The State of New Media

It was an image that haunted us all - a young Syrian boy, limp as a ragdoll, face down on a Turkish beach, as waves gently lapped against his small, lifeless body. As we scrolled through our newsfeeds, there was no way of avoiding the heartbreaking image. It provoked a response in us, we shared it, debated it, demanded something be done. It sparked desperately needed action in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.The speed at which this haunting image reverberated around the world and its impact demonstrates the power and influence of new media. When the majority of UCD’s undergraduate population was in its infancy, so too was new media. And as they’ve aged and matured, so too has new media.New media is now an intricate web of text, visuals, audio and other digital content. It is as quintessentially millennial as we are; fast, innovative and restless. Digital media presents new ways to communicate and share stories. At its best, it allows media organisations to share powerful stories by inciting a response in its audience through carefully crafted digital blends. At its worst, it can be cruel, degrading, misleading and damaging.The impact of social media on how we interact with the media is undeniable. We live in an age of participatory media where the audience is just as important as the content creators. Media organisations can attribute much of their success to the views, shares, likes and comments of internet users.In the past, the people we discussed an article with were limited to people we knew in real-life. In the digital realm, the interactions we can have are limitless. Comments sections on media sites can foster a connection and intimacy among the audience that traditional media cannot offer. This can be a really positive thing. Instead of boring our friends by raving about an obscure band or fitness trend, we can celebrate it online with others who share our enthusiasm. We can give our opinion on an article we read or video we watch and provide real-time feedback to digital content creators.However, the anonymity that the internet provides means that what can and should be a beneficial platform for debate and discussion can quickly descend into an abyss of demeaning comments and in some cases abusive threats.This can have devastating effects on the mental health of the content creators and raise real-world safety concerns. The difficulty in moderating comments has led to them simply vanishing in some cases. High profile sites including The Verge and The Daily Dot have removed their comments section entirely, attributing their decisions to the difficulty of controlling trolls (people who write offensive, inflammatory comments).Nasty comments are not the only thing tarnishing new media; digital content creators and media organisations also have a lot to answer for. The constant stream of information we receive means journalists have a much harder time holding our attention. We are faced with a deluge of media sources. The increased competition to command our attention can cause some media outlets to resort to publishing shocking content, whatever the consequences.Click bait is to journalism what junk food is to food: tempting, enticing and ultimately disappointing. News headlines are often hyperbolic and melodramatic to lure readers to articles lacking substance. When advertising is the chief revenue stream for most new media outlets, sensationalism can become irresistible to journalists. Some new media outlets are less interested in the quality of their work than in the amount of views, shares and likes it gets.In some instances, however, the hunger for views can manifest itself in more sinister, harmful ways than annoying click bait. Online shaming and humiliation was catapulted into public consciousness last June with Monica Lewisky’s thought-provoking piece in Vanity Fair. It chronicled the impact new media had on her life in the aftermath of the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal in the mid-90s. She is widely regarded as one of the first victims of online shaming. The way her story was reported brought her to the verge of suicide.
“In an age where digital media is constantly evolving at a rapid pace, is it any surprise that digital journalists crave some semblance of security?"
Sadly, she was the first of many victims of ruthless online reporting. Over the past two decades many people have had their lives torn apart as a result of digital journalism. TMZ and Perez Hilton reigned supreme during the 2000s as they exposed private details of celebrity lives. Nothing was off limits.The constant barrage of ‘scandals’ leaves us desensitised to the treatment of public figures. The level of cruelty that is exhibited in some online publications is shocking. On a daily basis public figures are scrutinised and harshly put down for trivial, banal things like wearing odd socks or daring to leave their houses with flaws on show. This is damaging both for the public figures being discussed and for readers’ own self-esteem.Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn. New media outlets that indulge in callous, distasteful reporting now face backlash from the public and their industry peers. Gawker was widely criticised following their recent story outing a gay New York media executive in a story about his attempt to book a male escort. This public outcry will hopefully act as a warning to media organisations about the consequences of slipping journalistic standards.Since the beginning of new media’s stranglehold on the media world, questions have been raised over what constitutes fair remuneration for journalists. In 2001, The New York Times lost a Supreme Court battle against freelance journalist Jonathon Tasini. It was held that when articles are commissioned for traditional print form and are later republished online, journalists should be fairly compensated for the reproduction of their work. This particular issue has subsided of late as most contracts for articles now include a clause regarding online reproduction and indeed some articles are now commissioned for the sole purpose of online publication.Sadly though, the