It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.
In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:
“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”
There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.
If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.
The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.
There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.
A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.
This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.