In a text dripping with impotent fury, outraged victimhood and plain Don’t-Get-Itness, Macquarie Radio’s statement that it was yanking all advertising from the Alan Jones show on the weekend was a revealing insight into the mindset of a company that is convinced it is under siege.

There was the reference to bullying, of course, which yielded such a rich harvest of irony and schadenfreude for a network so reliant on professional bullies. But it was illuminating for more significant reasons.

Yesterday we discussed how social media enables humans to do exactly what they did before the arrival of the internet, only now in communities that are broader, that can process and distribute information more quickly and that are liberated from geography. In responding to the threat posed by such communities to industries dependent on information control, we’ve seen analogue-era élites analysing the problem as one in traditional media terms: who are the “publishers” and how can they be controlled?

That is, they respond by applying what you might call hub-and-spoke thinking to a network.

Such thinking is amply displayed in the statement by Macquarie Radio CEO Russell Tate, a former advertising exec. “The difference between 2GB and some catchy URL is that MRN operates in a regulated media environment … We operate within a long established regulatory guidelines [sic] and rules.”

“One of the traditional regular criticisms of social media used to be that it is a forum for slacktivism, for lazy people whose idea of giving voice to their social conscience is not to take to the streets and protest but Like a Facebook page or RT the Kony video and maybe order the wristband online. “

Apart from the get-off-my-lawn tone of the phrase “catchy URL”, Tate’s conceptualisation of the problem is clear — not merely is MRN being bullied (sorry, cyberbullied, because everything sounds better with the prefix cyber-) but its bully has an unfair advantage — no accountability or regulatory scrutiny.

Tate went further with the analogy, and suggested social media was merely derivative of talkback radio. “Talk radio is arguably the original form of social media,” he claimed. Indeed it has greater audience participation than, say, television or newspapers, but talkback radio is as comparable to social media as Alan Jones flapping his arms is to a jetliner. Social media has no controlling node, no producer, no delay button, no one carefully screening calls as MRN does to ensure only the Rightest of the Right get to air. That it replicates, with greater speed, many of the features of the traditional media is merely incidental to its core function of interconnectivity.

But a key problem with mischaracterising social media as just another, rival form of media is that the traditional media response to emerging competitors doesn’t work.

In both Australia and the US, the history of media regulation has been one of media incumbents exploiting political influence to keep out competitors or new media technologies, and to control those technologies once incumbents were ready to shift their business model. In Australia, newspaper companies were given radio licences; newspapers and radio licensees were given television licences, new television licences were kept off the market despite spectrum being available, pay-TV was banned and then prevented from competing effectively, the introduction of digital TV was controlled by incumbents, and so on.

Some of Tate’s shock jocks want to try this approach, by imposing more regulation on social media, to make it more like traditional media. Tony “free speech” Abbott has made similar noises.

But the regulatory approach fails with the internet. Traditional media companies were quick to colonise the internet in the 1990s and soon the websites of old media became the most heavily-trafficked websites. But then the people formerly known as the audience took over. First they began sharing old media content with each other in defiance of owners’ wishes (another pre-internet habit dramatically juiced up by the internet). Then they began forming communities with each other online.

And the emerging “publishers” of the new era — Apple, Google, Facebook — were so successful, they couldn’t be taken over by old media. And in most countries they couldn’t be regulated except on their own terms. Nor could they be kept out of markets.

Governments tried to help incumbents, passing ever-more draconian copyright laws to stop filesharing for example, but users just routed round the laws.

But there’s another, more amusing consequence of this category error of mistaking social media for another form of traditional media: a tendency to overestimate its impact. One of the traditional regular criticisms of social media used to be that it is a forum for slacktivism, for lazy people whose idea of giving voice to their social conscience is not to take to the streets and protest but Like a Facebook page or RT the Kony video and maybe order the wristband online. Suddenly, however, in a matter of months media companies are quaking in their boots and being bullied by the power of the clicktivists. It’s a seemingly stunning transformation.

In fact chances are the capacity of social media is overestimated: the actual number of people who would have altered their purchasing decisions to reflect their distaste about a company’s association with Alan Jones would be far less than normal monthly variations in sales. But many companies rely on social media strategists to tell them how crucial social media is, how important it is that they engage with it, and thus mischaracterise the actual threat it poses.

Call it the Mubarak Syndrome, like the dictator who, worried about a relatively small but highly-visible group of opponents using the internet, shuts it down, thereby irritating and demonstrating his fragility to a much larger number of citizens than would otherwise have noticed. Social media impacts occur as much, or more, in the minds of those who find themselves fighting it, than in reality.

Moreover, this all focuses on discontinuity at the expense of the continuity. People have been complaining to one another about, and boycotting, companies since there were companies. The American Revolutionary War began with boycotts. Boycotts still spread in the same way as they used to, from engaged activists to the broader community, if there is sufficient motivation for an issue to catch fire. Only now, the communities in which boycotts are considered is larger and no longer constrained by geography or limited communication tools.

Alan Jones went further than “bullying” and labelled the campaign against him “cyberterrorism”. While that’s the most hysterical overreaction to anything you’ll see this year, in a vague, roundabout way he has a point: what’s happening here is innately political. The flattening of information hierarchies and the undermining of existing economic structures, especially such an influential one as the media, is automatically political. Implicit in the growth of communities and their capacity to swiftly distribute information is a shift in power, one that is immediately to the disadvantage of those who held power in analogue-era communities.

In the case of the Australian media, it tends to be old white privileged males — the Alan Joneses, Ray Hadleys and Russell Tates. That MRN first felt the sting of social media via the Destroy The Joint campaign, which harnessed the wave of spontaneous anger at Jones’ misogyny, was wonderfully symbolic of the shift in power that is occurring.

Perhaps more so than lawyers, or record company executives, or department store retailers, the idea of giving up power is anathema to these men. Power is how they define themselves, in contrast to the powerless who form their audience, whose causes they sometimes graciously pick up. Instead of accommodating the new distribution of power, they’re more likely to cut themselves off from it, to try to hang on to whatever remains of their analogue-era power. In the meantime, communities will continue to form around, and over the top of them.

Peter Fray

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