In Medium Rez

I

Although Apple introduced its Video iPod at the end of 2005, this is the year when video begins to take off. Everywhere. The sheer profusion of devices which can play video – from iPods to desktop and laptop computers to Sony’s Playstation Portable, the Nintendo DS, and nearly all current-generation mobile phones – means that people will be watching more video, in more places, than ever before. You may not want to watch that episode of “Desperate Housewives” on your iPod – unless you happened to be tied up last Monday evening, and forgot to program your VCR. Then you’ll be glad you can. Sure, the picture is small and grainy, the sound’s a bit tinny, and your arms will get tired holding that screen in front of your face for an hour, but these drawbacks mean nothing to a true fan. And the true fans will lead this revolution.

We’re growing comfortable with the idea that screens are everywhere, that we can – in the time it takes to ride the train to work – get caught up on our favorite stories, the last World Cup match, and the news of the world. A generation ago it seemed odd to see someone in public wearing earphones; today it’s a matter of course. This afternoon it might seem odd to see someone staring into their mobile phone; tomorrow it will seem perfectly normal.

II

Now that video is everywhere, it won’t be long until the business of television moves online. Already, Apple has sold close to ten million episodes of television series like “Lost” and “The Office”. Google wants to sell you episodes of the original “Star Trek”, “The Brady Bunch” and “CSI”. For television producers it’s a win-win; they’ve already sold the episodes to broadcast networks – generally for a bit less than they cost to make – so the online sales are extra and vital dollars to cover the gap between loss and profit.

Today only a few of the hundreds of series shown in the US, UK and Australia are available for sale online. By the end of this year, most of them will be. Will the broadcast networks like this? Yes and no. It deprives them of some of the power they hold over the audience – to gather them at one place and time, eyeballs for advertisers – but it also creates new audiences: people see an episode online, and decide to tune in for the next one. That’s something we’ve already seen – “The Office”, for example, spiked upward in broadcast ratings after it was offered online. This year, there’s likely to be another breakout television hit – a new “Lost” – which starts its life online.

III

Once video is everywhere, once all our favorite television shows are available online for download, we’ll learn something else: there’s a lot more out there than just those shows produced for broadcast. On sites like Google Video and YouTube, you can already download tens of thousands of short- and full-length television programs. Some of them are woefully amateur productions, the kind that make you cringe in horror, but others – and there are more and more of these – are as funny and dramatic as anything you might see on broadcast television. Think TropFest – but a thousand times bigger.

Once we get used to the idea that television is something they can download, we’ll find ourselves drawn to these other, more unusual offerings. Most of this fare isn’t ready for prime-time. Much of it is only meant for a tight circle of friends and aficionados. But some of it will break through, and get audiences in the millions. It’s already happened a few times in the last year; this year it will become so common that, by the end of 2006, we’ll think nothing of it at all. This thought scares both the broadcast networks and the commercial TV producers. After all, if we’re spending our time watching something created by four kids in Goulburn, that’s time we’re not watching commercially-produced entertainment. And how do the networks compete with that?

IV

This fundamental transformation in how we find and watch entertainment isn’t confined to video. It’s happening to all other media, simultaneously. More people listen to the podcasts of Radio National than listen to the live broadcast; more people read the Sydney Morning Herald online than read the print edition. And these are just the professional offerings. As with television, each of these media are facing a rising sea of competition – from amateurs. Apple offers tens of thousands of podcasts through its iTunes Music Store – including Radio National – on just about any topic under the sun, from the mundane to the truly bizarre. You can get “feeds” of news from Fairfax – headlines and links to online versions of the stories – but you can also get that any of several thousand news-oriented blogs. Click a few buttons and the news is automatically downloaded to your computer, every half hour.

As it gets easier and easier for us to choose exactly what we want to watch, hear and read, the commercial and national broadcasters find themselves facing the “death of a thousand cuts.” Every pair of ears listening to a podcast is an audience member who won’t show up in the ratings. Every subscriber to an “amateur” news feed is a subscriber lost to a newspaper. And this trend is just beginning. In another decade, we’ll wonder how we lived without all this choice.

