Heralded as nothing short of a paradigm shift, the Internet has matured in many ways to feel like its tradition media kin. For all the hyperbole about a new age spawned by new media, much of the old media patterns have bubbled to the surface as the ‘killer apps’ of these new technologies.
It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the goliath companies still hold tremendous sway over how these technologies are rolled into our culture. Though a scrappy start-up may invent the new gizmo du jour, it’s the big corporations with the established money-making business models that define who ultimately gets bought up, rolled up, and widely distributed. Not always of course, but much of the time. No paradigm shift there.
I am in no way saying the Internet, web and Web 2.0 have not had a major impact on the way we do almost everything. I am however, interested in what I see as old-media applications assuming dominant roles in new media. File it under unintended outcomes in technology, but here’s what I mean…
Webpages as newspapers – In the earliest days of the commercial web we were promised a new way to interact with information. Information theorists went on an on about the power of this interactive media and the amazing things it could unlock.
What we got was digital pulp.
Literally web pages took on the form of newspaper and magazine articles and advertising. Most still do today. Interactivity remains largely limited to hyperlinks and banner ads. Since then the ads have become more invasive and we’ve added video embeds to the print format. Admittedly, occasional use of Flash and other technologies allows for interactive applications and charts which provide additional levels of information. Also acknowledged is the added impact of commenting and rating. The ivory towers of content creation have been taken down a peg or two for sure. However its worth noting that this hasn’t resulted in more great content, just more content.
Anyhow, 20 years into its life the vast majority of web content is still text and still littered with print-ads (even if they’re now ‘flash banners’ that annoy us more creatively). In fact, a lot of the design trends emerging from Web 2.0 harken back to the clean, open, utilitarianism of the print media. Those Flashed-out, type-hurricane, multi-media sound extravaganzas are usually reserved for product advertising and, in that sense, the sites feel a lot like clickable TV commercials.
The Internet as TV antannae – From Apple TV to YouTube to Hulu the Internet is increasingle being used as a distribution pipe for linear programming. This is really no different than the rabbit ears on the old black and white in grandma’s house. Curiously, it is linear narrative, not interactive programming, that is the growing expression of online video content. In an age where the technology exists for interactive video engagement more people choose the tried and true click and watch products. Now we’re talking about renting movies and playing them on our TV through the Internet. This is distribution pure and simple.
Twitter As lecturne (soap box, megaphone, take your pick) – Originally Twitter asked us to ‘answer one simple question… what are you doing?’ It was subsequently panned for the banality of the tweets (‘drinking coffee and reading.’). Then people started trying to make business of it. And what model did they go for? Broadcast. Today the trend is to collect followers like audiences and broadcast to them. Increasingly, these are people we don’t know and often have never met (online or off). That’s no more a conversation than the dude on the soapbox with a megaphone chanting ‘No new taxes’. If I follow 6,000 people how many tweets am I truly aware of (and honestly, now, how many did I choose to follow because I’m interested in them?) Conversely, if I have 6,000 followers how many of them are truly people I know (or who actually follow me because they’re interested in what I have to say)?
Bloggers as spokepeople – The ethos of blogging was originally ‘for the people, by the people’. In theory, bloggers, without the ties to corporate sponsors or media conglomerates could speak their minds and provide honest opinions and commentary (even if they weren’t always fact-checked truths). It didn’t take long for old business concepts to find their way into blogging too. Some bloggers became brands unto themselves and with branding also became marketing tools. Now we see the beginnings of a backlash as both the accuracy and authenticity of a blogger’s words are under ever increasing scrutiny. The line between professional journalist and blogger is getting softer and while most people focus on the democratic aspects of this, there is a flip side which has to do with buying bloggers to talk about you which is no more ‘authentic’ than placing an ad about yourself.
Online communities as offline communities – It’s conventional wisdom that the people we engage with online are people we know offline. For all the promise of social media letting us broaden our sphere of acquaintances, most of us use it to stay in touch with people we already know or knew in the past.
The other predominant of social networks is akin to the Twitter-cast model - friend collecting in an effort at either become a broadcasting brand or for some other means of self promotion.
What we don’t see as much is evidence of people taking advantage of the dreamy-eyed vision of meeting people from far away places that we’d never have known without the miracles of this technology. There isn’t a lot of that going on except on the dating sites.
…Please note, I am not judging these popular applications of new technologies as good or bad. They simply are what they are. If anything, I am interested as to why for all their potential to be something else, the prevailing uses have more in common with previous media models than with the ’paradigm shifting’ revolutionary uses that make the executive summaries of funding decks.
This all came up as I was reading this article. My questions is; If Interactive media is being used in traditional ways, then isn’t all this talk of ‘interactive media’ taking over ‘traditional media’ just sort of semantics? Isn’t it all evolving media?
For all the talk of revolution our culture tends to drag its feet in adopting change. The first car was called a ‘horseless carriage’ because that frame of reference was critical in making the technology accessible.
When we stop looking at new media as new or special or a holy grail or a ‘paradigm shift’ and start looking at it as simply the evolution of older media then we can focus on how people are using it now.
I’ll say it again… focus on people… not the technologies they use. What is the nature and context of the lives of people today. The technology surely influences this, but so does geography, age, diet, education, religious upbringing and dozens of other factors.
Yet businesses time and again in dealing with people choose to focus on the new technologies while so much evidence exists that people like using these new technologies is very old ways. There’s a big ‘why’ to be investigated there. Who knows what useful insights exist behind that inquiry.