Why digital media is like two people chatting over coffee

78556382I have this image of two people chatting over coffee whenever I try to explain the communication model behind digital media. So the Sender is also the Receiver. And they both engage in a conversation, providing each other messages that are sent back and forth, producing feedback. Sometimes, there’s interference (e.g. someone good looking walks by and distracts you for a second).

I also have this other image of digital media. It’s like that old-school stock market. It’s noisy, people are screaming, but there seems to be order in this chaos. The people use gestures or visual aids, and certain codes to transmit their message.

Defining media in the age of social and the Internet is becoming more difficult as the lines between sender/receiver, message/noise– are blurred. There’s this other image, which Eli Pariser has proposed: imagine big bubbles that contain smaller bubbles. Each bubble is a “filter” that contains the message within that space. And there exists millions of these so-called filter bubbles.

Social media networks like Facebook are considered filter bubbles that are powered by algorithm. This algo learns from your behavior. From that, it now predicts stories that you may want to read, and it pushes it into your feeds. Eventually, you’ll end up reading things that you only like, limiting your exposure to perspectives that you disagree with.

Today, I gave my students readings, which others may label, TL;DR. Yes, they were too long; didn’t read-types of readings.

There was this work by Dan Gillmor, called the We The Media, which introduced the idea of citizen or grassroots journalism. It was a seminal work, which captured the significant developments in digital media.

When this book (We the Media) was in its earliest stages, the author, a respected Silicon Valley journalist, posted an initial outline on his weblog, asking for comments. He was besieged with emails offering suggestions and advice. More, in fact, than he could handle. Later, he posted draft chapters as they were finished. One reader, the publisher of a small newspaper in upstate New York, whom he had never met, sent back a draft chapter dripping with digital red ink, commenting: “The time is right; the subject is right. But your book deserves to be better than this.”

I also shared a recent lecture by Emily Bells delivered during the 2015 Hugh Cudlipp lecture. She described the “tabloidization” of today’s journalism, thanks to the boom of “listacles” (list-articles) and click-baits, which combined screaming, exaggerated headlines that jumped out and grabbed you by the neck, making you click. But once you’re in, there was nothing but fluff and a gallery of gifs added to keep you staring at the screen longer.

Tonight I want to talk to you about the ‘Digital Tabloid’.

What is happening to popular journalism on the web. Tabloids always had the biggest reach, the largest impact, the most flexible standards. On the web, however, we are seeing the tabloidisation of everything. I don’t mean this as a negative. Far from it. All news outlets need numbers in the web economy that are vastly greater than they had in an analogue world firstly to make the economics work and secondly to have an impact. The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Then, I provided my students an interesting white paper and video clip about BBC, which is now trying to figure out its future. It talked about the evolving mediums, and changing media habits. It collected opinions and insights from experts, including one that said that having your newspaper delivered in your doorstep is a practice that has disappeared. BBC is traditional media that we all associate to mass media. BBC is one of the old giants in the UK that is hoping to catch on with the smaller and nimbler players that don’t carry extra baggage.

As I went on to explain why do we need to understand where media was coming from by looking at its definition, I was hoping to make them think about other means to effectively attract and address the need of end-users through the technology that we have today.

There’s this concept of “shovelware,” where traditional media extracts what it has on its traditional medium and brings it to the newer medium. Many news websites still look like the newspapers. Before breaking news, liveblogs, and live tweets were a norm, online news websites took what it had on print, and just put everything online. That’s shovelware. It’s content that is only transformed to digital without adding any value to it; it’s almost static.

Our concept of media today has changed dramatically. Even the players have. I went around the room asking each student about their main source of news these days. The top two sources were Facebook & Twitter. No surprise there. Tell this to traditional news editors of newspapers or TV, and they would cringe at the idea that no one bothers to go to their website to check the news.

It is also becoming more evident that WE THE PEOPLE, are increasingly consuming news the way we consume snacks. We snack on news everyday, thanks to our mobile phones, which are replacing our desktops, tablets, and of course traditional media. There were a few students still reading newspapers and listening to radio. Their reasons: their parents listen to it, specially in the case of radio.

So I go back to the main point of this article, which starts with an image of two people chatting over a cup of coffee. That’s my idea of digital media, and the way I define it hangs on that metaphor. But is that enough to explain what is happening to our digital universe? What about the NOISE?

In the BBC video, Jeff Jarvis talks about journalism addressing the needs of its audience. It is a concept that he espouses. He argues that journalism should understand the needs of a community, first. Once that’s done, then we look to technology as tools to address those needs. In that way, you establish a better relationship with your audience. It’s no longer about producing clicks, page views, and time-spent on videos that feature cats & cute babies.

Listening is also important in digital media–and that’ the next topic of a series of lectures in class. For now, enjoy this video done in 2004. It’s fiction, but it speculates on the future–that is 2015.

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Erwin Oliva

Putting a dent on the universe one day at a time