Amazing media audience defines itself and its role

(one in a series of Strictly Opinion posts)

In June of 2006 Jay Rosen (journalism professor at NYU) punched out a blog piece for The Huffington Post under the title “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”  originally aired on his own blog PressThink, which took  Dan Gillmor’s (Director, Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at ASU) “former audience” idea from the book We the Media and punctuated the point.

It includes clenched fist verbiage. Those in the forefront of a revolution often need to express a point with an exclamation point. Now that a lot of the dust has settled – and the point itself has been settled – there can be no real question in February of 2010 that media communication needs to be a two-way street, irrespective of who initiates that communication, it seems appropriate to invite consideration of the basis for relationship/interaction models for now and the future .

The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  demonstrates that music is quite literally a universal form of communication. With this in mind, I want to give some examples from the world of music to make a point about media communication and “audience” participation.

I have a passion for music, in most all its myriad forms, from tabla (type of drums played in India, more about these later) to banjo, from classical harp to jazz flugelhorn. In my youth I was very immersed in the American folk music revival of the time. Later I was part of a singing group called “The Evening’s Entertainment”  with gigs ranging from charity events to nursing homes (not the big time to be sure but rewarding nonetheless). As a singer/songwriter I sent a demo tape into the great Nashville vortex never to be heard again.  I have been on  the stage and in the stands and it is from this perspective that I want to review the proceedings.

Speaking of folk music, when Pete Seeger, the folk music/activist icon “took” the stage, he never for a moment construed his goal as – be quiet and listen vis-a-vis those who sat or stood before him; his modus operandi has always been – get everybody singin’ – his intent is to ensure that everyone in the hall/on the shoreline, wherever, participates in the moment, creating a collective “experience” which by its very nature moves mind and emotion. This isn’t a just found “theory of practice”, it is an approach that comes naturally to a natural-born communicator who has been around the horn.  The idea of participation of this sort is nothing new.

Many “primitive” types of music involve “call and response” in which one participant initiates a musical statement and this is answered by other participants. This has evolved into very sophisticated forms – but it all relates back to this basic one. There is the traditional jazz ensemble in which each instrument takes a turn with a lead solo of specified length, improvising – everyone knows the “changes” (the chord progressions and structures for a particular piece) – and  “working around” the melody produces sometimes very innovative and novel results. In classical music, somewhat the same process is achieved through “variations on a theme”.

This musical interlude has been presented to show that, just as in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  an optimal way to generate communication – given varying circumstances and the desired outcome -can be achieved when there is a sincere motivation and commitment to do so.

What is touted as new  is the application of these musically common approaches to another form of communication – but everybody is not in fact always equal in the endeavor. There are Andrea Bocelli moments in the world of journalism for instance, which warrant just “listening to”. To suggest we are all in this together is fine, but sometimes we – the people formerly known as the audience – can contribute most effectively by just clapping our hands in time to the music. The term “audience” is not yet ready to be relegated to the archaic. The audience defines itself and its role. An audience, as such, can be very much involved in any given instance. The performer  requires an audience as much as the other way around – if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is a well-known philosophical inquiry and applies in this case. Speaking of philosophy,  there is another important concept that bears on the  nature of participants and communication, that springs from this discipline.  For Martin Buber the eminent philosopher, the idea of “dialogue” is an essential building block of community, and involves communication in which relationship and connection are achieved between the participants. It involves having regard for both self and the other. It is the difference between talking with someone and talking to someone.

Back to the tabla drums of India as mentioned earlier. The two tabla drums are played in combination to produce very complex rhythmic and melodic patterns which are steeped in long-standing tradition, and passed on from tabla master to disciple. (tabla example). Each of the two drums produces its own unique set of sounds and played together the blending of these sounds is equally unique. The tabla drums are a metaphor for any form of what might be termed interconnected communication, including media communication as it is evolving. This concept of interconnected communication stems from collaborative method theory which provides, along with the concepts of music and dialogue referred to here , an excellent basis for considering what is possible with media. In the end, the goal is that each “actor” brings their own value to the final result produced by the interconnection. Bravo!

