Media in an Age of Triage: Making Sense of a Wired World

By Anne Nelson

Janet Sternberg, president of the Media Ecology Association, recently informed the New York Times, “Change has changed qualitatively.” She should know. The term “media ecology”—rooted in the theories of Marshall McLuhanand Neil Postman—has become a keyconcept in understanding the exponential changes in media that are transforming modern life. The new model proposes that we can no longer think in terms of producers and consumers of content, especially in knowledge industries such as journalism, book publishing and education. Instead, digital media make us all part of a vast “ecosystem” in which everyone produces and consumes information simultaneously.

What do these changes mean for nonprofit institutions? A great deal—and the dust hasn’t settled yet. Over the past two decades, organizations of all sorts have been obliged to invest in a massive retrofitting to assimilate new technologies. Initially, brochures and catalogues went online as websites, record-keeping was computerized and interpersonal interactions migrated onto email. The powers and potential of the new media have been exhilarating—even if the conversion process was taxing, with many costly failed experiments along the way.

This initial wave of change was still in process when the second wave of social media appeared. Over the past decade, the phenomenon known as Web 2.0 has shifted much online activity from static websites to interactive behaviors, through uses such as Wikipedia, Google Maps, and YouTube, as well as Twitter and text messaging. The new models of crowd-sourcing and collaboration have challenged traditional notions of authorship and shaken the very architecture of knowledge. Now nonprofit organizations are grappling with new dimensions of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, trying to figure out where they fit into this fast-changing and seemingly unpredictable world.

In many cases, the new technologies display a clear advantage over traditional modalities. This is particularly true regarding the rapid exchange of “flat data,” which involves clear-cut information involving relatively little controversy. One sparkling example is offered by the National Audubon Society, which has long sent legions of volunteers into the field for its annual Christmas bird count. Since 2002, it has teamed up with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to create eBird, a platform that connects those reports to scientific and environmentalist projects and offers a dazzling array of maps to visualize their data. Not coincidentally, the site also serves to enlist and engage membership, build a database and promote fundraising. eBird’s free user-generated content is a major advantage.

Nonprofit organizations must bear in mind that the recent boom in online technology coincided with a robust economy (and even so, many institutions strained to cover the costs of installing and implementing the new technologies). In today’s economic doldrums, institutions will need to be more strategic in their adoption of new technology and make sure that the expenditures are balanced among overall institutional needs. Identifying and connecting with engaged online communities can often accomplish more than sizable investments. Universities may find, for example, that they can achieve more in some areas by training students in new applications for their personal laptop computers than by building out new computer labs.

Much of the most dynamic online activity right now is user-driven and can be carried out on readily available consumer hardware. The devices to power and populate even advanced applications can now easily fit into a large handbag. Facebook and Twitter are two of the most notable developments.

  • Over the past two years, Facebook has quintupled its users to a population of over 500 million around the globe. It has become an active organizing platform for everything from homework sessions to street protests. It has become a powerful—though still erratic—marketing tool for younger audiences, and its demographics are now shifting towards an older audience. Many younger members are now experimenting with new forms of online activism, ranging from raising consciousness on international issues to online fund-raising for favorite causes.
  • Twitter, launched in 2006, has grown to some 190 million users. The uninitiated often jeer at the idea that anything of value can be expressed in 140 characters. But they may not realize that many users employ it most effectively as a headline service to circulate shortened links to noteworthy articles (or even books). Twitter users achieve particular efficiency and utility by employing lists that receive feeds from individuals and institutions with common interests. These can function as the equivalent of a personalized “publication,” allowing the user to select his/her own masthead.

Many sweeping claims have been made about the new applications’ potential benefit for nonprofits, but some of these require further scrutiny. Online campaigns can alert vast numbers of potential supporters and yield quick, impressive numbers of “one-click” responses, but these often result in little follow-through (or, as young users call it, “slacktivism”). These trends are explored in Beth Kanter’s and Allison Fine’s The Networked Nonprofit (Jossey-Bass, 2010), a user-friendly workbook that walks the reader through new platforms and their deployment. Kanter and Fine have educated numerous nonprofits through their blogging and presentations, and their book is unusually helpful in explaining the jargon and the organizational implications of their field, with plentiful examples.

Nonetheless, promoters of the new online activism can be prone to irrational exuberance. The introduction by Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Facebook founder Mark) to Kanter’s and Fine’s book is a case in point. To illustrate the social power of Facebook, she describes a young man who used it to solicit money for breast cancer research: “By the end of 2009, Eric’s cause had 5.5 million friends and over $135,000.” In other words, his efforts translated to a little over two cents per “friend.” Other campaigns have yielded greater results; the Obama campaign and the response to the Haitian earthquake come to mind. Even so, they often depend on headlines and emergencies; in the critical aftermath, the attention often moves on.

Identifying and connecting with engaged online communities can often accomplish more than sizable investments.

American universities have been a critical incubator for the communications revolution, and education continues to be a site of experimentation. As the economic downturn continues to batter traditional universities, there will be growing pressures to use digital technology to bring down the high costs of education — from both the consumers’ and the educators’ perspectives. The transformations have been extraordinary: in libraries, for example, academic institutions throughout the world have acquired the potential to infinitely expand their holdings through the Internet.

