The big trend of the last decade has been the quiet, unremitting erosion of mass media.
Television has been a major form of mass media since the 1950s, but it is quickly losing its ability to exert a mass effect. A recent study from Accenture notes these trends both in viewing habits and in hardware purchasing:
. . . the percentage of consumers watching broadcast or cable TV in a typical week on televisions fell from 71 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2011. . . . the percentage of consumers who intend to buy a TV set during the next 12 months declined from 35 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2011.
In 2009, approximately 39.3 million televisions were sold in the US. A 3% drop in consumption means >1 million fewer televisions were sold. And while the 23% decrease in watching television is startling, it only tells half the story, I believe — that is, television watching is no longer “watching.” Instead, it’s more “filtering” and “backdropping.”
There were two requirements for mass media, as aptly captured by Clay Shirky:
. . . mass media required two things from its consumers – size and silence.
The Accenture data point to the mass aspect decreasing in size, but it doesn’t speak to the silence that’s ending — in a number of ways, the sound of silence is being replaced by the sound of DVRs whirring with scheduled and selective recordings, the sound of iPads and laptops being pecked at and swiped by people in front of televisions, and the sound of viewers watching YouTube and other media on other screens.
These changes are essentially making television schedules as meaningful to TV viewers as tables of contents are to journal readers these days — glanced at when needed, but hardly doing the work a search engine can do instead.
Consumers are also no longer silent shoppers finding it difficult to do anything but accept the prices local retailers present them, as I briefly discussed last week. They can read reviews in the aisles, and compare prices in the store while shopping. Store owners can no longer be assured that putting a store in a certain population center will capture the market as they expect, nor can they be assured that consumers will have made a shopping choice by stepping into their stores. In fact, a growing percentage of consumers treat the store they’re in as one of many shopping options at that particular moment of retail engagement.
The end of mass media mentalities is driving to distraction some people possessing mass media mentalities. Recently, Kurt Andersen joined a growing chorus of worriers claiming that styles haven’t changed in decades, perhaps suggesting a societal inertia. But what’s more likely happening is that styles are diverging, emerging, and remixing, but in smaller pools. In a mass media environment, New York or Los Angeles could impose itself. Now, it’s just as likely that Andersen and others are experiencing their own fashion echo chambers, the filter bubble described by Eli Pariser. It’s hard to see that things in the neighboring bubble have changed from within your own reflective cocoon.
We’re seeing similar responses to the end of mass media in our midst, with the emergence of new attitudes about publishing in the age of abundance. These are enabled by the underlying shift in who controls the media. Again, turning to Shirky:
The future presented by the internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from ‘Why publish this?’ to ‘Why not?’
One question we’re facing now is “Publish, then filter, or filter, then publish?” We’re facing it because publishing has become viable for new people and new confederations. Email has enabled asynchronous communication; online manuscript systems have allowed for new production processes; electronic mark-up in Word has allowed for asynchronous, recursive editing; and automated production systems have lowered costs and the need for layers of expertise.
But while fashion and television can turn amateur, fragment, and echo recursively with relatively little harm, science doesn’t benefit from these trends becoming the major trends. Science benefits as much or more from their opposites — professionalization, synthesis, and novelty. By aping the media practices around us, we may be inadvertently putting our thumbs on the scales — more channels, but nothing on; styles that change only in isolation; and fields full of incestuous ideas. Whether this helps scientists isn’t clear.
Perhaps the genie can’t be put back into the bottle, but as long as our wishes remain the same, the job then is to ask this new genie for them carefully. If we don’t, our wishes may backfire — like the 60-year-old husband with a 60-year-old wife who wished for a wife 30 years younger, only to find himself turned into a 90-year-old.
Be careful when messing with genies.