 

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Beyond books and e-readers

I am an “early adopter” of the Amazon Kindle reading device. I love it. I am also a bibliophile. My personal collection includes among other volumes a 1764 copy of Hume’s Essays as well as an edition of Epictetus, His Morals, published in 1694. To me, beyond the value of their  content, these and  numerous others I have are treasures  – in a way, these books represent possessing the past, and handling them, carefully turning their aged pages, and reading from them gives me a sense of the time when they first appeared.

Stephen King, the well known horror and science fiction author, wrote an  article for Entertainment Weekly about his first experience reading with the Kindle in which he declared essentially that the Kindle will not supplant the book for the reason that books house the thoughts expressed in them in such a way that they give a permanency and stability to their works. Anyone who has watched a toddler walking about clutching his or her favorite storybook understands the significance of this attribute of books.

But while books may continue to co-exist with new technologies for the transmission of ideas, their raison d’etre may well change.

Eli M. Noam is Professor of Economics and Finance at Columbia University and Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI). The university-based research center focuses on strategy, management, and policy issues in telecommunications, computing, and electronic mass media. Professor Noam has devoted considerable attention to media, and books are by definition media, the means of communication.

In his article “Will Books Become the Dumb Medium?” published in 1998 in the Educom Review, Professor Noam prognosticates that books per se will ultimately have a secondary position to other information sources particularly, and will be used as an entertainment means primarily. While focusing on academia, his statements apply generally without doubt. Originally presented as the keynote address to the Annual Convention of Educom in 1997 (Educom, now Educause, is a noted non-profit organization dedicated to advancing higher education through information technology), it should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of books.

Advancing the transmission of thought and information through technological innovation is a constant human striving:  from cave paintings and oral lore to the invention of writing and alphabets, from stone tablets to papyrus and paper, from scribes to printing presses, from quill pens to typewriters, telegraph, telephones, televisions, computers, laptops, iPhones and Kindles and who knows what next?

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) I think would venture to speculate on this very question if he were alive today. Fortunately for posterity, his vision of the future is enunciated in the article “As We May Think” published in The Atlantic Monthly (now called simply The Atlantic) in 1945  and comes strikingly close to a 2009 reality.

Dr. Bush was a pioneering American engineer who had a hand in advancing the coming computer age, the atomic age, and was nominal first presidential science adviser. His idea of what he called the “memex” as described in “As We May Think” reads much like a description of how a 5th or 6th generation Kindle might function.

What is particularly fascinating, amidst all the fascinating prescience of Bush, is the incorporation of voice recognition and speech synthesis functionality for the “memex”. Why so?

Enter Dr. William Crossman, Founder and Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures who predicts that “talking computers, VIVOs, will make text/written language obsolete, replace all writing and reading with speech and graphics, democratize information flow worldwide, and recreate an oral culture in the electronically-developed countries by 2050.” (from the online synopsis to the book, VIVO, Voice-In/Voice-Out, The Coming Age of Talking Computers).

Amazing supposition? Perhaps not so much. After thousands of years of technological progression a new oral culture is able to emerge. It may just turn out that what makes oral culture seemingly less advantageous to “literate” societies is not inherent  but rather relates more to the available means by which it is sustained. Move over books and e-readers, here come the VIVOs!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/07/beyond-books-and-e-readers/

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President Obama and the return of the viral email

Well, now I’m getting worried. In reply to a comment regarding the recent post “President Obama and language used stupidly” (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/) I wrote: “I have some concern his communications team may be a little off stride of late: I will continue to monitor this and report appropriately on the C&C blog…and I am hoping these recent missteps are not indicative of a trend, but rather a “slip and fall” in an otherwise stellar tightrope act.” Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday I, along with millions of others who subscribe to WhiteHouse.gov received the following e-mail:

axelrodemail
Dear Friend,

This is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever sent, but it could be the most important.

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.”

So let’s start a chain email of our own. At the end of my email, you’ll find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.

