Let's talk about content. Not just news but content at large. Imagined, written and discussed. How people discover content, consume it, and eventually what they do post-consumption. Over the years almost all of our means of interacting with content have become digital. Print is not dead (and for that matter I do not think it will ever be dead, instead become more of a novelty) but it's influence and prominence has diminished. Newspapers and magazines have given way to apps, blogs and online news communities. What does all this mean for content? Let's think of this less as crystal gazing and more as a wish list, a dialogue between you and me, a catalyst of transition. Let's begin.
The Content is a commodity
To understand how the content is affected in the digital realm let us try to look at the process of creation briefly. If we look closely, a few key players emerge. Namely the author/creator, the publisher and the reader. The author's role is to create. Capture thoughts and imagination into a narrative in the form of words, picture or motion. The role of the publisher is to provide a platform for this to happen. Also to provide an umbrella of a familiar brand in case the author's identity is not enough to carry the purpose of the content (This is a huge over simplification of the economics and operations involved). And at the end we have the reader or the consumer. It might feel off to see the reader as a key player in the process of creation, but the purpose of a work is to be consumed. The purpose of speaking is to be heard, of writing to be read. The reader is the purpose of the creator's creation, the goal is that in consuming this content, the reader will be entertained, educated and maybe even in the slightest way evolved, intellectually. If the author is lucky the work may stir the reader to change in a small way. The role of the reader is to ensure the work reaches it's purpose and in some cases be the purpose.
In the digital realm, the role of author and more so the reader is elevated significantly, while that of the publisher as what it has meant in the past continues to evolve into something else, more as advisors than gatekeepers. In today's world the platform needed to say something is a commodity, a marketplace open and accessible to any one willing to put in considerable effort and time. Not all will, but it is easier than ever for those who wish to.
Any author can indeed publish their own work but not all authors will have the resources, time, energy or just plain desire to become a publisher. There is talk of diminished value of publishers in the face of digital books, but the reality is that publishers are as necessary as ever. However, their roles have shifted. Their value lies as community builders, curators and editorial advisors. Not just deep-pocketed gatekeepers and financiers to the mythical land of printed matter, national distribution systems and physical shopfronts. / Craig Mod
Sorry for the tangential rambling, now back to content. We are beginning to see the signs of the amazing fluidity of content. Be that sites like Quora or individual bloggers or publishers themselves as a brand who have their content syndicated across sites and apps. Ubiquity of access marked by democratization of content is in very early stage as of now. However, the big players are warming up to this. For example the Wall Street Journal app or site is not the only way to read their content. The same is true for New York Times. Others following suite is a matter of time.
It also calls for better methods for this synergy and syndication. RSS has long been the de facto for formless content but can we come up with something better, more suited to the new kinds of content and technologies beyond plain text or embeds? Can we figure out better ways to syndicate the form for definite content? Can this syndication happen without making the content lose context in any fashion? Can this amazing example of content choreography from ESPN be experienced in place other than the original without losing the value that is added by the form and design? Words are only a part of the experience of reading, the type, images, and as things go digital, the interaction within the original elements and new ones as a result of consumption (highlights, discussions etc.), are the others. How can we get better at this? Or maybe the answer for publishers lies in this well thought interplay between words, images and interactivity while formless content is the one that gets syndicated. Who will build an open framework or a Content API, if you may call it that, which forms the link between reading, discussions, related content and numerous other possibilities. Not all in one place but all within reach - united.
There’s art in each individual system, but there’s a much greater art in the union of all the systems we create. / Dave Winer
Another aspect of this mixing or in some cases regurgitation of content and ideas is that more and more ways to cluster content around themes, events and formats will show up. Medium is just one such player to try clustering at a core product level, but the idea of discovering content based on subjects or tags is something that we will and should explore more. For when you come across something that you truly like, the first reaction is how do I find more of this? Till now the way to do that was to add the RSS feed of the source or follow the author on some social network hoping they have more of what you liked in the first place. While that works, often it does not. Which brings me to the next discourse. Sources.
No more silos of content
I believe I am not alone in thinking that the whole notion of accessing content in silos called sources/publications feels archaic. A remnant of our analog past, if you may. I still remember when as a child, my parents subscribed to 3 different national newspapers and over 6 magazines. It almost feels that when we shifted gears to digital, someone asked, how can we make these digital and since the restrictions of physical space were lifted, we started a micro revolution of creating/downloading the app for each one or downloading an aggregator to access all of them in one place. The problem is that we never questioned ourselves, how does digital change the way we can consume news/content?
For starters, we do not need every story from a publication. We only need stories that we will enjoy reading or need to know because of the information in them is really important. This paves way for a possibility of using interests, and preferred publications as a means to recommend and figure out what articles you might enjoy from other sources. At the same time, it also embraces simplicity by having a singular view of content that's relevant to you, allowing for deeper exploration as an when needed or desired but never required. Good, relevant content should find the reader instead of the reader having to search the content universe. A lot of this we already do unconsciously with a source focused consumption approach, by skimming or dismissing a story even before we finish reading the title. Surely this is the first thing that a truly digital content consumption medium needs to address. If we are still skimming every story from each source we might be interested in, then what did we gain over the analog way of consumption?
