The phenomenon of mass communication is not coupled to any specific technology. Its essential feature is the capacity to articulate a message that saturates a social body. The mechanism of transmission is only related in so far as it enables this. Neither the printing press nor the transistor is prerequisite. The vast, networked audiences of modernity are heirs to a much older tradition.
The history of mass communication can be characterized by progression from meaning imposed coercively from above to an entertaining, if nihilistic, spectacle directed by the fascinations of the masses. In “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” Jean Baudrillard cryptically outlines this tension: “Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning?” (Baudrillard 84). This paper seeks to destabilize the binary introduced by Baudrillard. The relationship between masses and media is not static. Through historical study, I will trace out the series of transformations in the dominant medium of mass communication that resulted in the shift from the former to the latter. I argue that the degree of competition for attention alters whether media is able to deliberatively articulate a purposeful message to the masses or whether the fascinations of the masses – that is what draws their attention – dictates the content that the media produces. The competitiveness of the attention market is shaped primarily by the logic inherent in the dominant technology of distribution: what Marshall McLuhan refers to when he says that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 153).
The Medium becomes its Message
McLuhan is hasty in asserting an absolute identity between the medium and the message. Although a medium’s message is intrinsic to it, constitutive of it, generated out of it, the medium is not the message. Rather, the medium becomes the message, in a type of convergence. For McLuhan, the message is the medium’s ideal. It is an essential principle, the “integral idea of structure and configuration,” untethered from any specific content (McLuhan 155). Indeed, if the message referred merely to content distributed through a medium, McLuhan would be rendered unintelligible. After all, the essence of a medium of communication is that it can convey a multitude of meanings, contexts and disparate information. A medium that was only able to transmit a single impulse or idea would negate itself. Any interpretation of ‘message’ that reduces the medium to a singularity cannot be correct.
McLuhan employs the word, not as a signifier of discrete content, as in “I left him a message,” but instead to denote a significant point or central theme, an abstraction away from the content or, in his words, an “awareness of the whole” (McLuhan 155). The message should be understood as almost akin to a moral or highest principle, as in “the book’s message was reinforced on every page.” Much confusion has resulted from McLuhan’s subtle distinction between essence and content, between the singular and the plural. Messages, plural, are the insights and impressions that are transmitted through a medium: its content, the substance of communication. The Message, singular and for clarity capitalized from here on, is something else entirely.
The medium becomes its Message, its ideal, its promise. The Message of a novel medium is not immediately apparent; though it is endogenous, it is not discernible right away. Like an embryo that from inception contains the promise of adulthood, the medium contains the germ of its Message. Yet, just as the fetus is not an adult, the medium cannot yet be said to be its Message, for neither ideal is embodied. The fetus must first gestate in its mother’s womb. It still must quicken and be born, and even then it does not know itself and it will not for many years. Similarly, every medium has its own history: the incremental, haphazard process by which its essence was ascertained and then embraced. Gutenberg printed a Bible, not the New York Times. It takes time for the substance of communication, the messages, to begin to grasp at and then conform to the medium’s internal logic, it’s Message. Any given technology comes laden with various constraints and presuppositions. A medium’s Message arises from these idiosyncrasies: that the telephone is useless without its network; that broadcast media, such as radio and television, is beamed out along a finite spectrum and is identical for everyone. Messages are gradually made becoming of the medium, in the sense that they are suitable or appropriate for their mode of transmission. Only then do the medium and the Message coincide. McLuhan’s aphorism categorically omits the crucial process of becoming. This Paper will address his oversight.
