Institutions, trust and groups

A new and very different information infrastructure is being built over the top of the internet. Platforms designed to bring certainty to that which is currently unsecure and unverifiable in online systems, are currently under construction. Identity checks, contracts, payments and property will be transformed at the technical layer (see Swan 2015), with implications for everything from law and fiat money, to organisations. The emerging online era is far from the open ideal of the early internet pioneers (for instance Barbrook & Cameron 1995), but it also offers new possibilities for cooperative systems.

What we currently think of as community media may or may not feature in the web3 environment. However, we can learn from community media because it is a communications institution that has had to carve out a place among stronger organising forces that are antithetical to its group-centred design.

Community media was constructed within the broadcast era under conditions of spectrum scarcity. From the start it was considered an alternative, a way to do things differently to the mainstream. Community media was and remains a unique sphere of activity that works well when it is accorded different rules that enable it to uphold the interests of those it is intended to serve, but might always remain marginal or small-scale when compared with platforms designed for the many (Rodriguez 2001). The three areas where research and knowledge of community and alternative media can be useful in thinking through the challenges of the emerging information paradigm are: institutions, trust and groups.


Institutions matter for what they enable or shut down. Cooperative systems require institutions that produce particular outcomes for those involved, and can provide a different path to content innovation. Community media is an institution, albeit one that differs according to national and local parameters. These include the laws that licence community broadcasters, the codes of practice that inform how organisations should behave, and the shared knowledge and social norms of what community media stands for: non-profit motives, access, participation, and localism.

In the broadcast era, community media was a marginal appeal to a different way of doing media, existing within broadcasting policy regimes that at best tolerated it. And yet, community media groups managed to create an identity, a movement and resources that enabled it to grow to a sizeable sector in some countries. The original end-to-end nature of the internet, and the use of open source software in its development up until the 2000s, provided access and participation on a scale not seen before. Theoretically, community media might have done well in an environment where access was not about getting into to a controlled territory but where that territory was freely accessible to begin with (an argument I made in Rennie 2003). However, community media platforms did not prevail online, and by the early 2000s the debate was already turning to how to preserve and maintain the commons of the internet against corporate interests (Lessig 1999; Benkler 2006).


A small number of online platforms now dominate, facilitating content-sharing and harnessing the ideas, causes and social needs of many. Why it is that community media organisations did not evolve to the scale of social media platforms is an important question to ask.

To take a conventional media studies mode of analysis, the ‘media convergence’ policy decisions of the past decade are revealing (for instance, in Australia, Boreham 2012). Throughout these reviews, community media was sidelined, and presumed unnecessary because access and participation were easily achieved online. Efforts to bring some kind of system of identification, regulation and navigation to community media endeavours fell flat (including my own, see Rennie et al. 2010); community media advocates assumed that any community media platform worth preserving would be identifiable by its audiences (Welch 2008). However, the unique rules and parameters of community media were not necessarily visible online, either to audiences, or to producers who might have wanted to use community platforms for content distribution. Aside from a few notable exceptions – Wikipedia, Creative Commons – the dominant organisations and institutions of the online environment fell into the categories of pre-commercial (blogs), long-tail niche markets, or the new tech giants.

The fate of community media in the online environment suggests that open access was problematic for community media. Perhaps we were thinking about the problem all wrong. What will sustain community media? The answer lies not in open platforms but in defined rules, guidelines, policies and norms.


That is, rules guidelines, policies and norms that are designed for groups.

Technology has progressed again. Emerging platforms such as Ethereum (Buterin 2014) can enable forms of cooperative distribution and sharing that work not just at the content layer, but at the organisation layer. The result might not be called community media, but it will come from the same motive: groups wanting a cooperative space to enable the sharing of not just resources, but of ideas, information and creativity.

The internet and everything built upon it has dramatically lowered the transaction and coordination costs associated with group formation and collaboration, resulting in a system-wide shift from closed access to open access models of knowledge production and communication. But this transformation has turned out to be far messier than was ever expected. Open access systems (including many open access journals) have struggled for what are essentially behavioural reasons, because people are not cooperative enough. Yet the problem might have a technical solution. New web3 technologies that enable groups to come together, to trust each other, and that can create rules at the technical layer are now on the horizon. Understanding how knowledge, culture and innovation arise is important for sustainable industries and platforms that rely on group coordination. The field of community media studies has much to offer this new paradigm.


A version of this article will appear in the first issue of the new Journal of Alternative and Community Media.


Barbrook, R & Cameron, A 1995, The Californian Ideology, Muse Issue 3, viewed <>.

Benkler, Y 2006, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Market and Freedom, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Boreham, B 2012, Convergence review: final report, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, viewed 15 January 2016, <;.

Buterin, V 2014, A Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform, Ethereum White Paper, available from (accessed 15 January 2016).

Lessig, L 1999, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, New York.

Rennie, E 2003, ‘”Trespassers are Welcome”: Access and community television policy’, The Public, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 49-62.

Rennie, E, Berkeley, L & Murphet, B 2010, ‘Community Media and Ethical Choice’, 3CMedia, no. 6, pp. 11-25.

Rodriguez, C 2001, Fissures in the Mediascape, Hampton Press, Cresskill, New Jersey.

Swan, M 2015, Blockchain: Blueprint for a new economy O’Reilly Media Sebastopol CA.

Welch, D 2008, ‘Get off our turf’, CBX, November, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia: Sydney, p. 2.

Institutions, trust and groups