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technobabble

Every time I get excited about new media, I read someone from Wired magazine peddling breathless techno-utopian hype and suddenly the future seems like it will resemble the past, only much, much worse. Here, for instance, is Chris Anderson interviewed in Salon.

Mr. Anderson, let’s talk about the future of journalism.

This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don’t use the word “journalism.”

OK , how about newspapers? They are in deep trouble both in the United States and worldwide.

Sorry, I don’t use the word “media.” I don’t use the word “news.” I don’t think that those words mean anything anymore. They defined publishing in the 20th century. Today, they are a barrier. They are standing in our way, like a horseless carriage.

Which other words would you use?

There are no other words. We’re in one of those strange eras where the words of the last century don’t have meaning. What does news mean to you, when the vast majority of news is created by amateurs? Is news coming from a newspaper, or a news group or a friend? I just cannot come up with a definition for those words. Here at Wired, we stopped using them.

Hang on a minute. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers have changed the meaning of “media.” But without the traditional news media they wouldn’t actually have much to do. Most of the amateurs comment on what the quality press report. So did you read a newspaper this morning?

No.

Your local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, is fighting for survival. If it was to disappear tomorrow …

… I wouldn’t notice. I don’t even know what I’d be missing.

So how do you stay informed?

It comes to me in many ways: via Twitter, it shows up in my in box, it shows up in my RSS base, through conversations. I don’t go out looking for it.

We could dwell on how much of a git Anderson seems to be (I visualise him with a little goatee beard, making invisible scare quotes with his fingers when he says the word ‘media’) but let’s rather consider the proposition he’s making: he doesn’t need journalism to know about the world since he finds out everything from Twitter or emails from friends. He goes on to explain, ‘If something has happened in the world that’s important, I’ll hear about it. I heard about the protests in Iran before it was in the papers because the people who I subscribe to on Twitter care about those things.’

Now news has always eventually trickled down to those too indolent or apathetic to pay attention but as a model for information distribution, well, the mind boggles. It’s the mentality of the angry teenager dissing his parents: ‘Look, if there’s something important in that Shakespeare dude someone at school will tell me about him.’

As for Twitter, yes, it has its pleasures (the more I use it, the more I think it’s basically a text version of Big Brother, in which you follow the daily activities of semi-strangers as a live soap opera, something which, contrary to what you might think, is actually strangely compelling). But as a news source about Iran? Here’s what Twitter would have told you, two weeks into the Iranian protests.

twitter1

In other words, plugged-in techno futurists would have learned … exactly what everyone else knew about that Michael Jackson fellow: he’d once released songs called ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’, he was popular on MTV, some had called him the ‘King of Pop’, and now he was dead. Oh, yes — Twitter would also have told  Anderson that Jeff Goldblum was no more, something which turned out to be the teensiest bit not true.

Again, there’s a simple point about new media that always gets neglected. It’s not the technology that matters, it’s the social relations from which that technology emerges. Unless we find new ways of organising ourselves and making meaning in our lives, we’ll be presented with the most wondrous communication tools … and we’ll devote them to celebrity trivia.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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Comments

  1. One of the most difficult skills to learn in using the new technology is that of being your own editor. A certain ruthlessness is required. For instance, if your Twitter experience is like Big Brother, perhaps you are following the wrong people for the wrong reasons? I do the same with the RSS feeds, Chris Anderson's name pops up, drop the feed.

  2. Surely most of the real "news" that ends up on twitter, in conversations, in blogs, RSS feeds etc comes from journalists and the real "media" (sorry couldn't help it with the scare quotes). It sounds like he's ignoring the original source and assuming it comes into existence magically. It's the distribution methods that are changing. I think.

  3. I think Alice hit the nail on the head. The people he gets the news from probably read the paper themselves.

    I still read the paper, mainly to get the basic facts, to work out what's going on. I don't read the paper for opinion pieces as much, that's where I think blogging is more valuable.

    But corporate (or state-run) media companies have funding to send journalists to find out "facts", whether they're warped by agendas a bit of the time or not.

    It seems like if media companies can't work out a way to make a profit in times of new technology, then there's the possibility that there could be a black hole in spreading facts around the world.

  4. I'm not really arguing with your point – but you are misusing stats to make it. I don't think the trending comments is the only way to tell what Twitter would have told people want to know about Iraq. If one chose to follow tweeters from Iran they would have got more info from them than from alot of media. You have to control this kind of social media. Choose who you follow, and what you take on board. Otherwise you end up with a whole lot of friends called britneyfuckvid.

  5. Misuse stats to make a political point? Moi? :-)
    But I do think the argument about Twitter and Iran was very overstated. Only a tiny proportion of the population was using the service and an even tinier proportion was tweeting in English.

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