As a media studies student during a period of cultural transition, there is a new relevance and weight to the idea of “literacy” as it pertains to media in a converging society.  We have reached the point where social media has become an integrated part of our lives (250 million facebook users log in every day and 70% of users are located outside the US) and while marketers and public relations professionals are developing new means to exploit those mediums for their own purpose, we have also seen the political implications of new media through the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran and the latest upheavals thought North Africa and the Mideast.

G20 protesters in 2009 confronted police and used twitter to coordinate demonstrations.

Social media has reinvented political activism in not just these areas, but in the Western world as well. During the 2009 G20 summit in London, anti-capitalist activists used Twitter and mobile devices to coordinate activities and avoid the police.  Social media has also been responsible for numerous crowdsourced and crowdfunding measues, despite the common criticism of “slacktivism” replacing real political action.  Late last decade, an idealistic vision of “e-democracy” (the hope of more participatory government and direct democracy through the use of new media) cumulated in 2008 with, a website with a function that seemed to promise progressives true input into the new administration during Obama’s transition to office.

We are now at the point where the effects of new media are apparent. Media has always been  integral to the development and enforcing of society and culture, from it’s norms to it’s values, since the Instructions of Shuruppak sometime around 2500 BC to the Spike Lee movie Clockers which I watched last weekend. Traditionally, dissemination has occurred slowly between individuals and quickly from an elite. Wealthy, well connected and privileged authors, filmmakers, rulers and politicians, even priests and storytellers were media elites who had control of their messages and could pass it easily to a ready or even captive audience. These were society’s principle mythmakers (by that I mean Joseph Campbell’s definition of sociological function of myth in “supporting and validating a certain social order”). Individuals in comparison, could only exchange conversations, maybe letters, and the most sophisticated type of interconnected communication like samizdat was still interpersonal.

Now, with the rise of worldwide consortiums of global citizens, it’s far easier for people who aren’t traditionally part of the power establishment to interfere with or even create their own myths. In the past month, the internet hacker group Anonymous has effectively destroyed the credibility of security firm HBGary for its involvement with Bank Of America and others in what can only be described as creative public relations regarding an impeding Wikileaks expose on the bank. Likewise, the internet has exacerbated the backlash against modernity through many various means: to paraphrase something I heard online a few weeks back, “American exceptionalism was a lot more believable before you could talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds.”

An example of culture jamming - Juxtaposition of an engineered, branded image with political criticism creates a jarring interruption in the viewer's expectations.

With this state of affairs, the average person is no longer content to be an observer of the media; this new functionality means they expect to be able to have a say. The old media is broken; what is any publication anymore, without the fallout of discussion that analyzes it, processes it, and legitimizes it in the eyes of this new culture? We now validate both our experiences and our media consumption through an interactive process of sharing and discussion.

That said, media literacy becomes so much more important – because we are dealing with not just a single source, but many innumerable sources of conversation which all have varying motivations and agendas. Media literacy is no longer about niche entertainment – it is essential and synonymous to political literacy, cultural literacy, and wholly relevant to all further reflection on those topics.

By becoming critical thinkers capable of such analysis, we are much better equipped to interpret and respond to the unconventional messages that now exist in a “multi-polar” world (to turn some international relations terms) – instead of the “unipolar” traditions of old media, where elites create and disseminate culture, we are the “music makers,” and our dreams will help determine the future.

Note: One of the largest concerns with this issue is the technology gap; how marginalized and excluded elements of the population will participate. I’m happy to say that I was reading Harry Jenkins White Paper [pdf] and found that

… more than one-half of all American teens—and 57 percent of teens who use the Internet—could be considered media creators… Contrary to popular stereotypes, these activities are not restricted to white suburban males. In fact, urban youth (40 percent) are somewhat more likely than their suburban (28 percent) or rural (38 percent) counterparts to be media creators. Girls aged 15-17 (27 percent) are more
likely than boys their age (17 percent) to be involved with blogging or other social activities
online.The Pew researchers found no significant differences in participation by race-ethnicity.
While this doesn’t speak a whole lot on economic demographics, it is still promising. It reminded me of Youth Rights Media, a New Haven, CT non-profit which trains city youth to be civil rights activists through the use of media (I had wanted to intern there last summer, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible).