The Internet, The Web and the Future of Media
Media is changing at such a frenetic pace that even the most jaded veterans of the industry are uncertain about what it all means. We’re told the old days are gone, but it’s still not clear what the future will bring.
It seems that as soon as the next “big thing” comes along, a bigger one arrives to take its place. All of the dissonance and chatter is extremely confusing and that makes it hard to plot strategy going forward.
However, hidden in the commotion, there are some principles that are constant and they can help guide our way.
The Difference Between the Internet and The Web
Although the two terms are often used as synonyms, there is a substantive difference between the Internet and the Web, both historically and functionally.
The Internet is essentially hardware – a patchwork of fiber, frequencies and protocols that link together the world’s computers. It began with the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Military (ARPA) in the 1960’s. This ARPANET, eventually evolved into the Internet which merged with the PC revolution to create a sensation.
The web, on the other hand, is fairly simple comparatively. It began in 1990 with three protocols developed by one man, Tim Berners-Lee. It consisted of an address system (URL) some basic rules for communicating over the internet (HTTP) and a language that allowed documents to be presented by different computers with different systems (HTML).
There are some details I’m leaving out, but basically that’s it. The basic story is that the Internet transmits information and the Web allows us to see content (for more detail, see The Semantic Web).
Gardens with Flimsy Walls
While the Internet changed communication, it was the Web that transformed media. It was designed to allow you to see the same information in the same way no matter what equipment you bought. The link between content and distribution was severed and that changed everything.
Previously, a broadcast license was essentially a license to print money. A newspaper’s network of distributors was highly determinant of what opinions could be expressed in a certain geographical area. Media sought to “own eyeballs” with a proprietary offering and were locked in a never-ending battle with others competing to do the same thing.
Early digital media players like AOL took the same approach and combined internet access with informational, content and e-commerce services. However, they were soon surpassed by better technology on the distribution side and stronger content on the media side.
(A similar metamorphosis from vertical to horizontal organization occurred in the computer hardware industry.)
The New Reality
Walled Gardens and vertical integration are gone and they aren’t coming back in any significant way. This realization has brought about a new era and perceived optimal strategies have changed dramatically.
In the past, dominant companies such as IBM, Microsoft and AOL flouted their dominance. First mover advantage and enormous scale was seen as crucial to projecting an image of not only viability, but inevitability. Greed was good because only the positive externalities brought by network effects could guarantee survival.
However, since the primal forces that drive networks that were discovered in the late 90’s have become better understood, a remarkable change in outlook has emerged. The new dominators, Google and Apple, flout their openness. Even the famously competitive Steve Jobs finds it necessary to assert his commitment to open web standards.
Whether there has been an actual change in practice is a matter of some debate, but the change in tone is unmistakable. Media now become successful by encouraging links rather than building walls.
Dual Revolutions Mean Dual Strategies
Media companies today must address not one challenge, but two: the communications revolution brought about by the Internet and the media transformation that the web continues to drive.
Security and Sharing: As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbors. The fact that the Internet has connected all of our machines together has created a security nightmare. Databases which contain proprietary information are inextricably tied to devices that are both cheap and ubiquitous.
Moreover, as I’ve written before, current methods of encryption are becoming less and less tenable. It’s quite possible that what is considered unbreakable today will be broken routinelywithin a decade.
Conversely, the web is designed for sharing. It contains no data nor computer programs and therefore cannot be hacked or crash. It merely allows content to be presented so that everybody can see it, no matter what system they have. And if people can share, they will.
Most media sites have less than 50% of their audience come through their home page. This turns traditional media thinking on its head. Audience can’t be owned, only rented for a short while.
Brands and Appliances: Marshal McLuhan famously said that “the media is the message.” Media were split into hot and cold, engaged some senses and not others. TV screens were of a certain size, newspapers and magazines were printed on paper with a specific quality.
The new reality is that all content is an endless string of ones and zeros that are transmitted through fiber optic cable and radio frequencies to consumers who can view it on a variety of appliances in a multitude of contexts and settings.
Brands, however, must maintain some consistency. As I’ve said before, successful brands are ones that make important promises and keep them. In the new media reality, the message must transcend the media.
Events, continuums , mashups and slices: We used to consume media as events. Newspapers came out in the mornings and had certain headlines, TV shows kept their schedules and radio programming was dominated by the clock. Today’s news wrapped tomorrow’s fish. Media buyers “dayparted” to find the right audience.
Modern media is stored in databases, ready to be pulled onto the pixels of our various screens of different sizes and fidelities at a moment’s notice. Broadcasts are recorded by consumers digitally, to be shared and viewed at another time and even another place.
Moreover, media is increasingly used for purposes the consumer dreams up, with little input from the creator. Media are sliced into ringtones and combined into mashups, then stored in new databases, transmitted through the Internet and displayed on the Web. They become memes, mutating and spreading even as they continue to refer back to the original organism.
The Media Mission
The points above only tell part of the story. The full truth is actually much more complex and fraught with danger. Moreover, we’re just getting started, with lots of curves in the road still to come.
However, the solution is as simple as it is timeless. The core media mission – to inform, entertain and inspire – has not changed. Content, in whatever form, is still king. The real difference is that the relationship between speakers and listeners has become more genuine, with less intermediation.
So the future of media lies not in complexity, but simplicity. While we must master the details of new technologies we must not lose sight of the timeless truths of human interaction. It is hopes and dreams that motivate people, not bits and bytes.
Even a global village is still just a village.