John McCann

Archive for February, 2006|Monthly archive page

Mass culture

In Culture & society on February 27, 2006 at 5:29 pm

In my lectures about the Participation Age, I include a segment on mass culture and then contrast it with the emerging culture of participation. The following is a summary.

We can trace mass culture to the industrial revolution and World War II, as depicted in this graph:


The industrial revolution brought us interchangeable parts that were produced by machines. Once an investment was made in a machine, the cost of producing one part or product with that machine declined as the number of parts increased because the fixed cost of the machine was spread over more and more items. This gave us the declining cost curve which dictated that mass production would be the most efficient form of production. Thus we entered a period in which larger and larger factories produced larger and larger quantities of goods.

When World War II was over, the United States entered a new period characterized by pent-up demand, the building of massive roads, and the invention of new products and services based upon the vacuum tube. Soldiers returned from the war with money in their pockets while people not in the war had been earning high wages producing war products. They could not spend their money during the war because the supply of consumer products was limited due to rationing of goods so they could be used in the war effort. Thus we had mass demand for cars, appliances, houses, etc.

After the war, General Eisenhower returned to the U.S. from Europe where he had led the Allied forces against Germany. He had been very impressed with the German highways and the ability of the Germans to move their tanks, trucks and missiles all over the country. He wanted the U.S. to build similar highways so that we would be better prepared in the case of another war. When he became president, he got his wish with the creation of the Interstate Highway system. The result was a modern road system that tied the cities together as well as connected inner cities to suburbs. As a result, companies could build massive stores and massive collections of stores in malls.

Vacuum tubes had been perfected during the war and firms such as RCA saw that they could create new products with them. Thus we had the arrival of television, which so captured our interest that before too long almost all households had a television set. This led to an era of mass communication in which advertisers could place one ad in a popular television show and reach 30-40% of the population. Mass communication flourished.

Mass production, mass demand, massive stores and mass communication created the mass culture that dominated our society for many decades of the 20th century.

The mass culture depicted so far is only part of the total. The following are some other mass elements of our society and the technologies or developments that enabled them: One aspect of a mass culture is large entities. Another aspect is the same product or service for everyone.

Elevator and massive cities: The development of the elevator allowed builders to construct very tall buildings that had a small footprint. Once they could place many buildings in a small space, they could grow a city to a very large size without much additional land. The resulting skyscrapers enabled the creation of cities that could house millions of people in offices, apartments and condominiums.

Transportation and mass distribution:Interstate highway system, and the associated feeder roads, enabled the movement of goods and products all over the country.

Malls and mass retailing: The advent of the mall allowed retailers to build versions of their stores in all parts of the country. As a result, people shopping in a mall in Seattle are likely to see the same stores as a shopper in Atlanta, or Miami, or Boston, or Chicago, etc.

Public schools and mass education: Back in the day, schools were run by churches as a means of insuring that people could read the Bible.. Then towns and states took over the task of educating the population so that democracy would flourish. Today, we have a mass education system that strives to give the same education to all the children in the U.S. That is the very definition of mass education … the same education for the all of the masses.

Automation and mass leisure: During the early decades of the 20th century, products such as refrigerators, washing machines, electric ranges, and vacuum cleaners made it much easier for families to meet their daily living requirements. As a result, people, particularly women, had much more free time. In the work place, factory automation led to the concept of the 40 hour work week and the two week vacation. Both of these developments yielded the opportunity for people to engage in leisure activities such as radio listening, TV watching, travel, attending sports events, playing games, etc. Mass leisure thus joined the mass culture.

Electronics and mass computing: Our early computers were built with vacuum tubes, a technology that dictated that the most efficient form of computing would be the large centralized computer. The period from 1950 to 1980 or so has been termed the era of mass computing.

Older adults today witnessed parts of the formation of this mass culture. Thus their views of the world are likely to be strongly influenced by their acceptance of the mass culture as normal. This means that most of them tend to view themselves as members of the masses. In terms of passive versus participation, they tend to be passive.
Baby boomers grew up when this culture was well established and are likely to have similar acceptance. But the following generations, sometimes called the Gen X and Gen Y generations, appear to see the world through a different lens and are thus more eager to participate in it in different ways.

Today’s youth, high school and college students, are the ones who seem to be turning away from the products and services of the mass culture and paying far more attention to those offerings that allow them to participate in some form or other. For instance, they tend not to read newspapers and their TV viewing is lower then previous generations.
But they seem very eager to share their own experiences in blogs and social network software, and to read the stories of their friends and peers. Thus the extreme popularity of services such as MySpace among this group. The culture that surrounds MySpace, Facebook and Friendster is definitely very different from the mass culture of the 20th century.


