UNDERSTANDING ME-DIA: THE SECOND REFORMATION
A few years ago I considered adding a lecture on the telephone onto a module on media history. I'd already covered the electric telegraph a few weeks earlier and thought the telephone would represent a good extension of that topic. The problem was I couldn't find any books in media studies on the telephone. In fact media studies seemed to have almost no interest in the telephone. There was a growing literature on mobile phones but most of the history of the telephone had been ignored. Thinking about it the reasons seemed to be: (1) It was a technology and media studies doesn't like technologies. (2) There was no public content to analyse: telephone conversations were private and not available to study. (3) The telephone wasn't a mass medium. Admittedly nor was the telegraph and there were texts on that but media studies wasn't overly impressed with the telegraph either: It was mainly McLuhanists or science journalists who liked the telegraph. No, media studies as a broadcast era discipline liked mass media, with mass-produced, publicly disseminated content. Personal communications were irrelevant to it. Letters weren't part of media studies, the telegraph was barely covered and the telephone certainly wasn't. (4) Finally the telephone wasn't important because no matter how socially important it was for the individuals using it, it contained trivial information. People chatted. Probably about rubbish. None of which mattered. Newspapers and radio contained serious or important content and television and film contained culturally important programming; the telephone, however, contained personal gossip. In the end I didn't put on a lecture about the telephone.
What I've since come to realise is that media studies has intentionally ignored an entire mode of media communication. As a product of the broadcast-era media studies has always been a reflection of the forms and processes of the broadcast model, concentrating on print, cinema, radio and television: on mass-produced, mass-disseminated content mass-consumed by a large audience. What this leaves out is mediated interpersonal communication: the entire realm of peer-to-peer, horizontal, personal communications. This has always been outside the sphere of broadcast-era media studies. Admittedly it has always been a limited sphere - letters, telegrams and telephone calls account for the majority of mediated interpersonal communications prior to the development of modern digital media. But even then it was still significant; in part because of the amount of communication; in part because of the real commercial industries built upon it and in part because of the intense personal meaning and impact the communication held for those who took part.
One of the most important aspects of the rise of digital media has been the explosion of this realm of horizontal, peer-to-peer, mediated interpersonal communication. As that's a bit of a mouthful I suggest calling it 'me-dia'. I like this term because it emphasises the fact that I am at the centre of this communication. And that I really means me, myself, we, my friends, my contacts and our gossip and communication. It encompasses all media content produced and shared between ourselves outside of the structures of public broadcasting. It includes that form and content built into the structures of our everyday lives and at the centre of our personal relationships and sense of self. There are media and outside that there is me-dia.
If, before, media studies could practically ignore me-dia, today that's more difficult. The spread of networked computing technology, the availability of a range of personal devices carrying it and the growth of personal services aimed at and empowering the individual and their 'expression' (we'll accept that uncritically at the moment) have led to me-dia becoming not just personally important but a major social phenomenon. Of course it always was, but there's so much more of it and it occupies so much more personal time. Digital media didn't invent this but what it has done is amplify our ability to communicate, produce, share, access, send and publish. If we add up the time and attention spent on me-dia I'm willing to wager that for a significant proportion of the population it far outweighs the time and attention spent on mainstream broadcast media. How much time do we spend checking our personal contacts and sending and responding to messages? Even if I'm watching TV or a film I'm checking, sending, composing, and sharing. I still consume these mainstream media but alongside what I consider the more important me-dia. Broadcast content is less important than my contacts and less fascinating than the possibility of a reply.
That’s worth reflecting upon for a moment. If its true for others it means that the broadcast industry and content fore-grounded by media studies is less significant than the sphere of personal me-dia. It means that a different kind of media studies is urgently needed.
What counts as me-dia today? That's pretty obvious: it includes our mobile texts, videos and photos; emails, PMs, IMs; our contribution to chat rooms, forums and mailing lists; our social networking activity (posting, sharing, messaging, writing on walls, updating statuses, twittering, linking); our contribution to social sharing sites (Youtube, Flikr), fan sites and collaborative sites (wikis); our amateur porn videos and texts; our blogs; our media productions (music, images, software), plus all our comments, lists, recommendations, responses... That's a fairly standard list of new media outlets and phenomena but what's interesting is how little attention a lot of this has still received: who, yet, has studied comments, personal messages, IMs, texts etc.? As I'll argue soon I’m not even sure this is possible.
