Know What You’re Talking About in New Media

“The definition of the thing establishes its essence.”

– ‘Metaphysics’, Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Know what are talking about. Otherwise, you might become a producer of hype rather than success. Words have real meanings.

The traditional media industries are so woefully misusing terminology about online media that perverse hype, a signpost to ruin, is misguiding far too many media industries’ endeavors. Misapplying the terminology of New Media is like misapplying any map: you’ll get lost. Moreover, if you intentionally or negligently misapplying terminology for marketing purposes, you will not only create smokescreens that obscure the real meaning of crucial terms but never see your way to success in the New Media field.

If you don’t understand what I’m saying, consider some non-media examples. Do you wash your clothes in a turbine fan? Of course not, and neither do millions of purchasers of TurboTide. Yet ever since the 1960s, when mechanical turbine-aspirated automobiles began outrunning normally-aspirated ones, marketers have appropriated, misused, and so perverted usages of the prefixatory word ‘turbo’ until it has become just hype. Behold misnomers such as Gillette’s Mach 3 Turbo non-mechanical razor blades or Thrasio’s entirely non-mechanical Turbo Mop!

Surprisingly, the most misused New Media terms nowadays are ‘digital’, ‘interactive’, ‘personalization’, and ‘customization’. And there are others. Foggy usage of those terms by marketers (particularly those from traditional media companies that are trying to adapt to New Media) has been misleading consumers and themselves about what those terms truly mean. Like ‘turbo’, some of those terms (notably ‘personalization’) have become almost meaningless. And the more that marketers and consumers misuse those terms, the further the media industries stray from online success. Which is why you need to know accurately what you’re talking about. It is the media industry’s responsibility–particularly those who work for journalism companies (the journalists and the marketers) to say truly what those terms mean. Discussion about New Media easily collapse into cacophony if all participants don’t use accurate terminology.

All this is why during the second week of the postgraduate New Media Business course that I taught for the past 14 years at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, I drill my students how to accurately use the following terms:

‘Digital’ is a very specific term that media marketers have perverted to mean simply ‘online’. Although most online media use digital technologies, so too do all landline (i.e., wired) telephones today. Digital is no big deal and predate computers and online and computers. Telegraphy using Morse Code, invented in 1837, is digital (trinary rather than binary communications: communications converted not to ‘0’s and ‘1’s as in binary but to a trinary language of ‘null’, ‘short’, and ‘long’ signals). Tickertape, invented in 1870 and widely used for 100 years, is digital (i.e., quintary for TTY and sextary for TTS). Piano rolls recorded early in the 20th Century by Scott Joplin or George Gershwin are digital (and certified so by Recording Industry Association of America). If your work deals with online media but your own job doesn’t involve first-hand encoding or manipulation of binary language, hexadecimal notation, or checksums (indeed, if you don’t know what those three terms mean), then you work with online, not digital, technology. The ‘Digital First’ media company of Denver, which publishes 17 daily and 93 weekly newspapers and three magazines, is misnamed by marketers, hype to make it seem cutting-edge. Why not just name that company ‘Turbo First Media’ company? The misnomer of that company has long signaled its misguided direction.

‘Interactive’ likewise has a quite specific meaning yet the term has become woefully misused by media marketers. The authoritative meaning of ‘Interactive’ was defined during 1992 by Dr. Jonathan Steuer in the Journal of Communications:

“Interactivity is defined as the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time.”

Unfortunately, the ‘We write it, you read it’ ethos of traditional media companies isn’t quite amenable to true interactivity. Indeed, most traditional media companies are barely interactivity. For examples, the sole way that readers of The New York Times’ website can modify the form and content of its that website’s computer-mediated environment in real-time is merely to switch to reading another web page–an attribute no better than turning a page of that newspaper’s printed edition. Likewise, Tribune Interactive, a media company which shovels television stations’ contents online, is barely interactive. By comparison, video games are literally magnitudes more interactive than either of those two companies’ online services. For nearly 30 years, the true experts about New Media have been writing that the true commercial capability of online media is to offer consumers the truly interactive means to customize what those consumers receive, rather than just provide consumers with texts or videos shoveled online from otherwise printed or broadcast media. (See MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 ‘Daily Me’ concept as what true interactivity can do.) Maybe someday, perhaps before they otherwise go out of business, traditional media companies will wake up to realization that this is what ‘interactive’ means and begin offering customizing what selection of contents they deliver to each of their consumers–the first tangible step towards true interactivity. Read on.

