Monthly Archives: July 2011

Review of The Young and the Digital

While preparing their yearly report on prime-time television watching in 2003, the Nielsen Media Research group discovered a rather startling statistic: over the previous year, the number of 18 to 24 year-old males watching prime-time television had fallen by a surprising 20 percent. This kind of sudden decline would have been bad news for TV executives regardless of the demographic group, but young males in particular are a key and lucrative audience segment. Advertisers pay a premium to get their messages in front of this group, and the Nielsen report seemed to indicate that TV was no longer the place one should go to find them.

In response, TV executives simply didn’t believe the number. They argued that it must be an error, as they had never seen such sudden changes in their viewing audiences. Although the percentage of young men watching television had been declining in recent years, this kind of drop-off seemed impossible—how could a behavior like TV watching, which social critics had long described as addictive, be abandoned so suddenly?

In retrospect, the answer seems somewhat obvious to us now, but as Craig Watkins describes in his book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, very few media executives anticipated the changes that would soon send shock waves through their industry.

Halobox.jpgWatkins notes that there were actually several things that combined to create this shift. First was the increasing number of homes and university accommodations with Internet connections. By 2001, half of all the homes in America had a connection to the Internet (up from 40% just a year before), and the percentage of broadband connections was also steadily rising. Second, these faster Internet connections were increasingly able to access on-demand streaming video, of which young men were the largest consumers (although Watkins does not discuss pornography, one can probably safely assume that a good portion of the videos watched by these young men were not entirely wholesome). Third, the participatory social networking sites Friendster and Myspace had launched shortly before this report, and young people in general were spending more and more time on them to the exclusion of older broadcast-oriented media like TV. Fourth, and perhaps the most important of all for young men, powerful gaming consoles featuring multi-player games, some of which could be played with others over the Internet, had been recently introduced and quickly adopted. Anyone who has spent time with young men knows the importance of video games for male bonding!

This shift of young men away from TV is only one part of Watkins’s excellent book, but I found it to be particularly interesting. My wife and I got rid of our TV back in 1995 and haven’t watched broadcast television since (we do watch some compelling shows on DVD though). Our decision was influenced in part by reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he explores the more corrosive aspects of the TV medium. So as you might expect, I was happy to read that young people are also abandoning broadcast TV for more social, creative, and participatory media, but I also find it strange that cultural critics seem to miss the positive aspect of this shift. In addition to discussing the potential evils of social media or networked games, it seems that these critics should also give young people credit for doing something those same critics have long implored the rest of us to do: turn off the TV.

Watkins bases his book on various kinds of empirical research, including in-depth interviews with avid users of social media and networked games. As I have written earlier, those who engage in this kind of research often find that young people are far more savvy about new media than most cultural critics assume, and that the dangerous effects described by these critics are typically overstated (see for example Barry Glassner’s classic book The Culture of Fear). This, I suspect, is due to those cultural critics spending more time reading shocking news articles about rare and isolated events than actually talking to those who are actively engaged in the new medium.

For example, Watkins concludes that the dangers of online predators has been grossly overstated, as young people use social networking primarily to interact online with those they already know offline. This is a necessary corrective to knee-jerk political responses, such as the Delete Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would have restricted computers in government-funded public institutions (e.g. libraries and schools) from allowing minors to access any kind of social communication tool, including email. Although DOPA passed the House in 2006, it was thankfully tabled in the Senate, as it would have severely restricted access amongst the poor and marginalized to what are quickly becoming essential research communication tools.

In another chapter, Watkins argues that although social media allows one to tinker with one’s identity, racial divides are still alive and well online, as evidenced by the higher percentage of Latinos and non-college educated minorities on Myspace compared to Facebook. Other authors have also pointed out that Facebook seems to cater more to the college and college-bound crowd than Myspace, but I wonder if this is more a temporary condition than a real “ghettoizing” of Myspace. Although I would certainly expect race to continue to be an important social dynamic online as it has been offline, it is a bit early to be claiming that particular social networks are developing racial affinities.

Watkins ends his book with a discussion of social media in the classroom. Like most other authors, he acknowledges the ways in which always-connected mobile devices can be a distraction to traditional teaching methods, but also balances this out with some examples of creative teachers using these devices to augment and deepen the educational experience. Whether new teaching styles can indeed transform these irresistibly distracting devices into helpful research tools is still an open question, but banning them from the classroom is already an increasingly difficult prospect, not because of the students, but because of their parents. Several teachers in Watkins’s study reported that parents routinely called or texted their children during class time, and resisted any attempts to ban mobile phones from school grounds for fear of not being able to reach their child in an emergency.

How have multi-player video games or access to online content changed your media-consuming habits? What has been your experience with race online? And how have you used your smartphone or laptop in the classroom, either as a distraction or as a helpful tool?

