Welcome to the Mediacracy*

// May 31st, 2008 // Rambling

6/10/08 – I’d like to point out that I didn’t write the following in hopes of being on TWiM. I’m not the person who fits what I describe. My being on TWiM was based on several factors, not the least of which were 1) my being in town this week, 2) John Flowers mentioning it (he’d already asked me to be on Life Zero) and 3) just having a long talk Alex about many other things (this blog post entered into it barely at all). Thanks. I just wanted to get that all on the table and be clear. – Maggie

Preface: This post was originally about two things. However, they converged and, more importantly, I opened my mouth too soon on Twitter and now I need to explain what I meant. The post that will eventually follow this one, ‘Welcome to the Meritocracy’ (*hence the title of this one) may be a bit skimpier as a result. OK, excuses sorted. ;) (Any updates or additions are in blue.)

Hey, Everybody

Here’s the thing… the world of entertainment is a big playing field. But unlike the past, where the local soccer or football team took field with their own referees and cheerleaders and we all watched from the sidelines behind a rail, the field has become/is becoming one big playground. And we often have a hard time figuring out both where we are on the field and who we came out to play with. Sometimes we may not really even know. Or think we do until we find ourselves behaving differently from the group we’re hanging out with.

There. That’s the end of my frilly prose. I’ll make no more attempts at flowery punditry. The rest is just meat and potatoes. And if it’s any good or, at minimum, engaging, someone will read it and say, “Well, that was interesting.” Which would, were I being all punditry-y, lead me to ‘meritocracy’, but I need to get something else off my proverbial chest and onto the table.

I listen to (and rather enjoy) a show called This Week in Media which originates out of the Pixel Corps in San Francisco. I am, in fact, a very loyal and long-time listener. The show is about media in the broad sense; film, TV, music, online video, anything where ‘media’ content is being produced and presented to an audience. It’s created, for the most part, by people who are either creating or producing media for the Internet.

A topic that’s often tossed around on TWiM, which is what everyone calls the show, is “is physical media dead?” In other words, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray and any other physical delivery system for media content. And the panel has definite opinions about this based on their individual consumption models and ‘acceptable annoyance level’. The acceptable annoyance level is basically ‘how much inconvenience are you willing to put up with to get at content’. This varies wildly in our society, from those who are happy to watch programmed television schedules and drive to the video store or Wal-Mart for a DVD (let’s call them Type1), to those who will not accept anything that’s not available at any given moment, for free, online (let’s call them Type10 and you can extrapolate the 1 to 10 scale this produces).

Throwing People You Love Under the Bus

TWiM, while having a diverse ‘core’ panel, has no representation for Type1-4; those who consume media the same (or almost the same) way they always have or how their parents did. Someone who is still right for the panel, but who interacts with the Type1-4s of the world and understands what they’re consuming and how. The majority of the panel is skewed down towards the Type10 end. The main exception being Daisy Whitney, a writer for TV Week who covers both traditional TV and online media, who has recently joined the show. She’s a definite win in that respect as she falls probably more along the spectrum as, oh, let’s say a Type5 (though she sometimes leans into a Type6 stance). [Edit: I had originally put Daisy at 4, but this may have confused the issue.]

At the far end we have John Foster who makes no bones about his consumption habits. He doesn’t pay for much if he can beg, borrow or… umm… ‘borrow online’ whatever it is he wants to watch. He’s a proponent of ad-blocking for all but the least intrusive of ads on sites like, for instance, Hulu. But John will go to a theatre to watch a film that he has enough interest in. That puts John Foster somewhere around a Type9, but very nearly a Type10.

Next is John Flowers. He’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of a Type8. If he can’t get it digitally, he’s not going to consume it. He’s willing to pay for content that has as acceptable annoyance level, but this may be hampered by his ‘digital only’ policy for content that’s not available for sale or delivery digitally. And, being a filmmaker himself, I have to presume he’ll still go to a theatre for films he cares about.

