Rogers, Richard. Information politics on the Web. Boston, MA: The MIT Press., 2005. xiii, 216 p. ISBN 0-262-18242-4. £22.95
When we consider the World Wide Web and issues of control and flows of information, the discourse tends to be that of digital rights management and the protection of intellectual property rights. However a more subtle influence of economic and ideological interests needs to be considered: how closely aligned are the accounts of reality found within to those of the traditional or 'official' form of media and commercial interests?
This is the question that Web epistemologist Richard Rogers ponders in his interesting and thought-provoking book. He explores how the Web has the power to both influence and judge the discourse and interaction between the traditional media and activist community.
As a Web epistemologist, Rogers feels that the Internet presents a knowledge culture that is distinct from other media. However, he is concerned that the Web will become an extension of existing corporate and governmental interests and, therefore, will become another channel to present a narrow range of 'official' viewpoints and stances. This is followed by Rogers's analysis of how the Web can be broken down into front-end or back-end information politics: the Web as media.
In his discussion of the back-end, he explores how the ranking methods and methodologies of the leading search engines can be shaped and controlled by those with the largest financial interests in a subject or issue. In practice, this can mean that the relevance of any returned search result can be more of an indicator of which interested parties are willing or able to sponsor a link. Therefore the representation of reality more closely aligns with the corporate or government spin presented in existing media forms.
If this sounds slightly dry, do not worry. The core of the book is Rogers's analysis of front-end information policy using four tools or instruments that he has developed and their application to differing accounts presented by the 'official' versions of events and those presented by other viewpoints. The software tools capture information about the changing face of the Web by looking at linking practices, the lifecycles of issues and other relevant factors.
The instruments are: the Lay Decision Support System, the Issue Barometer, the Web Issue Index of Civil Society, and the Election Tracker. The Lay Decision Support System explores the statements that an individual is likely to come across that will affect his decision-making. The Issue Barometer is a measure of the territorialisation, intensity of debate and overall 'newness' of an issue. The Web Issue Index of Civil Society is a tool for estimating if an issue is becoming more or less prominent over time. Finally, the Election Tracker is for assessing how deeply election issues have been taken up by the mainstream media.
The most vivid use of these instruments is provided by an exploration of the Lay Decision Support System in the second chapter of the book: The Viagra files: the Web as collision space between official and unofficial accounts of reality. Here, he explores how the mainstream media and official accounts from drug company Pfizer, that this drug is for senior citizens with erectile dysfunction, contrast with its Web presence as a recreational lifestyle drug for the young. The 'evening news' or target market account of the drug does not fully capture or represent the diverse user base for this product. Indeed, in one aspect of the account, the user is a giant panda!
For those interested a far more detailed explanation of the tool and its application in this and other situations can be found on the Govcom Website
Overall, this book provides much of interest to those interested in both the development and overlap of political discourse and those interested in the shifting nature of information and how individuals seek and discriminate between the official and unofficial, new media and old media. Moreover, the account of how and why search engine results are generated in the manner that they are should be of use to those unfamiliar with such things.
If I have a minor quibble, it is with some of the earlier discussions and subsequent classifications of Web ontology into 'classic' (hierarchical) and 'deeper' (dynamic linking) forms. Yahoo for example is presented as an example of a 'deeper' ontology but from the explanation given would seem to be more closely represented by the classic definition.
It would be interesting to see, in any subsequent follow-up work, the development of the methodological instruments and how have been further defined and developed. In particular, I am curious how they would measure the impact of a number of forthcoming Internet developments. In particular, how will Web2 or Blogger developments such as Federated Media Publishing and Open Source Media affect this battle for the 'airwaves'?