V

Choice is a beautiful thing. We define ourselves by the choices we make: what we do, who we know, what we fill our leisure time with. Now that our media is everywhere, available from everyone, any hour of the day or night, we’re going to find ourselves confronted by an unexpected problem: rather than trying to decide what to watch on five terrestrial broadcast channels – or fifty cable channels – we’ll have to pick from an ocean of a million different programs; even if most of them aren’t all that appealing, at least a few thousand will be, at any point in time.

That kind of choice will make us all a little bit crazy, because we’ll always be wondering if, just now, something better isn’t out there, waiting for us to download it. Like the channel surfer who sits, remote in hand, flipping through the channels, hoping for something to catch his eye, we’re going to be flipping through hundreds of thousands and then millions of choices of things to watch, hear and read. We’re going to be drowning in possibilities. And the pressure – to keep up, to be informed, to be on the tip – is about to create the most savvy generation of media consumers the world has ever seen.

We’re drowning in choice, but, because of that, we’ll figure out how to share what we know about what’s good. We already receive lots of email from friends and family with links to the best things they’ve found online. That’s going to continue, and accelerate; our circles of friends are becoming our TV programmers, our radio DJs, our newspaper editors, and we’ll return the favor. The media of the 21st century are created by us, edited by us, and broadcast by us. That’s a deep change, and a permanent one.

Going into Syndication

I.

Content. Everyone makes it. Everyone consumes it. If content is king, we are each the means of production. Every email, every blog post, every text message, all of these constitute production of content. In the earliest days of the web this was recognized explicitly; without a lot of people producing a lot of content, the web simply wouldn’t have come into being. Somewhere toward the end of 1995, this production formalized, and we saw the emergence of a professional class of web producers. This professional class asserts its authority over the audience on the basis of two undeniable strengths: first, it cultivates expertise; second, it maintains control over the mechanisms of distribution. In the early years of the Web, both of these strengths presented formidable barriers to entry. As we emerged from the amateur era of “pages about kitty-cats” into the branded web era of CNN.com, NYT.com, and AOL.com, the swarm of Internet users naturally gravitated to the high-quality information delivered through professional web sites. The more elite (and snobbish) of the early netizens decried this colonization of the electronic space by the mainstream media; they preferred the anarchic, imprecise and democratic community of newsgroups to the imperial aegis of Big Media.

In retrospect, both sides got it wrong. There was no replacement of anarchy for order; nor was there any centralization of attention around a suite of “portal” sites, though, for at least a decade it seemed precisely this was happening. Nevertheless, the swarm has a way of consistently surprising us, of finding its way out of any box drawn up around it. If, for a period of time, it suited the swarm to cozy up to the old and familiar, this was probably due more to habit than to any deep desire. When thrust into the hyper-connected realm of the Web, our natural first reaction is to seek signposts, handholds against the onrush of so much that clamors about its own significance. In cyberspace you can implicitly trust the BBC, but when it comes to The Smoking Gun or Disinformation, that trust must be earned. Still, once that trust has been won, there would be no going back. This is the essence of the process of media fragmentation. The engine that drives fragmentation is not increasing competition; it is increasing familiarization with the opportunities on offer.

We become familiar with online resources through “the Three Fs”. We find things, we filter them, we forward them along. Social networks evolve the media consumption patterns which suit themselves best; this is often not highly correlated with the content available from mainstream outlets. Over time, social networks tend to favor the obscure over the quotidian, as the obscure is the realm of the cognoscenti. This trend means that this fragmentation is both inevitable and bound to accelerate.

Fragmentation spreads the burden of expertise onto a swarm of nanoexperts. Anyone who is passionate, intelligent, and willing to make the attention investment to master the arcana of a particular area of inquiry can transform themselves into a nanoexpert. When a nanoexpert plugs into a social network that values this expertise (or is driven toward nanoexpertiese in order to raise their standing within an existing social network), this investment is rewarded, and the connection between nanoexpert and network is strongly reinforced. The nanoexpert becomes “structurally coupled” with the social network – for as long as they maintain that expertise against all competitors. This transformation is happening countless times each day, across the entire taxonomy of human expertise. This is the engine which has deprived the mainstream media of their position of authority.

