Q+A: Adam L. Penenberg

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor and assistant director of the Business and Economics program at New York University. His latest book, Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Companies Grow Themselves (Hyperion), will be on shelves in October. In the book, he explores trends in media consumption and usage, and extrapolates some for us here.

How do you think you will consume media in five and 10 years’ time?
I suspect that many people will consume media through the filters of their own personal social networks. Instead of buying The New York Times or clicking to the Times Web site, news consumers would follow links provided by friends, family, colleagues, and those whose opinions they respect — in fact this already reflects some people’s media habits. I wonder if it might end up being a macro version of the way many people use Twitter — and not of the “I am eating fiddlehead ferns and they are delicious” variety. I mean in the manner of what my NYU colleague, Jay Rosen, refers to as “mindcasting.” Then the concept of “media” changes from something journalists and others provide to something that we all participate in.

I explored this subject in my book. Andy Warhol famously remarked, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Really, though, in the future everyone will have his own TV show. For what is a profile on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, or Tagged but a kind of reality show starring … you? Instead of 15 minutes of fame, however, you get 15 seconds over and over again (until the next update). As video and other multimedia transform our Web experience, these shows take on more complex modes of self-expression. Within the skein of networks unfurling through digital time and space, the sum parts of these disparate ego blasts — a blog post here, a Facebook wall comment there, a video or photo, the results of a pop quiz that claim to tell you what kind of children’s book you are or what your inner nationality is, become a documentary of your soul. “Image is everything,” Andre Agassi chirped in a Canon camera commercial nearly 20 years ago. Today, your reputation precedes you.

What does this mean? Increasingly there is your public self (the person you present to the physical world), your personal self (who you are when you are alone) and your digital self, which reaches far beyond the other two. If you spend time online, many more people know you — or think they know you — through your digital self, which can be as (or more) real to them than your real self. Indeed, people’s perceptions of you can be quite vivid. Two Washington University in St. Louis researchers scanned the brains of fiction readers and concluded that they create intense, graphic mental simulations of sights, sounds, movements and tastes they encounter in the narrative by activating the same brain regions used in processing similar real-life experiences. Think about that for a second: In essence, you are what people think you are. These Web lurkers — people who know you exclusively through your digital deeds — base their judgments on the ideas and observations you share with the world, the photos and videos you post, the widgets you employ on your personal Web spaces and the words others use to describe you. The memes you create spread virally, far beyond your network of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues.

Once they leave your brain and hit the viral plain, they are out of your control and can take on a life of their own. Then you become more than just a guy trying to hold onto a job and pay down your mortgage. You are a brand that must be managed. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message. You are.

What is the last change in media that really surprised you?
I think many of us were caught off guard by the sheer speed of newspapers’ economic demise. I assumed it would take longer and be more gradual. But the economic crisis brought things to a head faster. It led to a powerful negative feedback loop, catalyzed by the fact that people in media are obsessed with media. Of course, that’s not completely surprising.

While many newspapers, etc. were relatively quiet when other people were losing their jobs — auto industry, banking, small business — they howled at the moon when their own were threatened. They ratchet up the fear factor: Democracy is threatened with the loss of investigative reporting, which costs money, and what would happen if journalism suddenly died out, who would be the check on the power of government? I think this conceit is one reason the public at large seems relatively unconcerned with their plight. Journalism will survive, and probably even thrive, in the years to come. But it may take on a form vastly different than what exists today. That’s neither bad nor good. It simply is.

What will most surprise people 10 years from now?
Predictions are, of course, largely a fool’s errand. All I can do is look at trends and try to extrapolate outward. Here’s my best shot: I think what would surprise most people today about 10 years hence is that things worked out. Media will still be a business — a profitable one — and that many of the msm whipping boys like The New York Times, Washington Post, and others will still be around. I think they’ll be a lot smaller, probably under different ownership, and will have far less sway than they had two decades ago or even now.
Niche publications with smaller, highly motivated staff will rule the media roost and cover certain industries and topics (politics, sports, business, entertainment, media, and so on) in a suffocating manner. They will also tap their audiences, bring readers in as partners so that media is truly collaborative. Publications with a wider editorial focus will have trouble staying afloat unless they change — so they will. I also think that “investigative reporting” in the classic sense will be set off from other forms. This may be pursued by non-profit news organizations with separate revenue sources. I think pay walls will only work in very limited circumstances and that information not only wants to be free on the Web, the characteristics of the Web make it so.

Where will the next disruption come from?
I hope that the next big disruption also ends up being media’s economic salvation. It’s not media that is killing media. It’s marketing — or I should say the lack of marketing. We need to kill the oft-tried but certainly not trusted ad banner and find a new ad unit. Click-through rates now hover around 1 percent and it’s even worse on social networks, where the rate is 0.02 percent, a far cry from when the Web was so new that 50 percent of users clicked simply because they’d never encountered banners before. Banner ads are victims of the modern cat-and-mouse game between marketers and consumers. (They barrage us with TV ads; we get DVRs. They create pop-up ads; we get pop-up blockers.) The more time people spend online, the more likely they are to become inoculated against the latest marketing technique.

