Near and local

“When you make a thing, a thing that is new, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly. But those that make it after you, they don’t have to worry about making it. And they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when others make it after you.”
Pablo Picasso, as quoted by Gertrude Stein

So if we use Twitter for spreading “news” among friends, EveryBlock could share news from your area. We certainly thought of group communication when we made, but we hadn’t thought of indexing and filtering local news for re-distribution in neighborhoods. I have to keep reminding myself that media is changing (not for better, not for worse: changing), but I’ve been programmed to accept certain items as valid and others as chaff, using a set of criteria where I judge value through the perception of quality.

Quality, however, is an attribute of stiffness, of the basics having been worked out, of cartilage having been turned into bone. Perhaps bone and cartilage is a good metaphor for what’s happening: old formats are solid and now far too stiff, while the new formats can barely stand on their feet. They flourish by virtue of the sheer number of people outputting content, but the format is far from complete.

In Reinventing Comics Scott McCloud asks what the comic format of the future might look and feel like. We almost cracked our heads open trying to reinvent comics back in 2001, but the conclusion was that something else, different, something not like comics and perhaps only partly inspired by it might be its descendant.

The offspring, it seems, are nothing like the parents, and perhaps being skilled with the old tools makes you incapable of inventing the new tool. Are mini-documentaries the photojournalism format of tomorrow? Vincent Laforet sees it as part of the broader change in news media, but points out that television has been making documentaries for decades: how can photojournalists compete on TV’s territory?

In a talk last Friday, I told the audience that, media-wise, they could almost pretend that the 20th century never happened when trying to get a grip on social media. By pretending that we’ve gone from 1850 to 2008 in one leap, and leaving out the massive storytelling trio of radio, television and newspapers, we can try to observe the communication efforts going on between groups and individuals via social media and participatory tools. By keeping in mind that the idea of a central, “agreed-upon” narrative is a recent phenomenon that was, perhaps, just a passing fancy. The polarization of extremes is, perhaps the new fancy.

A century ago, the only way to distribute music before the advent of audio recording and broadcast was through sheet music or through bands/choirs/performers who traveled. Every interpretation of a work was local and very or fairly unique. In many cases, people would gather to sing the new, popular songs, or listen to their friends perform them. The same went for the sensemakers, the commentators, the argumenters, the mavens and the connectors: they were local.

I wonder if we’re seeing the contours of a new near and local era, where things are relevant either because they affect you through proximity or through interest and affiliation.

The publishing/sharing formats are still fuzzy and frequently misapplied or misinterpreted. We’ll sort that out eventually and no, I don’t think it would be a tragedy if most bloggers turned into Twitterers or whichever “I want to share this with my friends” tool is coming next.

We can now participate, inquire and discuss as never before, at low cost and with great ease, but there’s no guarantee that our discussions will be clarifying, build consensus and enable positive change. Much of the space taken up by mass media is being taken over by massively amplified local chatter; I’m not sure it will be any better but it will be different.

If the near and the local are on the rise, what about that which is further away? What about a shared culture, common values and government of, for and by the people? Yes, there is a positive obverse to these worries, but I don’t know what to call it. Peering?

Skill takes time to build and yet we are faced with a September that refuses to end where every group has to  rise above the malstrøm of newbie questions and continue compiling data and crafting knowledge. I want skill. I want stuff to be poignant, well-written, concise, relevant and free of spelling errors. I want video to have decent resolution, great cinematography, good directing and splendid screenwriting to warrant watching it, not having it waste my time. I want, I want, I want.

Michael Wesch, on the other hand, wants to understand what’s going on and therefore becomes a participant observer and takes his students along to create a fascinating study of how people use YouTube. It turns out that my search for skill, quality and all of the other good stuff needs to be aimed somewhere else. YouTube, Flickr and all the other participation machines are at once troves of insight and heaps of garbage, for we are both presenting our very best work and massively sharing the conversations that were once mumbled in private.

Outside the near and the local, my mediated reality offers less context than I’m used to; I never know what to expect. Am I about to see something moving, interesting, irrelevant or boring? Should I turn on my museum mode or would my TV ad cognitive filters work better? Am I engaged in a sort of conversation or am I listening to a presentation? Is that item there provocative but well thought-out or merely a knee-jerk response to some other nonsense? For me, the fact that a blog, a page on Flickr or video on YouTube is merely a shell means that there’s no way of knowing what that stuff inside the box in the middle of the page will be. Good? Bad? Relevant? Boring? There’s really no good way of finding out for yourself without trying for yourself.

For now, I’m going to try to forget that mass media ever existed, even as I consume it by the megabyte every second. I’m going to try to unbundle its components and put them away, so I can actually see what is happening inside the participation games. Wish me luck.