On David Foster Wallace, the Social Web and How We Watch Now
First, Happy New Year to all of this blog’s readers. Second, I am going to sorely test your patience. For just over four years I have been posting here about the state of the music industry, especially its ridiculous attempts to understand how people use the web, and how they would like to get access to music online. I have blamed the musicians for this stalemate recently, in this essay. The response was fully expected by me. Once that essay found its way on to the website Music Think Tank, a site that is read by a lot of working musicians, things got really interesting. Check out the comments.
I say “test your patience,” because I am hoping that you will read this rather lengthy piece, one that only tangentially touches upon the music world, as I work through why the web as an application that sits on the Internet, is a far different technology than television, and why that puzzles marketers and advertisers.
Thanks for reading.
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Cheap Holidays In Other People’s Misery
In the past two decades TV viewers in the U.S. stepped up to another level of armchair voyeurism – glueing themselves to the screen as they voraciously gobbled up untold amounts of reality TV garbage. [The Sex Pistols had a great song back in 1977 called Holidays In The Sun which included the lyric - 'Cheap Holidays In Other People's Misery.' I mention it here, as it seems rather fitting.]
As we begin a new decade, 17 years since Wallace wrote that essay, how we “watch” has now changed forever. We view the social web through a TV-shaped monitor but the similarities end right there. 17 years ago, as much as any outgoing, wildly exhibitionist young person would have loved to expose themselves [literally and figuratively] on a reality TV show, they couldn’t. That was because of the walled garden approach those TV show’s producers took – you had to be invited, you had to audition. Now, the simple act of opening your browser means you are unequivocally participating in the social web – a wholly different technology and distribution platform – so hey kids, be our guest, go crazy! And they do.
I am not attempting to make a preemptive strike against TV watching here, nor do I wish to foment a TV versus social web debate – I’m far more interested in exploring the distinct differences in these mediums. The same year that Wallace wrote his essay, saw the debut of the NCSA Mosaic web browser. Marc Andreessen, who led that development team, went on to start Netscape, a company that brought us the browser of the same name, which became enormously popular and accounted for 90% of all web use at its peak. [Source: Wikipedia]
Much has unfolded since, as browser development moved through various iterative stages, yet 17 years later, many brands and their agencies still struggle to fully comprehend the difference between TV advertising and the strategic approach that is required to utilize the social web.
The history of the web is short, and as a modern phenomenon it has a shorter history than TV, although its initial take up rate was almost identical – 10 years to get to 80 million users. [The chart referenced in that link presumes the Internet became public in 1989 so it covers the decade through 1999.] Let’s also remember that before TV, radio was the media of choice for receiving information, so the Internet take up rate in the decade ‘89 – ‘99 is impressive, as it was competing against a modern, built-out version of TV networks and a larger modern radio spectrum, for attention.
The Social Web
If Wallace were still alive today, he would have had an awful lot to say about the explosion of people using the Social Web. Especially when you take into consideration how in his essay, he noted that people held a lot of disdain for TV, yet they were unable to not watch it. He would surely have noted that the rapid rise of social networking was an ironic parallel of being unable to not watch TV, as “Wallace used many forms of irony, focusing on individuals’ continued longing for earnest, unself-conscious experience, and communication in a media-saturated society.”
Wallace wrote almost as if he were writing for the web, especially with his use of extensive footnotes – On the Charlie Rose show in 1997, Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, “but then no one would read it.” [Source: Wikipedia.]
As we now know, the web is anything but linear. What Wallace was attempting to achieve with his literature, the web provides immediately. Vannevar Bush considered this promise, along with an explosion in knowledge, in 1945 when he wrote As We May Think.
The Web Is Just One Application on The Internet
One thing is also certain – the web and TV are two entirely different platform technologies. It feels odd to have to write that sentence, yet here we are on the cusp of 2010 and we still see badly executed brand campaigns online; where those inside the agencies who conceived of their client’s online campaign, appear to be convinced that web users surf the web just as they surf TV channels. They seem to forget, as Wired Editor-In-Chief, Chris Anderson, reminds us, “that the Internet is the once-a-century invention. The Web is just one application upon it. There are, and will be, others.”
Application, medium, platform, there is much that is constantly shifting on the current application medium, the web. And as Marshal McLuhan said – “The medium is an environment that produces effects.” He suggests in a TV medium, that it’s the television circuits, screen etc. that are the ad coaxing us to buy. In 2009 that means it’s the bits, bytes and code that are tantalizing us online…that may be as close to TV as the web gets.
Here’s an extract from an academic paper titled Internet Users and TV Audiences:
“What needs to be considered is how users conceive and use the medium. Because the decision to adopt a medium is dependent on users, not on the functions in the medium, therefore, we need to focus on perceptions and actual uses of it.”
Before embarking on any online effort, clients should be in a position to ask hard questions of their advertising or marketing agency, because what’s being said here, is that strategy should be based on actual user experience, not on presumed or expected use. There is no “build it and they will come” on the web.
We need someone with Wallace’s insightful genius to write E Unibus Plurum; Advertising, Marketing and the Social Web.
How We Watch Now
Although we clearly understand the Internet and its millions of web sites many of which contain myriad social web tools, as an interactive experience, there is a great deal of watching going on. Interaction is not a level playing field, just like the web itself. When we see numbers, such as Facebook having 350+ million members, those numbers can conjure up images of a teeming super-city or ant colony seething with action, but what of those who stand on the perimeter peering in? Who sees the watchers? David Foster Wallace wrote back in 1993 of “….television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat.” He’s referring to the watchers and the watched and their disdain for TV, and how “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective,” and yet they also create “despair and stasis in U.S. culture….”
People may have disdain for TV but they can’t, or couldn’t, not watch it. We can now paraphrase Wallace’s phrase as so “…….the social web whose weird pretty hand has your/our generation by the throat.” The difference being, the watchers and re-purposers are now in control. A new generation of digital youth has all web-posted-content by the throat. The web’s advantage is that the barrier to entry for any young, budding content provider is zero, and the content they post or appropriate can easily be repurposed for sharing or for personal use.
This is why advertisers and marketers get it badly wrong when they take an offline campaign and attempt to repurpose it for the web. They consider all those eyeballs online as a mass market that can be engaged by the classic PR control model of one-to-many messaging. They fail to understand that on the web control is almost impossible because of its open nature, and that the only thing that’s scarce in that “mass market,” is attention. Repurposing of content is analogous to what would happen if reality TV show participants had the gall to hijack the show’s cameras and production and make a real reality show..