Internet memory lane

Great piece in Vanity Fair this week… How the Web Was Won.

It looks back, via personal interviews, at the founding and founders of the Internet itself, from ARPANET forward.

Thinking about public media, I was especially impressed with the following passage:

In 1985, a company called Control Video hired Steve Case, a product manager at Pizza Hut, to help market its fledgling electronic-gaming service. In a few years Case became its chief executive and pushed the company further into interactivity and communications. The company was ultimately re-christened America Online, and the catchphrase “You’ve got mail” became a salutation for a generation of computer users.

Steve Case: We always believed that people talking to each other was the killer app. And so whether it was instant messaging or chat rooms … or message boards, it was always the community that was front and center. Everything else — commerce and entertainment and financial services — was secondary. We thought community trumped content.

In public media we always talk about content. Content, content, content! We compare our content to the Discovery channels. We compare ourselves to commercial radio. But I (still) maintain that context trumps content, and Steve Case — way back in the 1980’s — agreed, though he talked about community (an expression of context).

If all we do is great content, I think we’ll be failing our public service mission in an age where the value of content itself is falling to near zero. We talk a good game about building community, but now we have to actually do it.

The good news is that there’s still time for us to grab this brass ring of community-building, of context development and sharing.

5 thoughts on “Internet memory lane

  1. The thing is, most of the pub media organization budgets are heavily geared to content, either for creating it or for licensing/subscribing to it. That is what pub media does really well. While you can depend on your audience to help with some of the community building and contributions, some internal resources are required. What do you think are ways to change the allocations so that community-building can be factored into organizational operations without diluting public media’s content (our core comeptency) or creating an unsustainable budget?

  2. Not to be too flip, but I think you change the allocations by changing the allocations.

    Okay, that *was* pretty flip. 😉 But I think it’s fundamentally accurate.

    Where and how we allocate our resources is a matter of choice. Do we spend $100,000 on a 60-minute localized TV documentary this year or do we spend that money on a couple people that do digital and real-world community-building? That’s a choice (one of about a billion possible combinations across the pub media system).

    I get your point about diluting our content focus, but I would say that presently we’re overflowing with content, at least if we pool it nationally and if we pull content from public media producers that are new on the scene (such as the Conversations Network).

    So the quick answer, my quick answer, to your question is that you must divert some of that content money to spend it on “context” projects. Start small, don’t reinvent the wheel, experiment, rapidly iterate, etc. But know that continuing to just do content isn’t a growth strategy, and it’s probably not even a status quo strategy.

  3. I agree with your suggestion to focus on people but I somewhat disagree with the problem is one of overflowing with content. There still needs to be investment in content but by starting with having the right people you allow them to develop the content. In other words don’t start with the program idea start by putting good peple in the content area and they will provide the desired result (content) as part of their natural work activity.

    In addition, be very cautious of huge investments in capital. In the public environment, it is sometimes easier to find money for big equipment purchases and, particularly in TV, you can end up with an operation that absorbs all of its revenue simply in sustaining the facility – leaving nothing for people.

  4. Paul, you wouldn’t be referring to anyplace in particular, would you? 😉

    The notion that we’re overflowing with content comes from my own view of the volume of creditable content developed every day/week/month across the nation in public media outlets, compared to the carrying capacity of any local broadcast outlet. There’s tons of quality content out there that my station does not carry simply due to the fact that we have only 24 hours available on any given day. Even with multichannel HD and DTV (which are technological flops, I would argue, at least for now), there’s still tons out there, especially if you allow yourself to dip into the back catalog.

    But your point is well made. Get smart people, give a broad direction, turn them loose, actively expect great things and you’re likely to come up with good content / public service.

    And the capital comments are priceless — no pun intended. In an age when the technology costs are dropping to near zero, and in a funding regime that buys stuff but doesn’t pay for service, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking technology is the solution. It’s not. It’s a tool, not a solution.

  5. John, I don’t think it’s helpful to overplay this distinction and turn it into a polarity.

    “Content” “community” and “interactivity” co-exist on the web, and each plays its part in a successful service.

    One of the things that leads to this kind of false dichotomizing is the very abstraction of the words “content” and “information.”

    If you say “programs,” “stories,” “experiences” and “personalities” you are a lot closer to the actual context of radio listening or television viewing by the so-called public. A lot of this translates intact to the online experience.

    On the other hand, you are right in saying that public media organizations need to rethink their priorities and their investments to retain their valued role in our cultural communication mix.

    The web is levelling differences in traditional media by operating as a common multimedia platform, and unbalancing the traditional supply and demand equations — but that does not mean that the quality of the “content” is any less important. Indeed, it is the key motivation for involvement.

    :: SH

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