I am not one of those high priced media consultants that seems to have their finger on the pulse of “The New Media” … I have to admit that while it’d be nice (when I look at my current bank account, it’d be REAL nice about now) but I also think that I’d have some problems with living with myself the next morning if I did take such a position, primarily because I suspect that a significant deal of my time would be spent lying to people about “how great the upcoming New Wave of MEDIA is really going to be!!!!” That’s a four exclamation statement … something they teach you in media school, I suspect. It usually means not only that you’re lying through your teeth, your clients know you’re lying through your teeth, and both of you nonetheless are clinging desperately to the lie because the truth is so much more terrifying.
I do not know what the future is going to bring. All I can do is to extrapolate based upon the experiences the I and others have had, taking into account the fact that periodically the world changes in unanticipatible ways. It is the fundamental flaw of Azimov’s psycho-history - there’s always a damn butterfly floating around when you’re least expecting it, spreading chaos into the mix just about the time that you think you’ve got everything nailed down. Thus it is with blogging and the future of (the) Media.
Most people, when they talk about Media with a capital M have this preconception drilled in by a hundred years or so of experience, first of newspapers, then of radio and television. Moreover, this hypothetical Media is far more concerned with the dissemination of news, to the extent that news media would be an oxymoron if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what passes as news is entertainment instead. However, it is worth stepping back and looking at the initial meaning of the word: media is, of course, short for media of communication. The media are the modalities of expression for communication - the aether by which one person can talk to another. Of course, by this definition, the telephone is media, as are more contemporary forms such as chat systems, VOIP, and email, not to mention web pages. What differentiates these latter forms is generally a matter of scope. For instance,
- email is “typically” a person-to-person communication system, unless of course that email is informing you of being awarded the European Lottery, but you need to provide your bank account for the funds transfer…;
- web pages, while clearly broadcast, are perceived as being primarily static, though a portal is often more dynamic than all but a handful of daily newspaper
- telephony of course isn’t media- its a voice system that implies immediacy of communication, unless … hmmm… one side happens to be a machine running an automated voiceML system coupled with voice recognition, (of course, if both sides are running such a system, then you begin to get such philosophical questions as “if two voice mail systems are talking to one another, is a conversation actually happening?)
- chat systems and IRC hardly fit into the notion of Media at all, until you realize that if you spend any time at all on Yahoo or MSN or AOL chat, you’re far more likely to end up talking to a girl named Candy who might not be real bright but does happen to have a website showing her doing her favorite things with kumquats for only $4.95 per month.
In other words, the traditional notion of these “small m” media as being simply peer-to-peer communication really doesn’t stand up to heavy scrutiny.
So lets try something different - perhaps the distinction between these traditional Media and the new ones on the block have to do with the devices involved for presenting that media. Newspapers and magazines of course have a monopoly on paper, but with electronic paper coming to a store-front near you within the next couple of years (eInk and Sony are doing some very interesting things in this space right now - more momentarily), its likely that this distinction is close to being washed out.
This is not in fact a trivial distinction, by the way. A press is a large and costly piece of equipment, running from several tens of thousands to a couple of million dollars per press, utilizing tens of millions of tons of paper a year, with its product sent via trucks, planes and ships, typically nourishing the mail systems of countries along the way. On the other hand, with electronic paper, I can create a PDF (or better, a formatted XHTML page with SVG graphics), establish a link to it, send a small bit of XML to notify you that I’ve just “published” it, and within seconds you can be looking at exactly the same formatted content on a fairly inexpensive “plastic” page at practically no cost to me, beyond the cost that I and the vendor choose to agree upon as important for the value of that content.
This in turn points to a more disturbing realization - the Media, as it exists today, consists of companies that have managed to create a vast infrastructure with a high barrier to entry that utilizes hideous amounts of minimally replaceable resources in order to move physical representations of information to your table every morning. Television and radio are perhaps less inefficient, but they still require the powering of massive transmitters and use the scarcity of resource (electromagnetic bandwidth) in order to control access to the channels of distribution.
The creation of Media content is, surprisingly, not that expensive a part of the overall process in nearly any media. A typical starting reporter makes a salary that’s usually not going to make even the most penny-pinching of employers lose a lot of sleep. Certain personalities can command a fairly significant sum of money for a column or newscast, but typically this cost pales in comparison to that personality’s draw in attracting readership and advertising. In general, even production facilities for fairly elaborate shows will end up representing a minimal percentage of the total cost of distributing that content, to the extent that while there is significant competition on the part of studios to get the “air time”, that most precious of resources for airing their works. Ultimately, it comes down to distribution.
