Mediate YourSelf!

At the end of the third 'Next 5 Minutes' conference on tactical media (March 1999) in Amsterdam, an interesting discussion emerged around the question of how the minor media practices elaborated and highlighted in this vibrant event would ever reach a wider audience for lack of being covered by any mainstream outlet. At one point, some people from the back of the room (unfortunately I don't know anymore who exactly, I believe an Italian group), shouted: 'We don't want to be mediated - we mediate ourselves!'

This outcry stunned me. It seemed such a straightforward and challenging idea, that it would become a guiding notion for a whole string of projects I developed afterwards. The outcry also triggered a lot of new thoughts and ideas. My fascination for the question of self-mediation is not necessarily born out of disdain for mainstream broadcast media, but rather out of love for the fact that we are now in a position to turn the media around. Instead of being subjected to an outside alienating force, registering and mediating our lives, media can be used as tools to express certain subjective apprehensions about the world. The media system then becomes a set of instruments to disseminate particular views (my own views), without an external mediator or filter in-between.

At present, this discussion is framed by the emergence of new forms of net.casting, new options that the Internet is starting to offer for placing live and archived sound and video online and distributing it to an audience directly. It happens in various formats, and there is no clear standard as yet, neither in terms of a preferred method, nor a transparent technical standard and/or clearly designated market leader. But given that this is the frame, it is important to point out right at the beginning that though the idea of self-mediation is enhanced by some of these recent technological developments, it is primarily an attitude, or a certain consciousness about media.

The excitement that has surfaced, in my opinion rightfully so, about the possibilities of net.casting to create a more distributed system of broad- and narrowcasting, and thus democratise in a sense the privileged role of the sender in the traditional broadcast system, has some strong historical precursors. It suffices here to mention just two examples, Bertold Brecht's Radio Theory of the late 1920s, in which he envisions the transmission space as a two-way communication system, totally decentralised, without a clear hierarchy of senders and listeners; and secondly, the so-called camcorder revolution: the moment when video recorders became a 'wearable' consumer item, and these cameras could be turned on the power structures traditionally in control of the media channels.

In this little essay, I try to develop some of the ideas related to this reversal of media roles, and apply some of the insights to the current stage of development of the Internet and its extension with all sorts of audiovisual components. In an earlier text, 'Media without an Audience', I played around with a number of less-well-established media phenomena and concepts that shift the focus of media theory away from a communications-based approach to a more anthropological understanding of media (networked digital media, in particular). This investigation actually led me much closer to how people actually use the Internet than traditional media theories. It also brought me closer to the more exciting practices that I have seen emerging over the last few years, again, especially in the context of networked media (the Internet).

Here I want to explore self-mediation in relation to community-building processes and the construction of a public domain in the new media landscape, which is neither state nor market-controlled. The superchannel project, offering public tools for anyone to create their own web TV channel, is an ideal case study to investigate and explore these questions. What links up all three texts is a shift in approach, away from discussing media in the framework of communications theory per se, towards seeing certain kinds of media behaviours and media phenomenologies as new forms of habitation: a series of attempts to inhabit the media landscape. I think that the essence of this kind of media behaviour is close to an anthropological concept of the creation of 'presences' in a new territory. In this case, the new territory is the expanded media landscape.

Now the creation of presence in an alien environment, or a new territory, is an enormously complex anthropological notion, of which I certainly do not have any secure enough understanding or insight to offer a 'theory'. This lack of understanding is, however, exactly why it is such an exciting opportunity to focus on a specific project that embodies some of the key aspects that, I feel, need to be investigated to come closer to an understanding of what is going on 'at ground level' in a networked media environment.

A Community without a Network Does Not Exist

Let's first get away from an immediate misunderstanding that haunts a lot of so-called 'cyber theory' ? the term 'network' refers to much more than just the physical digital/electronic networking infrastructures. Network as a generic term can relate to a physical infrastructure as well as to a social infrastructure and practice. So, without wanting to be too strict or academic, it might be a good idea to distinguish between these different types of networks, by referring to digital networks in the specific case of computer-based infrastructures, and to networks in general when the social phenomena and practices are concerned.

It is quite crucial to understand that society is permeated by all kinds of networks, physical, social and cultural, but also hybrid combinations of all of these. The range of networks is vast: transportation networks, communications networks, family networks, social-class networks, networks of peers, professional networks, and many more. Every society consists of a complex layering of all these different types of networks that intersect and interact with each other in countless ways. Community results as an emerging property of these networks, but not without a decided effort.

