Friday, December 31, 2010

What does Twitter and a Charles Dickens novel have in common?

Answer: Both have 140 characters.

2010 may well be the year remembered for marking the watershed between old and new media. After all, this is the year in which the odds-on favorite movie to win the Best Picture Oscar is about a a bunch of geeks writing social media software. It's also the year were the WSJ among others foresaw a social media bubble emerging. But whether Twitter, Facebook and the rest are really worth their extravagant evaluations is almost beside the point; it is unlikely that by the end of the next decade we will have any US daily newspapers, and the conventional information economy will have been reinvented.

But that isn't why I'm writing on New Year's Eve. This fall my eldest daughter was in the school play Oliver!, and this encouraged me to reread the book. It is a dark tale world's away from the jaunty musical, though many of the significant characters like Bumble, The Artful Dodger and Fagin are similar and true. It's a great, long novel (originally serialized in monthly installments) full of the usual Dickensian cacophony of character and plot. Over the holidays I also started Paul Murray's new and excellent Skippy Dies; at over 600 pages, it too is packed with character and plot, humor and tragedy. So my question is this: Is the sea-change in the media world ensuring the end of this kind of rich, detailed and thoughtful discourse? Nick Carr thinks so, and he's not alone; his eloquence had me convinced. And truthfully, what passes today for "news" in the new media world fills me with dread.

But I'm no longer to pessimistic. My eldest daughter is also an addicted reader, and The Hunger Games series got to her. It's on my list to read too,  but I'll be doing this on our ipod. There is a real social media bubble, and it will burst. But new media has already destroyed the conventional economic model for how mass media works, and how we get information, art, entertainment, even friends... But there is plenty of room for 140 characters, be they Bumbles and Fagins or A and Bs. Information of value, stories that sell... the content itself will likely not change much at all. McLuhan's prophecy is at best only partly true; the medium is rarely the message.

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