Flower Power

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Jason Pontin (three-time client), Sibyl Masquelier (world's greatest newsroom recruiter) and me; after a long day at the We Media conference, heading across the bay on the way to dinner on the Miami River. [Capt. Aaron Snell]

iN MIAMI, at the We Media conference, the aging curmudgeon in me wanted out. The conference was about “community” and citizen journalism, which is like peace and love nowadays, and as in the sixties, the dialogue polarized.

On one side was a neo-Flower Power group, representing the Web 2.0 movement. They looked with misgivings on the older, slightly rounded media heavies in the audience, giving them that look that says, “You just don’t get it, do you?”

The heavies, cast involuntarily in the parts of Nixon, Mitchell and Kissinger, asserted that they were just as much in favor of two-way media as anyone else, but the hippies would have none of it. If they know the 60s word, they would said the old media is trying to co-opt them.

Co-opt, hell, they are trying to buy them. Murdoch grabbed MySpace for what turned out to be a song. Then Google grabbed YouTube before Big Media could buy it too.

Not the Google guys are really the peasant-farmer Internet revolutionaries that the movement idealizes. I mean, these boys are Stanford grads! Great quantities of money kind of take the rough edges off any would be neo-Marxist. Witness, Craig Newmark, of Craigslist, who sat quietly in the We Media conference ignoring the darting glances from the audience. In the 19th century, the old-line robber barons in the room would have had him tarred and feathered, so precipitously has he “disintermediated” the newspaper business. But now his market cap is so great that the heavies regarded him with wary respect, if not fear, like he was the Penguin, Batman’s nemesis, who, it has been pointed out, Newmark resembles. When Newmark got on stage he told, more like the Riddler than the Penguin, some of the worst jokes ever heard at a conference.

By making classifieds free (in many markets), Craigslist disabled the most profitably part of newspaper advertising. With their market cap and an aggressive program to index everything on the planet and sell all the ads into that index, the Googleaires are more likely to co-opt Big Media than the other way around.

Some reports on the conference, such as Mark Glaser’s blog on PBS.org, were fueled by the irrational exuberance that comes from the feeling that the Internet is sweeping all before it,and that the new is wiping out the old. So get out of the way Big Media.

Of course the Internet is a major development in human culture, but there are other forces at work at the same time. The smartest guy on any panel was Jay Rosen of NYU. He reminded us that the new social media is overlaying the old, but it doesn’t replace it. “We’re just figuring out how they work together.”

The reason people are turning away from traditional media is not entirely because of the Internet. Some are skipping Katie Curic just because they find the news of no interest. They don’t look for much news from the web, either, it just seems to come to them (which is a reason Chris Urban sited for declining newspaper readership in the 80s). The fact is there’s nothing going on in the world that they think they need to know. Perhaps rightly, they feel that nothing is going to make much difference in their lives, and that there is nothing much they can do about it anyway. They don’t vote, and they don’t care. This a function of peace and prosperity, not the Internet.

The most interesting things to them are the things immediately around them. These are the people you see walking along the sidewalk in New York giving an account of each step to someone on the phone, who presumably is doing the same the thing back. I have a sister like that. The world she is interested in is her world. It’s not a generational thing, it’s a social thing. When people don’t have to worry about their next meal, or whether they will live through the week, the news just isn’t that important.

As people find their families and friends moving off to the far corners, as cities become even more spread out and even more alienating, people are using technology to reconnect—where they can’t or won’t do it person. They connect across private phone networks (like the deaf girl doing video calling in the movie, Babel). They connect on the Net (like the astounding proliferation of videos on YouTube).

The explosion of course overlapped—or usurped—the role of traditional media: millions YouTube members posted found themselves watching the Numa Numa guy when they could have been watching TV.

What started as a communications medium more like the telephone than the radio, the Internet is disrupting previous communications channels, such as voice and text messaging. It’s taking over the distribution of some radio, TV, motion pictures and print.

But not all. Never all, because people still want live, personal conversations with other people. And sometimes they like to just sit there and listen to the story.

As much as you can blame the calicified institutional thinking in print newsrooms on journalism schools, there is a mantric chant heard in J-schools that is a fundamental truth: “It’s all about story-telling.”

Ultimately the medium doesn’t matter. The content matters.

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Two other modern myths.

  • Short attention span is a new phenomenon, not a natural trait.
  • Humans only recently learned how to multi-task.

Your Thoughts (2 comments)

2007-03-13 by Mark Glaser

old trying to sweep away the new

Roger, Nice commentary and love the '60s hippie dippy analogy. I think you misinterpreted what I said at the conference and what I wrote on my blog. I never said that the new would sweep away the old. My point was that the old is grasping at straws trying to get the new. Just like you launching a blog and busting on people for writing about their every footstep, yet not bothering to do a spell check or grammar check for what you write. What I have seen is that the major media have made great strides in playing in the new world online, but a conference like We Media bills itself as one thing (about citizens and participation) and really comes off as a gathering of execs congratulating each other. I agree with you that there will still be a place for TV and other old media, but the shift online is important to watch. You might think the medium is unimportant, but it is important in one respect: If the audience is moving online, you sure aren't going to reach those people offline. And if you simply use the Internet to put up shovelware and don't really use the medium for what it does best, why bother?

2007-03-16 by Roger Black

You probably think this song is about you

Good points. I thought I was relatively dismissive of the rounded old media guys, but you are still saying that the new drives out the old: "If the audience is moving online, you sure aren't going to reach those people offline." My point about cell phones was an attempt, perhaps not a grammatical one, to connect the Web 2.0 rush to communications media, like the phone. That's different from news media, like a newspaper. We can use both…. The crisis of the news business may have more to do with the mind-set of our affluent society, the woefully boring product the publishers and networks are producing than with the Internet boom and short-sighted market analysts…. The communications side of the Net keeps growing in all directions, and the old media folks have plenty to learn. Yet, alongside of that, the Internet is becoming the way every media file type gets distributed. YouTube is a whole different world than, say, the HTML 1.0 USA Today web site. There is plenty of user content, not withstanding the Viacom suit, but it is not what you would call hypertext. It's all evolving…. The Internet drives both two-way and one-way. It will build great new communities, and it will take up all the written and visual narratives and push them out into new forms that remind us a lot of magazines, newspapers, TV shows and movies.

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