If the medium is the message, the messenger is Jeffrey Cole. Director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, Cole oversees a worldwide longitudinal project in which he and his team of researchers observe and record the ways the Internet is changing our lives. He began the World Internet Project in 2000 and watched as dial-up gave way to broadband, computers gave way to portable devices, and AOL gave way to Facebook. In the 1990s, Cole conducted groundbreaking research on violence in the media for President Bill Clinton and the four major news networks, creating a wealth of knowledge that, in light of current events, has become all the more relevant.
Cole will speak Friday evening at the Garvin Theatre in an event to kick off Santa Barbara City College’s new Center for Lifelong Learning. Admission is free. In advance of his talk, the high-demand media expert took a few minutes out of his schedule to share some knowledge with The Santa Barbara Independent.
Let’s get this out of the way. How economically ignorant is it of me to write for a print publication? First of all, I love print newspapers, and I read four of them a day. So nothing I say makes me happy. But you sound relatively young. If you took the job convinced that you are going to retire in your late sixties at a print newspaper, then you’ve got problems. But if you understand that print is evolving and that newspapers will flourish digitally ultimately, I think you are absolutely in the right profession. One of the things we’ve seen over the past 13 years is that Americans aren’t very good historically at distinguishing good information from bad because we could always trust our mass media, whereas we find the Chinese are very good at distinguishing because they could never trust their media. They were trained to read a story in the newspaper and ask, “Whose agenda is this serving? Why are they saying it?” We never had to do that. So we went online believing everything, and we got burned. And now 13 years into our work, we’re seeing a very promising development. We’re seeing teenagers who never read The New York Times go to nytimes.com because it’s shorthand for reliability and quality. What Americans are discovering is the value of professionally trained journalists, editors, good writers. We never really appreciated that because we took it for granted. So I think the future of journalism is a good one, but I think the future of getting news on a piece of paper is short-term.
It sometimes bothers me that when text goes online, it is referred to as “content” or “information,” not “stories” or “narratives.” I was on a panel with the editor of the National Post in Canada about three years ago. He was arguing that as content moves from the paper to the digital screen, it somehow changes. It gets degraded, sensationalized. And in truth, there should be both platforms. Some newspapers will be able to survive translating their content exactly the same from page to screen. Many will opt to make things interactive, to offer links to more information.
When I started talking about changes in newspapers, I realized one of the saddest things about the ultimate demise of print is the end of the serendipitous story that could change your life. What I realized, however, is that something has replaced that, which you can decide is more or less important. For me, 25 times a week from all over the world, people send me a link and say, “Saw this. Thought of you.”
One of the best pieces of social research I’ve ever seen came from Bernard Berelson back in 1948 during a New York newspaper strike when newspapers couldn’t be delivered. He wrote a classic piece called “What ‘Missing the Newspaper’ Means.” And people, when they couldn’t get their newspaper, were frustrated, disoriented. But my favorite comment — and this describes me — is breakfast just doesn’t make sense anymore. Because breakfast is sitting at the table reading the newspaper. I think it’s still going to be that way but with tablets.
You’ve been studying Internet usage since 2000. Can you explain the World Internet Project? I was always taught that we lost an opportunity with television. What we should have done but never did in the ’40s was track people before they had television and go back to them every year. I became convinced in the ’90s that the Internet was going to become more important than television. So in 2000 we started tracking people in the U.S. We wondered if Internet users now have friends all over the world but no longer know who lives next door to them. That’s not the case. We watched how dial-up affected newspaper and magazine and book and videogame and television and radio and movie theater attendance. And then we watched as people moved from dial-up to broadband, which changed television and movie attendance a lot. When we started it was obvious that how we work, how we communicate, and how we buy was changing. What we never could have guessed was the rise of social networks where a billion people are on Facebook. And who could have ever imagined that mobile phones and tablets, which are still not quite three years old, would become the world’s preferred method of getting online?
We knew the internet was going to change everything in both predictable and unpredictable ways. So we set up our project to be able to capture the predictable and unpredictable. It’s been great — 13 years, 35 countries now. We just added Qatar two months ago. The only bias we had was we thought the Internet was going to become more and more important. I think that, of course, is true. We wouldn’t have bothered if we thought the Internet was going to go away.
The means of distribution have changed greatly, too. It’s all completely integrating. I would argue it’s just semantics whether television is a URL on the web or the web is a channel on the television set. Newspapers — as they go online — become more like television because they are 24/7, and they are audio and video. The problem with newspapers in the modern era is that if you are standing on your doorstep when the newspaper arrives, it’s already six hours out of date. If you want an update, you have to wait 24 hours. We did a little bit of research to see how up-to-date newspapers on the web have to be. The answer is 30-60 seconds. People drive home and listen to the game, then walk in the house, say hello to the family, and go to the Internet. They don’t want the score 20 minutes earlier. They want to know what happened in the two minutes since they parked their car.
One of the things you’ve studied is violence in the media. It’s a hot topic right now given recent mass shootings. Is media more violent now? When we say the media is more violent, we have to slice it a bit. We found there was some but not a huge amount of violence on network television. And it was the cable networks that were more violent than broadcast television. I would argue that what’s happened since then is that broadcast television is still relatively tame, cable has become more violent, and of course the rise of video games. Not all media has become more violent, but there’s more of everything.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the case of the cannibal cop in New York. This guy was going to websites that catered to men that wanted to kidnap, kill, and eat women. He never actually did anything, but it exposes what is on the Internet. The Internet really is the best and the worst of the world. What’s clear — I’m not a crime expert — is that overall rates of violence in America have gone down dramatically. What has gone up is these high-profile mass shootings, although they represent a small amount of overall crime. I was never a strong believer that there was a direct link between violence in the media and violence in society. I would argue, however, that violence in the media plays a role when other factors are already in play like mental illness, poverty, frustration.
The one provable effect of violence in the media is that it increases peoples’ fear of crime. People who watch a lot of violence in the media feel there is more crime in society than there really is. They feel they are more likely to be victimized by crime. The truth is that America — especially L.A. and New York — has never been so safe. I think all of this shows there’s no direct link between violence and the media.
After Newtown, the country is looking first at, who can we blame? and second, what can we fix? I don’t think most people believe media is the cause of all this violence. The only ones who want to say that is the National Rifle Association. I think most people will tell you it’s guns and laws around guns. Then there’s poverty, frustration, unemployment, and mental illness.
Our work in the ’90s made the case that there are different types of violence, and the violence that is most likely to be imitated is that which is exciting, more graphic than it needs to be, and doesn’t show punishment or consequences. We don’t think you can eliminate violence from storytelling. Violence is an essential part of American life, all life. But we think you can be responsible in how you display violence.
Video games seem qualitatively different than movies and television. They are very qualitatively different. And you’re much more engaged because it’s interactive.
Video games more closely resemble what’s happened in Colorado and Newtown. Video games are even being used by the military to recruit and train. There’s been a generation of studying violence in television and movies. We haven’t really studied video games because it’s a relatively new business.