The tastes in consumption for the show’s host, Alex Lindsay, run the gamut (he often remarks that he’s “A.D.D.”) from Type5 to Type9. He visits the theatre often, rents DVDs from NetFlix and still sometimes purchases (and collects) physical media (CDs, in particular, but DVDs as well on occasion), but it’s all a matter of inverse convenience. On other words, he has a clear idea of what he wants to consume and, if he can get it quicker that way, he’ll buy it on physical media to avoid wasting time. The man is in a hurry. :) But, he’s also the first one who said “plastic is dead to me”. Clearly it’s not, but his desire to see it dead is pretty obvious.

Having just categorized and catalogued these four people leaves me feeling very odd. I’m feeling very much like I’d like to crawl back in my hole and shut up. I really do enjoy the show and I value the panelist’s opinions. But, that being said, I think the show itself suffers somewhat precisely because those opinions are so varied and narrowly representative. This is not the panelists doing, but is, in my opinion, a fundamental problem with the show.

Oh, God, Why Do I Keep Throwing Them Under That Bus?

Questions like “is physical media dead?” can be answered purely ‘journalistically’ in that you can put together some numbers from credible source, make some inferences and report on your findings. Sales figures, production numbers, pay rates, profits, investor payouts, etc. Those sort of cold figures can tell you a lot in a factual manner. But answering from your gut, from your personal opinion based on your observations and experiences, is another thing altogether.

TWiM is, in many cases, very good at spotting and discussing trends on the Internet using their gut opinion. Ask a scientists who has followed their gut to a discovery and you’re likely to hear how the ‘informed gut’ is simply your experience and knowledge set to auto-pilot. They’re especially good at that precisely because they’re so in touch with the ‘Net and the people who live there, so to speak. All of them participate in quite a bit of discourse on the Internet both in other podcasts or endeavours as well as their day jobs. As far as the ‘Net goes, they are all firmly plugged in. But… I’m afraid the bubble (which they’ve tacitly admitted that they recognize) is far too insulating and distorting when it comes to life inside America’s homes and discussion of this just hits the surface of the bubble and curves ’round back to them. (Hey, that wasn’t frilly prose. Don’t even…)

Daisy is, again, the most aware of them all of how Joe Average and Angie America consume and sometimes she seems caught on the fence as to which side she really came to play with; The millions who still watch network TV as they always have and the cool kids who are sticking it to the man in the revolution. Vive la ethernet!

America Throws John Foster Under The Bus, Instead

But Joe Average and Angie America are the ones who actually push the media outlets. Quite frankly, Wal-Mart, Target and, yes, even Apple, don’t give two shits about the John Fosters of the world. Those people are, to put it bluntly, dead to media – physical or otherwise. And the John Fosters of the world, in turn, couldn’t care less. They’re biding their time for the day the true revolution comes and whether the man cares becomes irrelevant. This is the core of the disconnect between ‘new media’ and ‘old media’. When the day comes, and it’s inevitable, the line between you and me and ‘the man’ will be so blurry that trying to focus on such a distinction would be pointless. But don’t rejoice just yet. The day is not here and there’s sure to be a shitstorm of problems we haven’t even anticipated yet to deal with before Media Nirvana descends and we all have to start complaining about the proliferation of utter crap on the ‘Net. ;)

And where do Joe and Angie Public (I just married them to save myself some typing) fit into the equation? They don’t, except as nebulous numbers and facelss ‘consumers’ whose opinions don’t quite enter in to the conversation in any concrete way. Once more, Daisy is close and has job-based connections to John and Ange (we’re friends now, they throw quote a reception), but her job keeps her straddling that fence instead of hopping off on the revolution side, where she longs to be, and watching a torrent’d screener that John Foster is trying to entice her with.

But… she’s still not indicative of the people for whom the question has the most relevance. Closer than all the others, yes, but still not quite there. And herein lies the rub. The panel’s gut doesn’t have the right diet of experiences in it to answer the question as posited. They can keep bashing up against it until they’re bruised or until the day comes and physical is, finally, dead and the confirmation bias will pay off and everyone can say “see, we called it!”

