By Wesley Juhl
Technology is changing the world.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. And it’s changing journalism too.Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, said people increasingly think of the Internet as central to their lives. His organization believes the Internet is changing democracy as we know it, and Rasiej said it’s shameful that 30 percent of the U.S. population can’t afford to go online.
“Even though we have that technology, we’re still paying the highest rates of any industrialized country,” he said.
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think-tank, said the real reason a third of the population is not online is that they don’t own a computer.
“The single-biggest factor is not cost. The single-biggest factor is interest and digital literacy,” Atkinson said. “You’re not going to get broadband if you don’t own a computer.”
This is a statistic that should alarm journalists working in new media. Atkinson said 95 percent of Finland’s population owns a computer, but only 67 percent of the U.S. population does.
The most important policy changes would be to increase digital literacy, he said.
And without Internet access, people cannot engage their government online as residents do in many other countries.
Columbia University fellow and former State Department employee Alec Ross said small countries can benefit from having a large online presence.
Facebook’s recognition of Kosovo helped legitimize the country’s efforts to join the United Nations, he said.
Ross pointed to Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, who has a “powerful global presence” that transcends Sweden and made him one of the most powerful statesmen in recent years, thanks to his more than 300,000 followers on Twitter.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves used Twitter to become one of the most vocal detractors of Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. It was probably his social media presence that earned him a visit from President Barack Obama, Ross said.
Without that presence, Obama might have skipped the trip.
Estonian citizens can even vote online.
Digital politics matters more and more in the U.S., too. Soon, politicians will use the same technology that many newsrooms use to track a story’s online performance. They’ll be counting clicks and retweets just like online producers do.
In the last presidential election, Obama revolutionized social media campaigns by using analytic tools to tailor messages.
“They could tweak the messages and actually make sure they got their messages to the right people at the right time and turn that around at the polls,” Rasiej said. “Since that loss, the Republican National Committee has invested massive amounts of money in infrastructure.”
The experts agreed, however, that the government has a lot to learn about using technology to communicate.
“We’re really not talking about social,” social media expert Allison Fine said. “What we’re talking about is technology used to identify, target, get out the vote.”
Fine writes about online media’s influence on activism and social change and said she hasn’t seen a candidate who understands what the social media revolution is about – the transfer of power from institutions to individuals.
I think it’s likely that journalists will have a lot to learn, too. Not just now, but in perpetuity, as technology won’t stop evolving.
News organizations will probably have to realize that, in the Internet age, many people and so-called citizen journalists can break news as effectively as many large newspapers.
When candidates put out their own news on their websites and people can aggregate stories on social media and WordPress sites and amass a huge following, it will take a strong voice and a sharp set of skills to cut through the online jungle.
But journalists committed to the public good and the truth will also be more important than ever, so I’m getting ready.