Slow media: how to renew debate in the age of digital authoritarianism
The rise of a new global, digital and mobile form of capitalism has, since the 1970s, accelerated the pace of our lives. We produce more, consume more, make more decisions and have more experiences. This acceleration is driven by the underlying principles that "time is money", "time is power" and "life is short".
In the realm of media and communication, we are confronted by fast-paced global flows of information on the internet that we constantly access from everywhere via our smartphones, laptops and tablets. Commercial platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are digital tabloids that circulate high-speed flows of often superficial information that is consumed with short attention spans. The primary goal of social media's information acceleration is the sale of targeted ads. And digital authoritarianism, fragmented publics, fake news, bots, filter bubbles and a narcissistic "me" culture have all proliferated alongside this high-speed communication.
Today's social media are in fact anti-social media that undermine political communication and understanding. In 2019, a House of Commons committee inquiry into disinformation and fake news concluded that the negative implications of social media should "allow more pause for thought".
There is a desire for something different. Research conducted by my team in the EU project netCommons showed that almost 90% of 1,000 internet users who participated in a survey said they were interested in using alternatives to the dominant, commercial platforms.
In a similar vein to "slow food" – which was created to counter the negative implications of fast-food culture, and which became part of the wider slow life movement – Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt and Benedikt Köhler propose a "slow media" manifesto.
Slow media takes the speed out of information, news and political communication by reducing the amount of information and communication flows. Users engage more deeply with each other and with content. Slow media does not distract users with advertisements, it is not based on user surveillance, and is not undertaken to yield profit. It's not simply a different form of media consumption, but an alternative way of organising and doing media – a space for reflection and rational political debate.
Club 2.0: slow debate
Club 2 was a debate format broadcast on television by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation between 1976 and 1995. Viewers could watch a live, uncensored and controversial debate between diverse participants in a small studio with no studio audience. Club 2 was, in this sense, the original slow media. It was not interrupted by advertisements and used unlimited airtime. In Britain, After Dark, a version of Club 2 produced by OpenMedia, aired from 1987 until 1997.
In the age of user-generated content, I propose an updated version of Club 2 that would bring together live television and the internet, broadcast via a non-commercial video platform. Club 2.0 would be based on a public service, not-for-profit version of YouTube that is free of advertising. Users – named and registered – would generate discussions to accompany a live TV debate uploaded to the video platform.
Limiting the number of registered and active users – and how many videos and text comments they can make during debates – would control the pace of online discussion. Instead of a maximum length to comments (and videos) as one gets on Twitter, there would be a minimum. Groups of users in schools, universities, companies, associations, local communities, neighbourhoods, council houses, churches, civil society, unions and other contexts could co-create videos in advance of an episode.
At certain points of time during the live broadcast, a user-generated video would be chosen and broadcast, which would, in turn, inform the studio debate. Ideally during a debate lasting two or three hours, a number of user-generated videos would be selected.
At a time when sustained political communication of people who disagree has become almost impossible, new visions for slow media point to how we can create a a fresh culture of political debate and renew the public sphere. Decelerating the logic of the media is incompatible with the principles on which the commercial digital monopolies are based.
The commercial internet is dominated by digital capital, digital monopolies, "fake news", filter bubbles, post-truth politics, digital authoritarianism, online nationalism, digital tabloids, and high-speed flows of superficial content. Public service internet and platform co-operatives are the vision of a commons-based, democratic internet and a true digital public sphere.