But until that day, without someone more indicative of the consuming public on their panel [Update: And I am NOT advocating a Type1 or Type2 here. Just someone whose habits are more inline with the habits of the larger public.], I think they really need to back off from this sort of question and use their notes instead of their gut. Why does it matter? Why am I risking pissing off a bunch of people whose audience is as likely to agree with me as they are to take me down and stake me to Mr. & Mrs. Public’s lawn. Why? Because their opinion matters to people like me and and to the people pushing for the revolution. And when scrutinized by others who are quoting them or taking them to task or agreeing with them, this sort of bubble-ified view has the ability to dilute the potency of their other more solid and focused opinions. And that would be a shame because TWiM is at the forefront of coverage of the coming revolution.

Before The Next Bus Comes By

So, what about it? Is physical media dead? No. I can say that so casually because one need only look at sales and talk to your brother or next-door neighbour to find out they’re still buying DVDs and CDs in fairly large quantities. Fewer each day, yes, but The question TWiM is actually asking is a forward-looking one which really asks “is physical media _about_ to be dead some time soon?” That one’s trickier. As is “is Big Media dead” or “is Blu-Ray a waste of time”. These can certainly be discussed in the bubble using stats and figures and outside reporting, but the bubble needs to be breached to let in some outside air the show is to tackle these issues with ‘gut’ opinion and conjecture (and, don’t get me wrong, I _want_ conjecture and opinion. It just needs to be more even for me to buy it).

These questions can’t be continually discussed using the panels’ collective guts without some input that’s higher up on this made-up ‘Type’ scale. Daisy fills that middle gap very well to balance out the bottom-heaviness that the guys bring. But without some representation, indeed sometimes to be a ‘voice of reason’, of the average public, the weight’s just sinking the discussion. I’m willing to bet there’s someone right there at the Pixel Corps office or in their collective friends and acquaintances who could fit the bill.

What say you, TWiM? Is this the right step in the evolution of your show or… am I about to be hit by a bus full of TWiM fans…?

3 Responses to “Welcome to the Mediacracy*”

  1. johnfoster says:

    If you show a Type 1-4 Media consumer that there are other ways to watch things they will drop their old habits. We’ve seen this happen with disruptive technologies like DVRs and services like NetFlix. Once you use these things you NEVER want to do things the old way again. 8 o’clock on Thursday for “the good shows” is such a quaint idea. And driving both ways to a video store seems absolutely wasteful in terms of energy use and having time wasted in traffic.

  2. admin says:

    @johnfoster – I agree. And it will happen. It just hasn’t happened yet. And despite it being wasteful and unfathomable to you or me, people still do drive to the video store and but CDs at Wal-Mart. So this sort of behaviour is still very much a part of the picture today and isn’t abating nearly as much as we’d like to imagine it is.

  3. StevenV says:

    @johnfoster – I’m not so sure I’d agree so quickly. There are personality types for which it’s true, but others that even though they’ve “seen the light” still continue with old habits, for various reasons. I’ll toss many family members busward, for example; though my wife loves the DVR, is getting into NetFlix and digs that I can get Grey’s Anatomy from the iTunes Store (or other, less legal places if needed) when the DVR hiccups… there’s no way she’d drop our cable subscription. People have learned – and continue to choose – to spend what you and I consider “mindless time” in front of the tube, watching whatever is on at the moment.

    Also, for many (most?) people, there isn’t a good enough recommendation system in place for them to know what to go download – browsing through the big gushing pipe of crap every evening is how they find the occasional gem of Lost, House, Grey’s, Good Eats or Mythbusters.

    One related-but-not-exactly thought: there’s often the thought on TWiM that everything should be a download, that “plastic is dead.” That’s fine as long as one stays in their own cave, but what happens when you want to venture out? My high school and college sons often – almost every weekend – pull a DVD off the shelf and head off to a friend’s house where they’ll sit around and watch movies or shows together. If the only way they owned SuperBad or The Office was on a hard disk somewhere, that would be much more difficult. Like it or not, you can pretty much count on every household having at least one DVD player.