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Ideologies and theories of alternative media


Bryan-Javier Canabal-Saavedra Student Number: 33189330 Course Number: MC51016B Course: Key debates in Media Studies Approaches: 1) Ideology 2) Alternative media Word Cound: 1987

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Ideology and theories of alternative media
With over 17 million bloggers to express and disseminate ideas and information (About, n,d), Tumblr is an interesting way to view debates regarding ideology and alternative media because, like every other new media tool/site, it is praised as an example of radical internet democratisation, yet it raises questions as to how radical its means and ends are and what the terms alternative and radical mean in the first place. Ideology and alterative media are two concepts that work well in terms of an analysis through Tumblr. On the one hand, one can argue from an ideologically Marxist point of view is determine Tumblr as an active form of cultural revolution, changing the terms on which media is consumed and produced and the theories regarding alternative media are a repackaging of Marxism in a digital age. On the other hand, one can approach Tumblr from Thompsons theory of a mediazation of modern culture where signs are mediated by the means of their transmission (Thompson, 1990, p. 4) and that the only radical or alternative aspect is the manner in which it accumulates capital. In regard to ideology, this debate lies in two main areas; what is ideology and how is it transmitted. Ideology, regarding media, can be divided into three(OR FOUR?) general camps; a pluralist, a constructivist and network power (Street, 2011, p. 289). These models serve as general indicators and views of ideology, for example, a pluralist view would describe ideology in a liberal sense wherein the media can be viewed as a forth estate or a public sphere (Street, 2011, p. 290) where freedom of expression is exercised and information is exchanged, a process that maintains a Figure 1. The 'Explore' page of Tumblr. healthy democracy. On a purely functional level, Tumblr achieves both of these aims of expression and information (though there is greater emphasis on the latter), but this view of ideology and power is somewhat nave, as it is its neutral conception (some

would argue negative view1) of freedom ignores issues regarding agency and concentrations of power. In fact, this liberal pluralist ideology is rooted in the idea of market freedom (Curran & Seaton, 2003, p. 236). The idea of a freemarket, per say, can be seen within Tumblr in the laissez-faire manner in which it sorts and rates its content (Figure 1.). At the heart of Tumblr is the concept of choice and ,most importantly, freedom from censorship and regulation. It does not promote any political agenda nor does it seek to undermine existing social structures. This perhaps puts it at odds with the notion of alternative media as a political collective that that aims to change the social and power structures of the status quo. This is OSullivans definition of alternative media2, and it places the parameters of alternative media in a strictly political sense, ideological even. In fact here, OSullivans definition of alternative/radical media (he appears to use the term interchangeably) fits in with a constructivist notion of ideology. That is to say that media is not the neutral arbiter and observer of political structures, but through the very act of mediation, the creates the institutions that it aims to hold to account (Street, 2011, p. 295). This constructivist view of ideology is similar to Marxist interpretations of ideology, where A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it (Eagleton, 1991, p. 5-6). This Marxist critique of media specifically addresses issues regarding power and agency of the proletariat to affect and change the manner in which mass media operates. This ideological critique, however does not affect Tumblr as its operational model functions on the basis of equal agency and power. A Marxist ideological framework applies when there is only one-way communication as well as a concentrated and undemocratic method of production and distribution (television, radio and newspapers fall into this category). In Tumblr, on the other hand, both production and distribution are decentralised and democratic in the sense that the power of the free market decides which content is good and which content gets distributed the most. Ironically, power and agency is a distributed more fairly in this free-market model than Marxs theory of ideology would suggest. It is this free flow of information and ideas on Tumblr that do make it alternative to some extent, regardless of its lack of any political aims. Perhaps, it is not Tumblr that does not fit the definition, perhaps it is the 1 Negative in the sense of freedom from, rather than the positivist sense of freedom to. (Heywood, 2007, p. 29-31) 2 Those forms of mass communication that avowedly reject or challenge established and institutionalised politics, in the sense that they advocate change in society, or at least critical reassessment of traditional values. They are also referred to as radical or underground media and stand in opposition to mainstream productions by representing political and social doctrines that lie outside the defined limits of parliamentary consensus and debate. (OSullivan, 1994, p. 10)

definition that is flawed. Atton discusses this and highlights another definition used by Alternatives in Print : 1. The publisher has to be non-commercial, demonstrating that a basic concern for ideas, not the concern for profit, is the motivation for publication; 2. It expresses attitudes hostile to widely held beliefs; 3. It espouses views or deals with subjects not given regular coverage by publications generally available at newsagents. (Atton, 1999, p.51) This definition of alternative media is better suited towards the way in which Tumblr operates in many respects, particularly the last two points. Tumblr is a site that accommodates many voices and many perspectives on both a political and cultural level. The blogs Hipster Libertarian (www.hipsterlibertarian.tumblr.com) and New Left (http://newleft.tumblr.com) both occupy a space for young libertarians and young anarcho-socialists respectively, two political traditions that are definitely not given regular coverage in any publication generally found in newsagents. Yet again, we find ourselves with a semantic difficulty regarding the descriptive terms in this interpretation of alternative media as Tumblr fails to fulfil the first descriptor despite it fulfilling the last two. Tumblr is clearly a private company in capitalist capacity as it even displays it private investors

