Can The Internet Save The World?

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2009 will be an interesting year. Aside from being possibly the last chance to deal with climate change before we have to, well, deal with it, there are some interesting, fun, terrifying and worrying things afoot. The economic crisis/meltdown, call it what you will, is showing that the mainstream media has very little time left. We’ve gone from worrying about cross media ownership laws to suggesting that the only option left to save the New York Times is Google or Murdoch. So while the American press refuses public funding, dinosaur car companies are sucking the treasury dry, and governments continue to bail out old industries and business models that do not and can not work any longer.

Is there anything to look forward to? The gnomes running the internet have given us a few reasons to be optimistic about journalism and democracy.

The US is finally stepping up and implementing some of those e-democracy initiatives they’ve been promising since AOL, and Obama’s Change.gov is an encouraging sign that they might actually be serious about it. Obama’s good on net neutrality too, which bodes well for continued internet access.

Locally, however, Stephen Conroy is dead keen to slow down the Australian internet so Clive Hamilton can steam open every email to check for child porn prior to delivery, but public opinion, technical implementation and, uh, reality are putting the brakes on his plan. The campaign against the so-called Clean Feed is a great example of how new media technologies are "hyper-empowering" (for lack of a better term) ordinary people. A relatively small group of highly connected people on Twitter sparked a loud online campaign that feed into initiatives by the EFA, the Greens and later on GetUp that has comprehensively upset Conroy’s plans. While Conroy will no doubt push onwards, the online environment has allowed these single issue activists to run rings around Conroy and Hamilton’s free speech = child porn argument. The outburst on Twitter no doubt contributed to the appearance of @turnbullmalcolm and @kevinruddpm on Twitter.

On the upside, the Rudd Government appears to be making a genuine effort to reach out online. Continuing the previous government’s plans to create a consultation blog, they have recently opened up shop online  for public consultation. Launching the site at the height of the controversy around the Clean Feed was a ballsy move, and hopefully indicates an openness to discussion. Whether any of the suggestions are implemented remains to be seen, but it is certainly a development that will be watched carefully. The momentum behind it, pushed along by the efforts of Andrew Bartlett  and the Greens, as well the American developments, will ensure it won’t be as quietly retired as some other public consultation processes.

Online media in Australia has gone from strength to strength. Crikey has brought a number of top notch bloggers under its wing, and now houses the best psephological analysis  in Australia as well as the best media writer. Political blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo are attracting enough readers to sustain themselves, while crowd-funded journalism initiatives in Australia are also generating interest. While online journalism is still a developing area, the prospect of independent journalism which has a more stable source of sustance than intermittent grants and volunteers is getting closer. The scope of online journalism is widening as its legitimacy is consolidated: Inside Story is publishing quality feature journalism, the Poll Bludger and Possum over at Crikey are doing hard data analysis and Wikileaks is taking on corrupt governments, banks and cults. Could it be that churnalism is pointless now that PR people are targeting bloggers directly. Maybe those journos who’ve been stuck rewriting press releases for years will finally be able to stretch their wings.

Governmental and societal transparency is on the up, too. Aside from the Change.gov and similar initiatives, science bloggers and journalists are using the web to tear down woolly thinking, dogma and straight out BS. Counterknowledge.com, Badscience.net  and Pharyngula are must-reads for the critical thinker, giving it to charlatans, hucksters, cultists and crappy journalists with both barrels. In a time where ascientific garbage is being provided as medicine, where abstinence and creationism are being taught in schools and churches use "lawfare" to silence critics, they are a pleasant ray of enlightenment.

The work of Theyworkforyou and OpenAustralia in opening up the mechanisms of the governmental web to make them useful must also be celebrated. The volunteers at OpenAustralia have done some amazing work making Hansard usable and interesting, and convincing various government departs to fix their systems so other people can do the same. Working both sides of the fence, using technical knowhow and negotiation, they’ve done an incredible job making impenetrable websites navigable. Similarly, the Creative Commons people have contributed, creating licencing systems that make this kind of collaboration possible. The adoption of the CC licence by the ABS, various geographical data agencies  and Change.gov is indicative of the power of their work.

So, there you go. There’s lots of stuff to play with. Lots of people to talk to on twitter. Cheap publishing platforms. Access to public data. Opportunities to use your knowledge to better Australia. Places to publicise your work and your ideas, to show them directly to the PM, the Leader of the Opposition, the Government and the public. Get among it.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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