Friday, November 01, 2013
How the intermediary has become the message
Perfect sound forever was the promise of the digital age, instead we have compromised sound from low resolution audio files. Citizen journalism was the promise of the digital age, instead we have the trolling of crowds on user-generated content sites such as TripAdvisor. More choice in a long tail was the promise of the digital age, instead we have the hegemony of Amazon and iTunes devastating the vitally important independent specialist retail sector. And disintermediation was the promise of the digital age, instead the intermediary has become the message.
There is no better example of how the intermediary has become the message than in music writing. After a few blessed years of blogs creating an almost level playing field, the arrival of Twitter and other micro-media platforms has imposed an intermediary layer that now largely controls what music writing is read. In July senior blogger Elaine Fine posted a perceptive piece titled The Gradual Fall of Music Bloggery. Since Elaine's post I have been closely monitoring the comprehensive readership data for On An Overgrown Path. Although this does not show the sharp audience decline that Elaine reports, it clearly shows that a broad regular readership has been replaced by a narrow regular readership supplemented by a highly volatile short term readership generated by social media links.
In simple language, if a post is highlighted on Twitter by a few social media gatekeepers it receives a large readership; if not it is dead meat. Let me make it clear that I am not blaming the gatekeepers: they are not self-appointed, but are appointed by an audience which has chosen to let an intermediary decide what it reads. But there are very big dangers in the rise of the social media gatekeeper. It is very easy to identify the hot buttons that appeal to the gatekeepers; the danger is the introduction into writing - consciously or unconsciously - of these hot buttons, irrespective of their merit, in order to open the readership gates.
Anecdotes are unreliable, so I recently carried out some experiments with hot and cold button posts. Contriving a reference to the hot button of Wagner in an otherwise 'cold' post generated almost double the readership of a broadly similar post about an even more deserving subject without a contrived hot button. In another more statistically significant test, I ran hot button and cold button posts with similar content back to back; for reasons of political correctness I will not identify the buttons. This time the hot button post generated a readership 124% greater than the similar but 'colder' post.
Nobody asks us to blog. But the reverse side of the coin is that blogging without an audience is a form of onanism. Technology developments made blogging possible fifteen years ago, and now more developments have brought us social media. Twitter cannot be blamed, nor can the gatekeepers or their legions of followers. But I blog because I want what I write to be judged by my readers, not by intermediaries. The random image grab above shows the diversity of subjects covered On An Overgrown Path. But the incentive to write about anything other than hot topics is fast disappearing. Which means, like Elaine Fine, I am now questioning the future of music blogging.
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