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When people’s access and choices of news, entertainment, and other information switches from relative scarcity to surplus, each person naturally gravitates to whatever mix of items from the entire surplus, no matter what the mix of providers and methods of access, best fits that individual’s unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes.
Since 2007, most of the New Media Business postgraduate courses I’ve taught at Syracuse University had been scheduled just prior to lunchtime. I thus found that the most compelling pedagogical metaphors and analogies I could use in front of characteristically hungry students involved food. Allow me use two to detail the single-sentence paragraph above.
Imagine that all your life you’ve been fed the same institutional or standardized lunch as every other person. This meal might consist of an entrée, a vegetable, and a beverage. Which entrée, vegetable, and beverage isn’t chosen by you but by a kitchen staff. One some days, this meal might contain some items that interest you, but on some other days little or nothing of it interest to you. However, you now have an alternative—a gargantuan buffet of entrées, vegetables, fruits, salads, breads, deserts, beverages, etc., from which you can select whatever you want, even if that means serving yourself. What would you likely do: continue to consume the institutional meal or use the buffet to select whichever items match your own individual needs, interests, and tastes? If you are like the vast majority of people (who have been known as the mass in the term Mass Media), you’ll likely forego that institutional meal and use the buffet, thereby finding a better mix of items that match your own unique needs, interests, and tastes than any institutional meal can provide. The desire to do so is human nature.
Still hungry before lunch? Imagine now that you and other people are walking into a grocery store. As you and they enter, the store clerks stop all of you from browsing the shelves of the grocery store and instead hand each of you a bag. Each bag contains the same items that every other person in that store gets in their bag, items that are a selection which the store’s staff thinks are nutritional and might satisfy the greatest number of people. However, across the street is another grocery store that will let you browse its shelves, where you can pick and choose whichever items actually do satisfy your individual needs, interests, and tastes. Shopping at this other grocery store might initially take longer because you’ll initially need to find the shelf locations of the item you seek, although you’ll be able to remember where for future visits. Given the choice of shopping in either of these two grocery stores—one that doesn’t let you select the items you receive versus one which does—which of these two stores would you regularly use? If you’re like almost all people, you’ll choose to use the second grocery store because it lets you select items that much better match your own needs, interests, and tastes. Almost everyone prefers to make their own selections rather than simply accept what is institutional, standardized, or generic. This is what makes us individuals. Or as psychologists say, what individuates us. It is human nature.
Let’s now go to lunch about the effects of individuation on media contents. In the not-too-distant past, when you had no Internet access (how long ago depends upon your country), your only sources of daily-changing news, entertainment, and other information were (1) the daily newspaper (or perhaps you lived in a city where more than one newspaper was available); (2) between one to perhaps approximately 20 AM, FM, or MW radio stations receivable where you lived; and (3) one, two, three, or perhaps four television stations receivable there. Allow me to focus on the newspaper(s), although the effects are the same with broadcasters.
The newspaper was your only text source of international, national, regional, and local information about disasters, wars, fires, accidents, weather, politics, sports, business and finance, feature stories, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, and what products and services were on sale. However, it wasn’t produced specifically for you. When the staff of the newspaper decided which stories to select for publication in the daily edition, they choose those that they thought might either edify or satisfy the largest number of people in the locale where that newspaper is distributed. Depending upon the circulation size of the newspaper, its editors would select between approximately 20 and 100 stories from among the hundreds, or possible more than a thousand, stories that those editors received each day from their own journalists plus from newswire services and news syndicates to which that newspaper subscribed. They made their selection of stories not based upon your own individual mix of needs, interests, and tastes—they’d probably never met or knew you, but upon the general demographics of the community. They’ve produce and serve you a standardized or institutional selection, a bag of news containing items they hoped might edify or otherwise satisfy you. However, if you were like most people who read a newspaper, according to decades of surveys about such readers, you’d likely find only between five to 40 percent of the items that they’ve selected might match your needs, interests, and tastes on that day. That wasn’t a good match, but it was the only choice you had back then.
