24 January 2023
“The reason what makes a media business such a riddle,” writes ex-Digiday-pres Brian Morrissey recently, “is media itself is no longer an economic function wrapped inside a corporate entity. Media, like tech, is embedded in every company and most endeavors.” (Those of us frequently guilty of worse, if no one else, will pardon him the possibly impenetrable syntax.)
Not sure there’s any especially fresh insight to be discerned in that. I do think he’s working at saying something we can all stand to hear said — and to talk about amongst ourselves — often, even so.
Morrissey’s ruminations there recall (for me) picture-widening comment I tried to make in the course of another longish post here, written during the summer of (but not really narrowly focused on) Black Lives Matter protests and liberal centrist speech-freedom crusaderism a few short years ago.
[I]t really isn’t squared off against a titanic corporate media, particularly — or in itself, rather — that I find myself trying to account for my sense of orientation to the political good these days. I mean, let’s step back a sec and ask ourselves whether we know anymore with clarity which among our great houses are the media companies and which are, strictly, something else. There’s some discussion to be had around the question, maybe, but I think the answer in the end is a plain No. We all grasp that the environment, the conditioning frame, with respect to which we can talk about what the big business entities we know today are is something that has evolved in dramatic fashion in the course of a few decades. (NYT, a bit peculiarly, maintains some elements of structure that recall its place in past stages of this fast-burning economic order, but this is just detail, surely.) The contest for control of media space was every business’s business, to an extent, as things stood, let’s say 50 years ago — a situation in which ‘the media’ occupied a particular sort of height upon the field. Most of us get that this no longer describes the landscape in which we maneuver on ever more digital and disaggregated terms, individually or otherwise, even if we struggle to say what does describe it. In short: what would be the point anymore, I’d have to ask myself, in making corporate media specially an object for bringing my political ‘resistance’ to focus? Increasingly, what we knew as the media — whatever we might want to lay at its doorstep for the political and economic trajectory we’re all on together today — is a mirage hovering where other, yet stranger things actually stand.
Now comes Elon Musk, styling himself true champion of the liberal free-speech crusaders and making an ugly scene, to everyone’s embarrassment but perhaps his own. I said in November, with announcement of the revival of my long-unused Mastodon account to the two or three of you who read here, that I might hazard some longer discussion of these goings-on. This post is kind of that. Or it’s a start to it at any rate. Like so much else that I would like to take up here, the subject’s far too great.
I’m having a good experience with Mastodon in the not quite three months from then, I want to note. For purposes of ordinary online people-watching and conversation, I’ve stopped checking Twitter pretty much altogether. This isn’t to say that for me Mastodon has been straightforwardly a substitute for Twitter. There are a lot of reasons one wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect to find it just a substitute — and no shortage of articles published since October to expound on them.
At the same time, I’m in kind of an interesting position for observing aspects of what self-denominating ‘content miner’ Ryan Broderick snarks about in yesterday’s edition of his newsletter Garbage Day, the trouble making the same leap to Mastodon I’ve done seems to present for many media professionals. This too is a question about which you can find plenty being published, and I don’t want to really get into it here. As it happens, though, I’m a member — in fact, currently an official, a delegate to the national assembly for the Chicago chapter — of a labor union largely though by no means exclusively representing journalists. (Wrote something about this, too, in 2020.) It’s been a little project of mine, this past month, to see us start an organizational account — for which I got the go-ahead last week. Not many of my fellow union members, as far as I know, are Mastodon users yet. I have a certain degree of personal hope that more of them will eventually turn up, but this isn’t my great concern. I just think we ought to have a presence among the folks who are using it as it continues to liven up.
In Mastodon and the greater ‘fediverse’ phenomenon we have something complex and in many respects problem-ridden, without a doubt. I can only call myself a learner in this area. I imagine it’ll come up again in future posts here.
What of the liberal centrist speech-freedom crusader set, meanwhile? Musk appalls most of them, it seems only fair to assume. If they were hoping for a champion, he certainly was never the guy. Bari Weiss, I know, did conspicuously extend to him some kind of benefit of the doubt, and then soon enough came to regret it. Occasionally I’ll see someone ‘boosting’ an Anne Applebaum post on Mastodon, where she has, for that setting, an enormous follower count. She remains nevertheless to all appearances much more active on Twitter than on Mastodon. Anyhow, I haven’t begun meaningfully to explore this question. It’s large. Here I’m only sort of bookmarking it for further consideration whenever opportunity may arise.
I will say that I’ve been thinking a good deal about the piece that Ian Bogost — not a “Harper’s Letter” signer, but contributing editor at a publication I think of as generally aligned with it, where this was run in November — brought out in quick response to Musk’s assumption of the Twitter helm, titled “The Age of Social Media Is Ending.” It links to, and in central theme reprises, his “People Aren’t Meant to Talk This Much,” published there a year earlier. Setting aside his very reasonable starting assumption, that habits of internet use a decade or so in formation starting to shake loose and get reconfigured at mass scale is a real possibility, less and less a hypothetical, what he has to say in this contra-social-media vein strikes me as mostly wrong. In part, I think, he’s getting things so wrong because he seems somehow not to appreciate (or maybe is too eager in some performance of a refusal to appreciate, rather) the significance of what Morrissey the ad-man business guru — as to essential mindset, himself certainly of the liberal-centrist mold — articulates clumsily but observes nevertheless with unblinking pragmatic eyes: the thoroughgoing conversion of so many things we’ve thought of as institutions or spheres of practical common life subject from mere external necessity to being engaged in media, or to working engagement with the media, somehow in a fairly short space of time now instead into so many aspects or manifestations, themselves, simply, of one vast uncertainly differentiated media marketplace, one in spirit, the kingdom no longer without them but within.
Mastodon, incidentally, since not so much “platform” as method, not so much big simulated room to all get together in at once as means for people to adopt online situations from which to communicate with others differently situated across a common field of contrasting place-like group contexts, has in fact (for now) a great tendency to induce for users some of the very experience of connection-limitation that Bogost says he thinks human beings need, by nature, in all our ordinary social existence. Does this contrary tendency Mastodon’s displayed impress him, then? It doesn’t seem like it.
But I’m far from having really dug into what Bogost thinks. (Can’t help noting that for somebody who says he’d like to believe the whole social media thing is finally over, he seems to spend a lot of time on Twitter. Let us not mistake him for a person of simple mind.)