TV News in a Postmodern World

The Web's Paradox of Power

by Terry L. Heaton
Long ago, I worked for a guy who studied power and influence in various communities around the U.S. and beyond. Where do you think he began his research when walking into a metropolitan area cold? How does one begin looking for the seats of power? He started with the executive director of the local United Way. The thesis is that the aristocracy of any community is directly tied to the community chest. "Noblesse oblige," the French used to say — nobility obligates. While it's easy to argue that enlightened self-interest is at work in this process, the reality is it's demonstrative of the concept of influence through giving.

Mystics and other spiritual teachers throughout the centuries — regardless of their cloth — have taught the same thing in many different ways. If you want to be tapped into the source of life, you must first align the outbound connection through serving the rest of humankind. So it is that through giving, we receive.

This understanding forms the paradox of power that so perplexes hierarchical Modernist thinkers, especially as it relates to the Internet.

In real life (IRL), there are formulas for getting to the top in any endeavor. If a banking company, for example, wants to be the top bank in the country, they can buy up enough other banks to make it to the top. Size is power, so the more the merrier. That position gives them clout.

Wal-Mart is another example. They're the top retailer, and that's based on their size. They're so big that they can actually influence (manipulate) prices.

In local television, power is determined by ratings. The more people that watch, the higher the advertising rates; the higher the ad rates, the more revenue; the more revenue, the more can be spent on projects and programs; and that translates to influence in the community. It's a circle.

Sometimes, IRL power is determined by one's connections, rather than one's size, although it's amazing how size influences connections. Nevertheless, IRL often assigns influence based just on one's friends. Associations with organizations produce this kind of potential influence, and so does your Alma Mater.

We've grown up in a mass marketing culture, where the one at the top disperses knowledge, information or whatever to the masses at his, her or its discretion. Power is determined by how many are buying what's being sold. This is true in economics; it's true in politics; and it's true in communications. We understand this world, and we've been trying to transfer it to the Web since we've known of its existence. It won't work, because power here is dispersed along the bottom.

In the pure URL world, there is no top or bottom. A URL is just a URL. Nobody's forced to do anything, because the usual forms of power don't work in a place that isn't governed by the two Cs of the IRL world, command and control. You can't buy your way to the top. You can't associate your way to the top. You can't force your model, killer application, or your system to the top.

And even where the rules of reach and frequency seem to apply, there's something else going on under the surface. It's the Web's paradox of power.

Technorati, the blog search engine, knows more about the blogosphere than anybody else, and they apply this paradox of power in determining rankings for blogs and information Websites. The key measurement for Technorati is inbound links. The assumption is simple: if you are consistently talking about things that are of interest to others, they (the others) will link to you. The more people do that, the greater your influence.

Take a look at this graph prepared by Technorati founder, Dave Silfry. It ranks inbound links to mainstream media (MSM) and bloggers. The blue bars represent mainstream online news outlets. The red lines equal blogs. At first glance, the MSM is more influential, but some blogs are also well-placed. Remember, though, that this graph represents inbound links, not reach or frequency.

Technorati graph on influence
Click to enlarge

Here's where the paradox comes in. One doesn't find influence in the URL world without providing a service to others, for it is the linkers (the bottom) who provide the influence, not those receiving the links. Size doesn't matter. Only inbound links. In Silfry's graph, the New York Times online is the most influential. What makes them influential? The bloggers and others who are creating the links. This is not a measure of readership or revenue. It's a measure of other people thinking enough of what's being produced (one way or the other) to create a link to it.

The New York Times gives material freely to the bloggers, and the bloggers reward them with influence. This is why the people who run The Times should think very carefully before charging fees or otherwise locking up their content. This is why logical (Modernist) attempts to force demand by restricting access are playing a dangerous game with their online futures. And this is why online media companies need to make their archives freely available as well. Free is the operative word here. Influence is the currency.

Free online access to content is also good business, because money follows influence, even online.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the Greensboro News & Record is currently involved in an effort to turn their media company into the public square in the community. It's a natural place for a newspaper to go. They want to be THE "record" in the Greater Greensboro area, so they've launched a fascinating effort to embrace the local blogosphere and make them a part of the discussion that is news. Editor John Robinson may not know where the money's coming from in all of this, but he's betting it'll be there downstream. The paper is giving to the bloggers, and they are returning it with links and influence.

This is the paradox of power in the URL world.

Understanding this type of influence also provides insight into the overall workings of the new media world versus the world of mass marketing. That's because this influence originates naturally from what mass marketing views as the bottom, and it happens without any artificial prodding. Mass marketers employ strategies to feed their twin gods, reach and frequency, and those strategies all originate from the top. The influence of the Web can't be so managed. Different strategies are required, but it all begins with understanding the paradox of power.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the blogs and the mainstream press, and the Technorati graph illustrates it quite nicely. It's why the former will never replace the latter, and why the media business models of tomorrow will be based in strategies that will seem entirely opposed to our instincts and training. This is why MBAs often look at us as if we've completely lost touch with reality when talking about life in this world. The laws of economics aren't changing, but our ability to manage them most certainly is and will. Put another way, if hype and promotion are anathema to contemporary media consumers (and they are), then we need to be exploring a paradigm that is entirely the opposite.

Reach and frequency may, in fact, be the end, but the means to that simply has to change. Because if URL influence flows from the bottom up, as the Technorati stats reveal, then establishing an aggregated "mass audience" is actually out of our hands. In fact, the more we try to manage it, the further away it gets.

Moreover, it necessarily follows that this transition will take place at the local level, not at the networks, cable news channels or other national news operations. The "bottom" begins in our homes and offices and expands outward to our neighborhoods, communities, regions, states, etc. This is why we should be paying close attention to citizens media experiments in communities like Greensboro, North Carolina and Bluffton, South Carolina, where media companies are exploring these uncharted waters.

The news media has for too long been preoccupied with its own status and perceived importance. Life on a pedestal, however, produces the unintended consequence of separation from the masses. It's nice and neat and clean up there, but life is lived in a different place, and the view from up there is distorted anyway. Is it any wonder we're deemed irrelevant by many these days and that the growth of citizens media is so explosive?

We need to reinvent ourselves, and we need to do it in a hurry. It all begins at the bottom-most point of our outdated, worse than useless (worse because we still believe in it) hierarchy. If we can bring ourselves to help and support this media revolution, we'll wake up one day and find that we've actually helped ourselves too — and in ways we can't even begin to imagine today.