New technologies aren’t just threatening old media, they may be the best chance old media has to save itself.
I’m saying this as a fairly conservative and skeptical person. I admit I’ve been largely unimpressed with the content, functionality, and aesthetics of most of what’s out there in blogs and other social media. (My nuanced position is expressed here, treated satirically here, and mentioned here as part of a larger argument.)
Regardless of whether the vast majority of blogs are juvenile and self-absorbed, or unusable, or ugly (or worse), there is still a great deal of undeniable value being generated, and there is immeasurable potential for more. Don’t let the content bias you against appreciating the power of the medium.
As Daniel Drezner (a blogger with real academic creds) wrote in an essay about public intellectuals in this new media era, to argue that “distasteful, disposable and demented material” in many blogs discredits the entire form “would be like arguing that Hustler discredits Harper’s as an appropriate venue for publication, or that America’s Next Top Model ruins Charlie Rose as a place for informed debate.”
The word “blog” should not be mistaken to refer to a kind of online diary full of personal groans and digressions. They may have been born that way (and that description may still be valid for most), but the word has evolved into a technical term used to designate a method of archiving and syndicating/distributing automatically across the web — which is increasingly setting the tone for how all news and commentary is published online.
In the mainstream media, major newspapers and magazines are in the process of not just including blogs, but designing their online presence around them. For example:
- The National Post has recently been redesigned so that many of their non-blog news items and comment columns are posted via their blog system.
- Respected policy magazines like The Atlantic and The New Republic display prominent sidebars on every page listing updates to their various blogs.
- Portfolio, the sharp new business magazine from Condé Nast, incorporate a few of their blogs (eg) as key assets, listing current posts directly below featured stories on the homepage.
As sources for news and other kinds of content proliferate, newspapers are struggling to stay at the centre of public discourse. Some might call it a crisis, but I see it as more of an opportunity for progress.
Which isn’t simply to say that newspapers have always been faulty — I happen to love reading newspapers and magazines, and it has only been in the past year that I’ve moved away from reading “the paper” to getting most of my content online — but to assume that “papers” will forever be preserved in some past or present form is a fantasy. Anything that isn’t in a process of growing or improving is going to get consumed by forward-moving forces.
I don’t take progress for granted any more than I assume legacies will persist. In the late 90′s there was considerable hype about a new economy with new rules until the tech bubble collapsed in 2000/2001. A lot of people from the old-school thought that disaster would discredit the entire movement, but it didn’t — at least not any more than the housing/finance collapse of last year discredited the notion of home ownership.
Through the bust we were able to learn what was actually viable online. A few companies like Google, eBay and Amazon kept growing; a new generation of startups was emerging, bringing back a sense of enthusiasm, focusing on new set of paradigms that were referred to (controversially in some circles) as Web 2.0.
The biggest mistake concerning the web has been to conceive it as merely a more efficient way to do things that were already done offline. We limit ourselves by thinking of websites as paperless catalogues, paperless newspapers and paperless books; computers are not just paperless typewriters, paperless filing cabinets and paperless mailboxes. The most effective ways to use computers and cell phones are in an ongoing process of being discovered. It’s an ongoing experiment, or adventure that’s always in beta.
Consider Facebook, which was conceived (or at least named) after old-fashioned student directories, but quickly went far beyond that static model. The value of Facebook isn’t that it stores contacts and photos, but that it generates streams of fresh experience for users.
It requires a conceptual leap to get from the static to the dynamic mindset. You can’t just begin with existing ideas of static building-block and then add motion to them (like vehicles on a highway, or if you like, an “information superhighway”), you need to overcome those blockish notions altogether and get immersed in the living, breathing, undulating system. The metaphors we use now are streams and clouds.
Rather than thinking of blogs etc as strange, try thinking of how strange and ineffective their forerunners are. Much of the “news” in a newspaper needs to be updated and revised before it even reaches your door — for example, Olympic medal standings. Printed news doesn’t flow very well with actual events.
And why do I need the whole paper when I don’t even read the whole thing? Why can’t I opt out of life & leisure and most of sports in order to get more news, commentary, and business? And maybe my neighbour only wants weather, a few local stories, a few of the biggest national and international stories (to be notified if an election is called or if a major war breaks out), no business news except all of the news that affects his industry and a report of how his investments are doing, all of the news about his favourite hockey team and no news about sports he doesn’t care about, and maybe a few quirky anecdotes to exchange at work.
The new ways of delivering news online are able to flow and stay current with ongoing events while dynamically addressing the customized needs of different people. Rather than simply posing a threat to newspapers and TV, blogs and other new media online might actually save “the news” by making it more effective and relevant to our lives and the world in general.
We’re not there yet, and effective progress isn’t guaranteed; new technology might defeat its own purpose if we don’t take responsibility for making it function effectively. We need to be open to the unexpected value created by new media while building on the value generated by the old media.