Teleconferencing carries the classroom to far-flung students, and online collaboration has accelerated research in many disciplines. At the same time, some approaches to online learning have been discouraging. A number of for-profit online institutions have sprung up, including Everest University, Kaplan University, and the mammoth University of Phoenix, which enrolls some 500,000 students. These are to some degree democratizing higher education and, in any case, making higher education far more easily available to a multitude of students who are not interested in or able to attend traditional institutions. But these institutions have recently come under Federal investigation for misrepresentation and potentially fraudulent practices. Furthermore, even experienced educators are uncertain which forms of digital education enhance which forms of cognition.

Principles for Nonprofits in Expanding Their Media Platforms
Nonprofit organizations should keep several principles in mind as they expand their use of the new media platforms:

  • Match your technology to your goals. Online media do so much so well that they blind us to what they do poorly. Take, for instance, the case of reading. It’s still early days in terms of hard research, but there are many signs that reading long, complex material on a back-lit screen is less effective than reading it on a printed page. (The various reasons range from eyestrain-inducing back-lit screens to distracting links —disadvantages that may be addressed by ebooks and other technologies on the horizon.) But today’s students need to absorb their readings today, and the quality of the reading experience matters. (One dirty little secret attached to many syllabi these days is that students are simply printing out their online links and transferring their payment from the author and publisher to the vendor of expensive ink.) The issues of readability and retention may be addressed in the next generation of e-reader, but this should not be assumed.
  • Be careful of significant capital investments “up-front”: Educational institutions have experienced pressure to install “smart classrooms” at considerable expense. It is astonishing how many resources are devoted to the screens and the interfaces, and how little attention is paid to the classroom environment itself. It is possible to design a space so students can see each other, the instructor, the screen and a white board — but legions of designers forget to ask the instructors what elements they need to teach. If an institution hasn’t clarified its goal and brought teachers to the table, it will be impossible to design the most effective media applications.
  • Introduce new applications and technologies in step with your audience—not the consumer bandwagon. Everett Rogers’ classic “diffusion of innovations theory” is extremely helpful for analyzing how given given online audiences adapt to change (see graph). In Rogers’ graph, the bell curve represents the breakdown in adoption, while the black line illustrates cumulative users. “Innovators” (to the left of the bell curve) take the gamble of experimentation, with the knowledge that much of what they try is bound to fail. This is a fine spot on the graph to attract users whose business is media and/or technology (such as computer science departments, technology programs, journalism schools, etc). But other programs may want to let new media applications mature and prove themselves before committing major expenditures of time and money to building a presence, especially in a period of economic contraction.

Online media do so much so well that they blind us to what they do poorly.

  • Digital media will yield the greatest benefit when it is used with ethical, public-spirited and fully focused humans firmly in the driver’s seat.Bear in mind that this is a transitional era, and it has generated a new digital divide. It appears that users aged 50 and over tend to live in their comfort zone of email and web searches, while those under 40 have tended to gravitate towards social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Much of this traffic may arrive on the same page of content through links—the critical point is how they get there.) So if an organization is addressing both students and their parents, it may well need different generational media strategies for members of the same family.
  • Continue to adapt. Countless universities and cultural institutions have invested heavily in website designs, involving increasing quantities of content and increasingly elaborate design elements, such as video and interactivity. But this often leads to sites that are vast, unwieldy and hard to navigate. Critical information is buried, locked in pdf files that don’t appear in searches, or languishes without updates. The result is that users cannot access vital information and the utility of the site is lost. Institutions need to take the next step of tagging the information and putting it into searchable hypertext, so its contents will show up in searches.
  • Go the distance in online reputation management. Increasingly, digital information constitutes the public “face” of an institution. It isn’t enough to search out and respond to negative information online; institutions need to be proactive. That means making certain that accurate, well-presented information is reaching the users, in the places they’re looking for it, in a form they can easily access.

In the recent past, a website was regarded as a brochure or catalogue, free of printing and postage costs. But web traffic is shifting and consolidating. (In August, Wired magazinereported that the top 10 websites account for about 75 percent of the traffic in the U.S. in 2010.) That means that most of the audience may arrive at an institutional website via a search engine, such as Google, or by way of a link on another site. (For young audiences, that may well be Wikipedia —like it or not.) Organizations that aspire to international audiences (such as universities seeking international applicants) can drive away users in countries with low bandwidth, who spend hours waiting to download sites with too many bells and whistles.

Although there is much uncharted territory ahead, a number of recent books offer important insights into the promise and the achievements of digital media. These include Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks(Yale, 2006), Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (Penguin, 2008) and Jeff Jarvis’ What Would Google Do? (Harper-Business, 2009), to name just a few.

Other useful works include caveats and qualifications. Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Destroying Our Culture (Nicholas Brealey, 2007) warns that a glut of online free content is eroding the market that supports excellence that would be expressed by an accomplished author or a classical musician. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2010) discusses how web-surfing and multi-tasking can degrade our powers of concentration, while William Power’s Hamlet’s Blackberry(Harper, 2010) takes a hard look at the way technology can affect family life and social relationships.

None of these authors argues that it is desirable (or possible) to go back to a pre-digital past. But they all point to an essential value at stake: the force of human agency.

To make our way forward, institutions that serve the public interest must lead the way in designing hard-headed audits of the impact of technology—on individuals, on organizations and on society—as an honest appraisal of both the benefits and the potential losses. Like the automobile, digital media represents a marvelous advance in technology. But it will yield the greatest benefits, and do the least harm, when it is used judiciously—with ethical, public-spirited and fully focused humans firmly in the driver’s seat.

This is an expanded version of an article on PBS MediaShift.. The author posts on Twitter as anelsona on media, education and development.

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