This week the internet surpassed 1 billion users worldwide. The passing of that milestone is a good place to mark something that has been on my mind. We can no longer think about digital culture as being something outside and apart from the mainstream. It has ceased to be an alternate to mainstream modes. Worse, it's culture is no longer defined by the quirky personalities of entrepreneurs, early adopters, geeks and tech enthusiasts. Even a year ago, it was still somewhat useful to think of people that lived a digital lifestyle. People that, through technology absorbed content differently and connected with others in different ways. The content and the conversations there were also very different. With smart mobile devices, laptops and connectivity becoming widespread and commonplace parts of our daily live those differences have dissolved.
Traditional media channels, mainstream brands and popular culture are now eagerly embracing digital technology and social media. Some, like the NYTimes have done a great job of integrating it with their traditional offering (although they continue to bleed cash) while CNN's obnoxious and clumsy use and references to iReporters, Twitter and blogging add to the combative opinion sharing that has come to replace reporting and journalism.
With the masses come many things. Foremost is a shift in tone, character and content from that of a niche subculture to one dominated and defined by the personalities, tastes interests of the collective mainstream. For people who have not yet participated in social media their point of introduction is very likely to be a traditional channel or brand like CNN, Ashton Kushner or Oprah. An emergent property of mass participation is the gravitational shift towards populist interests, values and preoccupations. Social media is turning out to be a channel ideally suited for the further ubiquitous spread of celebrity and tabloid culture. The ultimate direction and social function of these technologies is now out of the hands of a small community and is being driven by the unconscious motives and behavior of the masses.
The greatest impact will continue to be the failure of old models of media and communication that become increasingly less profitable and viable. The ones that do not fail outright are forced to become more sensationalistic to maintain audiences and stray from what it is that they are supposed to be doing in the first place. Television programming is a good example of this. Particularly news. Unfortunately the new technology and interaction modes aren't offering up very many viable new models, they're just destroying the old ones with more and more efficacy.
Historically, technology has come with utopian promises of change that it has failed to deliver in the hoped for or predicted way. Industrialization and automation were supposed to create abundance and leisure but today some of our greatest social challenges involve scarcity. Our personal lives are marked by over-work, "time famine" and sleep deprivation. In America, many people working full-time or multiple jobs are unable to provide for their family's basic needs.
The common championed belief is that digital tools and technology will democratize creativity, give voice and presence to individuals and enable the formation of communities around niche interests and points of view. The only indisputable observation one can make is how powerfully destructive these new technologies have been to traditional industries and social structures. Any claim to their ability to construct new and better alternatives would be premature. I am being to question, particularly as populist participation grows, whether modes of digital and virtual interaction tend toward a spirit of sharing and cooperation or are better suiting to pursuing self-interest and a tendency to devolve into squabble and antagonism. The biggest problems with comment threads is that they quickly stray off topic and devolve in precisely this manner.
Social media is stuck in a mode who's primary function is trying to manage the communications chaos that these news technologies have created and as a way to stage protest for disgruntled consumers who are now empowered to shoot back.
When it comes to the creation of new business models that support and sustain physical society we are failing. The ubiquity of communications and information technologies only seems to make this worse. The more powerful technology becomes, the less and fewer people are needed. The world's growing population is increasing the need for new roles of participation. Participation via communication doesn't count.
The interest in and embracing of digital and social media continues to be strong, which makes sense, who doesn't want to be on the side of inevitable change as we barrel towards and uncertain future. Whether or not change is on anyone's side can't be assured. What the preoccupation with popularity, status and influence — mass media and mainstream values — demonstrates to me is that there is a naive belief that it may be possible to attain the kind of glory that was once bestowed by traditional media and culture using the tools that are bringing about the destruction of the machinery that made that kind of glory possible in the first place.
I can't help but think of the sacking of Rome by barbarians. As violent as Rome's rule was, it provided structure and order. It organized the agricultural production and shipping lanes that feed much of the world. When Rome fell that order was destroyed and much of civilization fell into chaos, starvation and disease.
The invention of the printing press created disruptions that lasted well into the 1600s. Don't expect the chaos created from the changes happening in communications technology to stabilize anytime soon.
The deafening roar of the masses coming online might as well be the horns of Jericho bring down the walls. Right here, right now: Participation = Destruction.