Our Grand Predictions: Some Directions for Online Content in the Future

mcluhan bookThe last few years have seen an absolute flood of thoughts and predictions on a future path for the written word. It is certainly true that content is king online. But as print continues to change (some say die, but hold that thought for a few years) and methods of content distribution become more and more advanced, the ways people get and pay for their content will change too. What kind of content will be king in the future? What will it look like, and how will people get it?

Obviously these questions matter for anyone trying to make money using different forms of content distribution, whether it be advertising in a local newspaper or taking out new ad space on YouTube. But what matters even more is how these new forms will actually affect the content itself. Let’s look at a few recent ideas and see what they can tell us.

Marshall McLuhan Is Still Pretty Damn Important.

Now, if you remember nothing else from this pioneering Canadian media theorist, just take his most famous aphorism: “the medium is the message“. It’s since been tweaked and refuted and played with so many times as to lose some of its original meaning, but in general, you can take it to mean form affects (or is) content.

Look at the Kindle, for example. The world’s biggest online bookseller has now entered the hardware game, creating a device that is designed to replace the very book form itself. And of course Amazon, being a huge seller of books, is hoping to control and monetize as much of the distribution method as possible. It’s very much along the lines of Apple’s iTunes store: create a device that a lot of people buy, then offer an elegant solution to sell content for that device.

Why Comparisons With the Music Industry Aren’t Always Perfect.

But comparisons with the music industry don’t work after a certain point: formats have changed quite frequently in the last several years, from vinyl->tape->CD->digital. Books have been the same for hundreds of years. So any time we get over-excited about the death of print, we need to step back and look at the longer view, like Dave Eggers suggests:

Well, there are still a billion books sold every year. And there are about a billion newspapers printed every day. I understand when people are worried about aspects of the business, and as a small and always struggling publisher, we worry at McSweeney’s too, but there’s an element of doomsaying that’s just premature. The Kindle, for example, has a comparatively tiny portion of the overall book sales, but I have friends who already assume that new books won’t even be printed on paper in a year or two. It’s kind of extreme, and it ignores a fair bit of reality.

Eggers has a point. But there are some very convincing arguments to the contrary, and as Apple has proven, if a device good and useable enough comes out, enough people will buy one that it can change an entire industry in the course of a few years. But we do need to remember: completely ignoring print and assuming that a declining readership means a non-existent readership just isn’t a good idea.

old newspaper

A Microcosm For Us All: Intellectuals and Published Content.

A recent argument has also been floating around about Masters and PhD dissertations, and how the cost of publishing them is nearly always prohibitive. The argument usually continues that the ‘book’ form for academic argument is not always ideal; it has created the expectation that if a professor has something good to say on a subject, it must come in a minimum of 220 pages. While this might seem like a small corner of the publishing market, it’s actually a perfect microcosm of some bigger changes we might see in the future.

A long, read-by-no one dissertation is an antiquated notion. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure it will continue for some time, but any progressive university is probably realizing that the whole ‘university publishing’ business will have to change radically over the next several years.

The Delivery Method Starts Changing the Stuff Inside.

Here is where the dozens of options available for content publishing (the form, or medium) will begin to change the content itself. Once the necessary existential debates on the role of the academy and the importance of intellectual discourse are hashed out, we are going to be looking at a very different landscape, one where serious academic thought is not walled up in quarterly journals but actively distributed across a whole range of channels.

Many of these channels will not be conducive to a 220-page dissertation. Some will support, say, a 15-page essay, others might be wonderful for a short book (say 100 pages) on a particular subject, others only a brief article. But all of these options, and the various ways in which content creators, editors, and distributors will try and monetize this process is definitely going to change the content itself.

And Just Why Does This Matter to Us?

Simple: if you get too focused on creating quality content along a single model, the speed of innovation might take you for a loop. Things don’t change so fast that all your hard work will disappear in a moment, but if you are trying to improve your website’s SEO, build a brand online, or market your product through any kind of content creation, you need to pay attention to how the mediums are changing.

Just because Twitter has become insanely popular in the last 3 years doesn’t mean you need to scrap your print advertising budget and start tweeting incessantly. That would be quite useless. But it does mean you need to be conscious when something like a Twitter pops up, and suddenly a new 140-character format for content exists. Remember not to get too comfortable and you’ll stay on the right track.

(photos by flickr users peagreengirl and cogdogblog. Used under a creative commons license.)

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3 Responses to “Our Grand Predictions: Some Directions for Online Content in the Future”

  1. [...] More here:  Our Grand Predictions: Some Directions for Online Content in the Future [...]

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  3. Shelley says:

    Oh poo. I was actually quite enjoying this article until I came to the last paragraph. Why cut it so abruptly Jordan? It started off quite an inciteful read and then you stopped in dead in it’s tracks. Shame. You should pick it up again in a part two.

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