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.
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.
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.
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.