The community discourse around digital networking technology was very strong in the early 1990s. Especially in the USA, high hopes were placed on networking technology to offer new tools for shaping communities translocally, as well as strengthening localised communities. During 12 years of Republican rule, with tax cuts and the subsequent reallocation of the nation's wealth to the wealthiest 5 per cent of the nation's citizens, the public sphere was effectively slaughtered.

By closing down the public mental hospitals and support units and turning thousands of psychiatric patients loose on the streets, the public space in the big US cities became a nightmare. The explosion of drug abuse and small-scale crime, an inevitable result of this totally irresponsible act of the Reagan administration, then became the perfect pretext to start the holy 'war on drugs'. Polarisation of public opinion, buzzwords such as the 'moral majority', and an anxiety campaign about the dangers of public space were the final ingredients used to kill public discourse and community in the USA. In this barren desert of social isolation, any tool that could recapture something of this lost socios was embraced eagerly, and we must understand much of the enthusiasm of early cyber utopia in this context.

Howard Rheingold, one of its most influential proponents, has made a lot of very useful distinctions in terms of how digital networking technology can aid and strengthen community structures. In his book The Virtual Community, he describes the creation of translocal communities, organised around a shared interest, topic or theme. These 'special interest communities' can be totally decentralised, dispersed in some instances across the globe. Because these communities were mostly debating societies, arguing their case via text-communication tools (e-mail, IRC chat, bulletin boards) the translocal dimension could be very strong. Connection speed was only a minor consideration (still quite important for transcontinental data traffic). When digital networking technology is used in the context of geographically situated community, a town, a village, a region, Rheingold refers to it as community networking. This term has become a well-established concept through digital cities, municipal information and communication networks, and many other types of local networking structures.

But What is a Community About?

Superchannel, the do-it-yourself web-TV platform, set up by the Danish arts and autonomous technology initiative Superflex, accommodates both these notions of community. Translocal communities, special interest groups for art, music, lifestyles and subcultures can bring people together in the project, but superchannel can also relate specifically to a particular local context. In the first superchannel project in Liverpool, Coronation Court, the context is extremely localised: Liverpool's oldest tower block, a remnant of urban utopia of the 1950s and '60s. [1]

In an introductory video to the project we are introduced to a deeply common microcosmos; the tower block and its tenants, some of who have lived there since it was established. Ideas about living and housing change, so does insight, with experience about what works as an architectural and urban reality, and what does not. As many people would have it, a tower block would stand as a symbol for urban isolation and alienation.

In Amsterdam certainly, one of the most problematic areas of the city is a high-rise district called the 'Bijlmermeer', in recent years renamed Amsterdam South East, a euphemism to disguise the actual existence of a ghetto in the egalitarian Dutch society. The Bijlmermeer district started as an urban utopia. Tower blocks would be built, with spacious and cheap apartments. It would offer a new luxurious environment for families, who traditionally lacked proper living spaces in the old districts of Amsterdam, where houses are exceedingly small, and consequently escaped into suburbia. The tower blocks were interspersed with large green recreation areas, ponds and greenery. Located at the edge of the city but still close to the centre, connected by excellent public transport facilities, this district was to stop families from fleeing the city, and offer the best of both worlds, the city at hand and comfortable living spaces at home.

But the Bijlmermeer became an urban disaster. Ridden with crime, the green areas being desperately insecure at night, the district quickly became a despised area. Flats remained empty. In the next stage of development, the tower blocks became popular with immigrants. They were cheap, big and easy to get. Control was slack and illegal occupants started to dominate the district. For the housing authorities, it became increasingly unclear who was actually living in a given apartment, or even how many people. Up to today the authorities have no clue how many people died when an El Al freight plane crashed into one of the big tower blocks in the Bijlmermeer.

Does this desperate image apply equally to the Liverpudlian remnants of this failed architectural and urban utopia?

In the Coronation Court introduction video the interviewer asks some of the tenants if there is a sense of community within the complex, and what community means to them. One of the ladies interviewed responds with a remarkably poignant answer. She says: 'Community is being caring, without being familiar'. Probably much to our surprise, people here do feel passionate about their living environment, and do want to be closely involved with the process of restructuring it, which is about to set in (as is also happening in Amsterdam's troubled Bijlmer district). So, more than anything else, what the subsequent video reports of the refurbishment procedure show, is how engaged the people are whose lives revolve around Coronation Court. No abstractions. We witness the architects coming in. We follow discussions with officialdom, but most of all, superchannel offers a way for the tenants to create their own message, according to their own standards and specifications.

