Monday, December 20, 2010

An Introduction to the Future and Now of Media Distribution

Newspapers are dead. So are magazines, CDs, vinyl, tapes, video game cartridges and books. Soon you won’t even need to download any of it either – it’ll all be in the cloud, accessible from any computer or device with an Internet connection. The old model of media distribution, in which information is thrown down from the top to the masses in timed intervals, is disappearing in favor of user-driven production and distribution. Scarcity of information has been eliminated in favor of a huge abundance, and sophisticated user-based filtering systems help people navigate the plethora of content available.

I’m writing this as an introduction of sorts for later essays I plan on writing, which will deal with the economic and philosophical impact of the information age on society. Think of this as a guide to the present and future of media. What I’m going to do here is outline the new model, going step-by-step from producer to consumer, back to producer.

Let’s start at the beginning. The artist or author creates a piece of genuine original content, which can be anything – a song, a video game, a news article, or a review for a local restaurant. Maybe even an essay about the future of media. No matter what it is, it’s created, recorded, or copied onto a computer. Sure, we can separate the creation of the media from the digitization of that specific media, but for the purposes of this essay we’ll assume that it’s already in a digital format.

The birth of this piece of content is the beginning of a potentially VERY long lifespan. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, calls this “The Long Tail,” which refers to the countless pieces of content in the demand curve. In his book (also called The Long Tail), he posits that all content, no matter how niche, has a potential consumer somewhere. The trick is connecting the two.

Once a piece of content (henceforth referred to as the POC) is put on the Internet, it is subject to a vast array of filtering processes. Most popular websites today act as filters for content, with users selecting and promoting the information they deem worth sharing with other users (this user-driven internet is referred to as Web 2.0). There are a few types of these sites, so I’ll briefly go over them.

Blogs and blogging are an integral part of today’s Internet experience, as they provide a basic platform to publish ideas and filter content. Blogs work on a broadcast model, with one or a few authors creating or finding content (essays, photos, podcasts, etc) to share with users, who may choose to comment on it. There are blogs that have mostly short-form entries, and blogs with primarily long-form entries. Twitter works mostly on the same model, except it limits posts to 140 characters, which changes the nature of the content posted (mostly facebook-like status updates or links to content elsewhere). RSS feeds allow users to aggregate all of the blogs they follow into one page for them to sort through later (and possibly repost POCs on their own blogs!).

Sites like Reddit and Digg, which let a community of users deem what they think is most important, emphasize the importance of the group in finding and sharing content. They operate on the idea that what’s important to many people must also be important to the individual user. Content on these sites comes from all over the Internet, from blogs to news websites and everywhere else. Unlike on blogs, users on these websites are fairly anonymous, and therefore group identity is emphasized. Think of these websites as the TV of today, providing content that everybody familiarizes themselves with. Instead of “did you watch,” the question is now “have you read it?”

So far, our POC has been published on a blog, linked on twitter (and possibly “retweeted”), and widely “upvoted” on Reddit. At this point, a particularly lively POC could be widely circulated, reblogged multiple times and popular on many websites. If deemed worthy or valuable to a user’s social circle, it might find itself on a social networking site like Facebook or Myspace. Even on these, a POC can find itself reposted by multiple users within a social network, though the chances of it “breaking out” are lower than it finding its way in due to the private and insular nature of these sites (hahaha…).

The last type of site I’m going to mention is the algorithm-based site, which collects user information and presents content to the user based on their perceived tastes and the tastes of other users. Google, Netflix, Last.fm and Amazon are all prime examples of this, though many other websites (including Facebook) do this as well. In a way, these are similar to sites like Reddit because they operate on the belief that what’s important to other people is important to the individual user. For example, Amazon isn’t going to recommend me Reign in Blood after I buy Ride the Lightning because it has an in-depth understanding and appreciation of thrash metal – it’s going to recommend me Reign in Blood because people who buy that album also tend to buy Ride the Lightning. On sites like these, the more users there are, the more valuable the recommendations. And the more of yourself you put in, the more of yourself you can take out.

So far, our model covers content creation and filtering. The last step in the cycle before more creation is consumption. In a world where analog media is becoming less and less relevant, consumption of information no longer requires a gazillion different platforms and formats. One can view everything on a computer, but the future isn’t in thousand-dollar machines with high processing power. No, ladies and gentlemen, the future of media consumption is in the cloud, which means the hardware we use to access it is going to change.

On Apple’s iPad, one can play games, listen to music, watch movies, read books and magazines, and even create some content. The tablet is designed for long-form media consumption, and has as much functionality as the average Internet user ever needs. As broadband technology in America becomes more advanced and less expensive, tablets and cell phones will be able to stream higher-bandwidth media such as high-performance video games. What does this mean? No more laptops. The only people who will need to own computers are the content producers.

What does this future (this now) look like?

Jimmy sees the Weinermobile drive by his campus and he takes a snapshot on his cell phone, tweeting it and his GPS data. Nearby, Doug sees his tweet and rushes to snap his own shot of the Weinermobile, posting it on his Facebook. Samantha comments on the photo, saying “You’re a weiner, LOL.”

Wired magazine publishes on the iPad, including videos, interactivity, and up-to-date information that a piece of paper just cannot provide.

James’ punk band “Revolting Youth” posts their demo on a website called Bandcamp, which offers free hosting. A popular punk blog links to the demo, and Leeroy links to the blog on his Facebook. Alex sees the link while looking at Facebook on his cell phone, and listens to the demo before class starts. Alex lives in America, James lives in Singapore.

A terrorist bombs an embassy in the Middle East. The New York Times posts an article about it, and somebody submits the link to Reddit. Within minutes, thousands of people upvote it and it reaches the front page.

Chuck frequently watches and rates movies on Netflix. He’s a big fan of sci-fi, and Netflix recommends the obscure flick “Krull.” He streams it on his iPad before quickly becoming bored and deciding to browse through his RSS reader to see what his favorite bloggers are talking about. He reads something interesting, and decides to post his own take on it on his blog, which is reblogged by somebody else.

Kathy follows Oprah’s book club on Twitter. Oprah tweets about the next book everybody should read, so Kathy decides to download the book through Amazon’s Kindle application. Kathy likes the book, and Amazon recommends her something else she might like, though a little more obscure. She enjoys that as well.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Producers create content, which is filtered by a variety of systems and then consumed. After consumption, a user may comment on the content or be inspired to produce their own original content, both of which are valid forms of information production.

The future and the now of media distribution is user-driven in every aspect, from creation to distribution to consumption. This new model has far-reaching economic and philosophical implications, of which I plan on expanding upon later. The status quo has changed though. Power no longer rests in the hands of the media corporations, but instead is distributed among all the users on the Internet.