Reasons for Optimism #4: José Luis Orihuela’s ‘Digital Cultures’
Author identifies key internet trends, offers solutions to its thorny problems
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
Why write about “reasons for optimism” when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence we can make things better. As I like to say, it’s another day of opportunity.
José Luis Orihuela was an online guide to me for several years. He is a pioneer in the research and analysis of the internet, and he helped me understand its impact through his blog, eCuaderno, which he launched 19 years ago, and his Twitter feed, @jlori.
But in 2015 I got to meet him in person and work with him while teaching a course on multimedia communication that he designed for students at the University of Navarra in Spain. He and his wife, Pilar Martínez Costa, also a professor of communication, immediately showed themselves to be generous and friendly colleagues and fun dinner companions. We became good friends over the years.
One of the things that impressed me about José Luis was how he used his research to educate the Spanish-speaking public around the world about the tremendous possibilites and risks of digital communication. In addition to his much-cited academic publications, he maintains a ubiquitous presence on social media, is a guest speaker at conferences and on broadcast programs, and he publishes widely in newspapers and magazines.
His latest effort to enlighten the public is to co-host Blogpocket Live, a podcast that is livestreamed and also available on YouTube. (I was one of his guests.)
Lately, I have been studying his fifth book, whose title translated into English is “Digital cultures: brief texts for understanding how and why the internet is changing our lives” (Culturas digitales. Textos breves para entender cómo y por qué internet nos cambió la vida).
Digital transformation of education
The chapters are broken down into short sections that resemble blog entries, without the hyperlinks. One chapter focuses on education–both teaching and research.
Most academics are people of the book, who revere printed texts, maps, laboratories, and libraries. But we should use the digital materials and channels students already are using to help them learn, Orihuela says.
Perhaps the most valuable advice for professors is how to direct a classroom with students who have been managing their entire social and academic lives with smartphones. It’s a mistake, he says, to demonize the devices or prohibit students from consulting them in the classroom. He suggests ways to integrate the use of laptops and smartphones in student research and projects.
He also tells professors, Take your research beyond printed formats and share it in the digital world. Break down the bureaucratic structures of academic departments to collaborate with colleagues in completely different fields. Use digital tools to collaborate outside your university and outside your country.
His advice for students includes guidelines on how they can use social media with grace and courtesy, both at the university and in their social lives. Among them: ideas can be debated, but people must be respected; avoid the trolls and don’t amplify their messages; and learn how to disconnect completely to reduce anxiety.
In addition, Orihuela explains how students can build a professional portfolio online using tools like LinkedIn. Be careful with your social media activity, he says. Adolescent silliness can come back to haunt you when you enter the professional world. Keep your personal commentaries to the “stories” applications of various platforms that disappear after 24 hours.
Journalists: interact with readers
He urges journalists and publishers to recognize that the internet created the possibility of a two-way relationship with the audience, and that many media have failed to take advantage of that. Their old monopoly model runs counter to the digital world’s values of participation, conversation, community, and transparency.
News media that don’t focus on the needs, desires, and problems of their audiences will lose them, and that will translate into lost influence, advertisers, and subscriber revenue.
Orihuela also offered some ideas about the future of digital communication, which I believe has relevance for news media organizations:
Digital communication will have more to do with information than news. The distinction he makes is that news in and of itself has little economic or social value. What does have value, and what journalists should be producing, is content that adds value to news by putting it into context, verifying its sources, processing it for different distribution platforms, editing it for different audiences, and using multimedia tools to enrich its meaning and relevance.
It will have more to do with formats than media. Consumers of media will pay less attention to the media organization that is producing their favorite content. They will find news in their favorite format, whether it be photographs (e.g., Instagram), streaming video (either ad-free or ad-supported), podcast, short video (e.g., TikTok), encrypted messaging (e.g., WhatsApp), traditional news sites (either free or paywalled), YouTube influencers, or what have you. News publishers will need to produce content in multiple formats to reach their target audiences.
It will have more to do with the interpretation of information than data. To be viable and relevant in the future, news organizations will need to add value to data that is available free everywhere. For example, it is not enough to show how many infections or hospitalizations of covid-19 there are in a region but where they have been increasing or decreasing fastest, or differences among age groups. Data visualization of the kind done by Datadista in Spain is an example.
It will have more to do with brands than with facilities. A media organization that is producing valuable content will not need to have a big office headquarters. Its people could be located anywhere and meet virtually. At the same time, an individual journalist will not need an institution to establish a personal brand whose work is worth paying for, through a newsletter, podcast, blog, videoblog, or other distribution format.
It will have more to do with specialization than superficiality. The news organizations that hope to survive cannot attempt to cover all topics in a superficial way. To be viable and sustainable, they will need to specialize in a particular niche, defined by topic or geography or both. The goal should be to produce content not available anywhere else.
It will have more to do with user payments than advertising. In the digital world, the use of intrusive, annoying ads to generate revenue turns off users and drives them to use ad blockers. In addition, they are showing a greater tendency to make micropayments or buy subscriptions to consume news in an ad-free environment.
Orihuela also goes deep into the uses of digital media for political and social activism, the many forms of disinformation, the impact of artificial intelligence on our personal and professional lives, and the culture of binge-watching TV series, among many other topics.
What makes this book different is the balanced view it offers about technology. While recognizing the danger posed by abusers of digital communication, Orihuela takes pains to detail the best ways to realize the benefits of digital media tools and platforms. It truly is about cultures and communities and human communication.
This is a book for anyone trying to envision a future world where people everywhere interact with each other in a civilized way, helping better themselves and their neighbors. With this cautiously optimistic outlook, it is appropriate that Orihuela dedicated the book to his grandchildren.
Remember, today is another day of opportunity.
This newsletter is based on an article on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.
Reasons for optimism #1: Andrew Yang.
Reasons for optimism #2: Edwy Plenel of Mediapart
Reasons for optimism #3: Journalists around the world
Reasons for optimism #5: SembraMedia International
Reasons for optimism #6: Jared Diamond and others