New Skills for the New Media
Editor's Note: With more than 50 million American adults posting original content online, the Internet is the main destination for entertainment. In this new media, anyone can become a micro-celebrity, writes New America Media editor Andrew Lam. Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams".
I confess: The new media has finally usurped an old media; I’ve more or less stopped reading at night and instead surf the web, sometimes deliciously in bed. Yet if I, as a professional writer, feel slightly alarmed for slowly losing my penchant for the literary, not to mention a certain pang of guilt each time I put away a weighty novel and grab my iBook, those feelings are mixed with sinful pleasure each time I log on.
It cannot be helped. Something momentous is happening in the area of self-expression, one in which traditional narratives and the refined frame are ceding to blogs and vlogs, to the cacophony called private lives that have suddenly made themselves very public – ceding, that is, to amateur “original content producers.”
Not too long ago, at the end of the last millennium, I grieved over the lost art of letter writing, made points on how speed and easy access trumped style and depth, and how language is streamlined and intimacy forsaken for this currency called information. On a bullet train, I noted, the once beautiful countryside streaks and blurs.
But technology has also revolutionized human communication to the extent that high tech and high touch no longer necessitate opposed ideas. Essentially anyone can become a performer, analyst, entertainer, commentator, exhibitionist, lecturer, storyteller and what have you, and broadcast him or herself across the globe to get instant feedback, new friends and fans.
Robert Young, Internet entrepreneur, in an essay called “Social Networks are the New Media,” noted that, “People around the world are now learning how to leverage the incredible power inherent in the URL to create what is essentially a parallel universe of digital identities.” But in this new industry, he observed, “the raw materials for the ‘products’ are the people… the key is to look at self-expression and social networks as a new medium and to view the audience itself as a new generation of ‘cultural products.’”
As professional entertainment writers – mostly of tired sitcoms and serialized dramas – continue with their strike, and as more eyeballs are migrating to the new media, it’s ironic to think that thousands of years since we moved out of wintry caves in which we once told stories by the fire and painted on cave walls, many are going back to entertaining ourselves, forgoing the professionals, the bona fide artists, the traditional institutions.
According to Pew Research there are now more than 200 million Americans online, and 50 million adults who post original content, not to mention young people. And not far behind is China, with almost 200 million Internet users, 61 percent of whom say they have a parallel life online. As of July, more than 9 billion videos had been accessed on the Internet.
The digitalized self expression phenomenon has created a sea change: practically every entertainment industry – music, porn, news media, movies, video rentals, TV shows – are in some ways in direct competition with citizen broadcasters. It is why the old TV guide has become a quaint, antiquated manual of a bygone era. Is there, after all, a new media guide big enough when practically every person online is a potential channel?
Everywhere new social skills are being forged and human relationship are being rearranged, and old habits like reading a good book die an ignominious death. No wonder sociologists and anthropologists are having a field day. Harvard and UCLA researchers, for instance, are monitoring profiles on Facebook to study how humans make friends. Indiana, Northwestern, Pennsylvania State, Tufts, and the University of Texas are testing theories about identity, self-esteem, popularity, collective action, race and political engagement, according to the New York Times.
To this flock of studies, I would suggest one more: the tantalizing yet elusive thing called fame. Gone are the days when one sits at soda fountains at Schwab's wearing a tight knit sweater waiting to be discovered. One can sit in bed wearing boxer shorts miles from Hollywood and still have a million viewers as in the case of David Choi – who writes his own music, doesn’t comb his hair, sings in a sultry voice, and never cracks a smile, but, oh, fans adore him. Thus unfiltered, the citizen broadcasters come from one bedroom to another, providing free content and giving all the traditional media a run for their money.
But no doubt, the goddess of the new media is Tila Tequila, who owns the best property in cyberspace. A mixed blood Vietnamese-French immigrant from Singapore, ex-gang-banger, stripper, fashion designer, bisexual singer, model, and actor, Tila’s MySpace page has a staggering a quarter of a billion hits and still climbing. Tila found her way to fame by blowing sideways through the multimedia world – Internet, magazines, reality TV shows, video games – ending up on an MTV reality show called “A shot at Love with Tila Tequila,” as a vixen looking for love with both men and women, now in its second season. Managing her own image she, in the process, turned the traditional trajectory of stardom upside down. That is, she made herself famous before Hollywood comes calling. (Something about Tila’s polyamorous nature and mixed bag biography seems to lend her so perfectly to the time, and to the new media: I will cross borders.)
Behind Tila, of course, is an army of new media personalities waiting to become bona fide stars. So much so that Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine called this the Age of Microcelebrity. “The truth is that people are developing interesting social skills to adapt to microfame,” he noted. “We're learning how to live in front of a crowd.”
But in this age of quick fame and shorter attention span, Andy Warhol’s 15 minute fame prediction for everyone is reduced to about 15 seconds, if one is so lucky. For if everyone who is a content producer online is a channel, then every mouse in every net surfer’s hand is a remote control. By scrolling down or across one can get to the money shot, the crescendo or epiphany, then move on to the next vlog or blog – the beginning and end can be easily skipped, and so, for that matter, the forward arc. It is a world in which being distracted is part of the new social skill set, and so viewers tend to read only part of the story, and the content producers likewise often offer no preface, no conclusions. You tell yourself the rest of the story.
No surprise then that five out of top ten Japanese best sellers in 2007 were novels written by young women who texted them on their cell phones with their thumbs. Thin on plot, short in sentence, and lacking in romantic descriptions, these cell phone novels, written more like haiku, nevertheless, when printed in book form, sold like hot ramen to an audience so used to reading text message on their commute.
So here’s an old story made new: When human dared challenge the heavens by building a very tall tower called Babel, God struck it down and confounded us with many languages. The tower fell but it seems now certain it did not turn into dust. Instead it transformed into a marvelous horizontal grid of many voices, a lattice of the world’s collective unconscious made semi-conscious by technology.
The future? I saw it the other day as my nephew, Eric, 13, simultaneously listened to his iPod, surfed the Internet, chatted online on a split screen, and talked to his little brother who was playing a video game at the same time on another computer. His is a nonlinear habit, which requires a certain mental agility, and an ability to edit and reframe the rawness and messiness of reality around him. He’s a reader of the reality’s post-modern hieroglyphs, a participant in a multilateral discourse – a la Matrix.
Perhaps the most important new skill yet required for our age is the ability to decipher the story in the fragmented world and to function well within it. Or, to borrow musical terms, the ability to develop an ear for the contrapuntal in the cacophony, discerning the new symphony from the din.