23 October, 2009

It’s not about the media, it is about the Public

It goes far beyond a change in technology. It is a paradigm shift.

Sergio Abranches

The audience has changed. It used to be a population of readers, mostly passive. Now it is a community of active information consumers, and they like it customized. Most read, aggregate, and add information on their own. Our world has changed.

This new treatment of the information one can get from multiple sources, through a multiplicity of media, even affects the frequency of comments on stories on blogs or journalistic sites. People will repeat, react, rephrase, review, remake on Twitter, Facebook or other social media, more frequently than on the comments window.

Maybe it is time we invert McLuhan’s phrase, “the media is the message.” Today, the message is shaping the media. The message is the media.

Think about Twitter: at the beginning it was nothing more than a different SMS. A 140 character media to convey rather simple, personal, or social messages. Users turned it into a powerful messaging device, a carrier of news and ideas. The ongoing conversation about the future of news is an outstanding example, but Twitter covers almost every possible area of interest with a mix of news, memes, opinion and research, all that in 140 characters plus the LINKS plus RT retwitting plus @reply.

This formula was concocted by active users exploring the possibilities and limits of the media, to spread the message. They invented RTs, and reinvented replies.The crucial difference that made this all possible? Twitter is open to experimentation, highly flexible within its boundaries. Your message is open to the public. You don’t address anyone in particular. Nobody has to ask permission to listen to you. Everybody can go to the public timeline and listen to what everyone else have to say.

If one likes what you’re saying, one will follow you. If one has something to say about it, one will @reply you. If one values what you’re saying, and wants to spread your saying, one will RT you. It’s all about actively shaping the media, and voluntary, free, social connectedness.

Journalism used to be an ecosystem made of writers and readers. This ecosystem is changing dramatically. Journalism is now embedded into a community where the definition of writers is being so enlarged to the point of becoming blurred. There are very few readers in it, meaning people who simply read and save their thoughts about the reading to themselves or a handful of friends. Even when someone shares ones thoughts only with a handful of friends, this sharing now often takes place online through social networking.

But this is less important than the fact one side of this ecosystem has totally changed. It has become a community connected through links set by purposeful preferences about information, knowledge, and entertainment. A community where role playing has radically changed.

Novel writers have become twitterers, and are sharing their own personal preferences, some of them very much revealing of their literary motivations. @GreatDismal (aka cyberwriter William Gibson) shows his attachment to Tokyo, his views on atemporality, gets intelligence for his new novel, reveals aesthetic preferences. @MargaretAtwood, talks about her travels, does social twittering, gets closer to her readers. In the Twittersphere they’re community members interacting at the same level of “social status” as their fans and readers. Some even have more followers than they do.

News writers talk about their angst about the future of news, do news criticism, get information, report the news, reply, RT. A journalist is no longer a solitary reporter, telling a story to a totally anonymous audience only to be reached through black and white printing. One is talking to a live public, who can reach back, react on real time, as fast as real time news reaches them. They can even Tweet an event, breaking news faster than the press. It has just happened again with the earthquake in Indonesia.

Roles are changing not because of the media, but because the audience, the Public, is changing. Besides, mainstream, professional journalists are no longer the only ones out there playing the role of news writing. This is a complication, because much of the information circulating in the Websphere is not properly verified. At the same time, however, “he says, she says” stories are plaguing the professional press, taking value and credibility from professional news writing.

Many are still caught by the wrong idea that the Websphere is about mega audiences. It is not. Unique visitors, page views, are all but numeric illusions. “Million uniques means little if the length of time visitors are on the site (aka, session time) is less than one minute without their returning back to visit. That’s like a million people driving by McDonald’s but never actually going into the restaurant,” says Patricia Handschiegel. “Page views”, she alerts, “can be (and very much are) gamed to create the appearance of more page views.”

So where those who understand that the audience is not in the traffic numbers should look for it? Her answer is “traffic does not mean there is an audience, at the end of the day, the audience is where the value is. Boasting giant page views and unique visitors means very little when those you are driving to the site are not sticking around, using it or returning.” They should generate value people are seeking when they’re browsing a newspaper or the blogosphere, or Twitter.

As Jay Rosen has argued, “in the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized — meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.”

The audience is now a community, a volatile community that can follow, unfollow, block, get and delete RSS feeds. It goes far beyond buying or not buying a paper, paying or not for content, old vs new media. Value-added news and information continue to exist and to produce them there are golden rules that can only be broken at the cost of credibility. Demand for news is increasing, not decreasing. This is the better time ever to be a writer on the road.

We may be just stepping into a new world, one that could be the most literary time possible, as Russian writer Dostoevsky once said about another era of change. He wrote: “We are so divided; we thirst for moral conviction and direction. . . We can even see that we still need to do a great deal along these lines and that much in this sense is still to be done. That is why I think that the present time is the most literary time possible.”

Tags: blog, , , meme, news, , , web journalism