February 25th, 2006

Audiences Are NOT Created Equal

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Media is about conversation and participation. Consumers can create their own media. Value is being created at the edge. You’ve heard all the New Media maxims.

The problem, as many people have stated many times, is that the more everyone participates in content creation and content interaction, the harder it is to navigate the sea of information to find what’s useful.

Google perfected the first-generation solution to information overload by using hyperlinks as “votes of value” — the more links there are to a piece of content, the more valuable and relevant it must be.

Web 2.0 has created new activities beyond linking that the “people formerly known as the audience” can use to interact with content — tagging, rating, blogging, commenting, seeding, etc. — these activities create datasets that ostensibly reflect the value of the content.

But the fundamental problem of information filtering still remains, and in fact seems to be getting worse. Matt McAlister brought this into sharp relief for me with his insightful post: What will be the next PageRank? (Matt has a couple of simple but highly useful conceptual graphics that you should check out.)

The hyperlink was a vote in the search-driven Internet. Now I’m dependent on a new currency – human action. The click is much more potent than the existence of a link. Even more potent than clicks are tags, ratings, comments and emailed URLs. A hyperlink is still a vote, but seeing some form of human action gives me much more confidence that a source has value.

So, the trick now is for content creators to figure out how to get users to act on their stuff. How do you get people to add that extra bit of value to your content that validates and then qualifies the value for other people? And then how do you expose the user-contributed value so that the right things get picked up from the right tools at the right time to reach the right people?

I think Matt has it exactly right — but there’s still a crucial element missing. It’s not just about getting ANY people to “add that extra bit of value to your content that validates and then qualifies the value for other people.” For “the right things get picked up from the right tools at the right time to reach the right people,” content creators need to get the RIGHT people to “act on their stuff.” Like Matt, I have more confidence in human action, but I have more confidence in some humans than others.

There’s an egalitarian sensibility among Web 2.0 and participatory media evangelists that says any participation is good participation. But as anyone who works in media ought to know, all audiences are not created equal. Some audiences are more valuable than others, depending on what you’re selling, what your message is, or what your objective is. That’s why you don’t see ads for Prada in Saltwater Sportsman or ads for fishing rods in Vogue.

And that’s why I find community filters like Digg and Reddit so useless. If you have a random group of people act as a filter, you’re going to get a random result. Here are some headlines pulled right off of Digg and Reddit:

DIGG
A Supernova Spectacle Begins
Mom’s Genetics Could Produce Gay Sons
Acer has its own take on video iPod due next month.
Porsche Unveils Most Powerful Non-Turbo 911in History: The 2007 911 GT3
FREE Books: Mastering AJAX
World’s First USB Powered Drink Cooler Tested

REDDIT
Autistic Basketball Player Causes Mayhem (youtube.com)
It’s just your mind that makes it dirty (programmerstools.org)
The real reason Skype isn’t as good as it was (theregister.co.uk)
Biking in the Norwegian Mountains — cool Flickr photo (flickr.com)
How To Make Circuit Boards With A Laser Printer

Here’s where I get accused of being elitist — the collective intelligence of some groups of people is more intelligent than that of other groups. Why? Because on certain topics, and in general, some people are smarter than others.

There, I’ve said it.

Yes, there are many types of intelligence, knowledge, and talent, but some people have more than others. So get over it. I can’t play basketball, which is why I can’t show up at a free city court and expect to be included in a pick-up game just because the financial cost of entry is low — I will add NO value to the other players and in fact will detract from their game experience.

If that doesn’t make the sky fall on me, how about this:

The New York Times’ audience probably has a richer and more varied collective intelligence than the audience of most Web 2.0 media sites. Or if that’s too “highbrow” and “elitist,” I’d say that USA Today’s audience can probably generate more value through participation than the random users of some Web 2.0 apps. This is more true as you get more niche — I’d trust BusinessWeek readers on business and Vogue readers on fashion. And I’d trust the readers of New Media brands, including blogs, that have established a clearly defined audience by providing them with clearly defined value.

To put it in terms of attention — and “return on attention” — not all attention provides the same return.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the people who RUN the New York Times, USA Today, BusinessWeek, Vogue or any Old Media brands are smarter — my critique points to a failing of BOTH Old Media and New Media. Old Media doesn’t understand that they need to leverage the collective intelligence of their audience. New Media doesn’t understand that WHO your audience (or users, participants, community, etc) is matters.

To put it more simply: Old Media has the audiences, but doesn’t know what to do with them. New Media knows what to do, but doesn’t have the audiences.

So what to do?

For Old Media, the answer is simple. Start engaging your audiences and leverage the value they can create.

For New Media (Web 2.0), the challenge is to figure out WHO your audience is. This is media 101. Don’t build an application just because it’s “cool.” Do some market research. Find a group of people with an unmet need that you can address. This is your audience (or your customers, users, participants, whatever). If you have any hope of making money by selling advertising, you need to know who your audience is and what their relationship to you is.

I was talking to Umair Haque yesterday, and he said that the future of media lies somewhere between Old Media and Web 2.0, and as always he’s right.

Whoever finds this middle ground between audiences and applications, between human intelligence and technology, will win the media game.

UPDATE

Pete Cashmore’s response got me thinking:

Like Scott, I find Digg useless. But that’s because it’s populist – like a tabloid newspaper, it seems to converge on the lowest common denominator. Digg users choose the “right” stories for other Digg users, but these might not be so interesting to the Memeorandum set. In fact, most of what turns up on Memeorandum is completely useless to me. Contrary to Scott’s argument, this is not because one audience is smarter than another, but because different tribes have different priorities. The answer is not to reintroduce old media hierarchies. Instead, we allow people to become their own editors through personalization.

