No. 24

In cyberspace nobody need hear your spleen

Stone the crows! But there is sad news this Budget eve for Catherine Deveny’s army of admirers – they will not be reading her analysis of the budget in The Age, what with her being fired by the paper last week for remarks as unkind as they were inane.

But losing her column will not stop the comic Deveny, who does not need the paper to peddle her politics in a pantechnicon of prejudice (sorry, the crows need a new script for their alliteration medication). No, she can explain everything on a website, present her stand-up performances on Youtube; poke fun at people on Facebook and tweet twaddle on Twitter.

The good news is that so can everybody else who has something to say, which, albeit only occasionally interests an audience.

Not since the average (free, white, male) Athenian could have his say on the issues of the hour in the Assembly has speech been so free. And all over the world people have understood the opportunity.

Sure, most online communication appeals to a family, village or guild. But it is also hard to imagine a political opinion or occupational interest without a presence on the Internet. In this electronic agora even crows get a Guernsey.

And this is how it should be – we are a smarter, sharper society for the way the opinions of the powerful are critically analysed by anybody who knows how to argue online.

But along with an endless and ever-expanding policy debate we also get people keen on a career based on being famous for what they say, rather than what they do.

The smart ones build a reputation for expertise in an industry – it is a great way of finding fame, even employment.

But others who want to be famous for being famous, by rating well on Technorati, just tweet and blog on absolutely anything, assuming the more outrageous their opinions the more the followers who will find them.

And there is nothing the on-line opinionated love more than comments at the end of a post, even if they are always from the same 15 fans or frenemies and generally have less to do with what the celebrity poster has written than the commentator’s own opinions, generally on climate change and why everybody who does not agree with them is a racist, sexist, denier of the rights of (insert name of oppressed group here).

There may not be much money in a world where every person is a pundit but dedicated followers of fame know that endless online commentary of the right, (well left, actually) kind can get you onto the A list that appeals. To some it is an invitation to the right PR party or junket. For the policy focused it is an interview on Radio National, a favourable comment on Crikey, a seat on ABC TV’s Q&A, even a Seinfeld-style column about nothing in a paper (newspapers may be dying but an awful lot of aspiring columnists want to sit by the death bed).

Of course most online commentators never attract an audience of any size, some can’t write, others have nothing much to say and abuse stops being funny after a while.

But the fact there is a great deal of harrumphing going on is good stuff – our age is a vast improvement on the not so ancient time when the hackerati who hung round newspapers long enough to rise from eccentric opportunist to elder statesperson set the agenda because they alone could reach a mass audience.

Now we are in an age when everybody can lay down the law about everything, the main media columnists and commentators who matter are the ones who are read for the strength of their arguments, not because they are the only people with a print or electronic voice.

The result is not just many more voices but better articulated arguments, especially in the print press, which has responded to the online word with better-informed quality commentary. For all the nostalgia from people who once were the conspiracy correspondent on the National Times, we are in a golden age of media analysis – especially in economics and public policy.

Of course none of this should have happened, according to orthodox opinion, which has always self-servingly assumed the reason the masses never sign up for the command economy approach de jour is that they are gulled by polemicists and that media concentration excludes dissenting voices.

This is an argument that has stayed the same since the 1950s, when two films explained why the media is always awful.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was all about that eternal enemy of the left, the populist columnist with an enormous audience. Burt Lancaster played J J Hunsecker – certainly a more original moniker than Smith or Jones – who uses his power to punish opponents and promote his pals. One of his sources is publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who will do anything to get his clients mentioned in Hunsecker’s column.

This being a standard Hollywood morality tale Hunsecker is evil and Falco unscrupulous but what makes the movie interesting is the way the film assumes those with media power always dupe the mass market.

But the crows doubt it was like that then and know it isn’t how things are now. For a start, there is simply too much media for one gatekeeper to shape opinion and there is not a flack on the planet who thinks mentions in the PR driven press is enough to build brand awareness.

The same simple fears drove the other enduring political film of 1957, A Face in the Crowd, about a drifter (Andy Griffith) who turns out to have a talent for demagoguery and builds a brand by talking populist politics on television, working to make a snobbish senator president.

It was an early example of warnings of what happens when populist phonies con a mass audience, in the process providing enemies of capitalism (the baddies are always in the pay of evil corporations) with an easy explanation of why their ideas are generally anathema with the electorate.

But if what A Face in the Crowd warned against ever occurred in the past it does not happen now. There is not a print or broadcast commentator in the country who will decide a single seat at the next election. The audiences are too independent to uncritically agree and there are too many voices for any one to stand out.

When it comes to politics and policy, information and opinion we live in a supersaturated environment.

And a good thing to.

It is all but impossible for media managers to point public opinion in a particular direction or to make an evidence free convincing case. That a 30-second grab on the TV news shaped debate was always an over-rated idea but now it is obsolete.

And the policy driven print media is better than it was when the market for ideas was smaller, simply because there were not masses of on-line statistics and policy papers.

Sure the democratising of debate online means a lot of egocentric urgers push their own interests and sometimes, ideas.

There are cohorts of Catherines out there.

But the ambitious are always with us. When it comes to information and debate in the media creative capitalism has delivered things are much better than the dystopian dogmatists of the left – ever imagined.

Now why does that sound familiar?

stephen4@hotkey.net.au

'2012