Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
I suppose it’s not particularly original to point out that social media is not the first movement to revolutionize the authoritarian structure of broadcast communication in this country, but the second. The first was the rise of cable T.V., which was supposed to “let a thousand flowers bloom” by breaking up the old network model, dominated by NBC, ABC and CBS.
That the three traditional nets took hits from cable is undeniable. But they’re still powerhouses, aren’t they, and who’s to say they, or one or some of them, won’t come roaring back? Still, gone are the days when (as I was reminded by a neighbor), John Chancellor could intone, in stentorian cadence, “This…is John Chancellor,” pronouncing the final syllable as in “lord”, thus underscoring that the hierarchy ran from God to NBC to us.
Those were the good old days because you didn’t have to think. John, or Uncle Walter, or Chet or some other trusted and knowing white man told us how it was, we believed, and all was well in America.
Then came cable. There would be dozens of channels, it was said — maybe 100! It was unthinkable for Baby Boomers raised on four (the nets plus one local). Viewers would have choice. And so it came to be, but of an order of magnitude even greater than anticipated: We now have hundreds of channels. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. The voices of authority did not go away; they simply changed. Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews — these are the new (albeit more opinionated) newscasters, the Uncle Walters and David Brinkleys of the cabes. Whoever said cable T.V. was changing the rules was wrong.
Which brings up the question of social media. It is now supposed to do exactly what cable T.V. was supposed to do: wash away all vestiges of concentrated, top-down communication. To be sure, there’s been much chatter, over the dreary and pessimistic duration of the Great Recession, that the New Media are replacing the Old Media, and good riddance to bad rubbish!
Let’s take a closer look. Let’s restrict it to the wine industry, which is after all the main thing that links us together. Yes, we now have a vast array of social media and, yes, for sure, the wine industry is watching, looking and listening. (A friend just called to announce she’d gotten a job as social media director for a large winery chain. What hath Hardy Wallace wrought?) But what else do we have? If I ask you — any of you, and there are thousands of you out there — to name a certified social media superstar, you will come up with the following:
- Dr. Vino
- Gary Vaynerchuk
- Alder Yarrow
- Tom Wark
- Eric Asimov
(All white guys, I might add. Hmm…)
Isn’t that true? They are the most widely-read blogs on every list; their names are becoming brands (in Gary V.’s case he already is a brand). What’s more, it’s hard to see the platform expanding much beyond them. Maybe there’s room for a few more names; two or three or five or six, but you get my point. There’s not an infinite amount of room at the top of the social media pyramid to sustain fame for more than a handful of celebrity bloggers, any more than there’s room in cable, or was room in network T.V., for more than a handful of celebrity news voices. So what, exactly, has changed?
Well, for one thing, in social media there exists the reality of instantaneous two-way communication. In the old days, if you disagreed with something Uncle Walter said, all you could do was shout at your T.V. Fifteen years ago, if you found Rush outrageous (and I hope you did), you were similarly stifled. Today, of course, you can email, or comment on a blog, or blog or Facebook or tweet on your own, to the whole world. That’s new.
What isn’t new is that we’ve simply replaced an old generation of authoritarian critical voices with a new one. But the new boss is the same as the old boss, in essence. It’s been said that each additional Parker point is worth $7 in the wine’s retail price. How much is a Gary V. recommendation worth? (I can’t tell you how much a Heimoff recco is worth in dollars, but I’m told a good score from me moves bottles.)
There’s nothing really unusual or revolutionary about social media when you think of it along these lines. People — the hoi polloi — always have wanted guidance with wine. In Rome, everybody wanted what Caesar drank. Later, they followed the Pope, or the monks, and when Europe became secular, the likes of Professor Saintsbury and André Simon provided guidance. Parker is a late incarnation of Thomas Jefferson, giving trusted advice to his friends. Gary V. is a (I can’t say the) new Parker.
So enough about “down with authority!” We’ll have famous wine critics as long as we have 5,000 brands for sale in the Wall of Wine and a confused public desperately seeking guidance. The only difference is that the new famous wine critics are pronouncing from the Internet. (Wait a minute, isn’t Gary V. writing books now? I guess predictions of the Death of Print have been exaggerrated.)