Open Social Innovation

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #123, December 2013

 

Innovation, open innovation, social innovation… is there such a thing as open social innovation? Is there innovation in the field of civic action that is open, that shares protocols and processes and, above all, outcomes? Or, better indeed, is there a collectively created innovative social action whose outcomes are aimed at collective appropriation?

Innovation

It seems unavoidable, when speaking about innovation, to quote Joseph A. Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.

In the aforementioned work and in Business Cycles: a Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process he stated that innovation necessarily had to end up with existing processes, and that entire enterprises and industries would be destroyed with the coming of new ways of doing things, as the side effect of innovation. This creative destruction would come from, at least, the following fronts:

  • A new good or service in the market (e.g. tablets vs. PCs).
  • A new method of production or distribution of already existing goods and services (e.g. music streaming vs. CDs).
  • Opening new markets (e.g. smartphones for elderly non-users).
  • Accessing new sources of raw materials (e.g. fracking).
  • The creation of a new monopoly or the destruction of an existing one (e.g. Google search engine)

Social innovation

Social innovation is usually described as innovative practices that strengthen civil society. Being this a very broad definition, I personally like how Ethan Zuckerman described social innovation in the Network Society. According to his innovation model:

  1. Innovation comes from constraint.
  2. Innovation fights culture.
  3. Innovation does embrace market mechanisms.
  4. Innovation builds upon existing platforms.
  5. Innovation comes from close observation of the target environment.
  6. Innovation focuses more on what you have more that what you lack.
  7. Innovation is based on a “infrastructure begets infrastructure” basis.

His model comes from a technological approach — and thus maybe has a certain bias towards the culture of engineering — but it does explain very well how many social innovations in the field of civil rights have been working lately (e.g. the Spanish Indignados movement).

Open innovation

The best way to define open innovation is after Henry W. Chesbrough’s Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating And Profiting from Technology, which can be summarized as follows:

Closed Innovation Principles Open Innovation Principles
The smart people in the field work for us. Not all the smart people in the field work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside the company.
To profit from R&D, we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves. External R&D can create significant value: internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.
If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to the market first. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it.
If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win.
We should control our IP, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas. We should profit from others’ use of our IP, and we should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our business model.

Open Social Innovation

The question is, can we try and find a way to mix all the former approaches? Especially, can we speak about how to have social innovation being open?

In my opinion, there is an important difference between social innovation and innovation that happens in the for-profit environment:

  1. The first one, and more obvious, is that while the former one has to somehow capture and capitalize the benefits of innovation, the second one is sort of straightforward: if the innovation exists, then society can “automatically” appropriate it.
  2. The second one is the real cornerstone: while (usually) the important thing in (for-profit) open innovation is the outcome, in social innovation it (usually) is more important the process followed to achieve a goal rather than achieving the goal itself.

Thus, in this train of thought, open social innovation is the creative destruction that aims at making up new processes that can be appropriated by the whole of civil society. I think there are increasingly interesting examples of open social innovation in the field of social movements, of e-participation and e-democracy, the digital commons, P2P practices, hacktivism and artivism, etc.

I think that open social innovation has three main characteristics that can be fostered by three main actions of policies.

Characteristics

  • Decentralization. Open social innovation allows proactive participation, and not only directed participation. For this to happen, content has to be separated from the container, or tasks be detached from institutions.
  • Individualization. Open social innovation allows individual participation, especially at the origin of innovation. This does not mean that collective innovation is bad or avoided, but just that individuals have much flexibility o start on their own. This is only possible with the atomization of processes and responsibilities, thus enabling maximum granularity of tasks and total separation of roles.
  • Casual participation. Open social innovation allows participation to be casual, just in time, and not necessarily for a log period of time or on a regular basis. This is only possible by lowering the costs of participation, including lowering transaction costs thus enabling that multiple actors can join innovative approaches.

Policies

How do we foster decentralization-individualization-casual participation? how do we separate content from the container? how do we atomize processes, enable granularity? how do we lower costs of participation and transaction costs?

  • Provide context. The first thing an actor can do to foster open social innovation is to provide a major understanding of what is the environment like, what is the framework, what are the global trends that affect collective action.
  • Facilitate a platform. It is not about creating a platform, it is not about gathering people around our initiative. It deals about identifying an agora, a network and making it work. Sometimes it will be an actual platform, sometimes it will be about finding out an existing one and contributing to its development, sometimes about attracting people to these places, sometimes about making people meet.
  • Fuel interaction. Build it and they will come? Not at all. Interaction has to be boosted, but without interferences so not to dampen distributed, decentralized leadership. Content usually is king in this field. But not any content, but filtered, grounded, contextualized and hyperlinked content.

