Recently I was involved in an online altercation with Tony Horne, a radio broadcaster from North-East England, which served to highlight a shift in my generation’s understanding of media interaction. It started here, continued with Ian Clark’s reply here, and went on to this blog post here. In his final piece on the subject, Mr Horne wrote “Another [Twitter user] called Simon demanded I reply to his tweet. Why would I do that? I had my say, you had your right of reply.”
For the record, I did not ‘demand’ a reply. I asked Mr Horne via Twitter whether he wanted to reply or not. My exact words were: “Do you plan to respond? Were you trying to generate hits or start an actual debate?” which I’ll admit reads as more hostile than I intended it. He declined my debate invitation and seemed to misunderstand me so I sent “My aim is to engage in debate: an exchange of views to reach a conclusion. This can't be done without back and forth response.” There was no further reply.
For a time, I was mystified by Mr Horne’s refusal to engage with his readers or enter into a debate. I couldn’t grasp why someone would write something and then not reply to contrary arguments. As far as I could see, he had no reason not to reply: he clearly had the courage of his convictions, he was online at the time when pro-library comments were dropping thick and fast, he definitely believed what he had written. Why not reply directly?
Then I realised it comes down to the words “I had my say...” These words indicate a different understanding of media interaction to the one I hold. Essentially, Mr Horne did not view our interaction as an active debate: for him, media interaction consists in a creator giving his opinions and the reader passively taking them in. My generation and generations younger than me have always had the right to debate and this is because of the difference between new media and old media.
On the Web, the creation of content involves subsequent discussion. You write, record, or visualise what you believe and then you either defend it or allow it to be picked to pieces. Everything one puts on the Web can be actively debated: in comments – blogs, YouTube, newspaper websites – or on Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Reading and reacting to content is as active a process as creating the content. When our right to reply is blocked, we create new avenues for reply. It’s become common practice for librarians to debate with detractors in the comments of news articles concerning public libraries and encouraging and engaging in informed debate is one of the primary roles of Voices for the Library. In new media, creators stand behind what they say, respond to arguments they hadn’t considered, and, hopefully, change their minds a little to accommodate the diverse opinions of other people.
In old media, the creation of content is the entirety of the interaction. Creators wrote articles, published them, and left the consumption to the reader. Once they ‘had their say’ that was the end of it. Maybe a dissenting letter would be published in the paper or read on the air but the initial creator wasn’t expected to respond. There was no debate because the means required to have a debate were not available. This seems to be the case with Mr Horne: in the recent past, he broadcast or wrote his opinions and people passively consumed them. He didn’t reply to our arguments in the comments because his understanding of media interaction is different from that of a generation raised on new media.
This new understanding of interaction is even influencing the ‘real world’. In the past few months, there has been a rise in protests against the Coalition Government’s decisions: students in particular have been taking to the streets to protest what they see as injustices – injustices to themselves in the case of tuition fee rises and EMA cuts and injustices to the country in the case of corporate tax avoidance. Young people feel that they have the right to debate and with no outlet, no system in place to accommodate active debate with the Government, they protest in the streets.
The generation now coming-of-age has a new understanding of media interaction: the understanding that people debate about what they believe and respond when someone argues against them. Simply ‘having your say’ and letting it lie is not sufficient anymore. In this new paradigm, you either respond to your detractors or lose the argument.