Column: Books and Writing

The great old media revival

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , February 4, 20132 Comments

Image credit: Connor Tomas O’Brien

Have you heard of ‘dancing the flip-flop’? Robin Sloan defines it as ‘the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again’. Sloan’s argument is that the best artists and makers are those who can seamlessly move between the digital and physical worlds, instead of restricting themselves to one or the other. Digital thinking can inform physical thinking, and vice versa.

We’ve long been conditioned to believe that technological change involves moving away from the physical world, turning real stuff into code. Books become ebooks. Film negatives become RAW files. Magazines become iPad apps, or blogs, or they just die. Videos become DVDs become transient streaming bits.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing something, and I think the flip-flop partially explains it. ‘Old media’ is back! We’re living in a second golden age of real books and magazines and records.

If you can cast your mind back to 2009, you’ll remember it was probably the worst year for old media in recent history. By July of 2009, 105 newspapers had died, and by December 367 magazines had ceased publishing (this was actually down from 573 magazines closing in 2007, though the magazines that were terminated in 2009 included classics like I.D., Giant, and Gourmet). It was in 2009 that RedGroup, owner of Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson, began to fail, Blockbuster was less than a year away from filing for bankruptcy, and in the UK, independent bookstores closed at a rate of two a week.

Let’s fast-forward. In 2012, 82 magazines closed… but, holy crap, in just the first half of last year, 133 magazines launched! In the US, about 28 indie bookstores closed last year, but over 40 real world, bricks-n-mortar stores opened.

Here’s what I think has happened: we are now living in a flip-flop culture. In 2009, we weren’t. Back then, we believed that digital would destroy physical. In physical we noticed only limitation, and in digital we noticed only possibility.

In 2010, the iPad was introduced and the Kindle became mainstream. If 2009 was the worst year for old media, 2010 was probably the best for digital. Over the proceeding couple of years, we transitioned to Radio and Netflix and Newsstand and iBooks. But when you reach the point at which you can access anything on one device, something strange happens: you don’t think it’s amazing anymore. Once everything is immediate and virtually free and just one click away, there’s nowhere left to go. The possibilities of digital having been exhausted, you begin to realise what you’ve lost.

I think we’ll look back on 2012 as the year of ambivalence, the year in which we started to understand the nature of flip-flopping. A flip-flop culture is one in which digital is not positioned against physical, but in which we’ve learnt how to create cultural products and experiences in which the two are intertwined. We made our culture digital, and now we are going to work out how to place it in the world again, to make the digital physical.

When I visited Brooklyn last month, I kept being told I had to visit Video Free Brooklyn. It’s a video rental store with the tagline, ‘Video stores didn’t die, they just had to evolve.’ Aaron Hillis, who bought Video Free last year, is a flip-flopper. In the Wall Street Journal, he said that his store is for those who live in ‘a post-Netflix age and…see that technology is not perfect. He uses tools like crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to enable his community to help him improve the store. He’s positioned Video Free as a supplement to streaming platforms like Netflix, consciously considering how to provide a different kind of value.

The new breed of magazines and publishers and booksellers (and video store owners!) will succeed because they understand what they’re getting themselves into. If you want to start a print magazine or bookstore today, you don’t just follow the old template, because the old template no longer makes sense. Instead, you begin by considering how your product or business can offer something that nothing online can. In other words, you learn from digital in order to improve the physical. And you work out how to transfer what you’ve learnt from working physically to your digital practice.

Kai Brach was a web designer before starting Offscreen, a print magazine about ‘pixel people’. Brach makes 90% of all Offscreen sales through his website: he’s made digital serve physical. In creating the magazine, he’s also come to recognise more clearly the ‘ephemerality of digital’. Other magazines, like Kinfolk and Kill Screen and Lucky Peach, are creating print experiences that couldn’t exist without the web.

There’s so much more to say about flip-flop culture and the new/old media revival. And the Kill Your Darlings blog, of course, is a perfect place to write about it. Here, you’re right in the middle of flip-flop territory.


Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Killings columnist. An Adelaide-based web designer, he’s currently working on a PhD in the form of a novel exploring the intersection between text adventure games, cults, and Facebook. He’s the co-founder of the ebookstore platform Tomely.

  • Sophie

    YES! I completely agree. In my own small-scale experience, most of the people who read my zine have discovered it via my blog, social media and other assorted internet channels. People who think it’s a two-sided war are wrong.


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »