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Does the language of memes count? – who can be considered minority in the digital space?

In 1986, only 73 seconds after its take-off, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated, resulting in the death of all seven crew members, including the second African American astronaut, Ronald McNair. The accident of the space shuttle was covered by the media all over the world – along with the Amsterdam News, the weekly newspaper of the African American community in New York. Their headline was the following: The world mourns the death of McNair and the other astronauts.

The reality from a perspective

Media does not only create a world – or, rather, parts of the world that the media deems worth knowing – but it also provides a perspective, a point of view from where we can contemplate. The perspective of the mainstream media is usually inconspicuous, it feels natural – unless one is a member of a minority group.

Apart from minority groups, thoughts or ideologies can sometimes become marginalised in the mainstream. Organisations labelled as far-right or far-left often object to such classifications, but the Romani people also find offensive their usual representations, either as a criminal or as a shirtless boy standing in front of a shanty town, in the middle of winter.

There is always a governing concept behind the constructed world of media and its language that is sometimes burdened with prejudice. In this world, everyone, not only minority groups can be considered as others – at the beginning of the American presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was depicted to be as weird and strange as Donald Trump.

This is a trap, as the creators of the media message have to choose, they cannot include everyone’s opinion, only those that they think relevant, and it takes time until something reaches the mainstream. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the viewpoint from which we see or show the world.

There lies a hidden general agreement, or, at least, a belief in this agreement behind the creation of reality by the media. It is much deeper than knowing as a media expert what you, the Audience consider interesting and important. It is about the hierarchy of the world, where everyone has its own rank; knowing who can or cannot be tolerated; knowing everyone’s name and whether this name is used by the majority or by themselves; which are the possible current narratives along which the world can be explained.

When the Al-Jazeera media concern was founded, its aim was to substitute our own Western-oriented point of view. On the other hand, RT (Russia Today) wanted to push forward the Russian government instead of Russia as a whole. This point of view, this concept is where minority groups might feel stranded, while the media workers are also right to show minorities as they indeed are in our society – as a marginalised group. It is not the media workers’ job to solve social injustice.

It has taken time and the power of political correctness for the media to accept that their responsibility exceeds the truthfulness of their work, because they do not only project, but also create, and thus, preserve these instances of injustice.

When I started Rádio C, the first Romani radio station in Hungary with some of my colleagues – the majority of the staff and all the presenters were Romani people –, I had to instruct them to avoid sentences like “Dear Listeners, you have been listening to…”; instead, they should use the first person plural pronoun, We. The news listed all the mainstream topics that pop up in a “Hungarian” news programme; however, their order was changed to reflect a different world. For example, it was a leading news if the social security system was modified or something with an ethnical overtone happened. Still, this direct subjectification and reality creation can also lead to another problem, that is, ghettoization, because it assumes that the most important and interesting news for every Romani listeners are those that happen to the community.

Ten years later, I worked at a prison radio with two inmates. Some of us guided them how to create their daily radio show that can be listened to only on the premises of the prison. I was unable to persuade the presenters to welcome the listeners of their music show Roma mix with Szervusztok, drága testvéreim (approx. “Hi, my dear brethren”) – even though a lot of Romani sat behind the bars, even amongst the program creators. The informal speaking style was natural to them, but they were prone to adjust the medial speech situation to the mainstream usage of the outside world – and the Romani speaking style could not fit into that category. You do not hear anything like this in the media, and we are making serious media.

Media always addresses the – supposed – majority of its audience.

Its narratives, the way it tells its stories, or, rather, as its stories are told is more perpetual and pristine than its language or speech situation – for example, the legendary 5W+1H format for writing a news article or finding the responsible actors/organisation over the course of a coverage on a disaster.

The storytelling narratives have not changed at all in the digital era. Only one thing has changed, the role of the sender and the recipient, as the audience is no longer a faceless crowd but the individual, the unique costumer, the unique user.

The loss of the common space

It is a commonplace that costumers have abundant supply of media content in the digital era. It is similarly agreed upon that with the on-demand consumption, the audience is becoming fragmented. It should be noted that we do not have to subscribe to Netflix or Spotify in order to become on-demand media consumers – the largest on-demand platform is the web itself.

The traditional media formats try to follow the digital media revolution, with more or less success. It tries to catch up with the users, following them to where they consume media. However, media consumption has significantly changed. Today mobile screens are the primary (and often the only) platform for media consumption. As a consequence, actors of the traditional media have focussed on developing mobile-compatible web pages and applications in order to reach their smartphone-bound audience.

Smartphones require new media formats (e.g., different aspect ratio than the traditional television screen). Thus, we have now videos in square aspect ratio and shorter text formats as we are consuming small bites of information. Media brands are vanishing because we watch videos on content sharing sites, so the traditional media follows its consumers there. It publishes videos on YouTube, while it tries to leverage Facebook’s algorithms with different strategies.

Finally, user generated content (UGC) has appeared, and not just the media brands but the users themselves can become content providers. Because of this and the hybridisation of formats, users are literally bombarded with information, and mainstream media has to fight for attention.

People have never had such amazing choice and access to content, but this increased choice means that there are fewer places and moments where the UK comes together in a shared conversation. It is easier to find small communities, but harder for the nation to speak to itself and to the world. The BBC is the place where the UK can come together; […] It’s where the population of the UK celebrates together and shares moments of crisis; where they join in debate and argument, where they agree and agree to differ.” – states the BBC Annual Report and Account 2014/15

While previously there was a national cultural space where minority groups were tolerated in one of its obscure corners, in the digital world, there is no such common, dedicated area. In this era, spaces converge and groups organise themselves in their intersections. Instead of a common platform, there is a multitude of platforms. The 21st century is the era of the network made up of communication spaces which are less and less connected – if connected at all – to national or state-governed formats.

