Posts about Media

Davos07: My big conclusion

Perhaps the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was that the powerful are, no surprise, one step behind in their understanding of the true significance of the internet: They think it is all about individual action when, in truth, it’s about collective action. And so they don’t yet see that the internet will shift power even more than they realize.

The powerful at Davos are just starting to talk about the internet and individual empowerment; we heard that often up in the Alps from media (this has become editors’ cant), leaders in politics (like the U.K.’s Gordon Brown and the EU’s Viviane Reding), business (Bill Gates), and even technology (Gates, again). They are not alone; we have heard this for quite a while back down on earth. And it’s certainly true that the internet enables each of us to find the information that matters to us, to publish what we think, and do what we want. But that is only a step along the way to the fate of society after the internet.

The internet is more about collective action. It is about connections. It gives us the power to find each other, to join together, to coalesce around issues, ideas, products, desires, and activities as never before, leaping over all borders, real and cultural. That is the historic progression of power that we are witnessing. That is what we heard from the people who truly understand this mechanism because they are building it: Caterina Fake and Stuart Butterfield of Flickr, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. At Davos, these pioneers didn’t contradicted the machers when they said that the internet is about individualism; on that plane, they were talking past each other. But as I sat down to make my notes about what I learned at Davos, this is what hit me between the eyes.

In media terms, I said at Davos and here on the blog that we have seen a small-scale version of this progression:
1. First, big media let us interact with them, about their stuff.
2. Then big media beg us to give them our stuff.
3. Now we realize that our stuff is ours — not user-generated content for the big guys — and we expect them to come to us.

It’s a distributed world, but I also said at Davos and on the blog that that doesn’t just mean big media can distribute its stuff to us in new ways; it means that all our stuff makes up the corpus of media, that we have the means of creation (bless my Mac and WordPress), marketing (that is, linking), and now distribution (thank you, YouTube). So the wise media macher will figure out how to try to enable people to create and share their stuff, not just big media’s, how to get into the middle of the conversation that’s already occurring– and not just start those conversations, which they still think is their role.

In political and societal terms, this means that institutions themselves are — like media — disaggregated and protean. I sat next to a veteran magazine editor at a dinner one night as he lamented the loss of institutional power and feared the rise of anarchy. Ah, but that’s what you might conclude in the face of the internet if you think it’s all about individualism, about each of us going our own way. If you realize that the internet is, instead, about connections and collective actions, you come to see that institutions will reform, that they will become fluid and ad hoc, like the parliamentary system of multiple parties joining in coalitions to rule. Now we can form our own coalitions to reach the critical mass still needed to be heard and to act. (See my Guardian column about the political essence of the internet, inspired by the Euston Manifesto.)

This editor’s fear of individual anarchy is a corollary to the argument that some societies — China and the Middle East and parts of Africa and, not long ago, Latin America — are not ready for democracy because they will collapse into anarchy without the power of their paternal institutions. I find this deeply offensive, for I strongly believe that every individual on earth has the right to self-determination. And what that means is not murdering in the streets — as, indeed, we see in Iraq today. What that truly means is gathering together into a society if, yes, the conditions allow, if there is the means to assure the security that allows this to happen. Critical mass will rise and a just society — the kind of society we all want — will not allow the tyranny of a minority or, in the case of a dictator, the minority of one. Society is balance and the internet is a new balancer.

So we see a similar path as in media:
1. The powerful realize they have no choice but to let you speak (even in China and the Middle East).
2. The powerful are forced to listen.
3. The powerful will realize that this isn’t just about mutual discussion but mutual decision.
Gordon Brown made noises like that. Whether he means it, we will see when he comes to power. The same for Hillary Clinton and her talk about conversation as campaign.

In business terms, of course, the internet allows the customer to finally, truly be in charge. I’ve written about that often enough.

And in technology terms, I believe, the future is not about establishing social networks as walled playgrounds but instead realizing that the internet is the social network. And so the question is how to enable that, how — in Zuckerberg’s term — to find an elegant organization for what is happening there already.

That is the job of media, government, business, and technology: to enable us to make better connections, to set the conditions for our collaboration. But this will frighten them more than it has already. For individuals don’t seem threatening on their own. But coalitions? Now that’s scary for the powerful. And the powerful don’t yet realize what’s happening. As Jackie Ashley said in a Guardian column — with which I otherwise have a few disagreements — inspired by Brown et al’s embrace of bloggers at Davos:

So when politicians and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it?