Some of the most iconic companies of our time — Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter — attracted millions of users practically overnight, by unleashing what’s known as a “viral-expansion loop.” In plain English, they grew because each new user led to more users. The trick is that each of these businesses created something people really want and then made it easy for customers to happily spread their products for them to friends, family, and colleagues. Viral loops are at the core of fast-growing social-media phenomena. But what does size matter if you can’t figure out a way to make money off a massive audience? Simply layering in banner ads (or ads of other stripes) can alienate your user base and often doesn’t even work — a problem that continues to plague MySpace and YouTube despite any claims to the contrary. And if you start charging, your customers are but a click away from someone who doesn’t. Relevant to this conversation, this marketing conundrum afflicts more than just viral-loop companies. It has been the undoing of online news and entertainment, neither of which has been able to conceive of a way to ratchet up revenue through advertising to a point of sustainability.

Today’s conventional wisdom is that marketers can’t reach the 1 billion users worldwide on social networks, dooming Facebook, MySpace, and the 100 other social networks out there. This moment in time is not unlike the one a decade ago when experts claimed that search was not a stand-alone product because there was no way to monetize it. In response, Yahoo and its competitors vied to become superportals where a user’s every need was served on one megasite. Search, the thinking went, was good only for attracting users who would stay to sample a variety of other services like news, horoscopes, financial information, chat rooms, and so forth. Then two guys named Sergey and Larry flipped conventional wisdom on its head. They introduced a new ad unit, keyword search, which revolutionized the search industry by inferring the intent in users’ searches and catching them at the very moment they sought information. Google rode it to a multibillion-dollar fortune. If history is any guide, social networks and media, which are becoming more and more intertwined, won’t fade out — they just need to find their version of keyword search, the new ad unit that upends accepted orthodoxy.

What is the biggest wild card in media’s evolution?
Government intervention. When famous brands of media, suffocated by debt and the lack of a sustainable business model in the short term, begin to topple — and some most certainly will fail beyond those that already have— will Congress be able to keep its paws off and let nature run its course?

What is the most frightening aspect of emerging media?
Penenberg: In my view, the lack of accountability undermines media in the eyes of many readers. This afflicts not just the blogosphere, where many bloggers practice journalism without adhering to fundamental quality — like researching stories before posting, or simply posting fragments of a tip of a rumor in the hopes that readers will fill in gaps. This updating on the fly may be inevitable but I think it undermines credibility. It’s partly the form of blogging. In fact, often, when well-regarded journalists who worked at respected news organizations begin blogging, they throw out these fundamentals. I’ve long thought about posting an essay titled “Blogging Makes You Stupid”— not as an attack on bloggers, but as a critique of journalists who on one hand attack bloggers as second-rate citizens but then take on the worst characteristics of blogging when they blog.

With the emergence of social networking — a powerful force online — I think there’s a case to be made for an end to anonymity, which leads to inevitable platform decay. One reason Facebook continues to grow (approaching 300 million members and counting) is because it authenticates users. These are real people connected to other real people. MySpace and Twitter, on the other hand, don’t authenticate, and they have millions of fake users. As we move toward new ad units who will be more valuable: users you can authenticate or those you can’t? More to the point, authenticity results in better behavior. I hope the next evolution in media will be toward authenticity and away from the bitter scrum of anonymity that destroys thoughtful debate. Media that embraces this may rise to the top. Those that don’t may decay.

Will people ever want to have communications devices implanted?
In some ways we already have. ok, perhaps not implanted in our bodies, but what is an iPhone or BlackBerry but a tracking device? If you look at cultural trends over the past 20 years, you see that when a certain class of people take, say, steroids — pro athletes — then high school athletes and gym rats follow suit. Even swimsuit models have been known to dose on human growth hormone. Plastic surgery was once something celebrities, strippers and very rich people did. Now it’s something that is quite common. If a device made you smarter, your brain able to process ideas better, wouldn’t it be hard to say no? Sad to say such devices, if they offered a clear benefit, would be like steroids are to high school athletes. Hard not to do it if other players — especially competitors — were dosing. If you could pay $500 for a device to be implanted that would make you twice as smart, would you pass it up, especially if some of your colleagues had it? Then you would suddenly find yourself vulnerable at the office. Why pay you when they can hire someone twice as smart?

What form of communication will generate the most excitement five years from now?
Bet you think I’d say voice activation. But I think it will be text. The big innovations are occurring in the types of screens we get for mobile devices, laptops and the like, and keyboards. I’m hoping mobile devices will offer improved keyboards so we can type better on the run. I think the act of writing and speaking are inherently different and that for many tasks, writing is superior.

Are traditional media companies frightened about new digital media platforms — the things they can’t control?
Absolutely. Read almost any interview with The New York Times editor Bill Keller and you can feel his fear. His entire world, everything he has known, suddenly doesn’t make sense any more. His caustic responses to anyone who questions Times’ strategy show an unenviable tendency to attack those who disagree with the way the Times is doing business. They are suffocated by debt, mortgaged to the hilt — renting out space in their own building — and at some point heads will have to roll, since employees make up a significant portion of any newspaper’s budget. Then it will get really ugly. But that doesn’t mean the Times will fade into oblivion. It just means it has to restructure.

This shift in the media paradigm isn’t an end. It’s simply the beginning.

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