When we think about ‘media’, it can feel like we are being constantly assaulted with the message that everything has changed. It is impossible to open a trade publication, either physically, or especially virtually, without reading another column or article that tells us that when it comes to the how and where we source our information and entertainment, we are living through the breaking dawn of a new day.
There is, without doubt, more than some truth to this.
Web penetration across Asia is rapidly rising, driven by the proliferation of smartphones and increasingly competitive data pricing. Eighteen million these handsets were sold in Q1 2014 in Southeast Asia alone. To give you a bigger number and the bigger picture, the total number of users went from 120 million in 2000 to almost 1.4 billion in 2014. It seems ‘new media’ is everywhere. Or to put it more simply, the ways through which we comprehend, communicate and connect are changing irreversibly.
There is much furore about these changes, and many see the message in the medium… New ways of saying and doing surely must mean that now people have fundamentally new things to think, to say, to do. Their vision is a world, shaped by netizens. An open-source, crowdfunded, user-generated utopia. A New Age heralded by New Media.
Well, yes…and no.
We want to provide here a counterpoint to the tired narrative that seeks to recast the world anew every half-decade, and challenge us all to think about what has endured and evolved—and what this means for us as insight-providers and brand stewards. We want to do this not just because in our experience, it seems that the singular schism narrative is not true, but also because it is exhausting for us as consultants and expensive for our clients, whose attention is constantly being drawn to the ‘new new’.
Before trying to take the ‘new’ out of new media, it’s worth clarifying our terms. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that 'new media' is the term for "new means of mass communications, considered collectively, specifically electronic means, such as the internet", which is almost certainly true but unhelpfully vague.
To go a little deeper, (and fully aware of the irony) we turned to Wikipedia, where a contributor characterised new media in the following terms:
New media most commonly refers to content available on-demand through the Internet, accessible on any digital device, usually containing interactive user feedback and creative participation.…A defining characteristic of new media is dialogue. New media transmit content through connection and conversation. It enables people around the world to share, comment on, and discuss a wide variety of topics. Unlike any of past technologies, new media is grounded in an interactive community.
This sounds like an end to traditional top-down dissemination of information, a move from few to many sources, a broadening of influences, the democratization of information, and, for many, the decentralization of power. However, this rhetoric may have held true when the net was a niche interest, but the reality is far less far-fetched—but far more interesting.
With the rise of new media, many commentators, digital ‘commandos’ or social-media ‘ninjas’, have predicted the death of traditional media. “TV is dead”, “Radio is dead”, “Piracy will kill cinema/recording labels”—are all headlines that we’re now familiar with. But is this really the case?
There is a lot of resilience within traditional media. We still listen to music produced by major labels, and many artists are more than compensating for the loss of traditional record sales by diversifying their revenue streams through touring, merchandise and product placements. We are still subjected to “broadcast” ads that we cannot skip on YouTube and other streaming services and we are still watching and talking about event television such as Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and we are still going to the cinema in our masses. Fast and Furious 7 just crossed $1 billion in the box office in just 17 days! Transformers: Age of Extinction broke the same barrier in 2014 and Frozen was the billion-dollar baby of 2013.
We can still see these enduring qualities in journalism, a field that is meant to be dying along with the paper media with which it has been associated. Whilst there are increasing numbers of citizen journalists and a bewildering long tail of bloggers, we still place huge trust in established sources. From Channel News Asia to The Straits or New York Times, The Atlantic or The South China Morning Post, because as options proliferate, our choices narrow. Amongst the new wave of journalistic ‘disruptors’, from the VICE Media to The Online Citizen or Monocle, we see them thriving because of strong editorial choices and aggressive curation of content and style. Even if some media formats are dying, it’s clear that the ‘traditional’ content style they dealt with is alive and kicking.
So what has really changed? The Internet is maturing and as it becomes more encompassing and more pervasive, it reflects and interacts with societal norms, both good and bad.
If we go back to our initial definition of what distinguishes the old from the new, we see that dialogue, interactive user feedback, creative participation, connection, conversation, sharing and commenting are all key characteristics. Wikipedia ends with the bullish assertion that "Unlike any of past technologies, new media is grounded in an interactive community". It seems that conversation and interaction is what makes new media ‘new’ then?