Olympics participation

In Media involvement on February 24, 2006 at 9:20 pm

In an earlier post, Involved in a TV show, I talked about involvement as a form of participation. I participate in my world via my involvement with the subject matter.

I thought about this post when I read an article by Bruce Horovitz and Laura Petrecca, “10 suggestions to boost the Olympics, in USA Today, about how the Olympics could be changed to appeal to the new generation.

“Viewer voting on televised competitions such as American Idol has given rise to new phenomena: official judges might get the last word, but they’re no longer the only voice. Text messaging and online voting have changed all that. Even if viewers don’t decide who wins Olympic medals, many would welcome the chance to weigh in on Olympic events and personalities. ‘Young viewers need to feel like they’re involved in their programming,’ says Catherine Mullen, general manager of TV music network Fuse.”

Mullen’s statement that young viewers need to feel involved is the key. She goes on to offer a suggestion of how this could work:

“Mullen suggests NBC or the International Olympic Committee create an online venue where teens could post messages on topics such as which athletes would make the best-looking Olympic couple.”

This is not just being involved; this is true participation by becoming a producer of content. Think about it. When you post a message on a site associated with an event’s coverage, you are producing content for that coverage. You have changed the coverage to include your comments, your analysis and your opinions. To you, that contribution may be more important than the content generated by the TV announcers.

When a show’s producers facilitate such participation, they provide people with a reason to watch the TV production. Voting for the couples provides a reason to watch. Without it, the participation generation will likely go somewhere else. Perhaps that is why American Idol is out-drawing the Olympics broadcasts: viewers of American Idol can become participants by voting for their favorite contestant.

Coverage of the Olympics is just one example of how mainstream producers need to recognize that we are now in the Participation Age. There are examples of shows where the producers have seemed to know that they are in this new age. For instance, the executive producers of the TV show Lost have a podcast in which they answer questions posed by viewers and remark on the theories about the show that appear on various blogs. Such efforts are just the tip of the iceberg of what is likely to appear in coming months and years as the haze around the Dawn of the Participation Age dissipates.

Future of Newspapers: One View

In Blogging, Citizen Journalism, Listen to the Dawn, Newspapers on February 20, 2006 at 8:44 pm

Diane Rehm holds conversations with authors, politicians, industry experts, thought leaders, etc. on her daily radio show from WAMU in Boston. On her January 3, 2006 show, she talked to several people about the future of newspapers. The guests: Michael Massing, Journalist, press critic; John Morton, Newspaper industry consultant; Rem Rieder, Editor, American Journalism Review. It is worth listening to the streaming audio of the show.

At around the 29 minute mark in the show, a caller (who identified himself as the former managing director of the LA Times syndicate in Europe) states that citizen journalists and bloggers are destroying the future of news “papers” and that business models of traditional news gathering organizations will be challenged by a huge number of bloggers using citizen journalists all over the world. He said that the news paper model and the accompanying news gathering model will go away.

The sad thing was the response of John Morton (as I transcribed from the broadcast).

“I envision this bloggers world as sort of analogous to what civilization was like in the Middle Ages when everybody had opinions; we were full of all sorts of witch hunts and mysteries; it was before the Enlightenment. And really, civilization has advanced because of information. I don’t care how many opinions you spread around the world, it’s only going to be news coverage that provides information that makes a difference.”

Morton, who was introduced as a newspaper industry analyst, is clearly out of tune with the new media world. It appears from his response that he is totally unaware of the roles played by citizen journalists and has a view of bloggers that is commonly expressed in newspaper articles. A lot of the traditional media writers have put blogs into two camps: vanity blogs in which people write about their daily lives and opinion blogs in which people express opinions about articles they read in the traditional media.

These two types are, indeed, very common in the blogosphere. But just consider the number of bloggers at work. Dave Sifry reports that “Technorati currently tracks 27.2 million weblogs, and the blogosphere we track continues to double about every 5.5 months.” These 27 million bloggers include people who are generating the news, as well as people writing about that news.

If Morton is representative of that traditional world, the conquest described by the caller to the show will occur with very little opposition. If you do not understand what is happening to your business model, you cannot respond adequately.

Sun says sun has risen

In Listen to the Dawn, Open source, Uncategorized on February 18, 2006 at 7:50 pm

Scott McNealy says that the sun has risen on the Participation Age.

“Speaking at a San Francisco conference on Wednesday, Sun CEO Scott McNealy described today as the “Participation Age” in technology, saying Sun’s open-source approach fits with that direction.”

His presentation included a slide titled “The Participation Age is another Revolution,” one that joins railways, electricity and telecommunications as revolutions that drove the global economy over the past 150 years.

