The Rise of Interactive Media

Over the last 30 years interactive digital media has gone from being seen as novelty to something ever present.  The Internet and video games have become multi-mullion dollar platforms where companies compete for the attention and money of the consumers much like television, radio, and movies have through out the 20th century. The Internet has grown from being able to access bulletin board and databases in to the intricate World Wide Web.  Since it’s debut over 20 years ago the Web has become the largest source of entertainment and information available.  Before the availability of services such as Netflix, iTunes, Pandora, and others, consumers would have to wait for the correct time when their TV series or movie would be available for view or hope the song they wanted to listen to came on the radio.  There was also the option of purchasing VHS of movies and albums or singles for songs.  Now there entertainment media is “on demand” and consumers can chose not only what and how they consume but where and when.  Video games have changed from simple, monochromatic games, to not-so-simple, polychromatic games, to being connect to the Internet where you can play with people any where in the world.

Both of these forms of media offer or require actions from the user beyond activation and selection.  The Web offers comment sections, forums, and share-ability on platforms that have come to be called “social media.”  The social aspects of the Web provide a method for people to provide their input to content creators, to make content themselves, or just to share every banal moment of their lives.  This particular medium of nigh-instantaneous digital transmission of information provides access to an audience size that previous forms of media simple would be incapable of doing.  However, the content of this medium is no different from the prior forms.  The Internet is merely an distribution platform for raw information but given a high enough bandwidth and a low enough latency anything can be broken down into raw information at one terminal (a computer) and reconstructed at another terminal at any point.  It is the ultimate medium conceptually because even if someone were to be develop a whole new protocol for data transmission, any improvement on distribution would just be a more efficient version of the idea.

Unlike the Internet, the interactivity of video games is required.  This is of course the point as indicated by “game” being part of the name.  These games have grown from simple facsimiles of real world activities to the include storytelling and fantastical speculations of books and movies. They even can connect to the Internet to allow multiplayer with those not in your immediate presence.  The ability to give interactivity to any aspect of entertainment opens possibilities for stories be operatic saga about soldiers in space to existential looks at fear, oppression, and/or paperwork. (Seriously, play Papers Please.)  The possibility are endless as the imagination.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Just because the creator’s imagination can conceive some intricate world this doesn’t mean the player will be interested or capable to experience everything put into it.  Artistry becomes something reactive in this age of interactive media.

Artists and other content creators are able to receive instant feedback now and this means that those who invest in such things pay attention to what the masses desire.  This can lead to increasingly derivative content being released and thus stifling or at least hindering any new ideas that may be just as popular.  While this scenario has always been true the rate at which this can happen in current times is the major issue.  Since it is easier to follow trends now that information is available immediately and providing the infrastructure to support the output of content needs more and more producers, new ideas get left behind faster now.  Those interested in producing new ideas and content need to work harder and increasingly at their own expense to have their creations reach the wider world.  Fortunately, the same platform that easily stifles new ideas with its enormity provide spaces for these independent creations to be found easily by those interested in finding the new and interesting.  At least for now.

Cool is Dead. Part 1: The last shall be first

Popular culture is constantly changing which is a problem for those whose livelihood are connected to the marketing and selling of those goods that are part of pop culture.  Finding the next big music group, the next genre of film and television programming, the next influential artist is the job of many in the media industry.  However, an odd thing has happened over the last decade.  The interests of those who are seen as the opposite of the popular people, the nerds, have become mainstream.  Nerd culture has become pop culture and this seems to have only confounded marketers more.

One of the biggest problems marketers have always had when selling pop culture is trying to keep up with what is currently considered cool.  It’s a system that feeds on itself because as soon as something is advertised and becomes part of the mainstream it isn’t cool any more.  “Cool” is something that is seen as going against the norm while still being social acceptable. Something unassociated with the previous generation but can be shared with one’s peers.  This means once the vast majority of people adopt what is cool, it becomes part of the norm and ceases being cool.  This point is where the normal cool cycle breaks down with nerd culture.

A “nerd” is someone who is seen as social awkward and therefore falls out of social acceptance by their peers. The reasons for this can be many but what will be covered here is the media and other products consumed by those with the label “nerd.”  While what is new is what is popular with the “cool kids” with nerds what came before is just as important.  Too much deviation from what is established is seen as a betrayal of the property and their loyalty.  Brand loyalty is something that all marketers strive for and typically the nerd is harder to lose but what confounds the marketers is that introducing something new to increase sales doesn’t always work.  Bring in a new character, a new product line, or other new concept is met with suspicion unless an established creative individual is behind it.

In Malcom Gladwell’s The Coolhunt, he describes three “rules of cool.”  First is the act of discovering cool causes it’s coolness to take flight; second, cool cannot be manufactures, only observed; and lastly, you have to be one to know one. Nerd culture, almost purposefully, tosses out the first two in favor of the third.  For the nerd, “cool” is completely manufacturable but it has to be done with the right elements and with an authentic love for the material by the producer.  As was discussed above, discovery of what already has been is how one gains entry to subculture.  Therefore only a nerd knows a nerd because the newcomer has to prove themselves.

With nerd culture, something isn’t popular because it looks a certain way or is somehow an expression of your individuality. Instead popularity is based on how well the product engages the consumer. Be it the mechanics of a game (video or otherwise) or the story of any medium, nerds need to feel like an active participants in the media they consume. Even with something as seemingly passive as reading a comic book, this creates discussion and debate among fans.  While this discussion aspect is something everyone does in regards to entertainment, nerds are known for taking this to extremes.  This is because this form of active participation creates the socialization they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Many companies employee “coolhunters” to find out what those people who innovate what is cool are interested in, those who regularly purchase products in that particular field.  The connoisseur is of more interest than the brand loyalist. Which leads to another problem marketing has with nerd culture, everyone is the connoisseur and the loyalist at the same time.  In traditional pop culture the connoisseur is a facilitator of what is cool but may not hold the highest social status within the subculture.  However, in nerd culture the more knowledge one can bandy about, the high regard that individual is held in.  This means that when someone is trying to find out what the next big thing might be they are faced with too many opinions.  The fact that these are the people who have traditional been considered the uncool are becoming part of the trendsetters must be madding for those trying to tap into the zeitgeist.

So why would marketers even be interested into tapping into the uncool nerds?  Part of the answer is that the well of pop culture is running dry.  While there are still plenty willing to drink from whatever drek is pulled up, part of marketing is find new avenues to exploit.  The coolhunters’ need to find what is cool and ends up chasing it away.  They watch the kids, the kids what them, everyone is trying to “[stay] ahead of the curve, but that curve has come full circle.” (Rushkoff) The repeated clothing revivals of decades past occurred so many times that there are those reaching even further back in time for inspiration.  Such as the hipsters fascination with late 19th century or 1920’s. (Which they have similar rules to nerd culture but they are not the focus here.)  The other part of the answer is that rise of digital media has made it so that those who would be otherwise isolated have an outlet and those who would have been followers in previous generations are perhaps a little more isolated.

The reasoning of how what was once considered uncool has become part of what is cool starts to become clearer you look at the consistency of it. Yet it is hard for this to be capitalized on the same way other trends have in the past.  Using comic books as an example we can see that what was once considered the refuge of the childish and social inept is now the source material for some of the most popular movies of the last decade.