Who wants to own content?

Distribution is not king.

Content is not king.

Conversation is the kingdom.

The war is over and the army that wasn’t even fighting — the army of all of us, the ones who weren’t in charge, the ones without the arms — won. The big guys who owned the big guns still don’t know it. But they lost.

In our media 2.0, web 2.0, post-media, post-scarcity, small-is-the-new-big, open-source, gift-economy world of the empowered and connected individual, the value is no longer in maintaining an exclusive hold on things. The value is no longer in owning content or distribution.

The value is in relationships. The value is in trust.


I’m writing this post — grappling with perhaps the most fundamental truth of my brief blogging career — because I still hear big-media colleagues insisting — or perhaps they’re praying — that content is king, that owning content is where the value is, that equity will still grow from exclusivity.

But no: Content is transient, its value perishable, its chance of success slight. You think your article or book or movie or song or show is worth a fortune and in a blockbuster economy, if you were insanely lucky, you could be right. But now anyone can create content. And thanks to the power of the link — and the trust it carries — anyone can get the world to see it. Is some of this new load of content crap? Sure. Lots of content in the old media world was crap, too. But don’t calculate the proportions. Look instead at the gross volume of quality: There’s simply more good stuff out there than there could be before. And it can be created at incredibly low or no cost.

There is no scarcity of good stuff. And when there is no scarcity, the value of owning a once-scarce commodity diminishes and then disappears. In fact, it’s worse than that: Owning the content factory only means that you have higher costs than the next guy: You own the high-priced talent or infrastructure while your new competitor owns just her own talent and a PC.


Distribution? It was already dethroned — though, again, the old barons of bandwidth don’t know it. Owning the printing press, broadcast tower, cable plant, movie theater, or chain of stores is a cost burden when your competitors and customers can, without friction, effort or cost, bypass your distribution and even your marketing. You thought you “owned the customer.” But all you owned was the bill they didn’t want to pay — that and assets that cost you money. It just doesn’t pay to own the assets anymore. Oh, yes, you can still milk cash from them. But can you get growth?

Over and over, I hear old-industry guys arguing that you have to own these assets because that’s where the equity is, that’s where Wall Street puts the value. But since when was following Wall Street a strategy?


So where is the value now? Is there value now? Of course, there is. The value is — thank you, Cluetrain — in the conversation, in the relationship. The value is in trust.

This is so hard for those of us trained in the old economy to get our heads around. That is why, like an ape on 2001, I keep poking at this obelisk to figure out what it is.

But in this new age, you don’t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don’t want to extract value. You want to add value. You don’t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in.

And once you get your head around that, you will see that you can grow so much bigger so much faster with so much less cost and risk.

So don’t own the content. Help people make and find and remake and recommend and save the content they want. Don’t own the distribution. Gain the trust of the people to help them use whatever distribution and medium they like to find what they want.

In these new economics, you want to stand back and interfere and restrict as little as possible. You want to reduce costs to the minimum. You want to join in wherever you are welcome.

So in the content world, it is better help enable and be part of fluid networks of content than it is to create and own content (see: open-source ad networks, specialized search, remixing tools, sharing communities). It is better to find new efficiencies than new blockbusters (see: Lulu.com, the Redhat founder’s new on-demand book publishing enterprise). It is better to gather than create (see: hyperlocal citizens’ media vs. big, old, expensive, exclusionary newsrooms). It is better to share trust than to horde it.

In this model, newspapers have a problem: They want to control information and the means of sharing rather than enabling that sharing. Book publishers are inefficient as hell: They have to guess what the audience wants rather than helping questioners find answerers. Entertainment producers are doomed to support extravagant costs: They have raised the bar to success beyond their own reach. Cable companies and broadcasters are lost: They have no idea how to serve people, only masses. Marketers and their agencies are befuddled: They have evolved into beasts without ears. And — here’s my favorite — AOL has it utterly, completely, spectacularly wrong: It wanted to control content and distribution and controlled nothing at all.

I like to think that I live and work at the intersection of big, old media and small, new unmedia. But I may be wrong. I sometimes wonder whether there is an intersection after all. I hope there is. But I’m still looking for its exact coordinates. I wonder whether they are compatible, because their business models and worldviews and DNA are just so different. It’s hard for somone raised on the value of owning content and owning distribution to let go of exclusivity and instead value openness and participation.

If I have to pick sides, you can guess what side I pick: small, not big; open, not closed; shared, not owned; enabled, not excluded.

Yet once you think about it, this isn’t so new, really: Isn’t journalism supposed to be about building trust (so how did it become so untrusted?)? Aren’t brands supposed to be about communicating trust (so how did so many of them become so untrustworthy?)?

In the end, isn’t the only asset worth owning trust?

Content is not king.

Distribution is not king.

Trust is king in the kingdom of conversation.