Ok, so I didn't actually get to TOC. Still, I've done my best to keep up and it seems that a theme of the conference was regicidal swipes against the old grande dame of the media industries: content. First Stephen Abram declared that content was no longer king; context was crowned. Then Douglas Rushkoff opined that not content, not context but contact was to be ruler of all. Now I understand these two to be basically saying that changing methods of distribution and consumption coupled with new ways of interaction between people have displaced content as being the central value source on the web and in the media more widely. There is obviously nothing too controversial in the first part of that statement but its the second half that I would take issue with.
Without content there is no internet, there is no context, there is no point in contacting in the sense that I understand Rushkoff to be using it. Pretty much everything in media is changing true, but the one thing that is not changing is the position of content as the ultimate driver of why people go to where they go and do what they do. While the context of watching a TV show or reading an article may have changed (e.g. distribution channels have migrated to digital) and the ways in which I interact with others around it has evolved I still want to watch something interesting and read something informative. Other factors are always going to be secondary to that.
Content, in whatever form it takes, remains the sine qua non of media. Despite the high profile given to various forms of aggregation, search and networking it seems pointlessly iconoclastic to suggest a displacement as such. Rather I see it more as shifts around content, altering it but not ultimately detracting from its centrality.
This ties in with a general sense that I got from reading about TOC, and a sense that I get more widely, that lots of people have lots of ideas about what publishers should be doing. So publishers should be more engaged in social networking, should provide more tools for interacting etc.
Is this really in the interest of publishers and readers? Linguistic philosophers have argued that when people use language like "should" in matters that are essentially intangible they are in fact saying "I would like it if you did". Its clear that those who advocate the extensive intervention of publishers in web spaces are people who are heavily engaged in many aspects of new media. Many, even most, readers are not at this level and so it raises question marks over the value of investing heavily in web technologies that may not be well used. Moreover most readers don't operate on the level of publishers, they operate on the level of their own reading lists which will almost certainly span a spectrum of publishers rendering any attempt at a proprietary system at best frustrating, at worst futile, alienating and expensive.
Publishers are not ideally placed to create communities or web services for this reason. What publishers can do is what they have always done and done well: deliver great content. In this setting that means making it possible for that content to become part of the fabric of the web, making it embeddable within the communities and sites that form the internet's literary ecosystem and thus becoming part of peoples interactions, but it doesn't mean that publishers should suddenly attempt to become the next librarything.
So if content is still king publishers should continue to focus on the content; we just also have to recognise that things are shifting around content, work with and through that, rather than chucking out the business plan concentrating on aspects of media wildly beyond our experience, scope and scale.
There has also been talk of so called "Millenials". This ties in to the debate around digital natives I blogged about a while ago. As someone who probably belongs to the millenial generation of digital natives I always find it quite amusing as the "grown ups" sit around pontificating about how our brains are different and so on. All this really amounts to is saying something along the lines of "People in the eighteenth century were different"- one generation is bound to be different from another. Equally generalizations are unlikely to be unhelpful; in what sense can such a diverse group of people actually embody a set of useful, definable characteristics?
Anyway, perhaps I am getting the wrong end of the stick sitting on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Let me know.
Photo: 03/13/07 Bento-licious Brunch by Aylanah