Monthly Archives: May 2010

5 Thoughts on the Future of Media – 2010 Update

Last year, Barrett Garese wrote a thought-provoking essay about the future of film, TV and the web.  When I realized my response to his post was longer than a single comment ever should be, I blogged my response on my old blog.  One week later, I relocated from Blogger to WordPress and most of my old thoughts were left behind.

Now, this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about media forms.  And as I started to write today’s post, I realized Barrett’s essay and my response are still as relevant as they were a year ago.  So I’ve republished my old post below, with a new afterword.

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As a former agent at UTA, Barrett Garese has better insight into the future of media than most of us do, and he’s blogged a fascinating essay about where he thinks film, TV and web content is headed. (In a nutshell, he believes the key is to capitalize on the inherent differences of each platform, rather than insisting on convergence.)

While reading his essay, I realized my own response would be longer than appropriate for his comment column, so I’ve posted it here. My thoughts will make more sense if you’ve read Barrett’s essay as a primer, but I think these points stand on their own as well.

I’ll Stop the World and Converge With You…

The convergence of film, TV and web is happening, but that doesn’t dilute the power of each individual experience.  Film is still film, TV is still TV, web is still web, etc.  But what this does create is a NEW possibility: the convergent format, in which content is specifically designed to either:

A) feel different across all platforms (i.e., the viewing experience is engineered to suit each specific screen size or format.  For example, producers could edit different versions of the same show by using different shots or angles — such as including more motion on TV or film, but more closeups and static shots for web and mobile.)

… or:

B) be different across all platforms (i.e., the web version of a show is completely different, while still complementary in theme, to the film or TV version.  For example, a TV series could unfold in real time, but the show’s website could post weekly 3-minute flashbacks that add context to last week’s conflicts).

Your Home Theater Is Not Actually a Theater.

Audiences anticipate different experiences based on the distribution method.

We expect to immerse ourselves in a film experience (minus the live distractions), while we expect to be distracted from the TV experience (because we’re at home). Thus, we’re already anticipating a different kind of content to be shared across those varied platforms — and when the end result doesn’t match our expectations, our engagement with that content may suffer. (Or, it may surprise us.)

We also expect a difference in on-screen quality relative to the effort it takes to obtain the image.  For example, driving to a theater at 7 PM should reward me with a higher quality experience than watching something on my phone at 3 AM.

And, we expect the content to connect with us on levels that equal our applied (and uninterrupted) attention.  Mindblowing films can’t be processed in 5 minute increments via stolen wi-fi during your lunch break, yet 3 hours in a theater had better provide you with a deeper and more profound experience than 30 consecutive episodes of Tiki Bar TV (which, it should be said, I love).

LOOK AT ME.

The biggest expense for online content should be promotions. You can create an amazing show for $5, but you’re still releasing it into a medium that A) not enough people are paying attention to, yet which is B) paradoxically flooded with crap (which may explain A).

If I were to produce a new web series (after concluding Something to Be Desired), I’d be sure that the promotional plan was in place before the first episode ever hit the web.  The days of “throwing it out there and seeing what happens” are best left to people experimenting in their own free time, not people who expect to gain the traction that validates (both artistically AND financially) their investment of time, money and effort.

Whither the Studios?

Eventually, existing corporate studio behemoths will become distribution companies that happen to have (exclusive?) contracts with production houses. Instead of producing AND distributing their own in-house content, they’ll profit from their primary assets (reach and volume) and leave the creative aspects to contracted producers — who will in turn be grateful to not have to worry about being both creative and ubiquitous at the same time.

That said, there will always be exceptions. In the long run, it’s still cheaper for Verizon to produce its own web shows than it is for them to subcontract with a production company, and it’s still more profitable for an indie prodco to bootstrap their way into self-distribution than it is for them to produce their own content but only keep a percentage of eventual revenues.

A Soap Opera Without the Soap Had Better Be a Damn Good Opera

Content producers need to rely less on advertising and more on the inherent value of the content itself. Gone are the days when content is produced as a lure to hook viewers into sitting through commercials — nor can content *be* produced under a presumed business model that eyeballs = advertising opportunities = profit.

