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Back to the future: What if the ‘mass media’ era was just an accident of history?

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When it comes to the traditional media business, there is often a pervasive nostalgia for “the good old days,” when a handful of newspapers and TV networks ruled over the media landscape and profitability was so taken for granted that huge family dynasties with names like Sulzberger and Bancroft were built on that foundation. Many media executives no doubt dream about magically returning to such a time. But what if those days were just an illusion — a kind of accident of history? What would that mean for the future of media?

This idea has come up before, but I was reminded of it when I read a Nieman Journalism Lab post about some research being done by Lee Humphreys, looking at the way that communication — and particularly personal communication, through letters and diaries and other pre-digital tools of expression. Although this doesn’t seem to have much to do with how we use ultra-modern services like Twitter or Facebook (s fb), there is a lot more to it than you might think.

Media has always been personal and social

Kid playing telephone

As Humphreys describes it, her research shows that if you look at human communication over a longer period than just the past generation or two, it becomes obvious that one-way, broadcast-style “mass media” isn’t the norm at all — instead, the norm is interpersonal or multi-directional communication that shares a lot more with social media such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Rather than creating a new communication style, we are actually returning to one.

“Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.”

For example, Humphreys says that the idea of diaries or journals as private things — which their owners hide underneath a mattress or keep in a secret place under lock and key — is a fairly new one. As recently as the late 19th century, it was common for people to read each other’s journals as a way of catching up with what they had been doing, and in many cases this was done with the author of the journal taking part in the discussion. In that sense, journals were a mix of private and public, in much the same way that social media is.

Although the Nieman Lab post doesn’t mention it, there was also the idea of a “commonplace book,” which was a kind of paper version of a blog, a place where people would keep snatches of text or ideas that they came across, and then share that with others. Famous writers such as John Milton and Ralph Waldo Emerson kept commonplace books, and the phenomenon is seen by many as a prelude to what would become the “remix culture” of today.

The era of mass media is over

Social media

The idea that mass media was a kind of historical accident has been raised by others as well, including Tom Standage of The Economistboth in his upcoming book, called “Writing on the Wall,” and in a series of pieces in the magazine about the nature of digital media. The latter described how the interconnected qualities of social media and “networked journalism” mirrored the way that media used to function before newspapers were invented, when the local tavern or coffee house was the center of the information ecosystem. The title of his book, Standage says, also refers to:

“The ominous implications of the rebirth of social media for mass-media companies that arose in the industrial era, predicated on the high cost of delivering information to large audiences. The conclusion of the book is that the mass-media era was a historical anomaly… indeed, it might better be termed the ‘mass-media parenthesis.'”

If this is in fact what we are experiencing — that is, the unbundling or dismantling of a mass-media infrastructure that was constructed to serve the needs of readers (and advertisers) at a specific time in history — then what can we expect? Among other things, probably further downsizing and layoffs and bankruptcies of media companies whose size and cost structure and print focus no longer corresponds to the needs of the marketplace.

And on the positive side, we are also likely to see the growth of new entities that take advantage of the networked, social and smaller-scale nature of the media ecosystem — startups like Circa, for example, or algorithmic players like Prismatic, along with larger entities like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. In a very real sense, it is both the best of times and the worst of times.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu and Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa

14 Responses to “Back to the future: What if the ‘mass media’ era was just an accident of history?”

  1. Andrea Melodia

    Maybe not an accident in history, beacuse mass media are still functional to globalisation of culture and economy, and inerent need for social media effectiveness

    • I wonder if the net outcome of these developments — paper > digital, pubs > publications > social networks, letters > emails > SMS — is a shared human consciousness. And if that in turn leads to a shared human conscience.

      OK, that’s straying a little off-topic from the future/past/context of mass media, but maybe someone can either take that and run with it or give it a dignified burial.

  2. John Duhring

    A similar thesis can be applied to many of the solutions provided by mass media, which created mass markets that enabled mass production and distribution. Most of what we buy (transportation, shelter and food) have been developed using the industrial model.

    Do we know the new model?

    One hopes the new model can sustainably address problems that have been left unaddressed by the old: congestion, pollution and quality of food supply come to mind.

    Notice that the old model tries to frame these problems in terms like “population control”, “health care”, or “education”, when in fact we can now address them in a granular way using billions of sensors and connected resources. This wiring of the planet changes far more than media!

  3. LMHolliday

    And maybe civilization was a blip too? How will (allegedly informed) democracy exist if media is only “recording ourselves? And– the best media– investigative journalism, Game of Thrones, NPR, require armies of specialized people acting as organizations, capitalized, directed, compensated. This is like those arguments that “man is meant to eat raw meat,” etc. Or, we have a whole generation of anarchists. Takes less work to ruin things than to make them. Pity.

    I will read the book, but only because I’m not consumed by recording myself.

    • afonso pimenta

      This article doesn´t make any sense. This is the problem of having to create “content”. A mix of trendy words with justifications for the demise of good journalism. Without trying to create it. Mass media was not an “accident”. Was a very necessary thing. And the culture of today doesn´t replace it and it is not a return. Because, in part, it was always there. In the end we just stay with social networks and bad newspapers. Culture of Sillicon Valley is, to me, becoming already past with it´s repetition of clichés, bad interpretation of the human being condition and ignorance about history. Ot about the way the brain, actually, works…or…or..there is no end to the mistakes that are being spreaded…

        • Afonso Pimenta

          Don´t worry too mutch about a non- english or american person not knowing how to write PERFECTLY. In a way to distract about what actually matters. Your sentence shows that you live looking to your own belly. Do you know how many countries the world has? Do you think “grammar” is exclusive of the english language? :D. Actually this is one of problems of the globalization how it is now. “Culture” and “civilization” is almost interpreted in english. And that is a reduction. Youe sentence shows that.

  4. akismet-9c3cb5e2b8fd566cffd91f24c9079a4f

    Alert readers will realize that this was the thesis of Purple Cow, which I wrote more than ten years ago…