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

 

 

 

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Publishing is Dead – Long Live Publishing!

The name of this blog was inspired by a former colleague at The Thomson Corporation. As our team embarked on a major push into digital media in the mid-90s, he reminded us that the old publishing mantra “Content is King!” was being recast as “Content in Context”. Simply having loads of content was no longer enough to command a dominant or exclusive market position – publishers had to make sure their content was timely, relevant and easy to navigate. Ultimately, content has to help users find insights to their problems and solutions to their needs quickly and efficiently.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard some data storage experts talking about the challenges of what to do with all the data we are creating – especially at the rate we are going. According to latest analysis, 90% of all data was created in the last 2 years.

We keep being told that publishing is dead, but it is clear that we are producing more content than ever before – in which case, it’s great to be part of a dying industry! Sure, the business models are changing, and so is the technology; but there are still a number of core publishing disciplines that we risk losing sight of as we continue to develop boundless and limitless volumes of digital content.

There are several skills that publishers traditionally bring to any new content, print or on-line. And it’s not just about technology, SEO or the number of “Likes”. Any content owner seeking to engage vendors to develop their digital assets and manage their on-line presence would be well advised to ask potential suppliers about their experience, strengths and processes in each of the following areas:

  • Commissioning – having a nose for new authors, where to find them and how to nurture their talent
  • Editing – turning text and data into meaningful and coherent content, including length, structure, tone, clarity and access (tables of contents, indexing, cross-referencing, citations, footnotes, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Design – using appropriate formats, layout and fonts to suit the material and the readership
  • Customer Engagement – bringing the audience into the publishing process, through market research, pre-sales activity and user groups
  • Marketing – knowing how to distribute particular content or promote a particular writer
  • Content Management – analysing the usage data and capturing audience feedback, to understand the value of the publishing assets

Yes, these skills do exist in the digital realm, but increasingly the publishing process is being made subservient to the technology, often at the expense of meaning and comprehension. Doubtless this stems from the misconception that the speed and frequency of publication renders everything as mere ephemera – so why do we need to bother with such archaic ideas as an index?

An author acquaintance of mine recently lamented the response of his publishers who, when informed that his text-book needed an index before it could be distributed in schools, responded, “what a great idea – why don’t you send us one!” I can only assume that the publishers were so caught up in on-line media that they had forgotten how most readers navigate books or other content, especially when they are accessing them for the first time.

On-line developers do us a great disservice if they forget that digital content needs tools such as indexes and tables of content to aid user navigation and accessibility – text tagging and search functions are all very well, but they do not always return relevant or meaningful results, and they can create unintended or unforeseen linkages that may be completely out of context.

As a consequence of the exponential growth in on-line content, and our simultaneous interest for archive material (and the demand for data analytics), publishers are increasingly taking on a new and important role as curators – managing content assets, understanding how to present them, knowing the value of the material they are dealing with, and finding the right context in which to provide this content.

This shifting role of publishers is just confirmation that publishing is far from extinct.

Social Media – finding its own level?

Social media is accessible to all...

Social Media is accessible to all…

Recently I’ve come to see that as a communication tool Social Media is just like any other resource or commodity – it’s not an end in itself, it’s what you can do with it that makes it valuable.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Social Media is most like water – not just because we seem to be swimming (if not drowning) in the stuff; but because like water, it will find its own level. And as Myer CEO Bernie Brookes found out this week, something that sustains us can also be unleashed against us.

As content pours into our Social Media aquifers, it will naturally flow, collect and disperse. The rivers of content being uploaded daily* suggest that unlike other resources, Social Media will not run out any time soon:

  • Twitter: 400 million Tweets posted per day
  • Instagram: 40 million photos uploaded per day
  • YouTube: 72 hours of videos posted every minute
  • Facebook: 2.5 billion content items shared per day
  • LinkedIn: 175,000 new profiles created every day
  • SoundCloud: 10 hours of audio uploaded every minute

These reservoirs of digital content that we are creating could be put to good use (like dams that provide hydro-electricity). Viewed from this perspective, Social Media can be seen as a potential source of energy. Rather like waterwheels that harness the power of rivers, Social Media can be used to drive a range of applications; but left to its own devices, and with nowhere else to go, all this content will simply collect in stagnant pools – sometimes you need to use part of that energy to keep the water flowing downstream.

In just the past week I’ve been exposed to three more Social Media platforms, each of which is at advanced beta stage: @IFTTT – a tool to re-publish selected updates to multiple platforms via a series of automated decision trees; @Poptip – a tool for conducting polls via Twitter; and a personalized viral marketing tool which I probably cannot mention by name because I had to sign an NDA in order to participate in the pre-launch.

Each of these new platforms is trying to harness the potential of Social Media and keep the communication flowing (the waterwheel analogy). Similar to other Social Media platforms, these tools also act like aqueducts carrying water to where it’s needed. It’s as if we are using the content to feed a Social Media irrigation system – the results of which allow us to harvest followers, “likes” and customers.

The question is, who will we look to for inspiration when we come to write Social Media’s epitaph – will it be Smith, Bell, Coleridge or Goethe?** Will we end up drowning in the stuff (but no-one will notice until it’s too late)? Will we wish we had used it more sparingly? Will we be faced with an abundance that we cannot actually make use of? Or will it be a case of “be careful what you wish for”? (Clearly, King Canute is of no assistance, as it’s far too late to turn back the tide….)

* Note: Statistics gathered from a casual internet search of company websites, press releases and industry commentaries. No claims as to accuracy, currency or verification.

** Literary references: Stevie Smith – “Not Waving but Drowning”; William Bell – “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”