It seems like every few months a new social media service is launched or a new tech product hits the market. Just this week, Apple launched the third iteration of its iPad. In the two years since its initial appearance, the iPad has become Apple’s best selling product. Ever. SXSW Interactive kicks off today and we’ll likely be hearing a lot about the new media showcased there (the festival played a huge role in Twitter’s growth back in 2007).
Less than a year ago, people we clamoring for invites into Google+, which promised to revolutionize the way that users interact with one another via the internet. More recently, the photo reblogging site Pinterest went viral with the 20- and 30-something (mostly female) set just a few months after its launch, spawning male-oriented imitations like Gentlemint and Manteresting.
New media isn’t, well, new. For the past two centuries we’ve grown accustomed to a steady stream of innovative technology and means of communication showing up in the marketplace. Time, it seems, acts as the final arbiter for determining a given media’s long-term success.
We’ve even come up with a way of classifying ourselves by how quickly we become users of new media. Everett Rogers, in his book Diffusion of Innovations outlines five categories of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Early Adopters lead the way in consuming new media soon after its initial launch. They are important for the cash they infuse into the products and services early, as well as the critical feedback they provide, often to their peers, which shapes later versions of the media. Early and Late Majority solidify new media in the marketplace by first allowing the “kinks” to get worked out, then buying in and appropriating the new media into their context. Laggards are those who, sometimes begrudgingly, begin using new media when it becomes apparent that there is a liability (real or perceived) to continued non-use.
What happens, however, if new media doesn’t catch on, or if its use changes drastically from its original intended purpose? That is, broadly, the subject of Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree’s book, New Media: 1740-1915. It is a collection of 10 essays that examine the introduction and impact of different media in their original context, when they were “new.” Some of the examples are familiar to the reader, like the telegraph and the stereoscope. Others, like the zograscope and physiognotrance are less well-known.
In nearly all cases, the new media forms were accompanied with some initial buzz. Over time, however, most of the media discussed faded into obscurity or irrelevance. But they each changed they way we communicate, making things possible that weren’t possible before.
In my observation, the church has largely been late to the game regarding new media. At best, she functions as a late-Middle Adopter. Even then, she is usually content to appropriate new media for relatively unimaginative uses. Why is that? Why do churches content themselves to lay back and wait for a given new media to “prove” itself before adopting it? Is it latent evangelical pragmatism at work? Fear of some sort? What is holding us back from innovation? What do you think?