media: superficial introductory questions

What are media? Should that have read “what are mediums”? Is media a matter of “processing and conveying” information? What is the utility of studying media? Is to better equip oneself to “read and view intelligently?” Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t see these as the important questions, I’m fairly certain. But was he concerned with media impact on conciousness, social life or “service environments”? Or was McLuhan’s claim that mediums create their own environments? Cultural critics are concerned with media impact on culture. For this reason they tended to disdain the mass media, at least at one time. But what is culture? Is culture everything? Or is culture the aesthetic-intellectual element of human expression? What is the distinction between information and art? Is there one?

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A Shopping Mall’s Live Drive-Thru Zoom Play (media and marketing case study)

This shopping mall staged an interactive drive-thru play on Zoom, the perfect pandemic era promotional event. It’s a cool media and marketing vignette.

Drive-Thru Murder Mystery on Zoom

“Since the health department allowed drive-ins, OTC created a Zoom ‘Dinner and a Murder’ event. Taking the basic drive-in concept up a notch, its duo of Janet Jerde (director) and Paige Jeschke (marketing manager) collaborated with The Murder Mystery Company of Michigan to develop a script and hired a dozen actors from across the country to perform the whodunit live online, with the intrigue coming to center viewers on-site on a 41-foot screen erected in the parking lot. That’s just part of the hair-raising story.

Guests who had pre-purchased their tickets could roll up to the center and park in front of the screen, order food and drinks from tenants restaurants, and then ease back into their seats, watch the action unfold, and try to solve the murder like investigators on a stakeout. According to OTC’s team, it communicated with the actors via Zoom while those present really got into the event’s theme and actively participated when prompted by honking their horns, flashing their car lights, using their blinkers, and texting the team who they thought had murdered the ‘movie’ victim, millionaire Sal Fie (get it?). The supporting tech gave the guests the impression that they were interacting with the actors directly, even though the OTC team was the intermediary-the performers could actually call out specific cars, incorporate team names that were texted in, and ‘see’ drivers react when they thought one of the suspects wasn’t telling the truth. “

YouTube, fandom and “intimacy”

Youtube’s Intimacy, Fan Passion and Digital Eye Contact

“When we surveyed our teen and Millennial subscribers, 40 percent told us that YouTubers understood them better than their friends or family.* But a whopping 60 percent of them told us that a creator has changed their life or view of the world.”

“This embrace of openness by both fans and creators has led to a stronger link between them and the traditional teenage fan club. Sixty percent of those same subscribers tell us that the community they form with other fans of their favorite YouTubers is stronger than those they form around traditional celebrities from TV, music, or film. And earlier in the book I mentioned that the same percentage tell us that a YouTube creator has changed his or her life or view of the world.

When I asked Tyler about this, he explained that even the format of vlogging encourages connection. ‘YouTube is so intimate because it’s a YouTuber talking directly into the eyes of the viewer,’ he said. ‘It’s physically so close to the screen, it feels like you’re with your friend.’

But I believe that intimacy goes even deeper. When you first encounter actors, you’re likely encountering them performing a role. Their success depends on your believing their portrayal of someone they are not. With YouTubers, it’s the opposite; their success depends on your knowing and liking who they actually are. That doesn’t just lead to a situation that’s more intimate; it’s the definition of how intimacy is built.”

Steve Bannon, gaming and “these rootless white males”

“Bannon made another decision that wasn’t immediately obvious but that would have a significant effect on the size and nature of Breitbart’s audience and eventually on the 2016 presidential campaign. He wanted to attract the online legions of mostly young men he’d run up against several years earlier, believing that the Internet masses could be harnessed to stoke a political revolution. Back in 2007, when he’d taken over Internet Gaming Entertainment, the Hong Kong company that systemized gold farming in World of War craft and other massively multiplayer online games, Bannon had become fascinated by the size and agency of the audiences congregating on MMO message boards such as Wowhead, Allakhazam, and (his favorite) Thottbot. ‘In 2006, 2007, they were doing 1.5 billion page views a month,’ he recalled. ‘Just insane traffic. I thought we could monetize it, but it turned out I couldn’t give the advertising away.’ Instead, the gamers ended up wrecking IGE’s business model by organizing themselves on the message boards and forcing the companies behind World of Warcraft and other MMO games to curb the disruptive practice of gold farming.

IGE’s investors lost millions of dollars. But Bannon gained a perverse appreciation for the gamers who’d done him in. ‘These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power,’ he said. ‘It was the pre-reddit. It’s the same guys on Thottbot who were [later] on reddit’ and 4chan-the message boards that became the birth place of the alt-right.

