The Proving Ground
As a follow-up to my recent pieces on the paradigmatic shifts in media & technology, and the dire need for innovation in the creative industry, I wanted to emphasize the notion of "Prove it, or lose it".
We are at a very precarious juncture in our short Internet history, and are very close to losing what amount to constitutional rights in accessing and spreading media of all types. So, this means we need to show lawmakers what our choices are, and as mostly independent producers, creators and distributors, we need to help lead the charge for policy formation with key stakeholders from government and corporations alike.
I had a chance to retread through this fantastic Clay Shirky talk from earlier this year -- a rally cry really -- on defending our freedom to share. It is arguably the most articulate and digestible position I've seen on why "Old Media" are lobbying to pass legislation in the SOPA-PIPA-ACTA ilk and what we, as citizens and businesses, can do about it.
Shirky's touches upon something critical is his speak: The fight is long from over.
The reason for this is actually quite simple -- the folks in Congress don't understand the alternatives, and as long as they are in the dark, private interest in the form of old media will continue to have a heavy influence on regulation, among many other things.
Over this past weekend I had a good, hearty sit-down with Nigel Cameron, President & CEO of C-PET and Chairman of UNESCO's advisory board. The not-so-simple truth is that there is no legislative foundation, no policy generation, on anything that has to do with emerging technology. To boot, all the smart people in Washington aren't taking a long view on this because they're too busy trying to provide short term solutions that move the "power structure", as it were, a little bit more to the left, or a little more to the right.
Underscoring all of this, however, are deep economic precepts on which no one seems to have a handle. To make matters worse, as a branding machine, Washington is still the most powerful in the world, and so multinational companies will acquiesce to whatever the "power structure" dictates, even if "it" is completely misguided.
As Nigel decidedly put it: "Everyone in Washington has answers, and good answers at that. But nobody is reframing the questions."
So what is a solution set?
It's time to cooperate -- are you ready?
Thinking Before Acting
I've said this many times before and I'll say it again: As creators, we need to own the discipline of generating new business and market models, and we need to prove out these models to anyone and everyone we can. We also need to ask far better questions around what the challenges really are.
We need to do this because the newer markets in which we choose to play will continue to be regulated (or deregulated) by legislative and lobbyist bodies that are fiercely trying to defend the old media infrastructure. And with that, we need to come up with transitional models, not just alternatives that disintermediate old media constructs. In other words, we can't just throw the baby out with the bath water.
Here are just a few scenarios to drive this point forward:
- Ad solutions shouldn't replace ads per se, they should find better ways to leverage content, and more specifically, audiences, making "ads" (in whatever shape or form they take) more relevant, more tolerable, and more valuable. Thankfully, a whole new wave of content exchanges are emerging (with a focus on the mobile space) to address this need.
- Content plays shouldn't replace traditional publishing or journalism per se, or filter out the meat of good stories by generating reams of salacious headlines, they should leverage the best of what journalists have to offer, and package those up as better "freemium to premium" models, as just one example.
- Transmedia producers (yes, a highly ambiguous descriptor these days) should be thinking about distribution platforms that move the needle of the upfront marketplace, not just projects that showcase their individual passions for narrative ideas and experience design.
- Application and technology platform developers should be looking at ways to create better read/write APIs and better enterprise plug-ins so that we can generate and distribute better data and better content, not better filters that limit our access to them.
Notice how all of these elements are interrelated; the ad problem is actually the content problem which is actually the distribution problem which is actually the technology problem which is actually legislative problem which is actually the market problem, which are all tied to a global economy.
Remember: Your story, your app, your platform or your business idea means very little if there isn't a real market for it. And if you haven't noticed, these real markets are disappearing, even if, for example, TV and online video upfronts are still fetching big ad buys. You could call it the grand illusion of consumerism.
Working With (and Against) A Moving Target
Let's look at the macro-economic factors at play here:
- Too much media (ad) inventory commodifies the content being placed against it; fewer clicks and fewer eyeballs means rapidly deflating value (even if that value can be hedged across ad or publishing networks).
- Deflating value means that distribution is stymied; whether you deploy an ad or a pay wall, you're limiting your audience based on scarcity, which means they become increasingly disloyal, and disinclined to "engage" with your media on a consistent basis (The NYT is one exception because it creates really good content and uses its data in smart ways that benefit its readers).
- The more you limit audiences in this way, the more they will find ways to disintermediate or seek out "illegal" alternatives for use, putting media companies and legislative bodies on edge and on high alert, and into back rooms to write messy laws in order to "stop the bleeding".
- In the case of online advertising and digital media, this becomes a bitter irony; "privacy" and "piracy" become shut-down tactics for disparate government agencies who not only don't understand the head of the problem, but are actually biting off the tail that feeds their own ecosystem -- Big Media companies.
- How do Big Media compensate? They create a bunch of "value add" services as their fees go down and get spread out, while big brands create more and more earned and owned media properties, trying to corral consumers into select corners so they can keep selling them stuff. What happens next is a battle over control -- control over inventory, channels and corporate relationships, which of course does nothing good for the marketplace, and frankly, just pisses off consumers.
Yeah, it's a big, recursive mess. And guess who suffers? We do. Consumers, creators, and communities alike.
What The Long View Actually Looks Like
The market will right itself, as we've seen in economic cycles throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The question is whether or not that will happen before or after we've hit Orwellian pay dirt. And as such, 21st century economics remain in flux, while flatter distribution schemes continue to scare the wits out of "the establishment".
For further edification, here's a really crude analogy.
You build a house on land that you don't actually own. The natives come and reclaim it, and you negotiate the spin-off of various parts of the house, you know, the structure that's been put in place. That, or, you figure out a way to lease the land, and use the land to create new opportunities for shared use (and revenue).
We used to call these the "free markets". Now we might as well call them the "not for free markets" or "limited access markets". I would think that this isn't what capitalism or democracy was supposed to be, and it probably wasn't what Gutenberg had in mind when he invented the printing press.
I think you get the point. Let's get to work on reframing the problem so that we can focus on actionable solutions.