Ma v. Bell: Power to the people

At the Online Publishers Association confab, I took to the stage and renamed my panel. It was called, Embracing the Audience. But I said the audience doesn’t necessarily care whether big media embraces us and besides, were not an audience anymore, just watching what the big guys do. Don’t call us consumers, either. I said it was about enabling the public. But, as a child of the ’60s, I preferred to put it this way: Empower people.

That’s what smart business is about today: finding ways to empower people, to hand over tools and authority and control and knowledge, to help people do what they want to do, to get out of the way. In the old days — the days of big, the days of scarcity — you made money getting in the way. But that way is imploding. Witness today’s news:

AT&T is acquiring Bell South after having combined with SBC and acquiring PacTel, Ameritech, and Southern New England before that. So now it’s AT&T vs. Verizon (which should just change its name to Bell Telephone, for old time’s sake). But consolidation these days — when small is the new big — is about dinosaurs huddling against the cold, about Gulliver losing out to all those damned Lilliputans. Distribution is not king; in fact, it’s a rotten business. Content is not king; hear the whining from that end of the world. The scarcity economy is over. Openness kills monopolies. Don’t congratulate AT&T. Pity them.

And then there is Skype. When I was in London, I used it nightly to call home for free. As I bragged earlier, I forwarded my US mobile to my Skype-in and my Skype-out to my UK mobile, bypassing or at least discounting all the big, old players. Skype empowers me.

At OPA, I heard big old companies complaining — complaining — that CraigsList and GoogleNews and other modern companies were able to do what they do with small staffs. It was like hearing little kids who don’t get the ball on the field stomping their feet and whining, “It’s not fair, it’s just not fair!” No, it’s not. The new, small companies do to some extent, for now, succeed on the backs of the big companies — pointing to their reporting, using their wires. But the big, old companies just don’t understand that the new, small companies really succeed not because they piggyback but because they empower. Skype builds the network of choice, not compulsion. Digg hires 150,000 news editors for the cost of nothing but handing over power. Google organizes the world’s knowledge by tapping our clicks, our knowledge. They win by empowering the people.

Oh, the big, old companies will still reflexively try to get in the way. That’s all they know how to do. They will try to restrict what we can do on “their” wires with “their” information. They will try to recruit stupid government regulators to conspire and help them. We, the people, have to think five steps ahead of them and organize all our little pieces of ropes and pegs to tie them down. But we will. It’s inevitable.

When free, broadband wi-fi comes to my town — the former headquarters of AT&T, the one-time home of the Golden Boy — I’ll be able to get rid of my Verizon phone and use my Sprint cell less and cancel my Cablevision bill and cancel my newspaper subscriptions and life won’t just be cheaper, it will be better.

The last huge merger in telecom — before Sprint and Qwest are mopped up — is the best indication that the telecom giants are falling. Thanks to Apple and TiVo giving entertainment addresses we can get to around the one official wire into our homes, expect the same to happen with the cable business. When I said that in the hall at OPA, some folks protested that cable still has good cash flow. But I replied, beware the cash cow in the coal mine. There’s no growth there. And thanks to no end of empowering tools — Blogger, GoogleNews, Digg, Wikipedia… — the media companies that tried to get in the way between us and information and each other will also consolidate and then shrink unless they learn to empower us. We are witnessing the supernova of bigness.