If its treatment of letters, telegrams and telephone calls is anything to go by, media studies won't see most of this as particularly important. In contrast I'd argue that they're as important as and, collectively today, probably more important than the whole of traditional broadcast media. As I've suggested above, this is due to the sheer social fact of the centrality of their use, the volume of attention they receive and the intensity of personal meaning behind them, but there's also a historical reason why they're important.
To date the history of digital media forms and its uses has only partially been written. We have a history of the hardware and software and many of the ideas that underlie developments ('the virtual', 'cyberspace' etc.) but every new possibility of digital media requires us to discover a new history to situate it within. We do, however, need to understand the implications of this history. I was talking to a professor of media history who explained to me he'd been reading an article which showed how elements of social networking could be found in old newspapers and his tone clearly implied the conclusion that this meant none of it was new and thus was perfectly explained and not worth bothering with. 'History' had won again ... In fact, I pointed out, that research didn't exist until the success of social networking which proved the value of the new forms in forcing us to rewrite our histories and create new histories for the world we're living in. History had certainly won but older media historians, desperate to dismiss the present, hadn't.
It's in this spirit that I started to think about the possible histories of what I'm calling me-dia. That history is obviously multi-stranded and complex but there was one element - one historical resonance - in particular that intrigued me and that's what I want to describe here. I want to argue that the contemporary rise of me-dia constitutes a second reformation.
The Second Reformation
If we look back to the medieval world we can see that the Catholic Church had a dominant position in the lives of the European population. Seen from one point of view the Catholic Church can be thought of as a medium. It was a medium in two particular senses. Firstly it was an institutional form that distributed a single, uniform doctrine to the mass of the population, operating in a top-down, hierarchical fashion employing what technologies it had available (monasteries, manuscripts etc.) to mass-distribute its message. Here the Church operated as a broadcasting form, employing the same hub-and-spoke structure that linked people to it, rather than to each other. Secondly the institution acted as a medium for the individual's relationship with the divine. They were the appointed mediators of God's message and will. There were numerous causes of the Protestant Reformation one can point to but at the core were two processes: opposition to an organisational form (the top-down production and mediation of an institutional message) and a new emphasis upon the individual - the internal and the personal.
Martin Luther's objection to the sale of 'indulgences', or remittances for sin, was essentially motivated by the belief that only God could offer forgiveness. What lay behind that was his belief in the centrality of faith – of one's individual relationship to God. It was that, not the intervention or decisions of the church and its priesthood, that determined one's fate after death. His ideas were widely disseminated thanks to the printing press. Of his three famous pamphlets from 1520, 'On the Freedom of a Christian' expresses his ideas well. He asserts here two contradictory claims: 'A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone'. Explaining the first part Luther argues that 'As regards kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, in spiritual power, he is completely lord of all things'. Faith brings a spiritual (though not a corporeal) power: 'this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians'.
In principle, therefore, even if not in fact on earth, the Christian individual is free. 'The inward man' is under no earthly spiritual authority, even if 'the outward man' is . We are, he concludes, 'fellow priests' with Christ. Here, therefore, is Luther's famous assertion that 'we are all equally priests'. He objects in particular to the injustice that took the word 'priests' from the body of Christians and gave it to 'those few'.
Here we see Luther’s two-pronged assault: an attack upon the Church as an organisational form (its priests and their selection and dissemination of God's message) and an emphasis instead upon faith. This faith represented the realm of the interior – the ‘inward’ – the individual’s personal relational existence. It was a realm of direct communication with another – the divine. It was the self itself as simultaneously a mode of being and a mode of expression and evidence. Luther’s attack was clearly unthinkable for an organization that insisted upon the shackling of the individual to it’s structures and doctrine. The claim that everyone was their own priest seemed fundamentally anarchic. And that’s because it was. Centuries later, in 1919 the German Dadaists would launch a journal Jedermann sein eigner fussball – ‘everyone his own football’, presenting us with a similar image of free, uncontrolled, unleashed participation. Imagine a football game in which everyone had their own football. Imagine a medieval world in which everyone really was their own priest.
