An Apostate of Mass Media Greets Their Successors

Fourteen years ago, I took shelter from an inanity that has doomed a once hallowed media industry and which has resulted in today’s citizenry being much less informed than had their predecessors. I hoped that I would have shelter from it for only a few years, that reason would quickly prevail, but I was naïve about just how short-sighted and persistently devoted to outdated practices a traditional industry can be. Newspapers were this industry, one which during the 1990s styled itself as a pioneer in New Media simply because it was shoveling its daily contents online.

The inanity which I sheltered from was that nearly every ‘New Media’ executive in the newspaper industry (plus those at magazines, radio, television, and other traditional media industries) myopically thought that the ultimate usage of computer-mediated technologies’ capabilities is as a paperless and antenna-less way of delivering multimedia versions of traditional Mass Media packages of news, entertainment, or other information. In other words, they mistook computer-mediated technologies (what are colloquially known as ‘digital’) as essentially just electronic response box terminals for media consumers, a means by which those consumers can electronically browse the ‘converged’ contents of the Mass Media printed editions and broadcast programs which those companies have been producing for decades if not more than a century.

During the opening years of the 21st Century, this myopic perception of the potential capabilities of digital technologies, which viewed those more as wired-mediated rather than computer-mediated, became elevated into corporate policy inside most of the world’s media industries. So well entrenched did this simplistic ‘wired’ or ‘hooked-up’ strategy, soon glorified as ‘Digital First’, become that critical examination of it became the corporate or industrial equivalent of heresy. The strategy was sanctified, and industrial hubris grew.

During those years, I warned that this shovelware strategy was not the panacea for the per capita declines in newspaper readership and circulation that began during the mid-1980s and have been accelerating ever since. Yet by 2006, during a digital media conference that I co-moderated at the University of Massachusetts, my co-moderator followed my opening remarks by (amazingly rudely) saying, “Forget all the things Vin said. Those aren’t important. My message to you is, do what you do best and link to the rest.” I realized then that logic and critical examination was not going to neutralize or eradicate an entrenched yet inane strategy that is little more than shovelware wrapped in simplistic bromides.  I retreated into the ivory tower of academe—like some monk finding shelter from a barbarian tide during the onset of a dark age.

How the Mass Media Lost the Future

During the past 14 years, the myopic failure of almost of world’s traditional media industries to perceive the greater latent capabilities of computer-mediated technologies has doomed them to now evident evanescence and all but evaporation in the future. The newspaper industries of the U.S. and most other developed nations have lost more than half their readers, advertisers, revenues, and employees. The magazine industries have seen similar losses. And the epochal dynamics caused by all these losses have begun to affect traditional broadcast industries.

What legions of media executives (and media academicians) schooled in Mass Media failed to perceive about the powerful capabilities of computer-mediated technologies is that algorithmic functions on digital information can breach the very limitation of Industrial Era technologies that gave rise to the theories, doctrines, business models, practices, and existence of Mass Media, making most of those modes of media obsolete. That has occurring because many startup companies weren’t blindered and inured by that Industrial Era limitation, and so the true potential of computer-mediated technologies for news, entertainment, and other information is no longer latent.

To see the hallmark limitation of Industrial Era media technologies figuratively step back and see the forest and not the trees. When the Industrial Era began is subject of debate among historians. Some say approximately 1776 when James Watts invented a practical steam engine. However, I posit 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, arguably the world’s first mass production device. The press mass produced books and periodicals, catalyzing the European Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and the rise of Mass Media. In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless transmitter, the founding device of the broadcasting industry, subsequently broadened the potential reach of Mass Media to instantly worldwide. The genus of media that we today colloquially know as Mass Media are capable of mass production with mass reach: two dimensions in media. However, the hallmark limitation of the Industrial Era technologies from which the Mass Media arose is that those all are incapable of practically producing an edition or program selection specifically bespoke to each individual consumer’s own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes. It is mass production and mass reach but not mass customization.

Due to this hallmark limitation, editors and producers of Mass Media generally use two criteria when selecting which items of content to include in a printed edition or broadcast program selection: (1) items about which they think everyone should become informed, and (2) items that might be of the greatest demographic interests. From this limitation and the criteria required to operate within it arose the theories, doctrines, business models, and practices of Mass Media. Yet no matter how experienced and skilled the editors and producers of Mass Media are, their resulting selection of items most likely won’t interest all consumer who receive that edition or program selection; only some, or a few, of the items will.

This hallmark limitation of Industrial Era technologies doesn’t exist in computer-mediated technologies. The calamitous error most of the world’s media executives and media academicians made at the start of this new millennium was not to realize that and its implications. Computer-mediated technologies are entirely capable of producing a unique edition or program selection specifically bespoke to each recipient individual’s own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes. It is mass production, mass reach, and mass customization: creating a third dimension in media. The result is that each consumer receives a feed of items that better matches his own unique mix of needs, interest, and tastes than any Mass Media edition or program selection can. Because these feeds are based upon the individual’s own needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs, rather than a demographic’s, as with Mass Media, the new genus of media arising from these computer-mediated technologies is known as Individuated Media (a neologism coined by the German firm Syntops GmbH during 2007).

