The State of Media Literally As a Filter
Two announcements in the last week got me thinking more earnestly about where things are headed in terms of our future as content consumers and distributors. Both came from Twitter, an Internet behemoth, that in all irony, is now becoming a mass medium with Tailored Trends and Expanded Tweets.
Is this move a good thing for the media ecosystem as a whole? I absolutely love Twitter and all that the platform represents to business and culture, but I would argue that what these products do might not benefit us in the long run.
David Carr of the New York Times has been an outspoken critic of the state of media in general, and has made some more obvious claims (meaning "this should be obvious to all of us") that quality has greatly suffered at the hands of the publishing and newspaper industries. The demand side of the equation shows a content ecosystem in full decline in terms of inventory value, while the supply side experiences an ironic flux in what gets published and how. I've touched upon this somewhat extensively in other posts, with a focus on what "new" publishing models can do to lever demand around value versus scarcity (if you're interested in heading down these rabbit holes, see the links at the end of this post).
But the real challenge we face at present, I believe, is one having specifically to do with how we curate and distribute content, and why the edict amongst startups and media powerhouses alike should be concerned more with changing behavior, rather than enabling poorer forms of it... Such as filtering.
Here's what I mean, and it starts with the business models that have been in place since the first Internet boom.
The crude take on this -- perhaps the harsher market reality -- is that we've been creating and using filters like nobody's business (actually, like everybody's business). And it's not necessarily a good thing.
"0 to 1 million": Harking Back to the Early Days of the 'Net
"0 to 1 million" used to be the threshold for a sustainable online business.
Basically, this meant that whatever product you were putting into the market had an adoption of at least 1 million users, at which point investors would jump for joy as they redid their term sheets and prepared the company for an IPO or some other glorious exit. As more of these players emerged, and as they saturated the marketplace quickly over time, new companies would create secondary products to feed the primary markets of content creation and distribution.
What evolved, fortunately, was a new edict that found success in trying out products that fail.
YouTube started out as a dating service, believe it or not. FarmVille was originally a virtual community of houses that people built once and to which they never returned. AOL and Yahoo! used to be search portals that have now become powerful news and publishing outposts. What changed? It's what didn't change that might be the better question, and it all ties back to cultural behaviors.
It's an uncommonly known fact that the first wave of successful players in the web space seeded their communities offline, in environments (like conferences) where there was a concentrated amount of people -- "influencers" and "advocates" -- who would use the product and ingratiate that product into their personal lives and professional circles. This is literally how online products, and offline products as well, garnered adoption.
From there, the founders of startups would do the inglorious work of A/B testing the shit out of their products, what amounted to endless reams of short copy iterations and page positions... You know, that thing called usability. And they would do this incessantly until they reached their "magic million", at which point, again, their financial backers would fiendishly position them for an exit.
Cut to present day, not a whole lot has changed with respect to the business models of content curation.
Instagram is a precursor to the acquisition spree ahead. But are we ignoring investment and market fundamentals? (No, that's not, nor shouldn't be, a rhetorical question). And to that end, why did Facebook buy Instagram? Lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it intends to capitalize on a behavior that Timeline can't provide: Status as a form of sustained interaction. Yes, photos are cool, but for a user, becoming the most visually literate is even cooler.
Let's go a step further and think about this in terms of behavior.
"Virality" has been used as the penultimate branding tool (look at all the "social game" properties out there, along with the arguably anemic phenomenon that is "gamification"...). Inbound marketing has become a distribution strategy (Mint). Sharing has become a status play, perhaps even a vanity mission (Instagram). And of course, sharing has also been used as a concealed means to market affiliates and provide more polished forms of link-baiting (Pinterest).
The difference between the Internet of yesterday and the one of today is simply this: Time and attention have decayed beyond the point of reconciliation, which includes, of course, the willingness to purchase.
Does Disruption Amount to The Cost of (Losing) a Relationship?
Fear not, publishers and netizens representing the "freemium" content markets: People are still willing to pay for access to the good stuff.
A bigger issue looms in the background, however -- what to do with all that good stuff once people are immersed in it, and what it means to the bottom line of a business.
Much of this is tied to availability of content. Some pundits have looked at this as a functional element of abundance, but I will forego an exploration of that as I think it forays into some deeper, ethical debate around the idea of what abundance really is and what it should really be. On the front of available content, I think we do have an interesting paradigm shift in terms of how we might measure value in our audiences, subscribers and advocates.
In other words, what happens when the magic million is no longer an attainable metric? (which it isn't, at least not by just showing up online...)
What happens when any captive segment isn't attainable due to things like privacy, DRM or premium content distribution? (We're already seeing this problem rear it's ugly head with the likes of Pinterest and Instagram...)
What happens when "the funnel" is spread out beyond a captive audience? (By the way, there is no funnel...)
Two words that keep springing to mind -- "disruption" and "engagement" -- are grossly overused in these contexts.
It's just not realistic to keep selling things if what we are selling isn't what people really need, or want, for that matter. Remember that we no longer live in an economy -- all checks and imbalances accounted for -- in which products and respective markets are created as imperatives. We consume our wants and needs on nobody's terms but our own, even to our own perceived detriment. It's a fact, and there are tons of data to prove it.
Now consider the "1%" of original content creators. Are we going to enable their growth, both in quantity and quality? Or, are we going to continue to keep them churning out this content more or less in isolation as the web of sharing (read: replication) grows? Isn't this a game of nurturing relationships, i.e. building the interest graph and knowledge graph?
Further, aren't relationships the predicate for making better products?
The "Every Game" is in Relationships. Period.
Relationships really do supersede transactions, yet we're not yet convinced of it as merchants and marketers.
As Facebook's Paul Adams recently pointed out, advertising and marketing, in particular, can be thought of as a "series of lightweight interactions over time". I happen to believe in a different future altogether (and am co-developing products that will disintermediate a lot of the clutter found in news, media and information), but within the context of a rapid decay in time and attention pertaining to the consumption of web content in general, this makes a lot of sense.
So back to the glory paradigm, and the appeals to innate human behavior -- status, wealth, intrigue, passion, vanity, love, hubris and maybe a dash of humor.
Is our behavior sustainable, or, can we create "slow stimulus"? How 'bout "slower intellect"?
Or simply the ability to think and keep our pants on?
Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach need to remember this in the journey to stay ahead and to remain sustainable. These aren't the financial markets we're talking about, these are systems that can't really be gamed. People can't really be gamed, at least not in the same way credits are doled out in FarmVille or Gilt. Not if we expect people to act as media, which we do, and which they do quite willingly.
If the 20% of the web in aggregate is curated by folks influencing the flow of interactions, then we need to build products and services that tend to the needs and desires of people in specific markets, not build products around choices that amount to picking one mediocre solution over another.
Remember the rule, then fight it, and then build for scale. Break right through that fucking filter bubble... Your future as a thinker and doer depends on it.
This is only the beginning of the battle for a web that is actually discoverable, not personalized to the extent that all that we see is what we already know.
Nurturing Holistic Media Ecosystems
Discovering Information Serendipity
Relationships As Subscriptions