Of course whatever the result of the Reformation, Luther’s opposition didn’t lead to the end of the Church and didn’t entirely free the individual in the way he’d hoped for. Instead the Reformation brought a fragmentation of the Church into many churches. One had more freedom to choose one’s priests but the organizational form per se survived, albeit it in different ways, within a changed theological and organizational ecology.
In foregrounding the interior self one of the lasting effects of the Reformation was to promote that nascent individualism already developing in Post-Rennaissance Europe and that would be carried forward in philosophical thought over the following centuries. Often this individualism was promoted as part of a theological conception of man. Descartes’ examination of the mind and its existence and concordance with an exterior reality in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy , for example, was advanced with the aim of separating out two spheres, that of mind and matter, which would be the domain, respectively, of religion and science. The Cartesian individual, therefore, was not intended as a secularizing force, although that was perhaps its lasting impact. Science’s emphasis upon the individual’s senses as the basis of knowledge; the Liberal insistence of the centrality of the individual and their natural rights; the enlightenment’s emphasis upon the individual’s intellectual and moral reasoning, and nascent capitalism’s early consumer culture seducing the individual’s desires all propelled this increasingly secular individualism forward.
Slowly, gradually, in the centuries following Luther, all of these forces – the spread of print culture, the rise of modern science, the enlightenment and the industrial revolution – weakened the Church’s position as a culturally dominant organizational form broadcasting a single message to a captive population. It existed in this time in tension not only with a growing secularism but also with alternative sources of knowledge and information. The rise of mass media – through printing and the spread of pamphlets and newspapers – was a challenge to its own hub-and-spoke, mediatory dominance.
There were, of course, many differences between mass media broadcasting and the Catholic Church – the media weren’t unified as a single system to disseminate a single message and had a secular and commercial basis. Nevertheless it is possible to see the broadcast model that developed and intensified through the 18-19th centuries and which became dominant through the 20th century as echoing and playing an equivalent role as the Church. It followed the same broad, top-down model, employing far faster and more powerful technologies to distribute information to the new, modern masses, becoming the central source of all social knowledge beyond immediate experience for its populations. One might even suggest connectedness to its system became an equivalent moral duty. When in his 1988 book The Ecstasy of Communication Jean Baudrillard described the contemporary ‘categorical imperative’ of communication, it was more observation than metaphor.
The idea of mass media as replacing the Church is one that media studies has implicitly understood, even if the full implications were never drawn. There has been a long Durkheimian tradition of analysis of media events as social ‘rituals’, linking the communion of the religious experience to the communion offered by television. The most systematic presentation of this association is Dayan and Katz’’s 1992 Media Events, which presents collective television-watching as equivalent to a religious ceremony. Broadcast television, the message is, functions as our Church.
Interestingly there was an important early religious critique of broadcasting, simultaneously identifying the broadcast model as replacing the Church in its communicative and mediatory role and defending the Lutheran ‘inward man’ against the clamour of the press and ‘the public’. In 1846 Soren Kierkegaard published a book review, The Two Ages, part of which (published separately since as The Present Age) offers a reflection on his own time –a time that saw the beginning of industrial mass society make its mark in Copenhagen and the rise of mass and popular newspapers. Inspired as much by ‘the Corsair Affair’ – his ridicule in a satirical newspaper and the subsequent laughter and commentary upon his trousers by the public on the streets of Copenhagen – Kierkegaard launches a polemic against his age, the press and ‘the public’. The latter doesn’t even exist – it is ‘a phantom’, ‘a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage’, ‘a monstrous nothing’. Only in an age in which the power of association is too weak ‘to give life to concrete realities’ can the press ‘create that abstraction “the public”, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization - and yet are held together as a whole’.
This abstract public ‘becomes everything’ and includes everything, exerting such a pressure that we desire to join it, to identify with it, to become part of its collective phantasmatic power ‘in comparison with which concrete realities seem poor’. More and more individuals, Kierkegaard says, aspire to join this nothing, to be nothing, forming an ‘indolent mass’, a ‘gallery’ that is ‘on the look out for distraction’ and that ‘abandons itself to the idea that everything that one does is done in order to give it (the public) something to gossip about’. If he had to imagine this public as a person, he says, ‘I should perhaps think of one of the Roman emperors , a large-well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter’. Hence the concrete reality of the individual and their inwardness is abolished in the desire to join this abstraction formed by a media organization that levels society, wasting the lives of each who succumbs. ‘The really terrible thing is the thought of all the lives that are or easily may be wasted … the many who are helpless, thoughtless and sensual, who live superior lazy lives and never receive any deeper impression of existence than this meaningless grin.’
