Longform and listicles, tinyletters and tweetdecks, snowfalls and subreddits — we are awash with new forms of media. Each new day seems to bring a special new media experience: Blogs pop up over here; data visualizations, over there. And really — how the heck did podcasting become relevant again?
It all seems random, but if you look closely, and live long enough to actually care, you start to see patterns — a historical logic to new media emerges from the seemingly happenstance. And more importantly, if it is indeed a stable history, if our media inventions are not random, then we inhabit a predictable environment. We can see the future in the past.
This brief history of new media sketches a timeline for how we ended up where we are. It proposes three phases of media innovation — Surfing, Drowning, Diving — to outline what has happened and to anticipate what comes next.
First, a map of the murky waters ahead:
Phase 1: 1980-2000
25 years ago, digital media crawled into its infancy stage with the mass adoption of cable television. The internet was not yet having a social impact, but everyone knew it was coming: The air was electric with potential.
Cable TV seemed impossibly fast when it first arrived. CNN and MTV accelerated news and style to lightning speeds, but with a cost: These innovations also flattened media experiences, creating a sensation like gliding atop a sleek, shiny surface.
New media was smooth but shallow, like a flat stone skipping across a lake.
This era lacked words to describe the skimming sensation, so we invented a term, “channel surfing,” to connote this giddy feeling of constant movement atop the media wave. (In this era’s apogee — its High Renaissance, if you will — the term morphed into “web surfing,” another sign of movement for movement’s sake.)
Lest we appear superficial, we even appointed patron saints to intellectualize this inch-deep mediascape. Andy Warhol, at peak influence during this time, projected a world of pure image, an economy of floating signifiers. (A favorite Warhol zinger cited during this era: “Just look at the surface of my paintings and films.”) And Marshal McLuhan’s sizzling distinction between hot and cool media played perfectly into the hands of those dilettantes who wanted to use E! and John Coltrane in the same sentence.
It was the epoch of skimming, and our media inventions reflected those flattened, accelerated times:
- USA Today (1982) envisions a simplified world, one that could be encapsulated with a punchy blurbs and bright graphics. With innovations like Snapshots and the first full-color weather section, USA Today becomes the second-largest American newspaper by 1985.
- Siskel & Ebert (1986), presaging our Like button culture, simplifies the movie-going experience to a simple binary: thumbs up or thumbs down.
- Entertainment Weekly (1990) empowers a class of people who want to be culturally savvy without enduring the dreariness of a humanities degree. You can now discuss Infinite Jest without reading, debate Hill Street Blues without watching, and chat about Tupac without listening.
- The Week (1995) applies the same principles to news.
- The Daily Show (1996) revolutionizes the potential of accelerated media — all the news in a few minutes, plus a few good Monica jokes.
- MSNBC (1996) and FOX News (1996) hone CNN’s surface news by adding a political prism.
The evening news, with its 10,000-foot view of current events, still mattered, even as Wired (1993) was extolling an accelerated culture. The postmodernists ruled academia, so Jean Baudrillard could publish a book titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991) because CNN made war feel like a video game. Hyperreality was all the rage, as the epoch reached a fitting illusory conclusion with The Matrix (1999).
This generation’s media experiences were crafted like surf boards, sleek hulls to glide across crystalline surfaces. The wave was in control, but you knew to stay clear of the reefs. No wipe outs — beware the deep waters.
Phase 2: 2000–2010
15 years ago, the surface cracked open. The glossy patina of digital television ruptured, revealing its polar opposite: bewildering depth.
The internet had breached the surface, and it immediately began to devour everything in sight. Search engines deployed spiders to scarf up the deepest corners of digital content, while companies like Amazon and eBay compiled mountainous archives. New media companies devised one goal during this period: Capture everything.
It was a big data land grab.
Media inventors plunged the depths of human knowledge, like amphibious explorers in the Mariana Trench, searching for unknown organisms. The lifeforms they discovered in the deep seas of content became touchstones of media innovation:
- Blogger (1999) forecasts a future where every person creates their own content empire. This triggers a decade of schizoid seizures in old media companies, as they debate whether “user-generated content” will eat their businesses.