Communicative Epochs & Slippage Between Them
“Is the Iliad possible at all when the printing press and even printing machines exist?”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology
If the invention of movable type in 1439 foretold the end of oral culture, it’s death knell took the better part of two centuries. Yet Marx’s question reinforces an important truth: specific technologies of mass distribution, like the printing press, alter what can be expressed, who can say it and whether it will be heard. But these technologies go further still. The dominant medium shapes the context of the media landscape, determining the degree of competition for attention. A medium can, for example, increase competition by reducing distribution costs and lowering barriers for new entrants. Or it can impose new constraints, such as introducing clear chokepoints for regulatory intervention. The inherent peculiarity of a new medium must debase the assumptions and practices formed under preexisting technologies. Yet, these sedimented conventions, produced through extended familiarity with a dominant medium’s Message, exist beyond the medium itself. The dictates of a medium etch themselves on to the social order, in politics, commerce, and entertainment. The concrete instantiation of this nebulous constellation of ideals, political relations, and competitive logics gives form to a communicative epoch.
Each communicative epoch is delineated primarily on the basis of the dominant medium of distribution. This is an intentionally vague definition. Sharp divisions, like right angles, are an unnatural contrivance of the human mind. Boundaries are always fuzzy. And, correspondingly, the transitions from one communicative period to the next are never discrete. New technologies do not emerge in a vacuum. Every epoch, at least in the beginning, betrays its inheritance from the preceding order. While innovation might present a technological break from the past, there are no true social discontinuities. The application of technological progress is always initially backwards looking. For example, the printed newspaper received its form from the earlier manuscript avissi, short elite-oriented news dispatches written by hand (Pettegree 184). Though mechanically reproduced at scale, the earliest newspapers did not immediately embrace their mass market promise. Instead, they simply reproduced the form of their predecessors: no headlines or illustrations or contextualization. No affordances, either in content or layout, were introduced for new readers who “might not be so well versed in international political affairs as the narrow circle of courtiers and officials who had read the manuscript news letters” (Pettegree 184). While the shift from script to print held profound structural implications, the new realm of possibility would be left to future entrepreneurs. It takes time and experimentation for the new competitive logic, the medium’s Message, to assert itself against the received practices of the previous paradigm. That said, once the dictates of distribution become apparent, they are all but irrefutable, particularly when competition is fierce.
According to Marx, with the emergence of the press, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappeared. But although their absence was perhaps vital for the production of the Iliad, neither the mechanical reproduction of text nor widespread literacy was a necessary precondition for mass communication. The oral culture of early modern Europe was extensive, encompassing everything from tavern rumors to tawdry songs to royal decrees. However, spoken language itself is not the technology of distribution I intend to highlight, but rather the sovereign-religious apparatus that amplified speech, transforming it into a medium of mass communication.
The early modern European attention ecosystem was quite fragmented. Postal infrastructure was still in its infancy, so communication over large distances was both slow and expensive. Reports of international and domestic affairs were consumed primarily by the wealthy, generally as letters from acquaintances or commercial partners abroad. Eddies of public sentiment, when they formed, were short-lived and localized. While rumor and news could spread quickly, if inaccurately, attention held no explicit commercial value. Attention remained outside of the rationalized sphere of commerce and its direction was only relevant to the organs of social reproduction. During this communicative epoch, the scale of communication was that of conversation, either between individuals or among small groups congregating in the marketplace or tavern.
Logic of Orality
Space and time both constrain oral communication. Public speech takes on the characteristics of a mass medium only when an orator addresses large crowds. Therefore, effective mass distribution through an oral medium required the synchronized assembly of a localized audience. In other words, everyone had to be in the same place at the same time. Unlike later technologies of distribution, where the medium was untethered from the physical constraints of space and time, oral mass communication was intrinsically a shared experience as it demanded the simultaneous presence of many individuals. Communication needed to be communal if it were to succeed at spreading a message to the masses.
The Message of the oral medium is purposive spectacle, not entertaining, but didactic. The link between oral communication and visual extravagance might seem somewhat counterintuitive. It is explained by the fact that the foremost difficulty wasn’t holding attention, but the act of gathering it. The traditional order was faced with the challenge of creating a focal point for attention amidst a chaotic environment. It was not competing against other actors, but rather the background noise of social life (and, oftentimes, the literal noise of the market). The spectacle, a striking sensory display, was the solution as it overwhelmed all else. It produced a moment of order, an instant where all eyes converged, that then permitted an orator to fill the void with his speech.
