Aug 222010
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Life in the media and communications terrarium, it seems, is getting increasingly perilous.

The predictions of demise are piling up. Phone calls, e-mail, blogs and Facebook, according to digerati pundits recently, are speeding toward the grave. Last week, Wired magazine proclaimed, “The Web Is Dead.”

Yet evolution — not extinction — has always been the primary rule of media ecology. New media predators rise up, but other media species typically adapt rather than perish. That is the message of both history and leading media theorists, like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Television, for example, was seen as a threat to radio and movies, though both evolved and survived.

Still, if the evolutionary pattern remains intact, there are some fundamental differences in today’s media ecology, experts say.

Strip away the headline hyperbole of the “death of” predictions, they note, and what remains is mainly commentary on the impact of the accelerated pace of change and accumulated innovations in the Internet-era media and communications environment. A result has been a proliferation of digital media forms and fast-shifting patterns of media consumption.

So the evolutionary engine runs faster than ever before, opening the door to new and often unforeseen possibilities. “Change has changed qualitatively,” says Janet Sternberg, an assistant professor at Fordham University and president of the Media Ecology Association, a research organization.

Up, for example, sprout social networks — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and others — that are hybrids of communication, media distribution and unvarnished self-expression. New versatile digital devices — whether iPhone or Android smartphones, iPod players and iPad tablets — nurture more innovation and experimentation.

Adaptations follow. College freshman don’t wear watches — cellphones are their timepieces — and seldom use e-mail, notes the Beloit College Mindset List, which was released last week. (The yearly list, created by two faculty members in 1998, is intended as a glimpse at the attitudes and behavior of new college students.) Instead of e-mail, young people prefer to communicate through social networks, or instant-messaging or cellphone text messages, to which their friends are more likely to reply quickly.

Americans are talking less on their cellphones. When they do talk, the conversations are shorter, according to industry data. Partly, this reflects the shift in use of cellphones more as mobile computers that communicate via written messages. But this also reflects a subtle shift in etiquette, experts say. People increasingly use text messages and e-mail to arrange telephone calls, which are reserved for more important, complicated dialogues. An unscheduled call from people other than family members, they say, is often regarded as a rude intrusion.

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