So in 1991, along comes this young British programmer working at a research facility in Switzerland who was just trying to figure out how to get physics abstracts out to research scientists too lazy to go to the center’s library, and WHAMMO! all of a sudden this whole balance of power thing that these Media giants have spent the last century building becomes irrelevant. In fifteen years, the web has changed the equation so dramatically that most media players are forced to resort to their big guns … the LAWYERS … in order to manage to even slow the process down enough that maybe, just maybe, they can figure out where to go next.
There’s a fundamental law in economics: You Make Money on the Differential.
In a nutshell, this means that any time there is some form of impedence - a high barrier to entry, a high material costs, limited resources, expensive distribution costs, etc. - you can make money because you’re investing money in scaling that impedence where others may find the costs are too high. Once past that initial impedence, most media costs are manageable (the transmitter is expensive, but once in place the cost of production and transmission is cheap, the press is expensive but once in place the other costs are manageable, and a good press-owning publisher essentially sees time on the press as their limited resource).
What the Internet has done is to knock out all of those impedences. The cost of owning a server is far smaller than owning a press, but your portal or blog can still be viewed by as many (and in a number of cases far more) people than would be the case if you’re creating newspapers. Your distribution costs are so low as to be measured in microcents. Your advertising costs are also low … if you’re good, then others will link to you, and in those links lies your ability to attract new subscribers. All of a sudden, without really intending to do it, you’re competing (and more amazingly, are competing easily) with the established journalists … and they’re scared silly.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. You put a Google banner ad on your blogsite (oh, and there will be others there, if you don’t like Google’s politics - it’s far too profitable a place to be, making a little money off of millions upon millions of people rather than a lot of money off of a few fickle custoners), maybe tie in a link or three to an affiliate marketer such as Amazon, and without a huge amount of effort you’re making money off of your writing, off of your website, even, perhaps, off of your chat session. The money might not be much, though again if you’re both good and dilligent you can make a surprising amount of money doing it, but what you’re also doing is undermining the Media which have survived precisely because they offered eyeballs to advertisers.
The web has, consequently, and without a huge amount of specifically directed effort, performed upon traditional Media a form of Ju Jitsu, in which the Media’s strengths - its high barrier costs to entry and distribution - become instead its greatest weaknesses. Right now, these Media are surviving because of two primary factors … there is still a percentage of the population that has not yet migrated in any significant manner to the web for their source of news and entertainment, and there is still a percentage of the population that have equated the near monoply control that these media have held on the market with stability and quality - they are brand names, to a population segment (largely baby boomers) that were raised upon the near religious worship of such brand names. However, that hold is rapidly slipping away in that most crucial of demographics … the young.
I am near the tail end of a generation that remembers Walter Cronkite’s stentorian tones describing the drama as a man first walked upon the moon. Here was a man who epitomized for me and for millions of others the voice and face of Authority. Recently, with the death of Peter Jennings and the retirements of Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, the three major stellar lights of a more contemporary generation within the journalistic sky have dimmed. In their place are … um … damn, I can’t think of anyone. I can think of political pundits on the left and right, a few very (darkly) funny comedians, but … um, authoritative journalists? You’d think with the sheer talent that’s out there, with twice the number of people in this country from what it was when Cronkite was in his prime, that there would be someone with that level of sheer raw authority out there … but there aren’t.
The young (which in my book is beginning to encompass an awful lot of you, sad to say) have not been inculcated to the same degree in the cult of personality that the boomers were, nor were they taught to revere the brand, to salivate on demand upon hearing the Pavlovian tinkling of Madison Avenue’s bells. Go to the very young, that evanescent group of market desireables called the Tweeners, and you see that their identities are wrapped far less upon the notion of seeking after what’s cool, and is instead tied far more in being random. My own twelve year old daughter identified random as being “unpredictable”, hard to categorize, difficult to pin on some marketing mogul’s map of demographics. Once the brand fails, once these same younglings begin to realize that the great Oz is not only this shrunken man behind a curtain but that the guy’s a rather scary little pedophile, then the Authority of the Media begins to fail in earnest.
So what does this mean for bloggers and blogging? Once upon a time, long before Media was raised to the level of being a university level schools of discipline, newspapers typically did not have the resources to have a huge staff interviewing everyone at all times. Instead, they relied upon the reports of eye witnesses to these events who happened to keep journals, paying them a certain amount to relay their impressions to a waiting audience. These journalists had their own agendas and viewpoints, of course, and even then a journalist would be hard pressed to sell his or her story to a publisher with opposing political views, but in order to appeal to the largest possible audience, the publisher himself also had to occasionally relax his biases enough so that he wasn’t losing out from the potential income of a subscriber.
