We are all spokes now

Are tech giants supplanting traditional media companies as the hubs of mass communication?

Hub to spokeConsider this: the old metaphor placed traditional media as the hub and their audience at the ends of its spokes. Information flowed in one direction, from hub to spoke. For the better part of the last two centuries, print, radio and broadcast television technology have supported this model.

(Not that the hub-to-spoke model went unchallenged. Underground presses, indie radio stations and cable-access channels evolved alongside their respective platforms, although mainstream media and the one-way flow of news, knowledge and culture predominated the public consciousness.)

Then came the Web, throwing open the gates.

Spoke to hub, spoke to spokeThe promise of new media was open communication from spoke to hub and spoke to spoke. The people formerly known as the audience could now talk back to media institutions, could broadcast their thoughts to millions of their peers with the click of a button. Web 2.0 was supposed to be all about the almighty You with a capital Y, with users generating content, deciding what’s interesting and newsworthy, and generally calling the shots.

Was that promise ever realized? Yes and no. Something happened along the way, and I think Dave Winer sums it up aptly in his recent post, Big change in the tech world:

The moral of the story of the Facebook patent and all the recent news from Apple and Google: Tech companies are no better or worse than big companies in other industries.

They are all about keeping the stock price high, growing at the expense of their competitors, and the role of users is the same as customers in other industries, you’re a source of revenue.

[T]ech companies are taking a more active interest in the content that flows over their networks, and are doing less to protect their users. Sometimes they’re the ones attacking users. Just like other industries.

We are all spokes nowAnd now, bolstered by the vulnerable state of the media industry, some tech companies have effectively strong-armed publishers and content producers into becoming glorified spokes feeding into their own massive, revenue generating hubs.

Case in point: Comcast’s acquisition of NBC, which transfers ownership of a network that reaches 98% of American television households into the hands of the largest cable provider in the country. Or Apple’s plans for the iPad, which will be game-changing all right, but probably not in the way traditional media have been dreaming of, as Frédéric Filloux of Monday Note pointed out earlier this month:

In Steve Jobs’ mind, the iPad is meant to become the ultimate personal computer, replacing most of the devices that we currently use to get music and entertainment. And news. And knowledge. For the publishing community, the choice is therefore:
a) go for it with a flurry of applications — and thus contribute to erecting a tightly controlled gated content community; the more publishers will join the fray the better the iPad will fly;
b) put some eggs in other’s baskets (Amazon’s, PlasticLogic’s for instance), which are neither neutral nor philanthropic. In addition, each of them has its own standard.

These examples are indicative of an accelerating trend that will ultimately bestow huge amounts of control over our society’s information, knowledge and culture (both public and private) to a small number of technology and telecom corporations.

That’s not to say tech companies are to blame, or that we shouldn’t put our trust in hubs. What we should be doing, though, is taking a good hard look at what we’re committing our intellectual property to before leaping. The ideal hub in a post-Web 2.0 world is neutral, open, decentralized, and part of a grounded, resilient network. Such infrastructure on a mass communication scale may not exist yet, but we can already see pieces of its tool-set starting to emerge.

Take Prophet, for instance:

a semirelational, peer to peer replicated, disconnected, versioned, property database with self-healing conflict resolution

And the Open Media project:

an open-source development effort creating web solutions for the workflow needs of public access stations and community technology centers

And Miro, the Participatory Culture Foundation‘s shot across the bow of proprietary video and podcast clients:

Our free and open-source desktop video player, built on open standards and designed to encourage decentralization of video hosting.

The movement is afoot, and it is one in which hackers, journalists and community media centers would all benefit from uniting.

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