At TED2006, Helen Fisher gave one of the most extraordinary talks I've heard. (It's now available online.) An anthropologist, specializing in the evolution of love, she put forth the notion that we're returning to an ancient form of marriage. As women across the world move into the work force, we're finding relationships based on equality between partners — an equality we haven't seen since before the industrial revolution, before domesticated agriculture; relationships akin to what our ancestors experienced on the plains of Africa, 100,000 years ago.
This idea really resonated with me, and helped solidify a parallel theory I've been shaping ... that the most modern communication tools — blogs, podcasts, YouTube — are actually returning us to an ancient form of media, one in which everyone participates on almost equal footing. The success of blogs, after all, is built on a fundamental human urge to tell our own stories. (Six Apart founder Mena Trott spoke to this in her TEDTalk) Before mass media, before the written word — for all of human history — story-telling was a shared privilege. But this ancient urge, hardwired into our being, has been overwhelmed for the last 50 years by mass media, so pervasive, so dominating, so intoxicating and so isolating that they all but shut down our individual voices.
Mass media succeeded in creating a common culture, but did nothing to foster the communities that naturally emerge when people tell their stories to each other. That the advent of TV, in particular, was coupled with the rise of cars, suburbs and shopping malls was an unfortunate accident of history — one that exacerbated the isolation that TV unwittingly promoted. Now, finally, there is a counter-trend. Howard Rheingold framed it beautifully, when he wrote The Virtual Community, nearly 15 years ago: "Perhaps cyberspace is one of those informal public places, where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall."
From today's vantage point, I'd take Howard's statement one step farther: I believe the newest digital technologies are returning us to the most ancient form of media — one in which a natural order is restored; our individual stories take center stage, with the rest of the world as a backdrop. The stories may only be shared with a handful of people, and the conversation may focus on the larger stories of our time (Where do most blogs link? News stories, of course), but they're told in our own way, in our own voices. We're reclaiming our place at the center of our own lives. And we're all better for it.