The new media can be partially defined by what it is not. We'll start with what we'll call old media. Once upon a time, any given media was more or less physical. For many thousands of years, to hear someone rant about a subject, you would have had to be there to hear them. Some people who had been there may have remembered the event, and passed it along, usually adapted for storytelling. Only later did people develop written languages, and they could get scribes to write their rants down for them, or write them on their own. Then they would argue over the exact meaning of the given rant for centuries.
Even still, you would have to read the original, up to the point where teams of scribes took it upon themselves to copy something out entire. This took time, and then maybe you might have been able to catch a copy of the original rant. These copies unfortunately had a tendency to be lost to time or edited for content over centuries of people looking over each other's shoulders and saying, "Are you really going to leave that in there?" This is how you end up with Genesis saying "He made them man and woman" and then performing a ret-con to explain how Eve got there.
It was only once western society rediscovered the printing press that mass media really got rolling. Of course, along with rolling presses come rolling heads if the local authorities did not share your worldview. The problem of copies, at least in print was somewhat resolved, if you had the time, effort, machinery, ink, and paper, along with intestinal fortitude and strong walls to protect you from critics. At least you didn't need scribes.
The problem of editors and critics with the ability to cut your head off did not go away. In fact, the control of those with the presses frequently marginalized anyone outside of the dominant viewpoint of the time--or the fringe bend of the publisher themselves. In this way, editors have always served as a sort of filter, fulfilling the wishes of their employer, preventing glaring spelling and printing errors, and in the end, having their heads cut off if they allowed the wrong editorial through.
Media as a whole grew even richer over time. Where once people were excited to see the translation of a Greek philosopher's teachers' assistant scribe as retold through the pen of a cynical critic centuries later, and then one could record audio of someone ranting themselves...or more likely someone reciting the classic text. Instead of having to read sheet music and play an instrument--or go to a specific place and time to witness a musical performance, one could simply purchase a copy of the music and listen to it at home.
Recording audio was just one facet of media. Telegraphs carried stories from the frontier to the editor's desks. Not too long afterwards, news could be directly broadcast via radio into people's homes, and eventually right into their automobiles. Still closer in time, full audio and moving pictures transitioned from reels to directly inside people's homes. Even closer, and the channels multiplied into the hundreds and thousands.
Similarly to the scribes and copyists, early recordings were cut individually, meaning the performer had to sing consistently into the horn, and a completely new recording was the result. If the singer was hoarse when that record was cut, then that was what whoever bought it got. Only later could recordings be mass produced/replicated. Until then there was a premium on musicians who could repeatedly and loudly perform the same song hundreds of times, just as once upon a time there was a premium on scribes who could copy page after page after page.
With all these media, there was a cost to produce any content, and physical restraints. With a printing press, you required the press, the building to stick it in, ink and paper, writers, and people to typeset and run the press. Then you needed places to sell or leave newspapers. With a record label you needed musicians, engineers, equipment, blank media, and processed recordings, and then distribution of those records to places where they would be sold.
With a radio station you needed personnel, engineers, equipment, a building, a transmission tower, and with movies and TV you needed people, engineers, cameramen, lighting, caterers, studios, audiences, transmission towers, theaters, and so forth and so on.
If you had physical copies of the media, they had to be stored and archived--or destroyed like many of the first decades of TV and film. More buildings, more people, more work.
These physical aspects--like the problem of angry critics burning your facilities and/or copies of your media--acted as gateways. Only the people devoted to the crafts, or who had managed to convince someone devoted to the craft to let them in, or who had money to burn (or convinced someone with money to burn) could attain that lofty position within a given media, from print to television.
Even if you were all of the above and had resources and skill, there were still people with the power to stop you or curtail you or restrain you. From outright censorship to licensing requirements and ratings systems, even in countries that recognized free speech, media still had filters and gatekeepers, standards and processes. Because of the prohibitive cost of media production, advertising became a consistent side kick to media, providing financing as well as acting as another gatekeeper.
The new media is completely relieved of all these difficulties, or is mostly relieved of them. The barriers to a person writing an article or story, of recording a song or an album, of filming and broadcasting a moment in time have evaporated as computers became more and more powerful, and the world became more interconnected along with them.
Technology has so far managed to put a word processor, recording studio, camera & video editor into millions of people's hands. With technology's consistent increase in power and capability, it has become feasible for many people to become media creators, commentators, reporters, music producers, video producers that otherwise never would have been able to.
In the beginning of the new media, I recall the excitement of early blogs and bloggers realizing that their voice was suddenly broadcast on the same level as any other website, even a website run by a national or international organization. Their opinions suddenly mattered. Blogs began to break news before major news media, and found their commentary influencing and informing the larger dialogue.
