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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.
The gargantuan selection of news, entertainment, and other information that people’s newfound access to specialized magazines, to tens or hundreds of cable or satellite television channels, and to millions of websites, are all together the informational buffet or shelves from which billions of individual people now select whichever items best match their own individual mix of needs, interests, and tastes. They increasingly make those selections themselves rather than any longer rely on editors’ or other producers’ guesses which selections of items might match that criteria.
In the past, people’s choices had were limited only to what selections editors’ or other producers’ selections gave them, a selection of items the editors guessed would inform or amuse a geographic or topical demographic of people. If you are old enough to have lived in the United States during that past, 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. In other countries, you’d have even fewer choices.
Allow me to focus on the newspapers (although the effects I describe will eventually occur in broadcasting). The newspaper was your only daily-changing text source of international, national, regional, and local information about disasters, wars, fires, accidents, weather, politics, sports, business and finance, feature stories, and your main source of horoscopes, crossword puzzles, and about what products and services were on sale. However, it wasn’t produced specifically for you. When the staff of the newspaper decided which stories and other items to select for publication that day, 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 that newspaper, its editors would select between approximately 20 and 100 stories and items from among the tens or hundreds they receive each day from their own journalists plus the hundreds to thousands stories that they receive from newswire services and news syndicates to which that newspaper subscribed. They select these stories and items not according to your own individual mix of needs, interests, and tastes—they’ve probably never met or know you, but upon the general demographics of the locale in which the newspaper is distributed. The result is a demographic or otherwise standardized selection: a package of items they hope might edify or otherwise satisfy you and all other of its consumers. It’s like a standardized meal or that bag of groceries meant to satisfy each and every shopper. However, if you are like most people who read newspapers, according to decades of newspaper industry surveys about such readers, you will likely find that only between 5 to 40 percent of the stories or items in this daily package do match your own needs, interests, and tastes. It isn’t a good match, but during the past centuries it was the only daily changing choice you had in text.
Nowadays, you now have new alternatives: direct access to hundreds of millions of websites. You probably have broadband access to all that and likely wirelessly, too. Not only does this give you access to more stories and items than any team of newspaper editors had, but it also gives you access to every newspaper, magazine, news organization, and radio and television station and channel in the world. 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’ve discovered that by browsing in this gargantuan informational ‘buffet’ or ‘supermarket’, you can find your own selection of news, entertainment, and other information: the items that best match your own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes. And if you’re 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 to obtain news, entertainment, and other information—newspapers, news magazines, and general-interest broadcast stations. You’ll instead visit many dozens of different websites to gather selection of stories and other items that much better match your own individual needs, interests, and tastes. This is human nature augmented by technology.
Plus, thanks to Social Media websites and applications, your search for that mix will be aided by your friends and acquaintances, people whose own needs, interests, and tastes are likely more similar to your own than those of strangers or newspaper editors who you’ve never met. While your friends and acquaintances will be hunting for the mix of stories and items that best fit their own unique mixes of needs, interests, and tastes, they’re post on Social Media many items that might also fix your mix, stories and items that you yourself might not have otherwise found.
Access to this newfound cornucopia of contents has changed how billions of people gravitate towards and around news, entertainment, and other information. This new gravitation is reshaping the media environment as definitely as physical gravity reshapes the real environment. The ramifications of this for the business models, products, and practices of media industries, as well for the theories, doctrines, and practices of media academicians, are profound and permanent.
The legacy environment of the media industries and media academics was formed by centuries of Mass Media, in which editors or producers selected which mix of stories and items might satisfy the masses of people. Yet the changes underway in gravitation are transforming it into an environment formed by those individuals, who collectively used to be known as the masses or the audience, themselves selecting—either manually or aided by software—whatever mix of news, entertainment, and other information satisfies them. The media environment is transforming from one formed by Mass Media to one formed by Individuated media. The formation of the media environment is changing from Mass Media to Individuated Media.
Media traditionalist myopically misperceive the greatest change underway to be consumers simply switching media consumption habits from printed and terrestrially (i.e., antenna, cable, or satellite) broadcast products, colloquially but inaccurately known as ‘analog’, to online products, colloquially known as ‘digital’—the so-called switch from ‘analog to digital’. As a result of their misperception, these traditionalists are simply transplanting their Mass Media products (‘analog’) into online (‘digital’) in the mistaken belief that this is largely all they must do to survive and thrive in this new environment of Individuated Media. It is certainly true that a consumption switch in products is occurring; billions of consumers have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, their routine usage of ‘analog’ products. However, those traditionalists who focus only on this ‘analog-to-digital’ consumption switch blind themselves to the much greater change underway: how billions of consumers have changed how they gravitate to news, entertainment, and other information, in Individuated ways that better match each of their own individual mixes of needs, interests, and tastes than Mass Media can.
Whether each of those billions of consumers manually hunts and gathers the stories, videos, audio tracks, and other items that best or better fits his own unique mix of needs, interests, and tastes, or uses software applications to assist partially or completely in such gathering, he searches among all his newfound access, the gargantuan volume cornucopia of contents called the Internet, rather than any longer be limited to just the printed periodicals that are distributed and the audio or video programming that is terrestrially broadcast within his locale. Thus, the greatest change in the history of media—people’s choices and supply of contents switching from relative scarcity to surplus—is dooming traditional media business models based upon forms of scarcity, such as physical distribution channels for printed publications or carriage of broadcast signals through antennas or cable or satellite systems, as well as the productions of packages of information in which the contents are selected solely by editors and producers and not also or entirely by the consumers themselves.
Billions of people nowadays use the entire Internet, as well as but decreasingly 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. That individual will visit these on his own impetus or in response to hyperlinks which he has seen elsewhere, such as on other websites, his friends’ Social Media feeds, or even signage. Moreover, he’ll often, even most often, 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, despite attempts by legacy or ‘traditional’ media companies to motivate or ‘engage’ those visitors to use the companies’ entire websites, the transplanted ‘digital’ version of their ‘analog’ products.
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.
All these ineluctable changes resulting from relative scarcity switching to surplus in people’s access and supply of news, entertainment, and other information, are devastating the legacy or traditional industries.
[Other ways in which this new gravitation has transformed the media environment deal with advertising, a subject detailed here later in the Transactional or ‘Red’ color’ category of the spectrum of changes underway.]