Some last thoughts

Let us now think about the role of some nonprofits, political parties, labour unions, governments, associations, mass media, universities and schools.

It has quite often been said that most of these institutions — if not all — will perish with the change of paradigm towards a Networked or Knowledge Society. I actually believe that all of them will radically change and will be very different from what we now understand by these institutions. Disappear?

While I think there is less and less room for universities and schools to “educate”, I believe that the horizon that is now opening for them to “enable and foster learning” is tremendously huge. Thus, I see educational institutions having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called learning to learn.

What for democratic institutions? I cannot see a bright future in leading and providing brilliant solutions for everyone’s problems. But I would definitely like to see them having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called open government.

Same for nonprofits of all purposes. Rather than solving problems, I totally see them as empowering people and helping them to go beyond empowerment and achieve total governance of their persons and institutions, through socioeconomic development and objective choice, value change and emancipative values, and democratization and freedom rights.

This is, actually, the turn that I would be expecting in the following years in most public and not-for-profit institutions. They will probably become mostly useless with their current organizational design, but they can definitely play a major role in society if they shift towards open social innovation.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “Open Social Innovation” In ICTlogy, #123, December 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4151

Casual Politics: slacktivism as the tip of the technopolitics iceberg

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #123, December 2013

 

Paper cover for Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones

My research on slacktivism has finally been published as a paper both in Spanish and Catalan at two “brother” journals: Educación Social. Revista de Intervención Socioeducativa and Educació Social. Revista d’Intervenció Sòcioeducativa.

This is work that I had already presented at two conferences — 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics; II Jornadas españolas de ciberpolítica — and, thus, is now available in three languages: the former two plus English.

What follows — after the abstract — is a list of the references and full text downloads for the papers. The main idea of the papers is that if we look at slacktivism from the point of view of the “activist”, it is but true that it is a very low-commitment activism. But if we take the approach of the politician or the policy-maker, or if we take some distance and take a look at the whole landscape, what we find is that slacktivism is only a tiny portion of a huge cosmos of people very actively engaging in politics, extra-representational politics though, and that is why most of it flies underneath the traditional political radar.

Abstract

Politics have traditionally looked at the exercise of democracy with at least two implicit assumptions: (1) institutions are the normal channel of politics and (2) voting is the normal channel for politics to make decisions. Of course, reality is much more complex than that, but, on the one hand, all the extensions of that model beyond or around voting –issues related to access to public information, to deliberation and argumentation, to negotiation and opinion shaping, or related to accountability are based on institutions as the core axis around which politics spin. On the other hand, the existence and analysis of extra-institutional political participation –awareness raising, lobbying, citizen movements, protests and demonstrations– have also most of the times been put in relationship with affecting the final outcomes of institutional participation and decision-making, especially in affecting voting.

Inspired in the concept of «feet voting» (developed by Tiebout, Friedman and others) in this paper we want to challenge this way of understanding politics as a proactive and conscious action, and propose instead a reactive and unconscious way of doing politics, based on small, casual contributions and its posterior analysis by means of big data, emergence analysis and pattern recognition.

In our theoretical approach –illustrated with real examples in and out of the field of politics– we will argue that social media practices like tweeting, liking and sharing on Facebook or Google+, blogging, commenting on social networking sites, tagging, hashtagging and geotagging are not what has been pejoratively labelled as «slacktivism» (a comfortable, low commitment and feel-good way of activism) but «casual politics», that is, the same kind of politics that happen informally in the offline world. The difference being that, for the first time, policy- and decision-makers can leverage and turn into real politics. If they are able to listen. If they are able to think about politics out of institutions and in real-time.

Download

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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones. En Educación Social. Revista de Intervención Socioeducativa, (55), 33-51. Barcelona: Universitat Ramon Llull.
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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivisme als moviments emergents i el reconeixement de patrons. A Educació Social. Revista d’Intervenció Sòcioeducativa, (55), 33-50. Barcelona: Universitat Ramon Llull.
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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, 25-26 June, 2013. Barcelona: UOC.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “Casual Politics: slacktivism as the tip of the technopolitics iceberg” In ICTlogy, #123, December 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4150

John Postill: Ethnography for theorising media and change

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #122, November 2013

 

Notes from the workshop Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home within the cycle of seminars Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home, organized by the Mediacciones research group, and held in Barcelona, Spain, in November 25, 2013.

