September 27, 2013

Mr. West. Which reminds me, how is that baby doing? (Evan Agostini/Associated Press)

Hear me out.

The overlooked story in the Jimmy Kimmel vs. Kanye West ALL-CAPS TWITTER SHOWDOWN THAT REALLY WAS LESS A TWITTER SHOWDOWN THAN KANYE WEST SPOUTING OFF IRATELY IN ALL CAPS AT THE LATE-NIGHT HOST is actually the duel between legacy media and new media.

In brief, Kimmel did a mocking sketch about Kanye West on his show with two kids reenacting one of the rap star’s recent interviews (depending on whom you ask, it was variable degrees of funny) and Kanye became massively irate and went on a verbal rampage. Here’s a sample:

“YOU CAN’T PUT YOURSELF IN MY SHOES. YOUR FACE LOOKS CRAZY… IS THAT FUNNY?… OR IF I HAD A KID SAY IT WOULD IT BE FUNNY???”

Kanye was still going on Friday.

Kimmel responded (“I challenge you to a rap battle @kanyewest #iplaytheclarinet”) and the beef seems to continue.

I actually think this is quite interesting for other reasons than the catch-all We Live In A Goshforsaken Media Wasteland And Maybe Someone Will Click On This.

This is what happens when new and old media square off. On the surface, Kanye’s 9 million Twitter followers may seem like Kimmel’s 3 million.

Jimmy Kimmel, the occasional YouTube appearance aside, is squarely in the legacy media figure camp.

The nature of legacy media is that the platform comes before the audience. In new media, the audience comes before the platform.

We’re in the process of shifting from “Why should I listen to that guy? Well, he’s on TV!” to “Why should I watch TV? Well, that guy’s on!”

It used to be hard to build an audience without a platform. When the king spoke, you listened. When anyone else spoke, you ignored him and went back to your life of pain, toil and early death under the iron fist of feudalism. There were flukes. If you nailed 95 theses to a door or managed to work a miracle, you could attract a small crowd of followers and construct a new platform. But for the most part, you listened when told and trusted talent scouts and gatekeepers to find the people for you to watch.

But now we’re in a strange spot. Old platforms exist, but they seem to mean less and less. Practically everyone’s a talent scout. Just look at the recent 300 Sandwiches incident. You write for the New York Post? That won’t get you noticed. Try writing a blog about sandwiches!

As someone who writes for a newspaper, which is one of the legacy-est of media types, I am conscious of the fundamental uneasiness undergirding the interactions across these two stages. The Internet is, or at least does, a very convincing imitation of a meritocracy, where the only thing standing between you and the Thousands of Followers Who Are Your Right is — the fact that their eyes have not yet landed on you. For people who have been grandfathered in through the old platforms, magazines and talk shows and other venues with built-in, captive sets of eyes, the question of “Why are you talking to me? I didn’t discover you!” always echoes faintly in the background. This is how we used to find our entertainment, but no longer.

In a decade or two, if things continue, we are going to be in a land where Everyone Is Famous To Someone. If you’re famous to more than 500 people, you get to post a lot of Facebook updates; if you’re famous to more than 1,000 people, you get to have a podcast (although that lower limit has never stopped anyone), and if you’re famous to more than 200,000 people, you can pretty much travel the country doing as you please and people will pay for it. And people will love you fiercely and clutch you unto their respective hearts with hoops of steel, because they found you on their own and they can stop watching any time they like and your success is their success.

A few decades ago, you didn’t watch TV because So-and-So was on it. You watched So-and-So because he was on TV. If you wanted to hear jokes every night, you had to turn to Carson — you couldn’t turn to Twitter. But what’s next?

Let me pause for a second and say that using this sniping between a Major Rap Star and a TV Show Host as an example of war across media types might be a little bit of a stretch. Yes, Kanye’s skills and personality suit him to be viral star, whom you pay attention to because he knows how to attract attention, not because he is being inflicted on you every night in a given legacy venue. But he’s a product of the machine as well. And Kimmel’s been working hard to increase his viral cred, if that’s a term I can use without sounding like an overeager substitute teacher in a backward baseball cap.

Kanye could, I think, announce that he would be standing on a street corner tying his shoe very slowly, and people would show up with cameras. Because he is KANYE, self-proclaimed HIGH PRIEST OF THE NEW WORLD ORDER OF KANYE, and this is how we do things now. The new-media landscape favors people who are always entertaining across sprawling expanse of platforms (the Kanyes of this world) and people who do one thing with tremendous consistency and in the process create their own platforms that you didn’t know you wanted (the XKCDs) over people whom you only want to watch sometimes, because they’re there (the Kimmels).

The interaction between these two worlds is always fundamentally a little uneasy. We are not yet living in the Media Landscape of the Future that you can see from the heights of Ted Talks, where Everyone Is A Celebrity.

I wouldn’t call this one of the last stands of old media, because Old Media has been having last stands ever since some town crier forcibly beat the first town newspaperman with his big crier bell. But it is interesting which way the direction of attention flows. And it’s not from Kimmel to Kanye.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.