When Megan Garber took the podium in the basement of a hotel at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, most people were more focused on their coffee than the history of an idea. By the end of the hour a vibrant discussion about the future of media had broken out.
For the first time in a long time, Garber said, ideas are being built by public consensus. This is a stark contrast to the one-to-many model of media that reigned supreme for many years. Now, ideas are not only free but can also spread very quickly.
Of course, none of this is news. What really got the crowd to pay attention was Garber’s ability to explain the evolution of what an idea is.
Going back long before Gutenberg, Garber reminded her listeners that ideas used to be malleable and changed with time and place. Oral histories were passed down from generation to generation.
Then, with the printing press, ideas became property. Bylines became the way to claim an idea as one’s own, even if the writing stemmed from the thinking of many. People took credit for specific ideas that were often the idea of several people.
Garber then brought in the 20th century philosopher Roland Barthes who took on this issue by claiming that there is no such thing as the author. To Barthes, the singular author was impossible because written works are formulated by many ideas put together into one.
When the ideas of many individuals go toward one byline, it is extremely difficult to claim and maintain ownership of any single idea, Garber said.
In traditional media, such as newspapers and broadcast news, it was hard to see which ideas were most popular. Metrics, including those provide by Nielsen and circulation, were too broad to give any sense of what viewers readers wanted and what they responded to. But today, big data is a big deal. The Internet allows producers and editors to see when and how people interact with a story.
In other words, data allows producers and editors to see what their customers think is a good idea.
By this time in the speech, all eyes were on Garber as she challenged the audience about what a good idea is, how its effectiveness is measured and how ideas apply to media.
“We need to create structures that optimize communication of good ideas,” she said, leaving out the traditional question of storytelling in journalism. “Think strategically about how the good ideas are spread. Not all ideas, just the good ones.”