Maelstrom as the Media Flow Changes

Previous webpage: Personalization, Customization, Individuation, and New Media.

A spectacularly obvious but remarkably little noticed aspect of the epochal change underway in the media environment is a reversal of the locus where contents are consumed.

By locus or loci, I don’t mean what prosaic place, such as an in an armchair or on a computer screen or at work or home. What I mean is whether the consumer must go to an edition or channel or other package of contents that a producer of contents has assembled or whether instead all the producers must offer their elements of contents to a place where the consumer himself selects and assembles the package of contents he consumes. The latter has begun to supersede the former, and the shock and turbulence of that change is one of several major forces that are sinking the traditional media industries. Those industries failed to predict this change, despite it being a quite predictable effect of people’s access and choices of contents switching from relative scarcity to surplus.

Here is a hallmark example of the reversal of loci, a change indeed in the flow of media. On the day I write this, approximately 936 million people will visit Facebook.com, and each will open his own ‘home’ page there, where he will see a stream of items posted there by friends who also use Facebook. Many, if not most, of those items will consist of hyperlinks to stories or photographs or videos or audio tracks that his friends either created themselves; or else found on the websites of either traditional content companies or third-parties; or else were placed there as a result of the user ‘Like’ing the Facebook ‘home’ page created by a company, organization, restaurant, team, school, government, political candidate, or other entity or person. All of these items on Facebook will consist of a hyperlinked headline, perhaps accompanied by a small graphic or photograph and perhaps prefixed by a comment from the friend who posted it there. If the use of Facebook ‘clicks’ the headline, the full version of that story or photograph or video or audio will appear in a hypertext browser window that pops into view. In other words, he will be on a specific webpage on the website of the company or person who published that story or photograph or video or audio. Once having consumed that story or photograph or video or audio, the user will very likely then close that browser window and continue reading the stream of items on his Facebook ‘home’ page. Most users of Facebook keep their ‘home’ page open for hours or else revisit it multiple times per day. (The only websites that get more frequent usage and traffic are those of search engines.) Moreover, the ‘home’ page stream of items that each of those nearly one billion people (i.e., the average number of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users who visit it daily) see will be entirely different than the ‘home’ page stream that every other users sees not only at that moment but ever.

You will note three things about this example:

First, this ‘home’ webpage becomes the user’s omnibus loci, his own turf in the media environment. Except perhaps from a search engine, it’s where he goes online daily and likely multiple times per day and for long durations. It’s his online place to communicate with his network of friends, see what they are doing and thinking, and share news, entertainment, and other information. It’s their most convenient gathering place online.

Second, this ‘home’ webpage is almost fully individuated. Rather than seeing the same stream of items that every one of the other 936 million daily users of Facebook see, the item stream that each individual sees is uniquely based upon his own selection of friends and ‘Like’d items. This aspect makes this omnibus webpage more attractive to this individual than any Mass Media webpage can ever be; its mix of items far better matches his needs, interests, and tastes. No Mass Media website provides him with so customized, even individuated, a mix of contents from all possible sources. Even the banner ads on this ‘home’ page are based upon his ‘Like’s and own past postings. (What prevents this ‘home’ page from being fully individuated is that the individual cannot alter the basic framework of the page nor explicitly modify the computerized algorithm governing it and its item stream: the degree to which users of a medium can influence the form or content of the computer-mediated environment.) This ‘home’ webpage becomes that individual’s own daily ‘edition’ or ‘channel’ to the Internet.

Third, this ‘home’ webpage thus largely eliminates its user’s needs to visit many, if not most, traditional media companies’ or other organizations’ websites and to search for stories there that might interest him. He may still directly visit some or many of those websites. However, he can instead now largely, and perhaps increasingly, rely upon his network of like-minded friends to visit those websites and bring interesting stories to his attention. The direct result is that he visits such other websites much less.

The overall result is that Facebook, Renren (283 million users), VK (formerly known as VKontake, 280 million users), Twitter (236 million users), and other high customized or virtually individuated website have very quickly proven to be the most popular media companies in the world. (It is important for media companies to realize that all these individuate Social Media services, although commercially viable, are still embryonic forms of Social Media and Individuated Media. Such services aren’t going to disappear this century but evolve into much more potent and efficient forms for both media consumers and media producers, primarily the former. And while it is true that the Social Media company itself might be said to control what media its users consumer, which some might construe to mean an intermediary company still controls the consumers, that proprietary role will cease to become tenable later this century as ongoing efforts to develop a viable Open Social Media protocol on the Internet come to fruition — an inevitability.)