If you cut out the middleman of advertising, what are you left with?

You’re left with an audience who’ll pay you directly for what you create — or for the experience it creates in them — rather than a vessel with holes waiting to be plugged by commercials.

This also impacts media that’s produced for traditional, large-scale distribution. Just because a show isn’t pulling in the millions of eyeballs it needs to validate its TV time slot, it doesn’t mean that show couldn’t be profitable at a lower operating cost with web-based distribution.

If I were the producers of a canceled darling like Pushing Daisies (and if I still owned the rights to that property), I would shrink the budget, post 15-20 minute episodes (or segments) online, and invite the fans to pre-pay for next season’s DVD in advance.  That initial influx of cash could be used to fund part of the upcoming season, which means the prodco isn’t scrambling to line up sponsors now and then waiting for a year-end DVD windfall to break even.

Afterword

Since Barrett and I forecast the future of web media one year ago, services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have come to my attention.

As “crowdfunding” sources, these sites enable aspiring artists, authors, filmmakers and designers to obtain the funds necessary to launch their ideas without begging for traditional sponsorship, investors or distribution deals.  For example, filmmaker Gregory Bayne raised more than $25,000 to fuel one documentary, while author Robin Sloan nearly quadrupled his initial funding request of $3,500.

So… if we can free ourselves from the need for advertising, and if crowdfunding now makes it easier to get more complicated projects off the ground… what might the future of easily-funded, “owe-nothing” media-driven business models look like?

And, how will the media created by these new artrepreneurs change our future predictions?

Image by perreira.

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I Tweet, Therefore I Am… Empty?

What if our newspapers were filled with articles on how to write for newspapers?

What if the only books we printed were books about how to sell books?

What if TV shows consisted solely of monologues about TV?

I doubt we’d have much use for them at all.

So why do we accept it in social media?

The Three Pillars of Social Media Content

If you blog, podcast or otherwise create media for web-based distribution, you probably talk ad nauseam about one of three topics:

  • How to create web content
  • How to monetize web content
  • Yourself

Notice that you probably don’t talk about the subject matter of your content, because your content is its own subject matter.

Crazy, isn’t it?

We blog about blogging.  We market about marketing.  And, when we’re not selling our expertise, we sell ourselves.  It’s the equivalent of painters forever painting portraits of themselves painting their own self-portraits.  I can’t imagine another medium that would exist solely to justify and perpetuate its own existence, and yet that’s precisely what we do here.

It’s ugly.  It’s desperate.  It’s solipsistic.  (Look it up.)  And it makes for one anemic defense of an industry.

It’s almost like social media labors under the suspicion that if it stops talking about itself, it’ll cease to exist.

Which begs the question: does social media exist?  Or are we making the whole thing up?

If a Tree Falls in the Woods and No One Retweets It…

The social side of social media revolves around techniques meant to get others talking about you.  The media side of the equation is less about the form of the content and more about its distribution.  Mobile, web-based, downloadable, subscribable…  These aren’t media forms.  These are means of distribution.

What we have is people using multiple channels to convince you of their own merit, mostly so you’ll talk about them — and, specifically, so you’ll talk about their vast array of expertise, in subjects like…

  • creating content,
  • monetizing content, and
  • themselves

Is it any wonder that people believe Twitter is a wasteland of people discussing airports and breakfast cereal?

Are you shocked when the level of social media discourse reported by CNN or Nightline amounts to the same uninformed, knee-jerk reactions we already ignore when we scan through blog comments, but which the mainstream media somehow thinks represents America’s profound and timely wisdom?

Of course, it aggravates those of us who believe in the potential of social media, and it motivates us to prove the naysayers wrong.

But here’s the catch:

What if they’re right?

Does a Computer Know It’s a Computer?

If our entire medium did exist solely to justify its own existence, surely we’d recognize that lunacy and abandon it for something legitimately meaningful.  Right?

Only if we can diagnose our own insanity.

Look at the blogs you subscribe to, the tweeters you follow and the podcasts you download.  What percentage of those sources focus on something other than social media itself?

