- [What follows is the text of our speech today at Exploring Freedom of Expression in a Digital World, the 2nd Annual Fall Symposium of the University of Missouri’s Center for the Digital Globe, a joint project of the University’s schools of Business, Human Environmental Sciences, Journalism, Law, and Political Science.]
Things change, even things that we think won’t.
One hundred years ago, a primitive automobile rumbled through here in Columbia, Missouri, probably at less than 5 m.p.h. People must have though it was ridiculous. And they probably scoffed at anyone who predicted that evolved versions of such sputtering contraptions would become humanity’s primary form of transportation. Those scoffers knew that the horse had been humanity’s primary form of transportation for more than two millennia, and knew it seemed ridiculous that anything would ever replace horses.
Likewise, when 100 years ago this December 3rd, Wilbur Wright laid down on a canvas wing and opened the throttle of his 3 horsepower gasoline engine, who knew that his technology was creating an entirely new transportation medium? For millennia, we’d used only land and water as transportation media. But thanks to the Wright Brothers’ application of technology, we now have the new medium of the sky. And it’s revolutionized transportation!
These were modest, sputtering starts to revolutions in media. Keep those in mind as I tell you about 2003, not 1903; and as I point to some modest, sputtering examples of a revolution in communications media that’s underway today. And just as aviation created uniquely new issues of risk & responsibility in transportation, so too will a new medium for communications create uniquely new issues of credibility & responsibility.
Let me give you some examples of the communications revolution now underway. Like that early automobile or The Wright Flyer, these examples are early, primitive, and somewhat sputtering. Which is why some traditionalist in communications still scoff at them. But these examples are no less important than those of the Wrights or the early automobile:
“At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!” — DrudgeReport.com, 17 January 1998
- “For it was in the wilds of cyberspace – not the morning newspaper – that the story of Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, first unfolded.” – – BBC, 25 January 1998
“Holding the story wasn’t an issue for Matt Drudge, the maverick Internet reporter who authored the story. Mr. Drudge proudly admits that he has no editor but himself. On Saturday, he published the story to the Web’s world-wide audience plus, according to his own calculation, his more than 85,000 subscribers.” — Ibid
In an early interview about the scandal, former Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos, dismissed the report. ‘And where did it come from? The Drudge Report. You know we’ve all seen how discredited that’s been.’…In the future, academics, politicians, and journalists aren’t likely to dismiss the Internet so quickly.” — Ibid
- “Joshua Marshall, whose talkingpointsmemo.com is must reading for the politically curious, (is) more than anyone else, responsible for making Trent Lott’s offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be” — Paul Krugman’s The New York Times column, 13 December 2002.
These three examples have been about blogs. Blogs are trendy (so disbelieve half the hype you hear about them.) Blogs are just some of many manifestations of the same thing I’m talking about, which can take many forms:
Meanwhile, the public is skeptical about governmental announcements, about corporate announcements, and about traditional media vehicles such as newspapers, news magazines, and news broadcasts. It is a strange world that we today live in.
Where are people going?
I’ll tell you. They are gravitating.
The evolution of technology is letting them naturally gravitate towards whichever medium best satisfies each person’s unique mix of generic and specific interests.
There has been only one trend in media during the past 30 years.
Only one trend. It’s the people’s trend towards media vehicles that offer specific content. Some call it the trend towards ‘niche’. Some call it the ‘fracturing’ of audiences. But whatever it is called, it is people gravitating to wherever they can satisfy their own specific interests — generally at the expense of the traditional, generic media vehicles.
What facilitated this was the evolution of media technologies during the past 40 years:
So, are phones a medium? No!
But then neither is a newspaper a medium. TV isn’t a medium. Magazines aren’t media. Postal mail isn’t a medium. Websites aren’t media.
No, newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, telephones, are just vehicles that convey information in various communication media.
Only three communications media exist. Similar to how only three transportation media exist.
Remember our transportation analogy? Remember how the only transportation media are land, water, and sky; and how we have vehicles, such as autos, ships, and airplanes, that convey things in those transportation media.
And how our use of land and water doesn’t depend on technology? We can walk and swim. Technology has merely extended our speed, reach, and carrying capacities in those two media.
Remember, too, how land and water have mutually exclusive characteristics. Their reaches and carrying capacities are totally different. Depending upon what you want to convey, you must use either one medium or the other.
So, what are the three communications media? What are the media that we can use to convey information?
The first two of the three communication media predate technology and have mutually exclusive characteristics:
Interpersonal communication is the first communication medium. We commonly understand it as one person talking to one other person. Its hallmarks are that the content of communication is tailored to each participant’s unique mix of interests and that each participant equally shares control of the content. Its disadvantage is that no more than two participants can really use it; any more and the communication breaks down into cacophony.
Among the vehicles of the Interpersonal Medium are conversation, postal mail, telephone, and e-mail.
The second communication medium is what the mass of people colloquially refer to as ‘media.’ It is the Mass Medium. Its hallmarks are that the content can reach an almost unlimited number of recipients and that one person generally a king, dictator, publisher, or broadcaster has sole control of that content. The disadvantage of the Mass Medium is that the content must be the same to all recipients.
Among the vehicles of the Mass Medium are royal decree, theatre, books, newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, and speeches like this one.
Until very recently in human history, if you wanted to communicate, you had to make a choice between those two media: You could either send the same message to everyone or perfectly tailor you message to just one recipient. Just as you once had to choose between land or water transportation, no media could do both.
But just like how the Wright Brothers used technology to create a totally new transportation medium that didn’t have the two previous media’s mutually exclusive advantages & disadvantages, so too has technology recently been used to create a totally new communication medium that doesn’t have the two previous media’s mutually exclusive advantages & disadvantages.
The New Medium can simultaneously send an individually tailored message, edition, or program to everyone on a mass scale. And it lets every participant be he consumer or publisher equally share control. In fact, there need be no functional difference between publisher and consumer; either can be both.
Truly, this is the New Medium.
Websites aren’t a New Medium. Websites are merely vehicles that can convey information in any of the three media. Indeed, most websites are used by newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters to convey Mass Medium content that’s been shovelled into those sites. That’s not very bright to do, particularly when newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters could instead be using their Web sites for the New Medium purposes.
As I mentioned, the New Medium is still in its very early stage — much like aviation was in 1903. Well, let me re-phrase that, the New Medium has had ten years of development, so its more like aviation was 1913. We’ve worked on it for ten years, gotten it a bit off the ground, although we still haven’t accomplished all that much with it.
Consumers have begun using it to find a wide selection of specific web sites, specific discussion groups, and specific blogs – in addition to generic web sites. They still need generic content, so Mass Medium content will always be part of the mix.
In the 21st Century, a newspaper’s website, digital edition, and printed edition offer each reader that individual’s unique mix of generic & specific content. All this today is possible with websites, digital editions, and digital presses, and is becoming financially practical in that order.
What are the consequences of this New Medium, particularly for credibility and responsibility?
I haven’t found the answers, just the questions. But let’s now move on to your questions. Thank you.