When The Media Is The Message

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The following is a cross-post from the Sparksheet Blog. It was an interview conducted with me by Spafax Editorial Director, Arjun Basu. You can view the original post here: When The Media Is The Message.

What do we mean when we talk about media today?

I think when we talk about “media” today, the word that normally follows it is “fragmentation.” There was a point when media was an expensive concept. The ability to have a message that you could broadcast to even a small group of people had many barriers to entry for the average person, and so we subsidized it through advertising. If you look at what the Internet has done – bulletin services, then the idea of a GeoCities website where you can build your own webpage, then blogging and podcasts and down to Twitter – what you’re looking at is a landscape that is making it easier for people to publish their thoughts to the world, and by publishing their thoughts, to have an audience. There is still a mass-media model, but there is also a me-media model, where every individual who has anything from a social network to a blog or Twitter account is actually broadcasting or creating media.

Is it ironic that all this is happening just a few years after we were all worried about the concentration of media ownership?

I actually think about those moments a lot. Being Canadian, and having a background in the music industry, there’s always the whole question of whether CanCon [Canadian content regulations] worked. The answer is almost, who cares? Media now has a global base, or can have a global base. And the global base is almost irrelevant. I produce this podcast called Six Pixels of Separation and I call it the audio community – people can call in and they leave their message, and I broadcast it on the show. On any given show, you’ll hear people from Singapore, Russia, the States, Canada. At first, you’re like, “Wow, that’s crazy, there’s somebody in Australia,” and then after a while, it doesn’t really matter because you realize that’s almost as stupid as saying, “I sent Arjun this e-mail and then I sent this e-mail to my buddy in Singapore and they both got it, isn’t that crazy?” You don’t really have that frame of mind when it’s digital; it’s like, well, no kidding it got there.”

Is there such a thing as the media getting so diluted that it doesn’t matter any more? Or is that even a “who cares” question?

First, we need to understand that there is huge value in real journalism and real creation of media that goes beyond me filming a dog licking a bowl of peanut butter and putting it up on YouTube because it looks like he’s talking. But we’re all lumping it into media. But we also need to be aware of something we call “the attention crash.” At what point, having all these access points and feeds, do you just shut down and go numb? I think Twitter is a little lightpost saying, “That’s the whole thing – you’ve got to get shorter, smarter, quicker, and understand that it’s disposable.” We call it “snackable” content. Now, we can say, is that a problem to society? I think they said the same thing when video games came out, like, “This is going to kill kids’ attention spans.” What we actually saw was great leadership come from that generation, great hand-eye coordination, great problem-solving skills.

I was listening to someone compare where we are now with the Internet to the beginning of TV and how, at the beginning of TV, you basically had people doing radio dramas, but with a camera. And it took TV a while to figure out that you could actually do something more than just have two people standing in front of a mic with scripts in their hands doing a show. And he said that’s where we are with the Internet, which is probably the first media that affects every single bit of media because it can do audio, it can do video, it has words so it affects the print. So, I guess we’re sort of at Internet media 1.0 and we’re at Web 2.0 – when we get to Web 3.0, what happens to online media?

I heard a great quote yesterday from Chris Anderson, who’s the editor of Wired magazine and the author of the book The Long Tail. Someone asked him about the future of print and he said: “Where print adds value to the Internet, it will remain.” I’ll also go back to something Clay Shirky said this week at the Canadian Marketing Association‘s National Convention. He said, “A lot of people are looking at the web and saying, ‘How does the web fit into the current ecosystem that we have of media?'” And his comment was, “Maybe it doesn’t.” And maybe the Web is its own ecosystem and we have to figure out how the content we used to make is going to fit into this ecosystem.

So, is it a question of us not understanding it or us not having absorbed it yet?

I find the best way to explain it is we’re in purgatory. We’re in this middle stage where we don’t want to go back and we can’t necessarily go forward, and so, several things have to happen. Those include investments, those include divestments, it includes bankruptcy, it includes innovation. I think to a larger degree it involves education. If you think about it, kids go to school and they have books and notebooks and all this sort of stuff; soon they’ll go to work and use a laptop!

I like the image of us being in sort of a media purgatory. Is there any other time in history that is like this one in terms of media? I think back to the invention of the book and Gutenberg and the movable printing press – that took a long time to be disseminated.

