Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Thanks for the Meme-ories: Gilding the Lilley

And so last night to the first of four lectures by Anthony Lilley, CEO of a U.K. production company called Magic Lantern Productions. Lilley is the News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media here at Oxford. He'll be pondering the future of media and, as expected from a 21st-century digital guy, he's inviting the audience to play along. He wants all of us to contribute to his blog so he can create a user-generated lecture, one that presumably comprises the points that the audience raise.

Have the students write the lecture? Nice work if you can get it!

But seriously, it will be interesting to see the direction Lilley takes over the next three lectures. Last night was a bit of a curtain raiser, as he stuck his standard in the ground and staked his claim for a networked future where the one-to-many broadcast model will be swamped by the many-to-many. The mass media of the last 100 years, he said, will be seen to be an aberration, a deviation, as we return to a culture defined by social networking, this time made possible by the Web as opposed to the face-to-face ties that flourished in the pre-mass media age.

Lilley lamented that no mainstream media organization has at its head a visionary. As he said this he flashed a PowerPoint slide that featured a quote from Ernest Hemingway: "Never confuse movement with action." Ouch.

Then Lilley went all memetic on us. Memes, he explained, are the basic building blocks of culture, the stories societies tell themselves. The media no longer controls the creation and distribution of memes. The internet makes it possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime, to slip some memes into the cultural bloodstream. In other words: Come on down to Karl's Kulture Barn! We've gone meme crazy! Buy one meme, get one free! Better yet: Make your own memes!

(This meme business, by the way, was evidently started by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor best known these days for doing all he can to ensure he doesn't get into heaven.)

The problem we face isn't a scarcity of memes (we suffer, Lilley joked, from "infobesity"), it's a scarcity of attention. We're hip-deep in memes and don't have the time or attention to sort through them all. In the past, brands served as attention filters. We know what to expect from a BBC1 comedy or a Channel 4 TV show. We know how a Washington Post story differs from a National Enquirer one. But now things like "search" (trolling for memes using Google) and social networking (sharing memes with your friends on Facebook and MySpace, presumably) are eroding those distinctions. The days of the mass media's brute control of stories--of being, in Lilley's words, "the bouncer at the door"--are over.

I think he's probably right, though of course it's impossible to know right now to what degree this will Change Things. And Lilley was short on specific, real-world examples of how he sees this all playing out on the ground. A point about broadcasters always paying a lot to transmit sporting events because of sport's inherent memeeness didn't quite satisfy. And a slide he threw up that proclaimed "The Novelty of the New...The Immediacy of the Now" left me scratching my head. Why not "The Nowness of the New...The Immediacy of the Novel"?

I did take heart in his supposition that storytellers will have a place in tomorrow's interactive, networked world. He didn't say what their role will be. But Lilley has three more lectures to cover that ground.


mark from alexandria said...

It will be interesting to find out if Lilley addresses how he thinks the issue of reality versus meme-caused unrest, war, death. I think there will have to be a place for truth, a place where the facts can be verified. "Dewey wins" or Hillary is finished" may challenge our faith in current media, but I think we will work through these sorts of blips, as we have in the past.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Um...we're hip-deep in memes because there is no one doing the job of those "evil" media giants. No doubt other giants will arise to do the sorting and editing. We can't make sense of our existence without it. Chaos will not reign.

At least, that's what I think on a good day.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

It was indeed in "The Selfish Gene" that I first encountered the meme. As I recall, Richard Dawkins suggested there that the memes of Socrates have proved as potent as anybody else's genes.
Cyberspace seems to range from an anarchic democracy through a niche communications market and a forum for raw anger and venom to lively, engaged discourse. Quite uneven.

mark from alexandria said...

Then again, the pre-cyber media of recent times included everything from network news to the big city dailies to the tabloids. Urban myths pre-dated the internet era too (McCartney's death, conspiracy theories), so I think you are both right, there will be a course correction. But as the old saying goes, the more things change...

Richard said...

My heart sinks. Not at the ideas - I'm reasonably confident, as I think are you, about the need for authoritative storytellers. My heart sinks at the ugliness of the language. "Memes". "Infobesity". Even "social networking". And phrases such as "The Novelty of the New...The Immediacy of the Now". Perhaps it's inevitable, but does it have to be expressed in such ghastly language?

Yours, feeling old,


wants to know said...

No, we don't always "know how a Washington Post story differs from a National Enquirer one." First, there are plenty of people who think the tabloids are absolutely accurate. Second, I have seen plenty of rumors, later proved to be false, picked up by the Washington Post and other "mainstream" papers and justified by the claim that "We're only telling you what people are talking about."

At some point, the mainstream media had to protect the tabloid's freedom to publish; that's fine, but somewhere along the line having an equal right to publish became seen by the mainstream media as having an equal value.

John Kelly said...

WTK: Do you really think there's no difference between The Washington Post and the National Enquirer? While it's true that The Post, and other mainstream papers, occasionally follow up on stories printed in the tabloids, it's hardly common. Tell me some of the stories, later proved false, that The Post covered? And tell me why stories that are circulating in the public sphere should not be covered by a press whose object is to provide a first rough draft of history?