Sunday, April 27, 2008


At work, I get to do some research about the information industry and related technology because, well, libraries are deeply involved in the mediasphere. So that's cool. And last week I was reading up on teens (god, I hate the terms "tweens" and "screenagers") and tech. And there's a neat, very recent report from Pew on teens and writing, and another, older study from Fox about "Never Ending Friending" and a NYT article that asks, "Can Cellphones End Global Poverty," another good report from Pew on the demographics of mobile data use, and on and on. Stuff about social networking, teens, mobile phones, games and media literacy. So that's all in my head.

Then, this morning, I read Clay Shirky's blog post, "Gin, Television and Social Surplus." It's good. Go read it and come back.

Clay is talking about what we do, as a society, to deal with radical shifts in culture. He gives the example of people going on a generation-long gin bender when the industrial age brought millions of people into cities. In order to deal, they got plastered.

Years ago, I read a similar theory about the pyramids. You had this ancient, Egyptian agrarian population that, like most of such, spent almost all their collective time farming and starving. Then some clever dudes figure out some basic math, engineering and astronomy, and put the knowledge to use to create an irrigation system that is N% more productive and reliable than the old methods. Whatever that "N" is, it provided a bunch of time that nobody new what to do with. So they built the pyramids. Partly as a program of public works... but mostly because they had a bunch of people with time on their hands and no idea how to spend it. They already knew how to build stuff... so why not build really big stuff!
Clay makes the point that TV has been sucking up brjillions of hours of our free time, and that we now have more choices about what to do with that time, many of which are creative, and that people like being creative, and so they are choosing things that are at least interactive as opposed to truly passive. Best quote of the post, imo:
However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

That's just so true it makes my teeth hurt [note, I actually enjoy both of the above, but the comparison is valid as hell].

OK. So we've got new media literacy. We've got participatory media and massive social applications. We've got mobile phones that are increasingly used as tools for digital participation, and are less expensive (than desktop PC's with Web access) and thus more readily available to folks in lower economic strata, and that includes kids. That's all in my head. Don't worry... it's a really big head.

Some people have said that participatory media is a move back to a time when people made their own fun and entertainment. Up until the printing press, if you wanted a story, you pretty much had to *hear* a story. News and history were participatory media. Until radio, there were no mass, single-source, culture-wide stations. Then TV came along. And we had tens of millions of people watching "Leave it to Beaver" and "Dallas" and and and and. I grew up in the middle of that. I joke that I had three parents: Mommy, Daddy and Teevy.

It was, and is, a cross between beauty and horror. I love, for example, that there are now hundreds of channels of TV. We watch all kinds of history, science, engineering, etc. programs with my 8-year-old son (Hooray for Myth Busters!). But he also watches Sponge Bob and  Avatar and other stuff (so do I, btw). Big budget media can produce some neat stuff.

Soon he'll start typing in earnest. And then, I assume, will enter the mediasphere as a participant; commenter, responder, linker, writer, poster, photographer, videographer, blogger, cartoonist, podcaster, IMer... something. Many things. Some interesting, some meaningful, some trivial. Just like life.

And that, I think, is the major difference between the old, top-down media (TV being god there) and what we're getting into now -- it's more like life.

I've taken to saying that my motto for the new, participatory mediasphere is "verbs over nouns." Whenever you want to bet on a new trend or idea or technology, ask yourself... is it improving (or growing) something "noun-y" (stuff), or something "verb-y" (activities). The line that many of my (older) friends use about much of the new content on the Web (YouTube and journal-style blogs seem to be the favorite targets), is that, "It's a bunch of crap."

Well, yeah. But for the people who created it, it's their own personal crap as opposed to a small piece of a giant load of crap dropped on them from 30,000 feet up that also hits a couple million other people.

It's also useful to keep in mind that the pyramids, when looked at a certain way, are crap, too. Engineering marvels? Sure. Wonders of the world? Of course. But what have they ever done for you? Would your life be any different if the pyramids were suddenly not there? Or if they'd never been? The Colossus of  Rhodes went away in 226 BC. Do you miss it? I mean, sure... it would be cool to see. But I've never, once, in my life, said, "Thank God for the pyramids!" (as opposed to penicillin, steam power, the printing press, blues, chocolate, etc.)

How will we spend what Clay calls our "social surplus?" Will we make more friends in more places? Spread knowledge? Create great works?

I don't know. I feel that it's inherently better to do things that are creative and connected. That time spent creating even the "least of these" in terms of blogs and YouTube movies is better than time spent watching a rerun of (shudder) "Welcome Back Kotter." But I also wonder if partly all we're doing is creating many, smaller pyramids.

The nice thing, with the new media, is that we get to decide what's important. It doesn't have to be a centralized project like the pyramids or TV. And, just like with the printing press, I bet (as does Clay) that many smaller voices will add up to something more important than one, big voice.

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