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January 23, 2004

There is No Demand for Messages

And there are no masses. News from Davos.

Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23. He’s been saying it for years: “There is no demand for messages.” Doc Searls wrote that. As a measure of how much I love this line, it got used (with credit) twice at the World Economic Forum, during panel discussions I was involved in. Doc’s original bit included this:

Let me see a show of hands: who here wants a message? Right: none. And who wants to shield themselves from messages they don’t want? Exactly: everybody. TV advertising has negative demand. It subtracts value.

I didn’t go that far, but I did find that Doc’s news was still fresh here in Davos, in the sense that it was still routine for people to ask—in a business, nonprofit, or government setting—how do we get our message out? Typically this means “out” through the media, or nowadays, through the Internet. One gentleman, who runs a graduate school on the continent, asked me this today in a discussion on information overload. “How do we get the message out in this climate?” I told him that I did not wish to sound rude. But I did have to ask:

You have a message you want to get out? Who cares? There is no demand for messages, as my friend Doc Searls says. Increasingly, people can avoid them, and the media will evolve to make avoiding unwanted messages a priority.

So if you and your colleagues are in the “message-sending” business—because you’re a nonprofit and do good work, a business with a product, an agency with clients who need the message out, or in politics—you may want to rethink a few things. There is no demand for messages and there are none who think themselves message-able masses. As Raymond Williams, sociologist and critic wrote, “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

Think of it: no mass men, no mass women. Stimulus, and no one to respond. Yet as Williams said, there are ways of messaging people that convince the sender of a mass audience, mass market, mass public, sitting out there on the receiving end of the media campaign. Prepare for a world where there’s no one there, on the receiving end of your message, no matter how well targeted, well crafted and media-honed it is.

Suppose such a world emerges. Everyone who had a pound-that-message-through-whether-they-requested-it-or-not ethic may have to go back to more recognizably human forms of communication.

Beginning in the mid 19th century, and all through the 20th, seeing people as masses could be industrially sustained. There were only so many channels, so many ways or reaching people en masse, and this convinced the message senders that there was an audience out there. But now being a bulk message sender via the media is like the guy in the street trying to get you to take a handbill. He may have motivation for delivering the message, you have none to take it.

They are the people formerly known as the audience. And they do not want your message.

Of course, one was trying to be provocative. And it was in that context that I said, “The age of mass media is just that, an age. It doesn’t have to last forever.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 23, 2004 1:48 PM