Look at your own output.  What do you write or speak about most often?  Is it a topic that has to be explained to anybody who hasn’t heard of Chris Brogan?

Odds are, those odds aren’t good.

So why do we do this?

And what would happen if we didn’t?

I Wrote a Play About This Playwright Who Writes Plays About Playwrights Who…

What if you spent more time writing and reading about a topic other than the web itself?

Who’s creating dynamic media that happens to be online, rather than media that only matters online?

How can you use social media to teach others about a subject besides social media?

(You do have other interests, don’t you?)

Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to perpetually explain what you did to people (and why), because the value of what you do would be obvious even to people who don’t own smartphones and who think Amber Naslund was the bassist in Jem?

I know, it’s a scary idea.  The first rule of Fight Club was “don’t talk about Fight Club,” because if you did talk about Fight Club, then Fight Club might cease to exist.

With us, it’s the opposite: if we stop talking about social media, then we cease to exist.

Or, more specifically, we cease to exist in our own little fishbowl.

But if we’re only special to each other, we’re not really special at all, are we?

We’re just people with make-believe jobs and titles, who invent our own conferences and pay to hear each other speak about speaking about talking about blogging about ourselves.

And call me a cynic, but I think we can do better.

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Stop Being So Passive-Aggressive with Your Social Media

Writing a blog in the hopes that you’ll get noticed — or hired — is extremely passive-aggressive.

Most people who’ve made money have made it by pursuing it.  Therefore, they respect what they recognize, which is a desire to achieve.  So, by pursuing work and striving to get their attention, your actions resonate with them.

Meanwhile, posting amazing free content to your blog on a daily basis, and then hoping someone will someday think, “Gee, I wonder what he’d do if I paid him,” is the antithesis of go-getter moxie.

Consider the guy who claimed to land a job by manipulating Google.  He didn’t just get hired because he was creative; he got hired because he got noticed.

He could have also written a blog post about how great he was, and then hoped that his six art directors of choice would find that post while Googling, read it, realize he was a genius and call him for an interview.

But that would have been stupid.  And desperate.  And passive.  And failed.

Stop being all of those things.

Does That Mean I Should Self-Promote Endlessly?

No.  No it does not.

Look at that Google guy again.  Did he spam the world with his joblessness?  No.  He targeted six art directors he knew he’d like to work for, and he got his message in front of them.

That’s the other difference between being aggressive and being passive-aggressive: identifying the target.

If you believe in yourself, then you’ll be confident in walking your message directly to the right person’s doorstep.*

If you don’t, you’ll spraypaint your desires all over the web, in the hopes that someone — anyone — will notice you, and take pity on you, and drag you home to their quonset hut to nurse you back to health.

Do you want a specific result, or any result?

Skip the hut, and find the right doorstep.

The 5-Step Process to Get Hired Using Social Media

1.  Know what you want to get paid for.

2.  Do that work for free.  (This is called practice.)

3.  Become better at doing it for free than the people who currently get paid to do it.

4.  Figure out who pays people to do it, and show them what you do.

5.  Tell them how much you’ll do it for.

Repeat steps 1-5 until you find yourself gainfully employed.

But Wait!  There’s a Bonus Step!

6.  Write a book about how you landed your dream job using social media — and sell it.

Wasn’t that easy?

*Not someone’s face, mind you.  Their doorstep.  And recognize when you’ve been ignored vs. when you’ve been invited in.  Adults respond to confidence; teenage girls respond to bravado.  Unless you want to be employed by a teenage girl, understand the tonal difference in your delivery.

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The Paradox of Quality

One of the web’s primary flaws is that it’s actually too easy to use.

And as content becomes ever easier to create, finding quality content becomes even more difficult.

That’s the general premise of Andrew Keen‘s Cult of the Amateur, which lobbies for the return of cultural gatekeepers.  It’s when those gatekeepers are reinstated, Keen argues, that the cream [at least according to the gatekeeper's opinion] of YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, etc., will rise to the top more easily, while the trash will sink to the bottom.

But even if that idyllic (if patriarchal) picture did occur, we’d still have one big problem:

Who’d actually bother to watch quality content?

