New Media, Democracy and Participation

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Digital communication systems enhance democracy by offering greater access and participation to citizens than traditional media. Discuss.

Digital communication systems have largely enhanced democracy, offering greater access and participation to many, but not all, citizens. This essay will discuss both sides of the argument, beginning by examining the notion of new, digital media as compared to old, traditional media, the concepts which make such media “new”, and how this adds to democracy and greater participation. On the other hand, this essay will also discuss the concept of “digital divide”; that while for many in often Westernised societies, digital communication is freely available, but in other areas it is not, therefore democracy cannot be fully realised in digital communication and new media. Furthermore, some downsides to online media will be explored, and reasons why it does not always promote democratic values.

Decentralisation is a feature prevalent in new media, whereby mass media is now fragmented, and has smaller, niche options for consumers, as compared to traditional media which often has few choices (O’Shaughnessy and Stadler 2008:117). For example, while consumers were once limited to local or national media, such as local newspapers, radio broadcasts and so forth, digital systems are globalised, giving access to media from all over the world. This offers consumers greater access to a much wider variety of content, including international, independent, and amateur. A prime example of this effect is the ability to read worldwide news. Instead of being limited to The Age and The Herald Sun, citizens can go online and access The Washington Post, BBC online, or whatever media they prefer. This is also an example of another feature of new media; globalisation. Terry Flew identifies this as “borderless communication”, which pertains to a “new stage in human social development” (2008:56), which also enhances democracy and participation. This decentralisation can also include amateur submissions to sites such as YouTube, which is another form of decentralised, “disintermediated” media (Lastowka and Hunter 2006:1). This enhances democracy by giving citizens ease of access, greater choice, and ability to be informed on a global scale. The effect of this on society and daily life is that this could challenge traditional forms of Australian media, as consumers are no longer confined to mainstream content.

Similarly, convergence of new media offers greater access and participation, as many aspects of media have become mobile. Henry Jenkins explains convergence as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms” (2006:2). While traditional media often confines consumers to certain objects, for example, news must be read from a newspaper, television programs must be watched on television, convergence can transcend these boundaries. One can now watch television, movies, have access news, communicate with friends, store photographs and much more all from one device, whether it be a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This ease of access, convenience, and mobility add to consumer participation and greater democracy. Another example of this is the fact that Australians no longer have to wait until international television programs are played on commercial television; they can view them online hours after they air with ease and convenience. This could also be said to relate to decentralisation; consumers take the power from media conglomerates by downloading television programs from file-sharing networks, rather than watching on television and contributing to ratings. Another example of this is seen in the music industry. With websites such as YouTube, anyone can disseminate their music. Kembrew McLeod argues “one does not need a major label contract to reach thousands of people” (2005:527), meaning individuals can take some of the power away from the oligopolistic recording industry by creating and...
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