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

The Amanda Palmer Effect

A talk for the Wesley College staff planning day, marking the the sesquicentenary of the school. 27 January 2016.

I was a shy kid. My primary years were spent at an alternative school, where we did yoga and meditation every day. Introspection was encouraged.

When I was in Grade 6 my parents suddenly pulled my sister and me out of that school, and we were sent mid-term to a small private school called Cato College in Elsternwick. I don’t remember a lot about Cato, but I do remember that it was practically a girls school. We did typing classes on actual typewriters, like we were being trained up for the typing pool. (Not because PCs weren’t invented yet – my older brother was meanwhile building circuit boards and writing command lines on his MicroBee at home. He now works for IBM).

Sometime during my Cato years I was made to sit a personality test by the careers councillor. The test was supposed to inform a student’s future direction in life. My test result? A mime. M-I-M-E. As in street theatre. I was a Straight A student and I was being told that my best option was to put on face paint, stay silent, and beg strangers for money.

(As it turns out this was not entirely bad advice, but I’ll come back to that.)


When I was in Year 8, Cato suddenly became part of Wesley. It felt like a corporate take-over. The boys arrived, lots of them, and there were new subjects and this thing called Sport. We were taught Economics without the word ‘Home’ in front of it. My sister joined the downhill ski squad and she was fast. I became aware that my introspection, while not bad, was not going to cut it in this new world.

I resent the question ‘what did I get out of Wesley’ because it’s usually code for ‘was I privileged and am I aware of it’. For the record, I wasn’t* – my parents were freelance filmmakers in what we now call the creative industries. They took whatever work was available: My Dad’s company T-Shirt read ‘if it moves we shoot it’.

But when I am asked that question – ‘what did I get out of Wesley’ – my gut response is ‘social networking’. And I mean that in the Zuckerberg sense, not as in the ‘old boys network’.

Wesley taught me that when you walk into a room, it’s ok to go up to someone, talk to them, and find a connection. Sometimes that will result in a new collaboration, sometimes a new friend. When you go to a school like Wesley, you realise it’s not what you know, or who you know, it’s what you might know if you make that approach.

I’m not saying that I am a great networker – I am an academic researcher and any level of interpersonal skills is a bonus in my industry (and generally just results in more committee roles). But because of Wesley I am no longer that shy kid from the hippy school.

Why does this matter more generally – for the students you guys teach and the world you are building out of their precious souls?

At risk of turning this into a lecture, I want to talk a little about what I do.

I research what policy makers call the Digital Divide. That means I study the social aspects of internet adoption and use, mostly in remote regions including Australia’s central desert and the jungles of Borneo.

When academics first started researching the digital divide, a core research question was: ‘Can access to the internet help people overcome their situation of disadvantage?’ What are the tangible outcomes of internet use?

The answer, as it turns out, is disappointing. Even with access to all the information, all the networking tools, and free online education (MOOCS), people mostly don’t take up those opportunities. Those with existing resources (money, education, health) are the ones most likely to benefit even more from being online.

Some researchers call this the Matthew Effect:

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath” – Matthew 25:29

The rich get richer etc.

However, research also shows that some groups defy prediction. For instance, the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK despite being poor and disadvantaged, do tend to take up online opportunities. What this tells us is that our social world – our networks, our social norms – are incredibly important. They inform our choices and can result in positive action.

So for me it’s not the Matthew Effect. It’s what I call the Amanda Fucking Palmer Effect**.

Amanda Palmer is a musician with a middle name that could get you detention. Aside from her Radiohead Ukelele Covers album and being married to Niel Gaiman, one thing that she’s famous for is being the musician to make the most money out of a crowdfunding campaign.

And this is where I should have listened to my careers councillor. Before she was a successful musician, Amanda Palmer was self-employed as a Living Statue called the Eight Foot Bride. In her TED talk, Amanda Palmer explains that it was her career as a Living Statue – a mime – that taught her how to earn money out of songs that anyone can download for free. She calls it ‘the art of asking’.

To quote: ‘I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit’.

She continues:

‘My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box’.

So to bring this back to where I started. Wesley taught me that it’s not who you know that matters, and it’s not what you know. It’s what you might know if you are brave and willing to connect with others.

We all know the Wesley motto, Sapere Aude, or Dare to be Wise. I think I was wise beyond my years before I got to Wesley – making 6 year olds sit through daily meditation must be good for something. But Wesley taught me to Dare.

And in this world of social networking media and transformative technology the Dare bit counts for an awful lot.