John Postill, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.
Ethnography for theorising media and change.

Anthropology is now very much focussed on change, more explicitly on change, and how media is related with this change. Change is normally addressed by default, that is, it is actually analysed, but it is not that very common that change is problematized as it is being these days.

Media and social changing

Researchers are usually busy analysing what is happening right now, what is emergent, what is imminent to happen. The problem is that then research focuses only on the present continuous, the nearer future, and thus forgetting about the immediate past or just the past. We need to thing more about metaphors not to be slaves of them.

The biography of an actual change

How to overcome the swamp of being caught up by the present continuous? Biographies (or people) have a beginning, a middle and an end, have a live course, have a curriculum, have a story, and a past. The same can be said about a process of change: it has a beginning, a middle and an end… even if it is an abrupt change, it normally does not come from nowhere.

Technology adoption cycle, diffusion of innovations, domestication model, etc. are all models that take the idea of a process as a basis, an approach that could also be used in ethnographic analysis.

Changing models, applying them to other scenarios or disciplines, etc. is a good way to advance and improve the models themselves.

Diachronic ethnography

Besides — or in addition to — multi-sited ethnography (George Marcus) we have to introduce multi-time ethnography. In ICT or digital ethnography this is more possible than ever: one can dig in digital archives for the past, but a past picturing the real thing (not chronicles: just archives of what was really said and done online); and, of course, one can go on analysing the “future” by keeping connected to the virtual community, etc. that one is analysing. It is now possible, then, to perform multi-timed ethnography, by taking multiple points in time in our fieldwork.

This practice may help us not only to tell what is happening, but why and, even more important, why in this way and not in another way… or what is changing socially despite the fact that all other factors may apparently remain unchanged.

Media-related changes

What is media? What is change? Do we have simple definitions for these concepts?

Changes: actual transformation from state A to state B.

Media-related changes: actual transformation from state A to state B where media have played a significant role in the way.

The change may not be at the macro level, or measured at the “end” of the process, but at the micro and meso levels, or measured withint the process. For instance, the Spanish Indignados movement may have not led to a change of regime, but there actually was a change in how civil society organized, and in this change media had a very important and significant role.

Conclusions

  1. Treat processes of change as collective biographies where actors use technologies that influence social practices.
  2. Combine synchronic ethnography with diachronic ethnography, to add a time dimension, to conduct multi-time ethnography.
  3. Media-related changes as a way to focus on the role of media without falling into techno-determinism.

Discussion

Rosa Borge: in a multi-time analysis, where should one begin or when should one stop analysing? Postill: one of the problems is that there will usually be discrepancies between what the researcher thinks are the milestones or the important stages of the process (e.g. beginning, end) and what is the perception of the participants. What the researcher has to provide is a good foundation on how the research decisions are taken.

Lídia Arroyo: is this about putting the accent on different approaches as the micro- and macro-levels? Postill: Ethnography is not necessarily about the micro-level. Indeed, many micro-level changes can lead us to macro-level and/or systemic changes, and the micro-analysis can really help on figuring out what happened at the macro-level.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “John Postill: Ethnography for theorising media and change” In ICTlogy, #122, November 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4144

Global Revolution (I). Sequence of gestation, explosion and contagion of the network movements cycle 2011-2013 (I)

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #121, October 2013

 

Notes from the Three years of interconnected riots. Emergence, evolution and challenges of the network movements in the context of the #GlobalRevolution, organized by the Communication and Civil Society programme of the IN3 in Barcelona, Spain, in October 23, 2013. More notes on this event: globalrev.

Guadalupe Martínez (Universidad de Granada. Expert in the Tunisian electoral process)
The Tamarod (rebellion) movement. Expression in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine, Iraq.

The Tamarod phenomenon takes place in a specific geographical area — the one that was part of the Arab Spring in 2011-2012 — but an area that is expanding — now towards Syria. But we have to take into account that not all Arabic countries are experiencing this movement, and not all countries are from the Arabic world (e.g. Turkey).

