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Thursday, March 03, 2011

How the Internet is Saving the Speech... and Creating Honesty

Peggy Noonan has a really interesting article a few days ago which discusses an interesting twist in modern history. I will admit that after reading the article I started thinking about my own internet usage and realized that what she was saying seemed to be correct. For a number of reasons, the internet has suddenly become a place to share serious ideas* - to write long, explanatory essays, to post a reasonably lengthy speech, to actually share ideas in full rather than in soundbytes.

I would posit that there are many reasons for this, but a few primary ones that come to mind are the speed of the internet; the freedom of the internet versus broadcast media; the desire of people for more substance thanks to their access to more information; the overwhelming nature of available information forcing people to pull back a bit from the overload; and the advent of social media. For decades, broadcast media and advancements in technology allowed the news to add more and more information to their broadcasts... but the time slots didn't really change. Each piece of news was compressed more and more, and despite larger and larger chunks being moved to other places (running news and stock tickers, specialized channels, etc.), the media simply compressed everything down to short soundbites and videos. In turn, politicians and others began doing the same: Rather than risk a longer speech being taken out of context, they simply turned their speeches and rhetoric to similarly short and easy to digest soundbites to get their messages across.

I don't know that the early days of the internet were too different, either. The essay began a slight resurgence, but with the majority of people still used to receiving soundbites, information was still often relayed in soundbite form. Even today, news sites still often follow that very same template: Short bursts of news all over, linking to news stories that are not particularly long. Without even scrolling, each one of those sites has about 15-20 articles for me to click through to, along with dozens of sections and subsections that I can get to with a click or two.

But outside of news media, it seems, times have begun to change. Perhaps it was TED posting 18-minute videos... and people finding out that people actually watch this stuff... and not only that, they really like it. Perhaps it was the sudden burst in upload and download speeds, allowing people to actually post a 15-20 minute speech in just a minute instead of an hour. Perhaps it was Hulu and the networks allowing people to get used to sitting down and watching something for a while on their computer. Perhaps it was the overload from thousands of blogs and news sites and links that caused people to start trying to focus their attention on only things that truly interest them. But whatever "it" was, people suddenly are far more willing to sit down and pay attention to something that's worth watching, to sit and read through an article or blog post or essay that makes some salient points. On top of that, the more people would see links posted by friends on their GChat statii or on their Facebook walls or even linked by the anti-substance Twitter, and then even more so when people would start showing their "Like" of something, the more willing they were to check it out themselves. Instead of being a random link, it was now something which was recommended by any number of friends, and therefore something you would be more willing to stick out to the end.

Most likely, this renaissance was a combination of most of the above factors, but it has led to a beautiful change in how we live and think. Ideas of substance are now able to get past the noise, past the soundbites, and demonstrate themselves in full. Yes, there are still some catches: Much like in entrepreneurship, there's still the need for an "elevator pitch" - a short summary that shows something will be worth watching or reading. In entrepreneurship, the elevator pitch merely gets a person to listen to the substantive idea which will allow them to determine whether they wish to support an endeavor. Online, the same is now becoming true: Rather than the news model where people are given soundbites and then asked to make a choice, people are being invited to listen to full, fleshed out ideas and make decisions from there. Suddenly, people are interested in more than soundbites.

Noonan gives a great example of this from a recent election:
Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, "Yes, yes, yes!" Another said, "I have to agree with everything that guy said." Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, "The reason I'm a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that." But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.
I've noticed as I've had more time to read blogs and the like that I've grown even more tired than ever of the "news" sites and their short links to matters with so little substance. I'm far more interested in the great essayists (the Treppenwitz and A Soldier's Mother types) and the people who discuss interesting subjects or their own lives. I love the discussions on these blogs, the back and forth between (mostly) good, reasonable people with great points on every side of an issue (even you, JA ;) ). I also enjoy people like RafiG and JoshWaxman who not only have their own substantial posts, but also link to good pieces on other blogs (similar to this blog's EZ Reads). And of course, I enjoy reading the writings of my friends and relatives. And the Muqata.

It's a beautiful change, and hopefully it will lead to more substantive action in the real world as well. Political discussions can no longer hide behind ten-second quotable quotes, but must now expand to include facts and reasoned opinions based on those facts. Government, companies, and people can no longer hide behind vague statements, delays, or excuses, but must reply with honesty and forthrightness. One of the best traits of the internet is its ability to bring information to the light of day, and one of the worst traits of those who care for themselves above all others is that they thrive on the suppression of information or the promotion of falsehoods. As people are more and more willing to focus on substance over all else, it becomes increasingly difficult for people who do wrong to hide behind soundbites and pointed fingers, lies and character assassination - they must now answer with facts, reason, and transparency.

We are all better off for it.

* Don't worry, G, the humor isn't dead by any means. It just has to be longer. :)

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