Each of these four revolutions share four attributes:

  1. Economic growth through new services
  2. Standard that allow competition
  3. Participation of the community
  4. Less barriers, more access

This is clearly true when you restrict your analysis to the software revolution, as McNealy does. But is it true for the larger participation arena in which ordinary people can participate in activities that were previously reserved for experts, anointed professionals and companies who control some aspect of an industry or activity?

The answer appears to be clearly Yes.

  1. New services and applications are coming on line almost daily.
  2. Standards are allowing the cost of almost all digital technologies to follow Moore’s law, which results in near professional-level applications becoming affordable to more and more people.
  3. Blogs, podcasts, vlogs, social networks, etc. are allowing people to join together into loose communities of like-minded individuals who participate in common activities.
  4. The open Internet, digital technologies and deregulation has lowered, or even eliminated, barriers in many fields to the point that almost anyone can have access.

How did you participate in life?

In Blogging on February 17, 2006 at 3:19 pm

My brother Bill died in late 2003 when he was in his late seventies. His wife showed me the few pages of a memoir he had started on a yellow legal pad and I found his stories very interesting, as did his wife and three daughters.

But those few pages were the total written record of his life. He had wanted to leave a complete record but he started too late in life. Oh there are plenty of memories held by his family and friends, but those will extinguish some day. And my memories are quite limited because he was 15 years older than me and was not around when I was growing up. After that, we would see each other on special occasions for limited periods; not a good source for memories.

The same is true of my parents, their parents and all of my ancestors. There is no written record and almost all of my relatives have passed away. We have a box of old pictures, and an old crumbling bible that contained several pages that listed my family tree back to one great, great grandfather. It appears that we were not a family of journal keepers or letter writers & collectors.

My attempts to learn more about them from the genealogy record has not been very successful. But even if I were able to trace my roots, all I would have is a list of names and dates.

How did my brother participate in life? How did my parents? Their parents? My cousins? What every happened to cousin Charles? Did he leave a trace of his life? I’ll never really know; nor will later generations.

But a large number of people are documenting their lives via their blogs. Online journals are very common forms of blogs; in many of them people disclose the minute details of their daily existence. When I first encountered them I reacted in a way that is probably very similar to how others react when reading about how Jane, for instance, went to the mall, drove to meet Sue, and had a snack at McDonalds: Who cares; it’s so common that why would anyone want to read about it!!!

But I would love to know what Bill did after school when he lived in a second floor apartment on St. Clair Street, across from the Old Capital Building in Frankfort, Kentucky. Where did he hang out? What did he do after school? What did he wear? What did he think about when walking to school? What did he fear? Love?

I’ll never know. His children will never know, nor will their children. Someday, it will be very important for one of his ancestors to know how he lived his life. But they will never know.

I imagine that no one will ever know how a high school student, any high school student, ipent his days in Frankfort in 1936 . But the ancestors of today’s teenagers will likely have access to reports by dozens, if not hundreds, of teenagers in Frankfort in the early years of the 21st century. They will be able to determine how their ancestors participated in life.

We, the older generations, could record our memories so that our ancestors can get a glimpse of how we lived throughout our lives. It might seem like an exercise in vanity to some, but it would likely be very appreciated by someone in the turn of the 22nd century who wants to know how her great, great, great, great, great grandfather lived his life.

Just how did you participate in life?

Why not more video production in schools?

In Video on February 17, 2006 at 2:32 pm

David Weinberger’s JOHO The Blog has a entry about a short video in which he acts. It is a very funny video about a guy trying to get customer service via the telephone. It provides a good example of the creativity of the three college students who formed the company that produced the video.

I would like to see the day when our schools and universities take video production as importantly as they take text production. Or even close to as important.

Our education system is built around people learning to read and write. First learning the mechanics of writing, then grammar, then composition, etc. As students get into middle school, they are given assignments that require them to write papers … a practice that continues throughout their formal education.

I cannot fault this standard education approach. But I do suggest that writing is only one form of communication and that video would make a great parallel approach. It’s as if our education model was frozen in place with the invention of paper and pencil. Now that cost of video production has reached very low levels, it is increasingly feasible to teach students at all grade levels to communicate via video.

Participatory TV

In Long Tail, Television on February 16, 2006 at 2:47 pm

Robin Good writes about Participatory TV in his blog:

“I am just out of a live participatory television program, a pioneering and successful experiment by Italian independent and alternative grassroots satellite + online TV station During the live TV show which went live between 9 and midnight last night, the show hosts showcased video news shorts edited by different contributors, while interviewing individuals in the studio, open for anyone to visit and sit-in during any of the live programming. But the most interesting thing was that for the first time Nessuno.TV pioneered the intervention of home-based individuals connected to the show via webcam.”

He participated in the show and calls it a bridging of traditional a TV station with the emerging paradigm of a participatory channel. But a bridge to where? He offers four characteristics of true participatory television station: TV that goes to the streets, live, focused and generated by street reporters.

