Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Internet: Difference or Sameness Machine?

Sometimes it takes an economist to tell it like it is. Such was the case at a talk I recently attended. 

"The world is not getting more homogenous because of the Internet", said Rohinton Medhora, who specializes in monetary and trade policy and development economics.

So when Medhora continues and says more and more people are becoming less and less poor, even in the face of the rising inequality we all know is an economic reality, I’m inclined to believe him.

Now let's consider some statistics for benchmarking purposes:

20 years after the introduction of the consumer version of the Internet we’re not even at 50% global penetration; though we can see from the chart below that while it took 10 years to get to the first billion users, it took just 5 years to get to the second billion, and another 4 to get to the third billion.

Click to enlarge

From the World  Bank there's further evidence that there’s a bottom billion that is disenfranchised when it comes to any form of Internet connectivity.

Click to enlarge

We also need to factor in the issue of the cost of Internet varying considerably from country to country, with connectivity being a luxury that is well out of reach for most. For example, in Cuba it costs $2 for an hour of Internet use, while the average salary is about $20 per month. In Africa Internet connectivity is about nine times the cost of North America, and wages are 10% or less than those in most countries in the West.

But there's also good news according to Medhora. In the last 20 years the global middle class has doubled, the middle class being defined for these purposes as those with anywhere between $1 and $100 per day to spend. He further points out that the growth in this segment has led to a related adoption of Western values and consumer habits, and is happy to point out that globalization does not necessarily equal homogenization.

"It is not the McDonaldization of the world, but an explosion of diversity, with the connectedness availed to us by always-on devices allowing us to explore this diversity in depth, to connect with others who share those interests, and for transactions to take place instantly, regardless of geographical location", said Medhora.

And this is where the words of sociologist Raymond Williams are particularly resonant with regard to the effect of the Internet on culture. There are mass media but there are no mass peoplesaid Williams in the 1950s. This was a shortcoming in the age of broadcast, when programming and advertising campaigns had to necessarily be targeted to the large demographic in the middle of any chart, because costs of production, distribution, and promotion were high, and costs of mistakes even higher.

Even though connectivity is imperfectly distributed, the agora, or public space for discussion and argument, now extends to billions around the world. Twitter fights with strangers thousands of miles away are now a staple of modern life, often before one's first cup of coffee.

“Villages are not made to be singular and harmonious”, said Medhora, referencing the global village. It's reassuring to have data that suggest that thanks to Internet technologies we can have an increasingly interconnected global village of a world, without having an increasingly homogenous world of globalization. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

McLuhan in an age of Social Media: Tweets from a book salon I could not attend

Quick post tonight, as tomorrow is a teaching day. Consequently, I had to miss an event I wanted to attend: a book salon about the relevance of the work of Marshall McLuhan in the age of social media, featuring media studies scholar Paul Levinson of Fordham University, writer and educator Ira Naymanand museum planner Hugh Spencer

But media never sleeps. Not nowadays. And through the magic of the live tweeting of the event I was able to follow along at home. I now bring you some of the pithiest tweets of the evening, for your media theory consideration. 

Selfie sticks, overly Instagrammed food, streaming services -- How does the thinking of the man behind the medium is the message apply to these new forms and behaviours, if it in fact does? 

Feel free to assemble your version of answers to these questions from the tweets below.

#Socialmedia arose b/c #massmedia were not doing everything that #people wanted to do. @PaulLev #digital #tech #tools #cityasclassroom

Brevity is the soul of wit, and we do naturally #communicate in short bursts. @PaulLev #Twitter #newmedia #140characters #cityasclassroom

#Streaming is itself a new #medium which takes as its content the old media. @PaulLev  on #McLuhan #tetrad #newmedia #cityasclassroom

@PaulLev reminds us that #MarshallMcLuhan suggests old media become the content of new media #selfies #photography

Hugh Spencer: Cable TV drama is the new #museum. Binge TV watching, the new vacation. #narrativespace #digitalspace #cityasclassroom

Hugh Spencer: #Museums are an example of #cultural orientation. #cityasclassroom #navigating #identity #community #digitalspaces

Hugh Spencer: #Museums trade in #meaning. They tell us what has #value, or what's worth looking at. #curation #cityasclassroom #Toronto

#Selfie stick & #privacy: w/ so many selfies and information, how do we find each other? - Ira Nayman #cityasclassroom #hidinginplainsight

The #immediacy of new #media & #Internet allows academics to comment on #trends while they're still trends - Ira Nayman #cityasclassroom

Ira Nayman: It takes people who abstain from #tech to be able to really #see what is being #created w/ #digital practices . #cityasclassroom

Related Post: When media is everywhere, where are we?

Monday, January 4, 2016

From famous for 15 minutes to famous to 15,000 (or how we got from Warhol to YouTube)

Andy Warhol loved the colour silver. Is silver even a colour? Grey is a colour...silver, I would argue, is a signifier. It’s a shiny symbol, one that creates a mirror that reproduces our image...for us, for voyeurs, for optical illusions.

