January 12th, 2006

Bloggers Are So Wrong About Media

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There is so much wrong with the blogger view that the monoliths of old media will be brought down and consumers will bask in the glory of infinite media choice — discussing, creating, tagging, rating (meta-ing) each other’s content in one big solipsistic frenzy. Everyone can create media. Everyone controls their own media. Everyone is media. Everything is conversation. Complete entropy. Complete harmony.

Please.

(UPDATE: Keep reading the original post, but please also see the update at the end.)

Technology has brought about radical change, but the one thing that can and never will change is human nature — that’s the wild card that the digital cognoscenti are forgetting.

In the latest round, Jon Fine in his BW column suggests that Old Media can push back against Google by walling off their content. Jeff Jarvis argues that this would be “stupid” because:

Google is everyone’s front page. And, yes, that can make life difficult. Google kills brands; Google commodifies everything.

This is so completely out of touch with the average person’s media consumption habits, and with basic human nature. (As out of touch as the people who are still skeptical that anyone would click on a Google ad — or Bush 41 before he discovered the supermarket scanner — bloggers need to get out and talk to some people who shop at Walmart, i.e. almost everyone.) It assumes that the average person knows exactly what they want and when they want it, and that they use Google to hone in on it, like a seagull diving at the ocean to snag a fish.

But the truth is that most people are drowning in an ocean of infinite media (the blogosphere being the perfect storm). Even the bloggers are drowning. Read Bill Burnham’s 5-step program for people who subscribe to so many RSS feeds they don’t have time to go to the bathroom. He even coins a phrase for it: Feed Overload Syndrome.

Here’s why the open-web, Web 2.0, infinite media theory goes against human nature — this is from the Publisher’s Weekly review of The Paradox of Choice:

Like Thoreau and the band Devo, psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis, providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist. The conclusions Schwartz draws will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through 900 eerily similar channels of cable television only to find that nothing good is on. Whether choosing a health-care plan, choosing a college class or even buying a pair of jeans, Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us.

Jon is right. There is a backlash coming. But not from Big Old Media. It’s coming from the consumer, who is about to rebel against the overabundance of media.

Let’s say I’m the average person who wants to see what blogs are all about. I’m interested in health and wellness. Where do I go to find the best blogs on this topic? Technorati? Even in the very unlikely event I’ve heard of Technorati (the name is so off putting), a search of Health and Wellness produces a list of random blog posts, including many in Asian languages. (Did you know there is an entire blog about thrush?) I’m going to give up Prevention magazine for this?

It’s not the democratic web. It’s the anarchic web.

Last night, my wife asked me, What is RSS? She’s a highly-educated, board-certified pediatrician, who spends about as much time as the average person surfing the web. And the only reason she asked is because she saw it on my blog! Bloggers and everyone else frothing over RSS are living in a hall of mirrors — you can’t see the average person.

How long has RSS been around? Three years? Five years? And still the adoption rate is only about 5%. For the average person, the ability to subscribe to an infinite number of content sources is not a panacea. It’s punishment.

Granted, the business models of Old Media are coming apart at the seams. “Static media” won’t survive. But don’t count out the Old Media brands just yet. There’s hope for Disney, Wall Street Journal, and maybe even Lady’s Home Journal.

People want a filter. They want someone to tell them what’s important, what matters. They don’t have the energy or the time or the wherewithal to figure it out themselves. People are willing to sacrifice some freedom to live (what they perceive to be) a comfortable existence. (How else could Bush have gotten reelected?) “Walled gardens” online may well be at risk, as Bill Burnham argues, but consumers may not be ready to exit Eden — at least there’s the illusion that you can trust what you find.

There’s a reason why most people find the accuracy of Wikipedia so astonishing. They can’t fathom that throwing open control to the masses doesn’t lead to chaos. The general public doesn’t really trust itself. There’s a reason why the “Founding Fathers,” with all their democratic zeal, didn’t make the president electable by popular vote (remember, Bush won the popular vote in 2004). There’s reason why when people need surgery they don’t invite all their friends over and hand out scalpels.

If the Old Media brands don’t survive, a new hegemony will take it’s place. (After all, Google is the #3 most trusted source of content on the Web, even though they don’t make any.)

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Marx thought he was on to something, but he had people all wrong.

If there really is a Matrix, we’ll never figure it out.

