying that it overlooks the fact that internet communities are very different from real world ones. Whether it be politically, generationally or geographically, they are usually much more diverse. In addition, internet-based communities members engage in a myriad of online activities so that they end up circulating ideas across a very wide range of audiences. Therefore, what the net creates is not segregation but more debate.
Online social interactions bring some fresh air to democracy, propagating information that was once neglected by opinion leaders, thus “challenging the consensus” as Jenkins puts it. They empower citizens by fostering political participation and create welcome checks and balances to our political systems.This is why it is so important to close the digital gap.