This also is why such Individuated Media have begun superseding Mass Media as the predominant means why which people obtain and consumer news, entertainment, and other information. Traditional media executives or other who believe that the greatest change underway in the media environment is merely that people switching media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’  (or the more recent but parallel misconception that the greatest change is ‘desktop’ to ‘mobile’) have proverbially failed to see the forest because of all its trees. Consumers’ switch in consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’ is superficial; the switch from Mass Media to Individuated Media is profound.

I ask my postgraduate students of New Media Business to examine two components of this profound switch: packaging and motility.

Who decides which item of media contents the consumer receives?

In Mass Media, the answer is the editor or producer or publisher or broadcaster. He selects items from his available inventory of contents and decides what stories, photos, audio recordings or songs, or videos comprise the edition, program, album, or performance. In other words, he decides what’s in the package. That specific selection is then delivered to everyone who subscribes or purchases or otherwise obtains that edition, program, album, or performance. This is the way that Mass Media has been even before the Industrial Revolution phenomenally extended Mass Media’s reach.  The producer, publisher, or broadcaster (or else their deputies) decides the selection of items, rather than the consumer himself. The one who vends decides for the many who consume. Some pundits call this ‘one-to-many’ media. It’s the Mass Media with which we and our ancestors grew up, before the rise of computerization created any viable alternative to it.

By contrast, Individuated Media allows each consumer to decide for himself what items are in the package of contents that he sees.  Software, either in his computerized device or else on an Internet service he visits, allows him access to an immensely wide inventory of content items from which he—rather than an editor or producer or broadcaster—can select what he wants. This inventory generally is not any one publisher’s or broadcaster’s or producer’s items, but items from many, most often a great many, and potentially all producers, publishers, and broadcasters, spanning all brands.  Plus, within the subcategory of Individuated Media known as Social Media, the consumer will also see items contributed by his friends and acquaintances, most of who will share many of the same needs, interests, and tastes as he. No daily edition or program or album or performance any Mass Medium company or alliance of Mass Media companies will be able to provide him with a selection of contents more focused on his needs, interests, and tastes. That inherent selection (‘packaging’) characteristic gives Individuated Media an overwhelming advantage over Mass Media.

Motility refers to who moves the most over the course of the transaction: the consumer of media or the producer of media. Although media producers obviously produce media contents and today distribute those contents to consumers, the facts are that throughout most of history consumers have needed to go to somewhere to obtain those contents, a need which has given the producers tremendous power of what, when, and how those contents have been consumed. The media producers’ power had once been absolute, but that absolute power began to slip out of their hands when technologies began reducing the motility required of consumers to obtain the contents.  This slippage in media producers’ power over consumers began slowly some 550 years ago, began to accelerate during the 20th Century, and reached a tipping point approximately ten years ago.

Briefly examine the history of media. Prior to the Industrial Age, it was oratory, poetry, music, and drama. Anyone who wanted to experience such had to go when to where it was produced and performed. Access and choices of media contents were scarce, a scarcity that gave its producers great power what, how, and when media contents were available and transacted. In the unlikely event that the consumer was literate and wanted to read a text, he’d have to make a pilgrimage to one of the world’s few libraries where he could read a cuneiform tablet or papyrus scroll or ask a scribe to make a copy for him. Even when books were invented 1,600 (China) to 1,200 (Europe) years ago, books were scarce and had to be copied by hand. Unless an emperor, king, cardinal, or bishop, the consumers had to go to where the media contents were, not vice versa.

However, producers began to lose their nearly absolute control of media when some 550 years ago the moveable-type printing press was invented. That technology could quickly easily produce multiple copies of texts (including musical notations). Choices of textual content stopped being very. Moreover, consumers soon didn’t have to go directly to the printer to purchase a copy, but could begin obtaining texts from booksellers and other intermediaries; plus, libraries became more numerous. As printing technologies advanced, printing different editions daily became possible, leading to development of newspapers and magazines. As those became more numerous and economical to publish, editions could be delivered directly to offices or homes, virtually eliminating the need for their consumers to go anywhere to consume those, thus greatly reducing the motility involved in the transaction.

The invention of audio recording technologies around 140 years ago added the sounds of music, drama, oratory, or instruction to the types of media contents. Consumers no longer had to go to theaters, music halls, or public places to consume audio contents; they could at home consume recordings of such contents. The end of 19th Century saw the invention of cinema, which added moving visual contents (visual recordings of theater, news, and travel from around the globe) which consumers could consume without going any further than their local cinema theater.  The 20th Century brought first the invention of audio broadcasting, which gave consumers the ability to experience live (and later pre-recorded) audio contents without even needing to leave their homes or offices, and then the invention of television technologies, which added visual contents to the convenience of that reduced motility.