UPDATE:
I suppose I asked for it when I chose such an “in your face” title — but given that this post has gotten so much more attention than my more sober posts, it proves the rule that the blogosphere thrives on controversy (and perhaps enjoys tearing down more than building up, although it’s very good at both). If I had it to do again, I might chose a more polite, less extreme title, but then I probably wouldn’t get as much attention. (My more conciliatory posts certainly haven’t gotten this kind of attention; I’m much more eager for feedback on this one: Media Should Start With Conversation, Then Synthesis.)

That said, this “rant” is born out of genuine frustration with my own personal experience as a consumer of new media and with the lack of concern that many in the blogosphere have for the risk of frustration and backlash (and, granted, far from everyone — I have no illusion that all bloggers hold the view I’m arguing against). Anyone who thinks that this extreme view of the future of media does not exist out there should spend some more time surfing around. (The touchiness at this obvious stereotype perhaps proves there is a grain of truth — if I titled a post “All Bloggers Are Ugly and Smell Bad” everyone would have ignored it as an obvious absurdity.)

As to the substance of the argument, it is NOT in support of Old Media (I’m amazed at the eagerness to stereotype me as a defender of Old Media based on where I work — bloggers should watch out for that glass house). I believe, along with the rest of the blogosphere, that Old Media economics are coming apart at the seams and that complacency is not an option. And I believe that the evolution in media brought about by technology will ultimately be a very good thing. Media needs to change, and I support the blogosphere as an effective agent of change (otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging!).

But I also believe that many in the blogosphere are wrong that the future of media will be the online version of communism. As an agent of change, the blogosphere needs to be careful that it doesn’t turn off the individuals that it is championing. I’m worried about how people will navigate the proliferation of new media and new voices — I personally find it quite overwhelming. Which doesn’t mean we should cling to the old model. But the new model needs to give some thought to its “user-friendliness.” Citizen journalism is wonderful, but to truly serve the citizens, it needs to be navigable and consumable by the average person.

I think the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. In another post I lay out a case for how New Media and Old Media can work together and achieve (heaven help us) synergy.

  • Frank, you may be privy to "the truth," but all I have is my opinion. That's how constructive debate works. You give your opinion. I give mine. And maybe, just maybe, we might get somewhere.

  • Frank Harland

    Opinions opinions. All everyone is giving are opinions. The problem is solved when you do not strive for mass attention. If you would reach millions with your journalistic opinion would you be able to read all the reactions?
    You have a point but as Sgt. Shutup used to say: Oh dear, how sad... never mind.

  • Elliott, I am by no means advocating against the evolution of new models -- I'm using one right now. I completely agree that Old Media is too unilateral. I just think that as we ride the new media wave we need to be wary of the consequences for the average media consumer. I'm fully in favor of an open marketplace of content -- I just think New Media has not spent enough time thinking about the best way to help consumers navigate it. I'm actually not worried that New Media will find innovative ways to monetize their value -- I just hope the average person will come along for the ride.

  • Elliott Breece

    “Old Media” has hindered itself by avoiding real innovation. Seriously considering new models for distribution wouldn’t, as Scoot suggest, amount to “Communism” but rather create new revenue streams. “Old media” has to at some point make some concessions as does the blogosphere. Old Media is too unilateral. The “we write it; you buy it” model for publishing is on its last leg. However, blogs, wikis, bitpass (digital content distribution) and the like will die before they reach maturity if they don’t find a way to monetize content in a way that makes sense and cents. So far no one has done this short of the itunes music store.

  • Alex, first, most sites -- blogs and mainstream media -- still use the term "RSS" -- as they long as they do, it matters a whole lot whether people know what that is!

    If six or seven years ago someone handed you a mobile phone and told you it was a "peripatetic communications facilitator," you would have said, huh? Fortunately, the creators of the technology called it a phone. It doesn't matter how the technology works. But it sure matters whether people know what they are using and what it does.

    As to the point I was trying to make, I'm suffering from RSS feed overload, and I'm sure many others are too. There has to be some filtering, not just a clarion call to subscribe. That's the risk of RSS' simplicity (which IE7 will only exacerbate) -- if people OD on RSS subscriptions, it will start to feel like clutter and they'll stop using it, much to the detriment of all.

    And it's condescending to assume that the majority of people don't know what RSS is and don't care. People are smart enough to notice the term "RSS" on every site -- the Yahoo research proves they don't know what it means, but I bet most of them are wondering.

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