The FCC launched its far-ranging inquiry into the “Future of Media” at a crucial time: No one is untouched by the pervasive changes to the American media landscape, but plenty are still left out of the process through which those transformations arise. When the Media Policy Initiative and our partners at Free Press and Media Access Project approached our reply to the FCC’s request for comments, we tapped diverse geographic and professional expertise to tackle the Commission’s daunting 42-question prompt. Our 147 pages of answers covered a lot of ground, but in its efforts to cast a wide net for comments, the FCC also created a public online forum for less formal—or at least briefer—comments. “Tell us about your community and its media,” the FCC asked. “Do you have a newspaper? Local TV news stations? Great websites? Anything else? What works well? What works poorly? How have things changed over time? What information do you wish you could get but can’t?” Such broad questions often yield vague answers, but most of the comments posted to the Future of Media’s online forum on "Media In Your Community" are remarkably specific.
Anyone who visits the site can create a username to post a comment, reply to a published comment, and vote for comments that resonate with them. Powered by UserVoice, the forum also allows commenters to sign in with other social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. There have been 102 postings to date, including some submitted since the FCC’s formal Future of Media request for comments closed on May 7. It’s still unclear how comments submitted via this forum or the Future of Media blog (where the comments are few and far between) will be used, although the Commission is currently seeking public comment on how new media feedback should be considered within the FCC’s ex parte rules through proposed rulemaking FCC 10-31, according to Special Counsel for FCC Reform Mary Beth Richards. But the comments left on the UserVoice forum offer interesting snapshots that might complement the big-picture narratives submitted by policy and media organizations.
The top entry, with 35 votes, focuses on online media in Paulding County, GA, where in the last 30 years, population growth exceeded business expansion, an imbalance that left the community underserved by traditional media and created a prime opportunity, the poster observes, for new media alternatives. Paulding.com, according to poster “neomaxcom,” became the go-to source for local information, as well as a place where readers can share ideas, advice, and information with each other. The original poster noted, “The site defies conventional measures of participation with over half of the 20,000 registered members having posted at least once. Over ten percent of the registered users have posted 100 or more times.” In reply, commenter Tina said, “If I have a question about what is going on in our county, I check the Paulding.com message boards first.” Respondent Melody agreed: “If anyone has a serious issue, the entire community can pull together and provide the needed help. Political issues are debated, sometimes rather hotly, but in the end, we are there for each other.” To someone outside the local community, Paulding.com doesn’t look like anything special or innovative on the surface, but these testimonies suggest that it fills specific information needs for the community it serves.
Other postings also focus on unique information services provided or the niche audiences to whom they appeal. A poster in Hartford, CT, highlights the state’s public affairs cable network, the Connecticut Network, which broadcasts “24/7 coverage of all three branches of government and public policy on basic cable TV, on the internet, and most recently on AT&T U-Verse.” The author of that post, William, got 31 votes in support of his call for the FCC to increase its focus on coverage of state politics. A poster from Middletown, RI, details her dissatisfaction with the political views presented on her local AM talk radio. Another calls for “MicroPower FM transmission for neighborhood-based non-profits” in Portland, OR.
The online forum seems like an interesting experiment in soliciting feedback from a broader audience than DC policy wonks. Of course, any online forum that appears to offer deliberative democracy must be examined with one crucial caveat in mind: Just who, exactly, is participating in the conversation? The commenters can choose to sign their remarks with their real names or aliases, so it’s not possible to identify all of them from a cursory glance through the forum. However, from what information is available, the participants show a range of characteristics. Michael Wood-Lewis, for example, is an entrepreneur concerned about civic engagement who posted a comment repurposed from his blog, “Ghosts of Midnight,” about a network of neighborhood forums he and his wife founded to encourage a sense of community in neighborhoods across Vermont. He’s been concerned with civic engagement through online media for (at least) the last 10 years, when the Front Porch Forum network first took shape. Walter Valdivia is a commenter who describes his attempts to start a Spanish commercial radio station in Seattle. There is, therefore, an incentive for people with a business stake in the FCC’s regulations to participate. But the commenters do include a number of people who reveal no other interest than that of the concerned citizen or frustrated media consumer.
The FCC’s very mode of collecting feedback tells something about the media landscape, as well. The voting mechanism that propels popular ideas to the top of the list is held in high esteem by some proponents of citizen collaboration in open government processes. (Beth Noveck’s book Wiki Government comes to mind as one example.) In a format like this one, it essentially brings social media tools to regulatory deliberation. Such a model parallels the integration of social media into online journalism today, in which readers can recommend stories and videos to their various online social networks. Melding these of-the-moment techniques with a formal FCC request for comments seems to be a forward-thinking means of collecting intelligence. Now all that remains to be seen is how the FCC puts this feedback to use.