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Posted by on Mar 6, 2009 in At TMV | 0 comments

The Days of the Internet as Haven for Citizen Production are Numbered

Paul Graham has an excellent essay entitled Why TV Lost. In it he names four forces that have lead to TV’s downfall. 1.) The Internet is an open platform, “So innovation happens at hacker speeds instead of big company speeds.” 2.) Moore’s Law, “…has worked its usual magic on Internet bandwidth.” 3.) Piracy, “Users prefer it not just because it’s free, but because it’s more convenient.”

And the fourth is particularly interesting. Facebook:

The average teenage kid has a pretty much infinite capacity for talking to their friends. But they can’t physically be with them all the time. When I was in high school the solution was the telephone. Now it’s social networks, multiplayer games, and various messaging applications. The way you reach them all is through a computer…. Facebook killed TV. That is wildly oversimplified, of course, but probably as close to the truth as you can get in three words.

A couple other lines I like:

  • TV networks will fight these trends, because they don’t have sufficient flexibility to adapt to them.
  • Instead of delivering what viewers want, they’re trying to force them to change their habits to suit the networks’ obsolete business model.

And his reasoning, boiled down, is this:

Whether they like it or not, big changes are coming, because the Internet dissolves the two cornerstones of broadcast media: synchronicity and locality. On the Internet, you don’t have to send everyone the same signal, and you don’t have to send it to them from a local source. People will watch what they want when they want it, and group themselves according to whatever shared interest they feel most strongly. Maybe their strongest shared interest will be their physical location, but I’m guessing not. Which means local TV is probably dead. It was an artifact of limitations imposed by old technology. If someone were creating an Internet-based TV company from scratch now, they might have some plan for shows aimed at specific regions, but it wouldn’t be a top priority.

While I agree that locality won’t necessarily be a top priority, for some people, many people, enough people, it will be. Most of us have three communities: a professional community, a community of interest and a geographic community. All of us have a geographic community. People who live in communities do share interests related to that community.

Local TV failed long ago in serving local communities because efficiencies of scale and vast broadcast areas made it regional. Not local. While I understand and agree that no one has found the business model to make localism profitable, I’m confident one will be found. The technorati blithely accepts that newspapers and journalism will find a business model even as they deny that local content can find one.

I expect that ultimately both will. What I am far less confident about is that we, the people, will continue to have the opportunity to be producers as well as consumers. We already know we won’t have an equal opportunity.

Despite any of the talk about Net Neutrality, networks are right now enforcing a tiered level of offerings that disadvantages production at all service levels. Where I live I can only get a 6 MB incoming line. Outgoing I’m limited to half the speed of a 1990s era 512k connection. They will not even sell me more if I am willing to pay extra!

We have seen this happen before. Broadcasting itself started out as an open platform, built by innovators, nurtured by government and fostered by and for educators. Once it was developed industry moved in. Promising improvements they pushed every notion of citizen production aside. It required, we were told, trained industry professionals to do anything worthwhile.

Cable did the same thing. Begun in rural Pennsylvania as a means to deliver broadcast signals to rural homes, CATV (CoAxial cable TV)  used the promise of localism through channels dedicated to educational and governmental services and Public Access TV, to take on the broadcast network monopoly. Once it had its toehold, it starved and marginalized those channels. That same thing is happening today with the Internet.

YouTube, we’re told, is filled with marginal citizen-produced nonsense and gets most of its traffic through pirated programming. Remix culture — citizen use of the mediasphere — is criminalized as piracy.  And every attempt to by you and me to upload quality versions of what we produce is literally slowed down (and deteriorated) through service tiers that won’t permit fast uploads.

Don’t get me wrong, citizens reap great benefits from the Interent and we will see vast improvements over what we had before. We’ll even be permitted to produce in the margins. But it’s obvious to me that the days of the internet as citizen’s media production haven are numbered.

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