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May 24, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Convergence Rules, OK

It’s Tuesday night, and I’m watching an episode of the British sitcom Peep Show on YouTube. In the next room, my flatmate Joy is catching up with her friend on Skype. Tim and Tom are reading The Independent online, while Jesse is listening to an album streamed directly from its artist’s website. In other words, we’re more or less typical students.

Not only does this tell of the way in which technology has assimilated itself irretrievably into our daily lives, it is also testament to the convergence of that technology. Media is no longer restricted to its original platform. Instead, we watch television on our laptops; use our cellphones to connect to social networking sites, and make international calls over the internet. Every major newspaper—and many of the minor ones—uploads its content to a location online, from where it flows through to websites such as Twitter and Tumblr. Convergence has combined our once-separate roles of readers, spectators and internet users: consumers are now able to both produce, and participate in the media.

Well, that’s the simplified definition of the concept.

“There are two images of convergence,” says Dr Angi Buettner, lecturer of Media Studies at Victoria University and co-editor of the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies. “One is that a lot of things overlap, but they’re all there. The other is that a lot of things converge together to be filtered, and what you have coming out is one thin line of a lot of things.”

Dr Buettner thinks that the former premise is “our wishful thinking about convergence”, and that the second is the more realistic model. I ask Dr Buettner whether she anticipates that this “thin line” will decrease the number of sources of information or viewpoints on a particular issue that are available to the consumer.

“Potentially, it might increase the number of voices,” she says, “but which item is going to be picked up and pushed through the different platforms of publishing? Pragmatically, it will be the best, nicest-looking little story. Someone has to re-circulate it and what’s going to be picked up is something that’s already successful with audiences.”

However, Fairfax Digital’s Social Media Editor and Stuff.co.nz blogger Greer McDonald believes that above all, convergence increases access to different opinions and information.

“Fairfax has more than 780 journalists spread out across the country, and convergence means that readers don’t have to be living in Southland or Taranaki to access that region’s news,” she says. “Readers are getting their news in new ways—and from a larger number of sources—rather than becoming limited.”

Social Media is Big Business

That Fairfax Digital—part of Fairfax Media Group, which owns a significant proportion of New Zealand’s newspapers, magazines, and community newspapers—deemed it beneficial to appoint a Social Media Editor is testament to the importance and influence of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites.

“All those platforms are just opportunities to have an outpost, really,” says Tarver Graham, of Auckland-based web design company Gladeye, which produces interactive work and digital strategy “for companies that want to make their brand come across super-cool online”.

With an official website, staff blogs, and Twitter, Facebook, and Vimeo accounts, Gladeye has considerable online presence.

“We try to keep our main website reasonably profesh, but with Twitter and Facebook, we can show a bit more of who we are, and be a bit more relaxed,” says Graham, who maintains that social media allows companies to take care of their supporters.

“If your brand or company shows some love for their supporters, that loyalty is often returned, and loyalty and genuine passion for a brand is not something that you can fake or buy,” he says. “With social media, it’s really important to be genuine, because people will see through it otherwise.”

Luke Appleby, a multimedia journalist who writes Stuff.co.nz’s ‘Connector’ blog, lists the benefits of Facebook and Twitter as “building and maintaining contacts, generating instant feedback, and crowd-sourcing.

“Twitter has also proven its worth in our newsroom for monitoring breaking news, especially internationally, through a number of feeds.”

McDonald testified to this on Radio New Zealand’s Media Watch programme, broadcast on 25 April 2010. Earlier this year, the New Zealand Press Association reported that the fires at Titahi Bay were under control, but McDonald’s Twitter told a different story.

“Basically, through Twitter, I was able to provide a blow-by-blow account of what was happening, which was contrary to what the Fire Service was informing other news agencies,” she told the show’s host, Colin Peacock.

An energetic Tweeter herself, McDonald is drawn to the service’s immediacy. She describes it as “the virtual pulse of communities around New Zealand, and the world”.

“People discuss personal issues and business ideas, all in the one space,” she says. “Where once you would head to the local pub to find out what everyone was talking about, you can now jump online and connect with that same information—and on an even greater scale.”

A More Interactive Experience

Of course, this exchange of information is just that—an exchange, as both Appleby and McDonald have experienced first-hand. Readers can comment on Stuff.co.nz blogs, which, in Appleby’s words, “can allow the reader to become a part of the post themselves”.

“Having comments on everything you write can make you more cautious, and more accountable,” says Appleby. “If you get something wrong, you’ll be told about it, and I have done a few times.”

McDonald’s blog, ‘Lady in the Red’, documents her bid to take control of her personal finances. One post, in which she admitted buying a pair of boots instead of replacing her car’s worn tyres, attracted 147 comments, in any of which, readers admonished her for her “frivolous, un-thought-out purchase” (K, #44).

This would suggest that media’s newfound interactive element can position readers a little too close to journalists—although McDonald is unfazed. In fact, she says she writes “in a way that encourages the reader to respond to me and my ideas”.

“In terms of what and how I write, blogs allow me to write more creatively than what most print media models are set up for,” she adds, citing the sometimes-controversial, often opinion-based nature of the medium.

This increased participation also applies to news. Stuff.co.nz, which receives 115 million page impressions a month from 3.9 million unique browsers, engages its readers with interactive quizzes, games and video. The site’s current opinion poll asks readers to determine “who would win in a fight” between Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Susan Boyle. (At time of writing, it’s 388 – 371 to Kiri.)

“Many journalists are now waking up to the fact that most audiences love—and expect—more than one form of media from some news outlets,” explains Appleby. “You can effectively combine print, audio, video, data and audience input into one, rapidly updating article, available from anywhere with internet access.”

