February 17th, 2006

In Media, Only Ideas Matter

by

Blogs don’t matter. Web 2.0 doesn’t matter. Old Media doesn’t matter, and neither does New Media. So what does matter? — talent, insight, and, most of all, ideas. George Will makes this point elegantly:

The more journalism I read and do, the more convinced I am not merely that ideas have consequences, but that only ideas have consequences…Very little (else) lasts…Least of all the everyday arrangements in which we are immersed and on which we plan to depend indefinitely. In the late 1850s, American cotton was king, feeding the mills of England, but on a tonnage basis, America’s second largest export was…ice. Blocks of it were sawed from New England’s ponds and shipped, insulated under sawdust, to warm climes as distant as Calcutta. People probably thought that would go on forever. Nothing does.

I’m going to attempt to pull together several disparate conversations that can all be viewed through this lens:

Personalized Media

Richard MacManus recognizes the desperate need for an effective filter:

If 2005 was about Aggregation, then 2006 is all about Filtering.

Nic Cubrilovic argues that truly personalized media cannot be achieved by technology alone:

This is why you don’t have personalized Google results – we just don’t have the CPU cycles to care about you.

Anne 2.0 eschews the notion of personalized media altogether:

Call me nutty, but I don’t want a page of news personalized only for me. I can just imagine the melange it might come up with: cheesy Buddhist ideas mixed with stories of fat babies and OPML hacks, all garnished with semantic web ideas and a sprinkling of feminism. Blech.

The Role of Blogs

Daniel Gross says the business of blogs has peaked.

Carl Howe responds by pointing out the huge demand:

There are a billion Internet users out there looking for content online.

He also points to this useful graphic from Bradley Horowitz:

Pyramid

Mark Evans points out that blogs are merely a communications medium:

The real power of the blogosphere is the impact it is having on established industries which have seen a new mainstream communications medium quickly emerge

Mark also takes issue with a post by by Nick Carr, which is where this all really gets interesting.

Impact of Web 2.0

Nick embraces the perspective of Andrew Keen (which foots to Nick’s other writings), who argues in a Weekly Standard piece:

Another word for narcissism is “personalization.” Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

and

If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural ‘flattening.

Mathew Ingram typifies the superficial ideological response to Andrew’s argument (which, to be fair, has an apocalyptic vision that’s hard to support):

This – not to put too fine a point on it – is a load of elitist clap-trap. (Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web is much more succinct than I in his post about it). Every time something even remotely new or different comes along, there’s always a knee-jerk “how did this riff-raff get in here” kind of response from places like the Weekly Standard. Imagine if everyone were entitled to voice their own opinion, or indulge their own tastes, instead of recognizing the superiority of whatever art or music or literature they’re supposed to be bowing down in front of. Total chaos. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria.

It’s a facile rhetorical advice to push an argument to its extreme in order to dismiss it, which misses an intriguing premise that Nick previously discussed on in The amorality of Web 2.0:

The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

So how am I go to tie this all together, you ask? Like this:

The democratization of content creation will not democratize value creation. Only a small handful of people has the gift of original insight and original ideas. All the rest is echo and noise.

The real significance of blogging is that it has given voice and broad reach to a handful of truly insightful people who might not otherwise have had a forum for their ideas. Blogging has empowered talent, but talent is still scarce — it’s the top of Bradley’s pyramid above. The next layer of the pyramid is the group of thoughtful bloggers that comprises the echo chamber — they create more value by discussing, enhancing, amplifying, and disseminating that small number of original ideas and insights. The rest of the pyramid — the millions of bloggers for a day — will likely fade with time.

The filter I want for the sea of content is an insight or ideas filter. And I don’t want personalized media — “what I want when I want it” — because I don’t know what I want — I can’t anticipate great ideas and original insight, and I can’t anticipate where they will come from. But I don’t care where they come from Old Media, New Media, or a dark whole in the ground.

I don’t think technology can discern true insight without the help of human intelligence, and I don’t think human intelligence can find these needles in the haystack without the help of technology.

So I don’t think that blogging and Web 2.0 will destroy culture — it will burn hot with a lot of valueless activity but will ultimately fade to the soft glow of true value. I have faith in the power of ideas and the power of human insight — and I have faith that talent will always find a way to be heard above the noise (no matter how loud it gets in here).

