Stuck in Flatland

They say, “It’s extremely difficult to find successful Internet business models for media companies.”

No, it’s easy. Successful Internet business models are plentiful and rather obvious. Most media companies just can’t clearly see the business models because of their flat perspective, plus they’re making a flatly incorrect presumption about the new dimensions of media.

There are essentially two contrasting ways that any traditional media company can approach new media. One is to induce how the Internet can be adapted to the ways the company functions. The other is to deduce how the company can be adapted to ways the Internet functions.

Almost all the media companies have chosen the inductive approach. They’re attempting to do on the Internet what they’ve done in their traditional media, a choice that will — at best — result in the companies being able to use only a subset of the Internet’s potential.

They made the wrong choice. It’s far easier to adapt a company to the Internet than it is to adapt the Internet to a company. The major reason why most of those companies chose this incorrect approach is because they’re used to working in the mass medium, an earlier dimension in media.

Rising from computerization and digital routing, the Internet creates a new dimension in media. Earlier media had basically two — almost mutually complementary — dimensions.

The first dimension is the interpersonal, namely conversation and its technological extension (mail, telephony, e-mail, IM, SMS), which allows the conversants to equally share control and customize the content of the communication to fit their own needs and interests. The other is a mass dimension (theater, books, newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, television), which can easily reach beyond two conversants. However, the content provider has sole control of that content, and it can’t be customized for each individual recipient’s unique needs and interests.

Reach versus customization. Shared control versus sole control. Those complementary attributes are among the limitations of the two earlier dimensions of media.

In the 1982 Star Trek movie “The Wrath of Khan,” Captain Kirk’s 23rd century starship fights another commanded by a villain from the 20th century. Kirk’s losing the battle until his science officer remarks about their adversary, “Captain, a preliminary analysis of his tactics indicates two-dimensional thinking.” So, Kirk orders his starship to go up. “Up, Captain?” asks his confused helmsman. “Yes, Mr. Sulu. Up!” The villain never knew what hit him or from where.

Like that Star Trek villain from a previous century, most 20th century media companies now find themselves living in an unfamiliar future that contains a new dimension. And those companies are under attack by new entities, such as YouTube, Google, and eBay, which all understand this new dimension.

The extra dimension (let’s call it Up) arises from computerized, digitally-routed, interactive communication with unprecedented capability to provide content on a massive scale that is customized to each recipient’s interests; to let each recipient share some control over that content; and to even let them publish and broadcast their own content. This new dimension overrides the limitations of previous media’s two dimensions: it doesn’t force the publisher, broadcaster, or consumer to choose between reach or customization, or to choose between shared control or one-sided control over the content. Media is no longer a flat and two-dimensional.

Since the Internet was opened to the public, more than a billion people worldwide have accessed it to find whatever mix of Web sites match and satisfy each person’s uniquely individual needs and interests. Access to today’s 98 million .com, .net, .org, .info, .and .biz (never mind the foreign) domains easily gives people that ability. (I should note they generally have to do this by visiting multiple sites, meaning there’s a terrific business opportunity for companies to save them that hunting and gathering chore and simply deliver to each of them each of their unique mixes of content from all providers).

Unfortunately, most media companies have content choices and packaging based upon analog presses’ and analog transmitters’ technological limitation of having to deliver the same program or edition at any one time to each recipient. They operate only along the dimension of the mass medium and can’t perceive this new dimension. They have a flat perspective that presumes the Internet is just an online way to deliver mass medium content, a presumption that’s flatly wrong.

There will always be a need for mass media content (“What is the weather today?” “Oh, there’s a war going on?”), but new media can do so much more.

Most media companies are still stuck in Flatland. At one company I recently visited, most of the executives I spoke with said they didn’t understand why consumers wouldn’t want to get exactly the same content as everyone else. Yet, each media executive had his own Facebook page, each customized to that person’s unique choices of friends and interests. Their enthusiasm for those pages was Up.

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