Rewriting The Future Of Media 

Why not all content should go viral? With a special dedication to Delayed Gratification, a print-blood magazine, which figured it out (but might not know it yet)

Hip hip hooray, the ‘Print versus Online’ debate seems to be fading away! Welcome to the second part of Media Micropayments: Rethinking the Unthinkable.

Print has successfully survived, online is no longer the ‘new world’ and we call each other ‘digital natives’. Yet, do you remember how we used to tear off magazine pages, stick them in tidy notebooks and keep it for inspirational purposes? We were collecting the valuable words and worthwhile images as cultural relicts, not only as references. How do we get back to that and how do we create the same value proposition online? Furthermore, not all readers are users. The question to ask is ‘what constitutes meaningful participation?’ Ralph Koster, a game designer, shared a timeless quote: “Everyone is a creator, the question is ‘of what’. Not everyone can draw, but anyone can colour inside the lines.”

Delayed Gratification (DG) has chosen to colour outside the media lines. A paper-blood publication delivers the content we all long for:

“On 21st of September, Kenyan photojournalist Kabir Dhanji wasn’t supposed to be working. He was enjoying a day off when he heard news of gunshots in the Westland district of Nairobi. As a favour to a friend, he headed into that direction. It was the begging of a siege of Westgate Mall — one of the worst acts of terrorism Kenya has ever seen. While terrified people steamed out of the mall, Danji ran the other way, camera in hand.” — DG.

The words are edited, written with curiosity, consideration and respect towards the three story participants: the character, the reader and the writer. DG no longer attempts to tell us what the current affairs are — that’s what BBC or Sky machine written news apps are there for. However, DG does what the fast-moving online nature doesn’t have time for— it looks back to offer a new perspective on events that mattered. The news app couldn’t do that.

And yet if online still wants to put paywalls forward, it should be learning a lesson — not only the funding model is changing, the overall mentality is doing so too. There is a lot to be done in designing user experience, however instead of drawing in data, we should use it to ask questions and allow our creative minds to find the answers. Machines count algorithms, humans think of ideas. The motivations behind why we tell and seek for stories haven’t changed, yet the publishers’ position and value proposition did (they just don’t like to admit it):

“User participation is contrasted with the conditions of production that surround mass media, where the elite few have the skills, knowledge, and motivations required to make meaningful contributions and where most of us remain observers. The processes of more skilled participants are hidden from public view in order to protect the ‘magic’ and the ‘mystique’ of professional media making.” — H. Jenkins

A lesson to learn from online is that mystification is no longer working. Kickstarter is a perfect example: we will support (freely and generously) those who have strong full-time dedication, talent and can’t wait to put their hearts into a project.

Moreover, consistency and full-time dedication is exactly what differentiates media professionals work from the user-generated content. There is a reason why a print magazine can charge 10 pounds — once you get to touch and glance at the it, you instantly understand why. However, there is a reason why online is struggling to charge. If as a publisher at the back of your mind you understand how little effort and craft has been put into your online publication and ( if honestly) you wouldn't pay for the content yourself, how could you advocate it? How could you charge for it?

A need to aspire didn’t go anywhere. In an economy where consumers are producers we look not only for outstanding content — both groups can offer it — we seek to ‘follow’. To find inspiring individuals who believe in their ideas and so dedicate their working lives in order to deliver projects and therefore enrich our lives. John Kao, an innovation activist, said: “Insights are the new currency”. Yet, the Internet is full of inspirational individuals. We discover one and move to another. Twitter is our little address book. However, so often we promise to meet up for a cup of coffee already knowing the chances are very little. It’s easy to click, it’s difficult to remember.

What makes micropayments work? One should firstly seek collaboration, not the funding. Secondly, opening the closed doors, showing the mystique behind content creation and sharing the struggle is how the publishers can keep an eye contact with their readers. Therefore, when the two participate together it truly becomes magic. Independent publishers shouldn’t be afraid to ask for micropayments. At the end, what is the only thing one can proudly ask to be paid for? Unique content. Aspiration is the same, execution is different.

Most importantly, publishers should not only hire a bubbly social media assistant to chat away with their readers on Facebook, they should re-think where on the media ladder they sit and learn to change quickly. Readers are surfing the internet, when publishers are drowning in data. Social media is a tool to share inspiration, let’s make sure the social media assistant knows more about the company than the audience and let’s not underestimate our readers.

What’s more, it’s the performance of an organisation that matters, not the performance of its online strategy. It is your very own journalist, who represents the passion, hard labour and love that’s been put into the work talking to your audience. The execution of the strategy is learning how to communicate on a one to one level. Publishers say search and social is the future and then go off talking about a new kind of optimisation without optimisation. Social media is storytelling. Tell us an interesting story and we will listen. Tell us what we’ve already heard before and we’ll speak over you. User participation is precious. However, so often it is being miss-used.

Eli Pariser, Upwothy’s founder, said: “Headline is our little newsboy crying out in a crowded Facebook feed. The only way to get something that does really well is to deliver on the quality that you’re promising in the headline.”

Many publishers underestimate their readers. Thy think the internet is full of people sharing funny cat videos all day long. They design their headlines for people that are less clever than they think of themselves, to put it in a nice way. Funny video content is designed for bored readers. However, when it comes to long-form journalism, a bored reader is not a number one choice to start with. Also, when it comes to advertising, engagement might be a better promise to deliver on. Logically, what worked for short-lists might make your content look junky. And still, online requires a sophisticated balance. The long-form definition is expanding as we speak.

Moreover, print headlines have always been ‘catchy’, just in a different sense. Remember, we went from state-of-art print headlines to SEO headlines and then to headlines written for humans again? The question is did we lose our readers on the way and if we did how can we get them back?

