Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.

Watching the alien watching us… Image sourced from Flicker

At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)

For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.

Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)

Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).

Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)

Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.

This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.

Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

 

 

 

 

Social Networks – All the News You Can Eat

The New York Times‘ motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was modified to “All the News That’s Fit to Click” when the newspaper went on-line. But based on the heated competition for on-line readership, as we move from dedicated news platforms to internet  megastores, and as news content pricing and business models are savaged by social media, the rallying cry is more like “All the News You Can Eat”.

It’s clear that social network sites are stepping up their efforts to attract more readers for on-line news content, if recent events are anything to go by:

1. Google rethinks its strategy for the Reader application, which will no doubt resurface in a new form within Google+.

2. Facebook announces changes to its news feed as it aims to create a highly personalized newspaper experience.

3. Twitter plans to introduce better contextual analysis around trending stories.

4. Yahoo! makes a splash with its purchase of Summly – a news aggregation app which has now been shut down prior to integration within the Yahoo! platform.

5. Even LinkedIn has been getting in on the act with its LinkedIn Today content aggregation tool.

Defining what constitutes news is no longer determined by the traditional business models for print and broadcast media. “Old-school” factual reporting (the “who, what, where, when and how”) combined with informed opinion and analysis (the “why”) is now something of a dying format. In its voracious appetite for content, social media is willing to slap the label “news” on anything that moves. So, one person’s news is another person’s gossip, trivia, PR, party political spin, advertorial or propaganda. All very post-modern and structuralist – the news is whatever you make it.

In response, established newspaper media are building pay walls around their on-line product, to offset the decline in print sales and classified advertising, even though most social media sites are offering “news” for free. This point is significant, because not only does this make it harder for newspapers to charge for content, the proliferation of free metro newspapers in many cities means that paying for a newspaper is something of an anathema to most people. Why on earth would they pay for on-line news content?

While it is understandable that newspapers want to charge for their content, they would be seriously misguided if they continue to see the content alone as the product. Of course, a reliable news service is expensive to produce, but the cost to the consumer should also be about quality, access and convenience. What we are paying for is the newspaper’s role as author, editor, curator, archivist, publisher, aggregator and distributor. In some cases, newspapers are recognized as a document of record – but we are probably some way off granting social media sites the same status.

What are the likely outcomes from this competition for news readership?

Initially, the traditional news media will continue to suffer declining print circulation, and will be challenged to make pay walls work. Stronger news brands with even deeper pockets will probably survive, but  they will need to think about upgrading their content syndication business models to remain relevant within an on-line and social media environment. There will be more apps and tools for personalized news aggregation, but only if these platforms can access or license enough content to be viable, and only if they can monetize the offering to be financially sustainable.

The great irony is that few of us want to rely on a single news source, but we want the convenience of getting all our news in one place.

My guess is that the we’ll see social media sites emerge as “news supermarkets”. They will source content from various suppliers, with whom they will engage in trading terms akin to practices commonly seen in the grocery industry: charging for shelf space and product placement, seeking bulk discounts, and adopting strict supply chain agreements. There will even be “own brand” and “house brand” content, plus a range of specialist and localized products to cater for individual tastes.

Alternatively, “news department stores” might emerge, hosted by a few of the major news brands, where they provide a marketplace for third-party content they have carefully selected and curated, along with a core range of content produced by their talented pool of in-house writers and journalists. Or, like IKEA and some up-scale department stores, the products will be store-branded, but designed by and commissioned from their business partners.

In both cases, these news department stores and news supermarkets could be the anchor tenants in large online news malls, where specialist and independent content providers (including bloggers) can set up shop to attract passing readers.

On a final note, the recent media legislation in the United Kingdom, and the attempted media reforms in Australia, have renewed debate around news regulation: who is to be regulated, what is to be regulated (especially on-line), and by whom will they be regulated? While much of this debate is concerned with news media standards and supervision, as well as issues of ownership and control, there is also a need to consider the impact that internet technology and on-line business models are having on the development, dissemination and consumption of news.