- Napster (1999) transforms your computer into a music database server, as the history of human recording becomes instantly available.
- Wikipedia (2001) turns human knowledge into a massive data repository, so we never forget the time Ted Danson roasted his girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg while in blackface.
- Google News (2002) is invented to capture all the content that media companies were moving to digital platforms. Google soon follows with other mass-archival products — Google Books (2004), Google Maps (2005), Google Video (2005), and Google Finance (2006).
- The Long Tail (2004), a seminal phrase coined by Chris Anderson in a Wired story, screams the business mantra of this era: Capture the value in your archive!
- YouTube (2005) begins to archive every moving image ever created, ending the notion of cultural rarity.
- Demand Media (2006), a massive content farm that ballooned to a $2 billion valuation, creates mountains of cheap Google-friendly content.
- NYT Topics (2006), a huge taxonomic archive of the New York Times, launches; TimesMachine comes a couple years later. In 2010, NYT licenses FiveThirtyEight, one of the first attempts to control the data deluge.
- Netflix Streaming (2007) shifts Netflix from a superficial “surfing” technology (three DVDs, no more) to a “drowning” experience with bottomless archives of old programming.
After the turn of the millennium, new media businesses had one goal: build the digital archive. It is not surprising that “content” — the most derided media term in decades — became popular during this era. We needed a name for all this stuff we were archiving.
We were sinking in the seas of content.
Phase 3: 2010–?
By 2010, we were drowning.
The vast seas of content had been plundered, the archives were brimming. Terms like “big data” had entered the lexicon, suggesting that amassing the archive had become the ends to a means, regardless of any deeper comprehension or consumer demand.
The ecosystem was ready for disruption again.
Today’s innovators have abandoned the archives. Innovations in recent years have shifted away from an obsession with capturing everything to a fascination exploring something. We now inhabit a world populated with strange new media creatures: deep subreddits and long episodic podcasts, premium binge-watching and topical data visualization.
We are now in the era of the deep dive.
Consider the media buzzwords of this moment: think piece, longform, recap, and binge watch. All of these terms suggest a break from the era of big data into the epoch of deep exploration. The most successful recent innovations illustrate the shift:
- Reddit: IAmA.
- NYT: Snowfall.
- Vox: Card Stacks and Explainers.
- Mailchimp: TinyLetter.
- FiveThirtyEight: DataLab.
- Twitter: Lists.
- IFTTT: Recipes.
- Quartz: Daily Brief.
- Buzzfeed: Lists.
- Vice: Video.
- MediaREDEF: Newsletter Network.
All of these products —all invented in the past few years — share one common element: They facilitate deep exploration of a specific topic.
Even the way we calculate success in this world has shifted. The obsession with a superficial accumulation (pageviews, uniques) has given way to metrics that connote passion and depth (read time, subscribers).
Advertising, too, is now exploring “branded content” — a trend that promises a deeper consumer experience instead of millions of mindless banner impressions.
We have moved passed the era of big data into a period of deep exploration.
Recap & Binge
Waves of Media
To recap, here is the proposed sketch of a new media timeline:
Netflix is one of the few companies that has reinvented itself across all three phases, making it a good case study:
- Phase One: Surfing. Netflix (1997) launches the quintessential skimming technology: A service that provides a few DVDs by mail. You can’t binge on a show, but you can finally express cogent opinions about Rashomon and Lawrence of Arabia.
- Phase Two: Drowning. With the launch of streaming technology (2007), Netflix shifts emphasis to building a massive archive. Finally, you have access to every episode of Family Ties.
- Phase Three: Diving. Netflix captures the zeitgeist again by focusing on premium “binge” programming like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards (2013).
Binge-watching is the quintessential media experience of our time. Immersing yourself for an entire day, or week, in a single story would once have been deemed deviant, but now it is completely normative behavior.
The water is warm, come on in.
Rex Sorgatz rides a wave of media mutilation @fimoculous.