Exactly. This is the best indication that they don’t yet comprehend the impact of the internet — they don’t, as we say, get it. Oh, they’ve come a distance from their old ways; they realize they can’t dictate to all of us anymore. They know they have to do a better job of at least appearing to listen. But the realization that the internet is really the means for us to gang up on them hasn’t fully dawned on them yet. In that sense, I’ll bet that my new Davos pal Michael Dell is ahead of the rest, for he faced the gang, the coalescing critical mass of connections that the internet enabled.

So let them think that interactivity and social networks are ways for us to amuse ourselves while they still wield the power. They will wake up one day and realize they no longer own the world and can no longer look down at it from the top of the mountain. See Alan Rusbridger on one of the Davos media sessions, where the head of what can still be called the most powerful journalistic voice in the world looked up to find himself facing a just-out-of-college kid who reportedly turned down $1.5 billion for his company and who understands this new world in his soul; it’s not the money that should make the moguls jealous but that understanding. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook explained to the media moguls that the job of media — and, for that matter, government, business, and technology — is to bring people together to find distributed and elegant solutions to their problems. That is not web 3.0. That’s society 2.1. And we’ve only just begun.

Davos07: Media discussion notes

Some notes on the media discussions at Davos:

* I remain concerned about the lack of innovation in the news business. Too much of the discussion was a rehash of what we’ve heard before: blogs v. msm, print v. online, falling news budgets, objectivity, professionalism in journalism. Insert scream sound-effect here. This was the year when big, old media realized there is no going back — in the year of the collapse of Knight Ridder and Tribune, they realize that there but for the grace of a stockholder or two so they go. But too many of them haven’t yet realized that the only path out of this is brave, bold, strategic innovation. They can’t even buy the new kids anymore because the kids are worth more than $1.5 billion. I still heard too much argument and depression when what we should be seeing is cooperation and optimism. If I had any message at Davos, that was it.

* There was a lot of talk about passion (no, not that kind). Arianna Huffington said that what separates bloggers is their passionate determination to dog a story; this is why she called Nick Kristof at The Times very bloggish because he has not let up on Darfur. She said that bloggers have obsessive-compulsive disorder while reporters (or more likely, their editors) have attention deficit disorder. Some editors resented this — ‘we have passion, too’ — and some agreed. I think the media determines much of this; for in scarce space on paper, you can’t afford to keep pushing a story few care about while online, you have unlimited space and the definition of ‘too few’ changes.

* I heard a lot of discussion of brands, especially from one magazine editor. The big media people believe that their brands are their power, and perhaps they’re right, but this editor also sees that the definition of their brands must expand to include their writers and their readers (that is, you are defined by who creates and who collects around you). Being a collection of brands vs. one big brands may be the way of the future: those brands rub off on the big guy as much as the big guy’s brand rubs on on the rest (which is how media has worked: you were hot because you worked at the Daily Blatt but soon the Daily Blatt may be hot because you work with it).

* I hear more talk about rewarding those amateurs out there who contribute news. Bild, the giant German tabloid, pays its “reader-reporters” (not a bad term, the more I think about it) and YouTube is getting ready to share revenue with its producers. I had a long talk with an entrepreneur about new distributed ad models to support the new media of the people.

* That damned objectivity fight came up a few times. I’m too tired of it to even bother recounting more of it. But I will quote one European editor who said that journalists should not consider what they want the world to be but instead to merely explain the world. That strikes me as another way to say “objective,” and I find it disingenuous, for reporters and editors crusade precisely because they do want to change the world and that is the basis for much of their editorial decision-making; now they simply need to admit it.

* We keep thinking of news as a product. John Battelle quoted someone (sorry, can’t remember who) saying that news people have the same problem Microsoft has had as it switches from a shrink-wrapped to a service business. Journalism is and always has been a service, only we made the mistake of defining it by its packaging.

* I also argue that journalism in the future isn’t a product but the product of a network: an ongoing, distributed service many contribute to. See a later post about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s view of the elegant architecture of distributed information services.

