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January, 2006

A Social Revolution

It's a near-proven fact that when the New York Times writes about a trend the rest of the world already knows about. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Sunday's article on Generation Y titled A Generation Serves Notice: It's a Moving Target" does little more than bring together what lots of other people have been saying for a while: That Millenials have a completely different relationship to media.

However, there are a couple interesting points in there and the article is a good jumping off point for bringing up some stuff I've been thinking about lately. The article talks a fair amount about the social networking the internet enables. Jack McKenzie, a senior vice president at a market research and consulting firm explains, "We think that the single largest differentiator in this generation from previous generations is the social network that is people's lives, the part of it that technology enables." Unfortunately, the article doesn't take this idea far enough, instead it retreats, talking about what happens if you get off the grid. But it's not about that.

For millennials, and especially for the generations that follow, the biggest change will be that there's no difference between being on and off the grid. In fact, the grid won't really exist. As Michael Fergusson deftly noted, "I find very compelling the idea that we [are] beginning to see a generation that has not grown up with the idea of the internet as a separate "cyberspace", but instead experiences it as an aspect of the environment in which they live; another channel alongside "real space", only with different characteristics." The internet has invaded our social space to a point that we can no longer tell the difference between those relationships it infects and those it does not. The six degrees that used to separate us, for instance, has dropped to 4.6 thanks to digital technology. We no longer use terms like "pen pal" or "acquaintance," instead just calling everyone a "friend" whether we talk to them daily in person or monthly over instant messenger.

It's not that the internet has made us a more social species, but rather that it's allowed us to explore our social possibilities more fully than ever before.

But what does that mean? Well, combined with the increasing choice offered by digital technology, it will mean that the media mellenials use will need to have some social aspects to it. A medium will not be judged only by its content, but also by its ability to sort, share and recommend content to others. Recommendation systems are at the heart of "web 2.0" and for good reason. They're a way for people to not only sort through massive amount of content more easily, but at the same time they also allow them to connect with others through a shared context. (This, by the way, is where I'm seeing one of those opportunities for AttentionTrust.)

This is not just revolutionary because of what's being added, however. In fact, the change is more apparent when you highlight what you're taking away: the editor. In many ways, recommendation systems spell the end of the editor as we know it. Of course there will always be a place for human editors somewhere, but increasingly technology is going to find ways to deliver information without their help. As Matt McAlister simply put it, "The traditional editor isn't a cornerstone in the media model anymore." Looks no further than a site like Digg to understand how a media outlet can function sans editors. Yeah, it's not perfect, but think about how long it took the newspaper to become what it has (or was). Consider how quickly blogs have risen to prominence: The traditional media structure where one guy at the top decides what you read in that days paper is over. It's being replaced with RSS readers and recommendation systems in which you and your peers edit your news on a daily basis.

Now like I said, editors will always have some place, it's just not going to be the spot at the head of the table it once was. The internet is increasingly meaning a flattening of the world (and yes I know there's a book about this, but no I haven't read it). Everyone has a chance to compete in the digital age.

As we were leaving /ROOT on Friday Josh Porter and I were having a conversation about the end of blogging. It's not that people will stop publishing blogs, but rather that everyone will stop worrying about what constitutes a blog and what doesn't. Instead this revolution of citizen journalism will be seen for what it is: a gigantic op-ed section.

Updated (1/25/06): Kottke takes a bit of a different stance on the whole end of the editor stance. I'm not sure I disagree with him.

January 23, 2006
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.