November 2007

(This post was written for the MIT PressLog.)

The writer’s guild has complained for years that they’ve been unfairly shut out of profits from digital versions of the TV shows and movies they helped create; as networks and studios continue to expand the web presence of their programs, providing “webisodes” and character blogs and background stories for their on-screen content, they have further enlisted writers to produce material they’re not being adequately compensated for. Perhaps the current strike will help rectify this inequity.

But are screenwriters inadvertently helping to shift the new media landscape – just as they get their extra slice for their “webisodes,” are they digging out the ground beneath their entire venture? In 1988, the last writer’s strike, grinding the prime time television season to a halt was a powerful move: we were still in a world of four channels and “must-see TV”. The absence of new programming was disruptive enough to audiences and advertisers that the networks and production companies felt compelled to enter negotiations. Today, the scope of that media universe has changed. What are viewers doing without their new episodes of House or The Office? They may be catching up on series they hadn’t gotten to, finally exploring Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or Weeds, either through on-demand services, iTunes, the network websites, Netflix, or even illicit peer-to-peer networks. The networks may actually cash in on the opportunity, if they’re smart: “never got around to Aliens in America? Want to see what critics are talking about? We’ll start at season one, let you come in from the beginning, starting Monday!” An array of other options loom: video games, social networking sites, blogs.

And what if viewers (and advertisers with them) find themselves gravitating to that massive “channel” of content produced by non-unionized writers, i.e. the rest of us: YouTube? Will some ascerbic amateur writer, especially as we head into the heart of the presidential season, become the YouTube stand-in for the political humor of The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and SNL? Will dramatic shorts or amateur sitcoms, produced by aspiring writers or just those bored college kids, finally become a viable entertainment form, filling the current vacuum on TV? It would be ironic indeed, though not unprecedented in the history of media, for this squabble over one version of the digital media future to end up giving a boost to a different digital media platform, a tectonic shift in viewer preferences and cultural legitimacy that would be difficult to undo.

Apologies for the dead air on this blog, but this spurred me to post: Time magazine columnist Bill Tancer noted this week that, according to Hitwise measures of web traffic, 18-24 year olds have put social networking above the seemingly unbeatable kipper app, porn:

Perhaps a more interesting — and more accurate — way to figure out where college students are going online is to assess which of the 172 web categories tracked by Hitwise get the most hits from 18- to 24-year-olds. Here’s a shocker: Porn is not No. 1. I’ve actually been puzzled by the decrease in visits to the Adult Entertainment category over the last two years. Visits to porn sites have dropped from 16.9% of all site visits in the U.S. in October 2005 to 11.9% as of last week, a 33% decline. Currently, for web users over the age of 25, Adult Entertainment still ranks high in popularity, coming in second, after search engines. Not so for 18- to 24-year-olds, for whom social networks rank first, followed by search engines, then web-based e-mail — with porn sites lagging behind in fourth. If you chart the rate of visits to social-networking sites against those to adult sites over the last two years, there appears to be a strong negative correlation (i.e., visits to social networks go up as visits to adult sites go down). It’s a leap to say there’s a real correlation there, but if there is one, then I’d bet it has everything to do with Gen Y’s changing habits: they’re too busy chatting with friends to look at online skin. Imagine.

(I don’t know much about how Hitwise gathers its data or classifies sites, so keep that caveat in mind.)

In the history of media technologies, porn regularly plays a crucial role at the start, often the first commercially viable use of the new form — especially but nut exclusively the visual media. Generally, other uses join porn as a viable activity, giving the medium a much needed veneer of legitimacy and cloaking our baser impulses. Part of my reaction to this news is actually a little surprise that it hadn’t happened yet — porn is still on top for the generation above this.

Or does this mean that Facebook is the new porn?