The difficulty and expense of a mounting a concerted public display by which to convey a message restricted mass communication to the most established institutions of the early modern period: the church and the state. The church and state each held separate claims to their subjects’ attention. The church promised hellfire for those who did not attend the weekly mass, while the state asserted its power directly on the flesh of its citizens. These joint stewards of the spiritual and physical realm upheld the social order, each reinforcing the influence of the other. The oral communicative regime was concerned with the production of meaning. The message imprinted in the minds of those listening was entirely functional. It’s purpose was tied directly to attaining broad consensus for the existing social order, both in the communal norms espoused by Christianity and in the sovereign enunciation of new ordinances. Indeed, the church’s claim to attention was backed partially by the use of sovereign force: “while ministers were recalling their congregations on a Sunday, many European cities employed officers charged with patrolling the streets, ensuring that shops or taverns did no business” (Pettegree 138). And this relationship went both ways: weekly sermons played a crucial role in shaping the community’s understanding of changes of government, worship practices, declarations of war and peace, natural disaster and human catastrophe. Preaching helped to regulate and interpret the disordered and organic cacophony of rumor and gossip, preventing the public from spiraling out of control (Pettegree 137).
For those who could marshall the resources, the attracting attention in early modern Europe was not challenging. So few institutions were capable of such concerted effort that doing so, in itself, drew attention. The spectacle of mass communication simultaneously communicated a symbolic message, as well as the overwhelming authority of the message’s originator – either the sovereign or God. And when inattention carried such brutal theological and corporeal punishments, the public listened. But if the presentation was spectacular, the content of the message itself was generally uninteresting: “proclamations could be long, and couched in formal legal language, complex and intricate” (Pettegree 120). People would go to church each weekend, only to sleep through the sermon because of the underwhelming rhetoric of the preacher. But fascination, as an additional quality of information, was unnecessary because there was no direct competition for the public’s attention. Demands on communal attention were reserved for the reproduction of the social order. The content of oral mass communiqués was purposeful, rather than interesting.
The discussion of oral communicative epoch is presented mainly to show the contrast between the Message of oral mass communication and the Message of print. In the subsequent section, I will show how the communicative traditions, shaped and enabled by an oral culture, discordantly flowed into the print epoch. The print medium inherited an incongruous hierarchical regime, a relic of the oral Message. It would take nearly three centuries for the new medium to fully embrace its own Message.
Embedded in the essence of the printing press is an almost teleological promise of cheap and efficient mass distribution. In McLuhan’s terminology, this is the Message of movable type. However, one would be mistaken to view this property as obvious to its early operators. The manual reproduction of text naturally proceeded the press, which was invented in order to speed up the existing process of laboriously copying books “from dictation or a rented master copy” (Pettegree 58). The first generation of publishers who took up the technology were “remarkably conservative” in what they printed (Pettegree 59). Early staples of the press echoed established tastes of the preexisting market for manuscript books, such as liturgical works, legal texts on civil and canon law as well as medieval medical and scientific journals. The printing press’ early usage was backwards looking: it was used to print large, expensive books. The mass market potential of the machine went overlooked. However, the logic of mass distribution was present from the presses’ inception. To print a single page requires a fixed amount of labor to layout the content, while the cost of any additional copy is reduced to the cost of materials. In other words, it is dramatically cheaper to print the same book one hundred times than to print one hundred different books. Each subsequent copy sold amortizes the initial fixed layout cost. For the printer, a large volume of the same thing is always better.
Although the printing press reduced the cost of distributing textual information, the addressable, literate audience was still a fraction of the population that was reachable through the oral apparatus. But nonetheless the capacity to broadcast a message, to issue command or spread an idea, which once had been exclusive to traditionalist institutions, took a democratic turn. A limited, but robust, culture of communication developed among the bourgeois. The distribution of printed books, pamphlets and newspapers, while still censored by the state and obstructed by widespread illiteracy, generated the ideal of mass communication unmediated by the sovereign or other coercive authority. Information could be disseminated through the “force of the better argument,” rather than at the whim of the sovereign or the church. The content distributed to the masses would no longer bear the mark of domination.
