Blind optimism and paranoia in online media

About two years ago now, from my seat as the business owner of an online b-to-b publication, I started freaking out about becoming irrelevant. I don’t mean me personally, though the people still working there may disagree. I mean the idea of being a business that creates content and distributes it.

The key ingredients to success at the time were page views and being important. There was no design you could apply to your web site to remedy the page view problem. Anybody who could think could also publish globally. RSS was increasing the speed of and improving access to information.

Where would it end? Was our island of high quality editorial a strong enough position to grow from?

I’m sure I wasn’t alone then in being afraid of the future, nor am I alone now in being insanely jealous of the YouTube guys.

A startup that didn’t even exist two years ago now pockets well over $1 billion dollars. I can’t even fathom what that means. I have some friends who have done well for themselves in the dotcom gold hunt, but that kind of money is just beyond what I can comprehend.

The good news is that people are much less focused on being afraid today and much more open to pursuing ideas that have an unknown upside. There’s no harm in trying a new idea and seeing if it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s easy to try something else. People everywhere seem excited to explore and do things differently, to empower people, to explore new revenue models, to try new technologies.

It turns out that nobody is relevant everywhere, so the playing field is flat. I like the way Chris Anderson defines the new media model:

“The old model was that if you wanted to be a filmmaker, you had to go to the Hollywood studios. If you wanted to be a musician and get heard, you would go through the label system. If you wanted to be a published author, you needed to get signed by a publisher.

The new model is, “Just go and do it.” Everyone can get out there directly without going through these gatekeepers, and most of what is created is junk, but some of it isn’t.”

This is true of business, too.

Of course, what worries me now is that the high-priced acquisition craze will bring back the bad ideas that made the Internet such an ugly place in 2000. Unfortunately, money motivates people so well that somebody might actually pull off one of my silly ideas or, even worse, sell it for millions and mock me all the way to the grave.

I suppose there’s always something to be paranoid about.

Someone call the conversation police

I find it a bit presumptuous that someone would try to end a discussion on a topic in the blogosphere or, for that matter, assume that they drive a conversation in the market.

In an attempt to stop people blabbing endlessly about bloggerism vs journalism, Steven Berlin Johnson redefined the 5 points of the debate, recapping Jay Rosen’s closing arguments on the topic from over a year ago. His post was a response to Nichalos Lehmann’s article Amateur Hour — Journalism without journalists in The New Yorker questioning the value of blogging:

“Jay Rosen tried to kill off this kind of discussion a year or two ago with his smart essay, Bloggers Versus Journalists Is Over, but obviously it didn’t stick. So let me propose a slightly more blunt approach.”

Similarly, it seems odd to me that Malcolm Gladwell has decided that blog commentary is merely derivitive of mainstream media conversation:

“Any form that consists, chiefly, of commentary and criticism is derivative. We need derivative media sources to help us make sense of what we learn from primary sources.

…although it maybe possible for some bloggers to think of their thoughts as rising, fully formed, from the blogosphere, it just ain’t so. Even people who do not think of themselves as being influenced by the agenda of traditional media actually are: they are simply influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by old media.”

He makes this statement in response to Chris Anderson of Long Tail fame (and Conde Nast’s Wired magazine). Chris used a comment Malcolm made to reinforce the point that mainstream media is not as powerful as it thinks it is:

“What we do has great value, but we no longer have a monopoly on leading the public conversation (not that we ever did, of course, but it was easier to delude ourselves before). The blogosphere doesn’t need us to give them something to talk about. When we do what we do well and add new ideas, information and analysis, blogs can be our best friend, amplifying our reach many-fold. But when we don’t, the former audience is very happy to talk amongst itself.”

There’s a bit of chicken and egg here, as I’m not sure it’s clear whose work is derivitive of whose.

A good reporter is a story teller of other people’s experiences. Nothing in the Wall Street Journal happens because the Wall Street Journal said it did. A good media company like the Wall Street Journal is able to catalyze important events and thinking happening in interesting places into meaningful and valuable chunks with a consistent lens, and there’s no doubt the Wall Street Journal influences what people think about.

But that role in not exclusive, even when their coverage of a topic is considered the best in its class or costs a ton of money or takes a lot of research to get right.

The conversations the Wall Street Journal covers are reflections of conversations that in many cases started years prior, and it’s not until the topic reaches some kind of tipping point does the Wall Street Journal then translate it for their lens of the world.

I would never deny being influenced by mainstream media. But that’s more a result of the fact that I have shared experiences with people than because the influence is meaningful or relevant. In fact, it becomes less and less relevant the more my media experience diversifies.

I agree with Steven that this particular topic lacks the juice it used to have. Jay Rosen has done a brilliant job of turning the discourse into a cohesive string that matters and feels complete from my personal perspective and obviously for Steven’s.

But closure for us may also mean it’s time for some fresh perspective to alter the dialog or extend it in sensible ways for other people yet untouched by it or confirm the premise of the argument with more useful research.

The effects of disintermediating media are still unfolding, and I’m betting that leaders at most big media companies will get more clarity on how to deal with that problem from each other and the individuals they know at competing companies or even their neighbors than they will from reading about it in their own publications.