So Wired, We Can’t See
With a majority of daily life spent online, upping Media IQ isn't just helpful— it’s essential.
Clay Shirky, one of the new media establishment’s preeminent seers, predicted long ago that the Internet would transform the way we see and experience the world. Unlike previous media upheavals, the Internet would overtake TV as the dominant medium and become our primary activity outside of sleeping and working.
While directionally correct, Shirky had it wrong. It’s now the primary way we spend our time — by a large margin. We spend more time online than working (by 130 percent) and sleeping (by more than 90 percent). On average, time spent on digital video, audio, games, news sites, web pages, and social media exceeds 12 hours a day.
And that was before the world shifted to remote work and the virtualization of everything given the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that digital experiences dominate our lives, it’s our responsibility — as citizens and professionals — to understand what drives them.
To be fair, staying on top of the continually shifting dynamics is not easy, but it’s necessary for those working in media, PR, and marketing. To help chart and implement responsible practices, we created “Media Genius” to advise on shifts in what’s become a collective, mediated world.
Media Genius helps pros and interested parties look into new media practices and their implications. Since our first updates two years ago, a new playbook and its effects changed the world. Disinformation and polarization clouded a presidential impeachment. The hashtag #metoo ignited one of the most significant social movements of all time. Billions of citizens under digital surveillance flattened China’s coronavirus curve. And studios like Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and Quibi bet billions on binge content — an amount almost more unreal than the fiction they created.
We dissected critical topics in a Media Genius Study Guide last year to dig deeper into how these phenomenons happen and why. This course of study synthesized thousands of signals from our global team of trend spotters, outside experts, the latest academic research, and online classes. The final curriculum offered a window into new topics that have an enduring impact on the media.
New Updates in the Context of COVID-19
A new edition of the Media Genius Study Guide is available today. The latest topics are now profoundly relevant in the midst of, and coming out of, the pandemic crisis. Both formats and forums for finding reliable information are permanently amended. In less than 30 days, we’ve been informed through mediums new and diverse —including data packs, curve simulators, ER confessions, Zoom briefings, fever-detecting tech, and disinformation alerts. These point to a new pipeline of human and technical perspective agents that capture and disseminate critical, life-saving information.
The topics in our study guide summarized below show holes in our media and information systems — and attempts to fill them — all further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understanding motivations and practices of content creators become critical as COVID-19 overwhelms media agendas. Despite a firehose of pandemic updates (nearly 1.5 billion Google News results), conflicting and incorrect information leaves the public more divided and confused than informed.
Experts like Dr. Claire Wardle, First Draft Executive Director, are on the front lines of this crisis — labeled by WHO as an “infodemic.” First Draft’s prolific output aggregates research, debunks data, and guides journalists with extensive resources to support accurate and responsible reporting. Others, like Harvard social scientist Joan Donovan, pen essays critical of efforts quash disinformation.
Collective research and leadership are essential as rumors — like coronavirus being created in a lab or caused by 5G technology — spread across private networks, social media, and even legitimate news outlets. The guide illustrates new voices and research updates seeking clarity.
For the first time in over a century, COVID-19 forced the world to grapple with a singular event simultaneously. And yet, this universal moment is experienced differently in a splintered cultural landscape.
Depending on political affinity, digital affiliations, and cultural lenses, access to, and interpretation of, information differ considerably. A recent YouGov poll paints a clear picture in contrast. It found 61 percent of Democratic respondents said they worry about coronavirus, while only 37 percent of Republicans shared this fear, and in fact, 24 percent “weren’t worried at all.” These party-line POVs reflect how deep-rooted political culture shapes opinions and even life-and-death decisions — making it impossible for businesses to ignore.
Beyond politics, cultural academics and advocates serve as front line advisors to elevate cultural differences and refine communications instincts.
Within our firm, United Minds works closely with global organizations on employee activism and internal culture change. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast implores us to amplify human connection amidst our technology-controlled society. Anthropologist and Culturematic author, Grant McCracken, writes extensively about the importance of connecting organizations to culture. Toby Daniels, the founder of Social Media Week, built the 404 to advance business goals grounded in empathy. And Noah Brier produces a fantastic, community-written newsletter, Why is This Interesting, that covers relevant topics reflecting polyculture every day.
With trust in media at an all-time low, white space exists for sources that offer reliable information and inspiration. Attention is widely diverted to a range of influencers — including industry-specific experts, journalists, celebrities, and representatives of minority and niche communities — to make sense of the pandemic and its effects.
Preeminent voices of reason, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, transcend their roles as informants to become cultural icons. Experts offering clarity with real-time updates now take center stage, including Scott Gottlieb, Helen Branswell, and John Burn-Murdoch. Others in the spotlight are facing scrutiny for ill-informed intent, takes, and behavior.
How individuals channel influence also takes on renewed importance. For example, ad industry vet Ian Schafer founded Kindred to bring social influencers, non-profits, and brands together for virtual hack-a-thons that address societal issues ranging from mental health to sustainable climate change.
Modern Content Canvas
We’ve seen a Cambrian explosion of new media created in the last 30 days, with plenty more innovation to come. Jimmy Fallon hosted critically acclaimed episodes of The Tonight Show from his living room. The NBA televised a virtual game of H-O-R-S-E. Churches hosted services in virtual reality. Students recreated college campuses and graduation ceremonies in Minecraft. During this period of isolation, new content brings us “together” across industries including health, education, fitness, entertainment, and even nightlife. These experiments of expression all exemplify a modern content canvas at work.
The pandemic also reveals a need for faster, smarter delivery of essential facts that break storytelling conventions. Working to rectify this disconnect are leaders like Francesco Marconi, NewLab AI lead, and former R&D Chief at The Wall Street Journal, who published a book about newsrooms tapping into unstructured data to present stories. John Borthwick and company at Betaworks have also influenced our thinking on this topic, specifically with their work around synthetic media and audio initiatives like voice-enabled gaming, hands-free listening experiences, and live audio platforms.
Data-fueled information provides an essential path to knowledge and personalized experiences. How we ethically source this data is vitally important and increasingly controversial.
In China, data tracking is a key means to prevent the spread of the virus, with the use of QR codes that indicate health and travel status to authorities. In the US, individual location and health tracking are less likely to fly. But anonymized information tools like Kinsa’s fever map, the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker, and Google’s Community Mobility Reports are being widely referenced.
It’s now an existential question of whether privacy is a fair price to pay for progress. Those such as Vivian Schiller, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute and Media Genius contributor, have led discussions about new means in the fight against the virus around the world, including the trade-off between data protection and public health. This debate will be important to keep an eye on new practices and policies unfold.
Our team chose these topics based on months of analysis before COVID-19 advanced globally. The relevance of each during the pandemic hints at their lasting impact as we experience the great reset in media.
Thank you to those mentioned here and others who have indirectly influenced our thinking. Open-mindedness, an appetite for learning, and willingness to address new spaces for understanding helps us all to navigate gaps in our media systems.
As time continues to be dominated by online activity, no company, brand, or person can opt-out of learning and doing. Understanding our shared information systems has become critical for everyone operating personally and professionally within media.
Media Genius is our contribution to learning and leading a new way forward.