I have been spending perhaps too much time recently engaged in what one could call the war between old media and the Internet. As an avid cybernaut and proud card-carrying member of the social media revolution, I am often puzzled by the level of vitriol directed against the blogosphere, Twitter, and social networks by traditional commentators in top-down communication centres. A certain amount of Luddism is to be expected with every technology. Douglas Adams commented once that:
“There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”
This maxim holds true for mostly everything, from fire to computers. I often wonder what it must have been like to be alive at the time the printing press was invented; I can imagine grumpy old men arguing that it would never catch on, and asking what was wrong with copying a book by hand the way God intended? I was thinking of this listening to the Today Programme this morning, where John Humphrys was asking about the merits of Twitter. Such mild technophobia is somewhat endearing, and I have no qualms with it whatsoever.
However, there is something else happening at the moment with regards to social media. As I have stated repeatedly, there is a more widespread and organised war being waged on the Internet as an idea and as an ideal, even by newspapers that have embraced the digital environment wholeheartedly. Here is yet another piece in The Guardian about how immediacy of comment and thought is not such a good thing after all. Joe Moran writes eloquently about this once again, and although this is a more considered argument about the pitfalls of collective thought and endless interactivity, it pretty much repeats the message that “traditional media = good, Internet = bad”. He writes:
“I wonder if one reason that so much discussion on the blogosphere deteriorates into the humourless taking and giving of offence is that people assume the words printed on the screen are aimed at them personally. In a culture which values interactivity, it makes a sort of sense to treat every form of communication like a text message. But not every public statement requires, or merits, a response. All language is a leap into the dark, with no certainty that we will ever be understood or even heard. Books get remaindered, blogs remain unread, and tweets fall on deaf ears. If it were easy to interact with others, no great literature would ever be written. Shakespeare’s sonnets are unsent letters, addressed to unnamed and shadowy people, or simply spoken into the air and to eternity.”
I think this entirely misses the point of social media. I do not know many people who think that blogs will substitute books, or that Twitter will replace printed news. It is perfectly possible for both to coexist. We will always need some authoritative and well-written version of events, and for that the traditional publishing mechanisms will continue to exist. However, social media has come to allow more people’s voices to be made available. Is this a good thing? I personally think that it is a fundamental and empowering change in society, one that could potentially create a more participative and rich intellectual environment. Is there a lot of dross out there? Certainly! But there is also a lot of dross in traditional media, as any thinking person who picks up a copy of Heat magazine will attest to. The Internet has opened up new avenues of communication, this is simply the creation of a new medium; the content, and most importantly, the use given to that medium is up to us. Millions of blogs may go unread, and billions of tweets may clutter the digital dung-heap, but we have to recognise that the intellectual environment has been enriched by it for those willing to sift through countless words to find meaning.
I know it is rather ironic that I am writing these words in a blog not many people will read, but these are more people than I would have reached if we still relied on the exclusive distribution mechanisms available to us in the analogue world. I do not have any idyllic pictures of a future of perfect interaction, but I declare the strong conviction that the present is much better than the alternative.