Media no more

We are headed into the post-media age.

When you think about it, media are the artificial inventions of their means of distribution: Books begat authors; fast and cheap presses enabled reporters and press barons; TV bore anchors. But there is nothing to say that these media are preordained as the best methods of sharing knowledge and getting things done in society. They were the convenient ways. Emphasis on the past tense.

The natural means of interaction and of sharing information is, of course, conversation, through the ability to ask and answer questions, to impart and collect knowledge. I’m not one to make allusions to primitive life as if that describes the natural state of man, but I will in this case: When you listened to the tribe storyteller, you could remix before passing on; when you heard from the town crier, you could stick your head out the window and ask for details; when you set the price of a good or service, you got to haggle with the seller. This is why Socrates said that education is a conversation, and why Luther said that prayer is a conversation, and why Cluetrain says that markets are conversations, and why I say that news is a conversation. That is the natural order of things.

Media changed that. Media made society one-way.

But now the internet drains the one-way pipes of media and pours us all in the same pond together. The internet enables conversation.

The internet is not a medium. It is the thing that challenges media.

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What got me thinking about this Fred Wilson — who, oddly, often acts as my muse — marveling marveled that journalists like Walt Mossberg and Glenn Fleischman were commenting on his blog posts about what they’d written. Now that’s conversation.

But there’s something more happening here. We keep hearing that blogs and the internet are media. But is Fred’s blog media? Or is it a representation of him? Is Fred publishing? Or is Fred — are Fred and Walt and Glenn — just talking?

The old definitions — and limitations — of media are becoming irrelevant. And that’s what made me see that we are using our new tools to recapture the converesation. We are entering the post-media era.

:::::

The point is that the closer you can get to a conversation — the farther you can get from one-way isolation — the more successful you will be at anything you try to do in society: gathering news, making products, selling products, selling services, getting elected, enacting policy, teaching….

That is the point that Cluetrain made so well about markets. That is the point that I am struggling to figure out how to make about media and more here and in the book I’m (kind of) starting to work on.

Transparency… open-source… distributed data… aggregation… search… links… All of these enable the conversation. None of these are characteristics of media as we have known them.

This revolution is not about changing media. It is about moving beyond media.

:::::

What I’m saying pertains to factual pursuits, to nonfiction — news, reference, shopping, religion, politics … in short: life.

But I do not think this pertains to fiction. When interactive media became possible, many prognosticators told us with no doubt that before we knew it, we would be creating our own endings for movies. That’s absurd, always was. I don’t want to make up my own ending to a book or movie; I want to be entertained and surprised. I’m paying for the other guy to do the work. From artists, I want art. And art is not a conversation, it is a creation.

So media will not die. Novels and dramas and comedies will continue flowing out of those one-way pipes.

But for the rest of our interactions and transactions — getting the news, learning a subject, making a purchase — conversation will beat media every time. That is the lesson for journalists, marketers, executives, politicians: The closer you get to rejoining the conversation, to looking your public in the eye, the more successful you will be. Think past mass, beyond media.

:::::::::::

ON FICTION AND PRINT: Is it a coincidence that this weekend, we have The New York Times Book Review arguing, via V.S. Naipul, that the age of fiction is over? Now is the nonfiction moment. Rachel Donadio writes:

The evidence is plain: space for fiction in general-interest high-circulation publications is shrinking. But what exactly is driving the trend? Are these magazines responding to a cultural reality or creating one? Is fiction no longer essential? …

”We’re in a dark cultural moment. I think people seem to feel more comfortable with nonfiction,” said Adrienne Miller, a novelist and the literary editor of Esquire. ”The tragic theme here is that literary fiction has very limited cultural currency now. Fewer and fewer people seem to believe fiction is still essential for our emotional and intellectual survival.”

Like painting, the novel isn’t dead; it just isn’t as central to the culture as it once was. In our current infotainment era, in which the line between truth and ”truth” is growing ever more blurry, readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one.