While the net gave every appearance of centralization, it never allowed for a monopoly on distribution. That house was always built on sand. But the bastion of expertise, this took longer to disintegrate. Yet it has, buffeted by wave after wave of nanoexperts. With the rise of the nanoexpert, mainstream media have lost all of their “natural” advantages, yet they still have considerable economic, political and popular clout. We must examine how they could translate this evanescent power into something which can survive the transition to world of nanoexperts.

II.

While expertise has become a diffuse quality, located throughout the cloud of networked intelligence, the search for information has remained essentially unchanged for the past decade. Nearly everyone goes to Google (or a Google equivalent) as a first stop on a search for information. Google uses swarm intelligence to determine the “trust” value of an information source: the most “trusted” sites show up as the top hits on Google’s Page Rank. Thus, even though knowledge and understanding have become more widespread, the path toward them grows ever more concentrated. I still go to the New York Times for international news reporting, and the Sydney Morning Herald for local news. Why? These sources are familiar to me. I know what I’m going to get. That means a lot, because as the number of possible sources reaches toward infinity, I haven’t the time or the inclination to search out every possible source for news. I have come to trust the brand. In an era of infinite choice, a brand commands attention. Yet brands are being constantly eroded by the rise of the nanoexpert; the nanoexpert is persuaded by their own sensibility, not subject to the lure of a well-known brand. Although the brand may represent a powerful presence in the contemporary media environment, there is very little reason to believe this will be true a decade or even five years hence.

For this reason, branded media entities need to make an accommodation with the army of nanoexperts. They have no choice but to sue for peace. If these warring parties had nothing to offer one another, this would be a pointless enterprise. But each side has something impressive to offer up in a truce: the branded entities have readers, and the nanoexperts are constantly finding, filtering and forwarding things to be read. This would seem to be a perfect match, but for one paramount issue: editorial control. A branded media outlet asserts (with reason) that the editorial controls developed over a period of years (or, in the case of the Sydney Morning Herald, centuries) form the basis of a trust relationship with its audience. To disrupt or abandon those controls might do more than dilute the brand – they could quickly destroy it. No matter how authoritative a nanoexpert might be, all nanoexpert contributions represent an assault upon editorial control, because these works have been created outside of the systems of creative production which ensure a consistent, branded product. This is the major obstacle that must be overcome before nanoexperts and branding media can work together harmoniously.

If branded media refuse to accept the ascendancy of nanoexperts, they will find themselves entirely eroded by them. This argument represents the “nuclear option”, the put-the-fear-of-God-in-you representation of facts. It might seem completely reasonable to a nanoexpert, but appears entirely suspect to the branded media, seeing only increasing commercial concentration, not disintegration. For the most part, nanoexperts function outside systems of commerce; their currency is social standing. Nanoexpert economies of value are invisible to commercial entities; but that does not mean they don’t exist. If we convert to a currency of attention – again, considered highly suspect by branded media – we can represent the situation even more clearly: more and more of the audience’s attentions are absorbed by nanoexpert content. (This is particularly true of audiences under 25 years old, who have grown to maturity in the era of the Web.)

The point can not be made more plainly, nor would it do any good to soften the blow: this transition to nanoexpertise is inexorable – this is the ad-hoc behavior of the swarm of internet users. There’s only one question of any relevance: can this ad-hoc behavior be formalized? Can the systems of production of the branded media adapt themselves to an era of “peer production” by an army of nanoexperts? If branded media refuse to formalize these systems of peer production, the peer production communities will do so – and, in fact, many already have. Sites such as Slashdot, Boing Boing, and Federated Media Publishing have grown up around the idea that the nanoexpert community has more to offer microaudiences than any branded media outlet. Each of these sites gets millions of visitors, and while they may not match the hundreds of millions of visitors to the major media portals, what they lack in volume they make up for in their multiplicity; these are successful models, and they are being copied. The systems which support them are being replicated. The means of fragmentation are multiplying beyond any possibility of control.

