Fast Forward: Up In Smoke
As far as I'm concerned, some old media went up in smoke along with the wild fires that set Southern California ablaze in late October. When my San Diego-based sister and my nephews were forced to evacuate their home and relocate temporarily to safer ground, I went through the normal food chain of personal communications to find out how they were doing.
First I tried their landline, but they had already left and nobody was home to answer. Then I tried my sister's cell phone, but I'm told that mobile communications were disrupted in the area during the peak of the crisis. Next I tried e-mail. No reply. Finally, I tried texting her, and voila, I got an immediate reply: ":) Refugees were scruffy but unscathed. We are back home..." OMG! I never would have predicted it, but mobile text messaging has become a vital lifeline to my loved ones. And it's not just during crises. My wife is a middle school teacher in Connecticut, and the only way I can reach her during her work hours is via text. She can't take calls during class hours, but I get an almost immediate reply when I text her.
Apologies for sharing all these personal anecdotes with you, but I cannot think of a more concrete way of illustrating how rapidly personal communications are evolving, and diffusing. Some platforms remain vital for certain forms of personal communication, while others fill in at other times. I've never been an instant messaging fan, but I have friends and colleagues who depend on it. Likewise, I have not found social networks such as Facebook an especially meaningful way to stay in touch with people, but others I know live by it.
Just like the media we use for general content, personal communications are evolving, diversifying and taking on new utility as digital options proliferate. Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize it. The last time that happened to me was on Sept. 11, 2001. When I finally made it back home from Manhattan after the terrorist attacks, I received an e-mail from a good friend of mine who lived in the shadows of the World Trade Center. His phone lines and cell phone were useless he told me, and he wanted me to relay a message to his mother in California to let her know he was okay, which I did utilizing a landline and the most primal of all personal communications devices, my larynx. She was as relieved to hear it as I was to read my sister's text message.
This month's cover story is devoted to the concept of a free media economy, and if you read Steve Smith's feature and his accompanying interview with Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, and author of The Long Tail and the forthcoming Free, you'll probably realize that free isn't all that radical a business model for media, but that we are undergoing some interesting variations on that theme. Free, or subsidized media content, of course, has always been the underlying principle of the advertising-supported media marketplace, but the rapid shift toward a malleable, digital media infrastructure is eroding the traditional "paid" media markets - like music, movies, pay TV, subscription services and other forms of premium content. It's also creating new paid media markets and other forms of value exchange that indicate we are moving into a far more fluid media economy that will obliterate the nice, neat little walls separating advertising-, premium- and commerce-content models.
This all reminds me of a similar point during the last "new media economy" revolution in the late 1990s, when prophets like Cybergold's Nat Goldhaber were predicting that media companies would profit by giving stuff away, or even paying people directly for their attention. Goldhaber predicted we were entering a stratified market structure in which some people paid, or got paid more than others based on their economic value to those providing the media content. Interestingly, this magazine is a prime example of that. If you are a qualified advertiser or media buyer, you're probably receiving it for free, because our advertisers like to reach you. If you are not, you're probably paying $48 a year to subscribe to it. A small price to pay for insights like these.