Sunday, January 26, 2014

There's Nothing Wrong With New Media


Photo Credit: Jason Howie
John Winters, over at Cognocenti, bemoans the central role of trivial interests in our lives. This refrain should be quite familiar by now. The "new media" are largely to blame for our callow self-interest, and our adoring of vapid celebrities, 24 hour news cycles, etc., etc....

To a large extent I agree with Winters. It does concern me that celebrity gossip is an extremely popular form of entertainment, that people care more about the lives of the rich and famous than the lives of those in poverty. We would likely better off as a species if people worried more about the "dozen good-sized wars raging, a teetering national health care initiative, an out-of-control national debt, historic gridlock in Washington and rising rates of poverty and homelessness." I'd add to these concerns animal rights, global poverty, and general inequality, and I don't think the national debt should make the list. But the point is clear enough.

I don't think the entirety of our lives should be concerned with the most important issues of our time. Or, to put it another way, I think one important issue of any time is how individuals' lives go, and each individual needn't spend all their time thinking about ways to help others. But they should spend much, much more time engaged with important issues than most people do at present.

Where I part ways with Winters (and countless other opinion writers who are aghast at frivolous millenials) is when he thinks this is a relatively new problem. Commentators like Winters always want a bad guy in this story, and the bad guy is always the internet. Why? Because it's new, exciting, and it wasn't around when they were young and everything was better. But this viewpoint is grossly mistaken.

Consider this patronizing observation:
How did this happen? We used to be smart, on the ball, with IQs soaring. I posed this query to a teenaged relative of mine who recently had his eyes and thumbs surgically removed from his iPhone. Not surprisingly, he just shrugged.
The implication, here, is that the new generation is literally stupider than the ones that came before. But there's no reason to actually think this is true. There's no reason to think that older generations didn't have more frivolous interests when they were younger, or that most of them don't have trivial interests now.

Winters complains that content is now driven solely by advertising interests, but this has always been the case. The trouble is that now advertisers are much better at knowing what readers want to read. The number of page clicks per article is much more instructive than general subscription statistics. Newspapers probably had, on average, more serious content than is posted on Facebook, but that doesn't mean people were actually interested in or reading all that content.

What the new ways of media have brought are better ways for content providers to provide content that consumers want. This means that a lot of what will be produced will indeed be pretty trivial, but that's not because people's interests are more trivial than they used to be. It's because that's what people have always wanted.

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