Monday, April 21, 2008

Has media forgotten what it does?

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that paper has had a huge influence on the way print media developed. But I wonder if we take for granted the huge influence the medium we have grown up with has had on how we are viewing our digital future?

Paper is finite.

That simple fact leads to a number of outcomes. For example; there is a cost involved in adding extra pages to a publication. Paper constrains how much we can publish and therefore what we choose to publish. Paper demands that we are selective - that we edit. We filter the world's information and publish only that which we see fit. And then we make it fit, the way we see fit.

We filter on the way in.

We place ourselves in a self-selecting position of authority. It's a seat we find hard to give up.

We do this, of course, from a perspective of 'serving the needs of the consumer'. We aim to give them what they want. It is in our financial interests so to do.

But the needs of the consumer have to fight for resources with the demands imposed by the medium. And the medium tends to win.

Paper has mass.

This creates distribution challenges. We have to move this mass from one place to another (driven by an initial transcation). We do our best to distribute it to distribution hubs (we call them shops) where we hope the supply chain can be completed with another transaction (which puts them in the hands of the consumer.

These facts (paper is finite and has mass) mean we are forced to serve consumers as large, lowest-common-denominator-driven groups. Paper's physical nature imposes a structural limitation on what print media does and how it must treat its users.

It is conceivably possible that each consumer could have a magazine crafted precisely for themselves, to meet their precise needs. All it would take is a dedicated team of content producers (and in the print world this means employing a team of writers, photographers, designers and sub-editors), a one-off print run and a delivery direct to the lucky receipient's door.

There is nothing standing in the way of that. Nothing but cost.

If you're prepared to pay multiple thousands for each issue of your magazine you can have what the digital space can give you right now (where you'd get it for free). It'll just take a while to deliver.

Print never felt there was much of a market for that. So it created content aimed toward the lowest common denominator (granted, niche by niche on occasion).

It distributed to reach as many as possible with as little waste as possible - but still found 20-25% of its output pulped. The need to drive down unit cost make us err towards a mass production approach. It forces us to think locally, too. (Distributing a newspaper globally is something of a challenge precisely because of that mass and cost thing.)

Consider then how digital is different.

Digital space is infinite. There is zero cost attached in adding an extra page. There is therefore no need to filter on the way in. There is therefore no reason for us to be selective, no cause for us to take up our seat upon our self-appointed editorial throne. The user gets to filter on the way out.

Digital has no mass. There are zero costs to distribution. We don't need supply chains or distribution hubs in the physical sense. Distribution can be pulled to those who want it, distributed by those who advocate it. And it can happen everywhere right now.

Now you can have your ultra personalised content at zero cost - and you can have it this very instant, updated the moment relevant change occurs. It's unlikey you'll do this alone, because you are a human being and hard-wired to be social.

When we think of the role of media in the digital world, are we considering what is equivalent to newspapers and magazines (that is media properties) in digital form - or do we want to become the paper (the medium)?

Is the platform approach (and it's one I advocate myself) about trying to be the digital equivalent of paper? Bearing in mind digital 'paper' has no mass and is limitless, would we be better off delivering brilliantly creative media properties closer in form to user accounts than to social networks?

My initial thoughts are that we may may have multiple roles - as nuancers of the culture (helping with collaborative filtering) in a platform/aggregational style AND as brilliant media properties (of the user account kind) where we become part of the conversation, pulled into someone else's aggregator or platform.

Who says it has to be either/or? The digital world offers more dimensions than we've had to consider before.

Please contribute your thoughts by commenting below.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?