New Media: Stimulating Creativity or Just Repackaging the Old?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at James Madison University’s Graduate Symposium on Communication in the 21st Century: New Media, New Ideas. I presented findings from my research on the the impact of new media and political comedy on public opinion and political activism. The survey was conducted during the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally held last fall in Washington, D.C. I’ll post a summary of the top-level findings in the near future.

I was honored to also serve on a closing roundtable discussion during which the panelists were asked to deliver 2-3 minute responses to a set of questions related to the theme of the conference. My response to the first question is below.

Do you think that the new communication media are stimulating people’s creativity in academia, industry, government and the public sphere, or do you think people are just reusing old ideas by repackaging them?

New Media have stimulated creativity throughout the public sphere however some segments of society have more rapidly embraced new technologies. This in turn has resulted in greater creative expression among individuals, industries and sectors that were ahead of the curve in adopting new media technologies. Late adopters (e.g. government) are playing catch-up.

New media technologies appealed largely to consumers, and thus comparatively, I would argue there is greater creativity in consumer use of new media than what we have seen thus far by industry and government. Remix culture exemplifies this phenomenon. While it can be argued this is repackaging of old or existing ideas and works—there is value that can be derived from the creative repackaging of the old. Further, the opportunity to challenge traditional means of knowledge production and distribution appeals more to those outside of the structures of authority (e.g., academy, government). New media allow the masses to redefine what is creative and what is deemed valuable, and therefore worthy of continued circulation, discussion, and distribution. This of course, is not without its pitfalls–offensive, racist or sexist material may be “voted” up and legitimated through the “wisdom of the crowd”.

Also noteworthy is the creativity in the some segments of the social sector. Take for example, Ushahidi–an open source crowdsourcing platform that was first used to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. It has since been used to facilitate rapid response to humanitarian crises such as the earthquake in Haiti and is now being used to facilitate citizen journalism and corporate brand monitoring.

Certainly in the academia and government, new media provide new avenues for distributing and repackaging old information. Concerns about plagiarism, as pointed out by Micheal Morrison in his presentation this morning, has grown with the increased accessibility of information via the internet. However, I fear that while the academy is concerned with creativity and authenticity, it has been slow to demonstrate these qualities in an era in which rapid access to information and knowledge is valued. How we can be deliberate, analytical, creative and responsive to present day challenges and opportunities is, I believe the question that remains unanswered for the academy, governments and the public sphere at large.

My initial response sparked a lively discussion on a number of ways that new media technology is challenging and facilitating creative expression. I took special note of this comment from one of the audience members: “novelty increases with the increased rate of information transfer.” If that’s true, with ever expanding ways to share information, we may be at the beginning of a revolution that will unleash a new wave of human creativity. On the other hand, the vast amount of information available to us may in some ways stifle creativity as we try to sort through it all. But that sorting process can be a creative endeavor within itself.

In my next post I’ll share my response to the remaining roundtable questions. Both of them challenged the panelists to put on their “futurists hat” and predict the impact of new media technologies on academia and human communication more broadly.

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