Well, I don’t know that “compelling” is the word. Perhaps “credible.” Or “relevant.” Or “meaningful.” Or “accurate.”

:::::

Back in the very first week of this blog, a week after 9/11, I wrote:

My copy of Jonathan Franzen’s novel was filled with pulverized World Trade Center when I ran away; I bought a new copy but can’t bring myself to pick it up.

Donadio writes about 9/11 in this context, too.

Fiction may still be one escape of choice — along with television and movies and video games and iPods — but when it comes to illuminating today’s world most vividly, nonfiction is winning. Not for nothing has ”The 9/11 Commission Report,” a government document that reads like a thriller, sold more than a million copies….

If, as Naipaul argues, fiction is no longer adequate to make sense of the world, then it’s understandable why magazines and readers turn to nonfiction. As a rule, novelists shouldn’t become editorialists, but it’s safe to say no novels have yet engaged with the post-Sept. 11 era in any meaningful way.

Or worse, the fictionalists, the entertainers, are distorting truth. This is why I dread Oliver Stone making the first 9/11 movie; I don’t trust truth in his hands.

So this shift is about more than technology. It is also about changing times, changing culture. About nine months after 9/11, I started a much longer post with this:

Hereabouts, we all have been spending a lot of pixels ‘n’ bits debating the impact weblogs have (or do not have) on news media: newspapers mainly, and also magazines and TV.

But I am coming to believe that weblogs and the Web may have a greater impact on books.

My own relationship to books has changed since September 11. Part of the reason for this is simply the impact of the day itself. Since then, I have not had much patience for self-indulgent writers showing off their petty emotions and precious observations…. I suppose I just don’t have enough sympathy left over for made-up pain and fear when I saw too much real pain and fear that day.

Weblogs have also had an impact on my view of books. Since I started writing this weblog a week after 9.11 and since I became addicted to reading the weblogs of so many good writers in this fairly new medium, I find that I have less patience for authors in the oldest medium. I get impatient with books that drag themselves out to justify book length and the book deal….

I also get impatient with books that are stale by the time they come out, as so many have to be simply because the process of publishing — pitch to agent to editor to committee to writing to editing to production to marketing to distribution — takes so long (and costs so much) that freshness is impossible.

And oddly, books exhaust me more now. Maybe the Web shortened my attention span. But I don’t think so. It’s a value judgment — about the value of my time. On many an evening, I look at a book I should read, a book I want to read; it seems to stare at me, shaming me like an unread pile of old New Yorkers. Then I look at my laptop. Book/blogs? Book/blogs? I weigh the choice and more often than not, blogs win.

I went on to say that I still love books. And then I went on to urge my readers to read William Langewiesche’s magazine-reports-cum-book about 9/11, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. It’s that fiction v. nonfiction tension again: Franzen disturbed me with his self-indulgence; Langewiesche moved me with his reporting. Nonfiction won.

:::::

I have a different relationship to books now and I bet I’m not alone. The other day, a colleague of mine and I mutually confessed that we’re not reading books much these days.

So why am I trying to write one? I’m not sure. Like Joi Ito with his op-ed, I do want to experiment with making a book the product of a conversation (that’s why I’m blogging about these things here). And I do have more mundane and selfish reasons: ego, money (maybe), and academic cred. It’s about finally fulfilling a career-long dream to write a book because I do respect the form. We all stand in awe — not always respect, but often in awe — at the power of old media. We want to write books and call into radio shows and be on TV and get our names in the papers. We want to be famous, damnit. We want to be heard. And we still live by the old power law; we think that being heard means being big.

We like big. But the world is getting smaller.

The blockbuster economy is dying [beware: that's a huge but worthwhile PowerPoint link] — and with it the media blockbusters support. It won’t happen overnight, certainly. It won’t happen entirely.