Traditional media works with the one-to-many speech situation; on the other hand, the common speech situation of the web and the digitalisation is many-to-many.

What are the consequences of this transformation for the minority media?

The audience of the minority media is also being fragmentised, everybody consumes what and where they wish. Nevertheless, minority media is already suited for a given audience: the consumer is the member of the minority group who is addressed by the minority media – it is a predetermined link. This favoured position is soon to disappear.

This division of the audience is not a new phenomenon for the local Hungarian media outside the borders; it first happened when Hungarian media became available outside the country. The launch of Duna TV in the 1990s is considered to be a greater factor in terms of nationalisation than any effort for naturalisation. Then with the advent of satellite and cable television, the whole Hungarian media became accessible, apart from some larger international sports events. Minority media was forced into a competition once again. Still, it had an important advantage, it could show the world and its Hungarian aspects from a Slovakian or Romanian point of view. Of course, the minority elite was interested in sustaining minority media, but its unique position also contributed to its endurance.

There is another peculiarity that exerts an effect on both minority and mainstream media: the decline of brand loyalty, due to media consumption via Facebook. One article follows the other on my newsfeed, and I do not really know where I actually am (let’s just disregard the paywall model for the moment).

Minority media addresses its audience from a very special speech situation that is even more unique than the traditional media’s one-to-many situation. Its audience is not just an audience but a community, a community of Hungarians. Minority media has always been aware of this position, which is similar to that of minority literature, where the prophet-like voice, as the consciousness of the community, has been explicit since the Romanticism.

There aren’t any filters on the internet, nor any entry thresholds, anyone can provide content; thus a myriad of minority patterns and perspectives are represented, its relevancy only depends on the number likes and followers. This multitude of angles, however, reflects the reality better, as belonging to a minority group in real life is not a unified experience either. There was a strong effort for standardisation which was also propagated by the minority media; whereas now it is legitimate to experience being a minority or being a Hungarian differently than the accepted standard – a standard that is not necessarily obvious. For example, when the minority media regularly highlights the situation of Hungarian schools, they implicitly convey the message that Hungarian-speaking schools should be important for the audience. Digitalisation thus dilutes the normativity of minority groups.

Online media in its current business form is becoming unsustainable. Google and Facebook rip off a significant proportion of advertising revenue from the ad-financed, open access media. Because of the decline in income, it is impossible to finance media workshops with a larger staff, but there is a need for growing, so the advertising spaces will be larger, while the articles become superficial, since the same editorial staff has to create more content during the same timeframe. Thus, the standard of journalism falls, the reputation of the media sites diminishes, along with their advertising value. Ad-funded media is a less profitable business model than it was thirty years ago. It is expected that some actors will fall victim to the revolution of this model and the reconfiguration of the market. Those organisations who provide their content in an open access model will definitely lose a significant proportion of their consumers, and this trend will give an advantage point to state funded or public service media – including minority media – whose income is less dependent on advertising revenue.

Consumers only agree to subscribe if the user experience is improved, the media players are distinguishable, and the content and services provided are personalised. Media industry has the means – like behavioural data collection or user profiling– to achieve this, and the utilisation of such tools will be even more widespread in the coming years. This can also give a leverage to minority media, as language use already provides a simple, but efficient starting point.

In conclusion

Online media is an ever-changing platform while it maintains its archiving function. It has to adapt immediately to new trends, which is quite a challenge for minority media, whose presumed role is preservation and representation. While we still discuss whether we use the Hungarian or Slovak name of a given town, Hungarian users are already interested in other issues. Still, minority media is not clueless, only adheres to the one-to-many model, like the traditional broadcast media does. However, the one-to-many model is the basis of minority media’s mission, it addresses a community, not an individual.

Paradoxically, on the globalised media market, local and minority media can raise its audience share if they produce high-quality, unique programmes reflecting on the lives of the locals – or, in our case, minorities. The audience has access to global and majority-related content but hopes for programmes and stories that reflect on their own lives. This is a great opportunity for standing out from the crowd, but it requires a lot of resources. It is the only practical way, to generate unique content, it is not enough to only broadcast mainstream subjects.

Internet offers a wide variety of interactive public service media applications operated by NGOs, civil organisations, academies, governments, companies and other organisations. This way, institutions that were previously only available as a public service in their physical reality – e.g., museums or libraries –, now are able to function as online information platforms.

Would it be a possible solution that minority media, especially public service media, became a channel, some sort of a PatriaTube, where the most relevant minority contents were accessible, and it functioned as a platform, and not a content provider?

It is increasingly difficult to position mainstream and appropriately address mainstream in the digital world. It is impossible to tell a story differently to each and every member of the audience (even though Cambidge Analytica pulled of this feat). We have to compete with countless other stories to be heard. The only thing to do is that we make our stories more marketable.

Audience is no longer taken for granted. We have to accommodate to our competitors, we offer images instead of texts, we simplify storytelling. We reluctantly accept that the longread format – and books as well – eventually will be reduced to the entertainment of the elite, and we will ask for its price. Still, we remain the best storytellers.

The dedicated spaces for storytelling are gone, along with our own space for minority issues. We also have to compete for attention. Nevertheless, memes are often translated. Our challenge is then to come up with the wittiest and most entertaining Hungarian translations. We cannot sacrifice quality because of the common language.

(This lecture was presented on 11 October 2018, at the Média – nyelv – fordítás – A kisebbség és a többség dialógusa a szlovákiai magyar mediális térben (Media – language – translation –Dialogues between minority and majority in the Hungarian medial space of Slovakia) conference organised by the Szenci Molnár Albert Társulás and the Hungarian Language and Literature Department of Comenius University in Bratislava.)

Translation: Zsolt Beke Cz.