Rearranging the Deck Chairs

I. Everything Must Go!

It’s merger season in Australia. Everything must go! Just moments after the new media ownership rules received the Governor-General’s royal assent, James Packer sold off his family’s crown jewel, the NINE NETWORK – consistently Australia’s highest-rated television broadcaster since its inception, fifty years ago – along with a basket of other media properties. This sale effectively doubled his already sizeable fortune (now hovering at close to 8 billion Australian dollars) and gave him plenty of cash to pursue the 21st-century’s real cash cow: gambling. In an era when all media is more-or-less instantaneously accessible, anywhere, from anyone, the value of a media distribution empire is rapidly approaching zero, built on the toppling pillars of government regulation of the airwaves, and a cheap stream of high-quality American television programming. Yes, audiences might still tune in to watch the footy – live broadcasting being uniquely exempt from the pressures of the economics of the network – but even there the number of distribution choices is growing, with cable, satellite and IPTV all demanding a slice of the audience. Television isn’t dying, but it no longer guarantees returns. Time for Packer to turn his attention to the emerging commodity of the third millennium: experience. You can’t download experience: you can only live through it. For those who find the dopamine hit of a well-placed wager the experiential sine qua non, there Packer will be, Asia’s croupier, ready to collect his winnings. Who can blame him? He (and, undoubtedly, his well-paid advisors) have read the trend lines correctly: the mainstream media is dying, slowly starved of attention.

The transformation which led to the sale of NINE NETWORK is epochal, yet almost entirely subterranean. It isn’t as though everyone suddenly switched off the telly in favor of YouTube. It looks more like death from a thousand cuts: DVDs, video games, iPods, and YouTube have all steered eyeballs away from the broadcast spectrum toward something both entirely digital and (for that reason) ultimately pervasive. Chip away at a monolith long enough and you’re left with a pile of rubble and dust.

On a somewhat more modest scale, other media moguls in Australia have begun to hedge their bets. Kerry Stokes, the owner of Channel 7, made a strategic investment in Western Australia Publishing. NEWS Corporation, the original Australian media empire, purchased a minority stake in Fairfax, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher (and is eyeing a takeover of Canadian-owned Channel TEN). To see these broadcasters buying into newspapers, four decades after broadcast news effectively delivered death-blows to newspaper publishing, highlights the sense of desperation: they’re hoping that something, somewhere in the mainstream media will remain profitable. Yet there are substantial reasons to expect that these long-shot bets will fail to pay out.

II. The Vanilla Republic

It’s election season in America. Everyone must go! The mood of the electorate in the darkening days of 2006 could best be described as surly. An undercurrent of rage and exasperation afflicts the body politic. This may result in a left-wing shift in the American political landscape, but we’re still two weeks away from knowing. Whatever the outcome, this electoral cycle signifies another epochal change: the mainstream media have lost their lead as the reporters of political news. The public at large views the mainstream media skeptically – these were, after all, the same organizations which whipped the republic into a frenzied war-fever – and, with the regret typical of a very disgruntled buyer, Americans are refusing to return to the dealership for this year’s model. In previous years, this would have left voters in the dark: it was either the mainstream media or ignorance. But, in the two years since the Presidential election, the “netroots” movement has flowered into a vital and flexible apparatus for news reportage, commentary and strategic thinking. Although the netroots movement is most often associated with left-wing politics, both sides of the political spectrum have learned to harness blogs, wikis, feeds and hyperdistribution services such as YouTube for their own political ends. There is nothing quintessentially new about this; modern political parties, emerging in Restoration-era London, used printing presses, broadsheets and daily newspapers – freely deposited in the city’s thousands of coffeehouses – as the blogs of their era. Political news moved very quickly in 17th-century England, to the endless consternation of King Charles II and his censors.

When broadcast media monopolized all forms of reportage – including political reporting – the mass mind of the 20th-century slotted into a middle-of-the-road political persuasion. Neither too liberal, nor too conservative, the mainstream media fostered a “Vanilla Republic,” where centrist values came to dominate political discourse. Of course, the definition of “centrist” values is itself highly contentious: who defines the center? The right-wing decries the excesses of “liberal bias” in the media, while the left-wing points to the “agenda of the owners,” the multi-billionaire stakeholders in these broadcast empires. This struggle for control over the definition of the center characterized political debate at the dawn of the 21st-century – a debate which has now been eclipsed, or, more precisely, overrun by events.

In April 2004, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, a US army veteran who had been raised in civil-war-torn El Salvador, founded dKosopedia, a wiki designed to be a clearing-house for all sorts of information relating to leftwing netroots activities. (The name is a nod to Wikipedia.) While the first-order effect of the network is to gather individuals together into a community, once the community has formed, it begins to explore the bounds of its collective intelligence. Political junkies are the kind of passionate amateurs who defy the neat equation of amateur as amateurish. While they are not professional – meaning that they are not in the employ of politicians or political parties – political junkies are intensely well-informed, regarding this as both a civic virtue and a moral imperative. Political junkies work not for power, but for the greater good. (That opposing parties in political debate demonize their opponents as evil is only to be expected given this frame of mind.) The greater good has two dimensions: to those outside the community, it is represented as us vs. them; internally, it is articulated through the community’s social network: those with particular areas of expertise are recognized for their contributions, and their standing in the community rises appropriately.

