Had you looked out your window just after 9.30 on Monday night, you may have got a bit of a surprise. Just after Jonathan Holmes, host of ABC’s Media Watch, dropped the magic word "pwned" on camera, people around the country kitted off to perform a "nudie run" around their neighbourhoods, fulfilling a bargain made between some bloggy bozos and the national broadcaster. It was the culmination of a campaign initiated by Melbourne-based internet jester Scott Bridges, which streaked across blogs and social media.
For those unfamiliar with the term "pwn" it possibly originates in the world of online gaming: at first a misspelling of "own", it has come to be a taunt for a defeated opponent, with overtones of gloating and humiliation. From there, in Australia at least, it entered the often deeply adversarial world of political blogging. As internet scholars like Mathieu O’Neil remark, in political blogospheres, the burnishing of masculine honour can often take precedence over the actual content of debate. Perhaps this is why some bloggers will claim with monotonous regularity and steady delight to have "pwned" their political opponents.
The analogues between Media Watch‘s stock in trade — biting criticisms of the failures and inadequacies of Australia’s media — and the fiskings, gotchas and flaming of blogwars were irresistible to some. And as a wry, occasionally smart-arsed presenter, Holmes had all the attributes required to become a minor social media and blogosphere icon. Starting with a tweet, then posts on his own blog and on the group blog Groupthink, Bridges offered a challenge: if Holmes would claim to have "pwned" a newspaper, television program or radio station, he and others would run naked around the block. A meme was born: letters were written, and on Twitter, a style of live commentary developed — after each item, Twitterers would suggest that the target had been pwned. In the week leading up to last week’s final episode, Holmes dropped hints that the campaign might be having some effect on his script. The runners got ready, and over Monday night and Tuesday morning, videos and photos were published (Warning: nudity).
All good fun — even ABC Managing Director Mark Scott got a laugh out of it. But we can use it to illustrate a couple of serious points that fly in the face of two competing orthodoxies about the relationship between broadcast media and the new world of user-created content and online social media. The first lesson is that mass media curmudgeons who only see social media as a threat are missing out. By engaging with social media as Holmes did, broadcasters have an opportunity to add layers of significance to particular programs and make it possible for different parts of their audience to engage with programs in different ways. This will be a one-off, we assume, and it would be silly for Media Watch to undermine the serious aspects of its mission by allowing internet piss-takers to have too large an influence on editorial decisions. But by playing along just this once, Holmes has done something positive for the brand of a show that’s often been seen as finger-wagging, and has played to a small, developing cult audience.
The second lesson is for the low-rent McLuhans who see social media succeeding broadcast media in some simple transition. You can usually tell who they are, because, despite the persistence of large audiences for mass media, they see fit to define them as "heritage" or "legacy" media. They haven’t been paying attention to Twitter’s trending topics, which are often enough the titles of television programs screening in the US, UK or Australia. If they had been looking instead of evangelising, they’d have realised that among other things, people are using social media to watch television together in new ways. In a multichannel era, it doesn’t make much sense to see our media experience as a series of zero-sum games. People use social media to make broadcasting more relevant to their own more localised concerns and to talk back to it. Sometimes in this process they come to look like interdependent, rather than antagonistic forms of communication. Rather than sounding the death knell of broadcasting, social media may actually be broadcasting’s new backchannel.
Real-time social media, in particular, gives us a new incentive not to timeshift our viewing of broadcasting with digital recording technologies — if we watch it later, we may lose our opportunity to be part of a much broader conversation about what we’re all watching. It’s possible that in doing all this, social media are in some small ways revivifying, in a post-broadcast era, the old habit of simultaneous viewing, and timeshifting the water-cooler conversation.
The third thing it might have reminded us of is that news and current affairs programming are as susceptible to the devotion of idiosyncratic fan communities as any other. There are news and current affairs fans, just as there are Twilight fans, but being devoted to either might be a minority position. Although much "future of journalism" pessimism centres on the disappearance of the mass audience, there may not be enough more nuanced appraisals of the possibilities for news as a niche product in a multichannel environment. Empirical research in political science and communications studies is suggesting that there is a significant minority of people who will not watch any news in a post-broadcast environment, simply because they prefer not to, and don’t have to. If they’re not coming back, is it still possible to sustain quality news and current affairs programs on the basis of a smaller audience of news fans or junkies? Given the importance of news for the political process, this is an urgent question, but it does perhaps become clearer when we frame it in these terms.
For all its gesturing towards some broader issues, the pwned nudie run will mostly go down as a piece of crowdsourced silliness that gave a bunch of people — from Brunswick, to Albury, to Harris Street, Ultimo, a bit of a belly laugh. Did I participate? Well that’s between me and Google, but I will say that I’m glad Monday was a warm night.
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