“Quality” implies an investment of time and effort from both the creator and the audience.

And that’s problematic because, at its root, the web operates as a series of willful disruptions.

Is the vast majority of the content on YouTube actually good?  No.  But that doesn’t stop swarms of people from creating (and watching) millions of videos every day.  For them, a lack of quality is not a deterrent.

In fact, it may even be the point.

Short Attention Span Theater

The very act of “surfing the web” implies a constant state of motion.  Ideas collide.  Interests expand.  The citizens of the web spend their entire online lives as willing nomads in search of ever-newer stimuli.

In such a milieu, breadth trumps depth and skimming supersedes absorbing.  Our eyes are drawn to bullet points, pull quotes and captions — any shortcuts that help us grok the gist of something without actually needing to process it completely.

And it’s not (entirely) our fault.

The media we create — and our ability to process it — is constantly evolving.  Our post-MTV generation can now intuit the complete meaning of a film from a 30 second preview, thus rendering the viewing of the film itself unnecessary.

We’ve become so familiar with the formula of information, it’s increasingly difficult for media creators to reward our attention by providing us with actual revelations.

So we skim.  Chronically.

And who can blame us?

Why read a book when you can read the CliffsNotes for five books in the same amount of time?  (Or, more likely, when you can skim a few pages of the CliffsNotes and then do well enough on the subsequent test to pass it, which invalidates the need to read the book in the first place.)

Why surrender our attention to one-way media like novels and films when video games and social networks provide us with the illusion of control, choice and unpredictability?

Why invest ourselves in one piece of media when so many others might be worth our time?

Being Unfulfilled Is My Default State of Mind

I’m no stranger to the paradox of quality.  One of my own complaints about the web is its lack of content that blows my mind and inspires me to action.

And yet, whenever I find a piece of media that has the potential to do such a thing, I immediately become desperate to click away from it at the earliest possible convenience.

Why?

Because no matter what I’m doing online, I always feel like I should be doing something else.

I used to think this was my reaction to the generally poor quality of the web overall.  But now I’m not so sure.

Because even as Google, social networks and other disruptors work night and day to disprove Andrew Keen’s premise simply by making it easier to find good content, I don’t find that I’m actually spending any more time with the good content I do find.

I just spend my time finding more of it.

It’s as though the web’s old problem — a lack of quality — has been replaced by a new problem — too much quality, or at least, quality that’s too easy to find.

Sooner or later, we all find the information, entertainment or enlightenment we’ve been searching for.  And it’s getting sooner and sooner all the time, until we no longer have the time to make use of what we did need because we’ve already discovered something new that we’d rather have.

In order to actually stop and absorb the information and insights at our disposal, we’d need to switch off the parts of our brains that feel compelled to find more of the same and just be content with what’s in front of us at the moment.

And I’m not sure we’re wired that way anymore.

In fact, maybe Andrew Keen was on to something.  But his premise is still flawed.  It’s not that we need gatekeepers to help us find the good stuff; we just need them to stop us from finding too much.

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Sorry Guys: When It Comes to Your Audience, Size DOES Matter

There’s a gentleman’s agreement in social media that needs to be debunked.

We’re always supposed to judge ourselves by the quality of the conversations we have, rather than the sheer volume of our reach.

Even Gary Vee, who has more Twitter followers than anyone else who’s not “mainstream famous,” preached quality over quantity at #140conf last month.  He believes the number of Direct Messages a person sends on Twitter — thereby implying a true 1-to-1 connection — is a more accurate arbiter of a person’s influence and power than how many generic followers that person blasts with her impersonal messaging.

What Gary wants to know is, how many people are you making time for?

But it’s easy for Gary Vee to say that numbers don’t matter; he already has them.

You don’t.  (Not like Gary does.)

But you want them.

And that’s okay.

Here’s why.

In Our Minds, We’re All Lady Gaga with a Slightly Smaller Wardrobe

First, let’s establish one truth: everybody wants to be heard.*

If we didn’t want to be heard, we’d never open our mouths.  The act of engaging in social media — whether you’re a pro, an amateur or someone who simply tweets to your five actual flesh-and-blood friends — is the act of declaring that what you have to say is worth being heard by someone.