This moment of self-mediation is an important aspect of community building with networked media. The media tools become instruments with which to make the ideas and sentiments visible of the people who actually live in the structures that the professional elites have constructed for them. Without the outside filter, the communicative quality of the message varies and discontinuities emerge. Friction is part of the community-building process, and media friction is inevitable as soon as the old imperative of the clear message that needs to be communicated to an audience (broadcasting) is left behind. In the new media ecology that emerges around community networking, the way in which people inhabit media space is as equally complex and incongruous as it is in physical space.

There is no reason to be naïve or overly enthusiastic about all of this, conflicts are also carried over into this media ecology. Blatant racism, ethnic dispute, quarrels, gossip, temporary alliances and deceit are as much a part of the media sphere as they are of the customary social space. Most of all, these media spaces can be downright boring to look at. Still, there is a fundamental sense that when the old relationship of the sender <> audience relation is left behind, new ways of creating meaningful structures within the mediascape set in. The marking of new territories, the creation of personal and social spheres are part of these formative processes, and the people that participate in them become involved in the creation of a new kind of presence in the space of media.

Aesthetics of the Unspectacular

Why should we be interested in looking into someone else's living room? Is this an act of voyeurism? Why should we pay attention? After the initial wave of webcams showing gorgeous girls in their home environment, the voyeuristic impulse will quickly subside. Big Brother may be on its second rerun in the Netherlands, but cameras in private houses are becoming such a common thing on the web, that it is most probably also the last. The webcams hint at an intricate redefinition of the borders of private and public, rather than a voyeuristic <> exhibitionist relationship. Very soon this mediated privacy will have lost its spectacularity altogether. There is something exceedingly boring about witnessing daily life as it passes by in front of the camera, scale 1:1 - waiting for the event that never happens.

Still, more and more people set up webcams in their homes, much like the apparently typically Dutch habit of having the curtains open till late at night. It now seems that lives in many countries are becoming increasingly translucent with the advent of digital networks. But is this an invitation at all? Isn't the signal just there to be picked up? There seems to be hardly any incitement to get you to go there (save a few early commercial variations).

In fact, this media behaviour looks more like how people move through the city streets. In principle, everybody is open to be addressed by all the other passers-by, yet very few people actually talk to each other. A glance in passing is what the interaction usually remains confined to. But there are a whole series of unwritten rules of how to mark presence in that physical environment. It seems to me that, rather than some exhibitionist act, putting up webcams in private homes is quite a similar act of marking presence in the media environment, an extension of the private icon of the homepage. The act of looking at the images these webcams generate also seems closer to the passing glance than to the voyeur's fetishist preoccupations.

With thousands, and at some point possibly millions, of web cams online, the need for spectacle completely disappears from these images. The image becomes inherently unspectacular. It exists, it marks existence, but it no longer demands the attention of the masses. These kind of private media operate in clear contradistinction to the spectacle machines of broadcast and mass media. The private webcam reverses Guy Debord's concept of the society of the spectacle.

Also, web-TV, or streaming video on the Net, adhere more to the aesthetics of the unspectacular than the aesthetics of perfection or the high-tech glitch. The current low-rate live streams on the Internet deny the spectacle in a very literal sense: movement actually blurs the image! By its very nature, the medium seems to take a stance against the mainstream spectacle.

Since people like to spend a lot of time online in places that offer possibilities for egalitarian forms of social interaction, the community concept became an interesting 'format' for commercial media operators, to glue 'eyeballs' to advertisers messages. The commercial appropriation of the community concept, and of community media, has eroded a lot of the high aspirations of community networking and virtual communities in the last few years. Special interest communities offer highly attractive target audiences for specialised niche markets, and marketeers have not been sleeping. The exploitation of the 'community format' has in fact been one of the few successful strategies in the business to consumer segment of the new economy.

One of the possible counter strategies to this erosion of the community concept could be the 'real privatisation of the media'. True privatisation of the media should take the idea to its extreme and put the tools in the hands of individual people. Such truly privatised media can create a counterbalance to the corporate appropriation of the concept of 'community'. No prefab solutions from the marketing department, but simply the reflection of what people have to say about themselves, the world, and the things they are interested in. It is in this self-created public domain, that is neither market nor state, that true community emerges.

        Mediate YourSelf
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1 - The project was subsequently carried on under the name "tenantspin" and is still active. See:

Maria Brewster (ed.), Supermanual - The incomplete guide to the Superchannel, published by Superflex in collaboration with Foundation for Art & Creative Technology, Liverpool 2000.