When Bannon took over Breitbart, he wanted to capture this audience. Andrew Breitbart had drawn a portion of it enchanted by his aggressive provocations on issues such as race and political correctness. Bannon took it further. He envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude. ‘The reality is, Fox News’ audience was geriatric and no one was connecting with this younger group,’ Bannon said. But he needed a way to connect. He found it in Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay British tech blogger and Internet troll nonpareil.

The purpose of all this incitement, at least in Bannon’s mind, was to entice the online legions into the Breitbart fold. ‘I realized Milo could connect with these kids right away,’ he said. ‘You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.’ In this way, Breitbart became an incubator of alt-right political energy. Although Yiannopoulos was most interested in cultivating his own celebrity -Bannon thought he looked like ‘a gay hooker’- he was more than willing to do his part and make the political connection explicit. ‘How Donald Trump Can Win: With Guns, Cars, Tech Visas, Ethanol… And 4Chan’ read the headline of an October 2015 article he wrote.”

Goebbels on Radio

“The old regime was content simply to fill empty offices or change the faces, without however changing the spirit and content of public life. We on the other hand intend a principled transformation in the worldview of our entire society, a revolution of the greatest possible extent that will leave nothing out, changing the life of our nation in every regard.

It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio and the airplane. It is no exaggeration to say that the German revolution, at least in the form it took, would have been impossible without the airplane and the radio.

It is in fact a modern revolution, and it has used the most modern methods to win and use power. It therefore does not need saying that the government resulting from this revolution cannot ignore the radio and its possibilities. To the contrary, it is resolved to use them to the fullest extent in the work of national construction that is before us, and in ensuring that this revolution can stand the test of history.

As in all other areas, the changes are primarily spiritual in nature. The radio must be brought out of the stubborn emptiness of its technical limitations into the lively spiritual developments of our age. It is not possible for the radio to ignore the times. More than any other form of public expression, it has the duty to meet the needs and demands of the day. A radio that does not seek to deal with the problems of the day does not deserve to influence the broad masses. It will soon become an empty playground for technicians and intellectual experimenters. We live in the age of the masses; the masses rightly demand that they participate in the great events of the day. The radio is the most influential and important intermediary between a spiritual movement and the nation, between the idea and the people.

The more committees, review committees, bureaucrats and higher offices there were in the German radio system, the less its political accomplishments. Here more than anywhere else, there were no personalities who took pleasure in responsibility. The spiritual energy, the flexibility necessary to reach the people in changing times, may not be the responsibility of boards, commissions or committees. They only get in the way. Here, too, faster than is generally believed, we will clearly and resolutely introduce the leadership principle.

We will eliminate excessive organization as quickly as possible, replacing it with Spartan simplicity and economy. We will also systematically increase productivity in all areas. We will bring to the microphone the best spiritual elements of the nation, making the radio into the most multifaceted, flexible means of expressing the wishes, needs, longings, and hopes of our age.

We do not intend to use the radio only for our partisan purposes. We want room for entertainment, popular arts, games, jokes, and music. But everything should have a relationship to our day. Everything should include the theme of our great reconstructive work, or at least not stand in its way. Above all it is necessary to clearly centralize all radio activities, to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.”

Media, status anxiety and advertising (history)

“The burgeoning of the mass media from the late nineteenth century helped to raise expectations even higher. At his newspaper’s launch in 1896, Alfred Harmsworth, the founder of Britain’s Daily Mail candidly characterised his ideal reader as a man in the street ‘worth one hundred pounds per annum’ who could be enticed to dream of being ‘tomorrow’s thousand pound man.’ In America, meanwhile, the Ladies’ Home Journal (first published in 1883), Cosmopolitan (1886), Munsey’s (1889) and Vogue (1892) brought an expensive life within the imaginative reach of all. Readers of fin de siècle American Vogue, for example, were told who had been aboard Nourmahal, John Jacob Astor’s yacht, after the America’s Cup race, what the most fashionable young ladies were wearing at boarding school, who threw the best parties in Newport and Southampton and what to serve with caviar at dinner (potato and sour cream).

The opportunity to study the lives of people of higher status and forge a connection with them was also increased by the development of radio, film and television. By the 1930s, Americans were collectively spending some 150 million hours per week at the cinema and almost a billion hours listening to the radio. In 1946, 0.02 percent of American households owned television sets; by 2000, the figure stood at 98 percent.

The new media created longings not only through their content but also through the advertisements they imposed on their audiences. From its amateurish beginnings in the United States in the 1830s, advertising had by the end of the nineteenth century grown into a business worth $500 million a year. In 1900, a giant Coca-Cola sign was erected on one side of Niagara Falls, while an advert for Mennen’s Toilet Powder was suspended over the gorge.”

“Hot” and “cool”

The word “hot” is an interesting case study in social change. About 15 years ago Paris Hilton popularized “that’s hot” as a flirty catchphrase. “Hot” has since lost some of its playful connotation. Nowadays, you’ll the word used in a knowing, detached manner pursuant to brute ranking or self-assertion. Strange non-jokes like “hot girls for Bernie” can only be understood in this new style.

