Tag Archives: digital media

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Social Media Just Aren’t That Interesting

Powerful?  Undoubtedly. Fascinating to study? Not so much.

Social Media. I teach and write about their uses and commercial functions.  But when push comes to shove (and there is a lot of intellectual shoving here), they just aren’t that interesting.  They are often the routes by which Americans now “connect” with each other. “Communicate” would be an overstatement. Are social media powerful?  Undoubtedly.  An interesting communication form to study?  Not so much.

Texting and posting via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and many other digital forms of Post-it notes usually offer us what is too often the equivalent of the stuff left over in the back desk drawer of the mind: discarded fragments of what still remains to be worked out, or judgments of others that are no credit to one’s own character. It can be a dispiriting thing to stroll through a university library full of tomes of worked out narratives and carefully curated insights into the human condition.  But if one looks at nearby tables, it seems that too many people seated in front of their laptops are doing little more than exchanging thought-fragments that now pass for flashes of judgment.  On the shelves the serious work of linear thinkers mostly remain untouched, while library patrons seem to be surfing through throwaway messages mostly because they can.  And their pictures can be just as problematic, suggesting levels of crippling self-involvement that leave little time or room for others.

My complaint is a professional one. My field used to have a sweeping focus on message analysis, examining those in public life who had interesting, frightening or far-reaching things to say.  But now, it seems, we have returned to the kinds of preoccupations that then defined our still-immature field in the 1960’s: when television was the newest medium and we studied its disposable content with an intensity it rarely deserved. And so here we are again 60 years later, looking at “emergent media” and marveling at .  .  . what exactly? The President’s awful bullying and bluster?  Celebrity comments that “go viral?,” corporations that have mastered micro-targeting because of the trail of digital bread crumbs the rest of us leave?  In terms of the quality and thoughtfulness of the messaging, it’s all pretty tepid stuff.  Perhaps television’s Ellen DeGeneres has it right.  She looks at texting as a source of humor: worth a laugh, but not much more. To be sure, the first wave of media theory with McLuhan and others was exciting.  More recent efforts seem less compelling.

The seemingly durable canons of the field used to include entire philosophies of communication thought out in exquisite detail by thinkers like Kenneth Burke, Susanne Langer, Neil Postman, Hugh Duncan, Wayne Booth, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and many others.  Their names may not be familiar, but their work propelled generations of scholars to take the work of message-analysis seriously.  Burke in particular offered a complete and evocative world view of communication that many of his acolytes adopted and still teach (in my case: to perhaps 6000 students so far).

Remember the famous line in Sunset Boulevard (1950), when the fading Norma Desmond is reminded that she “used to be big”?  Her response seems fitting to for a field that seems lost in the tall grass of pixels and platforms rather than a higher terrain beyond.  “I am big,” she responded. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Who Really Owns “Our” Stuff?

In the long run there is something to be said for less manufacturing and more borrowing.  But its a painful transition. 

When we purchase a “product” these days it seems less like we have taken ownership of something and more like we have purchased a set of open-ended permissions. Our relationship to some products is now much more fraught with ambiguous limits about how they may be used, loaned or copied.  I’m still not sure who actually owns “my” music on ITunes. Apple treats every music customer like a supplicant. Ditto for e-book purchases from Amazon.  I can read them, but their portability beyond their approved platforms seems limited.  The same ambiguity exists with films purchased via a cable supplier.  I have access to the one film I did “buy” through our cable provider.  But it’s not like I can put it into my pocket and share it anywhere.  And just last week I was surprised to be asked to log on to a Microsoft site with a work password to look at my Word files on my home computer.  If we ever had the fortitude to read the fine print, we would find that the digital rights of a copy of something we think we “own” still belong to the seller.  Companies apparently pay people a lot of money to dream up ways to put strings on lots of different kinds of products.  They want to be gatekeepers.

It turns out the Tesla Automobiles appears to operate under the same logic. I can imagine that buyers of their electric cars are accustomed to leasing everything from from property to music. But to an older car buyer, it might take some attitude adjustment to get used to the idea that the performance characteristics and driving range of a given car can be reset remotely by Tesla.  Pay more, and they can send code to the car’s computer that will make it run longer or faster.

Without doubt, digital library books seem to work well.  In the case of libraries, we know that the borrowed book is never ours.  And it certainly is far more convenient when the return process can happen without having to travel to the library’s physical location.

Anyone who looks at offices or homes will notice the people still like to collect things. In my home CDs and books are still on the shelves.  There are even some 78s hanging around and ready to live again on a 1904 Victor record player. Sure, I could pay to have digital access to Irving Aaronson’s 1928 recording of Let’s Misbehave. It’s not Stravinsky, but it’s fun.  And sometimes an older medium is the message. Seeing a needle the size of a nail working through the old shellac recording is part of the experience of hearing Cole Porter’s  irreverent lyrics.

In the long run there is something to be said for less manufacturing and more borrowing.  but its a painful transition.  There are predictions by thoughtful people that even the age of the private automobile will pass.  It’s hard to imagine, especially if a person lives in a rural location.  I’m also from a generation when a car was seen as a freedom machine.  Then, the more open road was always an irresistible temptation.