A Dialogue concerning Two Medias

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A few trends are emerging in the new media throughout the world. First, the online advertising revenues has superceded the mainstream media in UK and US. As a result, a lot of staff in the newspaper agencies are made redundant and some major newspapers are now potential acquisition targets by major big media corporations. The reason is that most of the mainstream newspapers derive their revenues from advertising. Second, a death threat to Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger in the US has started a serious discussion for a code of conduct among bloggers. The major proponent for the bloggers code of conduct is Tim O’Reilly, who incidentally started the term “Web 2.0” that documented the 2nd internet revolution. Thirdly, spam and misinformation are slowly creeping into major open web collaborations, for example, the Wikipedia. Cyber vandalism and poison pens prompted tougher legislation in different countries. In this article, I will draw upon a few lessons from recent incidents in the Singapore blogosphere and offer my take as a practitioner on where media policy is heading in Singapore.

Convergence of New Media in Singapore

For most media policy makers, the biggest headache is the regulatory issues facing new media. In Singapore, the mainstream and new media are governed separately with different set of policies. If you are writing in the mainstream media with a view that counters the establishment, you are chastised by the authorities. Suppose you do the opposite and publish that same article in new media, you are not to be taken seriously. Cherian George has consistently highlighted the issue about “one country, two systems” as a unsustainable system. His argument is relatively simple,

This neat dichotomy has allowed the government’s dual regulatory regime to operate relatively smoothly: regulators apply far stricter standards to mainstream than to alternative media. In theory, in an age of digital convergence, regulations that are not platform-neutral will be unsustainable as they will generate inconsistencies. In practice, however, convergence has not run its course in Singapore; the dichotomy between offline mainstream media and alternative online media persists.

He further conjectured that a few developments in both the new and mainstream media will either lead to divergence between two medias and inevitably lead to inconsistencies in media policy or a possible convergence if certain circumstances are kept in play. The picture is slightly more complex than just both systems are approaching towards an unsustainable state.

Let me pluck three interesting incidents to demonstrate how convergence seemed to be a plausible situation than divergence.

  • An informal mechanism of criticism and feedback is established between both worlds.: If you look at the GST hikes, the ministerial salaries and the recent Auditor General’s report, you notice a few subtle changes from the establishment who is evolving their approach towards the critics of the new media. First, when the GST hike is announced, the initial announcement did not take into account about multi-tiered GST and the impact on the middle class. Slowly, the establishment pushed back with their answers to this issue. If you read the budget report highlights of the report, you find yourself reading an academic review (and that is not being sarcastic) of the issues addressed. The ministerial salaries issue has drawn even more fire and awe that even Chua Mui Hoong, a ST journalist had written an article to criticize the salary hike. If you examine beyond the surface, two trends have emerged: first, the establishment are evolving their messages with how the critics respond to their policies and second, the mainstream media is squeezed in a way that they have to write something more critical or see their credibility (which is already diminishing) go further down the drain. Of course, it is a persistent game theoretic situation, given that most players in old and new media are rational, save for the crazy few. If you don’t think or believe that it is happening, the mainstream media is consistently taking stories from Singapore blogosphere.
  • Controversy is unsustainable in new media: A lot of conflict between the Singapore blogosphere and the establishment is driven by the single force of controversy. Not all controversial incidents are good but they cannot be bad either with some cases that are actually forces everyone to think about the implications on an issue. I once made this remark during a bloggers’ gathering that the frequency for a major controversy is about once per very fortnight. From NKF, AcidFlask, Wee Shu Min even to the recent Timeshare and Tomorrow.SG incident, one pattern is consistently observed: things do die down.
  • Specialist bloggers changing the landscape of Singapore: A respected blogger (who I cannot mention) once offer this view to me, “Celebrity and controversial blogging is the thing of the past two years, and what comes after that is specialist blogging.” Of course, celebrities like Mr Wang, Yawning Bread, Xiaxue and Mr Brown are always there, but the emphasis is changing in view of market forces. Socio-political blogging has suffered with the departure of several high profile young bloggers and the lacklustre activity of other bloggers. Of course, as old bloggers depart, new ones will emerge. Instead, I will talk about another trend happening in new media.

Market Forces teaches Media how to bend and Media ushers market forces how to shift

With events organized by young Singaporeans (who brought back the Silicon Valley culture to Singapore), a different and emerging new media community is forming from the Nexus 2007 conference and BlogOut! event. This community forms from a congregation of technology bloggers (Kevin Lim, James SengTomorrow.SG, U-ZynPing.SG), media socialists (Walter Lim, Ben Koe, Melvin Yuan), the entrepreneur bloggers (SG Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur27 and The Digital Movement) and other specialist bloggers (Van Tan, Yesterday.SG and the famous and yet under-mentioned Rambling Librarian, Ivan Chew). This converging group formed from several communities are engaging the mainstream media (for example, STOMP and Straits Times) on issues of web 2.0, technology entrepreneurship and interesting cultural events (World Museums Day), that is outside of the traditional community of social-political blogging.