Just as businesses have added Facebook and Twitter to their arsenal of marketing tools, several are turning to online outfits such as Gladeye to provide them with interactive advertising applications. Gladeye created the House of Travel mixandmatcher Facebook competition, which attracted 44,000 players in the fortnight it was active.

“I think our trademark attention to detail helped make the game satisfying to play for a long period of time,” reflects Graham. “We worked on the physics of the [spinning wheels], and the look of the dials. Also, the soundtrack added a layer of mood, and that helped with the generally satisfying character of the game.

“I really believe that if something seems real, you can trick the brain into thinking that it is real, even though you know it’s not.”

Form and Function

Dr Buettner points out that according to Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an increasing willingness to take technology at face value is one of the features of convergence culture.

“So what we see here,” explains Dr Buettner, gesturing to her desktop Apple Mac computer, “does not show us in any way how a computer works, how visual programming works… and the news doesn’t show you anything about the news production, news gathering, the editing process, or how it’s visually pulled together.

“You don’t get that, because everything is absolutely smooth in its flow.”

Dr Buettner believes that the Apple iPad, once it becomes more widely used, will change the character of computing and social media.

“News will be converted into a very smooth application that looks good, and basically gives the audience what they want,” she predicts.

McDonald says that the iPad will have an especial appeal for New Zealanders.

“Kiwis have that fantastic quality of being affected by ‘new and shiny-itis’—we love to be included in the latest technology that the world is using, and we enthusiastically promote products that improve the way we do things.”

Appleby is more cautious.

“It’s easy for us in the developed world to proclaim that the iPad will eventually help us to consume all forms of media, but what of those who can’t afford, or simply don’t want one?”.

A Place for Print

Buettner points out that not long ago, it was predicted that the book was going to disappear—“but it hasn’t”.

“People have an enjoyment of reading something on paper which cannot be substituted by any electronic device,” explains Appleby. “Everyone likes to consume different forms of media in different ways. We still have people using HAM radios and Morse code, speaking Latin, and creating traditional art with paper.”

Graham agrees—but to a certain extent.

“There’ll always be a place for print, just like there’s a place for painting even though we’ve had photography for a century and a half already,” he allows. “But these brands, and the companies behind them, will evolve in a digital landscape. They need to think of themselves as selling content, not paper. Paper is a mugs’ game. Paper is a commodity, whereas words (stories, ideas, opinions, or whatever) have a unique value.”

Dr Buettner predicts that books, newspapers and magazines will turn into a “niche market, geared towards people who like having the paper on their coffee tables–people who want that medium.

“It will not be [media’s] main platform. Print won’t be the form that will make the money. I don’t think news will be on the internet, I think it will be on even more mobile media, and I think it will get more of a print-type character.”

“What is the new beast going to be?”

Of course, the nature of journalism—both as an occupation and an industry—will have to change accordingly, and Dr Buettner maintains that in the future, the job will be very different.

“A lot of journalists will have to take on more things that the editor would have used to have done, and that they’ll have to become even quicker—so it will be a question of time management more than anything,” she says, recalling McDonald’s flat statement that the speed of online media means that “deadlines don’t exist”.

Appleby, who was trained in multimedia journalism (“I can confirm that it has proven useful so far”), believes that journalists will need to be multi-skilled in areas of print, online and television journalism in order to increase their chances of gaining employment, and McDonald agrees.

“I think reporters will be expected to be more open-minded in what the future of their role may require them to do,” she says. “New journalists who can adapt quickly will be the ones that find the most success.”

Dr Buettner maintains that the industry is currently in a state of change: “There’s a question of ‘what is the new beast going to be?’.

“I think it can really go in two directions,” she elaborates. “News industries are quite aware that now is the time when decisions are going to be made that affect how the industry is going to look like, so I think it’ll be a really interesting time to watch. And if you go into that business or field of the media over the next five years, you can probably participate in what it’s going to look like.”

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (3)

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  1. Max says:

    It should be known that Stuff.co.nz’s ‘blogs’ are not blogs, they are opinion pieces. A true blogger writes whatever they want, not edited by someone else. Stuff’s bloggers are edited and censored and blog posts will not be allowed if they go against the wishes of advertisers.
    Often Stuff’s bloggers will also represent opinion as fact, a problem for the unsuspecting reader who thinks they are reading a news site.

    This story is right, Stuff is an example of news being replaced with product. Page hits are all that matters and if that means ignoring news and filling the front page with entertainment and opinion, so be it. A backlash against Stuff started when it blatantly switched to the SMH format and based its servers offshore, more people are rejecting it in favour of reliable news sources (which probably doesn’t bother Stuff as it picks up viewers wanting pure entertainment).

  2. In response to Max (Comment #1).

    Not once in my two years of blogging with Stuff have I ever once been asked to edit or change something because of the wishes of an advertiser. That simply does not happen and quite frankly is a complete (and often amusing!) myth.

    In regards to editing, blogs are uploaded by a web editor who may proof for spelling/grammar, obvious factual errors or legal issues – all of which would be raised with the blog writer before publication.
    Bloggers, whether they are writing for a mainstream media organisation or just for themselves, are still bound by the same legalities – meaning they can’t “write what they want” without possible consequences.
    In any case, a “true blogger”, by a mash up of definitions, is not considered someone who “writes whatever they want” – but instead “writes entries in, adds material to, or maintains a weblog with frequent, chronological publication of personal thoughts and links”.

    In regards to your incorrect statement about our servers, our Kiwi readers access content from New Zealand-based servers.
    Hope this clears a few things up.
    Cheers!

  3. missmarty says:

    I <3 stuff.co.nz. I used to watch the news every night, but no longer.

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