‘Personalization / Customization / Individualization’ are terms that respectively denote virtually zero, some, or total customization. Virtually all traditional media companies today unfortunately mistake and misuse the term personalization for customization and haven’t a clue what individualization (also known as media individuation) is. Here is what each of these terms mean:

Personalization is merely a form of address or motif. If your first name is John, you receive an unsolicited commercial marketing postal letter (i.e., ‘junk mail’) that begins with the salutation ‘Dear John’ and that tries to entice you to purchase a product or service. Meanwhile, untold thousands of other people also receive the same unsolicited commercial marketing letter, the only difference between all their letters and yours is the first name after the salutation ‘Dear’ (i.e., ‘Dear Susanne’ if their name is Susan or ‘Dear Mark’ if their first name is Mark, etc.) That is a personalized letter. Likewise, you might receive a personalized gift such as a key fob embossed with your initials, cuff links engraved with your initials, or golf balls on which your initials have been printed. Personalization is customization literally in name (or perhaps name and postal address) only. Mass marketers began offering personalized products early in the 20th Century when they began to realize that personalized products are somewhat more attractive than impersonal or common products of approximately the substance, usage, and price. Producing personalized products are practices of the late Industrial Era, before widespread computerization; and fail to take ample advantage of the computer technologies that have been during the past 50 years. In other words, media companies that nowadays tout that they are or have begun offering ‘personalized’ products and services haven’t a clue what they are talking about; what online technologies are capable of; or, indeed, what New Media is (see further below).

Customization differs from personalization in that it allows the consumer to request the addition and/or subtraction of some components to an otherwise standard product. For example, a consumer can purchase an off-the-rack dress that will then be adjusted by the retailer’s tailor to better fit that purchaser’s body. Or a homeowner, presented with a finite set of available design options from a kitchen store, purchase a new kitchen consisting of a set of pre-made cabinets and mass-produced appliances that will be put in place according to whichever of a pre-determined set of the seller’s designs that the consumer chose. Some media companies nowadays offer online consumers ‘customization’ options in this limited way. For example, such as receiving special columns from the consumer’s choice of the newspaper’s columnists, in addition to receiving whatever news all users of that newspaper’s website can see. Or to subscribe to only the newspaper’s recipes or crossword puzzles. The degree of customization offered in an online product or service can theoretically range from mere personalization to full individuation. However, most of the world’s traditional media companies nowadays offer their online consumers no personalization or, at very limited customizations. That isn’t interactivity. (However, if you want excellent examples of mass customization of printed products, look at your bank statements or credit card bills. Billions of consumers receive those monthly, yet each receives one whose contents are almost entirely customized for that individual. Mass customization of printed contents like this have existed for more than 60 years.)

Individuation is production from the onset of product or service that is specifically designed for the recipient individual’s unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes. Think of a bespoke suit or dress tailored and sewn specifically for that individual consumer’s needs, preferences, and tastes. Or a totally custom-designed and custom-build house. It is something unique, fabricated for a specific individual’s unique requests, rather than merely being a general product or service with some customizations or salutary personalization. (As psychologists note, individuation is the process in which the individual self develops out of the undifferentiated all of humanity.) There are companies online that nowadays offer consumers almost fully individuated feeds of news, entertainment, and other information. Moreover, those companies’ individuated services online have already superseded the traditional media industries as the predominant means by which the majority of the world’s consumers receive news, entertainment, and other information. These are the search engine and social media companies (including some media genre-specific companies, such as Spotify and Pandora). I’ll frankly put it this way: the reasons why during the past 20 years more than 3 billion consumers plus hundreds of millions of advertisers have shifted their primary media habits from traditional (i.e., Mass Media) companies to these Individuated Media companies is that consumers vastly prefer to receive individuated feeds of contents and advertisers prefer to be part of that. Individuated feeds better match each of those consumers’ own individual mix of needs, interests, and tastes, than can any unpersonalized, merely personalized, or somewhat customized products or services produced by any traditional media company, or practical combination thereof.

