Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Social media but a speed-hump on the old-fashioned institutional trajectory

Until recently, social media promised to facilitate greater policy participation, enable greater user-generated content, and generally bring about the benefits of a digital economy. But none of this has happened and for the most part it has returned to business as usual.

How does a disruptive technology fail to disrupt? Simple. Key industry players and institutional frameworks coincide to ensure that new technologies do not become disruptive in the long term. There may be a moment or two when amateur experimenters get the jump on big business and government, but it doesn't take long until the existing system either changes the rules or subsumes the new technology into existing business models or government institutions.

Pay-TV provides a case in point and the story is captured eloquently by Paul Barry in his 2008 book The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer Uncut. In Australia, Steve Cosser's attempt to capture the pay-TV market in Sydney and Melbourne using microwave systems caught big business and the federal government off-guard. Both business and the feds believed that microwave was an inferior technology. However, the US was using it to great effect and Cosser was on the ball. To cut a long story short, Packer intervened with Cosser's content providers and Keating intervened to prevent Cosser from getting the jump on satellite, ending the government's professed stance on technological neutrality.

Similarly in the US, pay-TV promised a business model free from advertising where users simply paid for the content they watched, rather than having programs interrupted by advertising. However, Winston (1998: 320) outlines how the new technology was soon absorbed by the old ways:
Americans now pay twice, through advertisements and subscriptions, what they used to pay for only once. This has been done in obedience to the 'law' of the suppression of radical potential whereby the new technology over a period of fifty years has been absorbed by the institutional structures of the old. This process has not only reduced cable's, and (probably) DBS's, disruptive potential, it also ensured that those same structures will remain profitable. Although taken over and somewhat battered and by no means inured to the consequences of myopic managements, nevertheless all the major American broadcasting players are still in place.
What does this have to do with social media? Go to Google and search "facebook regulation", then narrow the search to "news". It is immediately obvious that Facebook's disruptive capacity is under attack, globally, from multiple angles: privacy, alcohol advertising, education, security, the law... the list goes on.

In light of the challenges presented to popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it is little wonder that social media has failed to live up to what it promised just a few short years ago.

Admittedly, I embraced social media and tried to implement its use in my teaching, but institutional barriers exist even to simple things such as the use of e-textbooks - these are still under attack from those who do not wish to use them, contracts that stipulate hard copies must be provided to libraries, and a delivery system  that makes it difficult for libraries to provide e-texts instead of hard copy books. To make matters worse, government measures of research output specifically exclude publications produced in online-only formats - only commercial publishers count. So much for sustainable publishing practices and making new knowledge readily available to the public.

Importantly, social media does not exist in a political or institutional vacuum - so the disruptive capacity of  new media has more or less ended now that big businesses and governments have caught up. History suggests that this is inevitable, and it will take more than the technological capacity coinciding with a social revolution to realise the potential social media promised but has not delivered. 

I lament the passing of the promise of change, I really do. But in light of the power of institutions, I think the focus on technology and social movements alone is not the path to an enlightened digital revolution. Indeed, it hasn't worked at all.

From now on I intend to examine in more detail how institutional arrangements help or hinder the realisation of the benefits of a digital economy. My only hope is that this time I will be wise enough to know the difference.

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