Thanks,
David

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to the President

P.S. We launched http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck this week to knock down the rumors and lies that are floating around the internet. You can find the information below, and much more, there. For example, we’ve just added a video of Nancy-Ann DeParle from our Health Reform Office tackling a viral email head on. Check it out:

email_reality_check

http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/71/?e=11

For my purposes, I have here only reproduced the introductory section of the email, which is what I want to consider. You can read the complete text at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/The-Return-of-the-Viral-Email/

Now, what is my concern? Effective communication, as usual – and therefore, I was more than a bit taken aback by the tone and particular use of language in the email, issued after all by the “Senior Adviser to the President” and bearing both the “imprimatur” and letterhead of the White House. In fact, whitehouse.gov, the internet “face” of this administration has itself changed somewhat in character. For those not familiar with this web site, it was to be  an “open window” for the public to the White House and the current administration. On his first day in office, President Obama issued an executive order, the purpose of which was to ensure that the entire federal government should be more open, transparent, and internet-friendly. It stated that agencies must put information about their operations and decisions online and make them readily available to the public. So far so good. In spite of some “technical” glitches at first, whitehouse.gov has tried up until most recently to  practice what it has preached.

The health care reform initiative, characterized most recently as health insurance reform as hopefully more “palatable”, confronted by the opposition – including a barrage of TV ads opposing such reform, the town hall meeting protests (see my post regarding this:https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/), etc. have moved the administration’s communications approach into attack mode. The tactics being employed have been called “push back”. Basically there’s nothing wrong with a good old battle of words, depending on what the words are – the overall strategy may be OK at this juncture, it’s the methodology which is in question. The idea seems to be,  “fight fire with fire” – the only problem is the administration is starting to appear as if it is mud slinging instead of mud wrestling. 

There is a stridency to the email which was sent (stri-dent, adj. making or having a harsh sound; grating; to make a harsh noise) which could backfire.  The use of terminology  such as “spreading…lies” is akin to the use of terminology such as “acted stupidly” – remember the reaction to that.

The overriding consideration in any fight of competing ideas must be to ensure that the party that is in the leadership position by virtue of standing (such as a President) always  is seen as such; that doesn’t mean you can’t “take the gloves off” and strongly defend your position, or point up the fallacies in the argument of the opponent, but don’t resort to anything resembling an ad hominem attack – don’t use language which may be taken to suggest the other player is a liar for example. We’ll have to wait to see who lands the next punch!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/14/president-obama-and-the-return-of-the-viral-email/

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Town hall protesters communicate effectively, not?

It is time to examine – in a dispassionate and calm manner – the effectiveness of the communications strategy enlisted by those protesting at  town hall meetings being held around the country, in particular those protesters  raising their voices – quite literally – when the ideas being proposed by the Obama administration and in Congress related to the issue of health care reform are the focus of attention.

With the Congress summer recess,  legislators are heading back to home territory and to their constituents, employing the opportunity to try to connect with those who put them in office through, among other means, a communications vehicle that has been used for some time albeit with much sparser audiences than during this “summer of discontent”, the so-called “town hall” format; a forum in which, ideally, the elected official speaks to the issues and garners feedback in the form of questions and comments from those “regular folks” who attend. The idea theoretically is to provide give and take between voters and the politicians who represent them; the town hall concept is intended to provide a sounding board to take the measure of those at the local level.

Well, this summer the “measure” seems like it should be taken with a decibel meter! Relatively large groups of people are fomenting considerable discord  seeming to treat these occasions much like a sporting event and as a stage upon which to showcase their approach to disagreement, and it is their modus operandi that is our interest here.

Dr. P.M. Forni is an award winning professor at John Hopkins University,  founder of the Civility Initiative, and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. His work has been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, and he has appeared on national media including National Public Radio (NPR) and The Oprah Show.  

What has been taking place is available to be seen on YouTube videos and cable and network TV. Suffice it to say that the protesters have just about smashed the tablets of Dr. Forni’s “Twenty Five Rules” including especially Rule 10 – Respect Others’ Opinions; Rule 13 – Keep It Down (and Rediscover Silence); Rule 14 – Respect Other People’s Time; Rule 15 – Respect Other People’s Space; Rule 23 – Give Constructive Criticism. To find out more about “Choosing Civility” go to:
http://krieger.jhu.edu/civility/choosingcivility.html

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher and political theorist, author of On Liberty, and influential advocate of freedom of speech, is quoted in Forni’s Choosing Civility: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” But it seems apparent a main thrust of the protesters’ efforts is in fact to “silence” the speaker.

