The Winter of Our Content
The fundamental question at this juncture in media history is whether true dominance lies with story or software. So let me clear this one up. Millions of people tell stories now—on blogs, on MySpace (NWS ), on Flickr (YHOO )—for free. There is a surfeit of storytelling.
Millions of people do not sit around writing software for free. Advantage: programmers. In the tug-of-war between the right-brain of media (the content creators in New York and Los Angeles) and the left-brain of the platform builders, the latter have the upper hand.
With that weighing on my mind, this New York media guy (read: storyteller) traveled to the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, at which a smart set gathers to discuss, among other things, how technological change inflects media. Here the aggregate self-regard of the capacity crowd easily rivaled what you'd find in Hollywood and Manhattan. And the latest news and reportage—to cite but one example, that $10 billion to $15 billion valuation placed on Facebook—buttressed convictions that the future is shooting up like so much new bamboo and will profoundly enrich everyone in the game. In the event's opening remarks, conference chair and former magazine guy John Battelle asked how many attendees thought there was a bubble. Maybe 3% of the crowd raised hands—because why would anyone there want the good times to end?
It is instructive to attend a conference in which the Big Media dudes rate somewhere between sideshow and mild annoyance. The crowd got much more revved up by the interviews with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Microsoft's Steve Ballmer than it did by, say, Google (GOOG )-suing Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, who was very coolly received. (At the tender age of 23, Zuckerberg has mastered the Alan Greenspanian non-answer, although the tea-leaf readers in the crowd were convinced he kinda-sorta admitted that a much speculated upon deal to sell a small chunk of Facebook to Microsoft for truly stupid money was imminent. And a few days later Microsoft agreed to pay $250 million for a stake.) CBS' (CBS ) Quincy Smith, its designated wiseman for all things New Media, came right out and acceded to the mathematics of the moment, admitting that he'd much rather own Facebook than CBS.com.
The one mogul allowed into the club, as always, was Rupert Murdoch, but then he was sharing the stage with MySpace founder Chris DeWolfe. His better-coiffed employee made news: DeWolfe said he was re- upping his contract with News Corp. (NWS ), and that MySpace, like Facebook, is opening its platform to outside developers. But Murdoch took advantage of the crowd and setting to unleash noticeably higher-caliber verbal fusillades against rivals. He calmly mentioned that it would be "nice" to kill The New York Times (NYT )—"kill" being his interviewer's word, not mine—and called Fox Business Channel rival CNBC "half-dead." (Disclosure: I am a CNBC contributor.)
This is not, I swear, a cranky rant against the newcomers from one hopelessly rooted in the old ways. The companies and players that cluster around the (terribly titled) notion of Web 2.0 continue to chart a new world in which novel forms and modes are actually being invented. Spending time with them is considerably more tonic than, say, chatting up the publisher of the local newspaper. And it is gorgeous to cast eyes on the myriad variations on the reigning theme—create an open platform, let users play and connect, and watch the flowers bloom—and see it play out at places new to me, like the Stockholm-based stardoll.com. That virtual world allows tweener girls to clothe and outfit avatars and their rooms; in a lovely postmodern twist, users compete to get on the cover of Stardoll's in-house (and digital-only) fashion magazine.
The conference's one reality check came during a panel that brought onstage a clutch of Web newbies. When asked to cite their favorite search engines, one woman named Google and online marketplace craigslist. This response brought the house down; geeks found it hilarious that a sellers site could be mistaken for a Google. But there was something to her point. Craigslist indexes so much stuff it practically qualifies as search. And, most important, she showed that a lot of people use the Web only for very prosaic pursuits.
This is the problem with constantly inventing the future: The version of it beloved to propeller-heads is rarely universally shared. In other words: maybe there's hope for the storytellers after all.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
By Jon Fine