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this does not show the sharp audience decline that Elaine reports, it clearly shows that a broad regular readership has been replaced by a narrow regular readership supplemented by a highly volatile short term readership generated by social media links.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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Elaine Fine said…
Thanks for backing up my hunch with practical research. My latest hunch is that we are in the process of a cultural shift, and as the audio quality of recorded music continues to decline (when played on computers), people who need music (and there will always be people who need music) will seek out ways of finding satisfaction.

God, the gatekeeper of Genesis, did kill Onan, but we really shouldn't give that much power to the gatekeepers in the online world. We do what we do because it keeps, in a small way, discussions about music alive. We don't do it for money (while the Gatekeepers do). We don't even do it only for our own pleasure, except for the pleasure that comes from making connections with people who care about the same kinds of things we care about.

My near decade of blogging has become a habit. Just like practicing, composing, cooking, walking, and reading. It's nice that it's still one of the free pleasures, and that the Gatekeepers haven't yet figured out a way to stop us from taking advantage of this wonderful way of sharing.
Anonymous said…
Agree. And there's one other feature I think I see with increasing frequency that is worth mentioning.

With exceptions (of which this blog is one), it seems to me that a growing number of blogs get little but near-sycophantic responses from readers. This suggests that little if any thought is being put into the response; if it comes from a Trusted Source, agree quickly and move on. Is this related to apparently decreasing attention spans? I suspect so.

One unfortunate outcome is that disagreements are minimized if you know that you'll just be jumped on by The Usual Suspects.

My comments are aimed more broadly than just music blogs, of course.

In any event ... I can't see the future, but when bloggers whose work I enjoy and respect are seeing gloom, it's not an encouraging sign.
Pliable said…
Scott, many thanks for that and I know that a near-sycophantic response is the last thing I will get from you!

Your point about being jumped on elsewhere by the usual suspects is so true. For reasons I won't go into here I have recently spent some time lurking on a very large non-music forum and the trend you identify was very evident there. Self-appointed experts (many of who didn't know what they were talking about) roamed the forum and buried any posts that deviated from the orthodoxy in snide comments. Apart from being very unpleasant this stifled any attempt at intelligent discussion.

I have been involved with the internet since the early 1990s and am becoming increasingly concerned that we do not really understand the monster we have created. Our daughter is professionally involved working with victims of cyber bullying and other forms of online abuse, and what I hear from her makes me even more concerned.
Unknown said…

What you say is true, and I agree with Scott as well. I used to have three music blogs and a forum about music. I wanted to show my superb musical taste but I also wanted to engage with like-minded readers who might challenge me on some views or would lead me to similar artists that I was unfamiliar with.

I was lucky if I got any comments on my blogs and luckier if those comments were longer the one sentence.

I branched out into a forum because It alowed me to offer hassle-free illegal downloads of what I was discussing and for others to counter my posts with their own suggestions along similar lines. Once again, the masses were passive, eager to lap up whatever was offered but getting a response longer than "Thanks!" was like pulling teeth.

Soon we had a hundred members, three or four of them being regular contributors and ninety or more leeches. With so few participants, there were few commonalities between us and we mostly posted our own sub-genres with little cooperation or dialogue.

People really are sheep. They elect a few as tastemakers and are satisfied to then comment on the poor job their anointed ones are doing. Instead of the web uniting the world, a few megasites are dividing us into factions against each other, and any hint of compromise is quashed.
Anonymous said…
" becoming increasingly concerned that we do not really understand the monster we have created."

Agree strongly. There has been so much burbling about the advantages of the internet and being connected and so on that intelligent comment on the dark side is only now beginning to show up with reasonable frequency.

And some of the dark side is very dark indeed, as your daughter's comments suggest.
Pliable said…
Scott, thanks for your two comments. They have sparked a further post on this subject -
Michael Bettine said…
I wanted to leave a comment, partly because I too often don't leave one. It's become difficult to read and keep up with our information world, let alone leave a response to things you read.

With that in mind, I have seen a steady increase in 'page hits' on my music blog (whether people actually read it, I don't know), but there is an annoying lack of reader comments! (Side note: I had 2 comments on my most recent post!) My main reason for starting a blog was to share what I know/think and hopefully enter into some meaningful dialog with others. Without dialog, I'm just talking to myself.

Interestingly, people most often leave blog comments on my Facebook page (please, put them on the blog!), so I can't say 'no one' is reading or commenting, but I think this points to how Facebook has become the all encompassing internet place to be.

I've also noted that if a post gets mentioned on certain Facebook/Twitter accounts, readership jumps. These new 'gatekeepers' are really no different than the newspaper/magazine critics of the past who could make or break a career/show with what they wrote. It's human nature to trust a recommendation from someone you trust & know (even if you don't know them personally).

So I keep writing, because that's what I do, and the internet is a far more interesting place to write than a spiral notebook…
Anonymous said…
I suspect this is not your first or last foray into media theory. You have awoken to the fact that the tools of our own creation do not behave according to expectation. I hasten to add that none of us possess the wisdom and foresight to design tools that channel behavior very predictably and that we will always be reacting and adjusting to a dynamic set of incentives, some perverse, that grow out of our engineered environments. Thus, today's SEO experts, social media cool-spotters, and self-promoting trolls are an inevitable development in digital media that could never be pure for long, if indeed it ever was.

This inversion dynamic was recognized decades ago when John Culkin, a student of Marshall McLuhan, wrote, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The same thing was expressed somewhat more poetically by Emerson more than a century ago:

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
'Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

The problem of your writing (or anyone else's, for that matter) not finding its intended audience is a good puzzle. None of us who blog is satisfied with commentary, I think, because so little of it demonstrates true engagement. I don't have a solution except to suggest that you adjust your expectations of what you want to get out of blogging, which certainly has a future but perhaps not quite one anyone expects.

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