Click on the ‘davos07‘ tag to see more reports on the media scene.

Guardian column: Death of the page view

My Guardian column this week is a sanded and polished version of recent posting and linking about the death of the page view and, with it, the mass. (Nonregistration version here.)

Just when we were getting used to it, the page view has been declared dead. There are many reasons for its passing, having to do with how web pages are now made and how web content is now distributed. But there is one seismic implication to this – in media, mass is over. Size doesn’t matter.

It was only about a decade ago that I sat on a dreadfully boring committee of the American Audit Bureau of Circulations debating how to define a page view (rather than a hit) as the elemental measurement of new media. This body, which blesses the circulation counts of print products, tried to replicate its world-view online, verifying the circulation – that is, the audience and traffic – of internet properties. But as it turned out, no advertiser or publisher wanted these audits. All marketers cared about was verifying whether they got what they paid for: views, people, clicks. You see, overall circulation mattered only when you and your ads were stuck in the same pages with many other advertisers and you all got the same audience, whether that audience gave a damn about you or not. But now, online, you could find better ways to reach just the people you wanted or who wanted you. Thus, travel advertisers needn’t care about the circulation of Guardian Unlimited, only about who saw their ads on travel pages.

In recent times, the situation has grown more complicated because, on the web, a page is no longer a page. Video can be served on a page, but it is measured in time, not space. Flash and Ajax technology can make any individual page many levels deep, allowing users to interact with content – navigating maps, ordering merchandise, viewing slideshows, chatting – without ever leaving the page. So the activities that once would have added up to a dozen page views will now count as only one. This is having a significant impact on businesses such as Yahoo, which are using these technologies to improve the user experience, reducing clicks in the hopes of increasing time on the site or satisfaction or loyalty. But this reduces page views and with that, bragging rights and, in some cases, revenue.

Now add to this the widgetisation of the web. Content may be displayed not only on your pages but also in widgets – boxes, gadgets and applications – that are embedded in pages elsewhere. This is how much of MySpace is built and how YouTube spreads video all over the internet. The audience becomes the distributor. How do you count that?

And consider Google AdSense modules that are spread all across the web, from NYTimes.com to my humble blog. Shouldn’t each of those be counted as Google page views since Google revenue is attached? Doesn’t that make Google look even more gigantic than it already is? What this really means is that in the new distributed media economy, owning a site doesn’t matter so much as enabling a network. This, in a nutshell, is why Yahoo, the centralised media property, is at a disadvantage versus Google, the distributed network.

Things get even crazier when you consider that if you make a good commercial, the public will distribute it for you on YouTube – advertising becomes content. Now that is really an upside-down world.

Finally, consider the impossibility of the old means of measurement. TV ratings were based on a sampling that determined the proportion of the audience watching, say, channel 2 or 4. But in this new niche world, no sample can possibly be large enough to measure millions of blogs or online TV shows.

But more fundamental than all this is, again, that size doesn’t matter anymore, not in media. Oh, yes, the movie with the biggest box office or the book with the biggest sales still makes the most money – for now at least. But in more and more of the media, mass measurements are obsolete because we are now fragmented into the mass of niches. And the truth is that we, the audience, never cared how many more people were watching what we watched. And advertisers don’t care so much what we’re watching so long as we’re watching them.

In a world of so many choices, the audience care about trust, taste, relevance, usefulness, not ratings. And advertisers care more about targeting, efficiency, engagement, branding and return on investment. These are better measurements than print circulation or broadcast ratings or online page views. And so now, publishers, advertisers and technologists must catch up and change their yardsticks for success yet again. It is time to measure quality over quantity.

Gov.com

I don’t fully understand this but the British media regulator Ofcom is contemplating funding a new online competitor to the BBC to operate solely on the internet. Wouldn’t it be better to ise tat money to give tax breaks to media innovators and startups?

Choice and art

As a consumer, creator, and critic, I celebrate the choice and freedom our new medium-of-the-people gives us. But some fear that choice.

In one of those impossibly broad, I’ll-explain-the-world-to-you, year-end survey pieces in The Times’ arts section, Jon Pareles tackles the video of the people. It’s a fine summary of where we are but, like a newsmagazine piece, it really adds little new in information or thought. At first, he seems to celebrate this explosion of creativity. But just wait. . . .

