The ultimate fate of the media

Last week, I talked a lot about the efforts of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to get into the media business, and how the internet is poised to change television as we know it. Of course, the reality is that so far we’ve just seen the figurative levees breaking – network TV content finally made its way online in a legitimate way. There’s still a long way to go before it reaches a viable state. In any case, as I explained then, I do view it as the beginning of the end of big media (or old media, as some call it, though I think that’s a misnomer. I’ll explain why later).

In the interests of considering an alternative viewpoint, here’s an argument as to why that view is wrong (which floated up through memeorandum this morning), titled Bloggers Are So Wrong About Media:

Let’s say I’m the average person who wants to see what blogs are all about. I’m interested in health and wellness. Where do I go to find the best blogs on this topic? Technorati? Even in the very unlikely event I’ve heard of Technorati (the name is so off putting), a search of Health and Wellness produces a list of random blog posts, including many in Asian languages. (Did you know there is an entire blog about thrush?) I’m going to give up Prevention magazine for this?

[…]

Granted, the business models of Old Media are coming apart at the seams. “Static media” won’t survive. But don’t count out the Old Media brands just yet. There’s hope for Disney, Wall Street Journal, and maybe even Lady’s Home Journal.

People want a filter. They want someone to tell them what’s important, what matters. They don’t have the energy or the time or the wherewithal to figure it out themselves. People are willing to sacrifice some freedom to live (what they perceive to be) a comfortable existence. (How else could Bush have gotten reelected?) “Walled gardens” online may well be at risk, as Bill Burnham argues, but consumers may not be ready to exit Eden — at least there’s the illusion that you can trust what you find.

Now, I do agree with him on a few points. Brands will survive. The New York Times, Fox, Disney – these will always exist in one form or another (or at least, if they cease to exist, it won’t be the fault of new technology). They’re slow to get it, but they will. Eventually, the NYT will look more like a blog and less like a newspaper, Disney will put its content on the web in a searchable and remixable fashion, etc. Realistically, I don’t think anyone is really suggesting these guys will go out of business. Just that their business will change, whether they like it or not. We will also see the emergence of new media brands – slashdot, boingboing, dailykos. (This is why I prefer to say “big media” rather than “old media”. I think the future holds a great many “small media” brands, not these super-huge conglomerates that we’ve seen in the past.)

Where I think his analysis is off on two points – he portrays it as “blogs vs. old media”, and I think he underestimates what people really care about as media consumers (convenience).

First, he notes that in a world with infinite media, people need a filter. This is entirely correct. The point that he misses is that this is exactly what blogs do. When you read a newspaper like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, he’s correct in describing these as filters. The editor and reporters parse everything that’s going on in the world, determine what’s important, and present it to you in any easy to digest form. The thing is, this is exactly what bloggers do as well, only they do it better. I very, very rarely go to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, AP, or Reuters web sites directly. Instead, I rely on blogs on remix all that content, to filter it for me – I only read the articles from each based on what my favorite bloggers find interesting. When you look at the network effect (as does Digg, memeorandum, Delicious, Technorati), the filter gets even better.

Secondly, the internet started as a completely open platform, then businesses tried to build these “walled gardens” on top of it, they failed, and now we’re back to an open platform. In the very early days, there was Prodigy, then came AOL. Yahoo tried to be a walled garden in the early 90’s, as well as countless other failed internet portals. Google reached an amazing level of success not by walling users in, but by opening up the web to them (this, incidentally, is where a recent BusinessWeek article referenced in the argument I’m discussing gets it wrong – the thing he’s arguing for has already been tried, and Google won) . The walled garden model clearly doesn’t work – the reason being that it go against the grain of what people want. It’s not a filter per se, it’s convenience. The single greatest driver for the adoption of new media platforms has always been convenience, and walled gardens just aren’t convenient compared to the open web.

Now, I do agree with him that filtering remains the key problem. It takes a while to discover those blogs that you’ll like, and non-geeks often don’t know that most of the best filtration sites exist. And unless you have that, then the convenience factor is completely negated – it’s easier to just go to the NYT, or watch your favorite TV network. But I think it’s a problem well on its way to being solved. When Amazon.com first launched, my biggest complaint was that there wasn’t an easy way to browse “Earth’s biggest bookstore” – you had to know what you wanted for it to be of any use. Ten years later though, their recommendation engine has mitigated that somewhat – I can use Amazon.com to discover new things without being overwhelmed by the choices. iTunes and Yahoo music store both deliver recommendations based at least partly on popularity (network effects) and Pandora is a pretty cool effort in that space as well. Google and Yahoo are also working furiously on the problem, trying to develop a personalized web, automating the process of putting the stuff I’ll like in front of me on the screen. My guess is they’ll get it to “good enough” within another three to five years – and once that happens, why would I take a chance on NBC when Yahoo can find me a bunch of shows from all over the web that I know I’ll like?

The future is infinite content. The people that will dominate the future media will be the ones who can do the best job of taking all that content, surveying it, remixing it, and delivering it to you in the most convenient fashion possible, without overwhelming you with it. It will probably be some combination of everything we’ve seen so far: editors (whether the NYT or a popular blogger), network effects, and personalized recommendations. What I don’t see any room for in this future is walled gardens of content.

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