Photo: istolethetv/Flickr/Creative Commons (

 * I realise that I am more privileged than many/most, having been born into a middle-class Australian family. I was only referring to the public versus private school (elite-class versus everyone else) assumptions in this statement.
** I don’t think she calls herself Amanda Fucking Palmer these days. But I saw the opportunity to use a swear word in the auditorium of my old school and took it.
The Amanda Palmer Effect

Blockchains for development


It seems to accord with sense and experience that technology largely flows down the gradient of development: from rich, modern nations to poorer ones.

Anthropologists and media scholars have long observed the extent to which communication technologies change traditional societies. However, the Orang Ulu (the collective term for the Indigenous up-river peoples of Sarawak), suggest a different possibility, and one that points to the future of that most uber-modern, digital and urban of developments – the sharing economy.

The sharing economy describes people making use of their excess assets by charging others to access them – houses for holiday accommodation, garages for storage, cars (and their drivers) for rides. Some dispute the term ‘sharing’, arguing that these systems are more akin to renting, while others point out that centralized large corporations currently dominate the sharing economy, making it more of a platform economy.

The Orang Ulu have created their own version of the sharing economy, which is operating offline. Perhaps the systems that we interact with will become more like theirs rather than the other way around.

Until logging roads arrived, it would take the Orang Ulu days to get to their kampung (village) by longboat. The logging roads have facilitated old lifestyles and economic systems as well as newer industries and methods of getting by. As only a small number of people in each kampung own a car, the Orang Ulu have developed their own ride-sharing system, whereby you pay someone with a Hilux to take you where you need to go – a lot like Uber but without the technological platform.

A similar system exists for the other dominant mode of transport in the region: motorised longboats that travel up the Baram river and its tributaries. On a recent research visit, my colleague Christine Horn and I paid for boat rides, and to stay in the spare rooms in the houses of the headmen, in both cases directly negotiating with owners.

The system has evolved partly out of traditional economic systems in which sharing was required. For instance, the house of the headman may include rooms for those on their way upriver. One of my fellow researchers, Simpson Njock, a Kenyah man from the region, said that it was once the case that you had to share a wild boar, but now if someone asks you for some of your wild boar you say to them ‘how much’.

These systems have also developed in a region where many fall into the underbanked category and live a largely subsistence lifestyle, but where money is required for schooling, medical treatment, and home maintenance. Many make that money from handicrafts or food they have grown on their padi farms. Some goods are bartered rather than sold.


Uber in the jungle

The sharing and platform economy is a transformative new technology in the rich, urban world that is at the beginnings of being adopted and formalized into our legal and economic systems. But it has long been the main game in remote Sarawak and could potentially be the key to development.

Although it is perhaps unlikely that platforms such as Uber and AirBNB will be big in remote Sarawak (standing on the back of a Hilux to travel on an ungraded private road would seriously challenge even Uber’s low regulation philosophy), other possibilities are on the horizon. Indeed, current technological developments might transform the institutional dynamics of the sharing economy in ways that might make such corporate platforms superfluous.

While the open internet may be over, new possibilities for electronic peer-to-peer economies are emerging. The technology that is most likely to change transactions is called blockchain.


Blockchains for development

Originally developed to support bitcoin, a blockchain is essentially a public ledger, like a giant spreadsheet for recording assets, which can be utilized for any form of exchange and which no individual entity controls. By providing a secure and distributed means of authentication and recording, blockchain eliminates the need for intermediaries that pull information to verify transactions.

While blockchain technology is already being developed in everything from fintech to the GLAM industries, some, such as Backfeed, are looking at how it might induce decentralized coordination. If that eventuates it will bring new possibilities for economic development.

The gold standard in the field of development is to work within and through local systems rather than impose development that might be detrimental to culture or natural resources. The Orang Ulu have a level of trust that comes from getting by across a network of small villages in a country where there is little in the way of a welfare safety net.

Technology is not a solution, but it might assist the coordination of existing systems, making them more efficient, rather than imposing different ones. For instance, it could make possible a shift from extractive forest industries, such as logging and palm oil, to economies that rely on a healthy forest, such as eco-tourism, where natural heritage and culture are valued rather than diminished. Localised peer-to-peer platforms that provide tourists or handicraft sellers with boat rides and longhouse rooms could be of significant benefit for these communities.

Unfortunately, the possibilities for economic development via emerging technologies will be nothing more than an idealistic and novel idea unless internet connectivity is improved. While some communities have mobile broadband base stations, these are often poorly maintained or suffering from over-congestion.

Technology is already changing life in remote Sarawak, and it will continue to do so, as long as the infrastructure is there to support it. Whether LOLcats will adversely affect a culture where it is taboo to laugh at animals (true story) is just one dimension of change. Another not-so-distant possibility is that it will enable them to share a ride on a new path to prosperity.


Blockchains for development