The Tamarod movement stands for rebellion and is liked with the Arab Spring, but it is not exactly its extension. It begins circa Spring 2013, a major visibility during Summer 2013 and a later phase of active action during Fall 2013. The name Tamarod is used in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine an Iraq. In Libya it takes the name of Rafd (rejection) and in Palestine as Qawen (resistance). The focus of reference is Egypt 30 June 2013 and it is an interconnected movement with the Net as a main node (especially Facebook and Twitter).

Common characteristics

There is a sociological mimesis: young, urban and educated citizens with experience in activism.

None of the movements questions the legitimacy of the governments, or how they did get to the government, but they do question how they use power once in office. This does not mean that there are no specific characteristics in each case/country: indeed, the focus of pressure is different as there is a defective illiberal democracy in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya; a pluralist quasi-comptetitive authoritarianism in Morocco; or an restrictive hegemonic authoritarianism in Bahrain. And the distribution of power is also different: presidential republics (Egypt, maybe Palestine), parliamentarian republics (Tunisia, Iraq, Libya), absolutist monarchy (Bahrain), and constitutional (though authoritarian) monarchy (Morocco).

So, in general, the movement(s) aim at dissolving the ruling institutions, but they do put the accent or focus in different and specific aspects of their respective institutions. Tamarod is a movement for democracy, and in no case is a movement against a specific group (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood or the islamists). Thus, the relationship of Tamarod with the parties of each country depends on the context, the inner institutional structure of the country, the very same nature of the parties, etc.

The role of the security forces has also been slightly different in each country, ranging from frontal opposition (and fight), no implication at all, or even a positive implication — most of the cases, though, feature a negative implication of the security forces.

Lali Sandiumenge (Journalist. Author of the blog: guerrerosdelteclado.wordpress.com)

The Kifaya platform is born in Egypt in 2004, made up by experienced activists (“from the previous generation”) to ask for dire reforms in Mubarak’s government. Kifaya gathers, thus, people that have taken part in many other protests. The new thing is that the young wing of Kifaya trains other activists on how to use the new tools of technopolitics.

In 2006 there’s the blossoming of the islamist blogosphere. Youngsters belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood thus demand through the Net the freeing of imprisoned activists and, on the other hand, claim having a voice on their own without the mediation of media.

In Mahalla, during 2006 and especially in 2008, there are worker protests, which in 2008 becomes a complete riot, not only about labour rights but about basic needs like food (e.g. rice, which had seen its prices sky-rocketing).

The 6th of April Youth Movement is created in Spring 2008 to support the riots in Mahalla and it becomes the first hybrid movement which is born online but supports an offline movement and vice-versa: to try and spread an offline movement making strong an online movement.

After the murder of Khaled Mohamed Saeed (May-June 2010), a page is created on Facebook and quickly becomes a central forum of political debate around democracy (and the lack of it) in Egypt.

Little by little, the riots in Tunisia spread towards Egypt where activism escalates. The protests then quickly become an international unrest and evolve in parallel in both countries. Besides blog pages, Facebook pages, etc. in Arabic, increasingly lots of activists publish in English to escalate the conflict and place it outside of the region’s boundaries. At last, a general call is made to take Tahrir Square. Mubarak blocks the Internet, causing a Streisand effect and making the movement even more visible and gathering more international support.

Javier Toret (Investigador. Trabaja entre filosofía, política, psicología y tecnología, Datanalysis15M)

There are several factors that made the 15M movement blast, that generated a movement that became unrest and evolved into a huge movement.

There is a process of learning, specially in the field of technopolitics. “Hacking + activism + netstrike = hacktivism”. Added to this process, there is a context of an economic crisis, which is one of the determinants, but not the determinant of the 15M movement. Indeed, it is more important the political crisis around the legitimacy of democracy and a need to regenerate it: #nolesvotes, Generación NiNi against the bipartidism, Juventud Sin Futuro, etc.

Technopolitics is way beyond cyberactivism and is not at all slacktivism. Technopolitics is an idea of intervention, is feeding back the physical and the digital layers to improve political activism.

The 15M movement started in social networking sites: 82% of the initial participants new about the movement online — especially Facebook. 1.5M were very active and circa 8.5 participated in any way. 76% of the participants came not from traditional political activism: it was initiated by a brand new generation of activists.

The different movements were interconnected: 31% of the participants of the #nolesvotes movement then came to participate in the 15M. In other words, the 15M movement was slowly born in many other movements that evolved, merged and exploded into a new one.

