The Age today reports the death of Constance E Little, a name that will probably mean nothing to anyone outside Melbourne but has distinct resonances for Victorians over a certain age. She was a constant (if you pardon the pun) fixture of the Age letter pages, and her passing provides another opportunity to reflect on how quickly the media landscape is changing.
Traditionally, letters to newspaperswere part of a very narrow public sphere available to ordinary people, and because the number of people writing in massively exceeded the space there was an elaborate screening process. It was quite an achievement to get your letter published: in various campaigns, for instance, there would be discussions as to how something might be penned as to have the best chance of appearing.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that writing to a newspaper possesses anything like the same social significance. It’s not just that any young Constance Littles out there probably have their own blogs, twitter accounts and so on; it’s also that the newspapers themselves are shifting their opinion content online, in recognition that the debate now takes place instantly in the comments.
In general, that’s a good thing. The old letters’ page was conciously exclusionary. You were far more likely to appear if you already had some kind of public profile (which, of course, meant you probably had other avenues to express yourself anyway). Little became well-known precisely because she was an anomaly: famous for not being famous and thus the exception that proved the rule. In that sense, the new media diversity represents a massive expansion of democracy: check out, for instance, the Twitter feeds coming from Iran.
Still, there’s also something that’s been lost. If there’s infinitely more spaces for debate, those spaces seem narrower than ever before. When you follow particular blogs, you get to know those who regularly comment there but their profile rarely extends to another site, let alone to the real world. The old-style media, for all its faults, reached a substantial chunk of the population, in a way that now seems increasingly rare. Today, if you move from the blogs of the Left to the blogs of the Right, you encounter not just different interpretations of the world but an entirely different set of facts. It’s entirely possible now to surf the internet all day and never read anyone other than people who think climate change is some kind of conspiracy.
Maybe that was always the case. Maybe digital media has simply manifested the previously invisible ways that news has always been interpreted, revealing divisions always present behind the apparent consensus of a one- or two-newspaper town. Cos it’s all such a work in progress, it’s difficult to know. Maybe, in a period of greater politicisation, you’d see more evidence of people changing their minds online, and get less of a sense of the net as a place in which you build whatever reality you want. Dunno. But I don’t think we’re going to see another Constance E Little anytime soon.