Today I spoke at Bar Camp Media City in Salford, Manchester. Part of the appeal was getting to see the new Media City home of the BBC. You get the tram from the train station – there’s something about getting on trams that makes me feel like I’ve left the real world and slipped into a theatre set where everything is just pretending. I quite like that. It’s because of the monorail at Chesington World of Adventures I think.

I’m glad the security gards that checked my computer cables, validated my photo ID and escorted me to the 5th floor of the BBC Quay House building didn’t find anything suspicious. They wouldn’t have hesitated to do a cavity search. You’d think the Queen was giving a presentation.

Who called it Media City? Accountancy consultants? They’re probably signing off the plans for Content Hamlet and Return On Investmentshire right now.

Anyway, I was just going to post something quick explaining the talk I gave. Forgive me if this isn’t watertight, and apologies that it’s been written in haste – hopefully it will clarify what I said for anyone who’s interested.

The Internet is not a medium

TV, radio, the novel, the Internet. It sort of makes sense. OK, the Internet is perhaps a broader category than radio, but we often think of the Internet as just another type of media. I’m going to argue that it isn’t and that thinking it is has negative consequences

Definition of a medium, No 1 

A medium is a method of transmitting messages where all the messages transmitted by that medium have similar features. Some of those features ar  conventions – for example that newspaper article have bylines, lead paragraphs explaining the facts and are written in a particular style. Other features that distinguish a medium are matters of technological expediency – there are no moving pictures in newspaper articles.

Mediums can nest, as illustrated below.


My contention is that podcasts, YouTube, eBooks and blogs are so dissimilar that there is literally nothing about them that puts them in one media category. Not even in the same broad nest. This might seem like a semantic point, but I think it leads to a number of problems:

  • Often people speak of the Internet as though it is one medium, and their claims need to be made more specific. “People who use the Internet for 4 hours a day have lower attention spans” doesn’t really mean anything – what are they using the internet for? That’s the critical fact, otherwise it’s about as broad as saying “people engaged in activities for 4 hours a day have lower attention spans”.
  • Erroneous assumptions that generic properties of the Internet exist. It’s also common to hear statements such as “the Internet is democratising”. Obviously this is widely debated, and that debate could proceed with more if the language was tightened up. What features of the net are democratising?
  • ‘First-TV-programme syndrome’ – When the first TV programmes were broadcast they simply pointed cameras at people doing radio shows. It took time to work out what could be done with the new technology. Clearly we’re on that same curve with the Internet. Being careful about what we’re referring to can only help. (Hat tip to The Guardian’s Martin Bellam)


Definition of a medium, No 2

A medium is a method of transmitting messages between people. This feels like an all encompassing definition of media to me, but this definition is still narrower than the Internet.

The reason is that the Internet can be used for transmitting data that is not intended for human consumption. It’s possible to email someone a CAD file and get a 3D prototype back without a human having ever read the data you supplied. With increasingly ubiquitous computing, and more sophisticated ways of shaping matter using data, this is a growing mode of Internet use. In this sense it’s more like an all purpose manufacturing aid. I think of it as similar to the way steam increased productivity in the industrial revolution (I’m not trying to make a comment on how important it is though).

Information is hard to charge for, but physical things are not. Projects such as Newspaper Club take advantage of this. They allow you to print your own low  volume newspaper. You’d never pay to publish something online, but paying to using a web app that makes something physical is a reasonable proposition.  Thinking like this might help you identify a revenue stream.

I think the fun of BarCamp is that you get to explain a pet idea, and it’s also a lovely arena to have a go a pubic speaking – I hope my audience weren’t too confused. Thanks to everyone that came along!

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