Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Atomization of Media

Over the last fifteen years, I've worked on Internet software, streaming media, home video, telecommunications, and most recently, eBooks. Through that experience, it's become clear that the very nature of what constitutes media is changing. Singles have replaced albums as the primary way for people to purchase music. The six-minute short video, whether on YouTube or Hulu, is increasingly replacing the 30- or 60-minute television show (and those shows are increasingly looking like a collection of short videos). Newspapers are being replaced by their web equivalents, and by news aggregators like Google and Yahoo, enabling readers to go right to the topics and stories that they're interested in. 1Cast, a video aggregator that just launched, is doing exactly the same thing for television news.

I call this division of what used to be monolithic media "packages" into smaller, individually-searchable and selectable chunks, atomization. All media are subject to atomization in one form or another. eBooks, my current area of focus, are especially vulnerable...but I think that it's a good thing. The truth is that there are a lot of different book industries, segmented by categories, subjects and target age groups. Reference books and textbooks are particularly ripe for atomization, as are computer and business books, and other types of instructional works. These books are rarely read front-to-back; readers "dive in" at different points to get specific pieces of information. Users of these types of books rely on their indices and tables of contents in order to find what they're looking for. These readers would love to have a robust search engine on top of a collection of books, in order to find the information they need quickly. Some services are providing just such a search engine; after all, that's the idea behind Google Books.

Publishers, on the other hand, sell books, not topics or paragraphs. They're resistant to the idea of atomization--after all, how do you price a topic? Their contracts with writers and third-party content suppliers (image libraries, illustrators, etc.) are written on the basis of revenues from book sales, not sales of chunks of books. Nevertheless, this is the direction that publishing is going in. Books will be "exploded" into bits and pieces, aggregated with other titles, augmented with videos, audio and animation, stored in databases and indexed by search engines. The concept of individual books may eventually go away, to be replaced with databases from publishers focused on a single subject area or category, or from aggregators that combine books from multiple publishers into a single database.

There are, of course, some categories that probably won't be atomized in this way. Fiction and narrative non-fiction are intended to be read front to back, beginning to end. Some publishers and distributors are experimenting with selling these titles on a serialized, per-chapter basis, much like the novel serializations in newspapers of the 1800s, but that's probably as far as atomization can go with these kinds of works.

The point is that we need to stop looking at media forms as monolithic and start asking two questions:  "How can we break this into small, usable chunks?" and "How can we best monetize those chunks?".
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