The New Media Stone Age

Me need. Me hunt. Me gather. Ugh!

Except perhaps for the “ugh,” that’s how sophisticated today’s Internet is. The “ugh” merely expresses what a pain hunting and gathering for information can be. Welcome to new media’s Stone Age.

The Web is wonderful. There are approximately 185.5 million Web sites containing billions of Web pages. Each person has a lot of needs and interests, and there almost certainly is a Web site that can satisfy them.

The problem: you have to search for sites that satisfy your needs and interests. Sure, you return to some sites often, but at some time you had to initially find that site. Moreover, you’re now finding more new sites that interest you. Finding sites is why you use search engines, themselves the most heavily trafficked sites on the Web.

You’re hunting and gathering Web sites that satisfy your needs and interests. How many sites do you visit each day? How many times daily do you use a search engine?

Or perhaps you’re one of the less than 10 percent of Web users who isn’t a Neanderthal or a Cro-Magnon: you’re somebody who has figured out how to configure RSS software to automatically deliver to you the contents of sites you’ve already found. Well, shake your stick and go to the head of the cave!

Being hunters-gatherers is the most primitive form of existence. It predates the agricultural era, never mind the industrial or informational eras. It isn’t entirely satisfactory, and it sure doesn’t make for good business. Therein lies opportunity.

Computers are phenomenally more powerful now than they were even at the beginning of this decade. This awesome technological wealth of computing power online — encompassing servers, routers, and users’ personal computers — has the potential to do more than create an informational Web on which we can hunt and gather.

Ten years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, said:

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web,” which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The “intelligent agents” people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

Berners-Lee’s vision is of a Web that hunts and gathers for you based on your instructions, past behavior, and changing needs (aided by Internet-connected personal computers, phone, vehicles, and appliances). It routinely and automatically finds all the specific information you seek, gathering and organizing it for you.

If you’re a marketer, it finds and contacts only those individuals who have an active interest (even if it’s a changing need) in your product or service. If you’re a lover, it more ably finds you a mate. It matches buyers and sellers, sources, and consumers, all without those people needing to hunt and gather.

The media industries have always earned revenues by hunting and gathering information for consumers. It isn’t so much the news content that makes a newspaper valuable, but that the newspaper eliminates the need for readers to find the news and gather it themselves. It isn’t so much the entertainment or news programs that make television valuable to people, but that they don’t have to find the performances on stage or in cinemas and find and gather the news themselves. It’s the convenience of automatic delivery that makes those media services most valuable to consumers, not necessarily the content.

Yet most media companies place their news, information, or entertainment content on their Web sites and hope that consumers will hunt for and visit those sites and gather the content. Imagine if every store sold only one brand of goods or one type of product and expected consumers to visit it just for that. The media industries need to reverse that model.

Our industries need to create services that hunt and gather all the brands and types of content each consumer wants and routinely deliver it. There’s a gargantuan business opportunity in eliminating people’s hunting-and-gathering chores online.

Many of my college-educated friends, self-styled technological experts, complacently claim the Web is fine as it is, that they can find whatever they need and believe than anyone can. They seem to think the 21st century will always look like today. Imagine them saying that back in 1990 or even 2000 (when one told me that AOL Time Warner would dominate the Internet). I’d like to send them back to the Stone Age, but they’re already in it.

We tend to look at 2009 as the culmination of an informational revolution that began 10, 20, or 30 years ago. It may be the culmination so far, but it’s still the Stone Age of the Informational Era.

Consider how 1909 looks in retrospect. Horses and trains were the main forms of transportation, but early automobiles were showing up. Two bicycle mechanics were claiming to have invented a flying machine (the Wright brothers weren’t widely believed until years after the first flight), and a former Swiss patent clerk named Einstein was overturning classical physics. Most people in 1909 had no clue how much their world would change.

Similarly, people later in the 21st century will look back and see laptop computers, iPhones and Android phones, Twitter, Facebook, and the like as rudimentary devices and services.

The next few years will be much more interesting than the past 10 or 15. We’ll see real evolution and progress, provided we step out of the Stone Age.

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