Do You Want A Revolution — or Cable TV?
John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, gave digital media pundits an early Christmas gift with his column, "I Won't Hug This File - I Won't Even Call It My Friend," in which he expresses doubts about the Internet's value. Predictably, he was widely mocked as a clueless fogey. Critics took delight in making fun of his assumption that email is supposed to be "exciting," his contention that the Web does less for democracy than old-style media and distrust of audience-driven journalism. It reminded me of the reaction to Malcolm Gladwell's essay in the New Yorker a few weeks earlier discounting the importance of Twitter.
While their essays are different in many ways, MacArthur and Gladwell share a skepticism about whether the Internet and social media are truly revolutionary. It's a valid question.
MacArthur, for instance, wonders if the Internet has really been good for grassroots political debate. "Most of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness," he writes. Harsh. Gladwell says that Twitter does not really help popular political movements in places like Iran, as is widely claimed, but works best for low-risk, low-responsibility activism—things like petitions and fundraising.
Do they have a point? When it comes to organizing highly-motivated people around a political cause, such as the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era, it's hard to argue that Twitter does a better job than the telephone. And when it comes to facilitating powerful political/social movements, it's hard to argue the Internet does a better job than the underground magazines of the '60s. But a lot of it has to do with how we define "revolutionary."
Perhaps, taking the long view, there's a useful comparison to be made with cable TV, which was also seen as revolutionary when it was first introduced in its present form in the early '70s. People at the time believed cable would bring to people's lives some of the things that were not actually realized until the advent of the Internet: choice, customizability, interactivity and hyper-local virtual communities. Cable ultimately didn't deliver on those things, becoming just another way to receive content produced by a few large media conglomerates. It increased the ability to create content for (and market to) niche audiences, but it did not fulfill its promise as an enlightening force freeing the masses from the self-referencing, self-reinforcing world of conventional news and entertainment.
The Internet has obviously succeeded where cable could not on the interactivity front. What MacArthur and Gladwell wonder, however, is whether it has had the social and political effects claimed by its champions. In essence, has digital media empowered people in unprecedented ways? Or has it become like cable—another "push" medium for targeting audiences through branded channels, as argued recently in Wired.
It's an open question. I will say, though, that most of the eye-opening, view-challenging things I read are in old-fashioned, long-form media like—dare I say it?—Gladwell's New Yorker. The problem with niche media—be it a liberal or conservative aggregation site on the Web or Fox News vs CNN on television—is it tends to reinforce what we already think. But that's a subject for another post.