Digital Communications at a Crossroads

Promoting Social Justice, Democratic Participation and Youth Civic Engagement in the Broadband Era

By: Jeff Chester, Center for Digital Democracy

Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D., American University

Presented December 3, 2007 at Media Democracy Fund Meeting in New York

The digital media's potential to serve democracy and social justice and fulfill a much-needed role in addressing some of the basic inequities facing our society will be fundamentally determined during this early, crucial phase of broadband communications. It is vitally important that funders and NGOs play a leading role in shaping not only the noncommercial sector, but also the commercial marketplace in the expanding digital media environment.

As we explain below, a powerful new media culture is evolving that seamlessly combines communications, community, entertainment and commerce. A reliance primarily on government policy interventions to ensure that the digital media environment both ensures ownership of media outlets by women and persons of color and supports an array of viable content services will not be sufficient by itself. Below we highlight some of the major trends that are reshaping the digital media system, identify critical issues about what is at stake for social justice and democracy, and offer recommendations for interventions that could help ensure the creation of a democratic, equitable, and participatory media culture for the future.

We have entered the multi-platform broadband era, as more and more U.S. households are adopting high-speed Internet connections through cable or DSL, and as mobile technologies proliferate throughout the population. The next few years will witness an acceleration of mobile communications services, linking many to what is being termed the "mobile web." Ensuring that these tens of millions of initial users – many of whom are youth -- come to expect and support a wide-range of public interest broadband services should be a priority. These “early adopters” will influence much of the ultimate direction for our new media system.

While the digital divide remains a very real and critical concern that requires a comprehensive intervention, a substantial number of U.S. users now have some form of broadband. Broadband has passed dial-up as the leading form of Internet access; 50.3 million homes had broadband in 2006 (compared to only 20.6 million in 2003). PricewaterhouseCoopers believes that 89 million U.S. households will have broadband by 2011. Mobile Internet services are also expanding rapidly, both domestically and globally, with approximately 3.3 billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide, around half the world population (230 million people in the US have cell phones; 41 percent can connect to the Internet).

Among the fast-growing groups embracing online, especially mobile communications, is the Latino community. "Hispanics with Internet access outpace the general population in reported hours of daily media and technology use," explains a recent industry report. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the past two to three years have brought rapid adoption of broadband by African-Americans, with 40 percent of African-Americans now reporting a broadband Internet connection at home, a 31 percent increase from 2006.

The digital marketplace is in a major phase of growth and maturation, characterized by substantial investment in next-generation content and services and the refinement of commercial business models. A major thrust of the current industry initiatives is focused on expanding the role of entertainment and generating advertising revenues. These formative developments will profoundly influence the shape and direction of media culture in the coming years.

The emergence of "Web 2.0" -- including the rise of mobile broadband -- is creating a digital media system that is increasingly portable, participatory, and ubiquitous. Today's online experience has often been focused on information, but entertainment-based interactive content is growing. The investment firm of Piper Jaffrey last year coined the term "communitainment" to describe the merging of online content, social networks, entertainment and online commerce, predicting that "at least one-half of all content consumption on the Internet over the next decade will be communitainment, driven by the popularity of instant messaging (IM), social networking, and photo and video sharing sites." Such analysis reflects in particular the changing media consumption patterns of youthful users (on a global level). Social networking sites are among the fastest-growing platforms, particularly among young people. Facebook grew 125 percent in a single year, and now reports more than 57 million users. MySpace recently boasted of 72 million unique U.S. monthly visitors on its popular site.

Investment in community-based broadband and mobile social network models by venture capitalists and others raises questions about the role and potential viability of independent and diverse local media. The current wave of commercial interest is based on the expectation that local communications services will reap tremendous economic rewards in the near term, due to new technologies and markets.

Web 2.0 investment may create a host of community media outlets that purport to offer a diversity of perspectives, but which have ownership control and business models that may not necessarily reflect the country's diversity. Entrepreneurs in this area may benefit from "first-mover" advantage, effectively preempting and foreclosing upon what might be sustainable new media services owned by and benefiting African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, the poor, rural and native communities, etc. One example of this trend is, a new Web service for "sharing and exploring information about neighborhoods," launched earlier this year in 63 cities and 3,217 neighborhoods in the U.S. The company's first round of investors include Union Square Ventures, as well as Marc Andreessen, John Seely Brown, and Esther Dyson. Investors have also seeded mobile versions of social networks (with more than a dozen already competing for an annual award for the best such network). The business model for almost all of these services is principally interactive marketing and advertising (see below). Unfortunately, there has been very limited venture investment in efforts designed to serve the broader interests of African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, and other groups traditionally underserved by the media.

