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January 27, 2005
Shafer Misses The Revolution

Jack Shafer writes today at Slate that blogs have received too much attention as a revolutionary device in communications. He argues that similar technological advances have occurred in communications before, hyped as the One True Change that would topple media empires, only to find that they had little effect at all:

A long, long time agoOK, it was 33 years agoMichael Shamberg and a clutch of other video visionaries from the Raindance Corporation visited my college campus to preach their gospel of the coming media apocalypse. Waving a copy his book Guerrilla Television, Shamberg prophesied that the Sony Porta-Pakan ungainly video camera wired to a luggage-size tape deck carried over the shoulderwould herald a media revolution greater than the one fomented by Gutenberg's moveable type.

Once the People got their hands on the video power and started making decentralized, alternative media, the network news programs would collapse under the weight of their own lies, Shamberg said. The Hollywood industrial entertainment complex was going down, too, man, and would be replaced by street stories recorded by Porta-Pak-toting freaks. The multiplexes out by the freeway would be shuttered and sold to neighborhood theater groups. ...

Even though video cameras continued to shrink in size and price throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s and have now proliferated to the point of ubiquity, the guerrilla uprising Shamberg and his comrades plotted never progressed much beyond the unwatched public-access channels at the high end of the dial. Their revolution was televised, but nobody watched.

Shafer likens the advent of the blogosphere with the same kind of fervor for portable video, and in an entertaining but fundamentally flawed analysis, concludes that the changes will be minor and evolutionary. Unfortunately, Shafer misses the one important point in the lesson. The video evolution failed to become a revolution because the technological change focused on production and not distribution. Portable video did indeed free the masses to produce their own material, but CBS, Paramount, and the like still controlled the means of distribution, and in most areas they still do.

The Internet, especially cheap broadband access, changed all of that. As Kevin Maney at USA Today wrote earlier this week, bloggers are essentially pamphleteers, at least at the most basic level -- citizens who want to speak out. Before, one needed to own a printing press or pay to access one in order to have any hope of distribution at all, let alone anything that could challenge the mainstream distribution of newspapers, magazines, and so on. And as for broadcasters and cable producers, they have an access point in 98% of all American homes -- making any distribution outside those channels almost impossible to start.

Now, however, that fast Internet connection renders all sites essentially equal. Once one has toured the Internet, the fact that all sites are essentially equal becomes quickly apparent. The CNN page differs only from Captain's Quarters in the amount of product they can distribute -- but we're sharing the same distribution channel now. The distribution, not the product, is the revolution -- and bloggers thrive off of their ability to out-pace and out-react the mainstream media, which for the most part remains stuck on the notion of a full-day news cycle.

In fact, now that the distribution channels have opened up to the end-user as well as the media moguls, that long-awaited video revolution may not be far behind. Videobloggers have already popped up, promising not just opinion and news but also independent entertainment. As the capacity for broadband increases, filmmakers will have the ability to download their latest movies direct to consumers over the Internet, without having to spend money on the physical media or kowtowing to theater-chain owners. We may see this in the next five years -- and citizen newscasters may push today's bloggers to a subsidiary position in the Internet hierarchy.

Will this mean the end of the New York Times, as Crichton predicted thirteen years ago? Probably not, but it will mean the end of the full-day news cycle. Those who don't recognize that fact will die a slow death in the fast-paced market for news that the blogosphere demands. Instant distribution means that reporters and editors need to file stories when they happen, not just in time to put the paper to bed. For the NYT that appears to be around 8 pm ET, which is when their RSS versions of their next-day reports appear on the Internet. If the Times can't catch up with the wire services and the other resources (such as on-site reporting from bloggers themselves), they risk their obsolescence

The revolution has already been blogged. We may exaggerate our importance at times, but if Shafer thinks that the news and entertainment industries will remain essentially unchanged ten years from now, he may be one of the last casualties of the revolution.

UPDATE: Give Jack Shafer credit; he's using Technorati to track the reaction to his column -- and he's updating at the bottom with a balanced set of excerpts, including one from CQ. Keep checking back to see if he updates any more. (Full disclosure: I didn't get a dollar from Jack. Damn.)

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 27, 2005 12:00 PM

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