Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Future is Already Here...

William Gibson is credited with the wonderful quote, "...the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." I was reminded of this quote twice here in Helsinki this week as I spoke with a variety of companies about the impact of social technologies on their businesses. It is way too easy when you are sitting in the middle of the tornado of change to lose perspective on the winds that rage around you and, more importantly, the seeming calm in the path ahead of the tornado.

Forrester has done a great job of documenting this path, where it has been, where it is now, and where it is heading. The survey data which they have made available through the Social Technographic Profile Tool can give you a snapshot of this progress. Now updated with 2008 data, you can see the differences between the US, where 38% of 18-24 year-olds are now creating content online and Germany, for example, where the number is a much smaller 22%. Or the difference between the 18-24 year-old cohort and 45-54 year-olds in the US where the creator rate is only 16%.

But as Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang shows on his Web Strategist blog the trends for every demographic in every region are toward more engagement. Perhaps the most dramatic finding is the change in "inactives" -- people who are paying no attention at all to social media -- from 44% in 2007 to 25% in 2008.

In addition to engaging more people, the other often overlooked impact of social media is in the way that it is changing mainstream media. So even for those people who are not engaging directly, the news and entertainment that they consume is changing. Journalists and entertainers are amongst the most likely to be engaged with these new social technologies and what they report and create is clearly being influenced by this new medium.

As Gibson might say, the future will never be evenly distributed, but the path of this cyclone seems clear to us now -- social media will change every business and will change virtually every aspect of how we develop products, market and sell them, provide service to our customers, organize our work environments... In every industry there will be companies that embrace these new tools and new approaches and those that are torn apart by the fierce winds of change.

Which will your company be?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

More News

I love David Byrne's music, but I feel compelled to disagree with his recent blog post in which he opines that the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company is leading to a world in which we will have "No More News." I would, by the way, complain on his blog but he doesn't provide a comments capability. Perhaps as a public figure of his stature it is impractical to allow comments since moderating them would be such a time burden. But lets bookmark this point for a moment, as I think the lack of dialog (and perhaps the lack of understanding of what this dialog brings) contributes to Byrne's misunderstanding of what is happening in the media ecosystem.

The basic point that Byrne makes has certainly been repeated endlessly - the Internet has radically transformed the business of news and the companies which have understood how to make a living collecting and distributing news in the last century are failing to find a new model as the fundamentals of this business change. Byrne also mentions (though without commentary) the fact that the people running these news businesses have been making changes which make them even less relevant. I thought this observation was particularly well stated:
Likewise, these newspapers have dumped most of their foreign bureaus, food critics, and film critics, and are loathe to assign reporters to stories that will take months to research and write. In doing so, they are eviscerating that which makes newspapers different from online reviews, blogs and websites.
But Byrne goes on to complain that there is an enormous threat to our democracy because of the decline of these traditional news businesses and I think this is a mistake.

It is undoubtedly true that we are in the midst of an enormous tumultuous period of change for the news business. It is also true that from the perspective of the traditional news business, their model is being eviscerated. But this does not mean that there are no possible models for a news business. In fact, I believe that the future of news is very bright and that as a society we will (and in some cases already are) enjoy more news content not less in the future.

First of all, Byrne ignores the fact that bloggers and "citizen journalists" are already making an enormous impact in challenging entrenched media interests and bringing more facts and more "sunlight" into our political processes. The political campaigns of the past year showed how effectively the non-mainstream media could play a role in debunking lies, providing information which would otherwise not have made it into the limited space of broadcast media, and giving people with specific local information a way to get that information to a national (and international) audience.

The wonderful NPR program "On The Media" recently had a segment on the Japanese Kisha Press Clubs which make transparent a fact which is as surely true with our mainstream media -- that journalists will sometimes become too friendly with the people that they are covering in order to obtain access and that this closeness will then taint the coverage of these people. The Kisha Clubs institutionalized this closeness even going so far as to manage a list of issues which all participating journalists (which is to say, those that got access to representatives of the government) would agree NOT to cover. And this is only coming to light now because of bloggers.

Journalism will change, the business of news will change, but rather than looking at the failure of the traditional news media as being a threat to democracy, as Byrne does, I prefer to look at the strength of our democracy as being the force which will lead to a new journalism and a new business of news. This was certainly the case for the newspaper industry we have today. Newspapers were started by people passionate about the mission of the fourth estate and only later were taken over by accountants.

Al Gore, in his closing keynote speech at this year's Web 2.0 Summit conference, provides an interesting perspective on the broadcast media industry. In brief he observes that the printing press started a process in which knowledge was democratized but that television (and in general the concentration of media ownership) was a "re-feudalizing" force in our society for the past 50 years. Concentrating ownership and control of the media into a small number of corporate interests reduced the number of voices participating in the conversations of our society. While one could certainly point to the tendency of some news vehicles (like Fox) to use this power to promote a particular ideological position, the more frequent result was blandness.

Social creation of the news is removing the blandness and is a force FOR democracy. The future of in-depth reporting, investigative journalism, and foreign news desks, which Byrne worries we will lose, will emerge from this creative power of social production. We are still in the infancy of this new medium and we have a lot to learn still about what forms this NEW fourth estate will take. But I already believe that we are witnessing an explosion of news, not an elimination.