While recently walking the floor at a Warhol exhibit at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox it occurred to me that social media is similarly shiny, the shiny object that pulls us in with one thing, often to sell us another.  

And not unlike things silver, social media has the ability to capture the likeness of anyone its in orbit and send it out into the world, for further, yes, reflection. In so doing it makes room in popular culture for subculture.

We live in a time of brand me, in which media production, once necessarily out of the grasp of the general public, is now available to pretty much everyone, the idea that drove the creation of this blog.

When we abstract this idea, we can see the paradoxes of life imitating art and art imitating life turning into media imitating life and life imitating media.  

Just as Warhol’s work, from soup cans to celebrity portraits to films that sat on a single shot for hours detonated the walls between art, life, and media, so do the platforms and apps that have become our everyday tools, and toys. They too often get a highly polarized reception, viewed as everything from waste of time to surprisingly profound...one more interesting analogy to Warhol's moving walkway of media products and personalities.

Instead of stars – Warhol created ‘superstars’ – the paradox of the ordinary engineered as celebrity.

And at the same time, the focus of Andy’s work was often the mundane, which was, somewhat ironically, not at odds with his camera’s interest in drag queens, weirdos, freaks, and sundry attention seekers. 

The ordinary as celebrity, the celebrity as commodity. These ideas resonate strongly in today’s world of social currency as determined by number of Twitter, Instagram, and Vine followers, YouTubers with brand deals, fleeting viral video stars, and bloggers wielding influence

The means of production are now available for hijacking by the masses, not just those in the artistic elite such as Warhol. In these terabytes of data is a cacophony of noise, vanity, and self-expression, and just as Warhol used the denizens of the factory and they used him in an unwritten contract of mutual exploitation, we use the the platforms of the digital world and they use us.

Postscript: For those who want to dig deep into the Warhol mystique, a 4-hour documentary series, in 2 parts, is available online. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. I've watched both and I can tell you that there are many, many worse ways to spend 4 hours.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Best Of This Blog: 2015

Tis the season to look back at the year that was, and for many that may also mean asking ‘what was I thinking?’. 

Actually, I have a pretty good idea what I was thinking this past year, because a good portion of it has been captured here on the blog.

And what a year it was. 2015 was the year this blog broke 100,000 page views, a milestone I could never have imagined when I started this experiment of thinking made visible just under 3 years ago. 2015 was also the year I started teaching at York University and the year I returned to Austin, Texas for SXSW after a gap of 17 years. Not coincidentally, both of these events play a role in the ‘Best of this Blog 2015’ list that is the point of this entry. So let’s get down to business and crunch the year-end blog stats, not audited by Price Waterhouse Coopers (you’ll just have to trust me), and look back at the year’s most popular posts. And because I believe in delivering just a little extra to readers of this blog, I’m not serving up a Top 5 of the year, but a Top 6. Let's get this party started.


One of a handful of posts I wrote about YouTubers, those new faces of the Internet famous. In the early days of YouTube it was anti-heroes and weirdos with one-off videos gaining popularity in the then new, non-broadcast realm. But YouTube is now ten years old, and as is the case with so many things as they get older, to a sizable extent the weird is being supplanted by the commercially friendly on the video free-for-all that is YouTube. In this post we took a look at some popular YouTubers in 2015 and find out that building personal brand is now as big a part of the game as the provision of online content.


This one is a post that originated in a bit of classroom kerfuffle, when debate broke out during a session I was teaching on the impact of digital technologies on the creative industries. What happens when disintermediation gets dissed? Find out by clicking here.


Here we have a post – one of two on this list -- that comes from conference sessions I attended at SXSW Interactive in Austin in March 2015. This one is the story of Buzzfeed, truly a media company for the 21st century. Their content gets about 5 billion views per month, and 95% of those views come not from their own website, but on OPP (other people’s platforms). See the whole post on Buzzfeed and the wisdom of decentralized media here.


Coming in at the third most popular post of the year it’s Tai Lopez. Who? You know, this guy:

And be honest, who among us didn’t encounter this ‘get rich like me’ pitchman this past year, barging onto our screens as we tried to watch videos on YouTube. And as annoying as he was, the guy had an ineffable something. Blog readers seemed to agree. To read this year's third most popular post, about the man who reimagined the infomercial for the YouTube era, click here.


Now it’s time for the runner up, and it’s the story of platform capitalism, the concept that explains how companies like Uber and AirBnB can be worth billions, without owning a darn thing. For the full post on platform capitalism aka why your parents don’t understand the Internet, aka the WTF economy, click here.

And now, the most popular post of the year, one that also originated at SXSW Interactive 2015.

This widely shared post looks at the shift in PBS’ strategy from owned and operated to distributed media, a hallmark of this era of attention trumping brand, broadcaster, and many of the other logics of the old media world.

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2013/07/18/looking-back-on-a-year-of-pbs-digital-studios/

Where attention goes first is where the content follows. And it's not just digital native companies like Buzzfeed that get this, but also traditional broadcasters like PBS. Read the full post here.