However, as time went on, blogs themselves shifted as new media became available online and cheaper to engage in, like pictures and video. From animated .gifs to massive photo archives to video commentary, the zeitgeist shifted to the micro media, and the cult of self. The trend has been increasingly away from the amateur journalist or critic imitating the professionals to the increasingly personal and macro focus of microblogging, better known as social media.
The most obvious example of microblogging would be Twitter; I include MySpace, FaceBook, and Tumblr as gladiators in the microblogging category, where everything is a stream of opinions, news events, memes of the moment, pictures of the personal and hilarious, and everything in between, in miniature chunks. We could call this the tl;dr (too long; didn't read) effect. The more words, the less likely someone over 20 is to actually read it--like this blog post for example.
In this world of new media, everything is old if its from a couple hours ago. Someone famous dies, and millions go to their various social media outlets to tell the world and relate to the moment. They're called social media, because unlike media created for mass consumption, this is really media for one's friends, acquaintances, and random people you have never met but who like your picture. In this way, you are not seeking a national or worldwide audience, but rather the built-in audience of people that already know you.
Also along with this comes the juice that a person gets from seeing people responding to something they've written, snapped a picture of, or shot a video. This juice is addictive, and some people begin seeking the response for the response's sake, or feeling poorly when they do a thing and no one responds.
These activities no longer require an office, or a building to contain the industry, or massive amounts of physical materials and a distribution network. They require a computer that can sit on the floor, or in a bag, or at this point in a device that you slip back in your pants pocket when you're done with it.
Advertising still performs a role, but instead of having a personal relationship with a given media outlet, like a newspaper, radio show, or TV show, advertising online is now ultimately impersonal, a parade of hoped-for clicks and impressions flashing from the sidebar, leveraged against detailed and accurate statistical analysis of every mouse movement and website visited.
In turn, it is that impersonal advertising which has powered companies like Google and enabled them to subsidize massive amounts of computing power--the part that requires buildings, personnel, engineers--so that they can give away services like Gmail (with the constantly increasing memory storage) or YouTube (with the constantly uploaded video content).
Alternatively, you could look at hardware, and see that Apple has created a pretty powerful distribution system for music through their clever enabling of easily played back music files with a slick miniature computer. And all those iPods managed to sell a lot of MacBooks as well, and with each of those being a pretty powerful media creation tool, helped to spark off a whole rounds of people making music, movies, podcasts, and blog posts, with both professionals and amateurs using pretty much the same gear.
The problem with all this power and instant distribution channels, personalized websites, and social media outposts is that all of the gatekeepers that once existed are essentially gone, and with them any accountability, either for content, taste, or quality. While I would not begrudge anyone their #FollowFridays, their Caturdays, or belief that their upvoted political message really matters to the larger world outside their social media outpost, there are problems that I see in new media and its effect on old media.
Along with all of the difficulties of getting a book published, or releasing an album with all the filters and editors had a tendency to minimize the half-hearted, the not-quite ready, the really bad ideas out of the stream. Even making a B movie required convincing someone besides oneself that the plot with the horny nurses infected by an alien plague and programmed to pleasure men was going to A: be able to be filmed in reality and B: that someone besides the writer/producer/director/cameraman/lead actor was actually going to watch it.
The TV studios and networks of yore weren't going to let someone put up a slideshow of their last vacation as an hour long TV special, but YouTube will. The guy that's learning how to play REM covers on a bouzouki probably isn't going to get through the audition for a talent agency, but he can post them up on SoundCloud. The guy with the obtuse political rant that sends in the misspelled letter to the editor about the C.I.A. and alien abductions...well, you get the picture.
The nitty-gritty part is where the shift of new media has affected things like newspapers, record labels, and film studios. With budgets slashed amid a changing demographic with completely different consumption, the old guard are getting decidedly weird, even though they still control the physical products and their distribution, just as the costs for production and distribution are also going through the basement floor.
The effect on journalism has been strange indeed. A person in the right place and time with Twitter can reveal the covert actions of an assassination in progress without even knowing they were breaking the story, like Osama Bin Laden's execution, or many people can coordinate the resistance and toppling of a government in full view via FaceBook, like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
Wikileaks showed that old media is not only a bit scared of the whole speed of information gathering and distribution, but also that the whole being nervous about heads rolling and what advertisers may not like still prevails today. Also that its perfectly alright to reveal the actions of those governments you don't live under, but not the ones that you do.
Still, we now live in a time where if you can write a good press release, and it manages to get through the rather gaping filters still remaining, you stand an excellent chance of simply being taken at your word, and essentially published via paraphrasing under someone else's name. In some cases, the paraphrasing will not occur. The original obligation of a journalist was to investigate a given thing; in many cases now the news is directly inputted by the people who want a bit of information broadcast. Once upon a time, if your business said you had a magic pill that made cars get 1000 miles to the gallon of gas, an intrepid reporter or two would come along and try it out. Then an intrepid editor would yell at them if they didn't prove it to him.