However, you now have an alternative: you have access to the Internet. Moreover, you probably have broadband access to it, maybe even wirelessly. It thus gives you virtually instant, ‘always-on’ access to the world’s largest buffet of news, entertainment, and other information. It not only gives you electronic access to your local newspaper’s stories but to those of all newspapers’, magazines’, radio and television stations’, and all other news organizations’ stories. The news ‘shelves’. It furthermore gives you access to the websites of corporations, governments, militaries, academia, and scientific and charitable organizations’ websites, plus to the world’s bloggers. You can soon discover that by browsing this informational supermarket or gargantuan buffet, you can find your owns selection of news, entertainment, and other information items that best match your own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes. If you are like the majority of people in developed countries, who now have such access at home, at work, and on the go, then you’ll likely reduce your usage of the standardized or institutionalized (i.e., general-interest) media that you’d previously used for news, entertainment, and other information—newspapers, news magazines, and general-interest broadcast stations—and instead visit many dozens of different websites, gathering a selection of stories and other items that much better match your own individual needs, interests, and tastes. This is human nature augmented by technology.
Moreover, thanks to Social Media applications, you’ll also be aided by your friends and acquaintances, people whose needs, interests, and tastes are likely more similar to your own than those of a stranger or a newspaper editor who you’ve never met. Your friends and acquaintances will too be hunting these information ‘shelves’ or ‘buffet’ and gathering items which might interest you just as its interest them, items you yourself might not have found stories.
Because you have these new alternatives for satisfying your needs, interests, and tastes, how you gravitate to news, entertainment, and other information changes. As billions of people now have such access and choices, this new gravitations is reshaping the media environment as resolutely as if changes physical gravity itself was. The ramifications of this new gravitation for media companies, their business models, products, and practices, and the ramifications of this new gravitation for academic theories and doctrines of media, are profound and permanent.
The media environment is transforming from a shape created by centuries of Mass Media, in which editors or producers made selections about which items might satisfy the masses of people, to a new shape formed by Individuated Media, in which the individuals once known as the masses themselves each their own selections of what satisfies them.
Unfortunately the ‘legacy’ or ‘traditional’ media industries of newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations operate production practices and business models based upon Mass Media theories and doctrines: selecting items they hope will satisfy large demographic or topical interests. Those production practices and business models are rapidly becoming obsolete, replaced by those of Individuated Media, a transition that is devastating those ‘legacy’ or ‘traditional’ industries.
People nowadays use the entire Internet (as well as their cable or satellite television systems, aided by digital video recorders) to hunt and gather their own individual daily selections of news, entertainment, and information: their daily ‘edition’, their daily ‘program schedule’, their daily music ‘album’, etc. Each person might visit between a handful to dozens of websites daily, and not necessarily always the same websites each day. The person will visit those on their own impetus or in response to hyperlinks they’ve seen elsewhere, such as on other websites, signage, or posted by their friends on Social Media networks.
Moreover, the average person might jump via hyperlink directly to a story on one website, then jump directly to another website, never actually seeing those websites’ home pages or any other webpages on those websites. Relatively shallow and infrequent usage of those websites results, thwarting ‘legacy’ or ‘traditional’ media companies’ attempts to motivate those visitors to use the entire website as the electronic equivalent of a printed selection of stories or a broadcast program schedule.
For example, among the nearly 60 million registered users of The New York Times’ website, the average user visits that premiere daily newspaper’s site only four to five times per month—a frequency equivalent to about once per week; and sees fewer than 28 stories in all those visits, rather than the hundreds which that newspaper published online during that time. (The New York Times thus effectively becomes a weekly, rather daily, newspaper to most users of its website.) Less prestigious newspapers receive even less frequent and thin usage online.
Moreover, because most people use such websites only infrequently and thinly, they certainly aren’t willing to pay to do so. After four years of multimillion dollar marketing efforts to get to users of its website to pay for access—no longer permitting non-paying users to access more than ten stories per month, The New York Times has been able to motivate only 990,000 of the websites nearly 60 million registered users to pay at least $15 per month. That’s a conversion rate of less than two percent, no more than what a single direct mail (i.e., ‘junk mail’) marketing campaign elicits in other industries.
Thus, two ways in which people’s new gravitation to media content now that they have surplus, rather than relatively scarce, access to news, entertainment, and other information, are that ‘legacy’ or ‘traditional’ forms of media—such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and networks, and other forms of Mass Media—are being used much less, even if placed online, and producers and vendors of those forms of media are no longer able to get consumers to pay for those contents. The new gravitation has reshaped the media environment making it hostile to Mass Media but phenomenally lucrative to the companies and industries founded upon Individuated Media.
Next webpage: Part 2 – the Core Limitation of Mass Media