Censorship & Publication in France
The printing press and the ideal of mass communication that it promoted were recognized by the state as a potentially disruptive pairing. As a result, publishing in early modern Europe was subject to strict regulation. The domination of religious-sovereign authority, while now less directly tied to mass communication than under the oral epoch, persisted in shaping the views that could be articulated to the public. The dictates of the powerful, rather than the fascinations of the masses, still held sway, despite the shift to a mechanism of distribution that empowered individuals to present their own ideas publicly.
The publishing industry at the cusp of the French Revolution invites further inspection. In the decades leading up to the revolution of 1789, which would topple the ancien régime, the chaffing between the order inherited from the old communicative epoch and competitive logics of the new could already be witnessed. The transformation of the French publishing industry attests to the transition from the dominance of oral mass communication towards that of print. The specific features of this transition clarify the model of medium-driven communicative epochs: (1) an inherited social order, which betrays the logic of the previous medium, (2) a technically-induced change in the capacity for domination, which undermines received norms, and (3) competitive pressure as an impetus for the logic, or Message, of the new medium to be made apparent.
The Crown exerted a tight control over the dissemination of ideas in the old French literary system. Censorship of speech and writing was the official policy of the state. A large enforcement apparatus literally policed thought, surveilling printers and booksellers and censoring work deemed a threat to “received religion, established power, or accepted morality” (Darnton and Roche 14). Despite the printing press’ promise of mass communication freed from the domination of the sovereign-religious order, the state still was fully in control of distribution. In this new communicative era, the medium and the Message were not yet one and the same.
The implementation of this ideological control took two parallel forms: active censorship of works and symbiotic cooperation with publishers, attained through the granting of economic monopolies. All works that were to be printed in France were subject to review by agents of the state, under the Office of the Book Trade (Darnton and Roche 7). These government-employed censors were specialized by discipline and would review the works that fell under their domain of expertise. Approved works could be printed only by licensed publishers. An efficient ‘book police’ oversaw the production and distribution of all printed material. Publishers were subject to regular inspection, and even unannounced searches of their property. The police would account for “typographic equipment such as presses and type fonts” in order to prevent backroom print shops from escaping supervision and would examine inventory to ensure that no forbidden books were being produced (Darnton and Roche 20). Violations were met with strict penalties, from heavy fines all the way to imprisonment.
But, rather than enforce a purely punitive regime against publishers, the French state simultaneously granted them certain privileges. The book police, in their zealous prosecution, were not only looking for ‘bad books,’ but also counterfeits, pirated books and other foreign works that violated the monopoly granted to licensed publishers. The cooperation between publishers and the state sheds light on the relationship between competition in the attention market and the possibility of control over information. By weakening the market force through the enforcement of a publishing monopoly, the state could exert more ideological control. Publishers had more to lose from circumventing the censorship regime and were buffered from the impartial, autonomous power of competition. Rather than being directed by the masses through the logic of the mass market, the media remained subservient to the sovereign, still “on the side of power in [their] manipulation” (Baudrillard, 84).
However, when the decisions of the censors diverged to far from public opinion, their legitimacy was called into question. As the culture of enlightenment permeated the expanding public sphere, the gap between the existing law and what the censors could expect to enforce grew larger. Furthermore, the administrators of the book trade, who, for the most part, were well-off bourgeois intellectuals, had no desire to stifle literary production and were torn between ideological and economic responsibilities. This fracture was felt even more acutely by publishers themselves: “control and commerce became increasingly uneasy bedfellows” (Darnton and Roche 25). The demand for ‘philosophical books’ – the terminology used by publishers for books that contravened the censors – soared in the years leading up to the Revolution. And publishers who stocked this unsanctioned inventory were well rewarded: the price of one of these ‘philosophical books’ was usually twice that of a comparable book. The massive public demand for forbidden content eventually overshadowed the threat of punishment by the sovereign. On the eve of the Revolution, the century-old edifice of press control, established under the ancien régime, simply evaporated. The dam broke: the fascination of the public directed the media, who gave into market demand, disregarding the establishment’s wishes. The print epoch of mass communication finally came into its own, shedding the inheritance of the previous era. The print medium had discovered its Message.