UPDATE
I suppose I’m obligated to put this thesis in terms of the “A-list/Z-list” construct that everyone is so obsessed with. This has nothing to do with who is getting attention, or links, or ego satisfaction.

Bloggers in the “Z-list” with talent, insight, and ideas, do get discovered and do work their way up the attention hiearchy — I won’t name names, but some of the biggest complainers about the “Z-list” problem are very insightful, and their insights do get recognized and cited across the blogosphere. (They will complain about being on the Z-list even after they make the A-list — it’s part of the subversive mystique.)

As for the “A-list,” some of those people are much more echo that insight — in fact, some of them get a lot of attention because they are so good at echoing, not because they have many original ideas. Yet some of them do deserve the attention because they are insightful.

Here’s the deal with elitism — more people now have a fair shot at getting recognized for their talent and insight. But there is no entitlement to be recognized just because you show up. You have to create some value. And, yes, some talent does still have to struggle as it did in the past to get recognized. But some talent has successfully found a voice through blogging that it never had before.

If you focus on the value of ideas and insights, you realize that neither Old Media or New Media is privileged — you see talent finding voice in every medium — and you also see a lot of junk in each medium.

The ideas filter I want is source agnostic. The Old Media/New Media dichotomy will soon fade. Media will be more democratized in that everyone will have a chance to have a voice, but that does not mean everyone will be heard in a meaningful way. Andrew Keen and Nick Carr fear the end of meritocracy, and I don’t think the democratization of content creation will lead to that. Some people will get attention by shouting extreme opinion really loud, but it has always been that way. You have to take the good with the bad — you can’t provide an open medium for intelligent voices without also providing and open medium for unintelligent voices. That is the blogosphere in a nutshell.

But I have faith in the people formerly known as the audience — they’re smart enough to embrace most of the value and filter out most of the dross. But to get the full value, you have to open your mind. I will continue to read Nick Carr and Andrew Keen because they make me think and they have interesting ideas, even if I ultimately reject them. To listen only to what you agree with is to move closer to their apocalyptic vision.

I quoted George Will above because I recognize that everything is changing in media. Only the power of ideas will remain constant.

  • web2.0 is all about collective participation.

    Here is a concept for “Consumer Led Innovation” harnessing Web2.0. Find more here->http://chandanscorner.blogspot.com/

  • One more thing, I've been a proponent of the 'only ideas matter' school of thought for years now. I even coined a phrase for it: Web of Ideas. See these two posts which I wrote 3 years ago:

    http://www.readwriteweb.com/ar...
    http://www.readwriteweb.com/ar...

  • But Scott, that's exactly what Keen and Carr are doing - casting it in black and white.

    Of course I agree that "To listen only to what you agree with is to move closer to their apocalyptic vision." I'd be a damn fool to disagree with that. But when one reads totally one-sided articles like the one Keen wrote, which IMHO had no redeeming 'though-provoking' material in it whatsoever, then one has no choice but to reject it and the one who penned it.

    But I think both yours and Matthew's responses have been very thought-provoking, so I guess with using you two as a filter - maybe Keen and Carr have some value after all, if only as a sad and laughable case study of old media trying desparately to hang onto the old 20th century world of media.

    I have no idea why this whole thing has me so worked up btw... :-)

  • Oh, come on, Mathew, how many times have you told me I had my head screwed on upside down and backwards. When you're being facile, I'll tell you so, and I know you won't hesitate to do the same :)

    The reason I said your analysis was facile is that Andrew Keen and Nick Carr have some intriguing food for thought, even if you end up completely disagreeing with it. To disagree on the level of being offended, which is largely what you did, is facile. I found too much substance in their arguments to dismiss it out of hand. In the final analysis, I don't agree with their apocalyptic conclusions, but only after a lot of thought (and I'm still thinking about it).

    I think this whole issue is way to complicated to cast it in black and white.

  • Wow, Scott -- simplistic and facile. That hurts, buddy. But I'm happy to have my post function as a kind of verbal pylon for you to skate around. Oh, and by the way, that "amorality of Web 2.0" thing of Nick's was a load of bollocks too.

    Cheers,

    Mathew

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