Why does everyone distrust hierarchies so much? It may offend everyone’s egalitarian sensibilities, but some audiences ARE smarter than others about SOME things.

Pete is absolutely right about “tribes” — the problem with so much Web 2.0 activity is that it’s not focused on defining tribes and, more importantly, defining those tribes’ NEEDS. Most Web 2.0 apps are one-size-fits-all. They don’t define a distinct value proposition for a distinct tribe — if they did, the participation of that tribe would be hugely valuable for members of the tribe. Instead, you get random participation by random people who are curious in a random geeky sort of way.

Memetrackers are a great example of this problem. Instead of building the same app over and over for no one in particular, what they should be doing is something like CarSpace. The lesson of MySpace is not to go off and create a direct competitor to MySpace, but to use that approach to define a value proposition for a distinct group of people — in this case, people who dig cars.

I’ll play the usual ghost of media past role and point out that a “tribe” is what Old Media calls a “niche audience.” It used to be that niche media just pushed out information of common interest to its niche audience. Now that the audience can participate, it can create huge value on the topic that it knows best.

But first you need to DEFINE the audience, user group, niche, tribe, community — choose your own term, it doesn’t matter.

What I can guarantee you is that the readers of Saltwater Sportsman know MORE about fishing rods than the readers of Vogue, and vice versa about handbags. Hierarchies of knowledge DO exist — instead of denying it, try leveraging it.

UPDATE #2
Pete Cashmore responded to my previous Update and took the thinking an interesting step forward:

Digg users know very little about the stories they vote for, but they do seem to pick stories that other Digg users will like. This is an affinity group, rather than a group with “knowledge” of any topic in particular. Yes, there’s often a correlation between being knowledgable about a topic and making good editorial choices, but not always. (And I define good editorial choices as “what your audience wants to read”, rather than “what your audience should be reading”. It’s descriptive, rather than prescriptive).

Here, I think, is a critical issue. Is the objective of filtering to find what you WANT or what you NEED? Fox News, for example, has mastered the art of giving people what they WANT. If building a better echo chamber is the objective, then the Digg model works well.

Pete also writes:

But I think Scott’s argument becomes muddled when he says that one audience is “smarter” or “better” than another.

and

These are still half-formed thoughts, but I think the question I’m trying to ask is: instead of stating what the tribes should be from the outset (”building verticals”), could we let the tribes evolve on their own?

From that perspective, the Digg audience is defined by the group of geeky people who think that the app is cool and that the eclectic, geeky results it produces are cool — and they have become BETTER than other groups at producing those results.

So Pete is right that tribes can evolve on their own, but I’m not sure that is the best approach from a business standpoint. It’s still very technology-centric to build an app and let it lead people where they may. It’s more people-centric to realize that most affinity groups or tribes form around specific topics, interests, or objectives, and these affinity groups aren’t necessarily served well by the same app.

Take StarStyle — here’s an app that fills a need for a specific affinity group — people who want to dress like the stars they see in movies and TV. (Via Umair.) These people didn’t need a Web 2.0 app to help them realize that they want their fashion to reflect the most popular trends. Someone identified this need and built something for them.

Pete also writes:

Helping affinity groups to find each other by building verticals (eg. Carspace) is certainly a good route, but what happens if my interests span multiple tribes? Instead of a one-size-fits-all “Memeorandum for widgets”, wouldn’t a widget enthusiast prefer a personalized memetracker that acknowledges both his love of widgets and his interest in foo?

But isn’t the idea of personalized memetracker moving away from community? And why does my media solution have to be all in one place? My life and my social connections don’t exist all in one place. I don’t have everyone I know over for dinner all at once, and I don’t expect my doctor to be my lawyer. There’s a reason why the niche strategy worked so well in Old Media — technology has made media MUCH more flexible, but people haven’t changed.

Pete ends by saying we should focus on both people and technology, and he’s right. I just think Web 2.0 needs to shift its center of gravity more towards people.

  • After 36 comments, does it still matter? I love the question as framed, but, Scott, I think the answer is off-kilter just a bit. It sounds too much like adherence to the silo model of media.

    I agree whole-heartedly with the observation that the memetrackers are tracking sensationalistic noise. That's the way their built. They are mostly just prettier hacks of /.

    But that's not where the interesting stuff happens, there in the mosh-pitt of frothing populism. What we want is afficianados digging through heaps of stinking noise looking for their own brands of signal that we can then scrutinize and lavish praise upon, or ignore, as warranted.

  • sogodo

    Digg.com and others are monetary-based enterprises, they exist to get money via advertisments. They do not care much about your or mine particular preferences, and they are pretty good denominator/summarizator of what the crowd wants. I mean it's useful to see what the majority of people collectively filtered out. Yes, technically-inclined people can find artisitc "findings" kind of useless, and vice versa. Still, Diggs.com never pretends to be honest hierarchy of tastes. If your taste is outside of the 75% preferences, you're out of luck.
    Still it should sound fair for you, right?

  • Great post and great discussion.
    All the tech folks really have to do is let go of there apps and put it in the hands of different tribes. They'll figure out what to do with it.

  • Filters aren't fun.

    Hey Dave, when are you going to send me an angry email?

  • Oy I should always edit before I hit Submit.

    I meant "Assume everyone has some axe to grind, and you probably won't be far from wrong."

    I think I'm getting Alzheimer's either that or my computer loses whole words while I'm typing. :-)

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