TV News in a Postmodern World

A Wolf in Aggregator Clothing

by Terry L. Heaton
Marbles, as I remember themLike most boys growing up in the world before toys were able to do the playing for us, my brothers and I spent a lot of time in the alley playing marbles. In addition to learning to be a competitor and a good sport, marbles first introduced me to the concept of categorizing. There were bolders and steelies and cat's eyes and peeries and aggies, to name a few.

Of all the marbles in my bag, I liked the peeries most, and soon I had a separate bag for them. And so began a process that would be with me for the rest of my life.

As human beings, we're natural collectors and compartmentalizers. We make our own judgments and build our own hierarchies. One of this; two of that. Our goal is to make sense of things. We blend this, that and the other to form the boundaries that define us and our views of everything. Institutions are there to help us with the process, but we're increasingly becoming aware that maybe they don't exactly have our best interests in mind. So we're striking out on our own, and our results are surprising, even to us.

We're becoming our own news media, making our own music and films, and challenging the authority formerly taken for granted in our modernist world. And nowhere is this more discernable than the way we organize and compartmentalize. We're actually writing our own encyclopedia and building our own communities.

This do-it-for-ourselves paradigm is a crucial point to understand, as newspapers and television stations move to assimilate the world of the blogosphere. The word is aggregation, and the business model is advertising via the old tried and true method of reach/frequency.

Lincoln Millstein, Senior VP and Director of Digital Media for Hearst Newspapers, summed it up at the Syndicate Conference in New York, as quoted by Rafat Ali of Paid Content: "The big money is being made by aggregators, so who wants to be one of 1,000 publishers? That's just nickels and cents...we want to play the role of the aggregator."

As logical as this seems, aggregation is actually a touch point between the worlds of Modernism and Postmodernism when it refers to citizens media. It's a place where the bottom up is changed to the top down, and it's a leap of faith to assume the bottom is interested.

The mainstream media views organizing information as their high calling. Even the term "mainstream" is itself revealing, for it conjures up a vision of a stream formed by many tributaries, all flowing to one gathering place. Streams can be organized and controlled with various gates and dams, and that's the perceived role of the press — to organize the flow of information in such a way that it's understandable. Along the way, there are ads to be served to a captive audience. The personal media revolution, however, tosses an enormous monkey wrench into the equation.

Technorati, the blog search engine, reported earlier this year that they're now tracking over 8 million blogs. The report added two important pieces of information: the blogosphere is doubling in size every 5 months and that a new blog is added to the mix every 2.2 seconds. Regardless of the number of blogs that have gone or will go dormant, these numbers still boggle the mind. As Linda Seebach, editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver noted recently at BlogNashville, "It's like trying to drink from a fire hose." Anxiety over not being able to get one's arms around all that writing is one of the most common complaints that mainstream press people offer regarding the relevance of the personal media revolution. After all, if it can't be organized, what good is it?

Staci Kramer of PaidContent.org led a session on journalism at the BlogNashville conference and made the traditional observation that compiling viewpoints was one of journalism's roles. "It's fine to have 15 people giving all they know," she said, "but somebody has to synthesize all that."

If synthesizing is really necessary, the question becomes who will do it?

In his brilliant essay, "Ontology is Overrated," Clay Shirky writes of the difference between organizing information through categories and through search. Yahoo!'s web directory, for example, is an elaborate system of categorization that is supposed to help people find what they're looking for, much in the way the Dewey Decimal System is supposed to help one find a book in the library. It runs into trouble, however, when the users' ideas of categories are different than what the Yahoo! creators envisioned. Google, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach and organizes content based on a set of variables stated by the user, most of whom find this method of locating something far superior to any preset classification.

It comes down, ultimately, to a question of philosophy. Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world? If you believe the world makes sense, then anyone who tries to make sense of the world differently from you is presenting you with a situation that needs to be reconciled formally, because if you get it wrong, you're getting it wrong about the real world.

If, on the other hand, you believe that we make sense of the world, if we are, from a bunch of different points of view, applying some kind of sense to the world, then you don't privilege one top level of sense-making over the other. What you do instead is you try to find ways that the individual sense-making can roll up to something which is of value in the aggregate, but...without a goal of explicitly getting to or even closely matching some theoretically perfect view of the world.

