Individuated Media on the Horizon

Individuated media will succeed mass media as the dominant form of media in our lives; indeed, this change has already begun. Mass media will always be part of the mix, but the mixing will be done by the consumers themselves rather than by publishers, broadcasters, and marketers.

Borrowed from post-modern philosophy, “individuate” means individual customization on a massive scale. It’s neither the same nor the opposite of mass media. Instead, it takes media into an entirely new dimension. And it will be key for media in the 21st century.

In individuated media, consumers receive what they want. It’s more than just receiving subsets of the print edition, broadcast network program lineup, or Web site from mass media.

Fully applied, an individuated medium delivers what the consumer wants from across all possible content providers. Or from a selection of providers the consumer chooses. Or from a selection of content providers this consumer’s trusted agent recommends. Or from a combination of the consumer’s choices and his agent’s recommendations. Whatever the consumer wants.

Let’s say you work in an advertising agency, are fanatic about tennis, collect antique train sets, live in Peoria, and follow the baseball team from your native San Diego. You don’t subscribe to the “Peoria Journal Star” or use its Web site. Instead, each day the “Journal Star” delivers to your doorstep a printed newspaper or to your e-mail box, mobile phone, or e-book device the top daily stories from “Advertising Age,” “Adweek,” “Tennis,” and “Model Railroader” magazines, the top stories about the San Diego Padres from ESPN, the “Sporting News,” and, plus all of that day’s entertainment listings and urgent priority stories from the “Journal Star.” Add to that any hyperlocal stories about your neighborhood or daily commute and any standing searches you had on eBay or craigslist.

Perhaps you’d prefer Facebook or MySpace to deliver all that to you. Or Google or Yahoo. After all, that’s what iGoogle and MyYahoo aim to do.

More than 200 million people use Facebook, but each user receives an entirely different selection of content from anyone else, content selected based on individual interests and mix of friends. Facebook has the scale of a mass medium (a very large mass medium!) but provides individualized content to every user. Welcome to the 21st century!

Too many publishers and broadcasters are still blind to individuated media. This week, it was amusing to read how the publisher of “The Washington Post” told a college graduation class, “People have tried to paint the shift that technology has brought about as a fight between new and old media. That is the exact wrong way to look at it. I would posit that there is no old and new media.”

The semantics of the word “new” might be confusing, which is why we now call it individuated rather than just new. Although many new media are being used merely as new platforms for mass media, the real new media are capable of satisfying the individual needs of massive numbers of people.

Many of the executives who’ve begun working in individuated media, and many of the media trade journals that have begun covering their endeavors, are a bit myopic about the scale of industrial change that’s necessary to make individuated media fully work.

For example, many of the publishing executives unquestioningly think that consumers will be satisfied receiving individuated content selected only from their traditional mass media company’s existing offerings. That’s dumb. Why would consumers be satisfied receiving only subsets of any mass medium that they’ve been abandoning in droves?

For individuated media to work, all media companies must interact. They need to mark up their content with Dublin Core XML (NewsML in the case of news, AdsML in the case of ads, etc.) and syndicate it thoroughly with all other content providers.

That means we’ll also need universal ways of embedding and tracking copyright, usage, and royalty information, a method perhaps based on the Digital Object Identifier system. The fact is that no media company alone can implement individuated media to any full extent.

Likewise, media trade journals must understand that most traditional media companies’ early ventures into individuated media will be rudimentary and not entirely satisfactory, but that doesn’t mean individuated media is doomed to be rudimentary and not entirely satisfactory. For example, this month the MediaNews Group newspaper chain, publisher of the “Denver Post” and 53 other U.S. dailies, is testing the concept by delivering individuated newspapers to 25 Denver households for a month. To do so, it’s supplying those households with printers that print out the individuated editions daily (the households can also use these printers with their own computers).

Nevertheless, some trade journals have misconstrued this test to mean that individuated editions require printers to be placed in homes. They don’t realize that it doesn’t make sense for the “Denver Post” to purchase a full-size digital press just to test 25 households for one month. Imagine if trade journals in 1976 saw that Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s first Apple computer was housed in a wooden box and thus wrote that personal computers required wood housings?

Patience, plus major changes to the media industry’s thinking, strategies, practices, and infrastructure, will be needed to make individuated media fully operational. Media that can deliver only the content that each consumer wants, likewise connecting marketers with only consumers who have an active interest in the marketers’ products, fulfills the promise of new media.

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