Publishers have largely let down their readers. Paywalls, long-form going short-form, data privacy issues, using magazine purely as an advertising platform, firing editors and leaving quality behind… Perception is not an easy one to change. However, journalists remained out there writing. We know they are rarely paid for what they do, but they still do it. Because it matters. And if it matters, micropayments matter, and when it comes to micropayments transparency matters too.

Moises Saman, a Magnum photographer, shared a timeless insight. He said he decided to become a photojournalist when he realized that there’s a bubble and yet, there’s a world outside it:

“It was a time when everything clicked in my head — when I started paying attention to the news and the world. I became interested in the world beyond my personal bubble.”

Re-discovering a bubble we live in and expanding our knowledge about the world outside is what the media always stood for:

“Learning is by definition an encounter with what you don’t know, what you haven’t thought of, what you couldn’t conceive, what you never understood as possible. Personalisation only feels like new information” — S. Vaidhyanathan

In fact, freedom of speech, the front page, and diversity is what the media always defended. However, when personalisation is taking over, the bubble is shrinking; in the wired realty the outside world is pushed further than ever before.

Rob Boynes, a user experience innovator, shared a brilliant insight:

We need to build experiences for users and the various scenarios our users experience when using our products. This is sometimes as simple as realising that what works on tablet might not work on mobile and asking, “does anyone want to read a 10,000 word article on their mobile?”, or ,“Is there a better way of presenting this content to a mobile audience?”. This extends to creating personal experiences for individual users — is the content relevant to them individually? Are they consuming it? How are they consuming it? Designing personal experiences is what keeps bringing people back to your brand (just as Netflix and Amazon have proven with their user-aware recommendation algorithms).”

Boynes masterfully summed up where the current media market is heading. Furthermore, what he is saying is still a foreign language to many brands. It will take a lot of preaching until the user-aware recommendation algorithms are set in place not only by a few global brands. Surely, personalisation seems the most logical, well reasoned and analysis based path into the future. It also pays back. Yet, as quoted in Part 1: “in the early 90s, the media was doing all it possibly could to convince tech firms to make their hardware and software less capable of sharing”.

At the moment, if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead. However, what seems perfectly right today, might turn out to be fearfully wrong tomorrow. There’s still a bridge between viral and personalised. The question is if personalised can be viral? Is it amusing, new, unheard enough to be shared? We share to announce we were the first to discover and therefore gain advantage among our colleagues, friends and followers. Personalisation takes away the discovery. It also takes away the fascination and the urge to tell the word about it. Viral stands for mass consumption. It’s nobodies. Niche stands for belonging. Belonging stands for community. Brands are hungry for communities. Communities don’t mind advertising that match their interests (all Chanel bags have branded logos). The community collaborates, the community subscribes: it gives not only because it cares, but because it will be giving back.

And so Medium, Upworthy and many others are beginning to measure engagement minutes rather than page views or click rates. Advertisers should celebrate it too — engaged reader is an interested user (bored is bored).

There’s another issue with personalisation — it obstructs creativity. Or at least it can get in the way of creative discoveries. In times when creativity demands open spaces and random encounters, not limitations and algorithms, fresh and innovative ideas become the monetised possessions.

Pariser said: “Personalisation limits the size of our “solution horizons” — the mental space where we search for solutions to problems.” Unfortunately, problem solving is at the grassroots of creativity. Pariser continued: “The context that filtering creates is not best suited to creative thinking. Moreover, we adopt a passive approach to acquiring information, which adds to the kind of exploration that leads to discovery.”

DG magazine and other independent print publications, even Vice magazine, are not measured by ABC figures. They simply don’t know what their users click on, so they provide insightful content, they make us learn, and we appreciate that. By being free to create, they enable creativity.

And Picasso perfectly summed it up: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

DG laughs at its recent piece “Life Before Google”:

In the late 90's journalists were still upper-casing “Internet” — as if it were a new-town near Redhill that you got to via Junction 6 on the “ Information Superhighway“. Back then it was an exotic, intriguing Other; back then people were still having cybersex. In fact, the whole mood of the time seemed to be that the Internet had discovered some new form of capitalism where you don’t need to make profit… The only one who’s lost out is the newsagent.”

15 years later brands, publishers and consumers are still trying to figure out the ‘give it away/receive it for free thing’. At the end, even the readers or consumers are confused: why would we get something for free?

DG might be the exit out of the past and the doorstep into the future: it tells us what we didn’t know about. Let’s take Derby as an example. If we can’t tell where it is on the map, chances are it won’t show up on our Facebook feed. And did you know that Derby, a city in the East Midlands region of England, has a king?

“Chris Ejiofor, a soft-spoken aviation engineer from Derby, who in 2009 was suddenly and unexpectedly elected as a ruler of a kingdom of Nigeria.”

Delayed Gratification stands for what online can no longer control: an aimed delivery we know we don’t know about. A known unknown. When it becomes personalised, we get what we already know about. Print doesn’t do that. And if it does, it looses the only precious asset it possesses against the online ‘world of 24/7 everything’: a surprise. Yet, personalisation can be great. It can offer us advertising we’d gladly receive, that’s wonderful. But an algorithm shouldn’t decide what content we’ll be interested in, we’d rather discover it ourselves.

Print now values readers more than ever. Out of all media recession losses, this is an outcome worth celebrating. The Internet doesn’t belong to anyone. Brands, readers and publishers all participate in it. There are two types of coffee dates: we either can’t wait to finish or are so engaged, we forget about the time. If print and online is one world, coffee dates are no different. What’s more, readers as participants are responsible too. If there’s a demand of junky lists, there’s a supply. I’ve been told the front page died long ago. For the Evening Standard it did, but as many other things online, it might be coming back.

A new online hippie era might be on the verge to break trough. Happy quality content power!

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