What if the magazine article of the future, the album of the future, and the novel of the future are all the same thing?
And what if they’re all events?
Start here: TED is one of the surprise media successes of the last few years, but not by chance. Their insight was that a conference can be a machine for making media—media that can build a big audience on the web. They invested in media production, and it paid off.
But TED is just a starting point. They’ve done a remarkable job, but—this always happens—it’s almost too big at this point. Too homogenizing. You could squint your eyes and recognize a TED talk by its red-blue glow. And—snark aside—it has a real weakness.
To understand it, get out of Long Beach and head into the woods north of San Francisco. Last month, Laura Brunow Miner invited a small posse of photographers out for a long weekend that she called Phoot Camp. Like TED, Phoot Camp produced a lot of media. Like TED, it’s now reached many more people online than it ever could have in person.
But here’s where Phoot Camp has an advantage. TED is an act of recitation: smart people stand on stage and explain the amazing things they’ve been up to. Phoot Camp was an act of creation: things came into the world that would not have otherwise. (And really, if nothing else, you ought to go peek at some of them.)
I’m making a big deal out of it, but I guess it’s a simple difference. TED is a conference. Phoot Camp was a workshop.
Hold that thought for a second.
The great virtue of events today, in the dawning 2010s, is that their value seems durable in a way that the value of super-abundant copies of digital media does not. They provide “embodiment,” to use Kevin Kelly’s taxonomy—and that’s something you can still charge for.
But the 2010s demand more than that.
First problem: None of these events have become machines for making media. I mean, yes, there are videos of the New Yorker Festival that you can watch online. But the event is designed and produced primarily for the people who attend. It’s no Phoot Camp.
Second problem: Even if these events all get wise in 2010 and bring it TED-style, they’ll still just be recitations. What we need are generative events. Here’s why.
A specter is haunting the internet, and I think it’s even scarier than the challenge of getting people to pay money. It’s the challenge of getting them to pay attention. I think it’s only going to get worse—which is to say, better, because we as internet users and blog readers and tweet slingers will have more cool, weird, interesting stuff to look at all the time, and it will just keep coming faster and getting cooler and fragments and—ack!
In this environment, I think generation beats recitation. I have a whole meta-riff on this—in some ways it’s as much a moral case as a practical one—but really, more than anything, it’s just that media is already full of recitation. So, for the moment, I think you get a real competitive advantage if you can show and share the process of creation. It’s an opportune time to make music without a mask.
So! If you’re suiting up for battle in this Hobbesian media world, and you get to bring a weapon, I think the event is the weapon to carry. Now let’s actually design it.
So far we’ve got this TED/Phoot Camp media-making workshop spear-gun. Now, bolt on deadly additions from Iron Chef and the Long Now Foundation’s debates1. Now we’ve got a
laser sword media product that is:
- Live. It’s an event that happens at a specific time and place in the real world. It’s something you can buy a ticket for—or follow on Twitter.
- Generative. Something new gets created. The event doesn’t have to produce a series of luminous photo essays; the point is simply that contributors aren’t operating in playback mode. They’re thinking on their feet, collaborating on their feet, creating on their feet. There’s risk involved! And that’s one of the most compelling reasons to follow along.
- Publishable. The result of all that generation ought, ideally, to be something you can publish on the web, something that people can happily discover two weeks or two years after the event is over.
- Performative. The event has an audience—either live or online, and ideally both. The event’s structure and products are carefully considered and well-crafted. I love the BarCamp model; this is not a BarCamp.
- Serial. It doesn’t just happen once, and it doesn’t just happen once a year. Ideally it happens… what? Once a month? It’s a pattern: you focus sharply on the event, but then the media that you produce flares out onto the web to grow your audience and pull them in—to focus on the next event. Focus, flare.
Reading what I just wrote, it sort of sounds like a show, doesn’t it? I guess you could say that’s the extreme version of the pitch: It’s an amazing live event that happens… every night! But I don’t really like the association, because it implies so much about format, tone, scale—lots of things. There’s a reason I’m building my perfect weapon out of TED and Phoot Camp, not Jay Leno and Charlie Rose.
At the very beginning I said this was the magazine article of the future, the album of the future, the novel of the future. It stretches a bit here, but I think it’s a fun stretch.
The magazine. Have you heard of Pop-Up Magazine? I’ve never been to one, but man I like the sound of it:
Each evening of Pop-Up unfolds like a magazine. Short reviews, dispatches, and provocations anchor the front, longer features follow in the back.
So there you go. Take it a step further and use your event to literally make your multimedia web magazine. Do it every month.
The album. The template is Radiohead’s Scotch Mist, because I think music demands an inversion. With magazines, we’re adding a live audience; with music, maybe we need to take it away. Instead, put the band in a room, plug them into the internet, and make something on the fly. Plug us into the music’s creation myth—that magic week in the old farm house, banging on pots and pans and dragging the marimba up the stairs. Produce it a little; give it a little structure. Maybe there’s going to be a live performance back in the city on the seventh day. We’re all watching. The clock is ticking.
The novel. I don’t know; I’m thinking of the play Copenhagen. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg met there in 1941. Nobody knows what they talked about, but Michael Frayn imagines it to great effect. What wonderful things are possible when two strange people get together in a third strange place?
Okay, so this isn’t the novel of the future. Novels take too long to make. But surely if Salman Rushdie met Orhan Pamuk in Mexico City, something interesting would happen, and something interesting could be produced. Hmm… I need your thoughts on this one.
In the 2010s, lots of people are going to make lots of media in lots of different ways—more and more of it for fun and for free. If you want to make a business out of media, I think you’re going to have to start doing something very different. (And let’s be clear: I’m talking about smart, thoughtful, durable media here. The media we all love most; the media many of us aspire to make. There is another model for the 2010s, but it’s a different kind of media altogether.)
I like the idea of the event as a fundamental unit of media, specifically because at its best, it can be generative. And the media it generates—that growing data shadow—is what builds the audience over time. But its urgency—its liveness, human vitality, and, frankly, its risk and unpredictability—is what makes it more than just another link in the stream.
Aww but mostly I just want TED mixed with Phoot Camp mixed with Iron Chef mixed with Long Now. I want to go to it, and I want to watch it online.
1. The Long Now debate format is so cool: Take two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice goes first, presenting her argument. Then Bob stands up, and before he can present his counter-argument, he has to summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction. So it’s basically an exercise in empathy and good faith. If Alice agrees that he’s got it right, then Bob proceeds with his argument—and when he’s done, Alice has to recapitulate it to his satisfaction. Then, they
fight to the death respond to questions. (Back to where you were.)