Triumph of the blogs

Jack Shaefer has a good piece on that Harvard blog conference:

The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven’t paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the “special edition,” but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn’t adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is the movie house newsreel.

The likelihood that blogs will vanquish mainstream media recalls the prediction Michael Crichton made in his 1993 essay “Mediasaurus.” Crichton wrote that the New York Times and one commercial TV network would vanish within a decade and would be replaced by artificial-intelligence agents, skimming information and the news from news databases and composing front pages or broadcasts tailored to the interests and needs of individuals. Like Shamberg’s guerrilla revolution, Crichton’s infotopia failed to arrive as promised. In 2002, Crichton good-naturedly claimed that his vision will still come true; it’s just running a little late.

Blogger triumphalism — largely a right-wing phenomenon, as Atrios noted recently — is just the latest variation on a theme I’ve been thinking about since watching the Wired magazine crowd in San Francisco in the early 90s. Early adapters are always sure that, having recognized the value of a new technology, they can also foresee the utopia it will inevitably bestow. But it’s that last bit that’s always problematic. If you had been around when the telephone was invented, and you were an early adapter, you would undoubtedly have been excited by the possibilities — pick up a receiver and talk to anyone, anywhere! Imagine it! And you would have been right — the telephone was a world-changing device. But what you would have been overlooking — what early adapters always overlook — is that while the technology which so excites them does change the world, it also quickly becomes commonplace. Whatever the fabulous new device is, pretty soon everyone adapts it and takes it for granted, and no one is impressed by the dork in the corner who tries to impress girls with the fact that he had a cell phone or an email address several years before most other people. (Said hypothetical dork being a complete straw man for the purposes of this argument, of course.)

Actually the invention of the telephone isn’t quite the right analogy. It’s more like this: blogs are to the internet as Mr. Moviephone is to the telephone network. They’re a spinoff, sometimes useful, sometimes annoying, but not all that big a deal in the scheme of things either way. And in a few years, they’ll be utterly mundane, and it will seem ludicrous that anyone ever wrote articles about them, held conferences to discuss them. The impact of the blogs is probably at its peak right now. These days, if a blog shines a spotlight on some minor media mishap, and a couple hundred blog readers send outraged emails, that’s more feedback than most media types are used to getting, and it gets their attention (one of the great secrets of the media being how little feedback they usually receive). But once everyone adjusts to the new reality, those couple hundred emails will mean nothing more than the couple dozen letters that might have physically come in over the transom in the old days. Blogs will become mundane, and expectations will be accordingly adjusted — and a couple dozen bloggers whining, or a couple hundred emails from blog readers flooding an inbox, will simply not have the impact they have today.