In his closing speech at the 2012 SXSW festival, Bruce Sterling made a subtle, but very important distinction in how we discuss digital culture. He suggested that we should no longer discuss ‘the internet’ as if it was one thing, but instead we needed to discuss ‘the stacks’ — the emerging ecosystems that frame our engagement with digital culture from back-end cloud storage, through devices and platforms, to the apps and content itself:
“In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.”
Less than a year later, this subtle distinction has become glaringly obvious. Our experience of ‘the internet’ is almost wholly contained within these new ‘stacks’, and their strategies are beginning to focus on hardening the walls between each stack, removing our ability to move content and profiles between them. Its going to get harder and harder for new businesses to disrupt these ‘stacks’, and more likely that the next wave of innovation will be layers of products or services that live in and around these ecosystems. The focus is moving from technology to content, from infrastructure to formats
The next wave of innovation will emerge from understanding the new patterns of attention on the ‘stacks’, and designing business models that support cultural production in these new ecosystems. At Digital Shoreditch earlier this year, I talked about the emerging patterns of audience behaviour, and how these seem to be different based on genre, not platform. Drama is increasingly viewed as multi-episode binges, whilst big Saturday-night entertainment shows have to be live, creating trending topics on Twitter that drive new viewers to tune in. News is now consumed as a constant stream of live blogs, updates, tweets, photos and videos that are only later curated into stories.
We’re starting to see the emergence of new formats and business models based on these patterns, and the next 5-10 years will see the rise of genre-specific content business models, replacing the all-genre schedules of broadcast TV. We’ve seen signs of this already — premium live sporting events and movies moved to subscription cable/satellite platforms in most markets in the 90s, as cable and satellite companies recognised their value in driving subscriptions. Similarly, most investment in high-end drama is coming from platforms that have direct transaction or subscription models, as these platforms can make more money out of the binge-viewing behaviour around drama than platforms using traditional display advertising.
For example, Netflix are making a feature out of their binge-viewing in their drama commissioning model, giving directors and writers the space to experiment with new forms of storytelling. The makers of House of Cards said they approached the project as a ’13 hour movie’, rather than a traditional series, with a different narrative structure that was less reliant on cliff-hangers at the end of the episode and other hangovers from the broadcast era. Understanding audience ‘bingeing’ and how this affects storytelling looks like a much more productive route for innovation in drama formats than the over-hyped ‘transmedia’ concepts of the last few years.
Outside of drama, the emerging patterns around other genres are harder to spot, but there are signs that new formats are beginning to work based on deep understanding of patterns of audience behaviour. UK broadcaster ITV understood that mobile and social media has driven consumption of news into a ‘stream’ pattern, with audiences looking for the most recent content, then reading on to complete a wider picture of the story. Their new digital news product, developed with UK agency Made by Many, moves radically away from the traditional editorial or brand taxonomies to present the news as a constantly updated stream of different content elements. Designing around new patterns of audience attention has been a huge success, driving a six-fold increase in traffic and a 456% increase in uniques.
One of the most interesting genres at the moment is also one of the most confused. There is a crossover emerging between the TV/Film genres of documentary and current affairs, and the newspaper genres of features and long-form journalism. All these genres are struggling to find the business models that will support them long-term, and as a result we’re seeing a huge amount of new ideas, products and business models emerging.
There are many issues that long-form factual content has to solve, from funding journalistic research to discovering new economic models to fund distribution. But the most interesting new ideas are starting with the most fundamental problem — how will audiences find the time to read or watch long-form content? What will be the most sustainable attention patterns for long-form journalism and documentaries?
Farhad Manjoo’s recently post for Slate, titled ‘You Won’t Finish This Article’, pointed out that around 50% of audiences don’t make it past the half-way point of feature articles online. Documentaries were the joint-second most common genre of film releases in the UK in 2011, but generated only 1.4% of box office revenue, compared to the 21.8% of revenue generated by the same number of Comedy releases. If these traditional formats of long-form content are no longer aligned to audiences’ patterns of attention, what kinds of new patterns are emerging around factual content? And what new formats can we develop around them?
Earlier this year I was on the innovation jury for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, and there was a clear distinction between the shortlisted projects. Half the projects were experimenting with technological innovation — presenting factual content in complex 3D environments; or in 360 cinemas; or creating tools for audiences to curate and re-present their own collages of content. The other half experimented with patterns of attention — presenting a story as an scrollable stream of audio, text and video; or telling a story through 5 sec film clips automatically taken every 10 minutes like visual Facebook updates; or presenting a simple but dream-like combination of two linear video streams.
These projects felt like they understood the way we watch video now and pushed those patterns a bit further, rather than asking the audience to learn a new pattern from scratch. More importantly, these projects felt like they were creating formats that could be built on and extended by other projects, whereas the technologically-innovative projects felt like one-offs. They’re part of a burst of interesting innovation around long-form factual content, including Medium, started by Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter; Matter, started via Kickstarter and acquired by Medium within 4 months; and Wibbitz, a fascinating app that takes feeds of factual content and automatically produces a short mobile video.
Watching what’s happening around long-form factual and documentary will teach us a lot about how to build a business model around culture in the 21st century. The focus is on designing new formats based on new patterns of attention, and then finding the best way to make these sustainable. We’ve moved on from the first era of technological innovation that build the ‘stacks’, and we’re now into the second era of innovation, based around formats and genres.
The content industries will continue to fracture, not around platforms, but around their ability to sustainably produce different genres of content as new audience patterns emerge around them. Some traditional media outlets will end up making less and less content in certain genres, and new companies will emerge specialising in formats developed for specific genres. This is how the next era of the content industry will play out — first we build the stacks, then we understand the patterns, and then we can make some money.