Hoc Non Operatur

Consider the predicament Christian monks working in their scriptoria faced in middle of the 15th Century from Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press. It will illuminate the challenge the publisher and broadcasters of Mass Media faced today.

Their scriptoria’s hallowed output and centuries-old business models were made obsolete over the course of generation by a new media technology that had soon become wildly popular. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the monks, their monasteries, their creeds and ethnics, would no longer be the ‘gatekeepers’ of what information would be disseminated in their communities. The concept of books would no longer be synonymous with bibles. And anyone could from now on publish books far more cheaply than the monks could produce them.

Nearly 600 years later, something similar has in turn befell the owners of printing presses and the electronic broadcast transmitter equivalents of those devices. A wildly popular new media technology is obsolescing their hallowed output and centuries-old business models. Moreover, it has become clear that Mass Media publishers and broadcasters will no longer be the ‘gatekeepers’ of what information is disseminated in their communities. Their business models, theories, doctrines, and practices of media will no longer rule. The concept of news and information will no longer be simply synonymous with newspapers, magazines, and radio and television broadcasts. Anyone can now be a publisher or broadcaster, for little or no costs, and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people have. As have advertisers themselves, disintermediating Mass Media.

What are owners of traditional Mass Media to do?

In the case of 15th Century monks, they turned to other commercial pursuits. Most monasteries of that era also owned agrarian land; had a workforce that themselves could be employed for just bread and water; and could resort to seeking alms and other contributions from governments or the public if nothing else panned out. Dissemination of information was no longer a viable business model for them. Most monasteries’ scriptoria became storerooms or were put to other purposes, such as brewing and selling beer (the Augustines, Benedictines, Franciscans, Trappists, et. al.)

Today’s Mass Media industries’ informational product packaging, business models, and financial viabilities have been obsolesced by computer-mediated (colloquially ‘digital’) technologies aren’t likely to begin fermenting hops anytime soon. They instead are going out-of-business, demonstrably unable during the past 20 years to adapt to the epochal changes underway in media. They myopically thought that merely shoveling into online the contents of their Industrial Era products would successfully transplant them into the Informational Era. Yet this ‘digital first’ shovelware strategy failed to perceive or reckon with two fundamental changes as the Industrial Era waned and the Information Era dawned.

The first fundamental change was one of simple Supply & Demand economics. As costs the new technologies exponentially fell (viz. interactions of Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’s ‘laws’), so too did the costly barrier-to-entry for competition. Not only can anyone now publish and broadcast, but billions of people whose access and supplies of content used to be limited to whatever was locally distributed or transmissible now have access to a virtually instantaneous supply of everything in news, entertainment, and other information. Although Gutenberg’s invention of a practical printing press hugely increased the supply of information available in his time, that was nothing compared to the epochal change from relative scarcity to surplus (often overload) that has occurred during the past 30 years.

As anyone who has ever visited a souk, bazaar, or flea market knows, whenever something scarce turns surplus (particularly magnitudes more so), not only does the price people are willing to pay for it markedly decrease but the power to control such transactions shifts from seller to buyer. The price for which billions of consumers are now willing to pay for the Industrial Era packages of contents which Mass Media industries produce is nowadays magnitudes less than when those packages were all to which they had access, far less than is viable to those industries.

The second, and even more important, fundament change that the Mass Media industries failed to perceive and utilize was the computer aspect of computer-mediated technologies. They instead used such technologies merely as response terminal to which they delivered the digital equivalents of their Industrial Era products. In effect, they use computer-mediated technologies only as a wired-mediated technology, such as videotex. Unfortunately, the hallmark limitation of Gutenberg’s presses, as well as its broadcast equivalent, the analog waveform radio or television transmitter, is that though it can mass produce, it produces the same edition for all its recipients. Those Industrial Era technologies are incapable of customizing a selection of contents to each individual recipient’s own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes.

Computer-mediated technologies however have no such limitation. Startup companies knew that and have taken phenomenally successful advantage of it. Be they Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, or Spotify, these new companies, true consequences of the Informational Era, provide each of their consumers with a highly customized, aggregated feed of news, entertainment, and other information, based upon each of those consumers’ own needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs. These new companies provide individuated feeds, taking full advantage of the computer element of computer-mediated technologies. These companies didn’t ‘steal’ consumers from the Mass Media industries. Billions of consumers choose the new with a touch of their touchscreens.

How Individuated Media is superseding Mass Media as the predominant means why which people obtain news, entertainment, and other information is the focus of my consulting practice, in addition to my required New Media Business course in the New Media Management master’s degree curriculum at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication.


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