Monday, January 23, 2006

Open Source Creativity

Lately it seems that every mass media company is moving into Internet and mobile video. In general, the big guys are doing what they tried to do in the dot-com “bubble”: Repurpose existing content for the Internet, along with “monetizing” said content. Unfortunately for them, the ideas got ahead of the available technology, and “big media” dalliances in new media largely disappeared after the bubble burst.

Now they’re back at it. CBS is selling episodes of selected series through the Google Video Store. ABC and NBC are selling episodes in the iTunes store. Fox is creating short “mobisodes” of “24” for viewing on mobile phones. Verizon’s Vcast service offers both video downloads and live television from CBS, ABC, MTV, ESPN and more. Sprint’s Power Vision service offers similar content.

All of these companies and services are repackaging existing content. The only thing that they’re doing that’s different is distributing the content through new (for them) channels. However, the media landscape that these companies are in is very different from what it was in the dot-com era. Today, there are blogs, photos, podcasts and vodcasts, almost all of which are free.

Even the best of this self-produced content can’t hold a candle to big media production values, yet listeners and viewers are flocking to them. What’s going on? First, there’s clearly a difference in the form of what’s being produced. Big media is focusing on conventional 30- and 60-minute episodes of television shows and similar productions, while “grassroots” producers are offering everything from three-minute to more than hour-long shows. Brief content works much better for both mobile video and “short attention span” viewers. Rocketboom and Tiki Bar TV are two of the most popular vodcasts on the net, and they’re both less than six minutes long.

However, there’s something more interesting afoot. Grassroots producers use their shows for personal expression, not monetization. In the not-so-distant past, blogs were called diaries. Photo sharing sites like Flickr were called slide shows. Podcasts were what went over the air from college radio stations, and vodcasts were called student films. Originally, all of these things were personal productions that only a handful of people saw. Today, they can reach an audiences of thousands, if not millions.

In general, grassroots producers don’t ask readers or viewers to pay. Many of them get income from Google advertising (in fact, it’s been argued that Google is almost single-handedly financing the blogger community,) but monetization isn’t the primary goal, or even a goal at all. The real goal is personal expression, and almost by definition, that expression is 180 degrees away from what the big media companies have to offer. (Yes, there are exceptions such as “The Daily Show,” but they’re few and far between.)

The grassroots media movement has a lot in common with open source software. Like grassroots media producers, open source software writers generally aren’t interested in making money from their creations. Their software is a personal expression, whether they’re solving a problem or simply creating an application for fun. The quality of open source software varies widely, but the quantity and variety dwarf anything coming out of the commercial software world. Much of it is very good indeed: Linux sparked a revolution that has Microsoft rocking back on its heels in the server business, Apache is far and away the most-used web server, mySQL and PostgreSQL are quickly becoming as powerful and sophisticated as the leading commercial databases, and the Firefox browser is grabbing market share from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Both the grassroots media and open source software movements are driven by the same thing: Personal creativity. And, just as open source software keeps getting better and better, so is grassroots media. A host of blogs are at least as well-written as the best print media, yet offer news and commentary in a fraction of the time of print, broadcasting or cable. Photo sharing sites offer an enormous variety of images that are several orders of magnitude easier to find than slides or prints. Production values of the best podcasts can go toe-to-toe with anything that radio broadcasters and syndicators can do. Vodcasts still need some work, but they’re getting better all the time, and some of them are comparable to commercial cable shows.

My point is this: Just as the commercial software business has been turned upside-down by open source software, so the commercial media business is being turned upside-down by grassroots media. (Ask any newspaper executive what the effect of craigslist has been on their advertising revenues.) The rules of media are changing fundamentally, and the big guys still don’t get it. Repurposing has to be supplanted by original, highly creative programming that’s anathema to big media companies. Solving this conundrum is the greatest challenge that mass media faces, and perhaps the greatest challenge in its history.
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