For the new year I feel obliged to write about something semi-serious, or rather something professional, something other than superficial things like astrology or shopping, both of which have important meaning for me at the start of the year. Being a media pioneer in some sense (I directed a cell phone-exclusive movie six years ago and founded a SN site/alternative news portal in Korea eight years ago) and a journalist, I decided to write about my take on the future of media. As I’m making this up as I go along, please forgive me if my thoughts aren’t organized.
Facing a decade of degrading media content
I understand that many people are concerned about preserving the quality elements of legacy media amidst this evolution. (Tim Wu talks about TV shows and good reporting; Chris Baker talks about big-budget games.) I am also concerned. Not because I think legacy media will die, but because I’m afraid we will have to wait too long before people realize that they need quality information. I think it will take at least 10 years… maybe up to 30 years (based on the demographics of digital natives and their media usage trend) for people to realize what they’re missing, be willing to pay for that information, for industries to translate that cash into investing in quality data, then of course, the production of that content itself.
We are in the Warring States Period of media- a decentralization; support of bottom-up development of content, so forth. Not only is this content abundant, it is free. I love free content as much as anyone else and so much of it free (I recently discovered that even porn- something I thought people pay for- is free). It’s almost a shame that the low price of storage allows so much cr** to be published on the Web. People are having so much fun with all these freebies that they were watching 10-minute clips of TV episodes on YouTube before network companies decided that they too, had to make their content available on their websites.
But everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch. While I believe that the Internet has made a huge contribution to news reporting, it is creating less room for investigative reporting. Investigative reporting is more often stumbling upon information on your beat and going on a path that you don’t know where its headed. A story could be anywhere; it takes time and continuous effort to find one.
Unfortunately, news companies now don’t have the luxury to allow reporters to pursue subjects that could “potentially” be a story– unless it’s breaking news, even the NYT and Washington Post won’t send a reporter to another city (I have a first-hand experience with this.) It’s the same in TV. We see more reality shows because they cost less and take less effort to produce.
I notice already that the online magazines I write for have very different standards about writing and reporting, and more and more, people are opting to do the easy task of compiling information instead of field reporting. Interviewing, for example, is being conducted more and more through email, but there’s only so much that can derived from asynchronous dialog. Also, catering to people’s short interest span in reading online material, articles are being divided up more and more under subtitles, with shorter sentences and more wire-like reporting, encouraged by new forms of media such as Twitter. It is a shame that beauty of language and thought be lost because unlike paper, the Internet can support any length of writing, and yet, writing on the web is becoming shorter and shorter.
But in time, people will start wanting more quality content. If my dark predictions come true (10 years), most of the people who know what quality journalism is will be long gone and we will have to go through a period in rebuilding that expertise. I’m not saying that quality content will be unavailable– it will always be available to a certain extent for people with the money, but the standard for those not able to pay for it will drop.
Wake up, idealists
We have to face the reality that as more and more people use the Internet, it’s no longer a secret garden where technology optimists can prance around in a pseudo socialist environment, believing that everyone will do good. That fantasy may have worked before, but it doesn’t now, and we have to quickly accept the fact that socialism isn’t going work–not only in the sense that one ill doer could easily wreck havoc in that garden, but also the fact that we need money to tend the garden. It was okay when the garden was in your backyard and every member of the family contributed to the seeding, watering, weeding, and kept basic rules about not squashing the flowers or eating all the tomatoes. But that garden is now bigger than your backyard and you have to acknowledge the fact that if you still want nice flowers, you have to adopt new rules.
You would think that infinite freedom would give people the incentive to be infinitely creative and productive, but unfortunately that is not the case. It is not about whether people are born good or born bad, but the fact that there are bad people and one person can ruin everything for the rest. In Second Life, for example, where anarchy is the default, the most flourishing communities are those that have adopted extremely strict rules.
I’m not saying we should make the Internet a highly-regulated place, but that we should stop it seeing as a utopia. The Internet does help grassroot developments and in some societies, does boost democracy and civic participation. Yet in other societies, it only gives more power to specific groups. The Internet is unlike any media we have had; its integration with our lives is greater than that of TV or newspapers. It is not just a media, it is also a paradigm, and we need to be looking more at the impact it has on our lives and society in an interdisciplinary manner.