It was 1984, I think, because it was the same week I snagged tickets for Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour. What a show it was!
Anyway, a friend invited me to watch a demo of something called desktop publishing (DTP). I touched my first Apple computer that day, and learned about a goofy little gadget called the “mouse.”
The Apple rep told us that desktop publishing would change the world forever. Common folk like me — with no experience or knowledge of graphic arts — would take over my company/clients’ publications from concept to finished art. I would become writer, editor, typesetter and designer. That’s what she said.
I didn’t learn until a few years later that DTP could be a dangerous weapon in the hands of amateurs. If you were around then, you saw the results as companies and organizations began cranking out homespun newsletters and brochures replete with bad design, cheesy clip art, amateur photography and really crappy writing.
Designer wannabes opened freelance businesses that spread the wave of bad work far and wide. I hired some of them, because I always learn the hard way.
It took a while for the debacle of DTP to shake out, but it has largely lived up to its promise of lower costs and shorter production cycles. Designers use it deftly; those with little or no design talent use templates to restrict their “creativity.”
Move the clock ahead to 1994. The World Wide Web was becoming semi-mainstream about then, and along with it came another wave of bad design. It was deja vu all over again, but this time the amateurs were building websites that would shame a 4th-grade art student.
We can’t blame Apple for the awful designs of early websites. Only the geeks understood how to build pages in those days, and nearly all of them used PCs. The geeks of the mid-90s knew nothing about communicating effectively with this new medium, and neither did I.
New media, in whatever form, attract early adopters who make lots of mistakes in the early going. Some learn from those mistakes, some don’t.
We saw gradual improvement of both print publications and websites as professional communicators applied their knowledge and share their ideas. Then came the blog boom of 2003-06 and with it millions upon millions of dreadful online diaries. That trend has seen a shakeout as well, with only about 5% of blogs active in the past 4 months.
Andrew Keen called it the “Cult of the Amatuer.” He made a lot of great points in that book — points that some true believers in social media have refused to consider. “Cult” was a rant, but one that pointed out the flaws of a medium that gives voice to everyone — including those who have nothing to say and those with malicious intent.
So what? Most of us are smart enough to sort out what’s useful and what’s not. I read a couple of dozen blogs written by people I respect. But I don’t count on them to supply information vital to my way of life. I don’t expect them to supplant the mainstream media as guardians of democracy, though once in a while a blogger will break an important story.
Keen’s concern that social media may destroy serious journalism and devalue expertise is worthy of inspection. As mainstream media continue to lose their revenue sources, they’ve been forced to curtail their vital “watchdog” mission. I’m sorry, but unpaid bloggers are in no position to fill that void, nor are most of us inclined to do the scut work involved in serious reporting.
So who will keep an eye on our increasingly corrupt government? You tell me.
Because I draw a nice paycheck from a school of journalism, some think I have a vested interest in seeing old media survive. Not really.
As a public relations specialist I could easily be celebrating the demise of mediated news. After all, if and when we lose professional news organizations, digital channels like blogs and social networks will give us direct and unchallenged access to our publics. And let’s not forget the job opps social media are creating for Web-savvy PR grads. It’s enough to make this old professor salivate.
So why the fear and trepidation? I worry that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics. They have in the past, and social media make it that much easier today. Until recently, a strong mainstream media have attempted to deliver objective truth — and we all knew where to find it.
Just so you know, I don’t REALLY blame Steve Jobs for the proliferation of amateurish content online. If anything, Apple has raised the bar. But the parallel to desktop publishing — a technology enabled by the Apple computer — is one I can’t get out of my head.
This connected world gives each of us access to dangerous weapons. Some use those weapons for good, others use them to clog the channels of communication with amateurish crap.
The possibilities for social media in PR remain endless — but so do the dangers. It’s exciting to watch the diffusion of this phenomenon, but a little scary at the same time.
Update #1: From the Bad Pitch Blog, here’s a great example of what happens when amateurs venture into our world. It’s only gonna get worse.
Update #2: With a note that read, “Something for your Cult of the Amateur” file, a friend sends this story from the NYT.
Update #3: Alan Wolk on “Scoble Blindness.” From Marketing Profs.