The Future of Media

Forget about the old adage by Marshall McLuhan — "The medium is the message." Today, and going forward, I think a more appropriate phrase would be "I am the media."

Every individual is a medium. If Princess Diana had an accident in a tunnel in France today my guess is that three or four people would be on the scene within minutes with video cameras and satellite feeds to the BBC. In 10 years a purchase of a $200 video camera will allow the photographer to beam her footage, in real time, to anybody and everybody in the wired world, which will be 3 or 4 billion people. The footage of the Columbia tragedy is amazing. CBS News had footage from a Lake Charles, La. weatherman on the air within an hour and a half of the crash. Videographers from California and Texas have been all over the airwaves. Individuals are now broadcasters as well as walking billboards. We wear logo-ed shirts, socks, shoes, pants, and hats and carry logo-ed briefcases and backpacks.

The context driving this thought is that we are exiting the "information society," and the seeds of the "post-information society" have clearly been planted. The info society began 85 years ago, and the two biggest hallmarks of that society — the splitting of the atom and the development of the transistor — are both more than 50 years old. We assume that much of the social angst that we live with today is a result of moving from the industrial to the information age. In reality, it's about moving beyond the information age. The definitions of the institutions of life change when we move from an industrial to an information society, and from an information to a "post-information" society.

In other words, what is considered media and how we communicate has morphed and is continuing to morph. When I was a kid, if you wanted to sell your car, you put an ad in the local paper. Your message was "broadcast" to whoever bought that paper. Today, if you put your car up for sale on HotBot, anyone who has ever owned that model can append and amend your message. Media is becoming an iterative process. Weblogs? Repetitive. Talk radio? Redundant (ever notice the same guests they have?)

Need more examples of how different the media landscape is? How about this: the Nielsen television survey that you spend your career around has become a totally invalid research tool. It is now popular knowledge that the survey cannot obtain a 40% favorable response rate from prospective participants to be a part of their sample. Well, in the strictest sense of research design, if you cannot obtain a 40% affirmative vote to being included in a sample you can't build what is called a probability sample. The result is that the survey has no validity. Yet media buyers continue to base hundreds of millions of dollars of spending on this instrument.

Or consider the ever-blurring lines between fact and fiction in media. The cult-hit movie Blair Witch Project was filmed documentary-style — low budget production values with a shaky camera. Along with its B-movie horror storyline, it was the mimicking of a documentary that made it stand out. But since it is really fiction, I ask you, how do you document fiction? Reality shows are another perfect example. Joe Millionaire uses real people, in a real setting, but it's totally staged and based on an inherent deception of the participants. Can this be the beginning of "artificial reality?" In publishing, Edwin Morris writes a biography of Ronald Reagan and makes himself a fictional character in a nonfiction work. There is a name for this phenomenon of blurring: open source life. When Fortune writes an article about AOL, or ABC News covers an event at Disney, we are nipping at the edges of the old separation of "church and state." The rules that governed what was media no longer apply, whether we look at shows or people. As an old researcher, this tells me that it doesn't matter whether it's a cluster analysis or a factor analysis. You can't look at the subject the same way anymore.

Perhaps the most interesting change is that people are becoming professional respondents. Remember how many polls in the 2002 election were wrong in their predictions?

Turns out that people are increasingly basing their answers upon what they think an interviewer wants to hear. What's happening is that in the new "post-information" epoch of uncertainty we are desperate to "measure" things at the exact time that it has become impossible to do so. Today, the only certainty is uncertainty. The "can't miss" new shows of a fall season are gone in a matter of two weeks while the outliers have a few that break through. The metrics we're accustomed to using no longer work. Confidence goes down and sales go up, and vice versa. Your evaluation tools will not work; it's time for you to make new ones.

Fragmentation is another interesting issue for the future media environment. "Mass media," especially television, may no longer be able to hold the middle. It used to be that mainstream defined where the fringes reside. Now the fringe seems to pull the mainstream wherever it wishes to go. In the post-information society we are living a neo-tribal life. We are finding people just like ourselves. Mass media may tell us the issues on the world's plate today, but "tribal media" tells you what you're supposed to think about it. I'll never forget seeing a story on Gianni Versace in Biker Life magazine. I thought to myself, what do bikers care about his murder? Well, they found out about it in mass media, but they found out what they are supposed to think about it in their tribal media. In the future the mass-ness of mass reach may make it impossible for it to convey meaning anymore. The concept of "mass" is coming to a conclusion. Every person can craft their own view of what is real.