There is an inverse relationship between the domination of those in power and the level of market competition the media is exposed to. As the old literary order of the ancien régime receded, many new entrants joined the newly deregulated publishing market. Publishers could no longer comfortably rely on monopoly profits from books sales and instead had to compete for mass market appeal. Without the protection of the state, the media would need to find a new patron: the world of commerce.
Habermas and the Emergence of the Public Sphere
The emergence of the bourgeois public sphere occurred at the same time as the development of early print media. The two are co-vital. From the beginning, the world of letters – the vast array of periodicals, journals and publicly distributed essays – was invigorated by the mercantilist demand for information on foreign affairs, commodity prices and other commercially relevant happenings. However, slowly there was a shift from publications “containing primarily information” towards those that offered “pedagogical instruction and even criticism and reviews” (Habermas 25). The ‘world of readers’ expanded from merchants exclusively focused on commercial information, forming the foundation for a critical public. Criticism of art, theater, literature and even politics, which began as conversation between individuals, expanded into print as “contact among these thousands of circles could only be maintained though a journal” (Habermas 42). Those who contributed felt themselves as part of a broader public discussion that “knew of no authority besides that of the better argument” (Habermas 41). Content was still purposeful, rather than merely entertaining. So new entrants to the ‘world of letters’ were brought up to the level of culture, rather than debasing it. During these early years of print media, publications were not intended to be commercially viable on their own. Fledgling newspapers were either backed by wealthy patricians or the independent initiatives of the well-educated. Early print media “violat[ed] all the rules of profitability” because the measure of its success was not the return on investment, but the publication of a message (Habermas 182).
The early print media, on Habermas’s account, largely lives up to the bourgeois ideal that generated it. The implicit physical and psychological coercion that sustained oral mass communication could be replaced. A new guiding criteria could replace the coercive commandments of social reproduction in selecting the information that should be spread. A new standard would indeed emerge, however it would not conform the the bourgeois ideal of rational-critical debate.
Habermas on Advertising
In Habermas’s account of the public sphere, the introduction of advertising as a business model for the early press “put financial calculation on a whole new basis” (Habermas 184). Before this transition, culture was a commodity in form, but not content. The elements of culture were made more accessible economically because they were able to be mechanically reproduced at a low cost. Paperback books are the principle example of this phenomenon. While cheaper to produce, the content of paperbacks remained essentially unchanged from their previous, more expensive hardcover instantiation. While at first the expansion of the public sphere was facilitated exclusively by reducing costs, in the end, the press succumbed to the leveling demand of the mass market and a “commercially fostered consumer attitude” took hold (Habermas 169).
The possibility of turning an advertising-funded newspaper into a profitable investment proved to be an inflection point. Publishers, once less receptive to market forces, were simultaneously emboldened to act by the prospect of new profits and compelled into doing so by competitive pressure as those newspapers that failed to maximize sales, lost their influence in the long run. The assembly of the newspaper, which before had been a literary endeavor, took on a new profit-oriented motivation. The peculiarity of this relationship revealed itself only as the logic of the market began to “penetrate… the substance of the works themselves” (Habermas 165). This is the other function of the market, which Habermas labels psychological accessibility, where economic imperatives demand culture be consumed more easily, with fewer “stringent presuppositions” (Habermas 166). Commercial pressures that originally were restricted to the economic accessibility of the works, started to change the essential character of the products themselves. When subjected to the incentives of the mass market, producers could more easily achieve “increased sales by adapting to the need for relaxation and entertainment” rather than through the promotion of “culture undamaged in its substance” (Habermas 165).
