some of us are brave

Thoughts on a Theory: New Media and Representation

This post has two antecedents, one more ignoble than the other.

On one side, I half-joked on Twitter that I make my friends listen to my half-formed theories on new/legacy/social media organizations, race, class, gender, and tweefing (i.e. twitter + beefing or the more formal “conflicts that originate on or encompass a social media platform”).

On the other side, Gene Demby asked of the uptick in videos of police brutality and state violence caught on tape if they are on the rise or if we’re just seeing them more.

My thoughts from one of these lines of inquiry contoured my gut reaction to the second.

Demby points out that crime is pretty low, statistically and historically speaking but police reaction to infractions seem both out-sized and easy to catch on camera.

And surely technological advancements like camera phones, faster connections, sharing-based internet sites, and apps have lowered the cost (financial, developmental, and decision) of making and distributing videos of police violence.

But, camera phones aren’t *that* new, as compared against the short generations of the technological age. A cursory history puts them at about 14 years old, surely shorter for peak diffusion. But, still, this isn’t a new feature. My mother takes selfies, just as a benchmark.

And while diffusion has been spiky by race/class/gender/geography/generation for numerous technologies, mobile technology actually skews positive for folks we often describe as low-status. Poor people, working class people, young people, spatially segregated people, and other “others” have relatively high adoption rates of cell phones.

That matters because those happen to be the same groups who are over policed and end up having more interactions with the police. Presumably, more interactions with the police lead to higher rates of experiencing police violence.

If video technologies had been confined to macbook owners, maybe we could chalk it all up to individual and group adoption of technologies. But in this case, mobile works in favor of the assumption that we should have, or could have, seen an increase in video of police brutality seven years ago. To be fair, maybe we did and I missed it. If you have that kind of data, let me know.

But to Gene’s point, there is a sense that almost every other day for maybe three months or so there is a new “shocking” video of the police beating a woman on a public street; executing a man on a sidewalk; throwing a jaywalker to the ground; or, murdering customers in Wal-Mart.

I’d like to pose a counter-theory for why we get that sense.

It’s a story about technology but not how individuals have used it but how technology shaped how journalists get and “make” news.

I mentioned before the role that embedded journalists had in maintaining the Ferguson, MO events “alive” over a weekend, often considered the graveyard for breaking news items.

Traditionally, when the decision-makers and news-makers go home for the weekend “breaking” news doesn’t get broke. It’s such a truism, that Very Important People & Co. do Friday “news dumps” of news they are obligated to release but would prefer not get reported on.

What happened with Twitter and Ferguson the weekend a police officer murdered Mike Brown was significant for social movement scholars who look at things like how people use social media to effect change.

But, I also thought it was important to note the role new media journalists played in keeping the story alive over the breaking news graveyard zone.

It meant the story didn’t go away before legacy media returned on Monday.

Not only that, but by the time legacy media tuned into the story embedded journalists had outpaced them in news gathering. For the time being I’m going to say embedded journalists are not just on social media, in that they have an account, but they are embedded in social media norms, rituals, collectivities and modes of behavior.

Many of those embedded journalists were minorities.

In fact, one of the reasons I think of these journalists as embedded isn’t just that they use “new media” but they use “new media” from their social location across various online constituancies¬†(collectivities or publics or, less desirable perhaps, “interest groups”).

That’s similar to the way that earlier generations of black journalists, for instance, were recruited to cover “Negro issues”, but I think it is slightly different.

For one, Negro issues did not expand the overall media landscape. In fact, Negro issues were in many cases competing for constrained space on front pages or newscasts.

In contrast, new media organizations have *expanded* ¬†the overall landscape of news, which today is more often measured in some unit of “attention” as it is pages or clock hours.

New media expanded news attention or maybe it responded to an increased attention span for news, either/or/both.

This increased the organizations themselves, creating new roles for writers, editors, journalists, etc. In the language of my people, this is expansion and differentiation and they generally go together.