We are entering a future where our lives are being defined by our media consumption more than our physical consumption. You go to a party and meet somebody. You used to ask what kind of car they drive. Now, you ask them what movies they watch, what websites they surf, what magazines they read. We are using the media to reveal ourselves to other people and to decide if we wish to know more about them. This was a domain where physical goods used to play. We are beginning to live what I call the media-centric life. Media's role in life has just gotten deeper, and it will get even more so over time. My great-grandfather knew about 100 people in his life. My great-grandchildren will know about 100,000 people. Life is now fully mediated. The power in media is now way beyond informing you about something or persuading you to do something. We are, literally, using our media consumption to present who we are to the world.

What a perfect time for brands to present themselves as a medium: Sony Styles magazine, The Yahoo channel, People Museum, Niketown. In a media-centric world expect more and more brands to present themselves as a medium (or two.) Suddenly the media person's job takes on an entirely new complexion, with them perhaps having a greater role than the creative person in the future of many advertising agencies. What better way for a brand to get greater traction with a customer who has become a medium himself. And not only are products becoming media, advertising is becoming a product. Budweiser advertising oftentimes doesn't refer to the beer or even show a "product shot." From the Frogs to Wass' Up, Bud seems to be making the advertising the product itself.

The fact that we have moved from an industrial society to an information society to a post-information society does not mean that industry and information's influence on life go away. These issues adapt to a new context and to new institutional definitions. The ability to develop databases via data mining and to better analyze those bases via KDD (Knowledge Discovery in Databases) only allows for the ability of everything in our lives to be chronicled, cataloged, storied, recalled, assembled, and then sold.

Our very existence has enough value to capture everything we do and have somebody willing to pay for that data. A new quid pro quo is on the horizon by which at least some of the advertising we "witness" will have people remunerated to witness it. People will pay you so they can access your data. Advertising is a very logical starting point. Sometimes you're paid and sometimes you'll pay. The media maven's job will be to figure out ... when!!

Will there be a new medium in the next 20 years? My answer is no. There is not a new technology currently on the fringe that I expect to see emerge over the next 10 (or even 20) years. When I became the ninth futurist at the think tank at Stanford, my immediate predecessor was the guy who received the very first ARPANET message back in 1969. Think of it this way ... he got his email address 34 years ago. New media, like the ARPANET (eventually Internet) don't just appear, they weave their way from the edges to the mainstream over time. Television acted in just the same way as it went from the margin to social convention over a period of many years. My dad spent his career in advertising, started in media and was a pioneer in recommending a brand-new medium, which many people said would never make it. That medium of course was television. It's probably hard to imagine for a young media professional of today that more people thought than not that "pictures flying through the air" (as television was referred to) would never make it. Kinda has a familiar ring to it today, doesn't it?

I do, however, see continued consequences from the fusion of computing and communicating such that we should expect to think of a PDA as both a broadcast studio and a reception device for all forms of media. And don't discount the issue of mobility. Over 50% of fast food sold today is through a drive-through. We want our media wherever we happen to be. Things like time-shifting, wireless communications, and broadcast via your laptop will all have a steady climb in consumer acceptance.

Content is another interesting area. For sure the reality programming of today will give way to a yet-to-be-defined "next next" of programming. When something is so institutionalized that it becomes a part of the installed infrastructure of everyday life, like TV, there is a never-ending flow of ideas for the next-wave, "hot" thing. The game show ... the sitcom ... the mini-series ... the docudrama ... the reality-style show, are all examples of "next" installments. We will have something to replace reality TV ... I just don't know what yet.

Expect more consolidation in content and in "delivery." And finally, remember that the role of intermediation is always key. While you've been thinking about disintermediation of the agency to clients, reintermediation is what is needed to explain the new ways things are being done. It's time for you to do it before someone else does the reintermediating for you.

So, what does this all mean for a professional media person? First off, I hope it helps you change your context a bit. Media has taken on a new dimensionality in life, from a greater amount of mediated input or information in one's life to being "media-centric" as an individual (vs. being "staff-centric") to brands now presenting themselves as a media as well as providing a product or a service as part of their reason for being.

As media's role in one's life becomes both different and more important, your role must change with it. You've gotta stretch your own thinking about how you help clients just as much as with what you do (or have done in the past) to help clients. In this "epoch of uncertainty," which is what we had named the post-information society before 9/11, things in life get even more interesting ... especially to one who has chosen "the media game" as their life's work.

Watts Wacker, a futurist and principal of FirstMatter, has been profiled in such publications as Fast Company and Forbes and was called "one of the 50 smartest people in the business world" by the Financial Times. He is a coauthor of The Deviant's Advantage, The 500-Year Delta, and The Visionary's Handbook.

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