We will resist the temptation to address whether these protesters are coming together in an organized or spontaneous fashion, whether truly grassroots or “astoturf”, non-local “mercenaries”, sponsored by major interests – stakeholders in the outcome of the health care reform debate – or whether one believes the rabble have been roused by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et.al.  and on the “other side”  whether Dems. have brought in “union goons” to intimidate the protesters. You can see from the terminology alone, the temperature is definitely rising .

This blog is committed to discussion and analysis of what constitutes effective communication. I have in previous posts addressed a number of the principal considerations in this regard, and I particularly draw attention in this instance to the post “President Obama’s scorecard as communicator-in-chief”:

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/08/president-obamas-scorecard-as-communicator-in-chief/, not because it refers to President Obama at that early time in his administration when his communication team was attempting  to kick start renewed confidence by the general public in our faltering economy, but because the post gives some basis for assessing  the effectiveness of  communication efforts in general. I wrote: “How do you determine whether you’re communicating effectively? By evaluating results. You set objectives…for your effort…and then you use some appropriate means to measure effect.” Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Let’s see if we can apply this standard to the protesters at the  town hall meetings.

Of course all this has to remain speculative, but if you are trying to demonstrate anger for a proposition, it probably makes sense to find a video camera and a microphone and start shouting “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” (famous line delivered by Peter Finch as the ex-TV anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network” ).

So, while it may not be according to Hoyle, or in this case Forni, the point of all of this may just be making an impression, but with whom? John Q. Public?, the rank and file of the Republican Party?

This gets us to the matter, also previously broached on this blog, of “truthiness”; I referenced the book True Enough by Farhad Manjoo in a previous post https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/16/a-jurassic-park-kind-of-world/ ; there I quoted from the Publishers Weekly review of the book that Manjoo analyzes, “…the status of truth in the digital age, critiquing a Rashomon-like world in which competing versions of truth vie for our attention.”

So do the tactics employed by the town hall protesters have traction? It depends on who you ask and poll.  For now though, without any doubt,  they are generating less light than heat!

Addendum: In response to a particular comment received related to this post, I want to state that any appearance of prejudice – positive or negative – for any group in this present health care debate is unintended. The health care issue gravitates around larger issues – one in particular being the perspective  different people have of the very nature of our society. My only bias is in favor of effective communication.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/

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Viral “marketing” – word of mouth in a YouTube world

We are presently experiencing a virtual pandemic. I am not referring to the current Swine Flu, more properly named the H1N1 Flu . I am speaking of viral marketing,  the term itself is relatively recent and started to be used in the mid 1990’s. The term’s imagery is particularly engaging. While it certainly can carry a negative connotation I want to address the ramifications of this “phenomena” as it relates to the age-old concept of “word of mouth” now sometimes referred to simply as “WOM”.  We have all heard this: there is no better form of advertising than word-of-mouth. Among other attributes of WOM, the perceived non-commerical nature of the communication enhances its credibility. One of my basic premisses about WOM in its contemporary manifestation is that technology has spawned a social networking capability that adds such potential impact to word of mouth  that it has or at least is on its way to re-asserting itself as one principal means for driving acceptance/popularity of products, persons, ideas, and “information”.

How did someone or something get notice – positive or negative – historically, let’s say in Rome in 63 B.C. “Word” travelled on horseback or chariot; escapades and episodes were passed from person to person and made reputations, for ill or well. But it wasn’t exactly speedy delivery.

Cicero, the great orator, politician, and philosopher of the period said “Like readily consorts with like”; the idea is that the transmission of a message from an accepted source has both credibility and influence, and is therefore eagerly  shared with others,  because in part, the person who passes it on  wants to be associated with the remark and the party making it.

In viral communication, those who get the “virus” affect going are usually individuals with what has been characterized as high social networking potential (SNP).  There is in fact a whole new area of marketing/public relations activity devoted just to injecting positive “buzz” intentionally through using a viral approach – kind of like seeding a cloud to produce a rain shower.

The Susan Boyle example from the TV show “Britian’s Got Talent” is a textbook study in viral communication and its potential impact. The YouTube clip of her singing in the competition literally spanned the globe with meteoric speed, and due largely to this she has become something of an icon – and rightly so, exemplifying  the adage, “you can’t tell a book by its cover”. Thus the rise of another “star”  born through the power of the Internet.

