Saturday, May 21, 2011

Separating the medium from the message

Wikipedia defines the word medium as follows: "In communications, a medium is the storage and transmission channel or tool used to store and deliver information or data." It's the means of getting information from point A to point B, not the content or structure of that information. However, it's virtually impossible to consider a medium without including its usual content and structure. For example, we have expectations of what we're going to hear when we turn on the radio, and what we're going to see when we turn on the television. We don't expect to find the nameplate and headline of a newspaper on an inner page; we expect to find them on the front page.

Content and structure have been an integral part of our understanding of what a medium is, until we got to the Internet era. The Internet is a medium that can reproduce the content and structure of radio, television, movies, compact discs, books and newspapers. The Internet decouples the physical medium from its content and structure.

The Internet's flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it relatively easy to copy the content and structure of other media, but history shows that copying one medium into another isn't a successful long-term strategy. Radio copied theater, concerts and vaudeville, but it didn't come into its own until unique styles of entertainment were developed specifically for radio. Television initially copied radio and the media that radio itself originally copied, but like radio, television didn't take off until artists started taking advantage of television's unique capabilities.

The Internet can be a replacement for today's radio and television, with the added benefit of time-shifting, but with its sometimes tinny sound and small displays, it's a poor substitute. You can make a website or app look just like a newspaper page, but experience shows that people read in a different way online than they do in print. Despite apps, most magazines available online look just like their print editions, with a few additional features. These "digital magazines" are often very hard to read, requiring lots of zooming (some readers only allow one level of zoom), panning and scrolling.

One can argue that webpages are themselves a unique form of structure, if not content; with the exception of interactivity, they're an amalgam of text, audio and video forms that existed well before the web itself. What are some of the other unique capabilities of Internet media that can differentiate them from existing forms?
  • Interactivity: Video games and interactive CD-ROMs predate the web, but the web brings interactivity to a new level, and mobile apps are accelerating the trend.
  • Multi-way creation: Instead of the "one creator to many consumers" model inherent in incumbent (old) media, the Internet enables many creators to reach a few or many consumers. It also enables creators to interact with each other, and makes the roles of creators and consumers fluid--one can become the other, and one can play both roles simultaneously.
  • Support for most kinds of existing media: The temptation to simply copy one medium's content and structure onto the Internet is great, but the ability to integrate the capabilities of multiple mediums into a single composition is very powerful.
  • No gatekeepers: Creators can reach consumers and other creators inexpensively, without having to go through distributors, retailers and networks.
  • Low production and distribution cost: The Internet has helped to drive the cost of the software and services needed for content creation down to a tiny fraction of the prices paid by old media companies, and Moore's Law has driven down the prices and increased the capabilities of the devices needed to create and access the content.
Simply taking a radio show and moving it to the Internet, either as a webcast or simulcast, won't cause the Internet to displace radio; it only creates a poor substitute. The same goes for television. Magazines that simply reproduce the content of their print editions in electronic form aren't reversing their downward circulation and advertising revenue trends--the best they're doing is slowing down the decline. Newspapers aren't adding enough extra value on the Internet to make their paywalls work.

One-to-many media don't work on the Internet, or more accurately, they don't work well enough to maintain the business models of incumbent media companies. Native Internet media have to be highly interactive and incorporate an audience of content creators, not just content consumers. If any content consumer can instantly and painlessly become a creator of virtually any kind of content, and if consumers of that content can in turn create their own content, that's when Internet media becomes very different than any incumbent media.

Twitter, YouTube and The Huffington Post are all early examples of true Internet media, although they have limitations:
  • Twitter's is the kinds of content that can be delivered in-line with its 140-character messages (which itself is a limitation).
  • YouTube's is the amount of effort necessary to create a video that doesn't look amateurish.
  • The Huffington Post's is that it's very text-based; the HuffPo is adding more video, but it's primarily produced in-house and represents a regression to the "one-to-many" model. Also, anyone can submit posts to the HuffPo, but that doesn't mean that they'll be accepted.
If you think about how those three companies' models can be mixed and improved, you can come up with some very interesting new visions of Internet media.
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