A democracy functions best when there’s a free exchange of ideas and sentiments that can easily be accessed and discussed by the public. The two articles we read this week highlight the role of both the media and the citizenry in making sure that exchange takes place.
The Internet has exploded the way that democracy and pluralistic media can be achieved and upended traditional media structures. “In bloggs, chat, news groups, debates and Net activism of different kinds, citizens are primarily not spoken of or spoken for, but speak themselves in public,” notes Mats Ekström on media and democracy (Ekström, 2008).
This upheaval of the media landscape asks us to consider what this means for democracy. One concept that struck me is the destruction of gate-keeping journalists. This leads to a wider discussion in the marketplace of ideas and pushes stories that “traditional gatekeepers” previously might’ve dismissed because they saw them as unimportant, too risque, etc. In a research paper titled “The End of the Traditional Gatekeeper” (Lee, 2012), the author states that online tools like “‘Most Popular’ article” rankings can set new agendas in the media and “lessen the media’s monopoly on selecting, prioritizing and presenting particular news to the audience.”
However, what’s popular is not always what’s important or substantive. Journalists must “strike a delicate balance between what is in the public interest and what the public is interested in” (Barger and Barney, 2004). This places a burden on journalists and citizens to ensure key issues don’t disappear beneath the endless streams of information.
A throwaway remark in Ekström’s article also piqued my interest. He called blogging “an extreme version of what David Riesman, in the ‘Lonely Crowd’ (published in 1950), described as the ‘other directed individual’.”
The “other-directed individual” is a new concept to me that refers to how people seek to conform to external norms in society (this is opposed to “inner-directed individuals”, who are driven by their own inner values). The way it’s used in Ekström’s essay implies that “other-directedness’ is bad for society. But Reisman didn’t necessarily mean it as a negative.
A Pacific Standard Magazine article called “The Lonely Crowd of Social Media” says that Reisman tried to clarify his position on “other-directedness” after his book became a hit. He wrote, “While it certainly has its negatives, it contains positives, too, such as an openness to new friendships, an interest in the unfamiliar, a flexibility to change, and so on.”
Social media might drive people to extremes in conforming, but it can foster healthy environments for change. PSMag contrasts the two: Stealing clothes to look an “approved” way vs. online networks helping people quit smoking.
In an increasingly polarized online media political landscape, it’s easy to succumb to “the danger of only consulting reinforcing sources, collecting information that conforms to predispositions, prejudices, and biases, virtually eliminating pluralistic media consumption” (Barger and Barney, 2004). But “other-directedness” can combat gut-instinct stubbornness and encourage flexibility that allows for re-evaluating belief systems based on evidence and new information. The trick though is getting people to try it.