Everyone agrees by now that the single most profound and structural change in information, communications and in media generally is that the individual is in control. Where agreement wanes among traditional media honchos is on what this means. And without a clear sense of how users are changing, it's awfully hard to offer or embrace new models. Here, then, is my take on the biggest recent shifts in how consumers use media:
> People have become very transactional with their content and information gathering. They find (or are directed to) what they want, at which point they sometimes bookmark it, comment on the post or share it, and then move on. What we once called "in depth" content we used to equate with quality and quantity (that is, a 42-page article in Foreign Affairs must offer, by definition, greater "depth" than a blurb in USA Today). "In depth" online now means more a synthesizing of multiple sources of information in this transactional behavior - an article from here, a blog post from there, a video from there, and a comment from a friend over here - where individuals are becoming aggregators of their own truths.
> Web video is taking on transaction patterns similar to text. Broadband, of course, enables easier and cheaper distribution of long-form video - a death knell to the Blockbusters of the world. Folks will always desire long-form, "lean back" content and use this medium for easier distribution. But YouTube has proven that audiences desire short-form video equally, if not more so, and will also act in a transactional manner. Don't make me watch a 30-minute/60-minute/two-hour program to find what I want. Let me have the two minutes of exactly what I want.
> Consumers, especially younger ones, believe that quality content can come from multiple areas and multiple sources outside of the traditional channels. Folks in their 20's repeatedly observe that they are less concerned about the source of the content as long as it's good enough on their terms and meets their needs. Convenience is valued as much as quality - it must be good, but they will sacrifice sound, picture and other elements in order to be able to have it when and how they want it (on iPods, phones and other mobile devices).
> Aggregating and facilitating finding content is content. Think about it: The greatest phenomena in online "content" in recent years have created no content themselves, but have been organizing tools for people to find what they want and share with others. Google, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Digg, Del.icio.us, etc., have dwarfed any new media enterprise in terms of audience aggregation, engagement and loyalty.
> We live in progressively vertical worlds: Search, personal video recorders and countless other tools allow us to find whatever we want on our terms. In my world - online health - no one searches "health," but the condition, desire, medication one is interested in. The diaspora of resources means that everyone has their own favorite collection of Web sites and blogs that speak to their specific needs and interests.
> In a vertical world, there is a new way to think of branding: The tried and true conventional wisdom is that a human being can remember only two or three brands in any broad category. But in a world of verticalization, those categories can be as specific as a disease, or a hobby, or a genre of music, or a type of car. Further, much of our brand memory is now embedded in our "favorites" list of our browser. I have a collection of Web sites on wine, and can't remember any of their names, but would be happy to e-mail the links to you.
> Where content lives is changing dramatically: The old media model tried to drive audiences to a channel or destination and keep them as long as possible. But users have long wanted to have and share content - first by cutting and pasting links in e-mail, and now via widgets on blogs or organizing tools.
So much of traditional media gets tangled in their own knitting of how they want audiences to access their content. The key is to focus on
the opposite - how the audience wants to get its content from us.
Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The HealthCentral Network, Inc. (firstname.lastname@example.org)