Social Networking

Yohai Benkler (2006) argues in his book, The Wealth of Networks, that new media such as the Internet act as a hybrid media ecology where there are various stakeholders at work in the same spaces, distribution channels and communication practices. Henry Jenkins furthers this idea with examples from YouTube and Second Life in his blog posts.

A variety of institutions and individuals (Commercial, amateur, nonprofit, govt, and educational media producers) intersect in these new media spaces such as on YouTube or forums (either overtly or covertly – anyone heard of corporate astroturfing?). All these participants can have radically different agendas and reasons for participating in these spaces, but what makes these moments of intersection so important are the debates which begin emerging as different groups communicate in the same space (a forum, YouTube clips etc), and the conflict and negotiation that’s going on between the groups and individuals which represent radically different power bases. It is in this background that I’ve continued to be fascinated by the debate with Atkinson appearing on the forums of Kotaku etc.

This conflict between the traditionally powerful (a politician – and attorney general no less), and the powerless (consumers – and video gamers no less) over R18+ classification in Australia is just a really interesting site of conflict. I’m less interested in this post in getting bogged down with whose right or wrong within this debate – eg: does an R18+ classification represent an unacceptable risk for gamers (particularly young ones) being negatively effected, or should adults have the freedom to choose their own entertainment interests etc. Rather what’s interesting to me is how this debate is taking place on the Internet today, and whether this free and open expression of arguments, concerns, etc had more critical mass because of the social networking of the participants involved than it would in a more conventional mass-media environment (eg: where many of these voices would be hidden away in the fan-press, selectively chosen letters-to-the-editor in newspapers, etc). The mainstream news broadcasters have left the implications of Australia not having an R18+ classification largely untouched (there was the unhelpful debate around Fallout 3 during the ABC’s Q&A show last year, which I’m keen to write some reflections on later). But, overall this issue is placed within a media-effect or moral-panic frame in the mainstream media.

There’s tons that this case offers in terms of looking at the networked public sphere. While the context of this R18+ debate is around classification issues, it’s about more than this I think – maybe about a broader issue of how democracy works today. Here we have a case where today’s new media Internet culture operates (social networking, podcasting, spreading documents broadly, etc), and large numbers of people are participating to gather news, interpret it, analyse it, distribute it, and make some claims about what this means about Australian politics, culture and society today. It’s a debate that’s largely being ignored by the mainstream media. It raises many questions of government practice in Australia, etc. We can certainly point towards the networked public sphere engaging with this issue, but my question is: will it successfully turn into something this is not an issue for serious public discussion into a public discussion that can lead to changes and public action?

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