The democratization of media and the death of celebrity culture

There is a transformative process going on in the world of media today, and I feel like a lot of people are missing the point. The democratization of the production of media is being interpreted by many to mean that if you attempt to work as a writer, photographer, designer, or create media in any way that you are attempting to "become a celebrity" or "be a rockstar." Instead, we should be breaking down this system and creating a marketplace of ideas where the most compelling message rises to the top, not the one with the biggest corporate empire behind it.

The entire star-system, where media celebrities dominate culture and all media is mass media, was built around monopolistic control of the means necessary to create media. Beginning with the rise of modern newspapers during the industrial revolution, the production of which necessitated massive infrastructure, mass media has been in the hands of wealthy individuals and companies. The finite amount of space in the pages of newspapers and periodicals, and the finite amount of broadcast time on a finite number of television and radio stations led to the rise of the star system. Rather than every corner dance hall and tavern with its own band or performers, juke boxes, and radios provided the entertainment, and celebrity musicians became the only music most people heard. Celebrity news anchors read us the news. Celebrity movie stars entertained us in theaters instead of local theatre troupes. Working as a musician in a local band used to be a career you could raise a family on, but such jobs disappeared and being able to claim status as a professional musician became synonymous with being a celebrity.

With the rise of the internet, the barriers to entry to become a writer, to record and distribute music, or to produce a film were lowered to within reach of ordinary people. For journalism, in particular, it has never been easier to write and distribute what you write. However, we are conditioned to view people who are trying to earn a livable income from working as writers, photographers, designers, or musicians as people who are seeking celebrity...because for over a century it was feast or famine. You either succeeded in becoming a star or you starved to death. Indeed, there are numerous examples of people earning a living in such professions now without ever attaining the household name status of a celebrity and while working independently from the establishment media industry.

The United States was founded long before modern mass media. When the Founding Fathers included freedom of the press, printing presses were hardly everyday household items but nor were they as inaccessible as they are to the average American today. The ideas that spawned the American Revolution were circulated on handbills and pamphlets printed on printing presses that would fit in your living room. By modern standards, underground zines have more in common with how this incendiary literature was printed than the production of a modern newspaper or magazine.

As I watch social media develop the thought that occurs to me most is that numbers of likes, shares, follows, and comments are a distraction. Superficial and meaningless content that "goes viral" and panders to the lowest common denominator may generate the most "engagement." Now more than ever before if your message is valid, it will be carried on.

During the long, dark past 60 years, if you had a good idea and told someone there was a slim chance they would repeat it. Now, while pictures of cute dogs might garner hundreds of thousands of reactions, the idea that has a hundred or a thousand readers amplifies the individual's voice more than ever before in history.

There are billions of voices, but a very finite number who are coherent, an even smaller number who are relevant, and a vanishingly small number who are insightful. In a world of 7.6 billion people, that puts the number in the thousands...which if you put it in the context of a historical community makes it a small town. Most of the conversation that is going on or has gone on in the new media is between a rarified elite of a few thousand...maybe tens of thousands. Contrast this with a star system of some hundreds and it is a dramatic democratization. Then contrast it with the power of the individual voice in 1776...well...someone else do the math. Either way it is a dramatic democratization of dialog compared with the status quo of mass media control before the advent of the internet.

Anyone who cares to have something to say will say it. Anyone who has ideas worth examining will have their ideas examined. The scale and pace of the process will outpace efforts to prevent it from happening, most of such efforts attempted preserve nepotistic control of communications channels. What is happening will happen. Resisting the process will only create tragedy for the best and brightest who see what's coming and try to anticipate it, while delaying positive changes.

It is only natural that when the scope and breadth of the people empowered to relate a narrative was increased that the historical narrative would deviate from the narrow, culturally centered, sanitized, sixth-grade reading level version on which most Americans based their understanding of the world. Suddenly, there are a great many voices who are petitioning their grievances...and not without good reason. Those voices, long wholly excluded from official channels of discourse, are often unapologetically disinterested in polite and civil debate. So we have to walk a delicate balance of teaching peaceful civic engagement without imposing cultural supremacy. We are all in this together, it is the duty of the professional communicator to navigate this territory in good faith. Opportunistic and mercenary attitudes of old guard media professionals are dangerously counterproductive given the current circumstances. Using this dangerously unstable environment to sell fad nutritional supplements or dodgy investments is irresponsible and immoral. People with the skill necessary to facilitate communication have a moral imperative to do so selflessly. Those of us who do are not trying to become celebrities, we are serving at great personal expense a necessary function for the good of humanity.

#rhetoric #newmedia #socialmedia #celebrity #communication


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