But, wait, you say! There is plenty of “excess” labor in media who could have filled up that space. True enough. ¬†But the expansion had a rationale (or, logic) that said this was “new” territory, this Internets and social medias. It required new-ish kind of skills and, perhaps, maybe even cheaper labor arrangements. More social media interns and fewer news desk jockeys, perhaps?¬†That would fit a long-standing paradigm.

At the structural level though this was a case of organizational change creating fissures for previously under-reprentated or marginalized folks to leverage a moment of confusion about the new environment into a commodity.

That means you saw folks transitioning from Twitter joke accounts to writers at new media organizations that are now transitioning into more traditional forms of long form investigative journalism.

It meant black folks and women and gay and [insert non hetereonormative white male elite group here] bloggers became a farm system for new media organizations.

And some of those hires did not just bring an awareness of the speed, mores, and complexities of social media. They also brought their social networks and cultural literacy. Perhaps more importantly, they chose to cultivate those networks and literacies as part of their professional networks and literacies.

Folks have always brought their networks with them to jobs. In news-making, which is highly dependent on (elite) social networks, that is especially true. But, social media may have blunted the value of formal social networks in a few specific job roles. Formal networks are those bound by what college you went to or which prestigious internship you had with whom. In this case, embeddedness seems to be less institutionalized or, at least, hinges more on self-identification. You can change your social media networks in ways you can’t change where you were born or went to school.

It follows that you have journalists embedded in social media networks that would not only be more likely to be beaten by the cops and have a cell phone camera app at the ready to record it; but, who are also more likely to *see* a video making the social media rounds.

And, some of these embedded journalists aren’t just more likely to see that video but their cultural literacy means they are more likely to read the tenor of social media activity, discerning it’s scope, depth and longevity. They can, in old school media terms, tell if something’s got legs. (One way to get at this would be to do a social network analysis of news diffusion among “verified” media accounts across org type).

You combine these changes in who sees what because of who they are and the conditions under which they are, and you have expanded attention for video clips of police brutality, more weak ties (see: social network theories) who will experience police brutality; and more opportunities to keep the story alive.

Just a theory at this point. So, you know, your milage may vary…

If you read this whole thing and have a sense of where tweeting comes into play, you get a thousand internet credits.



3 comments on “Thoughts on a Theory: New Media and Representation

  1. steve
    October 14, 2014

    Interesting read and analysis. I don’t know what kind of work you’re doing, but I think I have a theory that might help you explain some of your ideas. Nick Couldry wrote a book in 2000 called Place of Media Power: Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Digital Age. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but if not, he talks about the shock fans of a soap opera experience when they pilgrimage to the set to see the production and the “reality” of the show. He does the same but in a different way with a group of protestors who draw media attention during their protest event, and the shock they get when they watch it in the evening news, as it has been cut down, formatted and framed in ways suitable for production needs and wants. He calls this media power. It signifies the ability of the media to represent reality at a deep level. The shock reveals a certain level/kind of media power, as presumably it wouldn’t exist without media power. As I was reading your post, part of me was thinking about the shock that digital journalists seem to be experiencing now that they’re more embedded in events of social unrest. The communication technologies, through a lens of soft determinism, afford for a level of greater intimacy between journalist and certain events in ways that were less likely before (and of course the images and description captured draw consumers) . And the shock they seem to be expressing through their treatment with police and other authority figures signifies their disconnect from the lives and realities of many others.

    As for twitter data/research, I’d check our some of the work in Information, Communication & Society. Also see Jennifer Earl and Axel Bruns if you haven’t already.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Last week’s links – Gil Rodman

  3. Dan Hirschman
    October 9, 2014

    Super interesting! I wonder if this same kind of account (about the intersection of new tech and changes in reporting) might help explain the similarly timed increase in discussion of sports/school/campus sexual assault. I’m not as sure of the chronology but it seems like Steubenville was the biggest flashpoint that started the recent discussions. The story would be a bit different, but perhaps parallel?

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