Architecture is an expression of values. Norman Foster

The Writing on the Wall

Digital natives are quick to spell doom for the traditional media business, and Facebook, Twitter, or the blogosphere serve as their instruments for doing so. Media makers and journalists are shaken to the core and thereby overlook the essential thing: their own strength.

Those that can’t adapt quick enough to the so-called digital shift are widely thought to be doomed and in this context one can’t help but to think of the old saying that whoever shouts the loudest, has the floor. During conventions, conferences and other gatherings focussing on the digital shift, colorful PowerPoint presentations are constantly being used to highlight and point to the specters haunting all traditional entrepreneurs: the trend that an ever-increasing number of clients buy their stuff exclusively on the Internet and that whoever fails to manage his business community correctly; that whoever fails to recognize the importance of Facebook, Twitter, popularity and the way to deal with them; that whoever neglects the claims for complete transparency from the seemingly all-knowing social-media users; simply looses out.

Media outlets are no different in this respect. In fact, the outlets that fall short to deliver their content in a fast, user-friendly and multimedia-embedded way; that fail to be ever-present and active on all the social platforms that the internet presents them with, are commonly thought to be hit the hardest. The “digital natives” – those fast-living, mobile twenty-somethings that know every nook and cranny of the Internet – and their smartphones will quickly kill off every traditional outlet that fails to make the necessary transitions – or so it must seem.

But who are these dangerous “natives” and what is it that makes them so powerful, anyway? Doesn’t the sole fact that they are – by definition – only aged between 20 and 25, render them a social fringe group? Those that are so fearful of the natives’ perceived power, were mostly born in the 1950s or 1960s and therefore belong to the “baby-boomer” generation. They make up the lion’s share in terms of population shares and hence purchasing power, and they will likely continue to do so in the years to come.

Like a deer in the headlights

Taking into account, that not even all “natives” are truly native when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, their actual power and influence can be questioned. Only a minority of young people are tweeting and Facebook is primarily used for chitchat with friends, checking out and sharing the latest viral videos and pictures, or, occasionally, sharing and commenting newspaper articles. If the need for entertainment is high, the “natives” join in on the latest shitstorms directed at politicians or companies. Even if the waves of indignation are being severely felt within the narrow confines of the online-community, they rarely reach the broader public or critical mass they would need to have an actual impact.

From time to time however, a shitstorm or another viral phenomenon reaches the broader public. If it does, it’s largely because the traditional media– those that, supposedly, have to change in such dramatic ways – picked up the story and covered it for the general public. Yet, since journalists and other opinion formers are so obsessed and impressed by the digital noise that echoes back from the walls of Facebook and the like, they deem it relevant and fit for the future. They not only feel obliged to report about it, but apparently believe that they should bring their work into line to fit the wishes and expectations of this small, noisy community that they perceive as their target audience.

If you discuss the digital shift with media makers, you can’t help but notice the strained moral indifference with which they comment on the claims and requirements imposed on them by the allegedly all-mighty “digital natives”. The fact that many of them choose real-time updates over thought-out and elaborate information or swiftness over reflection isn’t met with moral judgement; it’s a mere observation, a fact you have to deal with. Many media makers forfeit a lot of their courage and succumb to the wishes of the “digital natives.” They act like a deer caught in the headlights, but don’t realize that the car is still miles away.

Why shouldn’t we take the courage to criticize or regret this state of affairs? Why should we accept that traditional articles – like this one – that pass the 5,000 characters threshold, are deemed unfit for the Internet? Why shouldn’t we point to the consequences that hoaxes and misinformation – scattered through social media channels and circulating the Internet for weeks until they are taken at face value – will have for our culture of information? And why shouldn’t we meet these consequences with our own traditional quality-based criteria and expectations that are shared by the majority of paying customers and form the cornerstone of our democratic culture?

Breaking free from the self-imposed chains

Granted, the digital shift does have a conspicuous impact and media makers are once again among those feeling the pinch the most. But that isn’t a new trend or experience. New technologies have always been around and the media have a long history of dealing with the repercussions of these shifts. The new technologies will undoubtedly break the mould of the traditional business model of newspapers and broadcasting companies; that much is clear.

But we shouldn’t grant the “natives” the liberty to shuffle the cards and to dictate the way journalists should work and trade in the future. This small group of perky cybernauts owes its success to the traditional media that feed them with new information and without whose content they couldn’t tweet, post, comment, or blog at the same rate. And, after all, their influence outside their own community rests largely on the coverage by those very same media they like to belittle and deride.

Eventually, after they’ve sketched out all the upcoming trends and megatrends in colourful PowerPoint presentations, the digital shift experts constantly reiterate that the future is yet unknown; My point exactly. It’s not very unlikely that the general public will turn its back on the current culture of information-snippets, video sequences, or instant-scandals, and start to cherish proper quality journalism more than ever. Traditional journalism has to break free from the fear it has laid upon itself and has to reassert itself as the master of the trade, for there is life in the old dog yet.

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