From there, the only place to go is up.

And while it’s true that numbers alone are meaningless, numbers are never alone.  Numbers are indicators.  And in terms of audience, numbers are indicators of your potential.

Dan Zarrella created a graph he calls Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness, which says that in order for a message to be successful, it must be:

  1. Noticed
  2. Considered interesting, and
  3. Acted upon

Obviously, far more messages are noticed than acted upon.  To improve your chances of success, you want to maximize each contact point on Zarrella’s graph — and that starts with maximizing the number of people exposed to your message.

Take iJustine.  She’s followed by over 1 million people on Twitter.  That doesn’t mean everything she tweets is noticed by all 1 million people, but it does mean that what she tweets is, by definition, noticed by more people than what you tweet.

Does that mean iJustine is more important than you are?  No.  It just means she has the potential to be more influential than you do.

But that has more to do with who’s following her, or following you — and why.

It’s Not How Big Your Audience Is, It’s How You Use… er, Inspire It

Let’s say you have a message you believe is worth sharing.  So you broadcast it.

If no one notices your message, you lose.

On the other hand, if everyone notices your message but no one cares… you still lose.

The question is: how likely are people to be interested in what you’re saying and act on it?

That likelihood depends on numerous variables, including:

  • What are you saying?
  • How are you saying it?
  • How reputable are you?
  • How difficult is the action you’ve requested?
  • What’s the payoff for the person taking the action?
  • What’s the payoff for you?

The world would be far more profoundly impacted by three scientists listening to your advice and solving a disease than it would be by all one million of iJustine’s followers donating a dollar to the cause of her choice.

But you probably don’t know three scientists, nor are you likely to provide them with actionable data and convince them to make use of it.

On the other hand, iJustine can direct her thousands of followers to take any number of mundane actions.  And if the composite effect of those mundane actions amounts to something noteworthy, it simultaneously elevates her own public perception as an influencer — which, in turn, extends her reach via expanded awareness.

Thus, although the volume of your reach actually is less important than the quality of your reach, the quality of your reach is dependent on the nature of circumstances.  Yes, your three scientist friends may be able to cure cancer, but they might not be able to help you land a job.  Your million connections, on the other hand, just might.

In which case… why are we all so quick to denounce our desire to amass a large audience?

Everybody’s Jealous of a Size Queen

The bigger a person’s audience becomes, the more likely they are to become demonized.  Not because of what they actually say (or don’t say), but simply because they get noticed.

Getting noticed is the first step toward getting what you want.  And when someone else is getting noticed, it usually means you’re not.

The truth is, you don’t actually envy Chris Brogan, Gary Vee or iJustine because they’re popular; you envy them because the size of the audience they’ve amassed provides them with better odds of achieving their goals than yours does.

And while I’m sure Gary would be every bit as helpful, engaging and invested if he “only” had 10,000 (or even 100) passionate fans of his work, I’m also quite sure that if he “only” had 100 fans, he would want more.

Badly.

Because it’s who we are.

We talk because we want to be talked about.

But why?

That’s your own question to answer.

Maybe you want to make a living doing what you love.

Maybe you want to help others.

Maybe you want to meet interesting people, or go interesting places.

Maybe you just want to know that someone thinks you’re interesting.

With larger audiences comes more potential for interaction.  By default, Chris Brogan knows more interesting people than you do, simply because he knows more people than you do.

Ultimately, the size of your audience is important, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is what you want to do.

And the more people you have paying attention to you, the greater your chances of accomplishing your goal.

So: you want to be successful?  Meet more people.

(And then spend at least some of your time listening to them; you might learn something.)

*NOTE:  Maybe “heard” is the wrong word for you.  Maybe it’s “listened to.”  Maybe it’s “influential.”  Maybe it’s “admired,” “respected” or “appreciated.”  Regardless of your specific motive, any action that can be taken by the masses is an action most of us would like to evoke in as many people as possible, until we grow tired of the response.

And if having too much exposure is a problem… let’s cross that bridge when you get there.

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