When I think about where media is going, I think about elephants.
For the longest time digital was the elephant in the room.
Now media, and journalism in particular, accept the elephant is there. So we don’t ask ‘why can’t we do what we’ve always done?’ (a: ‘coz theres a chuffin great elephant in the way!)
That doesn’t stop industry obsessing about the elephant. So we get questions that tend to fall into two general types:
- Where did the elephant come from? see also , Who let this elephant in here?
- How do we get rid of this bloody elephant?
The answer to type one is easy. Who cares! It’s a moot point and I would say that if people are asking that question outside of an academic context, they know the answer and just don’t like it! Still, the question is asked .
The second one is more complicated and one that is still, if cryptically,asked with alarming regularity. But if you generally want to deal with and learn from the problems digital poses then the best approach is to take that other well known question: How do you eat an elephant?
The answer…a piece at a time.
If we think about where journalism and media is heading we know there is a direction of travel. What makes for success is less about being able to be responsive to changes in direction and more about changes in velocity. Guessing where we are going is a finger in the wind at best. Knowing that at certain points we are going to be moving faster than others is a given.
In a digital world we see lean, responsive, opportunistic, niche as parts of the start-up culture. It’s been said a few times that the thing that makes sites like Buzzfeed attractive to investors is that they are a media company that behaves like a tech company.
But what I think really sets MOWSUC’s – media organisations with a start-up cultures – apart is that they ask questions. But they don’t ask the big questions they already know the answers to.
They ask hundreds of different questions everyday: What do our users like now? How did that work with the audience? What happens if we do that? If they like this, will they like that? Will this work on mobile?
These are all questions that traditional media ask (even that last one) but the key is MOWSUC do it in public, fail fast and move on, and their responses more often than not drive technological not institutional change. Rather than obsessing about what’s happening around them, they get on with eating their pieces of the elephant.
That constant questioning is what presages the shifts in velocity. The more people asking and the more the answers the converge the more momentum they create. Then we get the sudden shift forward.
Missing the bigger picture
The criticism is that this is often a race to the bottom. Each MOWSUC, is slavishly tied to the fickle whims of a lowest common denominator audience. It’s also seen a recipe for homogeneity: oh look another buzzfeed clone or another viral video site!
But the trick with many start-ups, is not that they are building another app in a world full of apps, it’s that they are concentrating on making their app the best it can be, regardless of someone else is doing exactly the same. In other words, they don’t mind if someone else is eating a piece of the elephant.
Ultimately that’s what attracts investors to start ups in general and MOWSUC in particular. Even if they end up failing they have learned so much along the way there is inherent value in being inside and along for the ride.
I think that’s most obvious in the high churn of people between MOWSUC. People move quickly between one company and another. Knowledge and experience in MOWSUC’s are just as viral as their content.
Asking the right questions
So if I’m thinking about where media is going, I do think about questions. I think about an organization’s capacity to ask and adapt to the answers and the capacity to simple learn from rather than worrying about what others are doing. Digital is a big elephant to eat. Learn from the MOWSUC and just pick a piece to start munching.