The culture of point and click

Buried in the Bivings Group report entitled “Analyzing the Presence of American Magazines on the Internet” was a phrase that jumped off page and into the headline of this blog:

“Magazines are more than just information providers: there is a culture surrounding magazines that relies on the physical aspects of flipping through pages and looking at glossy pictures.”

I focus on that image as a way to separate the form of the modern magazine from its prime function, which is to create an audience around a certain body of material or set of interests. This latter description also encapsulates the direction of Web publishing, as I understand it – to find some niche interest, serve it content created by an internal staff, scraped off the Web (through RSS or OPML) or generated by users. Web publication add the interactive features not possible in the world of glossy pages, such as comments and rankings.

Indeed, the Bivings Group analyzed the (limited) extent to which leading print magazines used Web 2.0 features, and compared their record in this regard to the findings of an earlier and similar report on the Web 2.0-osity of the U.S. newspaper industry. But the comparisons do not particularly interest me. I do not own a newspaper or magazine (empire) and therefore have only a limited interest (i.e., the stability of my current job) in whether or not they evolve or perish. Rather I want to think about what the culture of flipping pages tells us about the culture of point and click; why do people spend time with new media. Because time, or more specifically attention, is the limiting factor in today’s publishing environment.

Before I continue, however, thanks to Paid Content and,for calling the report to my attention (I had overlooked the earlier Bivings newspaper survey), and for Jeff (Buzzmachine) Jarvis for offering his own advice on whither goest today’s magazines.

But forget their fates. Lots of people get paid big bucks to worry in that direction. What does the “culture” issue tell aspiring or emerging new media publishers? If flipping through the pages of a magazine is one of the undeniable pleasures of picking up a magazine, are there cultures to the consumption of other media? And if so, how does this line of thinking help new media?

The page flipping feature and the glossiness helps magazines sell advertisements, and everything we learn suggests that ad-support grows more — not less — important as a support mechanism. Nevertheless, Bivings reports that “from 2004 to 2005, the total circulation of the nation’s top 50 magazines declined by 0.4 percent.” Is the culture of page flipping slowly giving way to the culture of convenience for nothing?

Isn’t that what the Web is about: convenience and free content? And more evidence that consumers avail themselves of Web content at work, stealing a few minutes from whatever task to amuse themselves? Perhaps the culture of productivity at the office will step in at some point to restrict on-the-job browsing and take some of the wind out of Web 2.0.

Meanwhile it doesn’t surprise me that, as Bivings reported, newspapers are doing better at adding Web 2.0 features, notably blogs, podcasts and comments, to the online sites that supplement their print editions. They have to try harder. For one thing they are losing circulation faster and recognize the need to change. Moreover, the culture of the newspaper is better suited to the Web. The newspaper has always been about what happened. And be quick about the telling. That’s quite in harmony with Web culture which the word “browsing” so accurately describes. Of course newspapers still derive 95 percent of their revenues from the declining print side and are in a race to see if they can extract more revenues from their online readership before their print cash flow peters out. (FYI, the SF Weekly recently looked in depth at the Web strategy of the paper where I work in an article titled, Chron 2.0; the piece is well worth reading in this regard.)

But again, I’m interested in thinking about the culture of Web publishing and Web readership and, shame on me perhaps for saying so, but what I see at first blush is shallow and disappointing. The Web reader says: OK, I’ll look at your stuff if it’s free, and moreover, I’m most likely to look at it while the boss is paying. Of course there is the interactivity and the ability for people to share feedback, images, original content — to become part of the conversation, which is the mantra of the Web going back to at least the Cluetrain Manifesto.

What I don’t know — and if you do, please share — is what percentage of the audience interacts? How large is the universe of comments. How many users generate comments? Is Web 2.0 defined by a minority, and if so of what size? And what does this ratio between the active and inert audience tell us about the culture of information, persuasion and entertainment which describe what media are about?