One of the challenges in grappling with our current media environment, where old style mass media and new style Internet media collide and call each other out, is understanding how it is changing. Generally we try to see how it is different from last year or five years ago, or if we are really digging in—a decade or two ago. This is considered the long view.
But perhaps we need to look at a much longer time frame, so we can really get at the underlying dynamics of how our media shapes us and how we, in turn, shape it. And the longer view we take, the more we see that there are no easy answers as to how the media world is being transformed.
Take, for example, Tom Standage’s whimsically titled book, Writing On The Wall— Social Media, The First 2,000 Years. He takes us on a tour of the highlights from the past 2,000 plus years of Western Civilization to make the point that information has traveled along social networks for a very long time. With his examples, he makes a very convincing case. For several thousand years, we have found ways to communicate with each other and publish, share, and comment on each other’s ideas—long before we used the term “social network” and publishing, sharing and commenting was something you did on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.
He also makes a very important point about the mass media that we inherited from the 19th century and which still dominates our media landscape. Standage argues that we should see mass media as a temporary blip in the course of human history.
As he writes (with my bold emphasis),
“In the years since the Internet became widespread, it has been commonplace to draw a distinction between “new” based on digital technologies and the “old” media that came before it. But old media, it is now apparent, was something of a historical anomaly. It began in 1833 with the launch of the New York Sun, with its innovative mass-media model based on amassing a large audience and then selling their attention to advertisers. Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however—to what could be termed the era of “really old” media—and the media environment, based on distribution of information from person to person along social networks, has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects twenty-first-century Internet media has more in common with seventeenth-century pamphlets or eighteenth-century coffee houses than with nineteenth-century newspapers or twentieth-century radio and television. New media is very different from old media, in short, but has much in common with “really old” media. The intervening old–media era was a temporary state of affairs, rather than the natural order of things. After this brief interlude-what might be called a mass-media parenthesis—media is now returning to something similar to its preindustrial form.”
These are provocative words. To label old media as a “historical anomaly”, a “temporary state of affairs”, or even a “parenthesis” is certainly a challenge to the current mass media industry. I also suspect that Bob Iger of Disney or Leslie Moonves of CBS are not quaking in their boots as they collect their many millions of dollars in annual compensation. Being referred to, as a “temporary state of affairs”, will hardly ruin their day.
Yet, I also think Standage’s point is fundamentally correct. We are in a period of rapid media change and by gazing backward into our history, we can find in “really old” media a guide to our future. As the cost of content creation and distribution continues to plunge, a modern Thomas Paine can write a “pamphlet” (though it may be a video) and get it to the whole planet very cheaply—even less than the cost of the printing and distribution of Paine’s work.
This does bring us back to an earlier media form that is fundamentally harder to control, harder to monetize and harder to predict. When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, he had no idea that it would circulate so quickly and would be read aloud to so many. He did not have a carefully crafted marketing plan with a projected ROI attached. Common Sense was spread, shared and commented on through the social networks of its time because people responded enthusiastically to it and they propelled it forward.
Through this process it fueled an emerging colonial consensus that a new country should be created.
This does not mean that every “pamphlet” today will start a revolution. But it does mean that such creations have a chance to make a large impact even when a media company with large marketing dollars is not behind them.
We can also learn another lesson by looking at “really old” media. Its pervasive existence over many years, in many countries and widely diverse cultures, shows us that when given the opportunity, people will consistently use their social networks to avidly spread information. It is just natural for us to act this way.
The creation of mass media in the 19th century and its acceleration during the 20th century replaced-even suppressed that opportunity. When the social web emerged during the early days of the 21st century, people throughout the world literally jumped at this new (or “really old”) opportunity.
Perhaps the lesson of history is that for human beings, who are inherently social, this is the natural order of things.