There will always be major events for which mass production and broadcast are the most efficient means of sharing: See Mark Cuban arguing that the internet will never replace broadcast, though I’d say he’s missing the point: The internet will make broadcast smaller.
There will always be celebrities. There will always be the moments — the Harry Potters and SuperBowls and American Idols — that will stick their heads up above the crowd and make it big.

But bit by bit, two-way will get bigger and one-way smaller. Conversation will grow. Media will shrink. Welcome to the post-media world.

  • http://billkosloskymd.typepad.com/wirelessdoc/ Bill K.

    Appropos of your talk about the “post-media world,” we hear about the death of Peter Jennings from lung cancer.

    I was listening to Matt Drudge at the beginning of his radio show where he was excoriating those who were posting stories about what he thought then were false reports of Jennings death. When he found out the truth when it was announced by ABC, he began a moving tribute to this on-air journalist.

    Media is certainly different now, and sometimes we’re too quick to dismiss the disparate voices on the Web. But we’re moving away from relying on the “official” news being presented and validated with Cronkite-like authority from the major media.

  • http://blog.spartac.us/ Brian O’Connell

    Jeff, lots of interesting thoughts there. But I think the central idea in the first section is a bit off. We’re not moving into a post-media age, but rather one where communications media are omnipresent.

    The internet is after all a medium too. There’s this huge, elaborate thing between any two people who are communicating on it. Media aren’t the invention of the means of distribution- they are, by definition, the means of distribution.

    What’s changed is the cost and ease of becoming a distributor, to the extent that it’s no longer useful to even have the category “distributor”. Everyone can do it. So technology has taken us from a highly restricted, one-way system of communication to one that much more closely resembles pre-technological conversation.

    It’s the democratization of mass communication that’s central, I think. Media for everyone, not the end of media.

    Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t said anything that you’re not aware of. I just don’t think the “end of media” idea is the right way to frame this.

  • Jim

    Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. I’m not sure of the source of this. I can’t remember how I remembered it. It just popped into my head. I’ll look it up and get back with the result shortly.

  • Jim

    Blogs are competitive. The ethical will thrive, the unethical will go into the abyss.

    The Center for Economic and Social Justice. Code of Ethics
    2. Competition of Ideas. Nobody has a monopoly on the Truth. Resist the feeling that your ego or dignity is being attacked if others severely challenge the ideas you bring to the table. Ideas are meant to be challenged, so that bad or defective ideas can be replaced with better ideas that will advance Truth, Love and Justice for the good of all. Challenge will also sharpen our ability to communicate our ideas.

  • Dave F

    Books did not beget authors: they used illuminated manuscripts, cave walls, papyrus and other means to convey their musings in the form of writing; and the oral narrative radition is where authorship comes from. Nor did newspapers etc beget journalists. We had town criers and chroniclers (see above).

    The medium may be the message; it is not the author.

  • barbara reed

    NOT FOR PUBLICATION

    Jeff Jarvis, please contact me; I would like you to speak at Rutgers.

    barbara reed
    732/390-9124

  • SillyMillie

    Thank you for addressing this. More please.

  • http://kenwheaton.blogspot.com ken

    As far as fiction and/or movies that haven’t dealt with 9/11 in a substantial way, I’d say it has nothing to do with lack of writers tackling the subject matter, but everything to do with chickenshit publishers and producers who are mailing out the “this isn’t right for us at this time” rejections slips as we speak. I haven’t tackled any of this, so this isn’t a case of sour grapes. But I can imagine.

    The publishing houses are very simliar to Hollywood (no surprise since they’re all owned by the same people) in that they keep pumping out great scads of mass-appeal crappy fiction (which sells quite briskly, thank you), some highly overrated mid-level stuff (Franzen) and, yes, plenty of good stuff. More fiction books are published now than ever.

    Yes, short story space in magazines has all but dried up, but that’s a totally different medium. The short story may be close to death, but that’s a death that had been going on before the Interwebs came on to the scene.