This same process transformed dKosopedia into Daily Kos (dKos), a political blog where any member can freely write entries – known as “diaries” – on any subject of interest, political, cultural or (more rarely) nearly anything else. The very best of these contributors became the “front page” authors of Daily Kos, their entries presented to the entire community; but part of the responsibility of a front-page contributor is that they must constantly scan the ever-growing set of diaries, looking for the best posts among them to “bump” to front-page status. (This article will be cross-posted to my dKos diary, and we’ll see what happens to it.) Any dKos member can make a comment on any post, so any community member – whether a regular diarist or regular reader – can add their input to the conversation. The strongly self-reinforcing behavior of participation encourages “Kossacks” (as they style themselves) to share, pool, and disseminate the wealth of information gathered by over two million readers. Daily Kos has grown nearly exponentially since its founding days, and looks to reach its highest traffic levels ever as the mid-term elections approach.

III. My Left Eyeball

Salience is the singular quality of information: how much does this matter to me? In a world of restricted media choices, salience is best-fit affair; something simply needs to be relevant enough to garner attention. In the era of hyperdistribution, salience is a laser-like quality; when there are a million sites to read, a million videos to watch, a million songs to listen to, individuals tailor their choices according to the specifics of their passions. Just a few years ago – as the number of media choices began to grow explosively – this took considerable effort. Today, with the rise of “viral” distribution techniques, it’s a much more straight-forward affair. Although most of us still rely on ad-hoc methods – polling our friends and colleagues in search of the salient – it’s become so easy to find, filter, and forward media through our social networks that we have each become our own broadcasters, transmitting our own passions through the network. Where systems have been organized around this principle – for instance, YouTube, or Daily Kos – this information flow is greatly accelerated, and the consequential outcomes amplified. A Sick Puppies video posted to YouTube gets four million views in a month, and ends up on NINE NETWORK’s 60 Minutes broadcast. A Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut becomes the focus of national interest – a referendum on the Iraq war – because millions of Kossacks focus attention on the contest.

Attention engenders salience, just as salience engenders attention. Salience satisfied reinforces relationship; to have received something of interest makes it more likely that I will receive something of interest in the future. This is the psychological engine which powers YouTube and Daily Kos, and, as this relationship deepens, it tends to have a zero-sum effect on its participants’ attention. Minutes watching YouTube videos are advertising dollars lost to NINE NETWORK. Time spent reading Daily Kos are eyeballs and click-through lost to The New York Times. Furthermore, salience drives out the non-salient. It isn’t simply that a Kossack will read less of the Times, eventually they’ll read it rarely, if at all. Salience has been satisfied, so the search is over.

While this process seems inexorable, given the trends in media, only very recently has it become a ground-truth reality. Just this week I quipped to one of my friends – equally a dedicatee of Daily Kos – that I wanted “an IV drip of dKos into my left eyeball.” I keep the RSS feed of Daily Kos open all the time, waiting for the steady drip of new posts. I am, to some degree, addicted. But, while I always hunger for more, I am also satisfied. When I articulated the passion I now had for Daily Kos, I also realized that I hadn’t been checking the Times as frequently as before – perhaps once a day – and that I’d completely abandoned CNN. Neither website possessed the salience needed to hold my attention.

I am certainly more technically adept in than the average user of the network; my media usage patterns tend to lead broader trends in the culture. Yet there is strong evidence to demonstrate that I am hardly alone in this new era of salience. How do I know this? I recently received a link – through two blogs, Daily Kos and The Left Coaster – to a political campaign advertisment for Missouri senatorial candidate Claire McCaskill. The ad, featuring Michael J. Fox, diagnosed with a early-onset form of Parkinson’s Disease, clearly shows him suffering the worst effects of the disorder. Within a few hours after the ad went up on the McCaskill website, it had already been viewed hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of times. People are emailing the link to the ad (conveniently provided below the video window, to spur on viral distribution) all around the country, and likely throughout the world. “All politics is local,” Fox says. “But it’s not always the case.” This, in a nutshell, describes both the political and the media landscapes of the 21st-century. Nothing can be kept in a box. Everything escapes.

Twenty-five years ago, in The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler predicted the “demassification of media.” Looking at the ever-multiplying number of magazines and television channels, Toffler predicted a time when the mass market fragmented utterly, into an atomic polity, entirely composed of individuals. Writing before the Web (and before the era of the personal computer) he offered no technological explanation for how demassification would come to pass. Yet the trend lines seemed obvious.

The network has grown to cover every corner of the planet in the quarter-century since the publication of The Third Wave – over two billion mobile phones, and nearly a billion networked computers. A third of the world can be reached, and – more significantly – can reach out. Photographs of bombings in the London Underground, captured on mobile phone cameras, reach Flickr before they’re broadcast on the BBC. Islamic insurgents in Iraq videotape, encode and upload their IED attacks to filesharing networks. China fights an losing battle to restrict the free flow of information – while its citizens buy more mobile phones, every year, than the total number ever purchased in the United States. Give individuals a network, and – sooner, rather than later – they’ll become broadcasters.

One final, and crucial technological element completes the transition into the era of demassification – the release of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 7.0. Long delayed, this most important of all web browsers finally includes support for RSS – the technology behind “feeds.” Suddenly, half a billion PC users can access the enormous wealth of individually-produced and individually-tailored news resources which have grown up over the last five years. But they can also create their own feeds, either by aggregating resources they’ve found elsewhere, or by creating new ones. The revolution that began with Gutenberg is now nearly complete; while the Web turned the network into a printing press, RSS gives us the ability to hyperdistribute publications so that anyone, anywhere, can reach everyone, everywhere.

Now all is dissolution. The mainstream media will remain potent for some time, centers for the creation of content, but they must now face the rise of the amateurs: a battle of hundreds versus billions. To compete, the media must atomize, delivering discrete chunks of content through every available feed. They will be forced to move from distribution to seduction: distribution has been democratized, so only the seduction of salience will carry their messages around the network. But the amateurs are already masters of this game, having grown up in an environment where salience forms the only selection pressure. This is the time of the amateur, and this is their chosen battlefield. The outcome is inevitable. Deck chairs, meet Titanic.