Media as Social Function

Well worth your valuable time to read Neal Gabler’s article in the Los Angeles Times, on what he perceives — probably correctly — as a lack of interest in old movies on the part of so-called millennials and subsequent generations. By “old,” he means more than five years into the past.

His analysis as to the reason for this is a little… um… unnerving. Quote:

… MTV did conduct a study recently of how young people relate to contemporary films, which found that movies are deeply embedded in the social networking process. Young people begin tweeting about films in anticipation of their release and continue discussing them after the release so that the buzz is now more sustained than it has been. In effect, movies, new movies at least, create an occasion for an ongoing conversation.

What this points to is that movies may have become a kind of “MacGuffin” — an excuse for communication along with music, social updates, friends’ romantic complications and the other things young people use to stoke interaction and provide proof that they are in the loop. A film’s intrinsic value may matter less than its ability to be talked about. In any case, old movies clearly cannot serve this community-building function as they once did. More, the immediacy of social networking, a system in which one tweet supplants another every millisecond, militates against anything that is 10 minutes old, much less 10 years.

Not good for historic film conservation projects, is it? What struck me, however, is what the implications might be for other media, i.e. books. If you substitute the word “books” for “film” or “movies” in the quote above, you might very well have an explanation for so-called “phenomena books” (i.e., Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.), which sell such incredible numbers more because of the network effect surrounding them than any other reason. (Though Rowling’s stuff is of course far superior to that E L James dreck.)

The difference with books, of course, is that they can be commercially viable at the midlist and below level, with far lower sales figures than movies’ equivalent ticket numbers. Even low-budget films have a vastly larger capital investment than just about any book you can name. Also, with the advent of indie e-publishing and the “long tail” retail effect of a writer being able to leave his or her titles up on Amazon.com and other online retailers virtually forever, books don’t have the increasingly smaller window of opportunity to earn significant money that movies are saddled with.

So in terms of marketing, yeah, maybe the way to have a megabuck-earning bestseller, especially with the younger book-reading audience, is so find some way to turn it into a social event. But at least for the time being, an indie e-publishing writer might be able to survive and even prosper without doing that.

5 thoughts on “Media as Social Function

  1. Some authors maintain a relationship with their readers as a book is being written and after. William Gibson, Warren Ellis and Corey Doctorow come to mind. The ‘book’ can become an ongoing social relationship with the author distinct from the physical object. And the readers can take over: consider the incredible wikis surrounding Thomas Pynchon’s books.

    1. You’re completely correct about that, but I don’t really think that what those writers are doing re social marketing comes even close to the “phenomena” level. What the publisher of The Hunger Games did to drive sales among the YA audience was a lot more than just a few blog posts.

  2. Maybe the young people who tweet about films and respond to MTV surveys aren’t the ones reading books… unless it’s the “phenomena books” you mention (although I don’t think the notion is restricted to the young).
    Me, I prefer blogging. Twitter seems too much like shouting into a crowded shopping centre while everyone else is doing the same.

    1. I’m 64 and absolutely love Twitter. I do a lot of magazine writing, and can get filled in on trends quickly. Also helps me find out about dance performances, NASCAR events, and trends in publishing. In addition, the character limit has tightened up my own writing.

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