Indeed, imagine that throughout your life you had been served whatever standard meal everyone else in your community was served that day, but that you now have been given access to the largest buffet in the world. Would you now continue consuming that standard meals? Or would you instead select from this gargantuan buffet whatever mix of items you think best match your own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes? If you’re like billions of online consumers nowadays, you’ll choose the information buffet for most of your subsequent meals.

That is figuratively what has happened in the media environment, starting when the Internet was opened for public use in the early 1990s. Most consumers who use the Internet during that decade discovered that it provided them with a far larger selection of news, entertainment, and other information items than did any printed edition, broadcast program schedule, or proprietary online service. Those early users of the Internet themselves had to hunt and gather such items from across the Internet themselves. As the Industrial Era waned and the Informational Era dawned, however, startup companies soon appeared that understood the true processing potentials of computer-mediated technologies far better than did Mass Media companies. These new companies provided online consumers with the services of computerized algorithmic tools which helped find or automate the gathering of whatever items each consumer sought. Companies such as Google, Baidu [], Pandora, Facebook, Twitter, Renren [人人网, Vkontakte [ВКонта́кте}, Spotify, etc., began providing their consumers with bespoke results or feeds according to that consumer’s own individual mix of needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs. The computerized algorithms these Individuated Media companies use, algorithms themselves unique to each such company, work to aggregate appropriate items from everywhere and every source available online, rather than select items from only one publisher’s edition or one broadcasters’ program schedule. (YouTube, Netflix, YuoKu [优酷], and other new companies that use such algorithms now add some of own original contents to those aggregations.)

Thus during the past 20 years, billions of people worldwide began switching their media consumption from Mass Media to Individuated Media, to the detriment of most of the world’s media companies, which continue to pursue the ‘digital first’ Mass Media shovelware strategy online and still misperceive search engines and social media, plus genre-specific Individuated Media companies such as Pandora and Spotify, as merely adjuncts to Mass Media rather than successors. Online advertising already accounts for more than half of the world’s advertisement spending, and Google and Facebook account for more than half of that market. Individuated Media have also already become the predominant means by which people under the age of 30 in developed nations, and increasingly those in most others, obtain news, entertainment, and other information. Given the inherent competitive advantages of Individuated Media over Mass Media, the current situation is unlikely to reverse. And as computer-mediated technologies continue to advance due to the progression of Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ ‘laws’ and their interactions, plus advances in Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Quantum Computing, the incontrovertible superiority of Individuated Media over Mass Media will accelerate.

Pathfinding the New Media Environment

Since 2007, I’ve been teaching all of this in the postgraduate New Media Business course I wrote for Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, a required course in the New Media Management master’s degree curriculum there. More than 200 of my alumni are now working in the media industries of four continents. I have presented formal academic papers about Individuated Media at a Barcelona conference organized during 2018 by the University of Missouri, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; at the International Media Management Academics Association (IMMAA) biennial conference during 2019 in Qatar; and will in May of this year at the biennial World Media Economics and Management (WMEMC] conference in Rome. This month, the quarterly Nordic Journal of Media Management is publishing one of my articles about Individuated Media. [Read a layman’s summation of these works.]

My increasing focus on the epochal change from Mass Media to Individuated Media has subsequently caused me during the past 14 years to lose Mass Media consulting clients. Some because they find my new focus heretical; others because they instead are trying to perpetuate Mass Media, as if the old media environment still existed, for as long as they can. As a veteran of Mass Media, I sympathize with the efforts of the latter. But by not themselves 20 years ago perceiving the full potentials of computer-mediated technologies and transmuting their Mass Media company or industry into a provider of Individuated Media services, they consequently lost the future by letting startup companies instead do that. No one likes to lose the future. Nor do I like to lose consulting clients. Yet the progress of media marches on.

Know that the long timeout since the last edition of this newsletter signals that the aim of my consulting career has changed. As the third decade of this century now begins, the focus of my consulting practice and this newsletter will immediately change to:

  • Helping Individuated Media companies successfully work with Mass Media industries.
  • Helping Individuated Media companies understand their proper civic roles and responsibilities now that they are superseding Mass Media as the predominant ways people obtain news, entertainment, and other information. They will become regulated.
  • Helping Mass Media companies profit from Individuated Media companies and the changing fundamentals of media business models.
  • Helping Mass Media industries, companies, media associations, and schools of journalism or media understand and adapt to Individuated Media.
  • Helping governmental agencies understand and adapt to Individuated Media.
  • Advising and resolving Individuated Media and Mass Media companies’ interactions with each other or with governmental agencies.
  • Teaching how the epochal changes I’ve described in this edition change the world’s media environment and how overall to navigate it.

This newsletter will hereafter focus on those subjects, although I still expect to include links to stories about other media industry subjects or esoterica of interest. I anticipate email publishing 24 biweekly issues annually, and plan to begin shooting videos, too. I thank you for your forbearance since the last edition and appreciate your patience reading this relaunch long introduction. I hope to make it worth your while in these coming weeks and months.

—- Vin Crosbie

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