Protecting the Stage

January 31, 2009

The Heaton Brothers, circa 1965My two brothers and I played in a bluegrass band as teenagers in the early 1960s (that's me on the right with the banjo). We played at various coffeehouses, hootenannies, and gatherings around the state of Michigan. I loved the stage, and, rather than fearing the audience, I connected with them on many levels. We also played on the morning show on WZZM-TV every Friday, which is where I first tasted local television. I was a fortunate young man.

Life in a band is life on a stage, and the stage is always more important than the band.

In Kalamazoo, for example, we played on the same stage that hosted Peter, Paul & Mary and a host of major folk music acts from the period. It was The Side Door coffeehouse, and people patronized the place to participate in the music of the day. It was the stage that built the audience that paid the acts, and so it goes. The "stage" at WZZM-TV provided a much bigger audience, and the size of the audience determines the value of the stage.

The theater was one of the earliest forms of mass media, whether it was for entertainment or information. A soap box is a form of a stage. The newsreels of the mid 20th century kept movie-goers informed of the latest events from around the globe through the miracle of film. The world was getting smaller, it seemed, and the stage played a big role in that.

All mass media companies perform from various stages, and this metaphor is especially useful in understanding the disruptions to media and, especially, the advertising that used to support it. It's even more useful in understanding contemporary journalism and the arguments about values in the new world. Is the stage impartial, for example, even though the actors are not?

David Cushman, Digital Development Director at Bauer Consumer Media in England, noted in a June 2008 presentation that people aren't looking at the stage anymore; they're looking at each other, and this poses the real threat to one-way, traditional media. In mass media, Cushman wrote, the message is broadcast "at" the audience, but in social media, the message doesn't arrive.

why the message doesn't arrive in social networks

So in the network that is the Web, where empowered people (the people formerly known as the audience) can restrict outside access to themselves, the only way to transmit the message is through the conversation that exists inside the limits put in place by the people in the network. This is no easy task, especially when the people in the network are doing everything they can to block the message. It's also why arguments about forcing people to pay for journalism are ridiculous. Pay? No thanks. I'll do without.

Cushman's reference is to social media, and social networking is currently viewed as only a part of the whole. But remember the words of the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. "The Web is more a social creation," he wrote, "than a technical one." No one has described it better than Kevin Kelly in his seminal 2004 Wired Magazine article "We Are The Web."

The Web continues to evolve from a world ruled by mass media and mass audiences to one ruled by messy media and messy participation. How far can this frenzy of creativity go? Encouraged by Web-enabled sales, 175,000 books were published and more than 30,000 music albums were released in the US last year. At the same time, 14-million blogs launched worldwide. All these numbers are escalating. A simple extrapolation suggests that in the near future, everyone alive will (on average) write a song, author a book, make a video, craft a weblog, and code a program. This idea is less outrageous than the notion 150 years ago that someday everyone would write a letter or take a photograph.

What happens when the data flow is asymmetrical - but in favor of creators? What happens when everyone is uploading far more than they download? If everyone is busy making, altering, mixing, and mashing, who will have time to sit back and veg out? Who will be a consumer?

No one. And that's just fine. A world where production outpaces consumption should not be sustainable; that's a lesson from Economics 101. But online, where many ideas that don't work in theory succeed in practice, the audience increasingly doesn't matter. What matters is the network of social creation, the community of collaborative interaction that futurist Alvin Toffler called prosumption. As with blogging and BitTorrent, prosumers produce and consume at once. The producers are the audience, the act of making is the act of watching, and every link is both a point of departure and a destination.

The stage is everythingIn the network, the stage is irrelevant, except when the people formerly known as the audience choose to make it relevant. Major news events make the stage momentarily relevant, for example, but news organizations can't survive on the revenue from such events, because they usually come commercial-free.

The owner of the stage can set the rules for the performers on the stage, but when nobody sees the stage, those rules can become a net liability.

This has staggering implications for journalism. If the stage is what gives the Fourth Estate its power to confront the powerful, then what does culture do without big, powerful stages? Moreover, if the burden of the message shifts from the stage to the people who used to make a living on the stage, do individuals in the network have the clout to change the world? The power of the stage protects its performers, but is the First Amendment strong enough for those who don't buy ink by the barrel? Does the work of journalists within the network reflect back on the stages of those who employ them, and if it does, is that really relevant? And what about ethical considerations beyond the stage?

When the Facebook policy of The New York Times was made public recently, it revealed the nature of the stage and what it expects from those who perform on it. Pay close attention to the need of the stage to "be" impartial.

Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook "friends." Can we write about someone who is a "friend?"

The answer depends on whether a "friend" is really a friend. In general, being a "friend" of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a "friend" is really a personal friend, it would.

Should we avoid consenting to be Facebook "friends" of people in the news we cover? Mostly no, but the answer can depend on the situation. A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a "friend" could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality (emphasis mine).