Mass Media Epoch
The emergence on radio in the early 1920s, followed by transition to television in the 1950s, signaled the establishment of a new communicative epoch. The technical innovation that made both television and radio possible, that inaugurated the mass media era, was wireless broadcasting. Unlike the protracted transition from an oral culture to one structured around print, the logic of broadcast was rapidly adopted. Broadcast’s Message conformed to and, indeed, radicalized the preexisting ideal of mass distribution, embedded in the printing press. Mass audiences could be reached through both mediums and monetized through advertising, yet broadcast was structurally more competitive. As new instruments measured audience engagement more systematically, attention became increasingly legible. The media knew exactly what fascinated the public, which in turn meant increased viewership and sponsorship revenue. The mass media’s response mirrors Habermas’s account of advertising’s effect on the early newspapers of the public sphere. The influx of commercial pressure changed the character of the content. The masses were now “directing the media into spectacle” (Baudrillard 84). And those ostensibly in control, the media executives, many of whom had been in the industry since the early days of radio, slowly realized they were powerless to resist. The dictates of the rationalized attention market could not be ignored.
Logic of Broadcast
With broadcast, the medium is comprised of two technologies: the transmitter and the receiver. Each shapes the Message in a different way. Analysis that focuses too narrowly on the physical presentation of content misses the important structural features of transmission. Conversely, the receiver enables participation in the distinctly American ritual where every night, “a handful of people speak, [while] the rest listen” (Mander 27). To simply ignore it is to disregard a physical device that was present in millions of homes and was the locus of mass culture. These dual technologies reflect the decoupling of distribution from physical instantiation. It is this separation that accounts for the intense competition that distinguishes the mass media epoch.
Walter Lippmann once said of the television networks, “It’s as though this nation had three might printing presses. Only three.” (Friendly 294). His analogy offers an accurate description of the mass media landscape, but no real explanation for its emergence. For that, look to the underlying technology. Television content was transmitted via the Very High Frequency (VHF) band of spectrum. And there was only a finite amount allocated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). This restriction exerted a centralizing force on networks. Furthermore, the broadcast format itself, a single, centralized source pushing out a message, imposed certain basic demands. As everyone received the same content, the mass media had to orient itself towards mass appeal. The content of mass media needed to make itself psychologically accessible, to use Habermas’ terminology.
As for the receiver itself, its most relevant feature is something taken almost for granted in our age of ubiquitous screens: that an infinite variety of content could be displayed by a single device. The device, the receiver, was a chameleon. Individuals who who collected vast libraries, would now only ever need a single television set. Unlike print media, which one purchased for its specific content, the television could communicate anything and everything. Yet, despite a theoretical capacity for infinite variety, cultural critics have noted that, in practice, the diversity of content was severely limited. Mass media was infected by uniformity.
The physical decoupling of the substance of content from its embodied form had huge implications. As all of the networks broadcast their content concurrently, yet a television set could only display a single channel at a time, the competition for attention within each time slot was zero sum. Every show had to vie for viewership.
Peak Attention in American Television
The case of television in the United States from 1950 to 1980 explains the media’s descent into spectacle. In three decades, as a result of a highly competitive and newly legible attention market, the national television networks came to understand the Message. Though I will focus on television, much of this analysis applies to radio as well.
Early on, programming, the mixing and matching of various types of content to maximize audience and, therefore, revenue, was more of an art than a science (Wu 101). The top executives at each corporation wielded enormous personal influence. They personally made the choices about the content that would be shown on the television. Of course, these media executives were still trying to increase the size of their audience, but this required a level of personal intuition, rather than formulaic by-the-numbers approach.