This give and take between journalist, publisher and reader served for quite some time to create a relatively balanced viewpoint, though this was also balanced out by multiple papers of different viewpoints also being available within the same town or city. Most people under the age of forty are unlikely to realize that at one time, most cities over a certain size might have actually had not just two competing papers but a whole constellation of them. However, the move to a winner-take-all advertising model, the rising costs associated with the technology and materials involved in publishing and the attrition that occurred as people moved from the introspective model of reading papers to the visceral model of watching TV has largely spelled the end of the multiple newspapers per city era, at least in the United States (Canada seems to be more robust in this regard, which I’ve always found to be a major selling point of the Canadian ethos).
Blogging is forcing a radical sea-change in the print media realm, and will likely do the same within the TV and radio realm as podcasting becomes more established. There are several million blogs right now, though the vast majority of them are fairly ephemeral - people testing the media and discovering that perhaps the stories that they have to tell are not as pressing as they had thought. I’ve written or cowritten nearly twenty books in the last fifteen years … I know full well that writing is hard work that requires persistence, and being a blogger is very much like being a columnist with an absolutely insane deadline and absolutely no control of who your audience is. It’s thus not surprising that blogging has such a high churn right now, but that’ll change.
What is happening, however, is that out of this chaos a new night sky is beginning to emerge, one sanctioned not by the official imprimateur of an advertisting based Media but one that is driven by word of mouth referrals, links in which authority is imputed by the authority of the referrer, the network-effect based phase-shift brought about by search engines as someone zips past their tipping point. To a certain degree there’s a Ponzi scheme like characteristic to this … the first into a given niche will have a considerable advantage over those later into the niche, but in the hyper-evolving world of the web, this strength can turn into a weakness overnight when the niches themselves shift and dance like crazed squirrels in a cashew factory. Still, the good bloggers, the skilled ones, are those who have managed to find their own strange little attractors that provide a modicum of stability in this chaotic landscape.
You have to be a good writer to succeed as a blogger. You have to entertain as well as enlighten, turn even outrage into a fascinating look at the human psyche. Oddly, objectivity is not as relevant a factor, largely because most bloggers are generally not trained in the artifice of journalistic objectivity. Nonetheless, failing to get your facts straight in the blogging environment can prove brutalizing to you, ironically far more than stretching the truth (or even fabricating it out of whole cloth) in the more traditional Media, because your readers are also only a link away, and have in most cases access to many of the same pieces of information that you may have yourself. Thus objectivity, whatever that particular shiboleth is, tends to be a self-reinforcing property within the blogsphere that all too often is missing in the Media proper.
In the end, this objectivity may prove to be the critical point upon which traditional Media falls. In the “random” world of the early twenty first century, the old Media conglomerates are competing against legions of low-overhead counterparts that are capable of producing as much content by aggregating related bloggers and news articles into “editorial” packages as the traditional media can, often at considerably lower cost. I blog for O’Reilly and Apress in addition to my own personal site, UnderstandingXML.com; it is an arrangement of convenience, because O’Reilly raises my visibility considerably; they, on the other hand get a blogger of increasing note and reputation reinforcing their reputation as “new authorities” in the field. I make some money from banner ads, but I also make money and gain connections for my own work that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. In other words, the relationship between author and publisher is changing, profoundly, and I think that in the end for the better.
The traditional Media are on the other hand forced to do what comes unnaturally to many of these publishers - pushing the reputations of their writers (and other content producers) rather than themselves as the arbiters and retellers of “Truth”, “Humor”, “Insight” or “Beauty”. Those Media representatives that recognize their own diminished roles are ironically the ones that will survive, while those that continue to raise the masthead colors will in time disappear into the sea of information, abandoned by their readership who seem them as offering only one potential slice of that truth, and abandoned by the advertisers who are far more interested in the odd, targeted blogs that represent to them very finely focused advertising micro-markets.
These advertisers like the Google model, because it makes it far easier for them to ride the crests of author popularity, most of whom tend to have self-selecting readerships within a given marketing niche, without the risk of being too dependent upon a horse that fails mid-stream. There are some risks with this approach as well … being affilliated with someone who may be violently opposed to the advertiser’s message being only the most obvious, but again this is something of a self-corrrecting problem in that such a person may not want the association any more than the advertiser does.
