Column: Gestalt -- Try Turning It Around

"People are inherently lazy." "People have always done it this way. They just won't change overnight." "You're a member of the technorati -- you don't speak for the typical consumer."

So say my friends in media when we brainstorm the future of media. All this may in fact be true. But such excuses lead down a very dangerous linear path -- a path that says consumers will just evolve along with us.

First they read books, then added radio, then watched TV, and now they have 200-plus channels, and the Internet will just be a complement to their media experiences. They played music, then bought records, then bought CDs, and now the Internet will just be new pipe. They read newspapers, and now the Internet is the "new printing press." This is tried-and-true linear thinking that conceives of the world in terms of a continuing evolution in which we, traditional media, will never become a casualty of natural selection.

But the task of this issue of Media magazine is to think "nonlinear" -- and this might be the most important service this magazine ever does for you. Because if you try a thought experiment with me and shift time -- the ultimate linear measurement -- a few questions will lead you to common-sense conclusions. And in answering these questions, you won't just think about "evolving" the old way of doing business, but about reinventing it.

So let's shift time for a moment and imagine that the Internet came first. Let's say folks grew up online and now expect that they: 1) can find whatever they want when and how they want it, 2) can find and/or purchase all or parts of a media experience whenever they want it, 3) can not only find but be alerted to things that will interest them, 4) have unlimited bandwidth and storage, and 5) have multiple devices and total portability.

Now, stop. Really. Think about this in your business. Forget about current business models. Forget about current internal politics and bonus time. Think: What would your business model be if this world came first?

Obviously all your distribution, interaction, and customer service would be digitally based. But what would you be asking yourself? If you are a music maker, where would you distribute music? How would you market it? If you were a new band, where would you go to be heard? If you were a music distributor/marketer, how would you make product available?

If you are an advertiser, would you create 30-second, static video spots to be served during interruptions of your customers' intended behavior? Would you serve ads to mass audiences whose demos you could only guesstimate? Would you spend 90 percent of your budget here? Would you make folks do something they don't want to do?

If you are a book publisher, would you limit yourself to publishing just select authors, or would you allow consumers in real-time to help choose which book to read? How would you market and distribute? If you are in the newspaper business, would you create something called "classifieds" with simple listings only? Would you create content in every field? Would you have your own movie reviewers, general health writers, and general business writers? Would you put up a barrier to community engagement and debate, even if it were controversial?

If you are a cable operator, would you create walled gardens of content or build tools to be the definitive organizing principle of video from infinite locations? Would you help customers find what they want when they want it, or have an easy interface to "surf" when they just don't want to work so hard?

So much has been focused on the technology, hype, sexiness, and cockiness of Internet stars and startups that what is missed is their essence. They shifted time. They thought, What if interactivity and broadband was the norm first? ITunes, Lulu, Crispin Porter (the subservient chicken folks), Monster, CNET, Slashdot, Google, and countless others simply shifted time, and thus embraced a new era on its own terms.

Almost no existing media business model would have been invented the way it is in a time-shifted world. Think about this. Or just ignore it and harvest as much from the current models as long as you can. That's what the buggy-whip manufacturing companies did.

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