And while we’re talking terminology, let’s quickly examine the terms ‘convergence’, ‘disruptive’, ‘post-industrial’, and ‘New Media’,

Convergence is an antiquated term used by veterans of traditional media when they actual mean multimedia. Humans can simultaneously see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The ideal form of media are ones that can simultaneously do all that for humans. Such an ideal medium doesn’t yet exist. Today’s online media can simultaneously provide text, photography, animation, audio, and video (even all immersive in Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality), and there are experimental ‘touch gloves’ and online olfactory systems in development but not commercially available yet. By contrast, traditional media products or services from the 20th Century provide at most one, two, or three forms of media (such as a radio station’s audio, a television station’s video, or a newspaper’s text, graphs, and photographs. Veterans of such traditional media were excited to see more than that limited number of forms of media ‘converge’ in online. The term convergence reveals more about their antiquated perspective than the full potential of New Media.

Disruptive is a term still being used by in some online journalist circles (example: the Disruptive Journalism Educators Network on Facebook). Usage of the term disruptive arose from a 1995 Harvard Business Review article by Clayton Christenson and others which said, “Managers must beware of ignoring new technologies that don’t initially meet the needs of their mainstream customers” and that disrupt the existing businesses of those managers.” It is certainly true that traditional media industries have been ‘disrupted’ by the development of online technologies. Yet there are extremely rare cases of ‘disruptive journalism’ (i.e., reporting of the ‘Watergate scandal’ forces a U.S. president to resign, etc.) The term disruptive is used in journalism circles nowadays simply to mean people who work publishing journalism online. In other words, the largely usage is hype. Simply put, the Disruptive Journalism Educators Network is in reality an Online Journalism Educators Network.

Post-Industrial that was used in journalism a decade ago in a lengthy report from the Columbia University School of Journalism written by C. W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky, who attempted to foresee the future of journalism after the Industrial Era. I am glad that this school recognizes that the Industrial Era is ending, meaning that production of physical products will no longer be the predominant basis of developed nations’ economies, superseded by production of services and non-physical products (entertainment, news, data, financial instruments, and other services, etc.) This change is glaringly obvious in rusting, derelict factory towns in so many North American and European cities. Yet this change is not the end of time. What is replacing the Industrial Era? The major factor causing the end of the Industrial Era is pervasive computerization. Much as the Industrial Era itself arose from pervasive hydropower then electrification that motorized production equipment, today’s successive era is arising from pervasive microprocessor computerization that has revolutionized (‘disrupted’) such things as long-distance transportation (i.e. globalization), last-minute inventories, personal communication and entertainment, and almost everything else. In particular, it has revolutionized the production, distribution, and business of news, entertainment, and other forms of information which are now major components of service economies. The fuel for computerization isn’t silicon, which is merely a raw material, but information (i.e., algorithms, programming, financial or business data, news, entertainment, and other forms of information and data), which is why we are entering the Information Era or Informational Era. Approximately 150 years ago, when it became obvious that developed nation’s economies were changing from being primarily agricultural to instead people collectively operating machines that produced physical products, observers did refer to that new era as the ‘post-agricultural’ era but as the industrial Era. That the Columbia University School of Journalism titled their report ‘Post-Industrial Journalism’ was may have been a clue that they didn’t fully understand what new era we’ve entered, what exactly was ‘disrupting’ journalism, and what the true cause of the epochal changes underway was.

What is New Media? Besides initial letter capitalization, there is a crucial difference between proper nounal phrase ‘New Media’ and the more general and uncapitalized phrase ‘new media’. If someone were to print today’s headlines on a bowling ball and roll that up your driveway, you might accurately call that sphere a form of new media: It is a new way to deliver media contents. However, that sphere is actually a media delivery mechanism or vehicle, not a medium itself (and certainly not a plural such as the word Latin word media). Yet nowadays people conflate together the singular term medium and the plural term media so much that even I regrettably have had to adopt this misuse. The capitalized phrase New Media or New Medium specifically refer to a new classification or genus of media (not media vehicles like a magzine, radio station, or that bowling ball) which has already begun superseding Mass Media, themselves products of the Industrial Era, as the predominant means by which people obtain news, entertainment, and other information. For more about that beyond just this paragraph, read this.

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