What the Internet can’t do

I finally watched the Digital Nation episode of Frontline that I anticipated here earlier. It was okay. The thing I wanted to comment on was a very brief segment involving Feed Me, Bubbe, which is an online show that came about when a young guy basically decided to get his grandmother to be the star of this amusing little Web-based cooking program, on which they collaborate.

“I worked until I was 73. I worked for a bank,” Bubbe says, the point being that once she retired she didn’t have to do anything — but she also didn’t have much to do. “And then all of a sudden this kid walked in, and now I’m too busy!” The delight at this turn of events is evident in her voice.

The young guy then says:  “The Internet, I have to say, added years to Bubbe’s life.”

No, sweetheart. You added years to Bubbe’s life. Listen to her version of things: “this kid walked in.” That’s you. Here again is the medium/message problem. The Internet is just something that came in handy, and that you made cunning use of.  I suppose it’s possible that if the Internet hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have come up with anything. But I know for a fact that the Internet is there in millions of scenarios just like this, and nothing changes; bubbes everywhere remain under-appreciated, ignored, left lonely, and maybe even snickered at for not being tech-savvy. The Internet has no agency; individuals have agency. I don’t usually use the word “inspiration,” because it means so little these days, but there is a genuine one here, and it’s not the Internet. It’s you.

Twitter chatter

Adverblog is the latest to ask the familiar question:

What’s the value of Twitter for a brand? It’s just a question of feeling cool and up to speed with the 2.0 era? Or there is (or there could be) more? Is there any brand out there using Twitter fully exploiting its conversational potentials or is it just another broadcast channel?

In a way, the overheated emotions about Twitter are a good example of the medium/message problem: It’s just another way of potentially expressing something, and that is inherently less interesting (to me) than what’s being expressed. I’ve been asked about Twitter a lot, and on precisely one occasion has the question been interesting. It was in the recent Q&A for Crafty Bastards, and if you have read that then you already know what I was asked and what I said, but if not, here it is, answer after the jump:

Q: What do you think of Twitter as a marketing tool? Are people more likely to buy from Zappos because they know what the CEO is having for dinner? Read more

The medium/message problem

I’ve said to a number of people in casual conversation that crowds will now line up for an iPhone the way people used to line up for the midnight release of some noteworthy musician’s new CD. David Brooks gets at something related to this in a column recently (I linked to it already last week, in the linkpile rotation at right) in which he argued that “over the past few years, there has been a tectonic shift in the basis of good taste.”

He talks about 1400 to 1965 as a long reign of a hierarchical version of good taste; this was followed by 40 years when “status rewards went to the ostentatious cultural omnivores.” And now?

On or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.

On that date, media displaced culture. As commenters on The American Scene blog have pointed out, the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and as the marker of social status.

Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it….

Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel.

Whatever you make of the specifics, I think that from a broad perspective he’s onto something here, a kind of medium/message problem: There’s a lot of celebration of various media that will bring us interesting new messages that the old setup squelched. There’s a lot less evidence that the messages we get now are really that much better (as opposed to different).

You might disagree, but for the moment I don’t want to get bogged down in that specific argument.

Rather what I want to say is that I’m thinking (hoping?) that what Brooks is talking about isn’t a tectonic shift, but a phase. I think we’re having a little trouble sometimes figuring out the relationship between technology and culture — which shapes which, and how. But at some point the focus will shift from “imagine the potential” to “here is the new cultural expression that has emerged that is exciting on its own, because of its message, not because of the medium.”

Meanwhile, I poked around that American Scene blog Brooks mentioned, and it’s pretty interesting. I think maybe two of the posts he’s referencing are this one and this one. Worth reading for yet another point of view.