This is a crucial issue to resolve as people attempt to "make sense" of the blogosphere through the aggregating of its voices. Whether it's at the community level or through blog content or size of readership, aggregation provides a logical way to divide the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and create a manageable consolidation of voices at different levels and in different categories. It's an advanced labeling system where the decision to label is determined by the aggregator. On the surface, this is an inevitable advancement of the many conversations that make up the blogosphere, but it also opens the door to new hierarchies in what is necessarily an anarchical structure. And, as with any hierarchy, somebody needs to be calling the shots.

In San Francisco, Cozmo Media CEO and self-described "serial entrepreneur" Alex Rowland is researching and writing about what he calls open and closed distribution systems. Closed distribution networks, he writes, are based on unidirectional communications, whereas open systems are based on bidirectional communications. This is the essence of the two-way conversation made possible through the Web and, especially, blogging.

Common belief appears to be that "open" networks, while easier to scale, are actually less profitable and harder to defend than their "closed" counterparts. Much of this stems from the idea that the more valuable the content (ie. able to draw large audiences that will pay to consume it) the more likely the content owner is to turn to a closed distribution mechanism to deliver this valuable asset to consumers.

The open network view was commonly expressed in the Web's bubble days in the saying, "The Web demands that it be free." As Rowland notes, free is easy to scale, which is why advertising was the core business model of the bubble. Unfortunately, the only people advertising in those days were other Web companies, so the whole thing collapsed. But, as we're learning these days, Web advertising is big money, so it wasn't the business model that was flawed. "Money follows eyeballs" will always be true.

Open content encourages a great deal of specialization in what's produced. This specialization makes targeting specific demographics much easier than when your audience is huge and highly fragmented. Second, open networks encourage community and conversation, which can drive massive improvements in the contextualization of the media. I think if you combine these things, we'll find advertising that is orders of magnitude more efficient and, as such, a solid foundation for profitability amongst producers.

But Rowland's thinking goes beyond the free versus paid argument and strikes at the core of the personal media revolution. An open, bidirectional network assures that the distance between the bottom and top is negligible, while closed networks assure command and control functionality, usually at the top. The Internet's real value is that it levels the playing field for everybody and transfers control to the end user, not the publisher.

Just like portal websites of the past, an aggregator provides a starting point for users, and the extent to which that gateway is under the control of the user determines how open — and, therefore, successful — the aggregator will be. Aggregators that attempt to close what is an open architecture will, in the end, find themselves in the same predicament as AOL, with its shrinking subscriber base, because people will not accept the imprisonment of somebody else's structure once they've been exposed to doing it for themselves.

Rowland and Shirky are exploring different sides of the same coin, and it's important we pay attention. The Web remains a place that is counterintuitive to both our training and our logic. What the Web user views as freedom to choose, mainstream critics call an echo chamber. This meme comes from the belief that, if given the choice, people will only surround themselves with what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. This is self-centered logic that usually comes from people who are currently providing what they think people "need" to hear, and they fear the whacking of their fatted calf. Moreover, there is no evidence whatsoever to prove that people can't or won't find what they "need" to hear on their own.

In the end, it comes down to your view of people and human nature. If you think people are stupid and require direction, then you'll tend towards hierarchies, organized categories and closed distribution. This was Walter Lippmann's view of people, and it is reflected in the "professional" press that he birthed. If, however, you believe people will generally get it right, if given the chance, then you'll be comfortable with all that a free, searchable and open system has to offer. This is vital as we attempt to innovate the business models of tomorrow, for if you can accept the latter position, the lust for aggregation being expressed by the institutional media looks short-sighted and foolish.

Regardless of what I did with them, those marbles of my youth were mine, and that sense of ownership is powerful beyond words. I could organize them in any form or fashion. I could make a bag of orange peeries and one of green peeries, if that's what I wanted to do. The sense of personal control that I first experienced with my marbles is at the heart of what's driving people to the Web today, and information aggregator tools that don't respect it won't be in the game for very long.