Monthly Archives: February 2009

Television as warming medium? Participation and inattention in ‘Mad Men’ liveblogs

In 1964’s Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan categorized media in a way that’s still being referenced and debated today: “hot” media, which provides large amounts of information and solicits low participation, and “cool” media, which provides little information and creates a more active spectator/user. Cool media, then, would seem to exhibit less control over an audience/participant, allowing for a greater diversity of experiences with a particular medium. While this definition has been debated and discounted in various ways, it serves as a good lens through which to analyze the ways that media are changing in the 21st century. Television, according to McLuhan, is a “cool” medium due to the commitment and attention it needs from the viewer, as well as its attention on process rather than a “tight” finished product (McLuhan 31). Though this definition may have seemed accurate in 1964, now it seems faulty. Has television become a low-participation “hot” medium, like radio was in McLuhan’s time? With the introduction of the high-participation, high-information Internet, have McLuhan’s definitions been shattered?

The practice of Liveblogging throws an interesting wrench into these “hot” and “cool” classifications, as it’s a case of one medium interfering with another. In the introduction to his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes, “Old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies” (Jenkins 14). When television viewers liveblog, it complicates the notion of the “active” audience. The act of liveblogging involves extreme participation, as it is a fast-paced practice involving reading, writing, and maneuvering with web technology. This audience is extremely active, but the medium with which they are participating is the Internet. So how does television play into this?

An exchange on a liveblogging forum for the television show Mad Men appears as follows:

  • 10:24 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008
    the_decider: he asked “someone important?” fyi
  • 10:24 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008
    ToUnfoldThem: Is Don about to have a heart attack???
  • 10:24 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008 Bookworm Blondie: Absinthe by a pool with half-naked chicks. I should move to Palm Springs in the 60s.
  • 10:24 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008
    queenieinmanhattan: Whaaaa????
  • 10:24 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008
    curlyqmich: WTF!

This exchange interests me because all of these online fans are responding to the same scene within seconds of one another. All of these comments relate directly to scene, and, at least in this exchange, none of the posters are responding to each other. Here the question arises: are these viewers actively interacting with the Internet and, due to their state of distraction, passively interacting with the television show? Is the screen of their computer dividing their attention, turning the television screen into a hot medium? Their comments would imply otherwise. These posters seem to be viewing the show very closely, and rather than going off on tangents, they are responding directly to what they’re watching. It seems as though the show is the primary focus here, with the blogging itself as an afterthought.

On the other hand, some exchanges take on a different form entirely:

  • 10:33 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008 Colonel Dubby: Someone could write a thorough academic media critique on undergarments in Mad Men.
  • 10:34 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008 cupcakes @Colonel Dubby: and then joan should design a line of garters. i’ll wear them all and feel hotter than hell.
  • 10:35 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008 beatrice2000 @Colonel Dubby: That she’s more liberated because her bra and undies set resembles a 1960s bikini?
  • 10:38 PM on Sun Oct 12 2008 Colonel Dubby @beatrice2000: No. I was simply implying that the underwear is changing with the times and culture, etc.

Here and in other places throughout this particular liveblog, participants take time out from responding to and chronicling particular occurances on the show, and switch to an interactive discussion prompted by the show but not directly related to its plot. Slightly later in this blog, a participant compares this particular episode of Mad Men to one of Sex and the City, drawing attention away from the show at hand and adding a layer of intertexuality.

The big question here is whether, in McLuhan’s terms, the Internet and television should really be considered separate media when liveblogging is occurring. Because livebloggers are watching and responding to the show as it happens, in real time, isn’t the liveblog itself just an extension of the show? The two practices go hand in hand: it would be difficult and ostracizing to liveblog without watching the show being commented on. If, as McLuhan asserts, technology is becoming an “extension of man,” then what happens when a practice like liveblogging connects two media inextricably? The liveblogging community is not all that different from the early conception of the television watching family, reclining in front of the set and making occasional conversation based upon what they see. The most tangible difference may be the screen itself. Jean Baudrillard might say that the screen has replaced this conventional interaction as a byproduct of “the ecstasy of communication” (16). The liveblog is an example of what he calls “forced extraversion of all interiority”—our thoughts and reactions to media are now put out there, via media, for the world to see.

Henry Jenkins cites a common prediction many have for the future of technology: we will have one screen, one central system which functions as all of our household media. He points out, however, that this isn’t happening. He writes, “What we are now seeing is the hardware diverging while the content converges” (Jenkins 15). This causes all of us to rethink our definition of media: we may have separate screens, but some media are becoming bound by the merging of content. In the case of liveblogging, then, the Internet and the television show have merged together into one “cool” medium, and we have become television producers as well as consumers.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Liveblog excerpts from Jezebel.com (see links)

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