Kierkegaard’s critique here is founded on a philosophy of communication that values, above all, the subjective individual and their inwardness – understood as a mode of being and a mode of communication: with oneself, with God and with others. This conception opposes the vulgar ‘sensual’ world of talkativeness, gossip, cheap pleasure, public ridicule and sensationalism emphasizing the value of each individual, the ethical and religious dimensions of their existence and the responsibility of the communicator to respect and raise these. At the heart of Kierkegaard’s critique of the press and of ‘the public’, therefore, is the Lutheran individual. Echoing Luther’s critique of the Catholic Church, at the dawn of modern broadcasting he identifies and critiques the abstract social forces it unleashes that abolish the ‘inward man’ and their personal, subjective interiority and individuality.
Stripped of its explicitly religious tone similar ideas made their way into Liberal political thought. By the mid 19th century mass society was increasingly being recognized as a threat to the liberal individual, hence John Stuart Mill’s 1859 defence of ‘individuality’ in On Liberty against the ‘social tyranny’ of ‘public opinion’ and ‘the ape-like faculty of imitation’ that left little room for any other choice of path. Mill’s fears for the effect of this mass society and its mass communication system upon the individual were echoed again in the early 20th century as the apparent success of propaganda in World War One, the success of newspapers and cinema and, very soon, radio, together with the development of the modern advertising and public relations industries all brought a renewed concern with the effect of mass media upon the individual.
By the 1930s the broadcast-era was in full-flower, assembling the combined forces of the ‘culture industry’ against them, under the guise, the Frankfurt School claimed, of expressing their individuality. A direct line can be followed here from Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique in ‘The Culture Industry’ of consumer culture’s ‘pseudo-individualisation’ and the underlying uniformity of broadcast media content; through Marcuse’s 1964 critique of industrially-manufactured and manipulated false needs in One Dimensional Man, to Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle which presents an image of this realm of mass-mediated popular culture and its unilateral pleasures as the height of alienation and separation. The unilaterality of broadcast media becomes an overriding sign of this process; an idea Baudrillard would develop in his own radical Durkheimian symbolic critique of the semiotic.
These critical tradition, however, goes strongly against popular opinion which sees the realm of media-consumer culture precisely as a place and means of individualization. One’s choices, selections, tastes, purchases and identifications express and externalize one’s interior self and individuality. From this perspective, even if these products and programmes are mass produced and mass consumed there is enough variety for a personalized selection and enough common currency for others to recognize one’s choices within niche genres. Moreover the history of media studies is dominated by another tradition of reception and audience studies which, from the beginning, has tried to show how much more complex the consumption of media content is. The contemporary valorization of audience behaviour as a mode of self-production and its denial of media power seems to suggest the mass media didn’t entirely oppose the individual as this historical context claims.
Except what audience studies actually identified in its analysis of broadcast-era fan use and individual reception and what they ultimately valorized was the desire and even the demand for a mode of personal expression and individual meaning. Desperate to assert its reality in the broadcast-era they over-valorised what behaviour they could find. With the rise of contemporary digital media and its interactive and productive potential this audience studies erroneously saw its ideas of the active audience as realized, when actually the rise of the user was precisely at the expense of the audience, signaling a fundamental change in its existence and the value of the concept. Ultimately the greatest effect of the rise of the user wasn’t in the activity of the ‘audience’ member towards mass-produced and broadcast product but in the explosion of me-dia and the realm of personal meaning.
