Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Theory of Traditional and "Social" Media

Media has always been social. People have an instinctive need for shared narratives and experiences at a broader societal level than they can get from directly shared experience. Media has filled those instinctive needs since the dawn of history [1], from the Great Flood (mediated by the Bible) to the non-flood of New York City during Hurricane Irene [2]. Before writing we had storytelling and cave drawings, minstrels and town criers.

Somewhere along the line large media companies arose, and confused creating and distributing experiences with creating and distributing content [3].
Content is an important part of determining which pieces of media get wide distribution ("go viral") and reach the level of shared narrative or experience, but it is only one part. The Bible or the Koran did not achieve their viral spread around the world primarily because of the appeal of their content per se, they become global hits because of their remarkably effective distribution systems, the shared narrative they gave society, and the shared experience created by religious practice [4].

Two examples are musical taste and the movie Avatar. If you are like most people, you think you like to the music you like because it’s good music. I don’t want to challenge your taste, but the definition of what’s “good“ changes over time, with society. Music is one of the strongest forms of cultural identification; consider the different cultural implications of listening to Phish or Don Omar, Tiesto or Coltrane. You may not have identical musical taste to your friends’, but in the universe of possible musical choices the similarities far outweigh the differences.

Let’s look at Avatar. Avatar holds the record for greatest box office hit ever, even though most 3D movies prior and since have been flops. I really enjoyed Avatar, but most people I know who didn’t think it was that great. Avatar succeeded in part because of its content, but the difference between being a well-performing movie and the greatest hit ever was the shared conversation is created. Two years before the movie came out people were already talking about it; it was James Cameron’s first move made since Titanic! The first blockbuster to feature new 3D technology! The movie that would take Hollywood into a new era, it would do for 3D what The Jazz Singer did for talkies [5]! Seeing Avatar meant being part of the conversation (which is why so many people who haven't seen iconic movies like Avatar or Star Wars have made conscious decisions to abstain; they are often contrarians who want to be part of the conversation of not having seen them).

The marketing machine of traditional media was a big part in both of the above examples. So what happened?

Partly it's the long-tail effect: when there are so many cable channels, so many YouTube videos, so many sources of entertainment, it's harder for any one of them to break through. It's hard to get the family around the TV set to watch Leave it to Beaver when everyone can watch their own show in their room on their own TV or their iPad. But communities still exist; they're just more fragmented.

Where traditional media faltered, social media filled the void. Because the economic structure of its production is geared towards organic content discovery rather than spending tons of money on A&E and marketing, it can handle the long-tail fragmentation of community really well. Traditional media would do well to focus on its strength at creating mass experiences, and focus on making an event out of its offerings and the social conversation around the experience. The focus on piracy is a red herring in the greater scheme of traditional media’s decline

[1] Pun intended.


[3] I've read theories that attribute this to the rise of modern mass media as a large, highly profitable industry requiring significant capital and the control of physical distribution, but that's a topic for another time.

[4] That's not to say that they don't have quality content; I'm not even going to try to go there. Rather that they were spread by the tremendous efforts of their believers rather than by someone picking them up and saying, "Hey, this is a great book!"

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