Signs of a tipping point in media development

This is a cross-post from Martin Cloake’s blog. Martin is a writer, editor and media trainer and will be attending news:rewired.

In his review of the film Avatar in Time Out, critic Tom Huddleston quotes a line from Jurassic Park in which a character says: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Huddleston goes on “James Cameron is one of those scientists: so in love with the technology, with the possibilities, that he never pauses to reflect upon the practicalities of cinema, of storytelling, of connecting with an audience.”

It was one of a number of things that prompted me to think we may be approaching what Malcolm Gladwell termed a tipping point as far as media technology goes, a point where the focus of debate moves from the medium to the message. I’ll refer to two other instances to back up that view. The first is Daily Mirror associate editor Matt Kelly’s speech at the World  Editors Forum, in which he challenged the pre-eminence of search and re-asserted the primacy of content.

Speaking of one strand of development within the industry, he said: “If little things like character, brand (…) the ingrained values that made the print product a success, got in the way, well, the ends justified the means. Content wasn’t king. Traffic was. Whoever, from wherever, reading whatever. It didn’t matter as long as the audience grew.”

Heart of the journalism debate

Those words go to the heart of the debate about journalism that has dominated the first decade of the 21st Century. It’s worth reading the speech in full, as it’s something of a rallying cry to an industry that has lost its confidence and allowed itself to be mesmerised by technology and delivery methods to such a degree it has forgotten the importance of substance. This may be because media companies, while not necessarily losing money, are not making the profits they have come to expect – and are therefore more susceptible to what they are told is ‘the next big thing’.

Which leads me to another piece I read which kept this train of thought rolling. Adam Tinworth’s blog post A Prediction: 2010, Social Media and Snake Oil came in response to a kicking he’d taken after retweeting a thought-provoking piece by Alan Patrick about self-styled ‘social media experts’. Adam makes a fair point about “self-proclaimed gurus who are happy to take people’s money for largely illusory return” and who undermine the contribution of others who have genuinely developed some expertise. But there’s another, trickier, issue that must be considered alongside this – and one for which I suspect I may receive a kicking myself.

What makes an expert?

While there is undoubtedly expertise in using various channels, tools and technologies that can be passed on by individuals and organisations that have worked hard to build that knowledge, there is also a tendency to create a closed professional consensus that can only be accessed through an emerging class of professional experts. And those, often self-defined, professional experts often react particularly badly to anyone who may take a different perspective. My award for Most Irritating Quote of 2009 goes to “You just don’t get it, do you?”, which seemed to be a favourite response of those who see any view other than their own as a threat. It betrays a contempt for different perspectives and, dare I say, a lack of confidence in the original perspective.

There are some rich ironies here. Much of the resistance to new ways of working and the new opportunities we now have at our disposal comes from people who feel they’ve done their time developing a level of expertise and don’t see why they should have to take on anything new. It’s a backwards kind of professionalism which values the accumulation of expertise above its development. And yet there’s a strand of debate which attempts to create a false science of ‘new media’ which seems to be at odds with the more open and collaborative times which have been created. Often when I hear so-called ‘old media’ berated by so-called ‘new media’ for attempting to preserve its ivory towers, the old Who lyric “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” comes to mind.

So while I agree with Adam Tinworth that there has to be a way to distinguish genuine expertise from “snake oil salesmen”, I worry when I see, as part of Alan Patrick’s otherwise well-considered post linked above, quotes such as “anyone who was not on Twitter by end of 2007 has no place in calling themselves a Social Media Guru/Expert/Whatever”. I ‘get’ the point he’s making, but “I did it first” can’t be the basis of a definition of expertise. It’s quite possible that someone who only started using Twitter last year has something valuable to offer. And I certainly hope it’s what I write on this blog that is considered worth engaging with more than the date on which I started blogging. We should be asking ‘what?’ rather than ‘when?’ or ‘how?’ – surely?

Putting the social in social media
The other irony is the anti-social nature of much of the debate conducted via social media. “You just don’t get it, do you?” is mild stuff compared to some of the vitriol I’ve seen, with even respected commentators resorting to terms such as “fuckwittery” when describing the views of others. It may be what Adam Tinworth was thinking of when he predicted that the debate would get “a whole lot more vicious”.

Of course, debate is sometimes robust. I’ve certainly participated in a few humdingers in my time. But the atomised nature of much participation in social media seems to lead people to forget some of the normal social mores. Author Susan Hill made an interesting point on Radio 4 over the holidays when talking about the abusive emails she has received since one of her books was put on the National Curriculum. “Thanks a lot, you’ve ruined my life” is among the more polite, but Hill makes a point of mailing everyone back and asking: “Would you conduct yourself like that if you met me in the street?” Invariably, she said, she gets a reply of apology and some interesting debate follows.

Engage with the future
I hope readers don’t find the “it’s capitalism wot’s to blame, guv” argument too much of a cliché, but it’s a fact that the nature of the economy is forcing so many down the path of “independent expert consultant”, so it’s inevitable that hackles will be raised by anything that is perceived as a threat to the creation of a potentially lucrative aura of expertise. But real progress can only come through the open application and sharing of expertise. This doesn’t mean no one could or should make a living from their expertise, just that those prepared to genuinely engage and collaborate can potentially offer – and even gain – much more than those who aren’t.

So, if we are approaching that tipping point I mentioned at the start of this post, I hope that the new landscape will be one in which;

• Content is much more central to everything we do;

• We focus more on what we can possibly do rather than what we can no longer do;

• We improve the quality of debate about these two points.

Happy new year!

You might be interested in …