There is a growing consensus that the media must adapt to new technology and trends so that it remains representative of its own people.
Not just new media, but new mindsets, that we embrace
Four years ago I was asked to contribute to a book on Arab media industries, and I wrote two chapters about the satellite television revolution in this region. But it was only recently, after wondering why it had taken so long to get the book off the press, that I received my copy of Arab Media Globalization and Emerging Media Industries.
As I browsed the chapters on Arab cinema, book publishing, broadcasting and the internet, I could see that my contribution had been reduced to a historical account of something that no longer lends itself to present realities.
For media researchers, 2011 will go down in history not only as a year of dramatic political upheavals, but of deep media transitions as well. It is a climactic year in which we saw clearly the boundaries between" conventional institutional communications" and "new citizen media".
At recent meetings of media professionals, it has been consistently evident how the region's media transitions have changed the discussions.
Almost every consideration of media reflects those transitions. Leading figures are largely defined by a strong faith in new media empowerment as the hallmark of the new era. I have been amazed by one mind-boggling detail: if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world.
With web-based communications set to shape our national agendas for years to come, the question is this: are we really prepared for this new wave of communications? The answer to this question is usually in the affirmative.
Yet to be fully prepared for the new media era, I believe it is vital to create more synergies among media regulators, media institutions, media investors, civil society sectors and media educators.
The strong sense of realism that is prevalent about the role of new media in current upheavals across the Arab world is quite encouraging. Experts consistently suggest that the role of Facebook and Twitter in recent Arab uprisings has been exaggerated, and that social media aided, but did not trigger, protests.
But Facebook and Twitter did help compensate for the failures of conventional media.
These views rhyme quite well with what I argued in a column in these pages last month - that a blind faith in the power of social media would only complicate our efforts to harness those media to the best interests of our region. Only a rational and a realistic approach to web-based media, I believe, can guide a smooth transition from conventional media into the era of new media.
The importance of new media is clearly growing. Regulators in the region should not turn a blind eye to the transitions in communications. Traditional media will continue to play a role in individual nations and the region for years to come, but web-based media are not merely marginal or peripheral; that view has clearly been discredited by the substantial, if not central, contributions of cybermedia to political transitions.
Some countries, notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have already taken initiatives to integrate online media into their regulatory regimes. But region-wide action on this front would certainly prove to be effective.
Conventional media institutions themselves also have some responsibility to share. I am happy to see more institutional media outlets going online with full social media engagement options for users.
This new trend will take firm root only when media institutions stop seeing new media as existential threats. Missing the new media bandwagon would certainly be costly for our media institutions.New media, although technology-based, are really about a new mindset, and so media educators need to be fully aware of what it takes to prepare young communicators for cybermedia careers.
Many media studies departments in the region are integrating some new media components into their curricula, but there is more to be achieved. We also need more media literacy initiatives to show how new media can be turned into constructive forces.
Our communications landscape is changing. To be on top of this transition, we have no choice but to engage, but we must do so with reason and wisdom.
Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser