The Rise of Search Engines Heralds Individuated Media

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Why did more than three billion people begin routinely using the Web when they were already being served news, entertainment, and other information by the publications and broadcasts of Mass Media?

It’s a question virtually never asked in schools that teach Mass Media theories, doctrines, and practices. Yet it’s a question that should be asked in any school of media or journalism.

Consider the question another way. For centuries, Mass Media had been people’s predominant means of obtaining and consuming news, entertainment, and other information. The theories, doctrines, and practices of Mass Media have been honed for scores of decades, and scores of universities worldwide have schools devoted to teaching those theories, doctrines, and practices. Yet if Mass Media are the best or most efficient ways for people to obtain and consume news, entertainment, and other information, then why have billions of those people dwindled their usages of the publications and broadcasts of Mass Media and instead began routinely using the Internet subset known as the World Wide Web, and more lately Social Media, as their primary ways of obtain news, other information, and increasingly entertainment?

Most people who work in Mass Media or teach those subjects will (if they’ve even considered the question at all) generally give a superficial answer — that those billions of people have shifted their news, information, and entertainment consumption to the Web, and more lately Social Media, and dwindled their consumption of broadcasts and printed periodicals because Mass Media contents on the Web can provide more up-to-date information than can any printed periodicals or scheduled broadcasts and do so in multimedia format rather than just text and still photos or just audio or just video. In other words, that billions of people are dwindling their usage of Mass Media organizations’ packaged editions in print and in broadcast so that they can instead use those organizations’ websites directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, that answer is merely wishful thinking; a narcissistic answer which usage data about the Web, as well as about Social Media, negates.

Websites certainly can provide more up-to-date information, and in multimedia format, than can printed periodicals or scheduled broadcasts, but data about Social Media in specific and the Web in general show that usage of Mass Media organization’s packaged editions and programs wasn’t primarily why billions of people began lessening their usages of printed periodicals and broadcasts and began routinely use the Web and Social Media as their predominant ways of obtaining and consuming news, information, and entertainment.  For example during May 2012, according to Nielsen, the average American who went online did so 64 times; visited 94 websites; viewed 2,716 webpages; and spent 29 hours and nearly 8 minutes that month doing so. Yet Nielsen reported that only 18 of those 94 websites were operated by either traditional Mass Media organizations or ‘pure-play’ (i.e., startup companies operating online and no printing or over-the-air or cable broadcasting operations) companies providing what would typically and traditionally be defined as Mass Media contents. Moreover, when people do use traditional Mass Media organizations’ websites an analysis of 2013 Nielsen data by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the average user of, for examples, U.S. news organizations’ websites spent an average of merely 3 minutes 4 seconds per visit per site. Such U.S. Web usage data have been consistent since the late 1990’s, varying no more than ten percent except during the initial six months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Claims or contentions by practitioners of Mass Media that billions of people began routinely using the Web or Social Media primarily to access Mass Media contents are cases of Maslow’s Law, an effect more properly known as the Law of the Instrument.  As Abraham H. Maslow described the effect in his 1962 book, Toward a Psychology of Being, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” If your tools are Mass Media, everything looks like a usage or place to use Mass Media.

So, what is the real reason why billions of people have dwindled their usage of Mass Media’s printed editions and broadcasts and routinely using the Web and Social Media, when they already were being served news, entertainment, and other information by Mass Media’s editions and broadcasts? To obtain news, entertainment, or other information that they desired but which were not being provided to them by those Mass Media editions and broadcasts. Or, to state it more precisely, to obtain a selection of news, entertainment, and other information that more precisely matches each of those billions of individual’s unique mixes of needs, interests, and tastes, a mix that they weren’t obtaining from any Mass Media edition or program.

Mass Media is a development and product of the Industrial Era. It consequently suffers that era’s hallmark limitation: analogue uniformity, a term which has nothing to do with any analog/digital dichotomy. Printed periodicals and books are analogs of the printing plates that imprinted them. Likewise, radio and television signals are analogs of the electromagnetic pulses of the transmitters that sent them. The hallmark of Industrial Era media technologies is that a mass number of products can be produced or likewise a mass number of customers can be reached but in either case the product is itself simultaneously uniform, created from a master imprint or signal. All consumers of a printed newspaper or magazine simultaneously receive the same edition (some large newspapers might ‘zone’ a certain number of copies of an edition, such as ‘Eastern Suburbs’, ‘Downtown’, and ‘Western Suburbs’ editions, but all the consumers within each specific ‘zoned’ edition nonetheless receive the contents.) Similarly, all listeners or viewers of a broadcast simultaneously receive the same program at the same time from a transmitter or from a cable television channel connections. All viewers of a cinema projecting simultaneously see the same version of that film. Overall, all recipients of any Mass Media vehicle (newspapers, magazines, or radio or television broadcast, movie, or music album) simultaneously received that same production at once.

For more than 500 years since Gutenberg invented the printing press—the world’s first mass‑production machine—people have had to forebear this limitation in media. And the theories, doctrines, and practices colloquially known as Mass Media arose as a result of it. The invention and development of Mass Media help catalyze the Renaissance and hence modern civilization: news, entertainment, and information became available to the mass thanks to the mass production of those contents. No longer was news, entertainment, and other information conveyed only through word of mouth or through laborious copying by hand. And relatively simple economics helped Mass Media thrive: producing a uniform product simultaneously for its mass of readers, listeners, or viewers simplifies the economics of any media company.

