Friday, January 14, 2011

On Obsolescence

The world changed for me around this moment. It was at a tech conference, probably Seybold, probably Boston, around 1993 or '94. The creator of Netscape had just showed us our first spinning globe, and had tried to explain the power in front of us, this new thing called the Internet.

There was talk, even then, about content creation. Rather than take in the majesty of being able to chat with someone easily on the other side of the world that Marc Andreessen was so enamoured of, everyone, even then, was trying to figure out how to make money on this thing.

One advertising schmuck steps up to the mic during question time and asks simply: "Why would anyone want to create their own content?"

That was the moment for me. The moment that held in the question all the ignorance and arrogance of old media that caused it to completely fall in the time from then to now. I could tell in hearing the question that it was the wrong question to be asking. I could also tell that old media and advertising types thought the question perfectly reasonable. In that moment, I couldn't tell why the question sat so oddly with me.

Let's look deeper.

At that moment in time, old media (MSM) had been spoonfeeding us what they considered important: books, TV shows, movies, records, newspaper stories, advertising campaigns. We, the big monoliths, know better than you. We will only give you what we see fit, and you will like it. Yeah, I can't imagine why anyone would want to change THAT status quo.

Their fault wasn't that they didn't see the importance of the Internet at that moment, they certainly did. They just never conceived (and truthfully many big companies STILL don't) that this new way of doing things made them irrelevant.

So when you ask yourself what must it have been like, when that buggy maker first heard about this newfangled "automobile" thing, I can tell you. The reaction, very likely, was the same. It doesn't matter. We're still going to be around. Everyone's always going to need buggies. Um, right?

That moment was nearly 20 years ago now. Here's what's changed, in case you missed it. Newspapers have died, most people get their news from Twitter and The Daily Show. Terrestrial radio has been replaced by Internet radio, Pandora and listening to downloaded music. People watch more TV on their computer or their DVR than what's actually broadcast in real time. Magazines, god love 'em, are still publishing, nearly all of them at a loss. Books have been replaced by ebooks and self-publishing. More people watch movies in the comfort of their home than in a multiplex.

And to that ad guy's next question: How are we gonna make money on this thing? Streams of Internet revenue now surpass every other medium. Last year, in the thick of the Recession, every other media stream lost money. Internet revenue was up.

This, then, is what's really going on. Millions of people lost their jobs in recent years. Those jobs aren't coming back. The world has changed completely.

Many of us, who trained in those industries, look around and see our skills as totally worthless. That's what's scary. Who needs a buggymaker anymore? Or a blacksmith? Typesetters? Printers? Worthless.

All of this was set off for me when I installed the new Mac OS, which comes with the new "App Store." There, among the shiny new apps, was one called "The Print Shop." My life flashed before my eyes. All those hours of creating business cards and letterheads and things that other people didn't want to bother with: there it is in one little app, for $50. Postcards, labels, banners, calendars, CD cases—any one of which we would've charged at least $50 to create for ya. There they were. Just pick your template, and boom!

So the answer, Mr. Advertising Guy, to your world-changing question: Why would anyone want to create their own content? BECAUSE THEY CAN.


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