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Essay - "Mass Media, the Internet, and the Modern Consumer" - October, 1997

By Colin Miller

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It is, indeed, an interesting time, this age of information. As we witness a complete change in the nature of mass communication, the ripples expand from millions of points. Some of these ripples fade, dispersing as minor vibrations. Others, however, coincident in direction, raise implications like a breaking Tsunami. Until very recently, the consumer of information relied mostly on mass media, as opposed to interactive means. It is not called mass media because it is directed towards the "simple masses" like one might think of the tabloid press. It's name, mass, refers to a format based on mass consumption. Information travels one way, packaged like any other Twinkie, formatted uniformly regardless of the user. In this sense, a classic novel is no different than a periodical or daily paper. That's old news, so to speak, but now it's getting truly engaging. We are at a span in literary history where mass media is falling to the worldwide interactive flow of information. The tide is finally coming in on a regular basis, and some sandcastles are about to fall.

Mass Media, by its nature, allows its producers to comment without questions and state as fact without support. The consumer may protest by refusing to buy that publication. The consumer may disagree, add to, or question further in the form of a letter to the editor. If the format encourages a controlled dialogue (has a letters to the editor section), and the editor chooses to publish that letter, the individual may see public satisfaction within a couple months. Even so, very rarely does a reader's letter elicit the same attention as a featured article. In the end, though, control lies with the producer of the publication, as does the last word. It is, after all, their product. Traditionally, because individuals knowledgeable, or even interested in a topic were difficult to locate, to find differing opinions from other sources, one had to search it out. One could either invest time at the library, money at the bookstore, or hope to come across a special on public television.

If someone desired to impart his/her own information to the same audience, they would have to publish themselves or find someone willing to publish their ideas, work to distribute that publication, and somehow promote it so that others would read it. It costs a lot of money, and takes a lot of time. Publishing in print in order to raise your voice to a specific audience is not conducive to a free exchange of ideas. In publications that claim to make unbiased and educated reviews of equipment which might constitute a substantial economical investment, this has serious implications.

Reviewers and editors of audio and video publications carry an assumed authority as experts. They do, to be fair, have more experience with a variety of equipment than the average enthusiast does. Particular magazines will vary in practice, but the position established by the nature of mass media provides an extreme potential for abuse. Scholarly journals and trade magazines do have a great deal of peer review, but writers for publications intended for the "average" (read less knowledgeable) consumer may assert speculation or hearsay as technical fact without fear of embarrassing rebuttal. Individuals without the least amount of understanding, let alone training, can comment on the workings of the latest, or even the most conventional technology wearing a guise of authority, with only their editor to answer to. In some cases, the editor, technical or not, may not be qualified to make decisions about what is truthful and responsible to print, yet still not defer the decision to someone better suited. Some editors might even be extremely qualified, but also have an agenda as it relates to advertisers.

Although many very good publications address subjective and objective issues, others may spread false rumors, or utter misinformation with what, on the surface, appears to carry equal validity. If one doesn't have a fundamental understanding of the workings of discussed material, it proves difficult to weed out the garbage from the cabbage. For those publishers with false pretense, or a simple lack of understanding, mass media is a nice machine indeed. Enter the trusty, rusty wrench, center stage. (Now the matching center channel really pays off. Just listen to that grinding!)

On our beloved Internet, information, free for the most part, has many sources, and depending on the forum, may undergo a vast amount of scrutiny with minimal effort from all parties involved. Not to say that there isn't misinformation in abundance, but the opportunity to cross-reference that information with other sources provides a significantly enhanced ability to sift through opinions and possible fact so that we can decide what may be considered more or less believable. It allows us to find answers that are sometimes more or less complex than expected, but perhaps more reliable as a whole because the answers which survive have done so under the trials of differing opinions, and occasionally chunks of hard evidence. Even though the mass media does not always directly participate in this process, it is discussed, and the content put forth often refuted as well as supported. Because of this, reviewers have had, as of late, a much more difficult time making unsubstantiated claims without risking their credibility, as the readers now have public forums to discuss specific topics among those more knowledgeable. I believe it's about time. Hopefully some good will come of it. And where does it leave the audio/video "rag?"

These "rags", referring to the less reputable and most guilty offenders, will have to adapt, or hope to appeal to the shrinking demographic groups with enough discretionary income to buy audio/video equipment and attract advertisers with no Internet access. If somebody makes a technical statement that flies in the face of well understood physical properties, they're going to have a heck of a time backing it up, especially since many technically competent people have computers, and with them the means to traverse our electronic universe. It is truly a brave new world. A bit scary, but perhaps all the more useful to those who might fall victim to self-serving and self-appointed authorities who comment on the most esoteric without understanding the most conventional. Reviewers, their editors, and consequently, publishers themselves must take responsibility for the work they publish, or suffer the aftermath of their actions.

