Imagine that people have been talking about an exciting new kind of media. You decide to check it out for yourself. What you find dismays you. Most of it seems to be about the narrow concerns of hobbyists and special interest groups, celebrity gossip, dubious promises of self-improvement, or sex. Intellectual or creative merit is in short supply.
You might be tempted to dismiss it as a vacuous fad. But you would be wrong, because the “new media” I have described is actually magazine publishing. Indeed, similar things could be said about old media in general, not just television, but also books and newspapers. The problem is that, as Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of everything is crap. With old media, however, we know what we like about it and we know what to ignore. With any new media, it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff, and until that’s been done, it often looks as though it’s all chaff.
We’ve already been through this process with the internet. Not so long ago, it was intellectually respectable to dismiss the whole of the Web as an inane space where porn ruled and nothing of any real quality could be found. Now, that position would just seem ignorant. Sites like Arts and Letters Daily, TED Talks and those of the BBC provide quality content that only the snob could dismiss.
Will social networking sites, from blogs to microblogs, via facebook and myspace, follow the same trajectory? I’m not so sure. The most recent and popular of these—Facebook and Twitter—do something that no other media has done before, including what we can now call “traditional websites” and blogs. They combine elements of both telecommunications and media to form a genuinely new kind of technological interaction. They use instant communication tools to not just pass on messages, but to point to other packets of information which other can choose to follow up or ignore. For want of a better word, they create teletrails.
Much has been made of the convergence of mobile telephony and the Internet to explain the rise of teletrailing. But at its core is the evolution of a much simpler technology, which is nevertheless of the web’s most potent creations: the hyperlink.
Initially, hyperlinks were simply used as very handy cross referencing tools, or collected together to form listings and directories. So, hyperlinks existed either between chunks of substantive information, or from listings to such chunks. What then happened was that hyperlinks gradually started to become part of the content of the communication and not just a pointer to it. To begin with, this was quite modest and simply piggy-backed on other forms of communication. For example, it soon became easy to “send a link to a friend” if you came across something on the Web that you liked, or include links in blog posts.
A real qualitative change occurred when social networking invented a way to put hyperlinks even closer to the heart of communication, rather than as an add-on to it. Facebook and Twitter are quite different in many ways, but what they share is the way in which both combine a fast turnover of short, self-contained messages, many of which include options to get much more with one click. This is what gave birth to teletrailing. A Facebook or Twitter user is both providing a steady stream of basic communication about what they’re up to, while at the same time leaving a trail of signposts to the things they have been doing or which have attracted their interest. The use of the verb “follow” in twitter is thus apt. Every new technology is continuous with what it follows, so I am not of course suggesting that the elements of teletrailing have no precedent. What is new is the balance of these elements. Twitter and Facebook have tipped this balance in ways which make it true to describe them as new ways of combining media and telecoms.
It is very diffi cult at this stage to guess what the consequences of this innovation will be. People have been notoriously bad at predicting how technologies will develop, and behaviors with them. People worry too much about obvious potential harms and miss more subtle effects. One of these could be how social networking fosters a kind of illusory egalitarianism that has always infected the Web. The Web is supposed to be a great leveller: anyone can blog or twitter, and Facebook friendships are reciprocal. But this equality is entirely superficial. In reality, most blogs are read by very few people while a small minority have huge followings. Similarly, for all the reciprocity of Facebook, there can be competition to get the largest number of friends. As for Twitter, the most popular could not possibly follow as many people as follow them. Social networking thus creates an illusion of equality which it does not even embody itself. This bolsters a broader cultural trend to deny that people differ in their abilities, by nature or by nurture. It’s pernicious because even though the external barriers to creative achievement are lowering all the time, if anything, the gap between those who succeed and those who don’t is getting even wider. Anyone can self-publish a book, for example, but making your living from writing is harder than ever, and very few authors each year break into the elite group of best-sellers (many of whom are celebrities anyway).
The most popular lament about new media is of course how it shortens attention spans and with it the shrinking of the amount of detail and information people are prepared to grapple with. Teletrailing seems to reduce the object of focus almost to vanishing point. The extent and rapidity of this change can be seen by how, already, blogs are looking quite earnest and old-fashioned. When blogs first appeared, they were compared unfavorably with newspaper and magazine articles. They tended to be shorter, were written more quickly, were light on research and heavy on opinion. But to those growing up on Facebook and Twitter, they must seem ponderously slow and long. For those who value thoughtful, crafted writing, this is a worrying development. However, paradoxically, microblogging might actually help longer, more thoughtful writing. The ever-shortening nature of social networking communications could help revive ‘proper writing’ by re-opening the gap between off-the-cuff jottings and thoughtful prose which blogging temporarily blurred.
This could easily occur as a result of a kind of Darwinian struggle. Those teletrailers who manage to be interesting and pithy in short tweets and messages could attract followers away from those who take 400-word blogs to make their point. Natural selection could result in the survival of the briefest. But, as we’ve seen, the distinctive feature of teletrailing is that it provides a constant streams of hyperlinks to more substantive material. Since people are going to receive many such links a day, there will be another evolutionary struggle, from which a few victors will emerge.
There is certainly no good reason to take the pessimistic view that people will lose all interest in anything requiring more than a few minutes to read. Think, for example, about how in the age of the supposed limited attention span, American television has been producing high-quality, long-running TV series which depend on viewers staying with the programmes for weeks on end. The mistake we tend to make is to imagine that the dominant trend will continue to develop in a linear fashion until everything conforms to it. What tends to happen is that trends generate countertrends. Just as much light leads people to seek the shade, so many swept along the relentless flow of nanonuggets of information fi nd they want to drop anchor every now again for less hurried contemplation.
A greater danger of the rise of teletrailing is, I believe, to the writers and artists who seem to have most to gain from it. The possibility of cashing in on social networks is potentially making many more people commodify themselves. Authors for example, are encouraged by publishers and agents to think about themselves as “brands”, and to blog, twitter, make friends on Facebook and so on. They are not alone: bands, artists, even therapists are turning into their own mini-PR departments, increasingly concerned not just with what they do, but how they can sell it to as many people as possible. High profile but actually quite rare tales of great success encourage creative to go along with this.
I would be a liar if I said I was not caught up in this trend. I would say I have more instrumental reasons for using Facebook than I do other ones, and while I see my twittering is a fun, creative challenge, I’m not sure I would have even started doing it I hadn’t thought that it might be good for my profile. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if I am unusual, it is only in my candour. The problem is that being high-minded and opting out looks like a luxury few can afford. Being active on social networking sites may be far from sufficient for success, but it looks increasingly as though it is necessary. People have long feared that it is only a matter of time before the creative dynamo that is capitalism finds a way of turning the freedom of the web to its advantage. It may yet do so, not by big business taking over, but by the logic of market economics coming to govern the decisions of individual teletrailers, infecting minds like virtual nanobots. Microblogging could thus turn out to herald the age of the microcommodification of society.
Julian Baggini is the co-founder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He is the author of The Duck That Won the Lottery: And 99 Other Bad Arguments (2009), The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 other thought experiments (2005), Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines (2002) among many others. In addition, Baggini contributes to The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer and the BBC.