The three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were all engaged in a zero-sum competition for attention that took place every night. There was only a few hours of primetime, so the viewer was forced to actively choose between networks. And maintaining the viewers’ interest was essential, especially when an alternative was just a press of the button away. Attention was made rivalrous, in a way that it simply had not been in the print epoch. As David Halberstam would later write, “the competition was so fierce” yet it was fought “with weapons so inane” (Wu 417). The daily newspaper could be read at one’s leisure. It could be supplemented by a magazine or by a book. The choice was left to individual preference and had no impact on others’ consumption. From the perspective of the print publisher, once their product had been sold, whether it was subsidized by advertising or not, the reader’s particular habits were commercially irrelevant. Their circulation numbers, which determined how much they could charge advertisers, were centered around sales and subscriptions. This was a sufficient proxy for attention given the structure of print media, but was nonsensical for television.
Yet, concrete insight into which network was actually winning the competition for attention was surprisingly hard to come by. Everyone knew that the primetime shows received a mass audience. They had to because there were simply three to choose from and everyone watched television! Advertisers were more than willing to pay for access to it. The difference between 30 million viewers and 40 million seemed irrelevant to an industry known for the adage: “half of the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is nobody knows which half.” Statistical legibility into viewership remained spotty until the invention of the Nielsen ‘Peoplemeter’, a device which claimed to “scientifically measure human attention” (Wu 104).
Nielsen Ratings & The Legibility of the Attention Market
The Nielsen ratings changed television.“If you can put a number on it,” Arthur Nielsen was known to say, “then you know something.” (Wu 104). Nielsen took the ebb and flow of attention and made it visible for all to see. The art and feel that once guided programming decisions was replaced with a science. Whereas before human intuition had moderated the pressure of the market, media companies now “marched to the beat of a distant drummer called ratings” (Friendly 168). The zero-sum competition intensified because networks and advertisers alike now knew which shows were ‘winners’ and which were ‘losers.’ Shows had to prove themselves objectively, to draw an audience or otherwise face cancellation (Wu 140). The content of television, while always oriented towards the mass market, seemed to descend to new lows as a result the competition for ratings. Executives were “incapable of stopping the inexorable flight from quality” (Friendly 168). They were no longer responsible for holistically selecting content, but instead optimizing a single number. The imperative was mass amusement, to be entertaining to everyone. The characteristics of content that met these requirements is described by media theorist Neil Postman: “bitesized is best, … complexity must be avoided, … nuances are dispensable, … qualifications impede a simple message, … visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and … verbal precision is an anachronism” (Postman 105). To defy the commercial need of easy accessibility was to reject the “television’s requirements” (Postman 106). The system, as it was no constituted, brooked no dissent. In the blind pursuit of profit, the reigns of the media had slipped from hands of the powerful, into the outstretched arms of the masses.
Speculations on the Internet Epoch
The internet, like television, is an multifaceted medium that describes a constellation of interrelated technologies. The unified experience, familiar to over two billion users worldwide, is a carefully constructed illusion that appears when each component is working in concert. While ‘television’ as a phenomenon might be subdivide into transmitter and receiver, the internet’s proper level of analysis has yet to be determined. One could examine TCP/IP and the decentralization inherent in the system. The internet can trace its origins to a DARPA project which aimed to build a communication network that could survive a nuclear strike. Another layer would be the World Wide Web and the browser, which made the web accessible to a nontechnical audience. And one can continue further still to the centralized services that structure the internet’s petabytes of content. These services might host content themselves, as Youtube does for the three hundred hours of video that are uploaded every minute to its servers. Or they might merely direct attention to links hosted elsewhere on the web. For example, Google ingests a search query and spits out the links that are predicted to be most relevant. Some services, such as Facebook and Twitter, exist somewhere in between, combining external links with hosted content into an algorithmically personalized ‘news’ feed. The internet is an amalgam of distribution technologies, layered on top of each other and competing against each other, each suggesting its own competitive logic.
