Media Has Morphed

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Silicon Alley Reporter on 1 February 2000

Those of you called “media professionals” like to think of yourselves as defining the leading edge of world culture. And why not? You conceive, create, sponsor or broadcast the images that are seen around the globe. Whether you make Baywatch, Nike commercials or news programs, you are responsible for the stories, pictures and ideas that shape the way millions, perhaps billions of people think and feel.

Or so you like to believe.

For media is no longer a one-way affair. Thanks to interactivity, the people you used to call your audience have become the chief creators of content. The highly polished programming you make is just one of many choices available to consumers who can just as easily go on the Internet, play video games or even make their own media.

What does it mean to be responsible media professionals in a media space where you are no longer in charge? And how do you make a living by doing so?

What I’d like to pose is that the only way to profit from and participate in the interactive media space is to let go of the reins. By relinquishing your control over the media you make, you will become the real leaders of this industry in the 21st Century.

For a time, publishing barons like William Randolph Hearst maintained an iron grip on their media empires. The communications departments at universities taught students the principles of “mass media.” Mass media was the study of how to control populations through the use of mainstream programming. By the 1960s, it appeared that the media’s absolute control over society was inevitable.

But then something odd happened. Media had become so pervasive that it could no longer be absolutely controlled. Uncensored television broadcasts of the atrocities in the Vietnam War were seen at dinnertime in homes throughout the U.S., fueling anti-war protests. The first picture of the Earth taken from outer space–ostensibly a triumph of American technological ingenuity–became an icon for the hippies, and launched an environmental movement.

Images from CNN to MTV reached people formerly isolated behind the Iron Curtain, and raised lifestyle expectations, making those totalitarian regimes impossible to maintain. In a sense, Madonna crashed the Berlin Wall.

None of these democratizing features of the global media gave those in the commercial area any cause for alarm. Though the creation of a global media forced firms to forge global partnerships, it was a small price to pay for reaching the whole world.

For the new global corporations and media conglomerates, media itself became the most desired product of all. In Eastern Europe and Asia, televisions became status symbols. In the West, people bought every new media device that hit the market.

This love affair between people and the tools of media led to some unexpected consequences. As these devices became inexpensive enough to reach the hands of individuals, we began to see real people using media to enact social change. And they did so with purpose.

Chinese students protesting their national leadership announced their stand off with the military in Tienamen Square by sending faxes around the world. The beating of an African American, by white policemen in Los Angeles is recorded on a home camcorder, images of the brutality are broadcast globally and lead to riots in a dozen American cities. An Internet site maintained by an unknown gossip columnist named Matt Drudge releases information suppressed by mainstream magazines: that an American President had a sexual affair with a young intern. As a result, Bill Clinton was impeached by Congress.

Interactive devices changed the media from a one-way broadcast to a community event. People began sharing information and insights across racial, national, and religious boundaries. Electronic bulletin boards allowed people to share information about anything that interested them–from recipes for cheesecake to formulas for alternative cancer treatments.

The media’s essential nature had changed from a place to consume prepared programming to a way to communicate.

The children growing up in this interactive environment became a marketer’s nightmare. Media makers called them “generation X,” because they didn’t respond to advertising messages the way their elders did. They used remote controls to “channel surf” away from programming they didn’t like. So much for commercials.

They played video games with Nintendo joysticks–not such a revolutionary act on the surface, perhaps. But a child who uses a television set as a toy doesn’t have the same reverence for the television image as we did. That child knows what it is like to have control over the pixel. The image has been demystified.

Finally, the computer keyboard and mouse turn the television monitor into a portal for a youngster’s self-expression. Young people grow up communicating through a screen that looks no different from the TV set. If they do choose to sit quietly and watch one of our programs, they do so voluntarily–with full knowledge that they can express themselves through that monitor, too. To them, it’s like listening to the radio through a telephone handset.

Understandably, perhaps, the first reaction of those who previously enjoyed a monopoly over the media was to reverse these steps. An interactive mediaspace was a hard place to maintain control, so it needed to be contained.

Their first tactic was to mislabel this revolution in interactivity as an “information age.” An information age places the emphasis on content–stuff that can be bought and sold. That’s a whole lot more palatable than is communication to the men and women whose business depends on selling media rather than simply empowering human beings to speak with one another.

Next, they looked for a way to convert the Internet–a many-to-many media–into a good, old-fashioned broadcast channel. They seized on a very particular Internet application called the World Wide Web, and invested everything they could to make it the dominant Internet interface. Why? Because unlike most Internet applications, the Web stays basically still. It looks pretty much like TV or an electronic magazine. There’s no way to talk back to it–other than to type in a credit card number and press the “buy” button.

Last, something had to be done about the interactive mindset that had infected media consumers. This is the stage we’re in now. We talk of creating “sticky” websites that catch Internet users as if they were flies.

If you keep going in this direction, you will reduce the promise of a global communications infrastructure into a worldwide electronic strip mall. And, ironically, you will reduce our potential profits in the process.

The way to benefit from and even enjoy the tremendous change in our industry is to develop a long-term view. The object of the game is not to make fast cash and drop out–it’s to succeed in the long run. Slow and steady still wins the race, no matter how accelerated the computer chip.

This means taking advantage of the new qualities of media rather than resisting them. The most successful online businesses to date are not those that attempt to coral Internet users into sticky sites just to sell them products. It’s companies like GeoCities that allow users to create their own websites for free, join affinity groups, and then market their favorite products and software to one another. It’s sites like eBay that empower individuals to buy and sell products without expensive middlemen.

The most successful companies will see the interactive media of the 21st Century as an opportunity to sponsor and facilitate communication between people from around the world. A record company that creates a website for its customers to share their music tastes and ideas will be rewarded with a level of brand recognition that quite simply cannot be matched by television commercials at 10 times the cost. An airline that creates, say, a Palm Pilot application for global travelers to calculate time zones will be rewarded when customers use that same application to make their plane reservations. A toy retailer that develops games for kids to play with each other online will be the first destination when it’s time for that same child to assemble his Christmas wish list.

It’s not unlike the way television grew in the ’50s and ’60s. Instead of interrupting pro- grams with commercials, sponsors made it clear that they, themselves, were the source of the entertainment. Brands became household names by associating themselves with programs that they produced. Whenever possible, they made sure the programs reflected some of the values of their brand images.

In the Internet space usefulness means more than image. This makes it even easier for companies to sponsor products and services that closely match the needs of their clientele, and that make it easier for customers to choose them over competitors when it comes time to buy. Instead of spending money on advertising, companies can spend money directly on their customers. It’s a win-win situation.

Our only real enemy is cowardice. In an interactive mediaspace, one’s every move eventually comes to light. When the chairman of an international media conglomerate, for example, agrees to blackout the BBC World Service in order to win a satellite TV contract with China, he sacrifices the long-term integrity of his company and its public image for the short-term expediency of a deal. When an aerospace company with a significant stake in a television network forces its news program to pull a story about the dangers associated with a rocket launch, they only hurt themselves in the long run. On the Internet, millions spread the news, and trumpet the company’s policy of censorship, anyway. Quite simply, it’s bad media and bad business.

As the builders and leaders of tomorrow’s media space, you owe it to yourselves to see interactivity not as a threat but as an opportunity. It is a chance to generate tolerance, erase international strife, ease senseless violence, while helping the previously unheard promote their cultural identity as never before. In the process, you can help your sponsors associate themselves with something much more precious than brand value. Through your work, your ideas and your unflinching commitment to real needs, they can actually enact human values, instead. ■