III.

A branded media outlet can be thought of as a network of contributors, editors and publishers, organized around the goal of gaining and maintaining audience attention. The first step toward an incorporation of peer production into this network is simply to open the gates of contribution to the army of nanoexperts. However, just because the gates to the city are open does not mean the army will wander in. They must be drawn in, seduced by something on offer. As commercial entities, branded media can offer to translate the coin of attention into real currency. This is already their function, so they will need to make no change to their business models to accommodate this new set of production relationships.

In the era of networks, joining one network to another is as simple as establishing the appropriate connections and reinforcing these connections by an exchange of value which weights their connections appropriately. Content flows into the brand, while currency flows toward the nanoexperts. This transition is simple enough, once editorial concerns have been satisfied. The issues of editorial control are not trivial, nor should they be sublimated in the search for business opportunities; business have built their brand around an editorial voice, and should seek only to associate with those nanoexperts who understand and are responsive to that voice. Both sides will need to be flexible; the editorial voice must become broader without disintegrating into a common yowl, while the nanoexperts must put aside the preciousness which they have cultivated in search of their expertise. Both parties surrender something they consider innate in order to benefit from the new arrangement: that’s the real nature of this truce. It may be that some are unwilling to accommodate this new state of affairs: for the branded media, it means the death of a thousand cuts; for the nanoexpert it means they will remain confined to communities where they have immense status, but little else to show for it. In both cases, they will face the competition of these hybrid entities, and, against them neither group can hope to triumph. After a settling-out period, these hybrid beasts, drawing their DNA from the best of both worlds, will own the day.

What does this hybrid organization deliver? At the moment, branded media deliver a broad range of content to a broad audience, while nanoexperts deliver highly focused content to millions of microaudiences. How do these two pieces fit together? One of the “natural” advantages of branded media organizations springs from a decades-long investment in IT infrastructure, which has historically been used to distribute information to mass audiences. Yet, surprisingly, branded media organizations know very little about the individual members of their audience. This is precisely the inverse of the situation with the nanoexpert, who knows an enormous amount about the needs and tastes of the microaudience – that is, the social networks served by their expertise. Thus, there needs to be another form of information exchange between the branded media and the nanoexpert; it isn’t just the content which needs to be syndicated through the branded outlet, but the microaudiences themselves. This is not audience aggregation, but rather, an exploration in depth of the needs of each particular audience member. From this, working in concert, the army of nanoexperts and the branded media outlet can develop tools to deliver depth content to each audience member.

This methodology favors process over product; the relation between nanoexpert, branded media, and audience must necessarily co-evolve, working toward a harmony where each is providing depth information in order to improve the capabilities of the whole. (This is the essence of a network.) Audience members will assume a creative role in the creation of a “feed” which serves just themselves, and, in this sense, each audience member is a nanoexpert – expert in their own tastes.

The advantages of such a system, when put into operation, make it both possible and relatively easy to deliver commercial information of such a highly meaningful nature that it can no longer be called “advertising” in any classic sense of the word, but rather, will be considered a string of “opportunities.” These might include job offers, or investment opportunities, or experiences (travel & education), or the presentation of products. This is Google’s Ad Words refined to the utmost degree, and can only exist if all three parties to this venture – nanoexpert, branded media, and audience members – have fully invested the network with information that helps the network refine and deliver just what’s needed, just when it’s wanted. The revenue generated by a successful integration of commerce with this new model of syndication will more than fuel its efforts.

When successfully implemented, such a methodology would produce an enviable, and likely unassailable financial model, because we’re no longer talking about “reaching an audience”; instead, this hybrid media business is involved in millions of individual conversations, each of which evolves toward its own perfection. Individuals imbedded in this network – at any point in this network – would find it difficult to leave it, or even resist it. This is more than the daily news, better than the best newspaper or magazine ever published; it is individual, and personal, yet networked and global. This is the emerging model for factual publishing.