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The Internet and the Future of the Mass Media
Are Mass Media Companies Ready to Decline?
Through most of human history, the receiving of information and entertainment was a local thing. News from distant lands was hard to come by, and if it arrived at all, it was already weeks or months out of date. But since these distant lands seemed so remote, few people cared anyway. Entertainment – plays, musical performances, circuses, etc. – could only be experienced live. And for the minority with reading skills, they began to increasingly gain access to newspapers and books in only the past few centuries. Newspapers, however, tended to focus on local matters, with circulation limited to relatively small areas. And only the most well-known books were produced and circulated over a wide area.
The shift from local to mass media did not really start to happen until the late 19th- early 20th centuries. And while local news and entertainment continued to thrive, new technologies made it possible to produce content that could reach a massive audience. Radio and later television networks created programs that could reach the people of entire nations and eventually beyond. People flocked to movie theaters in droves beginning in the 1920’s, with virtually everyone in the United States experiencing the most popular films. Newspapers and magazines, due to advancements in transportation and printing, began to have a national circulation, with people throughout the country reading Time, Newsweek, Life, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
In many ways the mass media has been a blessing. Large media companies had the assets to produce a level of reporting and entertainment that smaller operations could never match. And exposure to the same movies, TV shows, sporting events, and news stories could have a unifying effect on the population, minimizing the forces that create divisive, regional differences. The ideal of an informed citizenry that is the foundation of a true democracy could seemingly be realized at a level never possible before. And talented people could be drawn to the arts, entertainment, and information industries with some hope of making a decent living or becoming massively rich.
The development of a mass media world, however, has also had a dark side. As people began to be exposed to the same information and entertainment, and this content was largely produced by a small number of media conglomerates, there was tremendous potential for a few organizations to control the thinking and behavior of the masses. So in this new media environment, there was more conformity in how people talked, dressed, thought, and found entertainment than ever before. Advertisers, of course, found it much easier to reach the masses, and companies were able to mass produce the goods and services that catered to the tastes that they helped to create. But smaller businesses, who could not afford to advertise with the major media outlets, found it even more difficult to compete with the major corporations. And writers, actors, musicians, reporters, or others trying to sell their art and/or information could only reach the masses through the major media outlets. But since the major media companies only wanted to invest in projects that had the potential to reach a mass audience, the tendency was to appeal to the “lowest common denominator.” Unorthodox movies, books, or albums would find a hard time finding a producer willing and able to invest the resources necessary to promote the product.
But even more dangerous than a drift toward conformity, mediocrity, mass production, and the American religion of consumerism was the ability of news organizations – along with the political establishment – to disseminate propaganda. Since sources of information were limited, and dissenting voices could be hard to find, there was a tendency to accept whatever the major news outlets (or government) reported as truth. The last hundred years, in fact, are a case study of what can happen when the masses are effectively manipulated into irrational, tribal behavior through the use of the modern media.
The internet, however, may be the first major technological development that has the potential to reverse these trends toward bigness. Through this brand new technology, individuals with limited resources can reach the world through their writing, videos, music, art or any other form of expression imaginable. It is no longer necessary to have the backing of a major media company to reach the masses. Just the fact that you are reading this little blog post right now is an indication of how much the world has been rapidly transformed by the World Wide Web. Twenty years ago, there would be little hope of a nobody like me finding readers from throughout the world. But now anyone can self-publish on Amazon, upload videos to YouTube, or sell music directly to the public through MP3 downloads. Finally, the “little guy” has a chance of competing with the major book publishers, music distributors, movie companies, and newspapers.
You could make the case, however, that the above paragraph is still more theory than reality. For even on the information superhighway where anyone can become an author, video producer, music star, or journalist, much of the traffic is dominated by a small number of major companies. And although the internet has rapidly grown in importance as a source of information and entertainment, many people are still getting much of their content the “old-fashioned way.” Best-sellers are still generally promoted by the major book publishers, whether they are selling printed or electronic books. The big money is still made by the major movie studios. And a small number of companies own most of the television networks, radio stations, and newspapers. In many ways, the internet is just one more tool being employed by major corporations to sell the same goods and services that they have always sold, functioning essentially as an electronic mail order catalogue.
It is still too early to determine how this will all pan out. We may soon live in a “boutique” society with an increasing number of individuals producing information and entertainment geared toward their particular niche market. Or we may continue to be a world in which a small number of large companies continue to control the bulk of the information and entertainment that we receive. It is expensive, after all, to send reporters traveling throughout the world or to make blockbuster movies. (Bloggers are mostly writing commentary based on information gathered by real reporters, and most YouTube videos are cheap home movies.) It is also very difficult for the “little guy” to be noticed in a world where seemingly infinite amounts of information are available on the web competing for attention. In the past, lack of financial resources tended to drown out the “little guy.” Today, the very wealth of information made possible by this new technology may be the primary factor in drowning most of us out. When it’s so easy to put stuff out there, much of the material will inevitably be garbage. So most of us will gravitate back toward the tried and true methods of getting our media fix, and the “diamonds in the rough,” just as in the past, will rarely be discovered.
But if they do get discovered, at least today there is a means for the general public to get the word out quickly without the support of the big media companies who have lost some of their ability to choose the next big thing. And if people are looking for various points of view on news stories, they have far more than a few newspapers and television networks to choose from.