This explosion represents, I want to argue, a ‘Second Reformation’. Just as the first Reformation was marked by an assault upon a broadcast mode of organization in favour of the realm of the personal and interior and its expression, so the second Reformation – even if its secularity, cultural context and technological means are significantly different – directly echoes this. Like the Lutheran assault upon the Church, what we’re living through is a seismic shift in which one entire organizational mode of interconnection and mode of mass production, distribution and consumption of messages is overturned in favour of the emphasis on the personal and its expression. As in the first Reformation this isn’t leading to the final end of the organizational form it opposes, but instead to a fracturing and fragmentation, a proliferation of new ‘churches’ with their own hierarchies and priesthood (Facebook, Youtube, Flickr) and a funneling of individual expression and interiority into new forms.
At its heart though is a Lutheran ideal transformed for a different age. Just as the idea of every man as his own priest represented a fundamental assault upon the system, the institutions, the rules, the hierarchies, the interests and roles and economic, social and cultural privileges and epistemological framework of an entire age, so every man with his own blog, every man with his own video camera and every man with his own cam-phone represents an assault upon a system, a set of institutions, rules, hierarchies, interests, roles, privileges and the social epistemology of our age.
Digital media, of course, not only empower the individual, they are also used against that individual, allowing a greater monitoring, penetration and control of individual behaviour and activity than was possible in relation to broadcast-era technologies and media. From hardware design to the underlying structure of code, to the ability to trace, track, store and sort electronic records of use and the availability of content, the individual pays for their electronic freedom with its opposite. Government and industries use these technological capacities against us, often whilst promoting them as beneficial for us (cookies, for example, are explained as helping provide a better customer service).
Nevertheless there is a palpable confusion about and fear of digital media among all established hierarchies, boundaries, professions and authorities. The cam-phone waved in the face of authority; the conversations we have outside of the dominant communicational structures and messages; the material we share and swap, without a care about its legality or the whining complaints of the broadcast industries; the time we spend chatting to each other rather than buying daily newspapers or watching over-promoted films and TV shows; the ‘reality’ of our lives, footage and opinions that the broadcast media desperately want to co-opt, simulate or gather for themselves, and our lack of respect for the position, experience, opinions or claims of those who are used to having their status respected: in all of this professionals in government and industry are left behind, shocked, angered, and left trying to catch-up, to adjust to new realities or to shut the stable door. One can sense a seismic ripple through each established world, profession, industry, or branch of government as they grapple with this rise of the people.
I’m not sure we’ve even understood how to describe this popular movement. Andrew Keen and Lee Siegal picture this as the rule of the ‘electronic mob’ whilst authors like Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Charles Leadbetter, Jeff Howe, Chris Anderson and Dan Tapscott all implicitly valorize a Liberal individual – aggregated but (contrary to Mill’s fears) not lost in the mass; rational-critical, intelligent, creative and productive and moving in their aggregation to a greater state of enlightenment, whether in collaborative outputs, higher artistic or cultural products or the rise of wisdom to the top of the heap. Both positions are limited: the critical perspective ignores the value and quality of popular collaboration and participation and the Liberal ideal manages to avoid the mess, the filth, the nastiness, the negativity, the lack of rational-critical productivity of collective digital participation. Nor is this a simple democratization, nor a socialist power-to-the people nor anarchist vision: none of these political ideals or agendas fits the situation we find ourselves in. This isn’t a world of equality or agreed representation, nor one in which we are moving towards communal peace and satisfaction, nor self-ordered harmony.
We are closer, perhaps to the avant-garde experiments in participation: the provocations and invitations to interact and participate of the Futurist soirees and the Dadaist evenings and their methods. As I’ve suggested, ‘everyone his own football’ was the spiritual forerunner of the digital age: It is an image of a participatory moment; of a mode of liberatory inclusion whose outcome – whether good or bad – is secondary to the pleasure of the breaking of boundaries, rules and barriers.
If these claims have any validity then they provide a powerful indication of the historical significance of me-dia: the rise of me-dia is an event as momentous as the rise of the broadcast industries. It suggests that today these, the lowest forms of contemporary media – the mangled grammar of quickly-thumbed texts, the hasty video of friends on nights out, the lover’s pornographic ‘sexts’, the PMs and IMs and the wall comments and profile pictures – represent the most important contemporary forms. If pushed, most of us (on a personal level) would admit to this sentiment, even if we hold onto a residual belief that television, radio, cinema and newspapers must be more important really. History, however, might suggest that they’re not: the world of media has been shaken and threatened and, arguably, perhaps already eclipsed by the rise of me-dia.