In the past we always said, “Content is king,” and the follow-up line is, “Yes, but context is queen” – very romantic, right? The reality is that there’s been a slight shift in this idea that content is everything and we’ve moved towards this world where everything is content. You take a picture of your kids, you upload it to Facebook, it’s content in some way. I think this is a classic case of the inventors not knowing what the invention is for. So, when we had movable type and the Gutenberg press, it seemed clear what you could do with it. Now you realize that’s not so true, because people started publishing magazines and picture books. It wasn’t just about education-it became a matter of entertainment. So we need to remember that it’s very, very nascent. I would argue that the Internet’s only been commercialized in the past 10 to 15 years. I sit down with a lot of newspapers and they’ll say to me, “You know, okay, Mitch, we hear what you’re saying and you’re very, very passionate and you speak very fast about this, but where are the dollars?” And it’s such an unfair question because, how long did it take to monetize the newspaper model? I would argue, as an advertising guy, that it hasn’t been monetized efficiently yet. You’re going to compare something you took 200 years to figure out to something that’s been around 8 years? It’s not even a fair comparison.

Everyone’s been lamenting the end of reading for so long, but it seems we’re reading more than ever because there’s so much media out there.

Well, yeah. People always say, “I’m really worried about my kids, they spend all this time on the Internet.” And I’m saying to myself, when I was a kid I used to come home, plop my school bag down, and sit in front of the TV watching Batman until I was drooling. I look at my 14-year-old niece on a tablet – forget a laptop, she’s on a touch-tablet – and she’s creating videos with her schoolmates for projects, she’s reading a ton, she’s creating things on Facebook, they’re uploading pictures on Flickr; on top of that, she’s texting in one hand and has her iPod in the other. And, we laugh at that, we sort of go, “Ah, kids today.” But I was never reading or that imaginative or that creative with technology – or just even work – ever in my life. I always argue that I would probably be a much smarter guy if I were growing up now, because I would be reading a lot more.

Well, I think we’re all done.

I’m getting so riled up. I’m sitting here sweating!

Is there anything you wanted to add to finish this conversation?

I think that in order for big, traditional mass-media companies to succeed, they need to understand that they’re still going to make a lot of money – it’s just going to be a significant amount less than what they’re used to. Because if something is everywhere, it loses its value.

And, I wonder if “media” is even going to be the right word…

There are lots of really deep thinkers who are looking at why media was like this in the first place. Well, because of the technological limitations. And if we move away from that, maybe even the base metrics we use for considering media success – reach, frequency, things like that – will go away. I mean, do reach and frequency really matter if I’m just targeting 100 chief information officers?

Is there any country or place where we’re starting to get glimpses of the future?

In the mobile world, we use areas like Korea as a benchmark. You have people who subscribe, for example, to stories on their cell phones. This device becomes ubiquitous to the point where it’s where all your passwords are stored, it’s your credit card, it’s what you use to watch TV or communicate with friends. A lot of those applications exist in North America, but the adoption isn’t there. In Korea, they never really had a big Internet infrastructure, and so they just skipped right to hand-held. Something I’ve been grappling with is the idea of “The Great Untethering.” The idea that stuff should all be connected no matter where you are. So let’s say you’re watching a TV show on your iPhone and, when you come into your office, it’s already on your other screen, or it’s in your house, or it’s everywhere at once. Like you said, the media, the content becomes air itself. That to me is exciting and interesting and unique – a sort of Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash future.

(full disclosure: I write a monthly column for Spaxfax’s enRoute Magazine called Ultraportable).


  1. You pretty much explain it as clearly as can be, Mitch. My level of cultural (and anecdotal/random) knowledge has increased dramatically since I got my first 33k internet connection.
    The web has made me a more knowledgeable person.
    The media has always essentially been a package and a filter for content; the need for this type of “clipping service” is still very much alive. Charging me for paper or plastic, however, is no longer the only way to get it done.
    Looks like subscriptions will be king soon enough; for a while at least.

  2. If you live on the cutting edge, don’t expect a crowd. We all too often think there we will meet the answer around the next corner.
    Innovation is a living breathing entity and can never measured by something we did or something we will do.
    The concept of a five-year plan is in the ether and the challenge of monetizing (the new) reality lies in innovation void of old models and previous theories.
    The message is the media and in our quest to find the forest, we miss the trees.
    Whoever wants to contribute to the conversation can simply do so and there are no wrong answers, just exploration.
    This is a modern day Lord of the Flies – we are all leaders and we can all learn from each other.
    If you think you can stop progress or alter change, you will be the first in history who has successfully done it.
    Ignoring (the new) reality and (the new) model is an exercise in bankruptcy.

  3. Being in my twenties I am already impressed at how quickly kids learn to use the dvd player, surround system and consoles etc.
    A lot of parents might scoff at kids using the Internet, but in moderate amounts, it’s vital for anyone growing up to become knowledgeable in their interests and help their potential careers.
    For advertising on the Internet, it’ll become more important as people spend increasing amounts of time in front of the computer screen, especially as they become more important in the work place.

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