Culture Shock within Online Publishing


I’m still in shock after the two conferences I attended earlier this month. How times have changed!

During 1998, I flew from a new-media conference in Zürich to one in Las Vegas. I was in a different kind of shock then. Zürich and Las Vegas are remarkably different cities, but culture shock wasn’t a problem. Jet lag was. My circadian clock was nine hours askew. Fortunately, Las Vegas is the city where being wide-awake at wee hours is perfectly acceptable.

This year, I flew from a new-media conference in New York City to one in Las Vegas. Jet lag wasn’t a problem; there are only three time zones between those cities. However, a week later, I’m still in shock. Culture shock. But not because of the difference in cities.

I’m suffering culture shock because I’d too quickly gone from a conference of digerati to one of analogati. I’d almost say, to one of Ludderati.

Worse, the two conferences were all digerati back in 1998, but the times since have left one of those conferences behind.

The digerati were at the Syndicate conference last Monday and Tuesday in Manhattan. This conference was about how the Internet is changing the way that news and information is distributed. Among its 125 attendees and speakers were AOL Weblogs Inc. Founder Jason Calacanis, Rocketboom host and co-owner Amanda Congdon, Newsvine CEO Mike Davidson, Richard Edelman of Edelman PR (who has his own blog), Brightcove VP of Content and Online Services Eric Elia, ZDNet International Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor, Blogger Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine.com, Eric Norlin, Doc Searls, Technorati Founder and CEO David Sifry, Reuters Consumer Media Senior VP & General Manager Steven Schwartz, Halley Suitt, and David Weinberger. Most of them have invented somne new-media technologies, innovatively adapted those technologies, or successfully started companies based upon those technologies and innovations.

Due to a scheduling conflict, I could attend only the first few hours of the Syndicate conference (I blogged just the opening sessiont of this conference). Most of the speakers and attendees whose names are hyperlinked above can better report about this conference than I can. Nevertheless, I was there long nenough to experience how new ideas were flying throughout, aided by speakers who broke the Fourth Wall of the stage and let the audience participate and by wireless Internet access throughout the conference hall, which let attendees and speakers check facts, check on each other, and all participate even more. It was exhilerating, and I came away with many new ideas.

A few days later, I flew to Editor & Publisher and MEDIAWEEK magazines’ Interactive Media conference in Las Vegas. It would be quite unfair of me to call its attendees ludderati or Luddites. The Luddites were a social movement in the early 1800s that objected to technological change and tried to smash new technologies. By contrast, the 300 or so attendees of the Interactive Media conference were executives who owe their positions to technological change and are trying to embrace it. They’ve spent most of the past eight to twelve years putting their printed publications online. For examples, you can now read The Washington Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, or Newsweek online, hours before those periodicals appear in print. The online versions sometimes even contain hyperlinks to source materials, though most don’t.

In 1998, the attendees at these two conferences had been on roughly the same level of sophistication about technology and new-media theory. However, the Interactive Media attendees are still at that 1998 level, while the Syndicate attendees are now eight years’ more sophisticaled. The difference was so striking it shocked me.

One of the few Interactive Media attendees who is as sophisticated as any of the Syndicate attendees is Forbes magazine Executive Editor and Forbes.com Editor Paul Maidment. Read his story about how out-of-date the conference’s attendees were, if you don’t believe me. He leads it with something he heard:

“I don’t know what to do, but I am ready to do it.” That was the quote that raised the biggest chuckle at the recently concluded Interactive Media Conference, Editor & Publisher’s annual gathering at which the U.S. regional newspaper industry’s panjandrums stare transfixed into the onrushing headlights of online publishing. Trouble is, it was a self-knowingly nervous giggle.

I remember that quote. It was one of three incidents I particularly remember from the Interactive Media conference. Here are the other two:

The first was when two college students were interviewed on stage in front of the attendees. They were asked what websites they had browsed that day from their personal computers and also what books they’d recently read. The students said they had browsed no websites from personal computers, but instead did their browsing that day from their mobile phones. They also said they hadn’t lately read any printed books except college textbooks, except they had recently bought and downloaded several ebooks onto their PDAs.

That they used their phones rather than PCs to browse surprised the attendees, almost all of whom design their websites for PCs. Similarly, the attendees were flummoxed that someone who read ebooks (“The convenience and portability of having all those books at hand,” one student replied. “I can read them whenever and wherever I am”).

When the conference later held a panel about publishing to mobile devices, it mentioned that most mobile phones in the U.S. can be used to browse the Internet, and asked the attendees for questions. The opening question came from an executive who announced, “Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I had heard that it’s possible to browse the Web from a mobile phone and I had someone show me how. I could figure out how to type the ‘www’ but couldn’t figure out how to type the ‘.’ in Web addresses. So, isn’t all this concern about mobile phones way too early?”

Only in the minds of her and most of the 300 other attendees, despite the evidence before them, I thought.

The second incident was orchestrated by speaker and Innosight consulting company Managing Director Scott Anthony. He presented a 30-second video and asked the attendees to count in it the number of times a basketball is passed among a trio of people wearing white who were weaving among a trio of people wearing black. Most of the 300 attendees counted anywhere between 12 and 16 passes. But Scott then asked how many had seen a person wearing a gorilla suit walk across the screen and wave at the attendees. Only about a dozen of the 300 attendees raised their hands.

So, here was a conference about a changing environment, but most of its attendees weren’t able to perceive an obvious incongruity — a real change — in a 30-second video. That was Scott’s point.

gorilla.jpg
Outside research indicates that only about 10 percent of average people see the gorilla in that video (an ape easily seen in this still image). That means that at least 30, not only a dozen, of the 300 attendees should have seen the gorilla. Moreover, this conference’s attendees are people paid by their companies to perceive, understand, and deal with change. Shouldn’t more than a dozen or 30 of the 300 Interactive Media attendees have seen the gorilla in their midst? I think that most of the attendees of the Syndicate conference would have.

You won’t find much blogged about the Interactive Media conference because its organizers decided not to provide its attendees with wireless Internet access (reportedly because using the Internet might distract attendees from hearing the speakers — a remarkablly Industrial Era policy in an Information Era where people routinely multitask. Moreover, why should a concert about interactive be interactive? Go figure.).

With the exception of not providing wireless, the fault in Las Vegas wasn’t Editor & Publisher or MEDIAWEEK magazines’. It was the attendees. They’re so driven to do what made sense to them in 1998 that they don’t question whether that makes sense now or how things are changing.

There are many executives in the newspaper and magazine industry who are as sophisticated about technology and new-media theory as the Syndicate attendees, but most of them no longer attend the annual Interactive Media conferences. I can understand why (perhaps they correctly don’t think they will learn anything), but the people who do attend and the industry as a whole lose by those people’s absences.

All this tends to confirm the quote Paul Maidement reported. The attendees might know that their businesses need to change, but they don’t know how and probably won’t be able to perceive the answer if they saw it. This drives deep to the heart of why newspapers and magazines have failed to adapt to the Internet beyond about 1998.

I’m still in shock. My thanks to the conference’s organizers for letting me speak on the panel entitled What’s Wrong with Media. I’ll probably attend next year’s Interactive Media conference, but I’ve more than enough reasons to question why.

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