Friday, 11 March 2011

The New Media Masters in an Economy of Attention

As I mentioned in "Why Social Media Means a Social Revolution" new media has radically changed the information flow in our society. Rather than the increasingly hierarchical structures of mainstream media we are now seeing a picture that is more messy and unpredictable than the media landscape has been for decades. Aristotle said that giving power to the people was a way of giving power to those who could persuade the people. Who will gain the power to persuade the people in this new media age? What will be the common denominators of those who will able to gain a large enough audience to have considerable influence on public opinion? Here are a few of my predictions:

Seducing the Audience
Douglas Hesse, a professor in rhetoric and composition, describes how our idea of publication and readership has changed: "The world of blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos, and even old-fashioned Web pages ensures that writing will be made public—just not that it will be read. Updating familiar terms from two decades past, we’ve gone from audience addressed, through audience invoked, to audience imagined and seduced." Virtually everyone now can publish and gain a readership. Unlike the channels of mainstream media and the academic world there are no gate-keepers online to decide what will or will not get published and read. There are over 200 million blogs online today! And they are stealing large portions of the market that used to be dominated by a few media giants. We live today in what Richard Lanham calls "The Economics of Attention". If you can catch the eyes of people and get clicks and pageviews, you gain influence, chances to sell advertising, and your ideas can lead to real action. In other words, attention is the new currency! If you can get someone to read you and listen to you, you will make a difference, no matter what other media giants or traditional gatekeepers of knowledge may think of it.

So how does this new generation of writers seduce an audience to follow them? In the economy of attention this is a major question not only for writers, but for politicians, economists, educators, and virtually anyone who wants to have something to say about how this new world is going to look like. The common denominator is "you have to make them want what you have". The first thing that will go in such an economy is circumscribed readerships. Newspapers, television stations, and writers will meet increasing competition for attention, and people will get used to shopping around much more. Even the largest actors will not be able to simply rely on the same old readers and audience that they have had for a long time.

Burke's Theory of Literary Form
Kenneth Burke defined literary form as the arousing and fulfilling of expectations. We all know this from fiction books. If the cover and title doesn't get you, what is the chance you'll even pick it up? If the first chapter doesn't get you, why would you want to keep reading? The title and cover arouses expectations for the content in the book. If those expectations are not fulfilled we often feel cheated or snubbed. Richard Lanham refers to this as "making attention structures from the stuff of language". There can be thousands of methods to accomplish this, visual design, music, slogans, humor, the list goes on. However, the premise is the same: There has to be a promise at the beginning that there is something you want at the end of the road, a taste to wet your appetite, a glimpse to awaken your imagination. Professional authors know this very well. Unless the reader is persuaded to in some way identify with the authors views, narrative and characters, the text will be lifeless to the reader.

Give the People What They Want
Burke's literary form answers the question of how to communicate powerfully, yet in the end it is the form and not by itself all the content of communication. A writer may be brilliant at catching our attention and keeping it riveted throughout a book, but we still feel empty after we have finished the book. This really brings us to the question, what do people want? Entertainment industry have been obsessed with this forever, and the easy answer would be to play on the basest desires of mankind: sex, violence, and cheap pleasures. The first years of the Internet was witness of this approach, with pornography quickly becoming the number one online activity. However, as the Internet has evolved we have witnessed how the full range of human desires and needs have opened new areas of discourse and influence. Social networking has now far surpassed pornography as the leading online activity, showing that human is more of a social creature than a sexual one. Another area that has exploded is genealogy, which has seen an unpresedented growth. What is it that makes people want to know about their ancestors? What human need does it fulfill? It seems clear to me that simply appealing to base needs will not do in the long run.

I don't know who the masters and champions of this new media world will be. Millions are currently contending for our attention to have a say in the creation of tomorrows trends, movements, and opinions. What I can say is that these channels or people will have some things in common
1. They must know what people really want
2. They must have ability to communicate effectively to convice people that they can help them to get it

The following discussion is long, but I recommend it for any who has the time