And there you have it, the top posts of the year here on the Demassed blog. Thank you, as always, for your clicks, thumbs ups, and assorted endorsements of this blog. I’m undecided as to how things will take shape in 2016, now that I’ve written well over 100,000 words on the topic of digital disintermediation and the creative industries, and technologies, form factors, and marketplaces continue to evolve, but stay tuned. Like they say on the big box, more news as it happens.

Monday, December 14, 2015

When media is everywhere where are we?

There used to be this thing called media, that happened on fairly expensive, unwieldy equipment, almost always kept indoors, and created by an elite group of people that presumably knew better than the rest of us. It was transmitted to us at first be relatively few channels, later by too many, and still it seemed there was never anything on we wanted to watch.

Today there’s this thing called media that still resides in our homes but it also resides in our workplaces, in our social spaces, and in the palms of our hands, where, each year, increasing amounts of it are created and consumed.

This means many things, some culturally significant, others entertaining or bad for our health. Or both. For example, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices we (or is it just me?) often find ourselves annoyed in public spaces, at stores, and on transit; all because some people don’t consider that the world does not want to be privy to their extended conversations.  

Chiropractors of the world may rejoice, but many of us suffer from, or are apparently about to suffer from, ‘text neck’. 

And otherwise (presumably) rational people are succumbing to face plants in conspicuous places.

But beyond the ubiquity of communication – and the psychological and physical discomfort noted above – what are the ways in which we can better understand the effects of mobile media in relation to our environment?

Seeing that it’s the holiday season, the Demassed blog is offering up a platter of miniature cognitive sandwiches in the form of some issues on this topic that were recently discussed by the group assembled for the Monday night seminars, a tradition started by pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan during his teaching days at the University of Toronto

The topic on the table was: In the mobile world is there a sense of place?  Taking it on were:

Some thought starters were introduced to frame the discussion:

The concept of acoustic space: A space with no centre, no front, characterized by an “all-at-once-ness”, in the parlance of McLuhan himself.

The work of theorist Joshua Meyrowitz, who, 30 years ago, wrote an incredibly forward looking book on the impact of electronic media on our behaviour called "No Sense Of Place", introducing such ideas as the blurring of public and private experiences and the creation and merging of new identities created through our exposure to broadcast media. Bold thoughts indeed for 1985, and definitely following in the footsteps of McLuhan’s work on concepts such as the de-tribalizing effects of media; e.g. the printed word took us away from our ‘tribes’ because we could consume information privately, in isolation, away from our communities. Similarly, broadcast media has the power to re-tribalize disparate, large groups of people, on the basis that they are exposed to similar cultural expressions and norms. In other words, looking at our relationships with the world as media-ted.

The question of the evening was then posed: In the mobile world is there a sense of place? The discussion went on for an hour or so but in the name of brevity I'll bring you a handful of highlights.

Ferrara of the Institute Without Boundaries urged us think about, for example, big box retail as a response to the end of the physical world we once knew. It may be that mobile, rather than creating placelessness, allows the injection of place into everything. We are nomads and every place is part of our life as we move through it. Placelessness = industrial society and we are now post-industrial.

Cognitive Neuroscientist Ellard pointed out that the hardware in our brain wants to recognize particular places. Mobile devices intensify our sense of place; a new kind of awareness results. We now carry media-ting devices and the ability to insert and extract information on the go. This adds place-ful-ness to what otherwise might be placelessness.

Journalist and author Silcoff put it this way: We’re all armed with digital Swiss army knives, so how does this change our relationship to the world? Possibly by what we no longer have, such as the disappearance of things like the banks on the corner, that at one time were some of the grandest architecture in our everyday environments.  Instead we get decentralized, specialized cityscapes. Kids find their place in this world early, via screen time. Note that many of the younger generation don’t know how to use a paper map, because digital maps bring the world to wherever the user is and zero in on that location accordingly, whereas paper maps require the user to find his/her place in the larger landscape. 

Such inversions of context and power structures are typical of the Gutenberg revolution, as well as such McLuhan-inspired ideas as 'we shape our tools and then our tools shape us'.

Related Posts:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The 'everyday experts' taking over YouTube

It's time for Part 2 of my coverage of the gathering of YouTube celebs and enthusiasts known as Buffer Festival(See Part 1 here.)

In this instalment you'll meet a trio of YouTubers who started out as 1-man / 1-woman operations and now net from several thousand to several million views per day each.

Treading on what was once the exclusive domain of public broadcasting, YouTubers Craig Benzine, Dianna Cowern and Matt Santoro all started uploading videos for nothing more than the heck of it.  Read more here.

YouTuber Matt Santoro asks questions millions want the answers to

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How bloggers with selfie sticks became brand allies

Where industry once created stars, now it often follows, as is the case with the people-powered celebs of the Internet who are then pursued by broadcasters, movie studios, book publishers, and brands.

Click here for the blog post I wrote on the topic, featuring an interview with Corey Vidal, founder of Buffer Festival, an annual conference, get together, and fan event for YouTubers...and the people who love them.

Corey Vidal, 3rd from left, holds court with assorted stars of the YouTube small screen at Buffer Festival

Related Posts:
The Everyday Experts Taking Over YouTube