Scarcity, abundance and value: the economics of digital culture



Understanding the changing relationship between scarcity and abundance – and how they affect value – is essential for visual storytellers seeking to operate in the new ecology of information.

The foundation for this changing relationship is the fact that the web is built on a structurally open system.

Open doesn’t mean all is equal and free of from power.

There are, for example, obvious international inequalities in terms of geographic and class access to the Internet.

It is also true that commercial interests (whether that be Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter or individual corporations) are able to exercise great power on the web.

Nonetheless, because the founders of the web took the historic decision not to patent and thereby privatise its invention we can all have our own piece of digital space.

So the system remains structurally open because anyone can, for very low cost, broadcast, publish and distribute information. Anyone can establish a web presence from which to attract and reach audiences. This simple fact, combined with other changes in digital technology, has altered the parameters of the media economy from scarcity to abundance. This has been well described by Nicholas Carr:

As the Internet becomes our universal medium, it is reshaping what might be called the economics of culture.  Because most common cultural goods consist of words, images, or sounds, which all can be expressed in digital form, they are becoming as cheap to reproduce and distribute as any other information product. Many of them are also becoming easier to create, thanks to the software and storage services provided through the Net and inexpensive production tools like camcorders, microphones, digital cameras, and scanners….The shift from scarcity to abundance in media means that, when it comes to deciding what to read, watch, and listen to, we have far more choices than our parents or grandparents did.

Of course, this doesn’t itself address issues of quality amidst abundance, but social recommendation, the filtering done by trusted sources, delivers a rich stream of information. I can avoid cheesy cat videos on the web just as easily as I can bypass tabloid newspapers in the shop. But I can get unexpected reports and stories much more easily now than when I had to rely on either the physical library or the newsagent.

The great challenge is how to financially support good stories in this era of information abundance. Approaching that question requires us to appreciate three things:

  1. Good journalism has always been indirectly subsidised and never paid for directly, and this is complicated by the way the artificial scarcity prices of print advertising have collapsed since 2000;
  2. We cannot confuse or conflate value and price: people value quality information and stories for their utility or experience, but the price that can be charged is driven more by issues of access and availability than content worth;
  3. Being able to charge scarcity prices depends on having something unique, long-lasting, easy to access and easy to pay for.

This is the eighth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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