His thesis: For live TV to be interesting, it has to be about interesting events that are happening now. But therein lies the problem: there are just not enough interesting events occurring throughout the day to support very many television stations. We can see this with CNN, which has a pretty small audience most of the time but one that explodes when there is a crisis. Daily stories do not attract large audiences; the occasional big ones do.

He says:

“From highly trafficked street crossings, to the Parliament, to the entrance of hospital or to the exit gate of the stadium, street reporters have a huge amount of great, true stories to capture and bring back 24 hours a day.”

There are stories to be told at such venues but I doubt that many of them would be sufficiently interesting to attract an audience away from the wide array of videos on demand that will be available.

I imagine that participatory TV success will be in the Long Tail, where Robin Good’s four criteria make a lot of sense.

Vlogging software

In Technology, Television, Vlogging on February 16, 2006 at 1:42 pm

I used to teach a module that I called Revolution in Television Entertainment that focused on a new product named the Video Toaster, a hardware product that purported to put a broadcast studio into your PC. In researching the product, I found the September, 1997 column by Jerry Pournelle in Byte magazine that focused on the Video Toaster:

With the $5000 Trinity box and a decent Pentium system, you can have your own TV studio and produce professional-quality video. Add the new digital camcorders and writable digital videodiscs (DVD), and the result will be a spate of innovative TV documentaries, dramas, and odd-ball entertainments. Most of those will be silly or useless, but not all. I expect some real revolutions in television entertainment over the next few years, and the cost to get in on it is about the same as a year’s tuition at a major university. Graphic art is one of the fastest-growing fronts in the computer revolution. Affordable digital camcorders, Play’s Trinity, and DVDs form one synergy.”

I used to visit a Trinity dealer in Chapel Hill, NC and was always blown away by the demos. The company even started a magazine about the Trinity and I still have the first, and alas only, issue. The product got a lot of positive press and won awards at national conferences but the box was delayed and then seemed to be plagued by bugs. Eventually the firm’s assets were sold and the Video Trinity disappeared.

Today I was surprised to read a post in Terri Heaton’s blog about a new piece of software that seems to be based upon the original Trinity.

“The brilliant minds at Serious Magic have officially released Vlog It, a $49 piece of software that’ll turn your computer into a TV station. These are the same folks who brought us the higher end “Visual Communicator” and that staple yesterday, Video Toaster (remember Garth’s T-shirt from “Wayne’s World?”). I predict this simple product will revolutionize Vlogs by making it easy for anybody to create real time production for television. Go to the Vlog It site and play the demo. You’ll be absolutely amazed. I am, and I’m an old TV guy!”

My mind reels with thoughts about the videos that people can make with this product, if it’s even close to the Video Toaster in capabilities and performance. The dawn just got a little brighter. I would love to see dozens and dozens of Rocketboom-inspired vlogs.

Crumblling control enables participation

In Music on February 13, 2006 at 5:10 pm

In a recent article from the Scripps Howard News Service, Raul Resnikoff, editor of tells us how the record industry is losing control of the business.

“’The record industry has thrived on control for the past five or six decades’ Resnikoff says. ‘It has basically been able to control manufacturing, distribution, artists’ careers, contracts, how you consume music, how it’s playable, where the revenue stream would go, how much you pay for CDs, when the CD came out, when the music was released.’ Suddenly the rug is getting ripped out underneath that. The control component is totally gone. ‘While the music industry’s power wanes, control is going back to the consumer and musical artist. ‘”

This shift in power means that the old gatekeepers no longer can decide who gets to participate in the music business. When the industry structure crumbles in any industry, new players can, and almost always do, enter the game that had been previously controlled by a few entities.

Channels of distribution are examples of structures in which the entrenched leaders are losing control. Whenever you see changes in a channel structures such as we are now seeing in the record business, for example, you will see the participation age sweeping through that industry.


In Listen to the Dawn, Podcasting on February 11, 2006 at 5:56 pm

Heather Green has a podcast interview with the two women who founded and star on Mommycast, a podcast that attracts women with children. Just listen to their story and you can understand the opportunities that are in people’s hands today. It is just amazing to me that these two women and their husbands have been able to attract of a very large audience in a very short time.

And that they have converted the audience into a nice business. An article in the Monterey Herald reports that the show attracts “hundreds of thousands of listeners a month” and has sponsorship by firms such as Dixie paper products.

The show is part of the Podshow network, a new venture that makes it easier for shows like Mommycast to quickly get going and then to attract sponsors. As the two hosts report in Heather Green’s podcast, Mommycast went into the stratosphere when Adam Curry, one of the founders of Podshow, plugged the show on his Daily Source Code podcast.

Hence the Podshow network provides a means for individuals to participate in the podcasting community.