Figure 2: A list of Tumblr investors

proudly on its welcoming page. This is perhaps where is Marxist ideological critique can be introduced once again into the debate regarding alternative media. Clearly, some forms of alternative media allow a space for political action and expression, yet it is still, ultimately, based on the profit motive, disregarding the individual for the aim of increasing capital. Yet this mould does not seem to fit Tumblr either. Strictly speaking Tumblr is a private company but the manner in which it monetises increases the cultural exchange upon which the site is based it profits from selling themes rather than advertising or using individuals data. It is perhaps here one should analyse Tumblr from Gramscis theory of hegemony whereby ideology is never in a static position but always a state of change, conflict and flux. There are two key questions that this interpretation of ideology raises in terms of Tumblr. Firstly, what is the dominant ideology are Tumblr bloggers challenging? The greatest attraction to Tumblr is the expression of difference and individuality. One could conclude, by the logic of opposition, that the greater ideology that Tumblr bloggers are challenging is that of cultural and personal homogeneity which can be seen in the various culturally niche blogs that make up the site, from post-modernist meme

cartoons3 , music fan sites4 or a themed fashion photography5. Secondly, hegemony forces one to ask how how exactly this challenge is expressed. Again, one only has to look at the culturally niche blogs that populate the site. They are all made for recreation and leisure, and the majority of them are free from political, radical or even revolutionary causes. Having said this however, though the blogs are not political in a Marxist or left vs right manner, they all hold a sense of community, co-operation and a subculture of resistance to what is perceived to be popular culture. In other words, these blogs are not resisting any political hegemony, but a cultural one. In fact, the design and content of these blogs are very reminiscent of traditional radical zines. Both traditional zines and Tumblr blogs share many common features, such as a blurred line between the consumer and producer, specific common interests and an emphasis on expression. It is not atypical to see many Tumblr blogs to invite submissions from followers and it is not uncommon for followers of a blog to organise tumblr meetups to continue their cultural resistance in the real world as well as the cyber world. Another reason why Tumblr could be described as a place of constant and active hegemonic resistance is in the appearance of pop up blogs. This phenomenon has come as a result out of the simplicity with which the site operates, but is also an indicator of the high levels of iconic consumption and renewal with which the users of the site subvert and remediate both popular and other subcultures. An example of this is the blog

Figure 3: An example of the comment collected by the Tumblr blog

whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com which collected Internet responses from unhappy music fans when indie band Arcade Fire won best album over more populist artists such as Justin Bieber. The blog is both an example of the speed at which Tumblr blogger react to popular culture events and appropriate meaning from poplar cultures perceived lack of taste. If one takes the point of view of Tumbr as a social space with its own cultural code rather than as a site with one specific purpose, one could see how Tumblr could fulfil the term of alternative media in terms of a modelthat is as much concerned with how it is organised within its sociocultural context 3 http://thefuuuucomics.tumblr.com/ 4 http://fuckyeahthomyorke.tumblr.com/ 5 http://hollyhocksandtulips.tumblr.com/

as with its subject matter (Atton, 2002, p. 10). It would be at this point that clear distinctions between the terms alternative and radical have to made. Radical can be said to have a political, as per British tradition (Curran, 1981, p. 6-17), connotations, using the process of alternative media with the aim to radically change the structures of society, whereas alternative can be said to have cultural connotations. Duncombe describes the design and creation of zines as alienating so that you come back in as an equal (1997, p. 129) and that the creation of your own zine, whether political or cultural, was empowering because doing it yourself is the first premise of participatory democracy. Tumblr has the same parallels, except rather than the scrappy binding of a homemade book, it is the power of CSS and HTML that now power the creative impulses of Tumblr bloggers. Also, Duncomes assertion that the process of creation acts as a first step in a participatory democracy is not just a conceptual idea. The 2001 British Social Attitudes Report shows that internet users are more likely to be good citizens (Gardner & Oswald, 2001, p. 168), therefore making a direct link between an active life online reflecting into an social life overall. Tumblr also demonstrates how an ideology of cultural resistance can manifest itself when producing and distributive power is handed to the individuals in the context if a highly expressive public space. It also shows how deceptive the term alterative media is in the context of a post-industrial digital economy. Ideologically speaking, alternative and radical media referred to the use of communication channels to overthrow capitalism, yet today, it can be interpreted as the use of communication channels to bring great change yet still within the context of a liberal capitalist society. Overall, it could be said that Tumblr is an alternative media example that can be used in radical way. Alternative, because it has more channels and modes of communications, and radical, because it leaves a space where active political organisation can take place, using the same tools and methods that many Tumblr bloggers use to express their own cultural niche.

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