Nearly 500 years later, the hallmark technological limitation of Mass Media remains. The individual people served by any Mass Media product are each different but the product any media company produces is simultaneously uniform. There are extremely few common interests shared by all people of each gender and all ages, even in any community. However, numbers of people do share some group interest. Yet each individual possesses myriad specific interests, even though he might not be acquainted with anyone who shares such an interest. It is this unique mix of common, group, and specific interests that makes each of us an individual. Unfortunately, Industrial Era technologies aren’t able produce a unique edition or program or movie or book for each of those individual consumers. The hallmark of Mass Media is also Mass Media’s crucial flaw. For the analog printing technology known as the printing (from ‘imprinting’ an analogue image of the text) press, producing a unique edition for each individual would require creating a unique printing plates (or arrangements of moveable type) for each individual, which would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. And for analog broadcast technology, it would require using a separate transmitter or frequency for each and every listener or viewer, likewise prohibitively expensive thing to do. There thus isn’t any economically practical way for Industrial Era media technologies to satisfy any and every individual consumer’s own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes.

Producers of media during the Industrial Era (which only recently ended even in the post-industrial countries) were forced by that limitation to targeted the contents of their editions and programs to the average demographic audience they wanted to reach. Stories were selected according to two criteria:

  • Information with the greatest demographic or topical interest to the target audience.
  • Information about which the producer thinks all members of that demographic should become informed.

This is still the way that Producers of Mass Media select the contents of their editions and programs, even in post-industrial countries, where Mass Media are being superseded.

Although most producers of Mass Media are well-trained, perhaps even having commissioned consumer focus groups or surveys of what interests their target audience, their choices of which stories or items to include will almost always be imperfect compared to if the individual consumer of that edition or program had made the choices himself from the resources of the producer had. The results of this core limitation of Industrial Era media technologies is that any edition or program (or program schedule) is an imperfect match of contents to each and every consumer’s individual mix of needs, interests, and tastes. Yet people had no other choices during the Industrial Era.

That all began to change some 40 years ago in the now post-Industrial countries and is rapidly change in all other countries worldwide. Due to myriad technological advancements, peoples’ access and choices of news, entertainment, and other information changed from relative scarcity to surplus, even overload.   Billions of people have gained ways by which they obtain more precise mixes of contents to match their own individual mix of news, interests, and tastes.

The initial way by which billions of people found these more precise matches was by using search engines. Using search engine websites, such as Lycos, Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, Alta Vista, Yahoo!, Google, Baidu, etc., they search for the specific items of news, entertainment, and other information that more precisely match their own individual needs, interests, and tastes. They thus began self-customizing the supply of news, entertainment, and other information they received, much like a diner at a vast buffet will pick and choose the individual items that meet his individual needs, interests, and tastes. Although they might ‘bookmark’ the resulting websites that best matches their needs, interests, and tastes, and probably later revisit it, that didn’t, however, mean they stopped using search-engines. As events in and outside of their lives changed, they continued using search engines to best match their changing needs, interests, or tastes. The full process of a person becoming distinct from others is known as individuation. Search engines give each of the billions of people who use the Web an extraordinary tool for better satisfying their individual needs, interests, and tastes, in news, entertainment, and other information. These people are self-individuating their supplies of such contents, a process that ineluctably reduces their consumption of entire editions or program schedules of Mass Media.

Yet using search engines to self-individuate one’s consumption of contents that matches one’s own needs, interests, and tastes is work: hunting and gathering. There are hundreds of millions of websites, but no website delivers anything; its contents await retrieval. A specific website might have a particular expertise at one subject that interests a person; another website might have some other particular expertise in another subject that interest that person; and etc. As news, entertainment, and other information changes, as do as the needs, interests, and tastes of that person, that person has to continue the manual labor of using search engines or revisiting many ‘bookmarked’ websites. During the past 17 years, some newer technologies, such as various online ‘Push’ technologies or Really Simple Syndication (RSS), have tried to eliminate that labor, but none of those gained widespread or entirely practical usage. Nevertheless, self-individual of contents became a largely daily activity by billions of people.

The effects of that trend weren’t initially apparent to Mass Media organizations until the majority of people in post-industrial countries gained broadband online access shortly after the turn of the millennium. Broadband’s ‘always-on’ access markedly increased those hundreds of millions of people’s consumption of online contents, and ten years ago (beginning in the years immediately prior to the Great Recession of 2007) consumption of Mass Media’s printed periodicals and scheduled broadcasts, as well as inflation-adjusted revenues, markedly began to decrease. Widespread usage of wireless access, starting with WiFi during the first decade of this century and followed by broadband access via ‘smartphones’ during the second decade, accelerated these declines in Mass Media’s traditional products. These trends are now obvious in post-Industrial countries, evident in Industrial countries, and latent in all other countries, particularly now that all mobile telephone handsets are now being construction on the ‘smartphone’ model.

Next webpage: Social Media and Early Platforms for Individuation.


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