In a world awash in choice, why not follow those we trust?


Here’s a premise that should get broad agreement: it’s so easy to create and display content nowadays that the choices become overwhelming and time becomes the factor limiting consumption.

For years Web thinkers used the term “Attention Economy” to describe this relationship between scarce time and ever-more-abundant content. This same idea also forms the premise of a presentation by Bear Stearns entertainment analyst Spencer Wang. (I will link to the presentation momentarily as Bear Stearns graciously posted all 38 slides). It is titled: “Why Aggregation & Context and Not (Necessarily) Content are King in Entertainment.” Wang argues that Big Brands will become the gate keepers between content creators and consumers. The Big Brands may include traditional content kings like Disney, Web portals like Yahoo and Google, and gadget-aided audience builders like Apple (via the iPod) and Nokia (via the super cell phone). This small band of brands will package content, creating channels to simplify choice. Consumers will tune in to one or more channels to get variety. In slide 34 Wang explains the rationale behind the Big Brand-ification of media: “The value of aggregation and brands increase with exponential increases in content choices.”

I agree with Wang up to a point. But  I envision an alternate future to this supermarket model for media. Imagine that a network of independent filtering agents arise and find audiences. They would be people or small media whose expertise we trust on whatever issue is at hand: the local commentator who has the pulse of city hall; the scientist who has a knack for explaing his or her field; the real voices that we know to be more honest than soul-less brands. This idea of grassroots filtering agents is not new. Robin Good has called them “newsmasters” — another concept to which I will link momentarily. I think these newsmasters, to use Good’s term, will augment rather than oppose Big Brand media (which has too much money and power to be stopped). And I want to propose a structure that would give these independents more clout. I hope you’ll read on as I describe more about Wang’s presentation — and the alternative.

Wang’s presentation is well worth scanning. In slide 10 he says that on a given day in November, three-quarters of the top 20 videos on YouTube were user-generated. (So the amateurs can command attention.) Slides 28 and 29 get to the heart of his thesis that the proliferation of choices will force the creation of filtering agents upon whom consumers will depend to organize the variety (ala YouTube in this example). That, he argues, is why packaging may be king. So what if you’re a genius. How are you going to get attention? Remember, Wang covers the cable industry. Cable companies dictate terms to TV producers; if the producer wants to ride the wire into the American living room they will do as cable commands. End of negotiation. The online world is shaping up the same way. Go talk to Steve Jobs about opening up the iPod. The future of channelized media is clear – choice will depend on who makes deals with whom.

I have no doubt that much of Wang’s vision will come to pass. But there will be alternatives. There is simply so much independent creativity and it is easy to distribute via the Web. But indie content creators will never have any clout unless they aggregate themselves. That is the rationale behind an idea that I’m pushing for the creation of a media producers cooperative. Please take a look at this idea and circulate it if you find it has merit or critique it to make it stronger.

At the heart of this alternative vision lies a faith in the power of the individual in a networked world. In theory a good idea will find its adherants. I mentioned Robin Good’s “newsmaster” concept. He writes that:

Newsmasters are an emerging group of news editors which utilize new tools and techniques to create unique content streams on specialized topics by tapping largely into the RSS content universe as well as in other openly reusable sources of news and information.”

This is a brilliant idea. And a hopeful one. (If you visit the link and haven’t already seen it, be sure to watch the fake historical video titled “Googlezon” that is set in 2014 and depicts the ultimate triumph of online media over newspapers.) I guess my only question is how do we get from here to there? The market forces alluded to above are channelizing choice. The media producers coop I describe is my suggestion for creating the environment in which indie content might thrive and increase its influence.

I’ve been talking this up with folks and one obvious issue is that gathering independent content creators is akin to herding cats. Fair enough. But what if the cats decide to evolve. What if the cats decide that the network creates the platform for a new type of organization. A loose one. A decentralized operation. A place where people who share only one thing — a desire to create a grassroots alternative — come together to cooperate on the business or technology practices that would strengthen them all, while continuing to ply whatever form of content is their passion.

The web creates the potential for this future. It does not create this future. The web is an inanimate collection of devices and algorithms powered by electricity that can no more oganize itself than rocks can jump into position to form a pyramid. We will organize the network. Human beings. By force of will and committment. By subordinating our egos to some common purpose. In short some of the cats will evolve. Either that or we will all accept the channels the best channels that money can buy.

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Strike in Philadelphia? Paid Content says the deadlines are set and the positions hardening as the Newspaper Guild prepares the staffs of the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer to strike rather than agree to new publisher Brian Tierney’s proposal to take over the pension plan and do away with seniority status for employees. What sad, bad news. I am a Newspaper Guild member and my reflexive loyalty must lie with the tribe. Let us hope it doesn’t come to this.

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Billionaire’s Disease? Something must happen when people become super rich. They may imagine that wealth bestows supernaural l powers or marks them for special missions. Or perhaps they just get goofy which is the only logical explanation for why former AIG insurance chairman Hank Greenberg may be trying to buy the New York Times from the Sulzberger family (which has never wavered in its committment to retain control of the nation’s newspaper of record).  Paid Content passed on that rumor as well, linking to a story in the gossipy New York Post. In the course of searching (unsuccessfully) for a CNBC reference to the same rumor I found a profile that may help illuminate Greenberg brand of hubris.