Yet, online advertising in Singapore has not taken off. Most businesses have not tapped into the power of new media or are reluctant to adopt new media technologies to take their products and services forward, compare to China, the online advertising revenues is growing at a CAGR above 10%. In fact, the whole southeast asia are experiencing slow growth in online advertising. Hence market forces have not really arrived for many out there to take new media seriously. Another trend that is now becoming popular is corporate blogging. Two years ago, we hear the lonely voice of our first local corporate blogger, Tan Kin Lian, the ex-CEO of NTUC Income. Fast forward two years later, after chairing a recent discussion about corporate blogging, I was approached by some local corporations to advise on best practices on how blogging can help the corporation to move forward in customer services, product launches and internal human resource management.

With the success of new media in the US and UK, the establishment has relented to market forces despite their conservative stance against new media. Ultimately, what excites the establishment is a robust and vibrant economy. Market forces will usher them to look to ways in adapting the new media. In fact, a lot of schools are into blogging, podcasts and videocasts and microfunds are established by various agencies (MDA) to start up new companies in this industry. That comes to a much more difficult question for the policy makers: the more I democratize information, the less control I will have. So, where is that balance between the virtues and vices of new media?

The Chronicles of Mis-Information in New Media: The Spam, Poison Pens and Unfair Commentaries

“When information is democratized, isn’t vandalism just free speech?”
– Stephen Colbert to Jimmy Wales (Founder of Wikipedia)

Inherently, even countries like US and China, the biggest threats in the cyberspace are terrorism and national security. Whether you live in a democratic or autocratic country, you will have no choice to abide by very strong legislation to protect the interests of the state from new media abuse. Increasingly with the democratization of information in the web, the establishment will either create more stringent laws to regulate the media or open up but keeping the fundamentals tighten. The internet has removed the geographical boundaries among nations, and hence, it is no longer possible to stop others from getting information from various sources. Will countries cease to exist with the expansion of the internet? That is a question that we can leave to another day.

With open source collaborations such as the wikipedia, trust and credibility are the major forces in how successful operations by wisdom of crowds are gauged upon. A few pieces of misinformation recently has put the credibility of Wikipedia back in question. Cyber vandalism has already happened in both wikipedia and 2nd Life. Spam is entering into forums, blog comments and emails. However, these forms of cyber vandalism and spam can be mitigated with the introduction of new technology. Does that mean that the old model of closing up looks better? There are two ways of looking into this. The first is that we should restrain the access of information and collaboration of important projects to the privileged few. However, we cannot tap into the wisdom of the many others out there. Another way is to educate the populace and teach them how to make their own judgments when inundated with information. A lot of rhetoric and polemic in the Singapore social political blogosphere stems from the fact that the citizens felt that they are constantly repressed and unappreciated. The opening up can help to soften that rage and get the populace to be passionate about the country in general.

That brings us down to one last issue: poison pens and unfair commentaries. Given the defamation laws in Singapore cover a very wide area, how are public and even private figures held up against poison pens and unfair commentaries? Let me use two incidents to justify why the establishments fear of poison pens are unwarranted. The first incident is about a local company is criticized on their services and business models by an unknown and anonymous blogger. Strangely, another blogger, after reading the article, went and checked out what the anonymous blogger said was true. In the end, this discerning blogger found out that the poison pen was done by the rival of this local company. Hence there is a form of self-correction in the blogosphere that will ensure that the poison pens do not end up going one way.

Another incident is the AcidFlask vs Philip Yeo round two. In the second round, Philip Yeo allowed a blogger (Aaron Ng) to publish the content of the original blog post that he found defamatory. It is important to note that the blogosphere may not like Philip Yeo as a person, but they did not deny him the right to make his point. That reflects the maturity of the blogosphere in general. If we are to champion freedom of speech, the standards must apply to both sides of the house. In the end, the material is published and some bloggers (to the best of my knowledge) have come to their own conclusion who’s right and the answer is surprising. This incident clearly demonstrated that the biggest noise makers in the blogosphere are usually polarized towards both extremes. Clearly, there is a large moderate group who can make up their minds with clear evidence presented. It is a good example to demonstrate how public figures do not need to fear the poison pen if they are willing to release the information (against the wishes of their lawyers).

Where does the future lie?

A lot of naysayers, cynics and critics will tell you that the new media will be eventually subdued. The only reason why it is subdued is because people allow the process of being subdued. Others think that new media is a positive experiment to slowly opening up debate and discussion for a civil society. Another group of people believe that some people have already made up their minds to believe what they read in new media. My opinion is that the final answer should lie somewhere in the middle. That balance should lead to a positive and optimistic view about the two medias in the future.

Addendum

One interesting observation to support my first point about the informal system of feedback and criticism established between both medias is the model adopted by the two other socio-political news aggregators (other than Tomorrow.SG and Ping.SG): Intelligent Singaporean and Singapore Surf, which both adopts a manual curation of blog posts and news. Singapore Surf balances news with the mainstream and new media to provide a perspective traversing both worlds.

Straits Times has published a report today (9 June 2007) on citizen journalism. According to James Seng, the report did not reflect what is really happening in the ground and mainly become a device to glorify STOMP instead of giving credit to many others who have contributed to citizen journalism in Singapore, for example, Kevin Lim and his backpack.

Rambling Librarian and Mr Wang have offered their thoughts on this post.

Acknowledgments:
This article is generated from talking, meeting and crowdsourcing from many interesting bloggers during different gatherings and events. I thank them for their thoughts and opinions which make this whole discussion interesting.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist