1.2. Characteristics of digital media

In the discussion of digital media's impact on politics and society, four characteristics of digital technology keep reappearing. They are:

  • Digitization and digitalization,

  • Lowered information costs,

  • Interactivity, and

  • Networks.

1.2.1. Digitization and Digitalization

The success of digital technology lies in the power of encoding wide varieties of information in an uniform format. In his history of digital technology the information scientists Robin Boast describes this process:

"(...) what makes the digital, as we use it today, digital is that the combination of ons and offs, in very specific albeit complex ways, encodes information. Over the past 150 years these codes have encoded all types of information, including all of our media. Translating or encoding something, a mediation, into a code of ons and offs - this is digital, and this is the foundation of all digital technology."

[Boast, 2017], p. 10.

Digitization is the process of transforming analogue information into digital bits and making them thereby subject to computational operations. By digitizing information or processes digital technology can lead to a shift within or between organizations. Early adopters can develop competitive advantages given their uses of digitized information. For example, by digitizing contact information of supporters, a political organization might develop a more efficient way to collect donations and thereby outperform competitors. Digital information might allow an actor or organization to pursue their goals more efficiently, but their goals and behavior remain the same as before.

In contrast, digitalization refers to shifts in the goals, behavior, or nature of actors and organizations in order to capitalize on opportunities provided by digital technology. For example, digitizing information and processes might allow a political organization to more efficiently collect donations from supporters. In turn, this might lead to existing organizations transforming in order to better capitalize on these opportunities or even new organizations emerging that are inherently optimized to the opportunities provided by digital media and distinct from previous organizations. Examples for transformations like these can be found in the Obama Presidential campaign 2008 and the activism organization MoveOn.org.

Analytically, digitization allows us to focus on the process and the impact of information being digitized or measured in the first place. Digitalization on the other hand foregrounds the transformative processes within organizations, structures, or fields attempting to capitalize on these new opportunities. We will come back to both these processes throughout the course of this lecture series.

1.2.2. Lowered information costs

Another key feature of digital technology is the massively lowering in the cost of publishing, distributing, accessing, and archiving digital information. By lowering the costs of information, nearly everyone can publish information, political analysis, or commentary online at little cost. Once published, anyone with an internet connection can access this information. As a result, we find ourselves in a situation of information abundance, where we can find seemingly endless content corresponding with our interests or needs.

At first, information abundance might seem like a good thing. More information provides people with the basis to make better decisions and allows them better to control elites and the government. But looking closely, things are more complicated. Information abundance weakens gatekeepers by allowing voices and positions to route around their selection decisions. This can broaden discourse but also threaten it once opponents of open and democratic societies gain a foothold in the public arena. By providing information alternatives to commercial information providers and providing attractive alternatives for ad display, digital media weaken the economic foundations of news production and news as a business. Finally, information abundance allows people to avoid political news much more effectively than in the past and thereby to opt out from the provision of political information altogether. Taken together, these unexpected consequences of information abundance might harm democracies by weakening the foundations of its underlying information environment. We will come back to these developments in the sessions on the challenge to institutions and discursive power.

1.2.3. Interactivity

Past media technologies have been characterized as one-to-many broadcast communication systems. Examples include newspapers, radio, or television. A journalist can communicate through print or broadcast media with an audience. This makes it one-to-many communication. This set of media technologies allows a small set of people with access to mass media to communicate with an audience of many people. But these technologies do not allow the audience to speak back. As a consequence, one-to-many communication systems are seen to support existing political, economic, and social power structures.

Digital media provide an alternative to this one-directional form of communication. They provide interactivity by allowing the audience to speak back. Digital media allow people to publish information, for example on websites or on social media profiles. This broadens the set of people able to communicate with large audiences from the comparatively small set of professional editors or journalists. But various features of digital media also allow the audience to speak back, be it through comments on sites directly available to anyone reading the original article or by speaking back on their own websites or social media profiles. Digital media allow many to communicate with many.

While digital media featured opportunities for many-to-many communication from its beginning, interactivity has been discussed most prominently in the context of the so-called Web 2.0. The label Web 2.0 refers to a set of technological developments, user-centric practices, and business models that shifted internet use from information publishing, finding, and consuming toward engagement between users and authors. This enabled realtime exchanges on websites and platforms, thereby opening up the range of active participation for internet users. This technological shift was accompanied with a burst of think-pieces on the new interactive nature of digital technology allowing for true dialogue between internet users and political, economic, or social elites. By allowing for greater interactivity, Web 2.0 technology was seen as a leveler to power inequalities between elites and the public. Today interactivity is seen more critically, be it as a tool for elites to merely pretend to be accessible or as a channel for unruly and uncivil user comments threatening to derail political discourse. We will come back to this when we discuss digital media as challenge to institutions and *the public arena".

1.2.4. Networks

The final characteristic of digital media, that we need to discuss is the network. Digital media connect people. This leads to the emergence of digitally connected social networks. Through these networks information travels quickly allowing for the quick and wide distribution of information. But these networks can also be used in order to coordinate people around causes or to spread the word about grievances or participatory opportunities.

The network characteristic of digital media provides alternatives to more established forms of political organization and has been seen by some as decisively supporting political activism. Accordingly, the role of digital media in international protests has been prominently discussed, examples include the events surrounding the Arab Spring of 2010, the Occupy protests of 2011, or the Black Lives Matter protests of 2013 and later. Others have pointed to the weaknesses of digital networks as an alternative to political organizations. While digital networks have been strong in channeling enthusiasm into demonstrations of support online or political action, they have proven weak in translating this energy into lasting political action or initiatives. Declaring the death of political organizations as we know them might thus be premature. We come back to these issues when we will be talking about the challenge to institutions.