This final assertion is where the fallacy creeps in. Human behaviours endure and evolve no matter what the current hot platform is. These new spaces help shape the direction of that evolution, but we must remember that word of mouth predates Tripadvisor, the homestay and the room-let pre-date Airbnb. Before we started getting news and information from Facebook, we certainly had neighbourhood gossip, and bullying long-existed without the need for ‘cyber’ in front of it. Online shaming culture is simply the digital turbo-charging of social opprobrium that all societies and communities have the potential to generate. Empires rose and governments fell before Twitter existed as a catalyst. Fan clubs, fanzines, and fanfic all pre-date the web; just ask the Beatles or The Observatory or even Fann Wong.
All the 'new' things we get so excited about as marketers and insight managers, we have been doing in one way or another as people without even thinking twice about it. And that is the danger of professional myopia.
So where is this countervailing, nay-saying narrative going? A blog about what hasn’t changed isn’t necessarily hugely interesting. So what can we make of this? There are two undeniable differences that new media has brought to old habits, which do fundamentally change what and where we can learn from people and what we can do and act as brand stewards.
Firstly: An end of geography. This is (thankfully) not the feared cultural singularity where any taxi you get into anywhere in the world will be playing David Guetta. Local histories, sociologies, and idiosyncrasies are as important as ever. But equally as important are alternate geographies that cut across physical space. Virtual communities of shared interests do not need physical proximity to feel a sense of connection—and these communities have reach and scale. Just ask a “directioner” or a member of IS.
Secondly: Visibility, and with it, measurability. This is what creates the illusion that, “This time it’s different”. Behaviours that were occurring in ways that were previously inaccessible, un-recordable and invisible are now out in the open. New media never forgets. It gives us real-time recording of what previously went under the radar, and a searchable traceable record we can now track. No wonder as marketeers we think this is a radically different era we are living through.
Both of these have exciting, positive consequences for how we understand and communicate with people, as long as we use the right tools.
We have been increasingly drawing upon Digital Forensics and ‘Netnography’, together with more conventional sources of insight to allow us to dimensionalize how people, culture and brands play out across these new, old spaces.
Digital Forensics is a bespoke online methodology that precisely allows us to tap into this borderless visibility and measurability of new media. We are able to quickly know what's happening on a macro level, get a sense of the importance of some of these trends and contexts, before deciding on relevant topics to dive into deeper to hear for ourselves what consumers are thinking, saying and sharing!
As opposed to conventional, passive quantitative approaches, this takes the researchers art of listening, uncovering, and interpreting into the digital sphere. Rather than coding comments, we dive down into the micro, contextualizing and unpicking conversations within the most resonant macro-spaces. This allows us to unpack the richness within online conversation in the same way one might through in-depth ethnography or group discussions, actively combing this passive record of human interaction online to understand the powerful human narratives at play.
Increasingly we have also been actively studying human behaviour as it moves online, recruiting research participants as we might for any other ethnographic enquiry, and then friending and following them across key platforms. Following them over time lets us build up a rich picture of their actions and motivations as they move between the off and online spheres, across screens and across platforms, often following up with more reflective, probing face-to-face research.
Coupling this with digital tools, like our Field Notes Self-Ethnography App, and even wearable capture technology, allows us to capture their behaviours in-situ, despite the geography, joining up actions and behaviours across these different spaces.
So maybe this is a Brave New World after all.
It is certainly one that demands a readjustment of how we approach people and how we solve brand problems.
With this increasing demise of geographies, we must think of targets that inhabit ‘spaces’ that cut across borders, united by common languages or cultural connections.
With new media simply becoming ‘media’ it is vital to blend the online and the offline in the same way that people do. To reach anyone active in these spaces, focusing only online—or equally only on ‘real life’—now gives us only half of the picture. The visibility and measurability in this space means that we can now better understand people and the behaviours that endure.
Adam Nelson is associate director and Scott Teng is project director at Flamingo