Converging Media-Where is it Taking Us?

Converging media are taking us to places we’ve
never been before, and I don’t mean mere geography.

It would be easier if we had a roadmap to tell us where we’re going with the radical changes affecting virtually every old-line media organization today. I’d sure like one.

Our organization is serving several audiences and this requires continuous research, sampling and adjusting. Sometimes we do it well, sometimes not, because audiences don’t stand still and the technology just keeps changing. Every communications organization today faces this challenge.

Serving multiple audiences is expensive. One generation still demands its information primarily in print. Younger generations want interactive, always accessible information on-demand through digital technology. One of our publications received a very positive letter from a reader who captured the dilemma but also expressed hope. “Keeping the print age connected to the broadcast age while hearing the digital age will help our denomination flourish.”

Well, let’s hope it helps the denomination flourish. But let’s also hope the faith community understands that this is what it takes to communicate today–a set of skills that can function well in a single medium while also marrying multiple media and making them seem to be seamless. The key word in this letter is hearing. If we don’t listen, we’re likely to do what far too many other media do–talk to people rather than converse with them. Communication today is about bringing to people relevant information they can use in the medium they are most comfortable in, while maintaining consistency and seamless connection. And you cannot do this in a one-way flow of information. It’s got to be a conversation, otherwise the user will move on to the next relevant alternative. It’s about community.

Cross-media integration is no simple task. Each new technological innovation that finds broad acceptance places new demands on information providers. Faith communities have not understood this challenge in the past–at least in my opinion. That’s because they have looked at communications as a support function–a set of tools, equipment and products. And some have thought they could opt out of some arenas, as they did with broadcast television and radio. And at times we have assumed we have a lock on an audience. We don’t. Like it or not, the competition for mind space is on-going and uninterrupted. Old loyalties are quickly dropped as relevant new content and new experiences come down the information pipeline.

Technology influences the culture; this has become a cliche’. More interesting to me is how it affects our understanding of community and how we live in commnities. For religious groups community has meant face-to-face personal interaction with others; worship, prayer, study, mutual support. It’s hands-on–or hands around your shoulder–as the need warrants. New forms of social networking are not merely foreign territory, they are theologically challenging. Is it authentic community when these things happen in a virtual environment apart from face-to-face, hands-on touch? There are plenty of people I know who tell me virtual community provides meaning, especially if you are isolated from the touch of traditional community.

Social networking makes “digital immigrants” (i.e., people born before digital technology) like me uneasy. Some even see it as disruptive. (A side note is necessary: With two of my colleagues I spent a day talking with Jonathan Marks, a self-proclaimed “insultant” (rather than consultant) who looks at how technology is relevant to us and how it affects us. I am greatly influenced by his framing of the issues. So, I acknowledge Jonathon’s influence and hope I’m not stealing his ideas but incorporating them into my own thoughts.) But “digital natives” (those born in the digital society) consider digital media the natural order of things. What matters to them, according to Jonathan, is not the technology, but the content and the experience the media deliver. It’s about what the medium allows you to do. It’s about relevance.

As media converge–audio merges with cellphones which merge with video which drive you to online content which takes you to a DVD which takes you back to a website which takes you to … well, it’s a communications loop that keeps on going. I don’t think anyone knows where it’s taking us. But I know a lot of us want to go along for the ride.

And I also believe that opting out is not an alternative. The mainline denominations opted out of broadcast a couple of generations ago because they thought it was too expensive and unnecessary. They saw it as equipment and delivery; as a tool not a function of community. They could still communicate directly with people and get their message through, and besides, we have these important communities. But the technology contributed to a changed culture and the options exploded. Today if you’re not present where the conversation is taking place, it’s as if you don’t exist.

So I don’t know where the converging media are taking us, but I do know this. If we’re not in the stream of the conversation, we’re out. Opting out is a choice–it is to choose to be irrelevant.

(I’m going to continue this thread on relevant media. But, I’m heading for a part of the world where I know I won’t have access to the Internet for posting. I’ll be back in a week. Until then, let me know what you think.)

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