Thursday, 28 March 2013

I grew up with magazines but I live with social media

I had lunch at my mother's house as usual the other week and while eating my sandwich at the dining table I was half-listening to the TV and also reading the newspaper in front of me. The TV was on the ABC of course and the program was about the golden age of magazines in the US in the 50s. An elderly gentleman with a handsome, rugged face and some gravitas was lamenting the passing of those august vehicles while I scanned the news and turned a page.

It was an ideal program for my octogenarian mother. My parents brought quite a few magazines into our house when I was growing up in Sydney, although I never really understood how they got there. My impression now is that mum bought House & Garden and Vogue at the newsagents while dad's copies of Fortune arrived in the mail. There was also Arizona Highways and National Geographic, which must also have come through subscriptions. The first and last of these were the ones that interested me. I loved the colour spreads of Nat Geo and hardly realised how superficial and picturesque the articles that accompanied them were. I devoured them. They took me to different places and enabled me to imagine things outside my own, immediate world. House & Garden appealed to my artistic side, not because of the depictions of home interiors with their furnishings and curtains, but because of the floor plans that came with them. I got my parents to buy me a set of special, fine-nibbed, German-made architectural pens so that I could design my own dwellings on paper. I labelled the rooms I carefully drew "den", "living room", "master bedroom". The pens also came in handy for impressing friends at school.

My own magazine purchases ran to ones about sailing and of course Mad Magazine, which I think must have been a common staple of teenage reading in the 70s. There was a time when I was mad on boats. My father was a boatie from way back in the 40s in Melbourne when he used to race VJs and Omegas. I owned a Laser in those years, which I sold before buying a Windsurfer that I raced in school regattas. One year we travelled to Melbourne and raced against Geelong Grammar; I was ceremonially dunked for winning one race. But all this changed radically when I entered university. There, the magazines I was exposed to were arcane Italian journals filled with literary criticism. Living in Glebe, I became involved with a small poetry magazine and joined in its editing and distribution activities. I would later help a friend produce another literary magazine using an Apple Mac; it was the mid-80s and dad brought the machine home from his office for us to use for layout and word processing.

In the early 90s my focus shifted again because I'd taken a job in a corporate communications unit inside a technology manufacturer. Our manager had subscriptions to The Economist and the Far-East Economic Review, Time and Fortune. After she had read them they would be circulated with place-holder sticky notes indicating which articles should be photocopied and filed. We had file boxes with categories reflecting the markets and locations our company did business in. The collected material would later become a handy resource when it came time to writing a case study on a particular sales success, a market review, or a product launch.

Magazines are coping with changes introduced by the internet, just as journalism is. Newsagent stands still offer a wide range of titles for practically any niche you can think of. Meanwhile there are countless blogs that marry words and images, suggesting another golden age, but one that is not yet comprehensible. And there were 1.1 million Twitter users in Australia in 2011 and 9.4 million Facebook users. All of these people seem to be intent on sharing images and links to stories. It's another incomprehensible domain that the mainstream media has not chosen to describe, although there are niche magazines and websites that focus on this theatre of effort. 1.1 million is a number as big as the population of the city of Adelaide, and 9.4 million is a number bigger than the population of New South Wales, Australia's largest state. But as yet we have not engaged fully with the job of describing these communities. How many communities are there? Who is connected to whom, and why?

It's fun for my mother to watch a program about the halcyon days of pictorial magazines, but that was a time that existed a generation before the invention of the internet. The internet itself is pretty old, older of course than the World Wide Web (saying it like this sounds so outdated, like saying "telephone" instead of "call"). So much has happened to change the way that information is created, shared, and used. This is having an impact on power relations in societies, too. In other words, social media is changing the nature of the public sphere in radical ways. But it seems that the mainstream media, while content to promote its content using social media, has not found a reason to talk about how it all actually functions. Maybe they are too heavily invested in it to objectively examine how it works.

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