overall treatment of journalists in the digital age has progressed very little in the intervening years since the Tasini judgment. Fair remuneration of journalists is an issue that plagues media organisations in this digital era. Traditional, secure media jobs are becoming scarcer by the day. The recent vote at Gawker on whether workers should unionise provoked widespread discussion in the industry. Some believe that unionisation would kill the creativity and innovation that defines new media. But in an age where digital media is constantly evolving at a rapid pace, is it any surprise that digital journalists crave some semblance of security?Media organisations like Gawker and Buzzfeed are not the only powerhouses of new media. Blogging, once dismissed as a pleasant pastime, is now a lucrative career for the most successful bloggers. Brands pay big money to be associated with bloggers. Some of the most influential people in this area of new media are those who have grown up surrounded by it. Tavi Gevinson shot to prominence with her fashion blog Style Rookie before she even reached high school. She then capitalised on her success by creating Rookie, an online lifestyle magazine for teenage girls. Rookie had something that the traditional media aimed at teenage girls lacked: a teenage girl at the helm, making it uniquely relatable.Bloggers exhibit a masterful use of new media. The success of photojournalist Brandon Stanton of the Humans of New York blog can be largely attributed to his clever use of social media. His blog demonstrates how the simplicity of telling real human stories can capture worldwide attention. He has used his blog as a catalyst for social change on numerous occasions. For instance, he has raised millions of dollars for underprivileged students in New York and challenged people’s perceptions of Iran through a heartwarming photo series capturing the lives of ordinary citizens there.Even Harvard acknowledged how influential blogging has become in the new media landscape when the Harvard Business Review examined The Blonde Salad blog in its first ever case study on blogging this year. While a lot of new media sites rely on banner ads for revenue, bloggers can provide their readers with sleeker interfaces. They monetise their blogs in other ways: being paid to feature products, promote brands and even through developing products of their own.Blogging and social media presence is also vital to celebrities. New media allows public figures to carefully curate their public image to a much greater degree than traditional media allows. The most popular “snapchatter” is Kylie Jenner, who recently celebrated her eighteenth birthday. She has grown up in the limelight and allows fans constant, 24/7 access into her life. Her influence is undeniable - Cocoa Brown, an Irish brand of tan, sold out overnight when it was featured on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram account. Other celebrities like Beyoncé adopt a more curated approach to social media-presenting carefully selected images and stories that reveal little about the person in question.It is not just celebrities or the fashion industry that attempt to use new media to their advantage. New media can also serve as a vehicle for political agendas. The Chinese Communist party now packages their message in social media ready snippets aimed at appealing to China's young, tech-savvy population. China’s state-owned newspapers were losing readers rapidly as young Chinese people migrated to online sources for their news. In response, the newspapers have developed online platforms for sharing their content in a way that is accessible for younger users.The influence of new media in American politics is undeniable. The most recent reshuffle of the White House pressroom back in March highlighted Washington’s growing respect for new media as Buzzfeed gained a seat for the first time ever. The 2016 presidential candidates are already trying to harness new media to their advantage. The buzz surrounding Hillary Clinton mounted steadily on social media well before her official announcement. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s brash showmanship and shocking statements ensure that he is widely discussed on social media, bolstering his popularity.The influence of new media on politics was demonstrated at home in Ireland during the marriage equality campaign. The mobilisation of young voters was crucial to the success of the referendum. The use of new media in igniting this mobilisation is undeniable. From online campaigns to register to vote to members of the LGBTQ+ community sharing their personal stories on social media, the battle was, in part, fought and won online.Undoubtedly, digital content has revolutionised how the media communicates with its audience. It is entirely possible that the future of new media will see a move towards a quality driven approach. Our generation has turned its back on sub-standard products in other areas of our lives. McDonald’s recent attempts to market McMór burgers as ‘artisan’ products (they were forced to drop the ‘artisan’ label after failing to live up to Food Safety Authority guidelines) shows us that the fast food industry is scrambling to rebrand itself as it realises that quality is important to its target demographic. Perhaps it is the combination of having lived through both boom times and a recession that has primed our generation to become discerning consumers. Whatever the reason, it is clear that we demand both quality and value. New media will learn from the current changes in the food industry and bring quality to the fore going forward.In the future, basing performance solely on views will stop. It’s likely that we will see a shift towards subscription-based news services with carefully curated, tailored content. Bloggers and journalists will have to try harder to cultivate a distinct personal brand to stand out in a saturated industry. Change is afoot. Just as UCD’s students have exited their awkward adolescences, new media is also growing up. Hopefully it will leave its youthful mistakes behind, because if it can, the future of online media looks bright.