There is a multilayer activism, which begins in the physical layer (i.e. the streets and squares), then up to the digital layer to try and impact the mass media and political layers.

What the 15M does is to gather all the energy spread across different social networking sites and digital platforms, and to make it go out of the Internet and onto the “plazas” or camps.

After that, the movement boosts. Searches on the internet about the movement, or even keywords as “democracy” peak after the camps, the network dramatically increases its size, a network of camps and replicating nodes is created, nodes are empowered, etc.

Israel Solorio (Researcher. YoSoy132 Movement, Mexico)

In Mexico is difficult to think about any social movement without taking into account the Zapatist movement and how they used technological tools for their own political actions. Other movements that affected were, of course, the Spanish Indignados movemement of the 15M, and also the killings of Tlatelolco during the student mobilizations in 1968. Among many others.

A difference from the YoSoy132 movement and the 15M movement and Democracia Real Ya is that the Mexican case was totally unintended. It all starts with a boycott to candidate Peña Nieto at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

The movement achieved major visibility through individual spokesmen that made it to the headlines and mainstream media, especially TV channels — though a specific individual ended up being hired by the main corporation, Televisa, which was a blow to the credibility of the movement.

Differently from the Spanish 15M movement, which was against political parties in general, YoSoy132 was definitively against the candidate Peña Nieto. Then, when Peña Nieto won the elections and came to office, the movement went into a sort of stand by state, with some action, but mainly remaining latent.

Discussion

Q: how are these movements being populist (or not)? Martínez: it is difficult to state. Many times they are just asking for a genuine regeneration of democracy, but it is also true that, in the Arab region, they often use populist messages and iconography to raise awareness and wake up people by the feelings.

Q: do you think mainstream mass media are censoring the news they do not like, or is it just that they do not understand or do not how to explain the movements? Martínez: it is interesting to state that many media — especially those that are against the government — in the Arab region, media are actually reinforcing and amplifying the movements. Toret: it really depends on the place. In any case, it is true that it is a common characteristic that these movements try to break the circle of power made up by governments and mass media and that determine the public agenda. Solorio: the role of media has been evolving along time. Initially they amplified the movement, as they wanted to foster political debate (or fight the candidate), but now they are more against it and aim at its destruction.

More information

Global Revolution. Three years of interconnected riots (2013)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “Global Revolution (I). Sequence of gestation, explosion and contagion of the network movements cycle 2011-2013 (I)” In ICTlogy, #121, October 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4131

The reinvention of democracy in the network society

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #121, October 2013

 

Paper cover for La reinvención de la democracia en la sociedad-red

During the year 2012, the research programme on Communication and Civil Society of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute carried on a series of research seminars on Internet, net neutrality, hacker ethics and digital culture and on Internet, institutional crisis and new institutionalism — the later, coordinated by myself.

The result of that work is the recently issued working paper La reinvención de la democracia en la sociedad-red [The reinvention of democracy in the network society], coordinated by Arnau Monterde Mateo, Adrià Rodríguez and myself, and which has been published in Spanish.

I want to very sincerely thank Arnau Monterde for the opportunity he gave to me to take part and coordinate one of the seminars, and acknowledge the huge amount of work that Arnau Rodríguez devoted in putting all the pieces together. On the other hand, the final paper would not have been possible without the contributions of the participants that attended the seminars. In no particular order, and besides Arnau, Adrià and I, those were Pablo Aragón, Cristina Cullell, Débora Lanzeni, Carlos Sánchez Almeida, Javier Toret, Gala Pin, Carlos Tomás Moro, Joan Coscubiela, Gemma Galdón, Tomás Herreros, Rommy Morales, Pedro Miguel Da Palma Santos, Joan Subirats and Alicia Domínguez. A warm thank you to all of them.

Abstract

From the Arab Spring, through movement occupywallstreet or 15M it has been opened a new cycle of political network movements which propose many new elements regarding the political use of new technologies and the Internet to collective action. These new movements see the network not only as a tool or battlefield, but also as an organizational form, establishing a relationship that commonly has been linked to ethics and ways to do of hacker communities.

Moreover, the financial crisis in Europe is deepening blocking political institutions that have been building since the beginning of modernity. This crisis is expressed not only in the inability of these institutions to tackle the current economic, social and political, but also in its complicity with the mechanisms of financial dispossession. Such institutional crisis determines the need to exercise both a critical and process of invention and construction work that starts from the new technological possibilities and lessons of network movements, hacker culture and free software, which enable reinventing institutional and constitutional forms, and therefore also of democracy itself.

