I’ll start by stating the facts: I’m blogging about a book written about blogging, and searching Hulu for clips mentioned in a book about Internet TV. To say that this kind of engagement is muddled would be an understatement, but it also gets to the heart of what Jill Rettberg and Sharon Ross laid out by writing the books they did.
Namely these two books represent a major transition point in media, where the content and ideas assess, synthesize, and predict millennial technology, but print all these things inside books. Ross discusses this briefly in her introduction, saying that a book allows for “slower and more sustained discussion” impossible in the faster fragmented environment of a blog, and yet “slow and sustained” seems counterintuitive for a medium so constantly changing shape, and it seems laughable to refer to a book as a “discussion” next to the possibilities of an open forum blog.
And yet I can’t criticize the decision because, really, it seems there’s no logic to millennial media one way or another. The modern age of communication has taken the form of a mosaic, drawing from radio, print, and the web to make a mass of information seemingly devoid of order. In fact, rather than doing anything counter-intuitive or misjudged, both these authors have simply published works indicative of their era.
Because 21st century media in a word is “saturation,” and this saturation moves across time and medium to create the unique conglomeration we see today. However, as both Ross and Rettberg point out, this conglomeration is not a modern phenomenon, but a continuation of long-standing human trends of society. Ross cites Plato’s objection to written language just as countless others after him would fight the printing press, the telephone, the TV, and the Internet. For all of recorded history, we have fought with the implications of shifting away from words as carefully planted seeds and towards words as scattershot and saturating. In other words, the Internet is not responsible for the new methods of communication, it is simply responsible for making these methods available to an audience of billions.
Of course, under any circumstance, the state of the new world has the Internet at its center, and both these books aim to consolidate in some way the implications of the resulting information flood. ”Buzz” is brought up as a major deciding factor for Ross, who argues Internet engagement is starting to become a litmus test for media producers and a promotional tool waiting to be harnessed. However, whether or not buzz is being effectively or correctly read is a difficult thing to determine. It connects directly with Rettberg’s musings on Plato’s carefully planted words, where one must consider equally the care and selection of the speaker and the discerning intelligence of the listener. For producers reading online buzz - are those making the buzz really representative of the majority? And can we trust those reading to process a volume of voices unheard of in the whole of human history?
The answer we all hope for is yes, because in terms of sheer numbers, groupthink and audience intelligence should naturally push worthwhile things to the top of the pile, and democratically determine how certain things stand out from the noise. However, judging worth is, again, an inexact science at best and a crapshoot at worst. Especially when one considers the possibility that something we see as innately democratic as the Internet could become entirely driven, harnessed, and engineered by corporate power.
It’s something we don’t like to think about, because the Internet has become a key point in the evolution of human engagement. As Ross and Rettberg discuss, blogs and audience communities alike tap into the innate human pleasure of discussion, social involvement, and connection (even if it is, in the case of the web, a largely solitary connection, nonetheless fulfilling to participants, known to media scholars as being “alone together.”) These pleasures have existed as part of the human experience for millennia (though again, not with today’s numbers), and the topics discussed likewise pre-date the medium. Ross points out that gender discussions surrounding Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were not unique to the online fan community, the Internet simply lent a new platform to draw on a largely unheard and disenfranchised female audience previously unable to gather in any effective way.
So what is essential is change. Increased numbers and “many to many” media calls for a better sense of discernment. Citizen journalists and 24 news channels that run tandem websites, twitters, and blogs (which are in fact, largely run by citizen journalists in the case of CNN) have created an unnecessary level of information that has become the indicator for a world defined by its uncertainty. The positives and negatives of audience participation, the magnification of old habits and the creation of new ones, and the re-development of the global written word presents such a myriad of possibilites that they can be called nothing definitive besides incredibly and indescribably different.
Or so say Ross and Rettberg, who both make the point that the shift is still in process, and that the Internet has a future only as noble as the people that direct it. Ross compares blogs to knives in her conclusion, saying each is equally suited for great utility and horrible destruction. Rettberg, meanwhile, shows both sides of the TV audience in her chapters on online participation, and it is clear through her examples that buzz can be good or terribly detrimental. Everything is pressured to be released, processed, and decided at incredible speeds in order to filter through all of the available material, and the result often looks like a base-level white noise of chaos. However, if we approach it not as a mass of work to be read, but as a resource to be sifted, there may be hope for us yet. Above it all, we can either find a rarified air of online engagement, or a mess. It all depends on our level of literacy in this newly defined realm.