Venture investors for local-oriented community media also recognize that there will be dramatic growth in the business known as local search. It is expected that Internet users will increasingly turn to online search to obtain information about local services and community information. Google, Yahoo!, the telephone companies and Web 2.0 start-ups hope to share a part of what is expected to be a $9 billion local search market in the U.S. by 2011. Community groups will need to position themselves as either operator-owners or key participants of local services if they are to be successful at achieving visibility and generating new forms of revenue.

Youth are the influential "defining users" of digital media, seamlessly integrating technology into their lives, and forging a new set of cultural practices that are quickly moving into the mainstream. Digital media are also playing an increasingly important role in youth socialization.

The quintessential "early adopters" of new technology, children and teens are eagerly embracing cell phones, iPods, and a variety of other new digital tools and assimilating them into their daily lives. Approximately 67 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 11 are online, and 74 percent of ages 12-14 are on the Web. Experts estimate that by 2010, those proportions will soar to 71 percent (ages 8-11) and 85 percent (ages 12-14). The features of interactive media are especially appealing to young people because they tap into such key developmental needs as identity exploration, self-expression, peer relationships, and independence. A number of experts from academia and industry have noted that youth are now “internalizing” digital communications as part of their basic approach to self and society.

Youth are especially avid users of Web 2.0 participatory media -- MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the like. Market researchers are keeping very close tabs on how young people interact with new media, cultivating relationships with them in order to develop new content and services designed to cater to their needs and interests. Many of the new media services offered to the public have been created with youth in mind (and very often developed by innovative and entrepreneurial young users). These "digital natives," as they are sometimes called, are the subjects of a growing array of market research projects conducted in the U.S, as well as globally (from Yahoo!, Nickelodeon, MTV and Microsoft, for example).

The digital media are fostering new forms of civic engagement and political activism. If promoted and supported, these promising efforts could become an even grater presence in the new media environment.

Online activism has flourished in recent years, addressing such issues as the environment (e.g., Free the Planet!) international crises (e.g., and discrimination (e.g., Free the Jena 6 videos on YouTube). The medium has been especially important as a training ground for youth self expression and civic engagement (e.g., WireTap, TakingITGlobal, HarlemLive, Participatory Culture Foundation, etc.). The Internet's "long tail" of sustainable content, moreover, has proved to be much more accommodating of alternative and minority voices than the mainstream media, which continue to be dominated by a handful of multinational giants. The Web, in contrast, is home to a remarkably broad range of content, from the innumerable individual voices of the blogosphere to the collaborative work of Wikipedia. Mobile technologies are also becoming important tools for political activism (e.g.,

As democratization of digital media continues however, a buying spree from both old and new media companies, as well as investment from venture capitalists backing Web 2.0 start-up companies, is placing the control of much of this new landscape in fewer hands.

Last year saw a record number of mergers in the entertainment and media sector, with deals worth $72 billion. More than $30 billion was spent on new-media advertising-related deals during the first half of 2007 alone, according to Advertising Age, as companies such as Google, Microsoft, Time Warner, Yahoo! and others acquired major specialty businesses that harness data for targeting consumers online. Rupert Murdoch purchased MySpace; Google bought YouTube and the leading ad network for blogs, FeedBurner.

In the meantime, the phone and cable companies have been able to use their political clout to secure a favorable position for themselves, enjoying near-monopoly status in providing broadband connections (raising the network neutrality issue). A number of experts believe that this new form of media concentration will eventually enable a few global giants, including Google, to dominate and shape much of the future of online content, given their control of the lion's share of advertising revenues. In light of the current crisis within journalism and existing media organizations, such a scenario warrants closer scrutiny.

A system designed to harness the power of digital media to better serve the interests of advertisers is emerging as one of the most important forces shaping the Internet. While the increasing presence of online advertising is readily apparent, much of the new digital marketing apparatus is largely invisible to the public, yet its impact on the structure and content of new media will be significant.

Targeting individual consumers with marketing messages honed by personalized data collection is the fundamental business model shaping much of the future of digital media. The range of content and services emerging has largely been designed to foster the ability of major marketers and brands to better connect and influence consumers. Interactive marketing technologies permit advertisers and marketers (and politicians) to identify the interests of individual users through the tracking of their online activities (now largely confined to the Internet but with plans to do the same on mobile and digital television networks as well). Nearly all of the mergers cited above were arranged principally to take advantage of what will be a major growth in online ad revenues. Internet advertising in the U.S. will grow to $35.4 billion by 2007, up from $16.8 billion last year. By 2011, spending on Internet advertising will surpass newspapers as the nation's leading ad medium.