    (Also, if you look at some of the reaction to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you can see that some reviewers who were in New York at the time of 9/11 feel that “their” 9/11 has been co-opted. Case in point: http://nypress.com/18/15/news&columns/harrysiegel.cfm )

  • http://lovehopesexdreams.blogspot.com Tish G

    Before 9/11, more along the time of the end of the 20tht century, The NYTimes had a piece in the book review section on the boom in memoir, and the reason for this being that we were at the end of a century, people were trying to create a record of the end of one era and the beginning of another…

    yadda…yadda…yadda…

    The irrelevance of fiction didn’t necessarily start at 9/11. It started with the push of memoir that happened at the end of the 20th century. As memoir bloomed, fiction writers began to extrapolate on the old adage of “write what you know” by making their works more confessional, emotive and therapeutic for the authors. This has resulted in a boom in fiction that is neither uplifiting nor gratifiying, that focuses on the main character’s child abuse or mental illness or familial dysfunction, which most book reviewers are quick to point out as if these are the main selling points to the books.

    Perhaps they are, as the prose in most fiction isn’t all that great.

    I would rather read the well-crafted real-life story of someone who survived a tough life, a book like “Angela’s Ashes,” not the re-hashed, insincere fictionalizations of real life that’s rolling around in the fiction isles these days–so perhaps I’m a bit in agreement with you, Jeff. Sadly, there are few that can write like Frank McCourt–even with all the MFA’s out there, there is more emphasis on emoting and exorcising in fiction than on the craft of writing. Or at least it appears that way from the products that are hitting the shelves.

    Perhaps this is the greater appeal of non-fiction. If fiction is to survive as a literary form, it has to become art again–the craft has to become superior to its current emotive and therapeutic nature. Yet given, as Rich states about the climate of “infotainment,” there’s probably going to have to be a cultural shift before the novel becomes central to our culture again.

    I doubt blogs will effect that. But blogs can work to give us a sense of participation in the medium of infotaiment. When we vent our own strum und drang aren’t we kind of like “The Bachelorette” or “Survivor”? Just a thought….

  • http://www.beatcanvas.com Brett Rogers

    I read mostly non-fiction these days (Whole New Mind, Wisdom of Crowds, Lost Art of Listening – current reads). Non-fiction holds sway because it’s my education. Entertainment by escape is less important than the entertainment of personal growth. We’re all on the roller coaster ride of a new world, and we’re all scrambling to find our place in it. We’re drinking from the firehose of massive change. Non-fiction helps our orientation; I don’t think fiction does. But for this reason I think non-fiction books are more important than ever. I’m reading more, not less, both online and offline.

  • http://www.fiddleandburn.com Jason Pomerantz

    I agree that fiction doesn’t seem all that vital these days compared to non-fiction. I think part of the problem is fiction writers have not, in general, sufficiently embraced the power of digital technology.

    People are busy and we all spend more and more time in front of screens. But fiction, as it is usually written, doesn’t go down well in electronic form. That doesn’t mean it can’t be, just that not many writers have tried to design stories, from the ground up, to be presented that way.

    What would fiction designed for the on-line world be like? It would almost certainly be serialized. Presented in very short blocks, each intended to be read in minutes. It would use story arcs for the long form – that is, self-contained tales, told over weeks or months, with clear jumping on points for new readers. Individual installments would be available in RSS.

    My own efforts along these lines can be found at http://www.fiddleandburn.com/blog. There’s a vibrant discussion going on about the theory and practice of on-line fiction at http://www.blogfic.com. I don’t think I, or any other on-line writer I’m aware of, has quite gotten it right yet, but we’re trying!

    Don’t write fiction off yet. It just has to join the twenty –first century.

    Jason Pomerantz

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Blogs can’t replace news gathering. Only the big media companies have the resources to do investigative reporting. The fact that this has almost become a lost art in the US does not diminish its importance.

    For the present most blogs are commentaries not primary sources. This may make for interesting reading and participation, but doesn’t replace the watchdog role that the press has had since the invention of the broadside.