There are lots of implications for all of this. Does the viral approach to popularizing persons and things have merit or is it a menace? The verdict is yet to be rendered –  by a jury of our peers  –  and the jury is still out.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/24/viral-marketing-word-of-mouth-in-a-youtube-world/

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“Immediacy”, is it too quick?

I will be brief. In fact, some studies suggest that most will read only the first four lines of text of this post before moving on. So I may only have “two more lines of your time”. What we are dealing with is “Immediacy” – a relatively new use for a term that has generally meant (are you still with me?):  to occur or accomplish without delay; in an instant.

What those using the term are attempting to express is that we are living in a communications milieu counted in seconds and sound bites and 140 character maximum communications called “tweets”. This genre of communications is becoming more and more prevalent and more and more the norm.  I have previously addressed a somewhat related issue, see: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/10/quick-takes-social-network-fatigue/

Whether the consequences of “Immediacy” are  positive or negative depends upon a number of factors. If the purpose is finding a specific answer to a specific question then certainly there is merit in accelerating the process. But when the “short-cut approach” becomes the one and only recognized approach much can be lost such as clarity,  thinking things through, reflection; decision making on the basis of a “quick pick” is quite different than decision making based on more deliberate consideration of any given matter. There is a concern that those engaged  primarily with media and messages configured to satisfy “Immediacy” will have capacity to concentrate and stay on task only in short bursts. There is no stopping and smelling the roses  in an immediacy mediated world. So we gain some things, we lose some things; the trick may be  in learning to control rather than be controlled by the technology that makes this all possible.

We certainly need to be conscious of the potential impact of “Immediacy” on the interaction between communicator and  audience. Latest studies indicate a trend of less and less “time spent” on news websites. While “time spent” may not be the optimal index regarding “engagement” with a website, this trend tends to support a probable consequence of a culture focused on “Immediacy”. For further reading on the subject check out The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy by John Tomlinson, Professor of Cultural Sociology at Nottingham Trent University. It’s only 192 pages.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/29/immediacy-is-it-too-quick/

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Earth Hour: Nonverbal and Symbolic Communication

The lights went dim. The darkness fell. It was Earth Hour. Yesterday, all across the world, in 84 countries. At the Sydney Opera House in Australia. At the Eiffel Tower in France. At the Bird’s Nest Stadium in China. At the Great Pyramids in Egypt. At the Acropolis in Greece. At the Sears Tower in America. At the home of “Mr. & Mrs. Concerned-citizen-of-the-world”. The goal: 1 billion people switching off their lights as part of a global vote to be presented to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Change Conference December 7-18, 2009.

Regardless of your own perspective about global warming, Earth Hour is a major example of nonverbal and symbolic communication.

Nonverbal communication involves the transmitting of a thought or idea without the use of spoken language per se. Symbolic communication is a sub-set in which symbols and symbolic action are used.

Many will consider, and have flatly stated that they think Earth Hour is nonsense. A billion people switched off their lights as their answer

Historical footnote. Mind, Self, and Society was posthumously published in 1934. Based on the lecture notes of George Herbert Mead, really the father of social psychology, the book puts forward in his theories the ideas we today  generally refer to as “symbolic communication”.  As an interesting aside, while Mead published scholarly articles widely during his lifetime, he died in 1931 and never finished correcting the galleys to what would have been his first book. Essays in Social Pyschology was first published in 2001. So Mead’s work in essence spans much of the modern day social and communications theory time-line. The other figure I want to mention as making a contribution to all of this is the philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) who conceived “symbol theory”; while she is most often associated with aesthetics,thinking about the arts, she significantly called attention to the importance of symbols.

I’m not asking here whether Earth Hour will have an effect on policy, only time will tell that. The question is simply whether Earth Hour effectively utilized symbolic communication to try to make its point “without saying a word”. If you would like to take part in this survey go to:http://www.earthhour.org/home/ to find out exactly what happened during Earth Hour, and then return and complete the survey. I’ll post results after sufficient response.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/29/earth-hour-nonverbal-and-symbolic-communication/

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