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected.

But in the end, this all turns out to be a rhetorical exercise: Pareles sets up the phenom of this grand era of self-expression only to shoot it down:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace — some played two million or three million times — tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There’s always another choice.

But choice is the fuel that feeds art. And the freedom to create is the match.

I return, as is my thumbsucking Sunday-survey-piece habit, to my time as a TV critic in the mid-80s, when choice — enabled with the remote control, VCR, and cable box — yielded better television. The entertainment industry had to fight harder to get our attention and could no longer forcefeed us their swill, and so TV improved. The Beverly Hillbillies yielded to Cosby and Seinfeld; Knots Landing yielded to The Sopranos.

Choice is good, not something to be lamented. Indeed, I find it ironic that a critic, of all people, should be complaining about choice. Choice is precisely what necessitates criticism.

Ah, but criticism, too, suffers fragmentation. It’s no longer possible — nor was it ever desirable — to be the one-size-fits-all-aesthetics critic because taste and choice go hand-in-hand: We all have different tastes and so we all want to choose what we like. This makes it damned hard — no, impossible — to be the critic for everyone, which is what a newspaper-for-everyone demands. No, I want critics who like the sorts of things I like to find the things I want. In other words, I want to know what my friends like. Friends whose taste we know, trust, and share have long been the most effective critics. Now, the internet provides the opportunity to make more such friends and I am confident we will see more and more systems to enable that.

In fact, I’d argue that this is a role of critics and their outlets. I don’t give a damn what the nation’s best-selling books are; that matters only to the publishers to print them. I would, however, love to know the best-selling books among New York Times readers are (or New Yorker or Guardian or Paid Content). That starts to get us to a smaller group of friends whose judgment matters.

Pareles makes the common mistake of bringing old-media, mass metrics to the new-media, niche world. We judged TV as a mass medium on the basis of the shows on the top of the ratings and that worked when there were three channels. But it didn’t work when we got 100 channels and the best of sci-fi had nothing to do with the best of history or food or sports or news or business on TV. And that critical worldview especially does not work in the new age of unlimited channels, when we all make our own networks.

It is a mistake to judge this new medium by the presence of junk; there is junk in all media. And it is a mistake to judge this new medium by the most-watched; those are merely the curiosities that happen to ignite for a moment. That analysis misses the great pockets of niche quality that are growing underneath: See Terry Teachout’s discovery of the treasures of jazz in YouTube.

Oh, and by the way, it is also a mistake to judge the value of a medium so new. The people’s TV is really less than a year old, for it was in this year that YouTube brought us the last piece to the puzzle enabling unlimited creativity — adding free distribution to the inexpensive equipment and easy tools and powerful marketing via links that we already had. The first days of TV produced crap (that was hardly the medium’s golden age; I say that age began when we got choice, starting in the mid-80s until, oh, about a year ago). Hey, babies make crap. But we know this baby will grow.

So the more intriguing question is what the role of criticism is in this new world of magnificent choice. That’s what I plan to explore in a new course I’ll be teaching next fall at CUNY: Criticism in the Age of Convergence. I hope I’ll get Parales to join me and my colleague Anthony DeCurtis — two of my favorite critics, by the way, both of whom I tried damned hard to hire when I started Entertainment Weekly — and Teachout, too, to explore the new opportunities and needs for criticism.

: Here’s a related Guardian column I wrote about criticism.

: LATER: Staci Kramer deftly dissects Pareles’ piece:

It’s close to a compulsion–this need for traditional media to expound on the real meaning of user-gen media. Social phenomenon. Old wine in new bottles. No substitute for pros. Pick one or all. . . . He views [MySpace and YouTube] as “empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.” MySpace is “an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips.” YouTube is “a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos.” . . . “User-generated content” is “the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006” but Pareles prefers self-expression. Whatever it’s called, it leads to more fragmentation countered by user ranking/filtering that mimics the old media gatekeepers–and a further splintering of “cultural unity” in an online world with endless choice. As he explores the cultural meaning, what Pareles skips over is that News Corp.and Google weren’t buying the content as much as the community, the massive traffic and the distribution MySpace.com and YouTube.com provide respectively. That, and the idea that sophisticated online advertising can overcome fragmentation. . . .