    I think the shrinking of the role of news gathering is one of the reasons that scandals like Enron get as large as they do before they are exposed. Where are the reporters digging through government reports or even pending legislation?

  • http://www.onehandedeconomist.com Timothy

    Just to note, I think this post is far too short. [/sarcasm]

  • Jim Dermitt

    “Blogs can’t replace news gathering.” I totally agree. Go look at any newsblog and you will see why. The most they can do is maybe expand the letters to the editors section on the editorial page of a newspaper. Now people can spend an hour a day reading letters to the editor, instead of the standard five minutes it now takes. Even the letters to the editor need to be read by an editor. Real reporting is a lot of work, which is why so few people want to do it. Blogging is much easier. If you do it right, you end up with some enemies and others who won’t talk to you. Bloggers seem to try to be pleasing everybody in order to win people over so they will get traffic to their blogs, so the information isn’t original but is based on what is popular. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t worry about circulation or distribution. There is a department for that. A great newspaper reporter doesn’t worry about what is popular or being popular. They just stick with the facts, like a detective. A news blogger tries to shape the facts to make the story seem more original than the story was before the blogger chopped it up and turned it into sausage links.

  • Jim Dermitt

    Blogging: The News Abyss
    2020 and everybody is a reporter. There are 100 blogs a second being generated.

  • http://tomgrey.motime.com Tom Grey – Liberty Dad

    Harry Potter is actually very relevant:
    Death Eaters are quite like Islamofascists, with Diagon Alley a new society of Fear. Media Bias is clear and oppressive in Book #4, and then again in #5 (not much in #6). In #6 Minister Fudge is ineffective, as is the whole Ministry — image over substance.

  • http://lenslinger.blogspot.com Lenslinger

    Great piece, Jeff. Forgive me, but your thoughts spurred some of my own and I felt compelled to blog about them (http://lenslinger.blogspot.com/2005/08/media-no-more-maybe.html). Funny how this interweb thingie works…

  • db

    Speaking of non-fiction that reads better than fiction …

    On Phil Carter’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of Sean Naylor’s book, “Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda” (for executive summary, I refer you to Phil Carter’s review.

    Even if you think you know how the story plays out, this book is as gripping a page-turner as anything Tom Clancy ever produced.

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com Jersey Exile

    ’We’re in a dark cultural moment. I think people seem to feel more comfortable with nonfiction,’’ said Adrienne Miller, a novelist and the literary editor of Esquire.

    What a huge steaming crock of shit. I didn’t see people lining up at bookstores just before midnight in order to buy Thomas Friedman’s latest, whereas J.K. Rowling seems capable of keeping both children and adults riveted to 500+ page bookstops of fiction.

    No, what V.S. Naipul and Miller are trying to say is that fiction is no longer their exclusive domain. Fiction, like everything else, has metastasized into the culture at-large. Fiction is dead? Tell that to millions of video-gamers who immerse themselves into increasingly complex fictional worlds (narrative-rich “role playing games”are consistently the best-selling video game titles). Tell that to online websites filled to bursting with original short stories, novellas, and novels written by people frustrated with the pretentiousness of the print world’s gatekeepers. Tell that to J.K. Rowling, who’s now richer than the British Royal family for doing nothing more than telling stories.

    Hell, go tell HBO that fiction is dead and watch them laugh their asses off.

    This self-proclaimed “death of fiction” is as trite and meaningless a meme as was the much-ballyhooed “death of irony” shortly after September 11th. Maybe Miller and Naipul aren’t selling like they used to, but I can assure you that the need for fictional narrative is something that won’t be going away anytime soon, no matter how dark our “cultural moment” — after all, that the two greatest stories of all time — the Iliad and Odyssey — were composed by Homer during Greece’s Dark Age!

    (Oh, and FYI: On Barnes’ & Nobles Top 100 Bestsellers, 4 of the Top Ten are works of fiction. America must not have gotten the message that fiction was dead.)

