08 April 2013 Ideas

Thoughts on a decade of digital media

Ten years ago, I had barely begun to use Google. I was using Search.com (run by C|Net) to explore the web, simply because I had guessed the URL one day and had never heard of other search engines. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the state of digital media today, how I got here, and whether I’m more satisfied now than in the past about what kind of information I have access to. In the last ten years, entire communication patterns and social norms have been rewritten. That’s exciting to think about.

Where I’m at

The web today is a delicious soup of services, all interacting and competing simultaneously. To illustrate this, I’ll tell you the story of how I heard about Google Reader’s demise (which in itself is an important milestone in the history of the Web).

As I remember it, I first heard the news from a Tweet by Andrew Coyne. I then opened a new tab and searched for “google reader shutting down”, which brought me to a Google blog post explaining the decision. After reading the post, I hit up Ars Technica and Mashable to read more about the news. Then I talked about it on Twitter for a bit. I considered posting about Google Reader on Facebook - no, too techy - and then went to see what my favourite third-party Google Reader app, Reeder, had to say about it on Twitter. Later in the day, I came across a good discussion of the issue on /r/webdev.

This is how I consume and interact with media - bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a chaotic flurry of information. The pace of change in digital media is astounding. New platforms for content are being created all the time, and it’s tough to decide what not to read. Personally, I’m looking for a way to separate signal from noise. I waste so much time reading and responding to content that just goes in one ear and out the other.

I’m at the point now where I crave curation, which is why I recently picked up a copy of Alternatives Journal. A bimonthly, dead-tree publication. Think about that. A paper magazine won out over the torrent of information available on the internet. Why? I know that it will have staying power - the content in this magazine needs to be relevant for at least two months. The prospect of trusting in someone else’s editorial judgment, is more attractive than desperately scouring social media for the Next Big Thing.

How I got here

Ten years ago, news portals were the de facto gatekeepers of the internet. Most people had a website like Yahoo! or MSN as their homepage. These websites adapted the concept of a literal front page from broadsheet newspapers, making the transition to online media comfortable and familiar.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, blogging came to the fore. A source of independent news and commentary, free from the shackles of the corporate media structure, people took to livejournal or blogger to voice their opinions rather than write a letter to the editor. This is also what I would call the first instance of social media, because comments allowed readers to leave unfiltered remarks and generate discussion.

Facebook took the best parts of the blog - comments and freedom from editorial control - and made it easier to write, share, and discuss with family and friends. Facebook’s insistence on building upon real-world relationships is what began to bridge the gap between the Internet and the so-called real world.

Twitter burst on the scene at the end of the decade, quickly becoming an explosive force in digital media. The service’s character limit lends itself well to headlines and pithy quotes, making back-and-forth debate easy. By mainstreaming the use of hashtags, Twitter created an environment that is organised by topic, rather than personal relationships. For some types of media coverage, namely political punditry and sports, where minute-by-minute reporting makes sense, Twitter has become a dominant medium for discussion.

Sam Nabi

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