When I shared this article with a friend for her thoughts and opinions, she said, this phenomenon is similar to how iTunes led to the unbundling of music. Which seems like a simpler analogy compared to my convoluted narrative. (The idea that a reader is able to and should in appropriate cases influence the article in a small way, as it happened with me and my friend is further explored towards the end of this article)
In a similar vein, to be able to read that one article on a premium source, should not mean you need to buy an yearly or monthly subscription. This is also the biggest reason, publishers are not so excited about this shift. Many of them are still busy paving cow paths, creating digital newsstands as the future of consumption. They are still charging money from loyal users instead of rewarding them. However, some publishers are beginning to see this and adapt accordingly. Even most news aggregators of today have chosen to continue down this source based path than rethinking consumption of content in a digital medium. Again it is easy to point fingers but a lot is a result of the existing and age old notions of content, which does not change overnight.
The bigger issue for magazines is that they - like papers - insist on seeing themselves as product. They believe their value is intrinsic to that product (thus, people should pay for it). I've long argued that if magazines saw themselves instead as communities of interest and information, they'd have been far better positioned for the net. If they had seen it as their mission to connect people, they'd have been in a better position strategically in terms of "audience" engagement and in terms of generating data that would make their advertising propositions more effective, targeted, and valuable. / Jeff Jarvis
But for the readers, this atomization is brilliant news. Also for authors, this means that each piece of content has to have a merit of it's own instead of link bait or sensationalism.
At a pace you can appreciate it
Content should always feel like a gift, not a burden. To turn it into a gift, we need to start focusing on ways to control the flow. / Joshua Gross
Knowledge, not information. The amount of content that we come across today is almost unmanageable. We need to figure out better ways to control this flow of information. Yes, I want to discover amazing content, but before seeking for more as the obvious pursuit, can we do a better job at efficiently consuming what we already are exposed to, knowingly or otherwise?
Going back to the responsibilities of the reader. A major one was being the purpose of creation. To speak in simple language, when you come across a piece of content, you should feel good about it, appreciate it and if worthy, further propagate it.
Are we fulfilling that role in its true capacity? Has the ability to access any content become a hurdle towards this romanticized goal for appreciation and intellectual stimulation? We have less time to reflect upon what we consumed because we have already moved on to the next thing.
We have started to see efforts to modulate this continuous noise into periodic and meaningful signals. Most prominent ones being Facebook Top Stories, Twitter Email Digest, The now defunct Tputh, Evening Edition or the Next Draft. Apps like Readability and Instapaper strive to add order, timeliness and rhythm to the chaos in which we come across content. But they are just the first lot, many more are yet to be born.
If you are more interested in the concept of Slow web, here is a reading list that I will be updating as and when I come across more articles around it.
A Shared Consumption
The way we consume content is influenced by how we discovered it in the first place. A story that you stumbled upon while exploring the web versus a story that was recommended to you by a dear friend. The palette of tools available post reading shape our actions during reading. For it is only when you know and experience what is possible can you decide for yourself if the content benefits from it. A system that allows for highlighting of passages or curate content around themes is valuable only when you see the possibilities that these tools empower.
Our current set of tools around consumption mimic the past. When I read an article today, chances are that it has been read by a bunch of people similar to me (in a small way that we have the act of reading this article,and thereby an interest in what it has to convey, as a similarity). However the only way it shapes the article is by a change in the number of shares or tweets on a small button in a corner of the page. A slightly better version is when there is discussion around this article either on the page or somewhere else. But digital enables the possibility of altering the original content as more people consume it. Footnotes, side notes, highlights, non-linear narrative, real time critique, communicating with the author...the list and possibilities limited only by imagination. For the first time the marginalia has the chance to be an equal partner of the content. Each reader has the power to change the work in a small but meaningful way. Why have we been aping the past where content was this immutable and permanent entity? As a note of caution, this mutability does not equate to loss of previous versions or a unique perspective in time and space of the author. It simply refers to the additive and hopefully positive influence that a reader can have on content, that was not possible in the past.
What can we tell about a text from its notes? About readers from what they’ve left behind? And when these notes are made public — as Kindle developers and book futurists are exploring — what will emerge? How might shared reader data change readers’ annotating behavior? / Liz Danzico
We are seeing a new and relatively young lot of curators whose work is built on top of other's creations, but adding their opinions, non linear perspectives, backstories or just sharing an interesting highlight to a new audience. In a small way they have also taken the role to help others discover and thereby appreciate good content. This trend builds upon the previously mentioned atomization and universal access of content. If just an open access to links and small passages, spurred a new generation of content curators, imagine what open free access to content would do!
The great opportunity, the greater confusion, and greatest of all, the lure of invention. / Robin Sloan
We are at very initial stages of truly understanding the potentials of digital content and it's possibilities. Let's ask ourselves how does digital change the role and purpose of content instead of trying to make the content digital. What an amazing time to be in where we can influence the future of content. Our books, magazines, newspapers, longform journalism, and many more yet to come shapes of content.
Content that is ubiquitous, democratized, moderated and networked.
- Cover image with typewriter keys by Geof Wilson
- Post-artifact books and publishing by Craig Mod
- We could make history by Dave Winer
- Why do full magazine apps not work? by Jeff Jarvis
- The Slow Web by Jack Cheng
- The Social life of marginalia by Liz Danzico
- The other kind of iPad magazines by Khoi Vinh
- In case not obvious, these are my personal opinions and not necessarily of any of the companies I am involved in.