  • http://lovehopesexdreams.blogspot.com Tish G

    Hmmm…that must be why I see more adults reading Harry Potter books than I do the latest pithy manifest from The McSweeny’s Boys….

  • Jim Dermitt

    Stardate 41263.1: The Enterprise is ordered to participate in search engine modification tests conducted by the arrogant Woogler and his mysterious companion, the WordBoss, but only when the news is stranded in a dimension where thoughts become reality does the crew realize that Wooglers experiments were not actually under his control.

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  • http://norgatemind.blogspot.com Richard Hamilton

    Good reflections. Thanks for the insights.

    As with a previous post, I’d quibble with you on the idea of post-media. The Internet is a medium and it imposes its own constraints. To take two that are obvious, the blogsphere is closed to anyone who is not literate and does not own a computer. More subtly, it is not open to people in cultures where letting it all hang out on a public forum is OK. In other words, privilege, money and culture can still shape the message, even if no one owns the media.

    I don’t know whether any of this controverts your overall point about escaping from the single-voice authority of traditional media — but it I think it at least tempers your more enthusiastic embrace of the “openness” of the Internet. Much more open, I agree, more pluralistic and inclusive, but we’re not all in this pond yet and there are a lot of cultures and sub-cultures that may never feel comfortable swimming in these waters.

    You also make a distinction between art and conversation, as if they were mutually exclusive. A lot of art is one-way in the way it is distributed, but that doesn’t make it either non-interactive or non-conversational.

    The most obvious art form that is clearly conversational is jazz. And, perhaps something to reflect on at greater length — doesn’t the blog have the same kind of structure as a kind of extended set of riffs on a common theme? Perhaps your dislike of fictional monologues and preference for the blogsphere is similar to the way some people like the improvisational character of jazz over the composer’s monologue? But in any case, musical performance always has the character of a conversation, both between the musicians and between the musicians and the audience. It is more obvious in jazz but not restricted to it.

    Even in less obviously conversational art forms, such as writing or painting, there is a tremendous amount of conversation going on. Any study of art history will reveal an ongoing dialogue, often inter-generationally as painters or writers respond to, emulate, differ with, and improvise on the works of other artists.

    My suspicion is that human culture will always be, at its root, a conversation — even when power and money try to shout everyone down. Is the blogsphere a radical departure or simply a new affirmation and rediscovery of this basic truth?

  • Richard

    Truth has been outsourced.

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  • http://drug2006.com/blog.htm whales

    For the present most blogs are commentaries not primary sources. This may make for interesting reading and participation, but doesn’t replace the watchdog role that the press has had since the invention of the broadside.

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  • Elliott

    Good insight into the Post 9/11 Media Coverage.

    I have been searching the internet for days about theories on the very scarcely spoken about cange in the broadcast fiction after the horrific 9/11 events. The old styles of Amercian TV Series have now died out, with the last of them being Sex in The City and Friends. Both of these series show America’s and American’s naivity and vulnerability, in a way that is not serious and rather passive. Let’s face it, these were the TV Programmes that everyone in America, and most of the Western Culture viewed or knows about.

    Now, Post 9/11, there is none to my knowledge of new programmes that show American’s is a bad spotlight in a way that Friends, Sex in the City etc used to do. The new ‘post-9/11′ programmes now include LOST, which shows mostly Americans surviving amongst other cultures, including a ex-Iraqi soldier, a Chinese couple (one partner whom only speaks Chinese) and an English Rockstar who happens to be a heroin addict. It could be said that the other cultures are shown to be less important to those American characters, but that is a whole new topic. The TV Programme basically has an underlying subject of Americans co-operating with other cultures and themselves to find a way off the island or to survive.

    In conclusion, The Post-9/11 Theory is shown in American TV Programmes and The age of Sitcom’s such as Friends as died out with the tagic events of Spetember the 11th 2001.

  • Bo Lindholm

    It Beats Me How

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