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Review of Here Comes Everybody

In the early days of Wikipedia, one of their editors joked that their freely-editable encyclopedia was a project that could work only in practice, never in theory. If you had asked someone in the 1990s whether such a project could ever succeed, you would have been hard-pressed to find many supporters. In theory it sounded ludicrous. Why would anyone donate their time to write articles, much less subject experts, many of whom need to get credit for publishing? How could you prevent articles from becoming overly slanted, or simply vandalized? How could something written collaboratively by mostly anonymous authors ever be a reliable source of knowledge?

Yet there it is; and for the most part, it’s actually quite good. I use Wikipedia all the time to lookup basic bits of information, like dates or names (for which it seems highly reliable), and occasionally use it as a starting point for researching a new subject. Some articles are of course better than others, but the fact that any of it is of high quality is really counter-intuitive.

But “counter-intuitive” is really just shorthand for saying that it doesn’t fit into our existing theoretical models of how society supposedly works. We all walk around with these mental models that help us interpret phenomenon and predict outcomes, but they also limit what we think is possible. When we then encounter something in practice that we formerly thought was impossible in theory, we are faced with a dilemma: do we reinterpret the thing so that it continues to fit within our existing models; or do we reevaluate our model, potentially changing it to accommodate this formerly inexplicable reality?

In the wake of successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia and the open-source operating system Linux, sociologists and economists have actually been doing a bit of both as they attempt to explain how and why such things occurred. Some have concentrated on researching how these projects actually work, showing that they are not really as undirected, noncommercial, or anti-corporate as the press coverage might lead you to believe. Others have argued that they are anomalous, something that can’t be repeated. But others have been developing new theories (or more commonly, pulling more esoteric ones out of the closet) to make these seeming anomalies fit again.

Here Comes Everybody.jpgClay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is an insightful popularization not only of these efforts, but also his own ongoing research of Internet culture. As the subtitle suggests, he focuses on how social media tools have made it easier than ever for people to organize, whether it be for the purposes of general communication and knowledge-sharing, or the more difficult activities of collaborative production and collective action. Social tools, he argues, have lowered the costs not only of group formation, but also those of ongoing coordination. As a result, we are now trying out new forms of organization that are not simply improvements upon our existing institutions—they are fundamental shifts towards a new type of social organization, one that he thinks will soon become dominant.

What will that new structure look like? It’s too early to tell, but he identifies a few trends that he argues will likely continue. First is the mass-amateurization of efforts that previously had been restricted to groups of professionals. There are many examples of this: music production and distribution; journalism; encyclopedia production; stock photography; even advertising. In all of these cases, the professional class had enjoyed an almost exclusive control over the means of production and distribution, but that control has now been undermined by digital and networked technologies. His stock photography example was especially interesting: web sites like iStockPhoto allow amateurs to sell stock photos for a fraction of the price a professional would charge. The artistic quality of amateur photos might not be as high, but for many users of stock photography, it is plenty good-enough. This will no doubt redefine what is means to be a professional photographer, but I think it would be overstating things to say that professional photographers will soon go the way of travel agents.

The second and related trend he identifies is a shift from filter-then-publish to publish-then-filter. The economics of traditional journalism or music production required that professionals filtered and selected only a subset of the available material for publication. This gatekeeper role gave them enormous control over what the public saw and heard, but that control has been weakened considerably by the self-publication enabled by inexpensive digital and networked technologies. This has resulted in a flood of new content, only a subset of which is interesting to any given person. Thus, great effort is being put into developing mechanisms by which one can find those interesting gems amongst the rubble, some of which are purely algorithmic (e.g., Google search), and others of which rely on an army of amateur taggers and filterers (e.g., digg, del.ico.us, and blogs like this one).

The third trend is a shift away from hierarchical forms of organization towards more loosely-joined networks. We tend to think of hierarchically organized firms as a kind of “natural” organizational form blessed by God, but this kind of organization is the product of a historical context, one that is perhaps not so relevant anymore. Shirky provides a number of examples of networked cooperative production, but most are centered around some kind of information-processing. One is left wondering if such a model could really be extended into something like manufacturing, an arena where hierarchical organizations have historically thrived.

Shirky’s analysis of all this adheres generally to the social-shaping position, striking a nice balance between technological determinism (adopted technologies deterministically cause social change) and social determinism (technologies are neutral tools completely controlled by social forces). He acknowledges the ways in which social media change not only the economics of organization, but also the way we think about what is possible and good. But he also is careful to note that the same tools used in different contexts have generated different results, a clear indication that the technologies are to some degree shaped by the culture that adopts them.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book to those who are trying to understand how the Internet and social media are enabling deep structural changes in our society.