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Back in 1996, when mobile phones looked like giant calculators, and a social network was a just group of friends, comedian Dave Barry published a book called Dave Barry in Cyberspace. He devoted a chapter to the newly popular “World Wide Web,” which he titled, “The Internet: transforming society and shaping the future through chat.”
Sometimes truth is stranger than comedy. Internet chat and its heirs—blogs and social networks—are in fact transforming society and shaping the future in ways that no one imagined in 1996.
Consider: America’s most popular news program, NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, averages 9 million viewers a night. By comparison, a YouTube video of a laughing baby named Micah that became popular on Twitter received 14 million views in March, 2011. In 2013, it’s up to 53 million. NBC’s Today Show was so hungry for slice of the laughing baby market that it invited Micah and his parents onto the show. And Micah doesn’t even hold the record in the laughing baby category. A 2006 video of a giggling Swedish toddler named William has been watched more 200 million times. (Note: the most widely watched version has been removed.)
Incidentally, the median age of NBC News’ audience is 62. The median age of YouTube’s audience is 33. It’s easy to see where this is heading—a lot more baby videos.
Much more than cute babies are at stake, however. Micah’s video is not significant because of its popularity but because of its route to popularity. His parents uploaded the video on January 24th, 2011. YouTube and Twitter users began to share it around, and Micah was soon attracting thousands of viewers. On February 25, former child actress Alyssa Milano discovered the video and tweeted to her 1.5 million Twitter followers, “If this video doesn’t make you smile, check your pulse.” With that, Micah hit the big time, drawing millions of views and ultimately landing a gig on the Today Show, where he may have unfortunately torpedoed his burgeoning career by refusing to laugh.
The movement of information from obscurity to social networks to celebrity status represents a dramatic change in the way information circulates. In the last century, information cascaded like water through a showerhead. News networks, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers disseminated news through a restricted set of channels. An elite club of culture critics reviewed the latest books, movies, restaurants, and consumer products. Prestigious academic journals and authoritative encyclopedias disseminated human knowledge. In short, an oligarchy of experts broadcast information down to the masses.
By contrast, information in the 21st century swirls chaotically in all directions. Micah’s video flooded laterally across social networks, eventually bubbling up to national news sources. Blogs, user review sites, and social networks are gradually burying the elite culture critics. Wikis and web forums are supplanting encyclopedias and almanacs. Even scientists and scholars are challenging the dominance of peer-reviewed journals by submitting their work to open access digital repositories.
Some characterize the new information order as democratic, but that’s imprecise. Democracy implies a rule-governed regime with regular elections. Structured consumer surveys like Nielsen television ratings and Zagat’s restaurant reviews are democratic. The new information order is something else entirely. The flow patterns are capricious and unpredictable, surging towards the latest trend before suddenly waning. Ancient Greek philosophers would have called the new order an ochlocracy—mob rule.
The word mob comes from a Latin phrase mobile vulgus, “the fickle crowd,” which perfectly describes the flow of information in the 21th century. Social network users swarm from topic to topic, fixating on sensational news items that provoke shock, humor, fascination, or outrage. If the flow of information under the oligarchic regime was like a shower, the new ochlocracy resembles a jacuzzi. Information surges and froths along capricious currents, gushing over us from all sides.
We have only begun to feel the effects of this new order. The information oligarchs, though diminished, retain substantial power. But as their audiences age, they will have to compete with the blogs, wikis, and social networks that cater to the information mob. As the line between the old media and new media fades to obscurity, the world will sooner or later become entirely immersed in the information jacuzzi.
What will this brave new world look like? Coming up in The Information Jacuzzi, Part II.
Michael Wolraich will discuss “Journalism that Impacts Policy” at the National Journal Conference for Schools of Public Policy and Affairs at the University of Virginia on Saturday, January 26. For discounted conference passes, contact dagblog.com.