All these media technologies of the Industrial Era greatly increased media consumers’ access and choices of contents, shifting the balance of control somewhat towards them and less in the hands of media producers; although the latter group certainly still controlled when media contents became available, how those were packaged, for what prices, etc.  That was also true during the first ten after the Internet was opened to consumer usage (the Web 1 era): consumers still had to go to media producers’ website to obtain the contents there. Using those websites required motility by the consumers.

Yet media producers control over those all those factors wouldn’t last. By the beginning of the new millennium, the ever accelerating pace of technologies brought the balance of power between media producers and media consumers to cross a tipping point.

Thanks to Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws, the majority of consumers in post-industrial countries gained broadband access and began using it ‘always-on’ characteristics, which radically changed how much and how often they utilize the Internet.  Moreover, the advancements of those same technological laws began radically reducing the costs and difficulties of the hardware and software for consumers to create and publish or broadcast their own contents in multimedia online and made all that easy-to-user.  Millions of individuals began publishing their own personal websites. As those laws’ continued advancing, turnkey online publishing software and hosted sites (such as WordPress.com, Blogger.com, Tumblr.com, etc.) were created, with hundreds of millions of people blogging. Simultaneously, turnkey Social Media services (such Facebook, VKontakte, Renren, Twitter, etc.) were developed for people who didn’t want to operate an entire website or blog but just wanted their own ‘home’ page with which to express themselves, share content with friends, and individuatedly aggregate and ease all their online needs.

Gone are the days when consumers had to visit theaters, scribes, printers, booksellers, newsstands, or kiosks to obtain media content. It not only now comes to them instead of them to it, but they can now get the item of contents from all sources and vendors in one locus, one ‘portal’, their own ‘home’ page on an Individuated Media service.  Consuming media via individuated services requires virtually zero motility, just view your own, almost constantly opened and present, ‘home’ page. Rather than the consumers having to go to every edition, program, album, or performance, whatever items they individually want within those pages come to them. The consumers used to flow to the producer’s package of contents, but now the producers must flow to each consumer’s own unique package of content. The direction has reversed: rather than consumers flowing to the content producers’ edition, programs, albums, or performances, the pertinent items in those packages flow to the consumers.

This reversal in flow, entropic motility, and switch in who assembles the package of contents that each consumers sees are all predictable results of people’s access and supply of contents having shifted from relative scarcity to surplus. Such shifts aren’t unique only to media, but are normal whenever the supply of something consumed shifts from scarcity to surplus.  As people’s access and choices of contents has switched from scarcity to surplus, the balance of power between media producers and media consumers has likewise shifted, giving the consumers more power, which reduces their need to go where each individual media company wants them to go (i.e., a newsstand, kiosk, website, broadcast channel, etc.) to obtain contents that were packaged the way that that company choses.

The swiftness of this reversal in flow is causing massive turbulence throughout the media environment, a maelstrom which the traditional media industries failed to foresee, a catastrophic oversight which will sink most traditional media companies during the next ten years. Those industries’ myopic misperception that the major change underway is simply a change in consumers’ media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’ augmented their failure. During the nearly 20 years in which traditional media companies have published on the World Wide Web (plus an earlier ten years in which some published on proprietary online services), the contents they placed online were still the contents of their Mass Media printed editions or broadcast programs. They simply shoveled those traditional packages into online, packages (now called ‘web editions’) in which the publishers, editors, broadcasters, or producers choose which items of content all recipient consumers will simultaneously receive. Those years of producing traditional ‘analog’ packages now in ‘digital’ formats lulled them into believing that such production and packaging practices would continue to be pertinent forever. Thus, now that the technological advancements of Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws led to the rise of Individuated Media, those traditional media companies’ production practices and business models are not only ill-suited to the future but the companies are even more flummoxed, having thought that online was merely a ‘digital’ version of their traditional ‘analog’.

In this new world in which billions of consumers have begun receiving each of their own customized or individuated packages of items from many, most, and soon all content producers’ itemized feeds, traditional media companies that each instead produce uncustomized or unindividuated packaged of items in which they, not the consumers, choose the mix of selections, will ever increasingly find themselves left out. Their business practices and business models practices aren’t tooled for the right production, packaging, and transaction in a world in which the content items in aggregate are now worth more than the producer’s package of content items as a whole.

Individuated Media have fundamentally and forever changed how media content is created and consumed, an epochal change in the direction in which people expect their news, entertainment, and information to flow. This flow moreover will be an integral aspect of the Semantic Web (‘Web 3’, the so-called ‘Web 3.0’) during the 2020s.

Next webpage: Why Web 3 will Sink Traditional Media Industries

Index of the Rise of Individuated Media webpages

 © 2015

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