We're at a media crossroads. People-powered information is surging, from blogs to podcasts to videocasts to open-source browsers with a million user-created plug-ins to open-access academic journals. Heck, even TalkBack is a vibrant form of self-publishing (um, when it's working), which changes the way every columnist here at CNET relates to his or her audience. Information will be free, as never before. So this should be the part where I predict the death of big media. But I won't. I don't think institutionalized, professional media is going anywhere--in fact, I don't think it should.
Let's look at a few of the emerging threats. Blogs, check. I can't even count the number of articles I've read about why blogging is superior to/more interesting than/more trustworthy than traditional media, or why it's a publishing revolution, or how it's changing the way we receive and share information during terrorist attacks, elections, and international crises. I'm not trying to be dismissive--and for the most part, I agree. But I think we've already heard the arguments for blogs taking down newspapers, magazines, books, and other traditional media, so let's move on to the next phases of the revolution.
A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggested that about 6 million people are listening to podcasts, or audiocasts that are published online and syndicated via RSS. (There was some question about the veracity of this number, but all parties agree, podcasting is catching on like wildfire.) We just started one podcast at CNET, and I expect more will follow. But more noteworthy, of course, are the tens or hundreds or more individuals recording podcasts and putting them out there for daily consumption.
Adam Curry, creator of the podcast aggregator iPodder (and yeah, the MTV guy), told the BBC he thinks podcasting will "kill the business model of radio," because the open distribution model (and other online outlets for music or commentary) means the next generation won't bother listening to station-manager-controlled radio stations with all their attendant advertising.
The video wars
So after newspapers and radio, what's the next target? TV. Google just launched a beta of a video upload program that lets you upload your personal videos to Google, where they'll become part of the search engine's vast repository of results. As BetaNews put it, "Content owners will be able to control distribution rights themselves, even setting a price for their video clips. Eventually, users will be able to search, preview, purchase, and play videos directly from within Google."
Meanwhile, a group called the Participatory Culture Foundation announced this week, a "new platform for Internet television and video." They're building a free, open-source desktop TV application wherein you subscribe to "channels" via RSS and own your own broadcasting by uploading video for free, whenever you want. They're distributing the code now, hoping to launch a grassroots assault on traditional television.
If you have friends who send you Internet forwards, you've probably seen the GoogleZon video, a clever movie that portrays the takeover of traditional media by "participatory journalism," consumer-edited information, and EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information Construct. If you haven't seen it, you should watch it. It's good. But it's also just another terrifying vision of a future I sincerely doubt will come to pass.
Construction, not destruction
Yes, traditional media is worried. Why else would the New York Times spend $410 million on third-rate Web property About.com? Why else is Rupert Murdoch telling American newspaper editors that they need to get online in order to keep themselves solvent? Why else is CNET, which is arguably already out in front of big media, launching its own podcasts and rolling out News.com and ZDNet business blogs?
But isn't there always a terrifying vision of an immediate change in the status quo? In reality, things almost never evolve that way or that quickly. Revolutions of the technical sort usually take time--and lots of it. I think I've been hearing about how blogs were going to take down newspapers since about 2000, and Murdoch only just took notice (yeah, he's late to the party, but you get my point).
The reason distributed media is so compelling is that we're all a little angry at the power holders. Big media has been laying down the rules for a long, long time, and there's no doubt they've abused their power, lost our respect, and alienated an increasingly tech-savvy generation. But (and I know it sounds self-serving) there is a place for the institution--alongside and in concert with people-powered information dissemination.
For one thing, personal media depends on people, and people are finicky, fad-following, capricious, sometimes lazy (a 2003 study found that most bloggers eventually abandon their creations), and flawed. They get into arguments with each other and spend a few weeks in personal blog battles. They get tired of not making any money at their altruistic pursuits. They get fed up with all the constant negative feedback (which we sometimes refer to as the "peer-review" system intended to keep blogs honest) and they quit. Plus, of course, there's the unbelievably wide array of quality out there--it's work to find a good podcast, a good blog, or a good videocast. And sometimes, the good ones get popular, become more and more commercial, start building an infrastructure for fact-checking and quality assurance, and ever-so-slowly turn themselves into professional operations that could, under the right microscope, be seen as "big media."
What I'm saying is, we've got to drop this idea that it's a war. Independent media, distributed information, the blogosphere, the podcast-sphere, or the googlezonvideocastingTVtakeover-sphere can all make traditional media better, and some of the habits of traditional media can make the indie stuff better. Like I said, TalkBack and user involvement change the way I approach my columns--I cannot afford to ignore you and your thoughts about what I write, nor should I. I can't ignore online video, podcasting, satellite radio, or blogging, and I'm not. I wouldn't dream of it. But I'm certainly not about to jump off the Good Ship CNET, either. Can't we have a little media peace? Won't everyone be better off for it?