Armand writes about his chat with Wired’s Chris “Long Tail” Anderson about the potential decline of traditional media in the face of proliferation of mass participatory media (blogs, wikis etc.), and he asked me to give my opinion…
First of all, it is necessary to more finely define the term “traditional media”; a distinction needs to be made between traditional formats and distribution (i.e. paper, fixed-schedule television) and traditional philosophies of organisation (centralised, top-down, push). The first implies the latter, but the latter philosophy can be delivered online – i.e. the so-called “Web 1.0”; this is what Wired, The Guardian and virtually every other website provided by the mainstream media currently model themselves on.
Chris Anderson says traditional media should “embrace” RSS and the blog as technological solutions, but plenty have already; this isn’t necessarily meaning they are going to get all Web 2.0 on us. Case in point – the much-vaunted Guardian’s Comment Is Free has the look and feel of a blog, and employs tagging, but still reflects a highly centralised service. The main contributors are by and large established journalists; readers’ responses are submitted and collated on the page itself in an unthreaded and disparate manner. Other blogs are left out of the picture; there are no links to Technorati or a Trackback link advertised, which means those of us who would rather respond and publish on our own blogs or linklogs are left out. As for tagging, it can only be performed by the publisher, not by the larger pool of subscribers: it is this mass-participatory nature which makes sites like Flickr and del.icio.us turn tags from just another
<meta> into something actually, y’know, useful.
So despite adopting blogging technologies and techniques, Comment Is Free is still highly centralised, which results in little variety, a narrow range of ideas and little that helps the consumer in the way of useful metadata or finding out related items (which as I understand it, are necessary for a successful “Long Tail” to come about). Merely adopting technologies is not enough to bring about a change in attitudes towards how media are produced and consumed. I’ve focused on the Comment Is Free site but the same could be said for nearly all the mainstream media’s attempts at blogging or tagging, at least in the UK (e.g. Nick Robinson‘s blog, or Boris Johnson‘s).
As they stand, some mainstream media outlets have kinda bought into Web 2.0-style formats and mechanisms, but still haven’t quite caught the boat; though as Chris Anderson points out in Armand’s post, there are honourable exceptions, such the stuff the BBC’s research labs are coming out with, such as their recent reboot competition and the Creative Archive. But then again, as Armand points out, the BBC’s revenue stream is very different to any other media organisation’s.
As it’s clear that most mainstream companies are not whole-heartedly going down the Web 2.0 route, will they be overtaken by blogs? I don’t think so, at least not at the rate suggested. Blogs and other mass-particpatory media depend on traditional media much more than they like to let on; the primary source of news which gets commented upon and dissected by many blogs are Big Media such as the BBC, CNN, Wired etc.; plenty of what gets sent to Digg or Slashdot are press releases or news stories on mainstream sites; YouTube is dominated by adverts or clips of TV shows; MySpace (Murdoch-owned, remember) is now the target of sustained marketing by record companies (so much so I’m surprised it hasn’t jumped the shark yet).
This is not to say the social media are nothing, of course; there’s plenty of original, interesting new content out there, especially in media to do with the tech sector, or in cult television, film, art and music; aside – perhaps this is why geeks have tendency to see a revolution happening, as it is primarily in their own back yard? But if those participating in mass-participatory media (who are still a minority, albeit a vociferous one) continue to use the mainstream media as a major source of news, entertainment and education, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the population.
So, the mainstream media still have an important role to play; there is not going to be any sort of Schumpeterian orgy of destruction, at least not in as short (in history of technology terms) a span as 10-15 years as Chris Anderson predicts. Mass-particpatory media has only gained a small foothold and much of the mainstream media’s interaction has been more cosmetic than desirable. Am I being pessimistic? I don’t think so, I think and hope that mainstream media can still change; the people behind Web 2.0 are tech-savvy, very dynamic and have plenty of disposable income, which makes them highly desirable market from the mainstream’s point of view. But there’s a battle to be won, one which needs to be more evangelising and less soothsaying, if Web 2.0 is going to co-opt and transform Big Media, rather than the other way round.