Media, Markets, and Democracy

C. Edwin's Baker Media, Makerts, and Democracy is a wonderful book for considering the pro/anti regulatory positions on media policy. What I find refreshing is that it debunks the overly simplified market/libertarian arguments usually presented in a economic/instrumentalized fashion with straight forward economic arguments that anyone can understand. (I would very much like to see this text reviewed by free-market proponents though I can find very little comments on the Web perhaps indicating it does not yet have a wide audience.)

While I was reading the book I was placing what I was learning in the context of examples about the Internet and blogs. So, the fact that he provides a postscript on Internet and digital technologies was an extra bonus! In particular, he addresses the question of whether voluntary content creation on the behalf of digital music, video, or journalistic production is significant:

"The new technologies expand the universe of people offering information, opinion, and other communicative contents to strangers. They may empower "volunteers ," unpaid individuals who construct Web pages and create content solely out of a desire to create, report, and communicate, whether for personal expressive, political, charitable, or more nearly self-interested reasons.... nevertheless, to the extent these volunteers with pages or postings are no more read than were the earlier leaflets when distributed on street corners, the fact that they now can self-published makes less difference than they often naively hope" (Baker 286).

He identifies four ways in which these new tools can change what consumers and citizens receive: digital technologies reduced the cost of copying and delivering content; they can reduce the difficulty of finding materials; they can reduce the costs of media producers in assembly and synthesizing inputs; and digital technologies can reduce the bottlenecks and gatekeepers related to distribution. Yet, as he showed in earlier chapters there are economic scenarios in which more content can displace less but better content, "Many people would experience a net loss if they deemed access to hundreds of randomly selected street corner speakers (or the speakers with pages) but lost access to the York Times" (289). He also asks the much-discussed question of whether the cost of investigative journalism can be born by volunteers; this is yet to be seen. Furthermore, citing Sunstein's evidence (Republic.com) he notes that when people discuss an issue with those of a like mind there positions become more extreme; this can lead to a segmentation and radicalization of the public. Baker also notes that even with much content, the concentration of "hits" will fall on a limited number of sites (preferential attachment). And one of the more interesting results of his analysis is that content itself can become more generic even though there are more outlets: "If the only way to write a letter is by hand, the norm would be individualized letters. But if copy costs are negligible, the temptation increases to send the same letter to multiple "friends" (292). This tendency was what led me to start one of my own blogs: instead of sending many personal emails to my family and friends while traveling I began to create one report and then slightly customize it, eventually I abandoned even this and instead created travel scenes and blog entries.

A worthwhile book.

C. Edwin Baker. Media, Markets, and Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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