A think piece that’s actually doing its job, AKA, the “vast wasteland” returns?
Tap Tap Tap
by John Bigs
We are now walking through a media desert.
While access to content is astronomically high, the content that we read is dead, lifeless, and derivative. Yes, I see the irony in posting my criticism of the state of online media on, well, online media, but I want to explore how we got here and what we can do about it.
We begin in about 1983.
The education necessary to interact with media of that era was at once very high – it took decades to learn to read some books and understand the context and importance – and wildly low. Hollywood, after decades of aiming at Baby Boomers who preferred neurotic Woody Allen and musicals over space aliens, were targeting younger demographics. Television was moving towards a younger audience with a plethora of Saturday morning cartoons elbowing Masterpiece Theatre and Dynasty off of the airwaves. For the first time, thanks to the success of Star Wars and its associated toys, the easy media was attacking its easiest target: kids.
It was in this era that the founders of the internet – the late-stage boomers like Gates, Jobs, and Berners-Lee – met the infant Gen Xers. They began to form their ideas about interactivity and used the tools available – screens, keyboards, and mice – to iterate up to our smartphones. A defining image for many of that era was the Magic Mirror. Children around the world watched Romper Room, a children’s show featuring a cheerful teacher and a group of smiling kids. The show itself was like a day at pre-school but at the end, when Miss Jean or Miss Nancy or Miss Rosemary (they had different hosts in different states) bid us all adieu, she would look into her Magic Mirror and enchant us.
“Romper, stomper, bomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” the hostess would intone.
The Mirror disappeared into a swirl colors that bled onto the whole screen. When the swirl was finished we were presented with the hostess looking at us through an empty frame. She called to us.
“I see Robert and Sally and Alex and John.” Parents would send in their children’s first names on their birthday but, if your name was in the daily list, you were ecstatic. After all, she saw you.
She knew we were watching. She spoke to us.
Deep stuff, to be sure, but listen: over the past two weeks I’ve seen two people actively “interacting” with Instagram. First there was was a young woman in Oman. She wore a conservative black Abaya and headscarf and she was using an iPhone in a crowded bus. Her interactivity style was simple: swipe down, double tap on something that looked nice, and continue. Tap tap, swipe, tap tap, swipe. Images rolled past of Bollywood stars and Arabic women. Movie posters, makeup ads, fashion, all of it received the same treatment. Tap tap, swipe. Tap tap, swipe. It was a way to pass the time on a boring bus ride but it epitomizes the state of interactivity today. She did not see as much as sip, taking in an undifferentiated stream of content….