Scarcity may be the largest factor in determining something's value. Generally, the rarer or more scare something is, the more valuable it is. Digital technology has done 2 things to radically and rapidly destabilize the value of content. First, it has lowered the cost and access to the means of content production. The tools for making music and movies are the most striking example of this. Secondly, the points of access and consumption have dramatically multiplied. We can now access, purchase and consume content anywhere and at any time. The end result is that there is much, MUCH more content and the most precious and scarce resources, time and attention, have been aggressively targeted and filled to capacity.
I made the following comment Apple in my post The Web and Television (a sibling rivalry):
...[Apple's] wonderfully designed devices for consumption (iTunes, iPod, Apple TV and the iPhone) are... driving down the value of content and accelerating the forces that are placing the entertainment industry under duress.
This is what I was getting at. Apple was once THE platform dedicated to technologically empowering the human imagination, but with the maturing and commoditization of "boxes" and software they shifted their focus to bridging the gap between the rising inventory of content and the inefficiencies in distribution and consumption of those media products. They've been very successful and very profitable in mining the most valuable and remaining resources in the content/consumer relationship: time and attention. It was the smart move and it played well to their strengths (design and marketing). The uncomfortable ambivalence I have about this is mostly nostalgic. They've moved from a rebellious, outsider position to an alignment that is very corporate and old-media and did so under to cover of "cool".
This recent WSJ article talks about the growing struggles within the motion picture industry with oversupply: Glut of Films Hits Hollywood. Here are some interesting statistics from that piece:
Last year, more than 600 feature films were released theatrically in the U.S., up from 466 in 2002. That's an average of 2.6 more movies every weekend that are battling for the public's attention.
More than 3,600 feature films were submitted for consideration at Sundance Film Festival this year. The number is up from about 2,000 feature submissions just five years ago.
Despite higher profits, attendance is down 4.74% from the same time a year ago. Lower attendance should trim box-office revenues for 2008 to around $9.6 billion.
In this piece from BBC News, The web's future is a 'village' Bernardo Huberman (of HP Labs) discusses "what people do when information becomes more available, cheap and valueless." It turns out that 20 domains account for 40% of the time people spend online with social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook featuring prominently in that list.
In the 2006 piece I talk a bit about the shortening self-life of content. This is a very important difference between developing digital and traditional advertising. Staying abreast of trends, novelty and behavioral shifts online is crucial in order to connect with audiences in a way that resonates with relevancy and authenticity. The pace of change online is multidimensional and "timeliness" is a an important aspect of context. Huberman supports me on this as well:
"We noticed that there is an interplay between what people pay attention to and novelty. But novelty fades and the clicks on the Digg stories decay. We can predict the shape of that decay."
Although advertising and content produced to promote products and services (websites, promotions etc) were not really the focus of this post there are still some important implications for marketing. They have to compete, like anything else, for scarce consumer time and attention.