Sunday, December 31, 2006

Size doesn't matter,
but trusted voices do

In the age of "distributed media," Jeff Jarvis argues here, size doesn't matter.

Knitting together trends that show audiences increasing prefer to "roll their own" by selecting media from many sources, he argues that the age of mass media is over. Increasingly, he suggests, everything from news headlines to viral videos will find niche audiences made up of people who are more likely to have come to them on the recommendation of friends than the authority of publishers. (This is an oversimplification, of course; go read what he says in full).

He's surely right about much of this; his links to arguments that support the thesis are well worth following. (For example, we've known for some time that pageviews are a crude and increasingly ineffective way of measuring anything).

And indeed, the notion of central authority is fading everywhere – in media, government, religion. Tower Records is dead, but nowadays I can buy a 1974 concert video of Van Morrison in Montreux online. (In fact, I just did).

But I think Jarvis extrapolates too broadly. Correlation does not prove causality. The disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise; the fact that viral videos can find audiences without central distributors doesn't mean there won't be broadcasters.

Yes, the era of Charles Foster Kane bellowing that people will think "what I tell them to think" is gone; Sic transit gloria mundi. But I don't think that means people no longer want or need trusted voices. Actually, as the internet's thicket of factoids and ubiquitous opinions grows ever denser, I think they'll want them more and more.

Jarvis is right when he says people no longer need you to tell them the headlines or pre-package opinion commentaries for them. Our challenge is to adapt our expertise to the new realities of distributed media. We become guides, not oracles; organizers, not gatekeepers; referees, not coaches.

In cities with great libraries, people still bought encylopedias; you don't always need or even want the whole damn library. And in a world of networked omniscience, people will still need signposts and trusted voices. At our best, we can supply both.
–Howard Weaver

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