One of the most important distinctions of modern media is its two-way connection. It brings a telephone-like conversation to the rich, audio-visual experience of publishing and broadcast mediums.
A pattern language is a method of describing good design practices within a field of expertise. Fifteen years ago, my wife and I ran across Christopher Alexander’s wonderful book, A Pattern Language while contemplating a remodel of our home. The remodel never happened, but the idea of a pattern language stuck with me. I eventually used something like it to frame a public critique of the way the environmental movement was structured, called Movement as Network.
What follows is an attempt to apply a similar kind of pattern language to what I see happening in media today. It starts with a set of slides:
I recommend looking through the slides first, and from there we get into some of the implications.
End User Contributions to New Media
The two-way connection of new media fosters a new relationship between media creators and consumers. In fact, it blurs the line between them.
While this new relationship isn’t exactly news, I think it’s important to spotlight the ways modern media organizations engage end users in the creation, distribution, evaluation and consumption of media. It’s important because it highlights the way highly automated technology platforms now push more and more of the value-creation process in media away from paid employees and out to unpaid end users. It’s a trend that I believe is spreading to other sectors of the economy (a story for another day), but that is simply more advanced in the media sector.
What we have come to call “user-contributed content” is much larger than just product and restaurant reviews for Amazon and Yelp. To see the bigger picture of end user engagement in new media, it helps to use the six elements I outline in the above pattern language slides:
- Topic Graph
- Social Graph
Publishing and Viewing Media
With publishing, we’ve moved from a world where very few had access to publishing tools to one where everyone with Internet access now does. Since the rise of the printing press, the obstacles and resources standing in the way of publishing have gotten smaller and smaller. When blogging tools eventually showed up in the late nineties, the cost of publishing dropped effectively to zero. Social media networks then simplified the publishing process even further, and connected it to something very important: an audience.
With media viewing, it’s the economics of replication and broadcasting that have dominated our experience. The printing press first made the cost of replicating the written word orders of magnitude less expensive. Then, radio and television transformed our medium of communication so that the replication of ideas no longer even required a physical medium; it simply rode on waves of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
With the web, our publishing became so unimpeded that we quickly found ourselves drowning in information. We were no longer just hearing from paid professionals; now we were hearing from each other, and as it turns out, we had a lot to say.
Without some means for creating order from it, the bounty of our wondrous new medium would have overwhelmed us. To tame it, we ended up using the same thing that created the problem in the first place: we learned to engage end users in filtering the information.
Filtering Media by Topics and People
The first trick for taming information overload was to filter it by topic. Here, Google’s breakthrough was to draw on hyperlinks that website authors were already using to point to valuable content. Google crawled the links and mapped them against various search terms input by users. As this network of documents and keywords grew, a kind of topic graph emerged as a powerful way to filter information by topic – and it was created through Google’s ability to harvest the linking and searching of its end users.
Some information matters because I care about the topic; others because it’s related to a person I care about. Here, it was Facebook that succeeded in building the first social network with the kind of scale needed to filter information by social connections for a large segment of the population. Over time, the company convinced us to voluntarily add our relationships into its social graph, a massive database comprised of our collective social ties. Our reward for surrendering this data was a highly personalized stream of information by and often about the people in our lives.
But Facebook isn’t just interested in our ties to other people. The company wants to know our ties to movies, books, performers and all kinds of other entities – not just because they might have commercial potential, but because they say a lot about who we are, which is extremely valuable information to marketers. Facebook’s Open Graph connects these topics to our profiles, creating a new graph, called an interest graph. For Google, the focus has been on connecting the powerful topic graph it already has to much stronger identities for its user base – and this was part of the initial rationale for developing Google+.
As we used Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, our role as passive consumers of information shifted. Some people were already commenting on blogs, but now these social networks made it even easier to provide feedback on what we saw. With likes and plusses, the cost of providing feedback dropped even more dramatically, and through sharing and retweeting, we used our social graph as powerful new distributors of information.
Revenues from Engagement
Traditionally, revenues for media ventures have come from just two sources: advertising and subscriptions. LinkedIn, like many other media entities that are closely connected with our professional interests and connections, has been able to supplement its advertising revenues with a premium subscription.
For the most part though, charging subscription fees interferes with the ability to engage lots of people in adding value to a media network. For this reason, in our modern, networked era, advertising models tend to dominate; the more interconnections between people and topics there are, the more powerful and valuable the network becomes.
The new battle lines are now forming around the interest graph. Google has demonstrated how incredibly lucrative it is to ‘own’ the topic graph and be able to insert ads about things in the very place people are searching for them. We’re less excited to see ads show up in the middle of our socializing though, which is why Facebook has worked so desperately to build detailed interest and demographic profiles on each of us; it’s the key to their platform for marketing to a billion-plus people. And don’t forget Amazon. They might not own the topic graph or the social graph, but they have a much more targeted interest graph, tied to people’s actual purchase behavior.
While these competitive battles will be interesting to watch, I am actually much more interested in an alternative approach: one that relies much more heavily on the support of stakeholders. Here, I’m not talking about the kinds of entities that generate massive profit streams for ever-hungry shareholders. I’m talking about a very different type of entity.
I’m puzzled, for example, about reddit. I’m not a heavy user, but I do use the service and am regularly impressed by its ability to surface valuable information for me. What’s interesting is that reddit is an operationally independent subsidiary of a privately-held company – the media conglomerate, Advance Publications. The fact that the firm is privately held may help explain some of its freedom from having to maximize short-term returns for shareholders.
Another interesting example is Automattic, the makers of WordPress. I am a huge WordPress fan. I use it to run this website and am constantly reminded of how amazing this technology actually is. It gets better and better each year. More interestingly though, from what I can tell, Automattic seems to run itself as a regenerative, stakeholder-oriented organization. It too seems to resist the siren’s call of maximizing returns to shareholders.
Both of these organizations have tremendously loyal communities – way beyond anything you’d find within Twitter, Facebook, Google or LinkedIn. One gets the sense that these users feel a real sense of ownership in these entities.
And why not? They were were the ones that helped build them in the first place.
My question is how do we make that ownership real — as in real equity? That, I believe, is the future to which user-contributed media must now aim.