Gongol.com Archives: August 2022

Brian Gongol

August 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet The App Store isn't a one-newspaper town

In the past, when mass media consumption patterns changed, it was mainly a matter of slow ebbs and flows. Large cities before the era of electronic media often had many rival publications. Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century had newspapers called the American, the Chronicle, the Daily News, the Evening Post, the Herald, the Journal, the Record, the Times-Herald, the Tribune, and the Inter Ocean. A century later, the city was down to just the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Daily Herald. ■ Newspapers didn't fold and start overnight; people grew to prefer the writing or the pictures or the cartoons or the sports coverage of one or another, and both subscriptions and staff would float in one direction or another. The ebb and flow of success rarely took dramatic twists. ■ In the era of electronic mass media, networks emerged and faded away, again over long swells of history. DuMont and Mutual lasted for decades but are no longer. CBS went through a "rural purge". Brandon Tartikoff drove NBC through a multi-year swoon as "Must-See TV". ■ Social media tools are not nearly as stable. The Pew Research Center studies the use of social media by teenagers (ages 13 to 17), and found that Facebook use among that demographic plunged from 71% in 2014 to 32% today. TikTok, which wasn't even launched until 2016, is now the second-most-used tool, with a 67% usage rate among those surveyed teens. ■ The network effect has a great deal more influence over social media tools than over their mass-media predecessors. It took a certain amount of demand to get a cable television company to pick up a particular channel, perhaps, but otherwise what one person's enjoyment of a media product rarely had much influence over anyone else's. An individual read a column or watched a show or listened to a song out of personal interest or pleasure, not for the benefit of anyone else. One might share a clipping or recommend a show to otheres, but that's as far as it could routinely go. ■ But for social media to be true to the "social" part of the name, users have to enjoy the tool together. It's not much fun to be on Snapchat all alone. This, in turn, is bound to make the shifts in demand and the success of any individual tool seem highly volatile by comparison with legacy media. And that introduces an aspect of novel risk. ■ TikTok remains a China-based company, and American users may not adequately realize how much information is being collected by the service -- and being made available to parties that may well include China's spy agencies. It hasn't emerged slowly and under persistent scrutiny, like, for instance, the newspaper "China Daily". ■ So, whereas "China Daily" has had time to come under scrutiny for acting as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, TikTok's race from startup to supermajority penetration (at least among the US teen market) has happened in a rapid cascade, and it's unlikely that most users have really stopped to examine the data harvesting to which they are subjecting themselves. ■ The wild volatility of the social-media universe and the tremendous influence of the network effect go hand-in-hand. And together, they call for a different level of scrutiny and inherent skepticism about those tools than anything for which we have a cultural model. For as much as we may or may not be paying attention to the hazards of TikTok, another explosively popular tool could be right around the corner, with all the same security red flags and more. The incentives are lining up to maximize data collection and use, with little or no time for users to reflect on what they might be giving away.