You can say that with every new wave of technology, the format, structure and even the content of media changes. Or you can simply say that the medium is the message. Either way, publishing just isn’t what it used to be. Here’s my wide angle view of some of the many changes bubbling through the publishing world.
Self publishing in all it’s many forms continues to flourish and grow. Just when you thought that between WordPress and Blogspot, that was all there was to it, you now have a raft of new platforms, including Medium and Hi for example. I’m still working out the real value of these tools, apart from the fact that they are beautifully laid out and easy to set up for the infrequent writer. I don’t feel yet that the writing on these platforms are genetically better than those on any other blogging platform. But clearly there’s a big market for self expression and this is really a good thing.
If Blogging is the selfie of publishing, the social media must be its new mirror. As much as social media is a means of connecting with others, in an increasingly perverse way, it seems to also represent how we see ourselves through their eyes. This kind of voyeuristic narcissism is reflected in many ways but none more so than this strange and increasing trend of self categorisation through arbitrary & meaningless ontologies, abbreviated for the purpose of this discussion as ‘scamo’. Facebook is full of scamos. What colour is your aura? Which Downton Abbey character are you? Which superhero are you? Which city are you? Where will it end? Which lego piece are you? (I got the flat green base), which paper size are you? (I got A3 – gutted!) Which bollywood item girl are you? (I got Yana Gupta but I can’t see the resemblance). And definitely, which type of common cold virus are you? (I got adenovirus, so distinguished!) See how easy it is? You can make your own lists up as you go. You can see where this will end, right? Which scamo are you?
The disturbing trends don’t end there. I pray every morning that the phrase “what happens next will xxxx you” (insert appropriate transitive verb) could be banned from headlines. “This surgeon started to operate on his patient. What happened next will amaze you!” “This man tried to drink printing ink. What happened next will stun you”. “This man tried to click on this link in face book. What happened next will baffle you” But of course, in the click-economy, it’s all fair game. As long as it can make a few (million) people click on the link, it’s a successful headline.
To be fair, the original story headlines were competing with other headlines in the same newspaper, because typically, you would already have bought or be reading that paper. Or at best your lead story would be competing with the main headlines of other papers. Today you’re competing with a stream of consciousness flow of headlines, curated, ad-inserted, thrust upon you by friends and family and wished upon yourself by those links you clicked unsuspectingly last week. Forget 15 seconds of fame, each headline gets about 1.5 seconds before it’s history in your eyes.
Facebook and Twitter have definitely become strong sources of news curation for me, much more so than TV or any single media organisation. But in the lead are still aggregation apps such as Flipboard and Zite. I was quite gutted to learn that Zite had sold itself to Flipboard, as they represented 2 very distinct kinds of approaches, both valuable, and I’m fretting that the result will be a bit of both but neither to it’s optimum levels. Circa is quite interesting (thanks @maria_axente!) because it allows you to track one story as it evolves.
But then you have tools like Paper.li and others which allow the aggregation itself to be automated in a democratised format. This is basically software eating media eating software. Pretty soon the only real value will lie in original content. This is why players like the Economist, New York Times or HBR are likely to have long lives because they are effectively becoming the HBO’s of the publishing space. Everybody else is aggregating, sorting, distributing, dicing and slicing. It’s worth pointing out that players like Business Insider, Outbrain and Bleacher Report, are trying hard to build a business that truly exploits the new distribution in different ways. But while Business Insider, which was founded by Henry Blodget and counts Bezos as an investor, does focus on good and original content, the others seem to want to flood you with content with those titilating headlines, so they can financially surf the click economy.
One of the outcomes of the smartphone enabled and Instagram and Facebook fuelled environment we live in, is that I’ve come to expect pictures where a picture is required. As a consequence, I struggle through long descriptive paragraphs in books. I appreciate that it would have been hard for Dickens to simply Instagram a picture of foggy London, and perhaps we’re the better off for it. But with the increasing democratisation of tools and knowledge of image and video creation I think a new wave of storytelling is just around the corner. A book created for electronic consumption should have pictures, videos, hyperlinks and more, all of which are creatively and effectively used to enhance the storytelling. This is not to denounce the metaphor as a bedrock of great content, but to provide an experience that truly exploits the medium. Just imagine Gibson’s Neuromancer told through this kind of multimedia!
Certainly, there’s plenty of excitement and enough funding for new ventures in news and publishing, as this piece from the FT points out. There is ongoing innovation as start ups like Blendle demonstrate. I personally think that we are just at that point where we start to appreciate the value of news as distinct from entertainment, and stop clubbing the business models together. Certainly, when ‘rock star’ geeks such as Bezos and Nate Silver are getting into the game, there must be plenty left to play for!
In the mean time, I’m off to post my selfie to Facebook and Twitter, so I can see what others say about it, so I can figure out which mythically egocentric character I resemble the most.