What’s Wrong with Community Media? A Metamodernist Analysis

Over the coming months I’m planning on writing some blogs and recording some podcasts in which I will share a few ideas about developing a socialmeaning framework for community media. I want to think through and understand how community media works as a set of experienced social practices, and as a set of interacting principles, which, when they come together, provide a specific space within public discourse for emerging and refunctioned ideas about belonging and identity. By talking with people who produce and create different forms of community media, I hope to to gain a better understanding of the way that community media is perceived, both by practitioners and advocates from the inside, and also how community media is comprehended and understood by people working in professional organisations on the outside. My concern is that advocates and proponents of community media aren’t getting a fair shot at putting forward their case about the benefits and utility of community media, and that the principles on which community media is based are too easily dismissed as being inconsequential or irrelevant, even by well-meaning allies and supporters.

I want to do this in an open and flexible manner, by raising questions and looking at issues associated with community media from different perspectives and using different yardsticks of evaluation. I want to focus on talking to people who are engaged in developing and supporting community media projects, but I don’t want to focus on any single form of media, or on any one particular type of group involved. I’m agnostic about the form of community media, and given our experience of the Covid-19 lockdown I would be great to be attuned to the many new experiences that people have had in developing social and community media practices. There have been a remarkable number of choirs meeting on Zoom, for example. If this isn’t a spontaneous form of community media, I don’t know what it?

The baseline definition that I tend to apply to community media is that  it is a participative form of civic, community or social communication that is emerges from the interests and concerns of people acting independently of the state or market, and operating in ways that are self-directed. Community media is media that people make and share form themselves, either within communities of place and location, or in communities of identity, or in communities of interest. The crucial distinction is that these forms of media are produced with a focus on encouraging and supporting participation, both in the production of the content itself, and also in the governance and management of the group or organisation that is established to support the media being shared.

Community media ca be spread across multiple platforms. It can utilise different forms of expressions and practice. There is no rule that says that community media must be done in any one particular way. There is room for experimentation and creativity. The important thing is to reflect the interests and concerns of the people involved, and the people that they share a sense of belonging with. In this way I use the rule of thumb that community media is a set of social activities that are shaped by meaningful interaction. How this meaningful interaction is defined is not up to me or other observers of these social practices. Instead, the role of the observer is to watch, listen and understand what people acting in different social situations think are the most engaging and purposeful ways of creating media with a community value. If you want to know what community media is, there isn’t an easy definition, so the best thing to do is go and ask people.

What makes this kind of phenomenon more difficult to track and understand is that for some observers the best way to account for something is to categorise and measure it. A lot of academic or public policy discussion, for example, is supported by a way of thinking that has a dependence on systems of categorisation and measurement. To be conceivable we have to be able to measure the flow of traffic, the number of actors involved, the points of departure and destination, for example. This means prioritising quantitative evidence above experiential evidence, which means that we are left, often, with a set of numbers and statistical patterns that we don’t understand in the context of people’s lives and from which they are able to draw motivation. There’s nothing wrong with gathering numbers and assessing the metrics of interaction, but the likelihood is that these numbers don’t really tell us the proper picture of what is going on and why. Quantitative measurement can tell us what is happening, it can’t really tell us why it is happening.

Similarly, many people are concerned that an analysis of social phenomenon, like community media, must fit with an ideological framework that can explain the processes at play in society by assigning social tasks, roles and events as operative functions within a system of distributed power-related processes. For example, often in an ideological framework of understanding there is a definable and locatable set of interests of a particularly dominant group in society. The interests of this particular group are said to be normalised and distributed throughout the rest of society, either in a process of interpolation, hegemony or colonisation. In viewing social structures in ideological terms, moreover, this view tends to expect that there should be a definable cause and effect relationship, and that imbalances in power might best be explained by how the interests of one group are prioritised over the interests of others who are marginalised in the extent to which they can participate in the decision-making processes of society.

Another common way of accounting for social phenomenon is to consider how social systems are designated and operated in different ways. Using organisational modelling techniques, these systems approaches view social action as taking place within a repertoire of practical functions. These functions can be turned on or off, they can be amplified, attuned, or intermixed with other functions given the right information processing capacity. Most often applied to business development, systems thinking has a linear understanding of human experience, expecting actions and behaviours from within a predeterminable set of variables. The challenge is to have sufficient capacity in the central processing unit to capture all the data needed to find out what is going on. Information in this model is the goose that lays the golden egg, because if we can gather enough information about how people think and behave, then we can predict with some certainty how people might function in in society. This paradigm calls for ‘strong’ or centralised leadership which is able to maximise efficiency in an organisation and bring rational thinking and coordination to the social planning process.

There are many more systems of thinking that can be listed which we could spend a lifetime examining and questioning, but these are the sets of ideas that are most often used to determine the role of community media. The problem is that community media is difficulty to account for because it’s not a clean and simple process that can be easily followed or understood. Community media is disaggregated and messy. It is complicated, contradictory, partial, inept, one-sided, biased, under-developed, and half-baked, so of course, community media is going to be problematic to make sense of and understand. Community media is very human in the way that it is undertaken. It has an honesty and an emotional rawness that loses a lot in translation when observers try to affix its workings in functional frameworks like those hinted at above. Community media is difficult to describe and explain in simple terms, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to come up with something that explains what’s going on and how we can better understand these interrelated processes and activities.

Part of what I will do in these blogs will be to use a descriptive framework of social-value to support a more concrete understanding of community media. Social value is a tested concept within public authority’s procurement practice. It relates how value is added to communities in broader terms, such as the quality of life and the reapportioning life-chances, which would otherwise remain opaque in a traditional economic development model. Social value asks the question, what else are be gaining through these transactions and resource allocations? If we only pay attention to the cost and price of our public services, then we may be missing out on wider concerns that have the potential to enrich us in other ways. Social value is well established as a model for measuring changes and enhancements to social interaction.

Social value is not the only way of thinking about these problems though. In these blogs I want to start to explore and develop my thinking about the situations that we are seeking to understand in relation to their meaningfulness. To do this I want to develop a concept that I’ve adapted from Herbert Blummer and from Carl Jung, which I call socialmeaning. Basically, there is a relationship between the meanings that we are attuned to in our culture and societies, and the social situations in which we are based. As we change the social situation, then meanings also change. Likewise, as we change the meanings, then we also change the social situations. I don’t have this model well developed yet, but I think it has potential as a way of addressing community media by recognising it as a multidimensional field of competing processes and forces, which are related to one another, and which give shape to one another as we experience them.

The next couple of blogs will spell out some of my initial thinking, and will attempt to clarify what I understand by socialmeaning. To do this I will draw on social theory work undertaken in the pragmatic tradition, such as John Dewey, William James, Richard Rorty, Cornell Williams, and also the Symbolic Interactionist tradition of Herbert Mead, Herbert Blummer and Robert Pruss. I’m not a technical theorists, so I’m looking to explain myself in simple and uncluttered ways, but these ideas need to be tested and developed, so getting into them and thinking them through in more detail will be a challenge worth considering. My aim is to bring to the fore a different and more appropriate way of thinking about and accounting for community media. One that can demonstrate it’s differences from other forms of social practice, and one that can be used to counteract the negative aspects of community media while at the same time improving and supporting the positive aspects of community media. As I often say, if you want better media then make it yourself. The question is, what legitimates our self-made media over and above other forms of media that we take for granted presently?

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