Community Media – Changing the Frame of Reference?

One of the major problems when it comes to thinking about community media is that approaches to the study and analysis of media interaction are often shaped by a framework of thinking that prioritises functionality over meaning. Function, and its associated characteristics of utility and efficiency, typically form the bedrock of thinking that underpins most forms of modern scholastic enquiry. The focus is on gathering evidence that can be categorised and measured, comparatively assessed, and then assimilated into a coherent system of ideas and occurrences. This is a very effective way of enquiring about phenomenon, both in the physical world and the social world, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story. This approach often misses or fails to grasp the things that are of symbolic importance to people. Those things which offer a different picture of what people get from using and sharing media. We might be able to list and identify what it is that people do with media using categorisations measurement techniques, but we won’t be able to make sense of what people become by using different types of media in different ways.

The mindset that informs the majority of studies of media are typically based on frameworks of understanding which propose that media operations and social engagement can be defined in positivistic terms, usually by using cause-and-effect models. This is understandable, because social interactions are much easier to imagine if we think of them in mechanical terms. It’s easier to think about media in relation to a series of events and interactions, each with definable and traceable effects, than it is to think about media in terms of generative or symbolic terms. A lot of time and mental energy is often spent identifying and tracing a multitude of events and interactions. Putting names to the occurrences of these events in order to explain how they operate is the primary preoccupation of most of us who study media. We want to be able to indicate that a phenomenon has occurred, and that we have fulfilled our function as academics if we can give it a recognisable name.

The problem, and as Herbert Blummer pointed out, is that if we spend our time positioning and aligning these characteristics in a hierarchical taxonomy, for example, and as academic study is wont to do, then we fail to take account of what is happening in between these occurrences. We fail to see what is happening as social processes emerge, and as social processes are developed in practice through interaction.

There is nothing wrong with creating a map of the field, indeed it is essential. A map of the landscape, with its topography clearly marked out, offers considerable benefits. A decent and well-conceived map can help us to understand what is happening, and where things are in relation to one another. A well-drawn map allows us to identify the key features and distinctions worthy of note in the landscape. A map provides us with a visual indication of what is taking place in our world, with clear and recognisable signs that indicate where we are, and how we fit within the wider geographical positions. Mapping, either in terms of concepts or phenomenon, is a productive use of our mental capacity, as it helps us to orient against one another. A well-designed map helps us to find out what the main feature are of the social landscape.

The problems come, however, if we become fixated on one aspect of the map, for example the signs and representations that indicate and stand in for the features in the landscape; or the information that is are used to designate traffic flows and usage times. I we get fixated on the degree to which these kinds of signs are designated in a map, then we may fail to use the map to do actively explore the environment and appreciate what is around us.

Furthermore, as researchers and observers it’s important, then, that we don’t over-rely on distinction-drawing and get too absorbed in perfecting the map at the expense of using the resources that the map points to as an embodiment of lived social experience and the location of practical social interaction. Getting drawn into interminable debates about definitions and characteristics is useful for mapmakers and the map making community, but its of little use to the people living in the landscape. For example, the use of the term ‘hyperlocal’ is seldom replicated in studies outside the academic journalism community, and it is entirely absent from day-to-day lived experience. We don’t talk about ‘hyperlocalism’ in our neighbourhoods, communities and family networks. The focus on the phrase ‘hyperlocalism’, however, almost guarantees a hearing in academic publications and journalism discussion group. ‘Hyperlocalism’ is an indicator of relevance to the specific communities of interests embedded within the field of journalism studies, but it is no indicator of issues and concerns that are discussed in daily life.

There are many problems, then, that are associated with the overuse of categorisations and measurements. There is the danger that if we only affix our attention to the things that we can label and designate then we stop seeking out and paying attention to those things that drive and enable social change. To counter this fixation, it’s important that we give space to reflexive and developmental forms of mapping. To pragmatic and experiential forms of sense making which might include and use the designated characteristic identified in the map making process, but which go beyond this process of affixing signs. My concern is that we need to recognise that the maps that we use would work better if we see them as representative of a living, breathing process of social engagement.

The tools of characterisation, description and conceptual ordering that go into making the maps that we use are powerful and useful tools, but they are only useful, as Richard Rorty pointed out, as long as they ‘bake our bread.’ The good thing about a map is that it can be used in many different ways, and for many different purposes. Likewise, we can redraw and redefine maps in different ways that can enable us to see the landscape differently. For example, look on Google Maps, it gives a detailed and clear overview of the streets and features in our towns and cities, but it’s not designed to show the landscape and features of the countryside. There are no contour lines, no differentiation of scrublands and fields. On a Google Map nature is represented as a blank green area. A Google Map is effective for navigation on well established roads and pathways, but it can’t provide the details of the landscape that, for example, an Ordinance Survey map can provide. They are both designed to do different jobs.

The trick, then, is not to get fixated on one single map or mapping process, but, instead, to be open to the idea that we need many different types of maps, and that these maps may need to indicate many different features, phenomenon and perspective. To put it simply, if we change the frame of reference, then we change the picture that we have of what is happening.

My concern, then, is that we need to develop new and different maps that reflect the changing landscape of community media. We are using maps that were designated as important in a former age. Many of the maps that we presently use to understand the processes of social communications were created in an age when much of the technology that we now use for communication wasn’t yet invented. Our analytical maps, which depict community media in its broadest sense, and which we might want to use to help us decide which way we should be heading, haven’t been updated to take account of the emerging field of network-based social communications. They tell us little about how we might use blockchain technology, for example. It’s like we are using a map of the mid-nineteenth century to get around Birmingham, which hasn’t been updated to include the new roads, houses, railway lines, or airports that have been built, demolished and rebuilt in the intervening period. Yes, the canals are well-marked out, but the new communications infrastructure is absent from our conceptual and imagined landscape.

The challenge is that we have to avoid become pre-occupied with applying any single systems or cause-and-effect view of the communications landscape. Systems views often comes at the expense of alternative, developmental and emergent views of communication. As a pragmatist I don’t view these frameworks of enquiry as fundamental to the world-view that we seek to enunciate. Indeed, a pragmatist will argue that a single, all-defining epistemology, ontology or metaphysical view of the world, is to be avoided. Instead, and alternatively, it is more helpful that we consider how these competing and alternative frameworks interact with one another, and thereby help us to develop different vantage points from which we can make news and interesting claims about the world. Hopefully, these claims will be grounded in ethical good will, and can be applied according to the standards of inclusion and empathy of the day – and beyond. The hope, though, is that we can look at the world from the point of view of a set of pragmatic, social constructive, and generative frameworks, rather than as fixed points to be marked off on a map.


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