Finding meaning online

21Aug09

(Cross-posted on The Mark)

Right now, technology is changing the game for traditional media in the same way that it is for governments and businesses – the internet has reshaped our expectations about convenience, immediacy, interactivity, responsiveness, “interestingness,” cost, etc. In some ways this is a problem (are our expectations unreasonable?) but in other ways, it’s potentially quite beneficial (we should have much higher expectations for our media – and our democracy – and we can collaborate together to realize those expectations in ways that weren’t possible before).

It’s not simply that the mail is being “replaced” by the internet – it’s that our understanding of communication is so different that mail doesn’t even make sense to many of us anymore. But it takes time for even the most savvy of online service providers to adjust to these shifts and capitalize on them.

Google took some strides to seize the potential of email with Gmail – which classifies email threads as “conversations,” moving away from the outdated metaphor of letters – but it will only be with the launch of Google Wave that we’ll really see email become a conversation by taking advantage of the potential for real-time interaction that the internet allows (complete with the ability to interrupt each other).

Adapting successfully to the new paradigm will require a great degree of abstract thinking, an ability to understand your business as fulfilling needs rather than creating a product, and a willingness to meet those needs in whatever way makes the most sense given the current state of technology and society. If media outlets had been more savvy, there never would have been a Google – newspapers would have realized more quickly that their role as arbiters and classifiers of information required them to be the earliest and best adopters of the internet. That wasn’t what happened, obviously.

But just because big institutions have always been terrible at this kind of innovation is no reason to assume they can’t pull it off. The good news for traditional media providers is that, if they can find a way to become more nimble, there are still lots of opportunities to get in on the shift while it’s still happening and to offer something new that capitalizes on these changes in a way nothing else has yet. For many consumers, online media is just like real-life media with the addition of flashing happy faces and dancing monkeys. There’s still plenty of opportunity to show these people that the online world has new, different, and desirable things to offer. But what?

Google and millions of individual content creators have mostly usurped the role of providing information – but of course, that’s never been what media really did anyway. Nor does media just arbitrate or comment on the information. At its best, media helps meet the need that many people have to feel like they are part of one meaningful conversation, that they inhabit a common space with other humans that is shaped by common events, that we can all discuss and interpret together.

Media now has the amazing potential to be both the inspiration for that conversation and a forum for it, with much more speed and volume than the Letters to the Editor page could ever allow. A former online editor at globeandmail.com told me they get over 5,000 comments per day. This is both an opportunity and a very daunting challenge: from the Globe’s perspective, they’re cursed with abundance, as it would be next-to-impossible to facilitate all those comments and turn them into a conversation – particularly when you consider the absolute dearth of meaning and sense in 90 per cent of them.

But in my work with Canada’s World, I’ve travelled across the country engaging Canadians in dialogue, and there are many who are thirsty for the chance to meaningfully grapple with public issues in collaboration with their fellow citizens. The wing-nuts and rageaholics that you currently find in the Comments section of most online newspapers aren’t, in my experience, representative of most Canadians. Many are turned off by what they see online right now, because it’s shallow and divisive and often confusing. But if the online world offered them something like what newspapers and radio programs used to offer, many would come and soon learn how to interact in new ways.

We’re far from having fully tapped the potential the online world has to enable new ways of connecting. Most Canadians are still, for all intents and purposes, on the wrong side of the digital divide, not because they don’t have access to technology but because they have no idea what they can really use it for.

If big media wants to survive, it must innovate, and the niche still crying out to be filled is for meaningful interaction. The metaphors we use to understand the internet need to become more appropriate, more sophisticated. Email doesn’t have to be like mail, and it likely won’t be for much longer. An online forum doesn’t need to be like an in-person forum.

Despite dwindling finances, big media organizations still have the resources of their names and visibility. If they were to devote themselves to exploring the ways the internet can help us combat the increasing fragmentation and polarization of public life, they could win back their vaunted place in our society. And maybe – just maybe – people might be willing to pay for their services again.

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