I came into the business in 1997. Twenty-one years old. Wide-eyed, full of energy and ideals.
At the time I had played around with the basics of the early internet. I remember a friend of mine programming a web crawler in 1995. I recall my first email account. I remember one evening spent digging deep into the walled garden that was America Online and, of course, my first cell phone - the Motorola startac.
Then, like now, the marketing communications industry was a small but important subset of commercial media. Media then was a cornucopia of TV, newspapers, radio, print, outdoor and direct. Dominated by CBS, NBC with upstarts known as Capital Cities/ABC, the aforementioned AOL was an obscure but growing dial-up internet and email service that was covered mostly in the pages of the now-defunct Industry Standard.
Coming out of a college that was known for media and communications, I found my starting job at Chiat/Day. There, the most progressive strategic and creative thinkers in the agency world were beginning to play around with how technology would change media, brands and consumer behavior. We (not I) invented a model known as connection, commerce, content and culture. It was prophetic. It foretold the future. I laugh today when I see agency executives shuffling around these notions like they invented something original.
I’ve always loved technology. I see it as a net benefit to the world. The obvious thrust of technology is change. My career has been a front-row seat of change. However, when one is mixed up in its torrent, real perspective is challenging. What I have witnessed is nothing short of a wholesale change of everything in commerce, connection, culture and content.
In each ‘c’ we have dominant entrenched mon/dual-opolies. In commerce we have Amazon and Walmart. In connection, we have Verizon and AT&T. In culture, we have platform influencers on Facebook and Twitter. In content we have Netflix and YouTube. Taken together there is not a person in the Western world that does not live their lives around and through these platforms.
The Canadian Philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." While that principle is probably on his epitaph, he said something more profound and relevant to today’s time - "All media works us over completely."
Like it or not, our world, our lives, our psyche and our souls are shaped by media.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is today’s screen time.
Billions of interactions by billions of people – it’s a historic and parabolic shift that we have no vocabulary to describe and no model to help understand what happens next.
All around us the warning signs are smacking us in the face. The Western powers are more divided politically and culturally than ever. Rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are at an all-time high.
Some social and cognitive scientists point to the change in our media behaviors. The dopamine surge, the fascination with the shocking headline or image, the self-esteem boost one may get in ALL CAPS DIATRIBES or the boredom-solving phenomenon of binge watching.
Businesses and brands searching for an audience have found it in numbers so large we need artificial intelligence to send and sort messages to them.
I looked up the 20 most followed people on Instagram. The list is all celebrities with over 1.3 billion followers. Seven whom have been hacked and have had sex tapes or nude photos leaked. Eighteen whom never attended college.
Few of them talk about anything like education, science, health or stuff that might actually make life better. I did not do a deep dive into all their content - a basic look revealed one striking similarity - they have posted shots of themselves on private jets and frequently vacationing at highly exclusive resorts. While at least half are legit talents, the others are merely famous for being famous. If they were physically ugly, nobody would ever care about them. Lucky genes I guess.
Perhaps humans have always have been wired this way. But in this day and age, there is an entrenched industrial media complex that appears to be built on fame, popularity, money, sex, violence and vanity.
While there are some positives, the negatives are pretty drastic. We have massive division, wealth divides, judgment and documented increases in mental health disorders. While technically we have more information at our fingertips, some of that information is dangerously wrong. Take, for example, the fact that nearly one-third of so-called millennials believe the world is flat. (Just Google it).
And it is all supported by advertising revenue. Trillions of messages created and sent out every year is overwhelming the human brain and changing us in ways we cannot yet fully understand.
While I am certain this trend will continue, I think we are entering an era of peak media. Peak media has been talked about before - as early as 2011. It is a helpful construct and the proof of its existence is present all around us. Today, young people are self-regulating their screen time, initiating social media detoxes, buying and installing ad blockers. We have a new industry in addiction clinics for screens and games. And scientists are now seriously studying the adverse effects of too much media.
McLuhan was right - all media does work us over completely, and we have entered an age of media singularity that will have long-lasting implications if we don’t confront it head on.
We, in this industry, can be responsible. We can stop trading in unnecessary media pollution and misinformation and do our part to elevate the conversation and refuse to ever invest in all the drama that is most certainly enriching a select few at the expense of the mental health and cultural wellbeing of the many.
So, what’s the answer? We are not going back to 1997.
We are not stuffing connection, commerce, content and culture back in the analog box.
I think the answer is less media. (Cue Jerry Maguire music).
Fewer hours consuming and creating pointless social or sensational media.
More time thinking, doing, reading, talking, caring, learning and interacting physically with each other. The foundation stones of our humanity.
It’s a curious thing for a person who has made a living in the media industry to be talking about less. But in the era of "grow baby, grow," I see a powerful lesson in less.
Less is not worse. Less is not weak. Less is smart.