Rating relative attractiveness isn’t new, but nuance and mystery are dead in an era defined by instantly communicated photo and video. Around when Paris Hilton was saying “that’s hot,” Mark Zuckerberg started a “Hot or Not” rating site at Harvard. Eventually Zuckerberg bought Instagram (best understood as a clearing house for hotness) and the fun and flirty connoted “hot” was on thin ice.

“Cool” connoted relaxed street level confidence and/or unique aesthetic expression. But those things have lost their resonance and context as spontaneous social life, private identity and “place” have been undermined. In truth, there are still some consensus cool people but they are increasingly defensive.. which isn’t cool.

Instagram represents the death of “cool” and its replacement by “hot.” Instagram wasn’t really the cause of the switch-cool has died a long death-but it’s an incredible vantage from which to witness the transition. The people who used to judge what was “cool” now get by determining hotness. Because Instagram is the most aesthetic social media it disproportionately attracts the remaining cool people. But they are then forced to directly compete with the hottest people which isn’t fair.

Print and mortality

Print media increasingly provokes a disturbing feeling of mortality. The definitive beginning and end of a book has the most obvious implication. By print media I mean words on “dead” trees. This type of media is increasingly seen as antiquated. Books are still acceptable aesthetically but only if presented in a way that implies high levels of cognitive vitality. Reading challenging material like a serious book taxes the brain in a way that no other media does. In that way serious reading reminds you of your own corporeality and its limitations. Other media are indulged in to provoke a superficial feeling of “living” without limitation. Your smartphone is alive in your hand and the scroll, stream and possibilities are endless. Media consumers conjure up “life” as in friends and lovers via podcasts, social media, video games, and adult content. They “binge” and gorge themselves within a fantasy universe of consumption in which there is no beginning and no end. If you try and turn from this frenzy of consumption to read a book the world has to “stop.” This “stop” is more liable than other moments to be a concrete marker in time separate from the infinite array of interchangeable moments contemporary electronic media produce. The “stop” can be greatly attenuated if you read books on screen rather than on the page. Smartphones provoke a “god complex” in that they mediate your capacity to make food appear at the press of a button along with the already noted friends and lovers. If the friends and lovers prove unfortunately ephemeral you can definitely make the food appear in any event, to compensate. Not all gods are immortal but it’s a safer bet. Hosts of podcasts and people on social media are alive, you can confirm it in real time any number of ways. When someone who is big on social media dies they simply fall away. The crushing, “crowding” and “swarming” inherent to the current moment fill any void. Authors are more likely to be dead. It’s harder to pretend you’re friends with a dead person and antisocial. Being the ultimate distraction, smartphones help avoid spontaneous encounters with different kinds of people, one of the main things that can provoke a consideration of mortality. The mania of activity that colours the current media context recalls a stereotype of childhood and adolescence. Audiobooks are increasingly marketed emphasizing “social” and active qualities. Someone alive is reading you the book and you can consume it while moving around. Books are heavy material and tie you to a particular place. When tied to a particular place you are more mortal in narrative terms.

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

The smartphone screen as railcar window

“With speed, there is quantitatively more for the brain to deal with. This is not specific to the railroad but part of modernity more broadly, including the rise of the city. The classical social theorist Georg Simmel described this urban perception as an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ as opposed to slow, lasting impressions which ‘use-up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images.’ The modern condition was thought of as a general onslaught of things to pay attention to, newly positioning the urban railroad-riding individual as a kind of spectator to an existence slipping quickly by.

The railroad positioned the world for the traveler as some thing passing, distant, to be taken as scenery framed by a cabin window. Schivelbusch expands on philosopher Dolf Sternberger’s description of this way of seeing as a ‘panoramic vision,’ a view that foregrounds the back—the passenger barely noticing that which is most near, reduced to an incon sequential blur by rapidity—and detaches the passenger from this space immediately surrounding the train car. Opposed to slower travel, where the passing landscape can be lingered upon and seen in great detail, railway speed produced a panoramic vision where the landscape is not seen for as long or intensively, its particularities are instead taken in as a part of an ongoing flow instead of discreetly. Always quickly vanishing, the landscape becomes more impressionistic, evanescent; panoramic vision is seeing the world as montage. This panoramic vision produced by the rapid succession of imagery is a useful way to frame the contemporary type of vision that social photography encourages, both in how we make and consume the images. The social photo is often viewed through the grid, stream, or story to be finger-scrolled, swiped, and tapped. The images in their proliferation and rapidity create an emergent stream in aggregate, and for the person doing the swiping, there is a more panoramic view of social life, akin to the montaged scenery from the train window.”