Blowing Away Mass

Today, I have a few questions for you:

  • Do you like to select individual songs rather than an entire album of songs selected by a recording label or band?

  • Do you prefer to see only the pages that interest you instead of every page within a printed issue or entire Web site?
  • Do you no longer have a favorite TV network but instead watch a collection of shows that you’ve programmed your DVR or TiVo to record from all networks?
  • Have you found your career has gone from working within a large organization to working in a small group in which you have to be largely self-reliant?
  • Do you perceive that the clearly defined mass to which you marketed is fragmenting?

Welcome to the 21st century and its changing media environment. If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you’re engaged in blowing away the illusion known as mass media.

Like a cloud in the shape of Hannah Montana, Time Warner, or a two-headed elephant, mass media has always been an illusion.

Although almost all people share a very few common interests (notably, what’s the weather?), and some groups of people share some large interests (“how about them Mets?”), each person holds specific interests (bonsai plants or Donna Summer’s music, anyone?), and each and every person is a unique mix of common, group, and specific interests. It’s what makes us individuals.

Media audiences’ fragmentation is an illusion. The audience has always been fragmented. There have always been as many fragments as there have been individuals. A cloud isn’t a thing or a mass. It composes small pieces loosely joined (to borrow the title of Dave Weinberger’s book). Indeed, the small pieces of water in a cloud aren’t even loosely joined; they just exist in the same condition at the same time.

If you were marketing fire in prehistoric times, you could claim to have had a mass market for fire. Masses of cavepeople didn’t have many other choices for keeping warm. As time progressed and they had more choices, the claim that there’s a mass market for fire became more clearly seen as an illusion. Something similar is true today in the media industries.

Back in the era of “That 70s Show,” Eric Forman (Topher Grace), Mom and Dad Forman (Debra Jo Rapp and Kurtwood Smith), and Eric’s friends Donna (Laura Prepon), Hyde (Danny Masterson), and Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) had only three TV channels to watch: ABC, CBS, and NBC (four if they wanted to watch Julia Child sautéing chickens on PBS). Mom and Dad read the daily newspaper and probably “Life,” “Time,” or “Newsweek” magazines.

Why did they watch only three TV network channels? No other networks or channels existed or were broadcast in America. Why did Mom and Dad Forman read only their town’s daily newspaper and maybe just “Life,” “Time,” or “Newsweek” magazines? Because they had no other access to written stories about what’s going on, except books. No other texts were available. They had no other choices.

Hundreds of millions of people like the Formans and their friends had no other choices but to use just a few media. Those media operators believed that those hundreds of millions of people were a unified mass. But those people never were. People read a local daily newspaper and a very limited choice of magazines and watched three TV network channels in hope that maybe one, two, or a few of those printed stories or televised shows might satisfy any of their common, group, or specific interests.

Chances were, these generic media would satisfy people’s few common interests (“it will rain today”). On some days, those generic media might also satisfy some group’s interests (“the Mets are winning during spring training”). Yet it was very likely those few generic media didn’t satisfy everyone’s specific interests or unique mixes of common, group, and specific interests. The bonsai-growing Mets fan who grooved to Donna Summer would know to bring a raincoat on certain days but wouldn’t have most of his interests fulfilled.

Nowadays, people have ready access to 99 million dot-coms, dot-nets, and dot-orgs ( not counting another 200 million non-U.S. domain sites), access to hundreds of cable or satellite TV channels, and access to hundreds of special-interest magazines (thanks to the 1980s’ breakthroughs in the economics of offset lithography). Most people no longer read their local daily newspaper or watch ABC, CBS, and NBC because they have much better methods of satisfying their unique mixes of interests than reading a generic newspaper, watching a general-interest network’s broadcasts, or consuming other generic packages of information. The winds of progress have blown away those companies’ illusions of having a mass audience.

Those companies now see that their mass is really fragmented. Their illusional cloud is dissipating and raining down on them. It means bad weather for them. Bad weather can sometimes change entire landscapes, killing whatever’s no longer strong enough to stand. This is such a time.

Mass media companies are being blown away, like their illusion of a mass audience. TV networks, record companies, magazine publishers, and newspapers are all downsizing the way that clouds dissipate. The media landscape will be changed, probably for the better, with blue skies and new opportunities. You never actually worked directly with most of the other thousands or tens of thousands of employees in your old mass media companies, which is just as well. In this new environment, you’ll probably no longer need them.

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