Listening Online

13 May 2014

Since December 2013, UQ Connections has been an exclusively online publication which aims to keep our alumni informed in the age of immediacy.

UQ Connections would like to present the digital editions; a short series of articles focussed around online conduct.

The second article in the series looks at listening in the context of digital culture and user generated content, a topic that has been discussed in depth by Dr Tanja Dreher, visiting research fellow at The University of Queensland.

With an increased spectrum of availability, the explosion of social media, an international boom in digital storytelling and the growth of citizen journalism, there are unprecedented possibilities to speak up, share stories and find a voice.

This greater capacity for media production does not always guarantee that diverse voices will actually be heard.

“The age of social media should be about dissonant or marginalised voices being given a platform but instead, there tends to be commercialisation and corporatisation of our digital content,” Dr Dreher said.

“It’s been found that it’s traditional mainstream media that dominates in the digital sphere, interactive media is still primarily being used for one way transmissions.”

Twitter is a prime example of these traditional content makers having the most prominent voice; 10 per cent of users tweet 90 per cent of the content.

It is not only a matter of who tends to produce the most content, but also how audiences gain access to this content once it is online.

In some instances, instead of allowing for marginalised voices to be heard, digital media may simply enforce already existing hierarchies.

Dr Dreher suggests that there is an interesting debate to be had about search engine algorithms as they may even silence debate by giving credence to mainstream outlets.

“We’ve moved from information scarcity to information overload and the practicalities as well as the politics of filtering all of this information are staggering,” she said.

Currently, the focus is on putting the message out there; there is very little evidence of listening, response, tracking and engagement.

“The potential is there but it isn’t what is happening at the moment,” Dr Dreher said.

Dr Dreher highlighted an example of this lack of engagement in the former federal government’s ‘social inclusion agenda’.

“The website had invitations to have your say and have a voice; there were five different forums you could be a part of and what seemed to be an ability to give real feedback - the whole page was about having a voice.”

“When my colleague went back to the department organisation to see what was happening, there wasn’t a single employee whose job description included responding to the voice that was invited through the social inclusion website.”

“There was no strategy and no resources; they were operating on this one way model of communication where they were happy to invite voice, but there was simply no architecture for listening.”

Invitations for voice are consistently offered, but there are still some instances where listening to that voice is actively refused.

“The speaking voice has been over-privileged; we need to turn our attention to listening, not instead of the speaking voice but as the absolutely essential corollary,” Dr Dreher said.

“Listening should be reinvented as a form of active participation - it’s a crucial contribution to the online environment.”

The dominant metaphor for participation online has always been speaking up, but there is little use in speaking, unless you are being heard.

There are digital archives of millions of stories but no one seems to be able to say where these stories should go.

As more information is published online, and more people come to expect attention, considerations must be made as to who is listening and why.

There are a whole host of questions that need to be asked around this issue, and the questions are constantly evolving.

Dr Dreher suggests that it is no longer ‘why weren’t we told?’ but rather ‘why didn’t we hear?’ it’s no longer 'who gets to speak?' but rather ‘who is heard?’

And so, we here at UQ Connections would like to leave you with this question, the world is talking, are you listening?