Infographie "Amazing French Tech" (mars 2015)

Internet: public communication no longer exists. About the SIG’s digital strategy

On the Internet, public communication no longer exists. Deep in the depths of the digital chaos, it has had no choice but to die so as to be reborn in a different form.

 

Let’s go back fifteen years, to a world before the digital revolution. Communicating, especially for the public authorities, meant occupying a limited number of channels: in France, a list of television channels you could count on the fingers of one hand; hardly more radio stations; a larger, but far from unlimited, number of newspapers; and, for a more limited range of topics, posters displayed in public places. The managers of these communication channels would probably all have fitted into one (large) press room. With the State, they shared the task of broadcasting political-public information to citizens in reserved, specialist slots: the main pages of the most prestigious publications, regular and eagerly-awaited audio-visual programmes.

Today, fifteen years later, it is not hard to see where things stand: just reverse the situation above, point by point. The number of television stations has exploded. The same cannot be said of the radio and paper press, but their respective diverse fortunes have been offset by the move to web of the major names in these sectors, accompanied by a slew of new “pure players”. All this is nothing compared to the social web, with its constant reinvention of successive forms – forums, blogs, social networks, instant messaging. It has given a microphone to millions of web users, ultimately altering the very notion of media. Beyond just the growth in the number and type of channels, the whole structure of the media offer has profoundly changed. The new “on-demand” era, the ability and desire to have permanent (mobile) access to the web and consume content according to one's own desires and not based on a fixed schedule of programmes, the systematic model of podcast and replay, have done away with the pigeonholes and privileges of scheduling that political-public information was able to make use of in the old world. At any time, any web-using citizen is likely to consume or be exposed to any type of content.

 
The timeline phenomenon
 

Nothing illustrates this better than the system of the timeline, at the heart of the main social networks Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It dictates a certain space-time. Its time is that of the frenetic scrolling of information along a thread, as if as if tickertape had become the norm. Its space is that of a one-dimensional box, into which everything enters and ends up having the same value by virtue of being in the same place: an advertisement for a brand of fruit juice, a funny animal, a sports announcement and sometimes, in the middle of all this, the public information that the State wishes to disseminate. The timeline is the great equaliser. It slots all information into little identical boxes, in an infinite roll of film. Nothing is worth more than anything else. Everything is beside everything else, all the time. In this ocean of messages issued by a quasi-infinity of emitters, all with their own logic, important issues have no primacy, be they intellectual, artistic or political. Whatever is floating within it closer to the criteria of classical rhetoric: to please, teach, move. Or in the language of the web: animal GIFs, 10 figures “that will amaze you” and this wonderful story “that will rock your world”.

 

On the other side of the screen, web users may be able to spend more time than ever on the web, thanks to mobile technologies, but their consultation time and above all their attention spans do have limits. Split between several applications, simultaneously consulting web pages, in parallel with other devices (tablets, computers, television), or just carrying out other activities – multitasking / multi-screening has become the norm in this connected life.

A battle for attention
 

A battle for attention is being fought in this new social and technological context, carried out by a number of players – private advertisers, individuals, press entities, communities, institutions – to grab a few meagre crumbs, not of “available brain space”, to use an expression that was on everybody’s lips back in the day, but of commitment. In the digital scrum governed by the law of algorithms, those on the starting line no longer have an advantage. A major evening newspaper is no better than a site for viral videos; the discourse of public authorities is no more important than that of individuals. The web-using citizen, who is both the victim and the producer of a sort of information Darwinism, prioritises, by default, the "content” that holds his or her attention at any given time – a criterion that only randomly combines the seriousness of a piece of news with its importance. Or to put it more simply, it is the victory mocked by Banksy of the cute cat over geopolitics, made possible (and less and less shameful) by the addiction of web users – you and me included – to the great puppet-master that is the timeline.

Converging formats are the automatic response to this universal proximity of the serious and the funny, the dramatic and the derisory. If everything is equal on the web, if the user can consult everything, everywhere, all the time, then there is no reason why a publisher of information should stick to a single register. Private brands are increasingly turning to news – illustrated by the “brand content” of villaschweppes.com or greenroom.fr – and the serious press is developing its own sense of fun. Inversely, fact-checking, the sine qua non of serious journalism, is taken up by political forces in order to claim objectivity. Anyone can fabricate an ersatz television channel on YouTube or Dailymotion. In this ultra-competitive relativism of form and content, what place remains for public authority?

 
Breaking down the wall of indifference
 

Everything contributes to isolating it behind an opaque wall of indifference. Firstly, the complaints against it in a time of abstention and mistrust towards the discredited “elite”. Then, its image, (unjustly) deemed rigid and somewhat dusty. Finally, its institutional nature, in a social web whose essence remains person-to-person contact, not person-to-administration, which is impersonal and disembodied. We should humbly admit it: with the exception of a few significant moments, like a national election or political crisis, public information is little more than an afterthought, poorly equipped to attract the attention of the overloaded user, used to searching for instantly gratifying content.

Public communication therefore needs to reinvent itself, starting with the admission that it no longer exists. It no longer exists, in the sense that there is no reserved space or location for it on the Internet. It is on an immaterial playing field where it has not defined the rules of communication. No one will make a special effort to consume it for what it is. No longer can it limit itself to top-down, vertical “education”, delivered with authority. It must become interesting, win back the user’s attention, and consequently rethink itself according to the user.

The desire to undertake this paradigm shift – crafting the message from the focus of the web user – is behind the realignment of governmental communication carried out by the SIG for the past year. It starts with the tastes of web users, adopting a common language that borrows from popular culture, massively shared today. It starts with the interests of web users, by entering into the issues that are monopolising online conversations at any given time. Finally, it starts with the idea (which for some may be revolutionary!), that speaking to users’ sense of humour, and to their ability to step back and take stock, is probably a greater sign of respect than considering them as little more than overgrown infants who are oblivious to irony.

 

Building (sympathy) capital
 

These new methods of communication which consciously borrow from private brands (cultural complicity, real-time marketing, etc.) are not an end in themselves. Their goal is to rebuild the “desirability” of online public information. This first phase, which could be described as gathering sympathy, is the prerequisite to a final twofold goal. Firstly, setting up public sites as media in their own right within the digital ecosystem. Secondly, building their audience (consultations, mailing lists, subscriptions on social media) so as to enable them to be more widely seen and above all develop a form of informational sovereignty (i.e. not just depending on advertising to broadcast information, but also and primarily depending on a community of faithful relays). This is a strategic investment in a future that will be increasingly connected, and in which the State can no longer rely on the old media devices that still remain.

This (r)evolution may surprise and even shock. Is it the role of the State to descend into the arena of entertainment, in the broadest sense of the term, and to try to compete with the specialists in this domain on their own terms? Some may decide that it is preferable to remain in their institutional ivory tower, disseminating “pure” information to a limited public. We could reply firstly that public communication serves no purpose if it does not speak to the public as a whole. And secondly, if we believe in the power of the Internet, which can save lives, as recently demonstrated by one prefecture, then it is our ethical obligation to do our utmost to give the greatest possible power to the interfaces wherein public power resides. LOLcats today for tomorrow’s public service. Reason’s cunning has come in worse forms.

 

2 november 2015 /
Portrait de Romain Pigenel
Romain Pigenel
@romain_pigenel