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media economy

The new media landscape (1): contours of change

Change in the media landscape is constant. Everyone involved in the production of creative content – photographers, journalists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who deal in those products – knows that nothing is as it was.

Too much of the current debate about how creative practitioners can cope with these upheavals proceeds without an understanding of the big picture and historical context. There are some hard realities that have to be properly understood before new strategies can be devised.

In this series of three posts, I want to lay down an understanding of what is happening, how some are responding, and what others can learn from them. Many of the elements I discuss are well known, and many of the examples I cite show that people are already positioning themselves to prosper from these changes. But for those who are still unsure about what is happening and what to do I think it is important to take this step back in order to plan where to go.

These posts are based on a presentation I gave at the CEPIC New Media Conference 2 in Istanbul on 21 May, and I would like to thank Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine for the invitation. For that event I knew I could not compete visually with speakers from the stock photography industry, so I selected key words that named the main themes.

In this first post, I will cover the concepts of disintermediation, disruption, ecology, disaggregation and free, including the importance of the relationship between scarcity, abundance and fungibility in the new media landscape. In part two I will unpack the concept of community and its importance, and in part three I will review how some are thinking about business models in this context. As one of my concerns is how documentary photographers and independent photojournalists can work better, I will outline some practical steps they can take to incorporate some of the lessons from this review.

So what are the contours of change in the new media landscape?

The internet has changed everything. That is obvious, but the question is how? ‘Disintermediation’ is one ugly word, but an important handle on the change wrought by the internet. Made popular by Dave Winer, the idea comes from economics and points to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. It highlights the way you can cut out the “middle man” and deal directly with your audience or customer.

The internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

All of this means we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has been expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions, distributors and gatekeepers.

None of this means the internet is the single cause of all change or that we have a perfectly open world. And we have to remember that for all its potential universality, the internet currently only reaches one-third of the world’s population. But it does mean the internet is an important enabler of change that challenges or routes around many of the barriers and gates in our world.


Through disintermediation the internet is disrupting many walks of life, especially information industries. When we consider that global internet traffic is predicted to increase fourfold by 2014 its easy to see how many areas are being affected by the internet.

The disruption that follows from disintermediation can be understood as resulting in what Richard Stacey describes as “the separation of information from its means of distribution.” This means that all those modes of information distribution we have taken to be natural – the newspaper, magazine, radio station, album-length CD, television broadcaster, cinema and the like – are being challenged by new means of producing and circulating content. As one analyst remarked recently:

The very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution…Films, TV, music are all produced and distributed in a tightly controlled way. The internet blows the doors off that concept because it’s an environment where everyone can distribute with maximum efficiency to everyone else.

Netflix is showing what this means in practice. It now accounts for one-quarter of North America’s aggregate internet traffic because streaming video is so much more efficient than mailing DVDs. It costs Netflix $1 to send out a DVD, but just 5 cents to stream the same movie. As a streaming service they will eliminate the $600 million they currently spend on labour for checking discs and the postal service, with obvious negative impacts for both those sectors.

The lesson from this is clear – in Richard Stacey’s words, “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”


The web, built on top of the internet, has created a new ecology of information, both literally and figuratively. ‘Ecology’ is the study of organisms in relationship to each other and their environment. As a new ecology of information, the web exists as much more than a competitor to existing infrastructures. It is not a new market side by side with traditional markets – it is reshaping both the infrastructures and the markets for everyone.

Yet many information industries treat the web as a competitor rather than an ecosystem. For example, a recent debate about the difficulty of linking from many newspapers stories to supporting information revealed the print-centric nature of media company workflows and CMS’s, and showed how far they were from a digital-first strategy.


In this new ecology – where disruption is powered by disintermediation – we are seeing a change in the structure and process of information.

It is changing what have been called the “atomic units” of established modes of information, and unbundling traditional modes of distribution. We are seeing the disaggregation of forms and formats we have taken to be natural:

  • the disaggregation of albums to individual downloads in music
  • the disaggregation of newspapers and magazines to stories that can be circulated or linked to individually
  • the disaggregation of broadcast stations and fixed schedules to personal streams that can be consumed anywhere and anytime

The idea of the ‘stream’ is significant here. It emphasizes process rather than product, because once disaggregated, things can be updated.

Even when thinks look like fixed commodities we should think in terms of streams. iTunes downloads and Kindle ebooks are sold as though they are fixed units, yet they are parts of a stream leased for use on particular devices. With ebooks your edition can be updated or removed by the organization that controls the stream.

Disaggregation does not mean things dissolve into a formless universe. They are re-aggregated, but that is increasingly done through social networks. For example, a study for CNN found that social media was used to share nearly half of all news.

Disaggregation, therefore, leads to the importance of information that is social, modular and mobile. As Mathew Ingram has observed,

the future of media consumption is going to look a lot more like a smorgasbord of sources and content, personalized and recommended by friends and our social graph, and a lot less like that megaphone traditional media outlets used to have and control.


Few words rile creative producers more than the idea of free. But it is a concept that has to be confronted. We have to move beyond the competing ‘theological assumptions’ that either content should be free or that people should pay. ‘Should’ cannot be the basis for a rational response to the hard realities of the new ecology of information.

There is no escaping the fact that free is part of the intrinsic architecture of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The problem is that the web’s essential characteristic makes earning revenue hard. As Frederic Filoux notes, “the social web’s economics are paradoxical: the more it blossoms, the more it destroys value.”

Filoux’s statement renders value only as price or revenue, thereby overlooking the cultural and social value that flow from free circulation and distribution. Nonetheless, the web’s architecture of free intersects with a basic economic formula.  As Chris Anderson argues in his book Free (p. 173), “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

That does not mean that everything is given away for nothing. Despite claims to the contrary – for details see my review of his book – Anderson is very clear that (a) free is not a business model and (b) that it is always linked with paid.

The ability to leverage the web’s architecture for paid content depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. Most content producers have priced their work on the assumption that it is scarce, and inefficient modes of distribution have supported that. But because the web has made many things abundant, charging scarcity prices is not easily sustainable.

Here I want to introduce one more concept – fungibility.  Something is fungible if it can be substituted by something else. A breaking news story is fungible because there are a number of credible sources that can be substituted for each other. A music track or a specific photograph is not fungible because if you are a fan who wants only a track from a particular band, or an image by a particular artist, they cannot be replaced by music or images from others.

Scare items are not fungible. Abundant items are fungible. If you produce something that is unique and not found elsewhere, you can resist the inevitable free endpoint. If you produce something that is abundant and can be replaced by something else, then you will not be able to directly charge scarcity prices for it (although, as I will argue in the third post, there will be other ways of using that content to produce revenue to support its production).

Conclusion

These are the dynamics that I think drive the changes in the new media landscape. They are the hard realities creating the new ecology we all operate in, producing a landscape marked by disaggregation in which traditional forms and formats of distribution are being unbundled, and content is increasingly social, modular and mobile. Content producers and distributors have to face up to these dynamics, and try and work with these developments in order to achieve their goals. In the second post in this series, I will argue that the concept of community is an essential part of that process.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (2)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: laihui/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.