That's not to imply that every journalist must take pains to think like some equation-spitting robot. (Sadly, I know of at least one prominent school of journalism that encourages just such training, right down to vocabulary.) Although objective analysis always lends more substance to the pot, subjective evaluations will always play a part in any kind of interesting work. The most personally rewarding media imparts an experience, as well as information. The best incorporates both into a complementary entity. A list of technical information may prove interesting for those inclined toward engineering, but for most of us, by itself, it's pretty boring. It's really hard to reap any entertainment value from an audio magazine that thoroughly measures a product and then simply repeats, "Yes, it's pretty much the same thing as the last thing we reviewed, according to our tests. Here are the obscure measurements that you can't understand without an engineering background with no explanation as to their relevancy." If you're an engineer, it very well might be fascinating, perhaps. Even so, most of us aren't (fascinated).

Measurements are good, as is factual understanding, but overwhelming the reader with numbers and concepts does not facilitate comprehension. It's not very much fun either. The material must be personable and entertaining for the targeted reader also, which makes the responsible reviewer's job pretty daunting. To express a subjective, perhaps even an emotional experience, while refraining from characterizing features by such vague and undescriptive lingo as "pace", is indeed difficult. Let's face it. Most reviewers are quite enthusiastic about their equipment. They should be, and it is very possible to get carried away. It's also easy to play it safe and avoid controversy by not commenting on sonic attributes and personal reactions, instead seeking guidance from the book reports sixth grade drove through our life so thoroughly. A good reviewer, a reviewer worth the time to read his or her work, must balance these objective measurements with personal experience, hopefully even relating the two, while taking pains not to misrepresent a product as something that it isn't. It does not serve the reader to have a reviewer exaggerate sonic differences if, by every measurement, those differences may be truly minimal. Nor does it serve the reader to have reviewers ignore differences that might be relevant.

It seems like an impossible task to satisfy the entire spectrum of demands placed on the reviewer striving for absolutely responsible and entirely factual creation. In truth, it is impossible. Nobody can be an expert in all fields of any topic, as the implications of any topic extend to other topics. Possibly, the most important thing I learned in school was that many experts knew very little about information that their field did not directly address, even though that information might carry great relevance regarding their specialty. They never stopped to wonder because they thought they knew pretty much all of it. Psychologists were an interesting bunch. (Engineers were "interesting" also, but usually in stranger, personal ways.) Of course, there were the neuroscientists who knew the nooks and crannies of neural pathways, the social psychologists who had barely predictive models which really sometimes bordered on sociology, and the clinical psychologists who could label an individual with a number of personality disorders. Psychology intrigued me because of how much it really needed (needs) expanding on. Each academician had insights into particulars of their areas of a field which usually contained a vast range of ideas even within specific topics, some more supportable than others. None of them knew the entire picture, and so spoke about what they did know, or believed to be true, and the better professors encouraged discussion even if outside of their area of expertise so long as not to purely speculate.

Similarly, hi-fi reviewers and their editors must make choices and suffer or benefit from the consequences of an expanding forum - this Internet of communication which has caught so many in its web. To make a statement of fact, one must prepare to substantiate it. To make a statement of opinion, if simply for the sake of completeness, one must explain the reasoning behind that opinion. To do otherwise, one must expect ridicule, deservedly.

For a somewhat mainstream publication, it makes sense, I think, to carefully blend a variety of aspects. For example, make some simple and useful measurements in a first pass (a square wave can show a lot about bandwidth, phase, response, and amplitude linearity). Then, include subjective aspects as to provide enough insight as to help a reader perhaps decide if such a product might be worth pursuing, but not with such terms which apply only as abstractly to carry as much weight as pure imagination.

Sometimes it appears a difficult line to walk. All writers must expect criticism of their ideas, especially as the Internet expands to give a louder voice to challenges that would otherwise die on an editor's desk. But, so long as the editor and the writers work together to keep their feet out of their mouths, there are that many more feet to stand on. It's becoming a rough little village for those who would take on the soapbox, and I think it will be all that much better for it. Content will determine success of publishing on the Internet, not big money, glossy paper, or a hodgepodge of colorful glitz. Hurrah for the little guys. Throw out the prose, and dodge the tomatoes in the meantime! It's gonna get messy.

Colin Miller


Copyright 1997, Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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