Some welcome validation of our efforts to understand the use of social media – especially Twitter – during recent natural disasters (a few key posts are collected here) has arrived in the form of a number of submissions to the Australian federal government’s Convergence Review. The Review has the (very broad) remit to “to examine the policy and regulatory frameworks that apply to the converged media and communications landscape in Australia”, an important task not least also against the backdrop of the emerging National Broadband Network and the continuing concerns over highly concentrated ownership structures in Australia’s commercial media industries.
Social media are far from playing a central role in these overall considerations, of course, but their increasing significance as an additional medium for many-to-many communication alongside more established mainstream media is being highlighted by a number of the submissions. Our work is being cited especially by two key submissions.
The first of these is from ex-monopolist telecommunications provider Telstra. It highlights the increased agency of users as content creators, drawing inter alia on my Gatewatching book and my two reports on social media (with Mark Bahnisch) for the Smart Services CRC, and particularly notes the role of user-generated content during the Queensland floods, citing material we published on the CCI Website:
Twitter and Facebook were both used extensively throughout the floods – by emergency services such as the Queensland Police, by the Brisbane City Council, by the ABC and by tens of thousands of individual citizens, to warn or to help one another. They delivered timely advice about flood peaks to people who could not get it in other ways, about road closures, about the needs of communities which had been cut off and to co-ordinate responses. They were used by authorities to correct false rumours as soon as they started. For example the hashtag #qldfloods used on Twitter was spontaneously accepted as a primary source for information by public, police and emergency services.
“As soon as the Police saw people using it, they were quick to take it up as a means of disseminating advice more widely and effectively. I’d expect to see a similar pattern in future events.”
Additionally, Telstra also points out the role of Twitter and Facebook in sharing first hand reports and footage from the event – noting especially Jean’s examination of the most shared images during the Queensland floods.
Another key submission was made jointly by (deep breath now) the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (iGEA), the Australian Direct Marketing Association (ADMA), the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA), the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), eBay, Google, nineMSN, and Yahoo!7. It features a case study of the role of social media during the Queensland floods (which we’ve covered in detail here on the blog, of course), and cites a section of my keynote paper for the CeDEM 2011 conference in Krems earlier this year:
As important as the use of Twitter and Facebook themselves during the flood events was their use for pointing to further online resources, too – with such resources including many pre-existing sites such as the Website of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), which provides up-to-the-minute weather radar and river level observations as well as forecasts and warnings for a wide range of locations, the sites of Brisbane City Council and Queensland State Government, and the sites of major infrastructure providers (such as electricity and telephone companies). But beyond – and in addition to – such official sources, the flood event also saw the rapid establishment of a number of user-initiated online resources: some sites were set up to mirror official sites whose servers were struggling to cope with the increased amount of page requests; some pulled together the information from a variety of sources in a faster and more user-friendly format (for example by marking road closures on Google Maps, or providing a simple list of links to flood forecast maps); some set up eyewitness sites providing photos, videos, and even live Webcam footage of the rising Brisbane river. Some such activities also incorporated information from open data resources made available by Australian governments at various levels as part of their Government 2.0 initiatives…
…one key observation to be made about the distributed, multi-channel media response to the Queensland floods is that citizens and officials together determined the media mix, and continued to fine-tune it as the event unfolded; the substantial shift which we have observed in the Queensland Police Service’s media practices during the flood crisis provides just one key example here. This successful emergency response was also a success of e-democracy, therefore.
Much as in the Telstra submission, this is presented especially in the context of Principles 1 and 4 which are articulated by the government’s Convergence Review issues paper:
1: Australians should have access to a broad diversity of voices, views and information.
4: Australians should have access to news and information of relevance to their local community.
Behind the responses to these principles, then, is a recognition that diversity and local relevance are no longer delivered only by mainstream, professional media organisations, but also be local users as active content creators themselves. Both submissions take a sceptical view towards a need for any policy interventions in pursuit of these principles, interestingly – or indeed actively warn against policy which would end up hindering the continued flourishing of user-generated content: the joint submission repeatedly stresses that “there is no in-principle rationale for government intervention to actively promote diversity in a converged media marketplace, other to ensure that the regulatory and policy settings are conducive to an open network” (7), while Telstra suggests, essentially, that the focus of any policy in this area should be on support, not regulation: “Telstra further submits that should the Review Committee determine that policy intervention is required to further promote this content, that it consider the role that social media may play in realising this objective (for example through the promotion of digital literacy/citizenship)” (13).
Broadly, I think, we would agree with these sentiments: one core aim for policy in this area must be to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of innovation in content and usage, especially where such innovation takes place at the grassroots, from the bottom up. Overbearing regulation can do more harm than good in this area – not least also, I might add, if it disables public broadcasters from working with users as content creators or from providing them with spaces for their activities; this is not an issue in Australia at this point, it seems, but we would to well to regard the severe restrictions now placed on the online activities of a number of European public broadcasters as a cautionary tale.
At the same time, while the examples of user-led activities and innovation cited in these submissions are very promising, and stand to be turbo-charged even further by the increasing availability of NBN infrastructure, let’s also not assume that, while online content diversity (especially including local content) in Australia is reasonably good so far, this will be a natural feature well into the future. Offline, Australia remains hamstrung by an extraordinary level of media ownership concentration, and the atrociously poor quality of political debate on a number of major current issues facing the country, for example, won’t be fixed simply by the fact that alternative media spaces are now readily available online. Given what has happened to the Australian mainstream media over the past few decades, can we really be sure, for example, that our online networks will (to coin a phrase) treat commercial enclosure of active and innovative online spaces as damage and route around it? Rather, I would suggest, we do need to be wary of the network power exercised by a few major transnational service providers, and carefully track their activities.
As it turns out, by the way, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI), where we work, held a Convergence Review roundtable in Sydney just yesterday. Jean presented our work on the use of social media during the Queensland floods, in much the same contexts as explored by the submissions above, and highlights how social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be seen as quintessential examples of media convergence. Here are her slides (we’ll try to add the audio soon):
Finally, of course, you may also be interested in the CCI’s own submission to the Convergence Review, which highlights some of the Centre’s own findings as they relate to the principles articulated in the government’s issues paper. We may be biased, but congratulations to Ben Goldsmith and his colleagues on a very strong submission.