Through his omnivorous culture clearinghouse site Fimoculus and his collectively created news-and-chat site MNSpeak, Rex Sorgatz has been a local and national leader of web innovation. Sorgatz recently accepted a job with noted technology concern Microsoft and is preparing to move to the Pacific Northwest's closest approximation of Minneapolis, Seattle, where he plans to start the MNSpeak-like SeattleSpeak.com. MNSpeak, however, will continue, having been purchased by Loquamur, a corporation controlled by Rake magazine publisher Tom Bartel and his son Matt. In a sort of parting interview conducted by e-mail, we asked Sorgatz to theorize a bit about web trends and culture.
City Pages:Name five web trends that you expect will be big deals over the next year or so.
Rex Sorgatz: Although it's usually a losing game to guess the future in this field, here are some exciting areas where the internet and media collide:
1) Collaborative News. We have grown accustomed to a style of reporting--the good ol' inverted pyramid delivered via byline--which has served us well for the past several decades. But we're starting to see how social software is creating a new model in which several people can organically contribute to a story. As the controversies around Wikipedia and blog reliability suggest, we're going to occasionally stumble and fall for a while until we figure out how this works, but something will emerge to challenge our notions of how news is created and dispersed.
2) Vlogs. Video has been the "next big thing" on the internet for nearly a decade, but we've finally reached the point where enough people are producing their own material. Everyone from my grandma to large broadcasting outlets wants to get on board. (Locally, Chuck Olsen's MNstories has done amazing work.) As the TV and the computer get closer to merging (via things like TiVo and Slingbox and IPTV), the stigma of online video will go away, because the transition will become seamless.
3) Niche News. The fragmentation we saw decades ago with the introduction of niche magazines and cable television has only become more exaggerated online. What made the internet bubble burst in 2001 was the realization that you didn't need to be gigantic to make a great product. A new class of people who have four or five different blogs on disparate niche topics is emerging. It matches perfectly with a typical news diet that can now consist of an extreme mix: a favorite vlog about your community, podcasts supporting your anarcho-political beliefs, a news aggregator with biking news, and a blog about being a daddy.
4) Everything Becomes Searchable. Books, TV, geography...pretty soon, your brain will become searchable.
5) My Media. All sectors of the culture industry have been shaken by this basic idea: People are taking control of their media. Mashups in music, memoirs in publishing, blogs in journalism, first-person shooters in gaming, reality TV in broadcasting--all of these trends have one thing in common: the rise of the individual to become owners or participants in the creation of media.
CP:What are characteristic mistakes that the news media make when building websites?
Sorgatz: I work with several big media companies, so I feel complicit in the mistakes that we make. Within all large media entities, some people "get it" and some people don't. But in general, the common mistakes include:
First and foremost, not grasping that news is a fluid conversation, not an official edict.
Second, not understanding that the web is more than a distribution vehicle--another "platform" to shovel around your news. The unique collaborative characteristics of the internet (which Google/Yahoo/Microsoft and several startups already grasp) are foreign to a lot of mainstream media executives.
Third, not realizing that redesigning your website should be driven by a change in how you want to produce news. Every redesign should come with a structural change in which staff adjusts to the demands of being a 24-hour news operation. For instance, writers need to be able to publish immediate news for the website and in-depth news for print.
And finally, being unable to give up control. Too many traditional publishers are terrified about "preserving their brand" and continue to insist on "being authoritative." Mainstream media will get clobbered if it can't figure out how to let information be shared, amended, remixed.
Journalism as we know it doesn't necessarily need to change--quality news is still a hugely valuable commodity, and will be for a long time. But we need to think about new ways that news can be created, and that people can interact with it.
CP:What are some of the major generational differences you're seeing now in terms of web use--e-mail versus text messaging, that sort of thing?
Sorgatz: My mom downloads songs from Limewire to put on the MP3 player for my dad's Harley, so I don't think there is necessarily a prima facie generational gap. As the iPod has reminded us, "technology" is just a word for tools that will become commonplace in a few years. (The coffeemaker and the tractor were "technology" to my grandpa.)
Nonetheless, one can't deny a generational difference. What interests me isn't so much what people use to communicate (texting versus e-mailing versus phoning) but what this transition ultimately portends. Here's my theory:
There used to be these distinct principles called "publishing" and "communication." You picked up the phone to call your mom, you read the newspaper to gather information, you listened to your CD player to hear music. Nowadays, you read news on the same device that you make phone calls, you chat with people on the same software that you share music with, you play collaborative games on the same platform that you watch movies on. That's the big secret of this so-called media revolution--"publishing" (creating and distributing content) and "communication" (sharing information) are becoming the same thing.
The irony is news always should have been defined this way, as information passed from one person to another. It was creation of the mega-media empires that led to the one-to-many, voice-of-God news we've become accustomed to. The internet is partially breaking down this mammoth publishing/broadcasting system, and replacing it with something that looks more like a series of nodes, where you can get valuable information from your cousin's blog or from NYtimes.com. (MNspeak.com was started on the principle that if you can aggregate people's thoughts and perceptions, you can create a valuable news source. It's still an experiment, but it seems to be working so far.)
CP:On one hand, I have used the web to make "connections" to folks I wouldn't otherwise know. On the other hand, I've found most web social activities to be unsatisfying at best and alienating at worst. What's wrong with me?
Sorgatz: Some people seem to enjoy the internet because they can develop virtual (oftentimes anonymous) online identities. Not me. I still think the most important aspect of the internet is the way it brings people together in the real world.
For me, the organized events (the political Meetups, the Match.com hookups) aren't exciting. I prefer the random occurrences attributed to online life. I love that feeling when I see someone out at the Triple Rock who I know via their blog or their Friendster profile, and I feel like I "know" them. Nearly every person I've dated in Minneapolis was met via the internet--but not through a dating site. Rather, it was through conversations that start in blog comments, in news chatrooms, or on social networking sites.
The internet is merely an extension of the self.