All Hail Individuated Media

More than 1.4 billion people have gone online.

Too many publishers and broadcasters think that most of those people have gone online to read mass media for free. Those media executives forget that mass media companies followed people online, and with quite a lag.

The people who have gone online already had access to mass media in print or via terrestrial, cable, or satellite broadcasts — formats in which (let’s be frank here) mass media content is easier to read, see, or listen to than via a computer screen.

Moreover, mass media content nowadays isn’t even the majority of what people look at online. For example, how many of the sites you visit daily as a consumer (not as a media executive) are mass media company sites? How many are blogs, social media, quirky topical sites, hobby sites, and the like? In research to which I’m privy, mass media sites account for a minority of the sites that consumers regularly visit, often a very small minority.

The vast majority of consumers (and even media executives) go online to communicate with family, friends, and business contacts; to find people who have similar interests to their own; and to find content that specifically matches their unique mixes of interests, including very specific interests that most mass media organizations don’t cover.

Today, consumers are hunting and gathering for whichever mix of contents each thinks best matches his unique mix of interests. They are hunting and gathering from hundreds of millions of Web sites.

Some techno-savvy consumers, rather than hunting or gathering, are automating the process, thanks to RSS readers, iGoogle, My Yahoo, and other services and technologies that let people mix their own sets of content from millions of Web sites and online content services.

One example of this type of new media is Facebook. It has more than 80 million users and each user’s home page has a similar template; but each user sees an individual set of content, because each user has a different set of friends and interests.

It may be massively used, but it isn’t mass media. The hallmark of mass media is that the same set of content (be that a newspaper or magazine edition or a broadcast program) is sent to all of its consumers at once. Facebook doesn’t do that; each of its consumers receives a different set of contents.

What should we call this new form of media if it isn’t mass media?

Some people call it personalized media. But that’s a misnomer because “personalized” means “to have printed, engraved, or monogrammed with one’s name or initials.” Personalized is the “Dear Vin” I get as the opening line in junk mail. It’s the same junk mail everyone else gets. I likewise have a set of personalized hand towels. Although they’re monogrammed, anyone else can have the same towels.

“Customized media” isn’t much better. Do you like racing stripes? We’ll paint stripes down the Buick’s sides and customize it for you. It’s a standard edition Buick but with racing stripes.

Some companies, notably Pepper & Rogers Group, use the term “one-to-one media.” However, if a company uses this media to deal simultaneously with hundreds or thousands or millions of consumers, that media is hardly one-to-one. It’s at least one-to-many (and if those many consumers are simultaneously dealing with dozens or hundreds of media companies, then it’s certainly many-to-many). So, one-to-one is a misnomer.

I’m in Denver today at the Global Conference on the Individuated Newspaper. It’s a conference about using database-driven, newsprint-roll-fed digital presses (basically giant inkjet printers) to produce unique newspapers. Each consumer would be able to choose what categories, topics, datelines, and brands of stories he receives, plus whatever bulletin, urgent, and investigative stories the editor thinks everyone should receive.

I winced when first I read “individuated.” The word sounds like something only the most obtuse academic would coin. Yet that word has been growing on me.

It accurately describes a media in which each individual receives different content than every other individual. It’s also the individual who controls that process. “Individuated” is a far more accurate adjective than “personalized,” “customized,” “one-to-one,” or “many-to-many.” I don’t wince at “individuated” anymore.

Moreover, the term “individuated” has intellectual roots. In a variety of fields, it’s a concept in which the undifferentiated tends to become individual — as in how what once were mass media audiences are fragmenting into masses of individuals using new media to find whatever mix of content matches their unique mix of individual interests.

So raise a toast to those of us who’ve forsaken mass media to work in individuated media!

Individuated media is the major reason more than a billion people have gone online, each getting what he individually wants.

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