The whole document is a textbook example of why mainstream media is increasingly irrelevant to the people formerly known as the audience. The New York Times needs to protect the alleged impartiality of its stage, but its messages don't get through to people, because they don't even see the stage anymore. So The Times is stuck. What it needs to do is let its employees loose, so that The Times can enter into all those discussions in the network. In so doing, however, it must give up the insistence that the impartiality of the stage is paramount, and that's unlikely to happen.

The stage is what matters to traditional media. It's the driver of its pursuit of impartiality. An impartial stage, after all, is home to others, including advertisers, and this is no accident. The purity of the stage for advertisers is a vital concern to the people who shell out millions of dollars to be associated with it. Martha White flour has been a sponsor of the Grand Ol' Opry for decades, because it values what the stage at the Opry represents. The artists are expected to live up to those values or risk never being invited back. Proctor and Gamble doesn't want its products associated with ranting and raving vulgarity, something it is assured won't happen on the stage of, for example, The New York Times.

Journalistic ethics are all about the impartiality of the stage, not the individual journalists. That's why The Times needs to influence the behavior of its employees in the network. Nothing can cast "doubt on our impartiality." Without an impartial stage, the paper believes its advertisers will bolt, so the decision is about business, not some holy calling assigned to people who are trying to document history.

The people formerly known as the audience expect an impartial stage. Why? Because we've told them that's the way it's supposed to be. The problem, of course, is that people don't believe it anymore.

So what are journalists to do in the network? Without a stage, there is no institutional wall of ethical protection. One, therefore, cannot pretend to be what one is not. This is the truth and the challenge of ethics in a networked world.

The stage says, "I am impartial."

The individual says, "I'm trying to be impartial."

Artificiality is a curse in the Network.

Your personal brand is everything.

This is why the values of honesty, transparency and authenticity are so important for contemporary professional journalists. The institution may be able to proclaim its perfection, but human beings cannot, so it's a matter of the expectations of the people formerly known as the audience. The time is coming when "the message" will be delivered through individuals in the conversation that is the network, This has already taken place on a certain level via the blogosphere, but many bloggers seem unable to resist the idea of replicating old media through their own efforts. Building a (media) business means building an audience and with an audience comes, well, a stage. Along the way, they run into the same problems that confront traditional media in its need to provide a sterile environment for advertising. Madison Avenue is terribly suspicious of bloggers, although that view has softened somewhat over the years.

TechCrunch is a stage. Gawker Media is a host of stages. The Huffington Post is a stage. The latter is actually a hybrid. Its writers each have their own smaller stages, but by combining their works in one place, they've built a bigger stage. This bigger stage exposes them to potentially new readers, and so it goes.

As each of these "new" media companies trots down the well-worn path of traditional media, they run into the same issues that plague the old-schoolers. The difference, of course, is that the new players don't have the overhead of the old boys, so their model is more easily sustainable. Nevertheless, the essence of the network is to shun stages, not so much for the acts they bring but for all the marketing messages that tag along. This is — and will be — the essential problem for media, for ad-supported content is a business model in decay.

The network is not one of stages but of tribes, and this is a better metaphor for new media. Tribes have leaders (or many leaders), and it is the leaders themselves, not their stages that give them authority. This has not gone unnoticed by Madison Avenue.

Wikipedia refers to the identifying and selling to leaders as "Influencer Marketing:"

Influencer Marketing, as increasingly practiced in a commercial context, comprises four main activities:

  • Identifying influencers, and ranking them in order of importance.
  • Marketing to influencers, to increase awareness of the firm within the influencer community
  • Marketing through influencers, using influencers to increase market awareness of the firm amongst target markets
  • Marketing with influencers, turning influencers into advocates of the firm.

Influencer Marketing is enhanced by a continual evaluation activity that sits alongside the four main activities.

This has dubious possibilities, and many smart advertisers are instead just joining the network as participants, some with remarkable success. Smart media companies will do the same thing, but the rules of engagement will have to change in order for the move to be effective.

There's a "creepy" factor that enters into marketing directly to individuals, as Joe Marchese recently pointed our MediaPost.

I think it's actually pretty simple not to be creepy. It's a lot like not being creepy in real life. Don't do anything online you wouldn't do in the real world. You wouldn't slap your brand on someone's back without asking that person's permission. You'd be creepy if you inserted yourself into a conversation, just because you overheard it, without being invited in. Just picture it for a minute. It really boils down to respect for people, their influence and their privacy.

And that is a plain language description of ethical behavior in a networked world, and rules by which journalists, independent or those who work for a stage, will have to live by downstream. It's not about protecting the purported impartiality of the stage anymore. It's about the conversation.

I catch myself wondering every once in awhile about what it would be like to be young and have a bluegrass band today. I'd love to have had YouTube, Facebook, and a bluegrass blog. Who knows? Maybe we'd still be pickin' and a-grinnin' today.

Or not.