Download

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Monterde, A., Rodríguez de Alòs-Moner, A. & Peña-López, I. (Coords.) (2013). La Reinvención de la democracia en la sociedad red. Neutralidad de la Red, ética hacker, cultura digital, crisis institucional y nueva institucionalidad. IN3 Working Paper Series, WP13-004. Barcelona: UOC-IN3.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “The reinvention of democracy in the network society” In ICTlogy, #121, October 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4128

New niches for online journalism

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #121, October 2013

 

Journalism has traditionally faced the same constraints of most institutions of the industrial society. On the one hand, the scarcity of resources: remote or hidden sources of information, a limited radio wave spectrum, lack of paper and the associated costs to buy it, etc. On the other hand, the transaction costs of putting the whole thing together: expensive (tele)communication infrastructures, reaching an audience, reaching advertisers, coordinating staff, etc.

These are arguably the most powerful reasons why media are mass media, and why we quite often cannot think about journalism without translating it into mass media – even if the concepts are as different as the seventh art and the entertainment industry. Thus, mass media address a general audience with general information (we are simplifying here, of course). In other words, mass media does scale up: in a bricks-and-mortar-and-paper world, it is more efficient and effective to address a massive audience than targeting each and every individual according to their tastes.

On the contrary, other scenarios are just not sustainable. Let’s take, for instance, the example of critical analysis of local political news. Such exercise requires, on the one hand, a deep knowledge of journalism and, on the other hand, a deep knowledge of political science, sociology, economics, etc. to which we have to add the narrow context of a municipality. But as the scenario is a municipality, it is unlikely that such a narrow audience will be able to sustain such an investment in quality knowledge: specialized (and expensive) journalists vs. a short number of advertisers and a reduced number of newspaper readers/buyers.

The trade-off is, of course, a lack of breadth and depth of news and information in general. That is, it is just normal that, if media aim at having a massive audience, they simply address the very average of the distribution of population — just like most political parties do too — both in terms of topics addressed (breadth) and the intensiveness with which they are addressed (depth).

As a result, it is not surprising to witness the huge concentration of media producing information — but not data journalism or critical analysis — about quite general topics — but with poor specialization or opening up the lens to provide comparisons between topics or a broader context.

Depth

Width

Data
Information
Knowledge
Micro / specialized / local      
Meso / General      
Macro / Multidisciplinary      
Table 1: saturated niches of journalism

But the digitization of information and communications may open up what once was closed in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.

Now, the costs of producing information are lowered dramatically. Actually, what is now much lower is not the costs of producing information but the costs of publishing or broadcasting it, which is quite different. The most immediate thing that comes to mind is the reduction of the cost of paper. But there is much much more than that: the Internet knows not about radiowave (physical) constraints and, thus, knows not about a short supply of wave spectrum that pushes prices up; the Internet neither knows about the costs of accessing quality multimedia content from whatever place in the world (one’s own city suburbs included, by the way); the Internet knows not of most costs related to delivery; etc.

If costs are cut down, so can revenues.

And if revenues can be reduced, so can audiences.

And then specialization can happen.

What new spaces are disclosed by online journalism?

Depth

Width

Data
Information
Knowledge
Micro / specialized / local Characterization
Pattern recognition
  Policy
Meso / General      
Macro / Multidisciplinary Correlation
Causality
  Macro-level comparisons
Macro-level trends
Complexity
Paradigm shifts
Table 2: new niches of online journalism vs. saturated niches.

Firstly, we can now dig into the micro-level, by being specialized in a topic or discipline or, if we are speaking in geographical terms, we can go back to the local level and provide quality data at this level.

Secondly, we can broaden the scope of data out to the macro-level, providing a multidisciplinary approach that can bring into the equation analysis of correlation and causality between different variables and/or levels. At the geographical level this means shifting to a world wide vision and thus providing context.

Symmetrically, we can gain depth in the quality of information and turn it into knowledge that can be directly applied as policy advice and the very micro or local levels.

These are just scattered reflections upon which I have been rambling the past years. But it seems to me — and it is just a personal impression — that some of these things are beginning to take real form. We will see, in the near future, whether they become mainstream or just end up to the place where unsuccessful experiments of trial-and-error go.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “New niches for online journalism” In ICTlogy, #121, October 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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