Logic of Digital Distribution
There is a further difference between the internet epoch and the others discussed. The internet as a medium is so novel that its Message remains incompletely articulated. It is still unclear which specific technology of distribution will win out. However, I will abstract away from any single service and attempt to highlight the threads that are common to the features of the internet itself and offer a few speculative remarks.
The internet’s Message departs significantly from mass distribution, though it maintains the focus on the legibility of attention. The concept of market research is taken to an extreme. The segmentation of a target audience into ever narrower, more specific demographics is intensified until each exactingly precise category is populated by a lone individual. The radicalism of this achievement would have gone unnoticed while television was the dominant medium. Producers would never have contemplated chasing such small audiences. Given the constrains of mass broadcast, it made vastly more economic sense to appeal to the average. On the internet, this logic is inverted.
The internet is the antithesis of mass communication. To return to the initial definition, mass communication required that a message reach, if not everyone, than a large portion of the community. As the organs of mass media are replaced with a an algorithmically mediated feed, even when a YouTube video receives hundreds of thousands of views, it is still only watched by a fraction of the total user base. Where the mass media produced entertainment for “addicts of mediocrity,” individualized media delivers to each user precisely what fascinates them, personally (Friendly 274). By arranging the infinite content of the internet according to individual fascinations, internet platforms obviate the commercial pressure to pursue mass appeal. The potential audience is unimaginably vast. To entertain even a fraction is to become, for an instant, the focus of more attention than all the kings and prophets of history.
The rulers of the past commanded attention because they were powerful, those who receive it today, do so because they are entertaining. To consistently channel attention on the internet is to constantly be competing for it. In the individualized feed, before a piece of content is presented, it is compared against every other article, video and tweet and if, according to the proprietary algorithm that models your interests, it is insufficiently fascinating to you, you will never see it. Even those who build up a following are still subject to these demands. Nothing uninteresting can be communicated, for the very property of being uninteresting precludes distribution on platforms that algorithmically match content to the interests of the individual. Mass media had to avoid being hated, individualized media must be loved. If the mass market required an average palatability, a perfectly legible attention market demands the extreme preference of a small niche.
Competition & Technological Determinism
My reading and application of McLuhan is not intended as a bland regurgitation of technological determinism (though McLuhan himself might have fallen into this trap). The Message is the promise of a technology, its imperative. But importantly, this imperative is not teleological. Just as the medium is not the Message, it is not inevitable that the medium become its Message either. We must remind ourselves that individuals are not powerless and impotent. Engineers can resist. Producers can boycott. Journalists can inform, rather than entertain. The demands of the market can be rejected. Wikipedia exemplifies this. Assuming a modest CPM of five dollars, with ten lines of code, Wikipedia could monetize the eighteen billion pageviews it receives each month to the tune of ninety million dollars, give or take. In fact, every minute that Jimmy Wales holds off pushing that ten line commit into production, he gives up two thousand dollars.
So it is possible to resist, but we are not all Jimmy Wales. The pressure to submit is overwhelming. On the level of the employee, there is the specter of unemployment. To willfully reject the logic of the market is to be rightfully terminated. But the pressure to conform to its demands exists at every level. The executive, though better paid, is essentially in the same position as the janitor. To resist is to go. Even the founder, the inventor, the owner, the celebrity is precariously positioned. While they might be spared termination at the hands of management, in the long run, they too end up in the same place. In 1938, Bill Paley, the chief executive of CBS, presciently stated that “too often the machine runs away with itself” (Friendly 168). To obstruct the machine is to be crushed by it. To refuse to go along is to be replaced. Everyone and everything is fungible.
When it comes meaning in media, we are confronted with an unpalatable choice. Either stable meaning imposed through deliberative control by the few (as tyranny) or the autonomous, impersonal and invisible hand of the attention market, which, in the end, results in the “liquidation of meaning” (Baudrillard 84). Any point in between is an unstable equilibrium. And one can at least negotiate with a tyrant.
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Friendly, Fred W. Due to Circumstances beyond Our Control . Random House, 1967.
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Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death : Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Viking, 1985.