Now, the tendency is to pass along the news item under the assumption that someone else verified the information, if it sounds right, especially if the header and logo are properly formatted. In this way, any given blog or a website or a video can become a primary source of information for a major news outlet, without any verification or fact checking going along with the reposting.
This can and has lead to some interesting situations of lies, untruths, mistakes, or damnable lies. These can, of course, be corrected and edited faster than ever with links to the controversy and mistakes, but we now have a time in which a mistake can be repeated an infinite number of times once originally misquoted. It is impossible to put the djinn back in the bottle.
This problem can be magnified when you consider any given news story can be reposted across outlets in a variety of ways, and then commented on by any number of additional people who may or may not even be aware of the circumstances in the first place. For an impartial sorting device like Google, this can muddy any given event immediately in the incoming flood of information and misinformation mingled together.
So far, the flip to this problem has been that although everyone has always been a critic, not everyone could point out fallacies or misinformation so quickly as today. A given flood of people holding an opinion are able to quickly comment on everything directly, and a trickle out of that flood are actually well informed and can point out errors directly to the media. The majority of the flood is going to be people with a solidified viewpoint, but still, the crowd at large has been remarkably good at pointing out when a major (or minor) error is made, whether or not anyone pays attention to the facts apparently remains up to their viewpoint. The forum makes up their own mind.
This approach has a negative side, which is that if enough people believe an untruth, or an outright lie, it may as well be the truth as far as they are concerned, and there is no one to stop them from having and broadcasting this as reality. This is not a new problem, but but the normality has been for someone trusted to present the given facts/situation, rather than for the crowd to collectively contribute and shrug simultaneously.
For example, the King could make an Edict, and it be read throughout the Kingdom by his Messengers. People could say the King was full of shit collectively, or all agree with the Edict, or kill the Messengers, but whatever they said or did, they knew who it was coming from, i.e. the King. Today, the authenticity of sources is a bit awry, and if the only arbiter is the crowd (or a webmaster), then we begin to rely upon our own judgement as individuals, without trust in anyone.
An example of this at present is Global Warming, or as I like to call it, Global Weirding. I have discovered over years of random internet conversations that many people all over the world hold greatly different opinions on Global Warming and whether or not it exists, but that all of us agree that the weather lately has been really weird. Hence, Global Weirding.
At this point in time there is still a great and storied debate concerning whether or not the Earth is
A: Getting Warmer and
B: Whether its Humanities' Fault--or Not, and
C: Whether or not we Should Do Something about it, or whether we Could Do Something about it, assuming A and or B were valid in the very first place.
In the future, the debate may look quite silly, and people might wonder what took so long to figure something so simple out, but on the other hand there may not be anyone around to understand and comment intelligently on the subject by then.
Although we have a vast amount of unbiased information on the weather with amazingly increasing detail and knowledge base growing along with our technology, the interpretation of that massively growing body of information and data is a sea of controversy and debate, affected by politics, power, money, press, and popular opinion.
As a result, the subject has for many people become subjective, even as they recognize that the seasons where they live don't behave like the seasons they remember. There is a concrete reality we are observing, but depending on what you believe or hope or fear, your interpretation may vary widely from reality.
The problem with the new media is not the increasing speed and storage of information. In a way of looking at it, all media of all types is essentially information. The text of a website, the waveform of an audio recording, the frames of a video. All are information captured in the real world and transmuted into the digital realm. The biggest problem I see isn't even quality or whether or not the world deserves another cute animal video uploaded for the world to watch. The biggest difficulty with the new media is that it is information itself.
Information is power. Its the difference between eating raw grains and baking bread, sucking water from a puddle to your hands to pumping it into a house and sipping it from a cup. Playing a log or playing a guitar. All of you reading this are lucky enough to have been given enough information to be reading these words, which is a tremendous amount of knowledge you've had to take in and absorb just to get you to this point.
And not just this essay, but everything in your world. You may not know how to start a fire, but if you're reading this, you could look that information up and start a fire, or learn about bicycles, or learn how to cook healthy food...whatever you want. For all the lolcats and nyan cats and ceiling cats in the online world, the Internet is a vast storehouse of mankind's thoughts, deeds, and observations available to us all through connections.
The problem with information and our carelessness towards it is information's twin, misinformation. Like information, misinformation can be spread and shared. It can be commented on, believed in, or disbelieved. But it spreads at the same rate and through the same channels. Without knowledge of the Original, there is no way to know what is Counterfeit.
At some point there is a threshold where information and misinformation reach a specific equalization, and become indistinguishable from one another. At that apex, one is left with only one's observations of the moment, and even that personal opinion gets lost within the static maelstrom of a thousand voiced opinions on the same subject of confusion.
It is in those moments when I wonder when I am the original source or when I am simply repeating everything I have ever heard and read and said.
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