The Digital Journalist
November 2006

by Ron Steinman

The other day I was on a bus in Manhattan going crosstown from 79th Street and Broadway to Park Avenue and 79th Street, a pleasant ride on a sunny day, mainly through Central Park. A young woman in her '20s gets on the bus when I do. She sits across from me. She takes her cell phone from her pocket. She scrolls for a number. She presses a button, puts the phone to her ear and listens. She hits another button and watches the screen. It must be a text message she is retrieving. She pauses. She is reading the message. Using her thumb, she sends a message in return. Then she scrolls down again, presses a number. She waits. Someone comes on the line. She has a brief conversation. She says goodbye. She puts the phone away and takes out her PDA, I assume a BlackBerry, turns it on, and scrolls through her e-mail. Occasionally she frowns or smiles. That done, she closes the PDA and puts it away. Then she takes her iPod from her backpack, and puts on her buds. Using her obviously educated thumb, yet again, she scrolls through the songs she wants to hear, sits back, briefly closes her eyes and listens to her music. It all took place in perhaps three minutes. I, newspaper in hand, sit there somewhat numb having watched the young woman multitask, though linearly, and handle her morning activities in rapid succession when all I want to do is read my paper in peace. I hoped the young woman was happy. She did have a smile on her face as she listened to her music. That was encouraging.

The theme of what I had observed was clear. Modern youth has the capability and the means to do much in very little time. It seems they are obsessed with doing, rather than thinking about what they do. Daily it seems there is something else in the world of new media to attract the attention of the young. Movies may die. TV is on the verge of slipping away. New media rules, at least for the moment.

It got me thinking, what next?

I saw it staring me in the face. Google buys YouTube, a company that hasn't made a dime, for $1.6 billion, a price that hardly makes a dent in Google's disposable income. Networking sites are proliferating. People are afraid to be alone, otherwise why are they running to YouTube and MySpace?

Consider the following associated with the new technology that would like to take over or control our lives. Look at the words and phrases. Listen to the words. Think that these are just a few. More ideas arise every day. More names surface at the blink of an eye. We must get used to these and we had better be quick about it. If not, life in cyberspace will pass us by.

New media. Narrowcasting. Net-enabled set-top boxes. Streaming video. Jeff Jarvis. Router. Web video. Hot spot network. Linear only. Dan Gillmour. Pinger. Extra bandwidth. Video podcasts. Cable box. Satellite receiver. HD. High definition. Jay Rosen. Video input. IM. Audio input. PC cards. TIVO. Steve Outing. Webisodes. Telco in the news biz. Webisodes. Pay per view movies. Embedded video ads. V-casts. Digital recorders. Citizen journalism. MP3-cellphone e-mail-camera. Digital natives. Skype. Viral video. Virtual worlds. Someone I know describes what is happening with the phrase, "Too much technology." For some, there is never enough.

One of the best things about new media, or Media 2.0, is the creativity that goes into naming each new enterprise, unless of course, it is Google directed, the universe's new Pacman: Google Talk, Google Earth, Google Gmail, Google still to come. Then there is Digg. Spurl. Furl. Rhapsody. Ma.gnolia. Reddit. LinkedIn. Yelp. Napster. And many more. Just looking at these, and the many more coming online in people's heads every day, makes my head spin because the names do not hint at what the company does. I think. Someone said that with the Internet, everyone now has a printing press. And some use it to make money, if they can. Talk about madness of the crowd.

It is all about advertising. It is all about platforms to allow someone to sell us something we may not want, may not need, certainly may not crave. Advertising is there to make us spend our money in a way we never envisioned. There is something else, though. Is advertising so important that aesthetics is meaningless? It is something I cannot say often enough. Somehow I care as much for content as I do for form. Feature-length movies on a 2x2 screen? Wow. Yet, time after time, advertisements far exceed the content they surround. They are cleverer, more pointed, better produced. I enjoy ads on TV more than I enjoy the shows the ads support. The few ads on cell phones work better than episodes culled from your favorite TV shows.

So, we now accept that everything in life is in the spirit of more advertising. Another platform. Another dollar. It is sad to know that America's youth (and the world's) has absolutely no sense of value, as the cell phone and the iPod become their principal means of receiving and obtaining information. Social networking sites are proliferating. Yet, the latest estimates say that of all the millions of subscribers to these sites, perhaps only 10,000 have an audience beyond friends and family. Do these sites have any meaning beyond one person telling another they have their own space on My Space? That having a place in cyberspace is better than being alone and having to face what you are or are not? Is that what social networking is about? YouTube. MySpace. Yahoo 360. Facebook. myYearbook. Even Friendster. Those not yet created. I see this coming down to the machinations, and energy, and, I have to admit, the creativity and imaginations of people who have not yet reached their majority.

I understand that each generation is different. I accept that premise because change is inevitable. In a world that is increasingly difficult to understand and navigate, where isolation is normal despite the growing number of people, the need to connect becomes more important, especially for the young. That is why machines are proliferating. People can connect when using a machine without looking each other in the eye. There is safety in distance.

The iPod, the BlackBerry, the Palm and any number of other handheld devices deliver real-time content – breaking news, weather, sports scores, helpful addresses, travel directions, photos, text messages – better than anything yet invented. However, anything else that appears on these small screens is an aesthetic failure. Youth disagrees. Youth does not seem to care what fills the screen on its portable connectors. That the machine can deliver is all that matters. A portable machine must deliver information to the user, no matter what it is, or else the machine and thus the information is useless. Quality does not count. What does is the device itself. Chips get smaller and more diverse. More capability in a smaller, well-designed package is the goal of manufacturers. The instruments these chips serve may get a bit bigger, but not by much. Increased power in a smaller package is what sells. In a crowd of young people, observe how they compare equipment. Hear them brag about what their devices can do. And yours cannot. All that counts is the means of delivery that you as the user think you can control.

It comes down to my wondering if I can survive in this over-subscribed world of programming that comes in ego-dominated bits and pieces. New video enterprises are calling themselves mobile entertainment companies. The latest is that talent agencies are now scouring all the viral video sites looking for new talent. Imagine their surprise and shock when they discover that talent is fleeting and even scarcer than a hen's teeth.

Estimates are that in four years, there will be 24 million customers subscribing to mobile phone video and/or some mobile service other than simply voice. Be prepared. Saying hello on your cell phone will soon be obsolete and just when I was getting used to using the phone for something other than a doorstop. What next?

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.