Beyond the gradual fading of the traditional Media in the face of the search aggregators such as Google, the future of blogging is somewhat murkier. One aspect that is already obvious in this space is the pollution back channel that seems to arise with every media. Corporate pseudo-blogging is on the rise, in which a company creates a “virtual blogger” who acts as a shill for the company’s products or services and is a fictional creation of a marketing department. I don’t see these having much traction … blog-space readers are becoming more and more nuanced in their ability to determine “bogosity” (blogosity?) in both commentary posts and blogs, and once so unmasked, the revelations can prove to be damaging to a company’s credibility in that space. This differs from the legitimate company blogger, who is generally expected to take the viewpoint of the company but nonetheless provides useful value to readers … this represents more of an insider’s perspective than anything, and is treated as such.
Blam (blog-spam) is also a problem - most blog engines offer web services that make it possible to post comments and give trackback pings to related sites, and anywhere that an automated interface exists so does the potential for spam. This can be partially counteracted by user registration and graphical authorization passwords (the distorted number and letter combinations that many services use to fool screen scraper and OCR programs), but this tends to reduce readership as well, as many people are understandably loathe to sign up for something and possibly expose themselves to identity theft.
This points to another area where blogging is likely to change - at the moment, there are roughly a dozen different types of blogging servers, each of which offer their own set of user interfaces and web APIs. It’s likely that, over time, there will be a fairly high degree of consolidation in this space — indeed, I’d go so far as to say that by mid-2007 there will be some consortium of blogging server providers that will set an open standard for communicating with blog servers (as a guess based upon the Atom 1.0 Publishing Protocols). This development is not a nice to have - its crucial for the future success of blogging. A common publishing API makes it possible for browser vendors and application developers to incorporate editors within their products that do not need to expose to the average user the intricacies of connecting the the blog server. This means that publishing to the web literally becomes akin to writing an email message, where all you need to know is the mail address of the recipients, and that you can build web interfaces that express connectivity with the blog server as being little different than looking into a folder for a particular file.
Such a transparent “blogging” solution actually results in the development of a seamless “writeable” web, one where content can be added to the web without needing to know any of the particulars of publishing, can be done in a consistent manner regardless of the server and browser, and can be edited not just at the text level but at the metadata level as well. This also has the effect of doing for content management systems (CMS) what has become an increasingly viable goal within the database realm - creating a layer of abstraction around a given CMS so that its internal characteristics (or at least an acceptable minimal subset) are irrelevant. When this happens in the database realm, it radically simplifies the development of data-oriented applications … watching this change take place within the CMS space should prove interesting as it breaks down the final vestiges of the static web that seems the hallmark of Web 1.0.
Finally, returning to the societal implications side of things, we’re moving into a world in which the ability of governments and corporations to control the flow of “inflammatory” blogs will become increasingly difficult. Blogs, unlike websites, can exist in syndicated form independently of a specific web-link; such “unaffiliated” blogs can often be syndicated and distributed far faster than a government or corporation can react, especially in the pressence of content aggregators, and they can be notoriously difficult to shut down or stamp out, because there’s typically no one “central” server that can be seized by police. However, this also means that bloggers who are caught are likely to be dealt with harshly, especially in more totalitarian regimes, and (not coincidentally) in more restrictive corporations.
Bloggers today are regarded as curiosity by the mainstream Media, though not a few journalists are establishing their credentials in the blogosphere even as other journalists (and the publications and networks they work for) are recognizing the threat that blogging has to their profession. This means that bloggers will likely end up testing the boundaries of what constitutes free speech throughout the world in a way that makes them extraordinarily vulnerable to persecution precisely because they do not have the formal imprimateur of existing publishing organizations behind them. This does not make what bloggers are doing any less important … or any less legitimate. The blogger represents one of the purest exponent of personal or citizen journalism at a time when most journalism has been heavily tainted by corporate intimidation and government threats of violence or censure. Given that it is difficult for a government to remain corrupt in the face of an active, engaged and well-informed populace, it is likely that the success or failure of this extraordinary experiment will presage the shape of society for decades to come.
Kurt Cagle is an author and the technology evangelist for Mercurial Communications in Victoria, BC. He writes regular on web technologies, XML, and their societal implications for UnderstandingXML.com. This (admittedly long) blog is intended to accompany a talk to be given at the Northern Voice Canadian Blogging Conference in Vancouver, BC, February 9 at 1pm, where Kurt will be blogging the conference.
So what do you feel is the direction that blogs will take in the future?