yourlibrarian: Buffy on the phone (BUF-WorkingGirl: eyesthatslay)
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Some interesting stories about media products around today. First, this aptly titled article, Book Publishers Go Stupid, discusses Simon and Schuster's decision to release e-books 4 months after hardcovers. I thought the author made some good points about how this is another case of large institutions clinging to old revenue models, but then I also think that $10 for an ebook makes no sense. If I can get a paperback for $8 or less then that should be the maximum cost for the ebook which doesn't have the same associated expenses. (Plus, shouldn't we be encouraging people to use less paper?) What's more with the Apple Tablet coming out next year, which can only serve to boost e-reading, this market will only grow.

The foot-dragging music industry is trying its version of Hulu with Vevo. Since I was around for the launch of MTV there's a certain nostalgia to the idea of Vevo, especially if it comes with VJs and music news, but I'm not clear how it's going to be that different from sites like Yahoo!Music, or, you know, MTVmusic.com. Articles like this are suggesting that it's going to be a music portal with everything in HQ and eventually streaming concerts. Hulu has done really well for itself in its first year so if Vevo can market itself well it could build a good slice of the pie. I just think from what was said it's too little, too late.

That may also be the case with many Media Studies programs. William Merrin, a media studies professor, writes a rather lengthy, and not recent, blog post about the impact for the media studies discipline of new media forms and content. He begins by detailing what Media Studies "1.0" was, how it came about, and what it focused on.

"Whereas in the broadcast-era this disciplinary classification appeared natural and inevitable, representing a logical break-down of the media’s organisation and operation, the passage to a new era highlights how it was imbued with the ideas and values of its age: an age of highly-capitalised big media corporations employing technology to transmit information to a mass of receivers. Communication theory and models of communication developed to explain and enshrine this process and although media studies developed a critique of and more sophisticated clarification of these models it never overcome them." By contrast in Media 2.0 "What makes today’s changes especially important is their interconnected nature: the real communications revolution today is the communication between devices and technologies" and "This is the era of the permanent ‘beta'."

Aside from the format and industry changes, the content is also becoming too rarely shared. "if we consider the origins of the media our students actually consume then me-casting or peer-casting probably exceeds broadcast consumption: our students spend more time in a day with their own personal or peer-created messages than they do watching broadcast products…Much of this content isn’t held in common or open to view, a fact having significant implications for our teaching, analysis and research."

However, I found myself disagreeing with his conclusion, that a person's social life is the same thing as what was once broadcast media. After all, people always had social lives and for most they took precedence over any particular sort of media consumption. The fact that our social lives now can be documented and traced using new media forms, as well as interwoven with outside media consumption, doesn't seem to me to be a revolution in the media industry but it does signify an important change for media studies that he seems to overlook. The most important change in my view to the media industry has been its increasing de-commercialization.

Industry revenue models aren't going through a reinvention so much as they're shifting to the sort of dependence on advertising that has always characterized television. Yet this dependence on advertising has, at the same time, driven the audience away. When newspapers started shifting costs onto advertisers and away from growing a subscriber base, they alienated a good portion of the reading audience who became increasingly defined by who the advertisers wanted to reach and newspapers no longer had to make an effort to tarket a wide range of potential readers. And just as now on Internet spaces when revenues declined for television networks, they inserted more ads and reduced the entertainment content as a way of maintaining income instead of adjusting to smaller budgets. This led to various changes such as shorter seasons, shorter "hours" of television, and cheaper-to-produce shows such as reality series. So people who really like storytelling are increasingly unlikely to find it amidst most network fare.

In fact, I'd argue that most of the people who are called real-time television "viewers" by Nielsen are nothing of the sort. The television is a constant (and often loud) companion in homes but it garners only occasional attention from people near it. Were this TV to come at a per-show cost, I suspect "viewership" would drop by half. Movies, too, have increasingly focused on revenue rather than audiences, thus putting most of their investment into expensive stars (and more recently, expensive productions) who will sell overseas, with diverse portions of the home market largely ignored as a target demographic. All of these changes are directly related to the increasing demand by "shareholders" (that is, other large corporate entities, rarely your typical investor) for ever-higher profit margins, and away from the thrust of the core business, which is to develop and cater to audiences. So it is hardly any surprise that, given half a chance, audiences will start catering to themselves.

The big problem of the last 30 years has been the increasing unwillingness of the public to pay for entertainment that it feels less and less connected to, and it is that which has caused the rise of self-produced (but most importantly, free) content. And this is not going to change. Instead, people who made a living in media industries are simply not going to be able to do so in the future, or are going to have a significantly reduced standard of living. Indeed, Merrin's essay is driven by the concern that media studies as it exists will become an irrelevant discipline with a corpus of instructors who can't relate to their students' understanding of new media. I also disagree with the idea of the passive audience being an outdated model. What I think is that it is not a dichotomous model. All of us are passive audiences for different kinds of media products. Many of us are also active audiences or content creators for some areas. The fact that so many people find audio books appealing as opposed to reading a book themselves is a window into how schedules, lifestyle and priorities shape consumption far more than the media formats or delivery systems themselves.

Merrin does point out later in his essay that the focus on major corporate forms of communication had always blocked out study of the more grass roots use of media. "Fortunately, in allowing us to look beyond broadcast forms and to recognise the broadcast-era as one phase in the history of media, new media open up the opportunity to rediscover pre-broadcast forms, to disrupt the linear histories written to explain their development and to find new insight into older forms." He also makes some interesting points about how Media Studies has always left non-broadcast aspects of studies to different disciplines. "The available books on the history of technology aren’t being written within our discipline. Most are written by journalists, IT specialists, science-writers, historians and specialist collectors and are more likely to be found in the ‘popular science’ section of bookshops than on the media studies shelves. Even if media studies lecturers find and use these texts in their teaching they don’t write them and the mainstream delineation of the discipline and its interests and knowledge rarely makes any reference to them." What I also find interesting is that he makes no reference at all to Social Informatics in his discussion, which rather proves his point.

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Social Informatics and Media Studies

April 2010

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