Friday, September 08, 2006

Part 3. Its Gotten Personal

This is Part 3 in a multi-post series on the topics of Participatory Media and Consumer Generated Content.

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I can still remember back to when I was a young child and our house had one television (there was no cable yet) and one, maybe two stereos. Six people in the house shared those devices and squabbles over what/when were a part of daily life. I remember The Sonny & Cher Show being on at the same time as The Six Million Dollar Man and getting enraged when the ruling went in favor of my sister.

We also had just one telephone line and it was connected to the house as well. Today, the points at which people receive content and the points at which they are connected to one another are no longer householded. It has even become common for young children in the US to have their own mobile phones. What's really easy to miss is that those are no longer two different classes of things. The devices we use for personal communication and the devices we use for cultural communication are merging. (These devices are also capable of cotent creation.) The number of those connection points at the individual level keep growing as well. Multifunction mobile phones and personal computers with email, text messaging, VOIP and the social networking and content sharing websites on the internet all form points of communication and content sharing between individuals. Even gaming stations connect players via the web.

Content no longer has to be routed to a destination where a person "picks it up". When I was a child I had to be home (or at a home) in front of the TV at the right time if I wanted to "pick up" the Six Million Dollar Man. If I missed it, I was out of luck. If I was lucky, I would be able to catch it in reruns. When I wanted a new record I went to the record store to pick it up. Theaters are where you went to "pick up" movies. It wasn't really that long ago that VHS players and Blockbuster Video gave us an option other than going to a theater to see a movie. In the last two years video on the internet has finally become a viable reality and soon you will be able to download full length movies on to your iPod.

Content is now distributed directly to individuals and between individuls. The connections are not one way pipelines but a network or points, sending as well as receiving.

The systems of distribution prior to all this personal technology were necessary to reach mass audiences. The mass audiences achieved an economic scale that funded the production of big budget movies, TV programs and professionally produced albums. The cost of the talent and technology required mass sales to rationalize it.

These systems, although limited by location and time constraints, allowed for tight systems of monitoring and control. Audiences and sales were easy to monitor and measure. Today, issues in this area are causing a lot of headaches in the advertising industry. Illegal file sharing has been a huge issue for the music industry and to a lesser but growing extent the movie industry.

When I was in 4th grade I had a B&W TV in the room I shared with my brother and a Panasonic cassette recorder that looked like a flat, black brick. I would put a note on the door to let everyone know a recording was in progress and tape the audio of shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and the Transformers. My friends and I would listen to the audio on the school bus. (The sound effects and the voices from the Transformers were especially cool without the visuals.) It was a way of capturing, sharing and extending the life of content that I really enjoyed.

Today, Animike pointed his iSight camera at his TV set so I could watch a Benny Hill short called The B•Team he tracked down on VHS. (It's a parody of the A•Team. Benny Hill plays Hannibal, BA and a bad guy. AWESOME!) An elaborate and low fidelity solution considering only 6 blocks seperate our apartments. It was, and usually is, more about the sharing.

My friend Nixta moved back to London for work. The BBC shows that he has shared with me, and that we both really enjoy give us things to laugh over and share back and forth. It gives us a connection when are daily lives have little in common. It's like I always say, if you're not fucking or stealing from someone, you're probably talking about a movie or a TV show you both like.

It should be no surprise that the devices we use for personal and cultural communication are merging. The function of cultural content is to bind us together with shared ideas and experiences, to connect us and make us feel less alone. I've met many people that live alone and keep the TV on all the time for that very reason. In many ways, what cultural content does is the same thing that letters and phone calls do.

A lot of the distribution and payment issues that have arisen in recent years are the result of solutions that don't map well to changing social patterns or leave someone with a sense that people are not receiving a fair value for their purchase. The legal posturing and bellyaching of the music industry went on for years before an outsider, Steve Jobs, put together a digital distribution system that worked. Now the industry complains that they don't like the deal they struck with Jobs. (The artists continue to be the big losers.)

The music industry promised a price cut after the CD format was widely adopted. That never happened. Today, going into a store and paying $16 for a collection of tracks, most of which won't get much of a listening to, is a stupid, out of touch value proposition. Instinctively, people know that the price is just too high or "not worth it" in most cases. In a future post I will cover the commoditization and dropping relative value of content.

The design of solutions to the current disruptions caused by the disintermediation of traditional distribution systems are going to have to be much more sophisticated than leaving out bins of content to be picked up by consumers. They'll require savy insight into personal human behavior (a bit of ethnographic research and contextual inquiry in place of being "in touch" wouldn't hurt), into the ways that people are using technology and interacting with one another on both a personal and cultural level. It will also mean abadoning strutures that are no longer relevant.

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On Participatory Media and User Generated Content. A multi-post series.

Part 1. Talking to Ourselves
It's what people do!

Part 2. What Are We Talking About?
Defining the terms and context.

Part 3. Its Gotten Personal
The points of connection are now directly to, and between, individuals.

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