The forms of advertising, marketing, and selling that are emerging as part of the new media depart in significant ways from the more familiar types of advertising and promotion in conventional media. The practices that are becoming commonplace in the digital environment have important implications for the future of democratic discourse.

Companies can now forge intimate ongoing relationships with individuals. Digital technologies make it possible to track every move, online and off, compiling elaborate personal profiles that combine behavioral, psychological, and social information on individuals, and aggregating that data across platforms and over time. Of particular concern is the increasing presence of marketing in online communities. Many of the same features of Web 2.0 that are so valued for their participatory capabilities are being designed to incorporate marketing applications, as investors seek to “monetize” the newest forms of digital media. The nature and extent of direct involvement by marketers into daily communication and community building activities – particularly of young people -- is unprecedented. Using sophisticated data mining, research, and targeting tools, companies are able to strategically penetrate MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking platforms in order to exploit them for commercial purposes.

Marketers speak of “recruiting evangelists,” by seeking out the “influencing members of each social network” and turning them into “brand breeders” or “brand advocates” for products. Youth are offered incentives to incorporate brands into their user-generated content and distribute their work virally on the Internet, cell phones, and iPods. The rampant commercialization of these nascent digital communities raises serious questions about their future role as sites for political and civic engagement.

While the developments described above are occurring at a rapid pace, there is still sufficient fluidity in the emerging digital media culture to enable strategic interventions that could help shape and guide its direction. The goal should be to promote its role as a social force for good as it continues to grow as a powerful tool for commerce.

The central role that digital media are playing in our lives today will only increase in the future, becoming even further integrated into the personal, political, cultural, and economic experiences of future generations. The significant investment in and growth of digital communications underway during the next few years will not automatically translate into sustainable and meaningful online services that promote social justice, equity, and public wellbeing. There is a real likelihood, in our view, that without the development of meaningful alternatives, much of what will dominate will be applications principally focused on entertainment and marketing. The stakes are particularly high for people of color and community-based groups, who should be encouraged to seize the opportunities for effective intervention now in order to ensure that their needs and interests are served in the future.

Clearly, more should be done in the policy arena to educate local, state and federal officials and NGOs about the implications of the new media marketplace for civil society and social reform. Such an agenda should include issues such as community broadband, rural and inner-city deployment, equitable access, public media, and network neutrality. But in addition to a more potent and coherent policy agenda, there is a need for a range of initiatives designed to build the values and objectives of social justice and media democracy into the foundation of the emerging media system. In order to take advantage of the current opportunities, a variety of tasks will be necessary. The following are a few suggestions:

• A survey and analysis of current investment into existing and planned social networks, especially at the community level. There needs to be a better understanding of who is investing (especially in terms of diversity and localism) and what business models have been embraced. In particular, the survey should identify U.S. and international models that are truly diverse and aim for social justice outcomes.

• An education effort to inform NGOs and other stakeholders of the changes in the market, helping them secure the necessary information so they can more effectively participate in Web 2.0 and beyond.

• The creation of pilot projects for social and other new media ventures that are principally concerned with diverse ownership, community economic growth and the creation of public interest content. This effort should include exploring sustainable business models, including advertising, but designed in a socially responsible way (protecting privacy, investing in community, true local governance, etc.).

• Convenings of state-based and national NGO working groups that can play a leadership role surveying the new media landscape. These groups should be urged to come up with a series of strategic action plans.

• Initiatives designed to encourage and support youth as change agents for new media, through local and state-based civic and political activism projects. These could include efforts to mobilize youth around key policy and marketing issues that affect the future of participatory media culture.

In all of these areas -- broadband deployment, content development, entrepreneurial strategies, ownership consolidation, revenue generation, and civic engagement -- there are both opportunities and challenges ahead. The danger is that in our fascination with the technology itself, which continues to delight and amaze us with new goods and services, we'll overlook the sheer effort required to realize the full potential of online communications.

Attention must be paid both to the policy issues that underlie the communications revolution, and to the development and financial support of content and services for the public good. For while the new media will continue to be more diverse and participatory than the old media, there is no guarantee that the essential communications needs of our democracy -- including civic discourse, investigative journalism, diverse viewpoints, and cultural expression -- will be able to survive and thrive into the future.