Content is King? I don’t think so. Content on the Web is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet.
Oh, sure, content, like Elvis, keeps popping up at all the watering holes. Dancing till dawn at Salon. Grabbing a latte and an idea at Feed. Rafting the Colorado River at Gorp. Hobnobbing with Warhol and Dracula at Event Horizon.
But it’s dead, and this ectoplasmic manifestation is merely wishful thinking on our part. Content – words and graphics that have been edited, crafted, intentionally given form – is something we bonded with in our formative years, and we’re having a tough time saying goodbye.
The new wisdom is that the Web is no longer about information, it’s about buying and selling. This thought is driven, of course, by evidence that banner advertising doesn’t work on the Web (“Believe the Data”by Jakob Nielsen). What does seem to work is Amazon.com and Ebay.
The King is dead: long live e-commerce. Get on with your life.
In the past year, the number of companies advertising on the Web has dropped by 11%, and spending has fallen off more than 9%, per the Association of National Advertisers. More and more companies, however, are using e-commerce to sell directly from their Web sites.
The ecosystem that supports magazines and newspapers, in which advertisers feed on readers, readers feed on content, and content feeds on advertisers – the result of hundred of years of evolution in print media – has not so far been sustainable on the Web. So at sites like The New York Times, there is no money left over, after technological development costs, to pay for on-going original reporting, rather than stories repurposed from print sources.
Most major news-related websites benefit from their association with old media – they use repurposed material from other sources. The cost of developing stories – hiring reporters and editors, sending them to troublespots, etc. – is borne by the old medium, and the website gets a free ride. Sites that have no old media behind them may generate some original content, but also tend to rely heavily on reprint material. (Feed, Salon, and Slate, all mentioned above, are the long-lived exceptions to this rule.)
Max Frankel points out in the NY Times Magazine (“Hidden in the Web”, 7/11/99), that this imbalance of payments will have to be redressed at some point, and he sees e-commerce as a logical, though distaseful, way of pulling in the cash, linking book and product reviews to the sale of actual books and products, and in this way dissolving the conventional barrier between editorial and advertising. Microsoft’s Slate magazine has recently opened a Slate Store, though its relationship to the magazine’s content is opaque to me. (Perhaps that’s an effort at editorial independence.)
But, as a different article in the same issue of the Times Magazine points out (“Instant Company,” by Po Bronson, 7/11/99), there is a more efficient way of linking content to commerce, eliminating the bottleneck/cash sink of having to generate all those words by hand, and eliminating any red herrings about separating ads from editorial. As the nascent start-up Epinions.com sees the future, the users of their site will generate their own content, and the site’s engine will keep a tally as those same users separate the wheat from the chaff. As their Web site blithely puts it “Everybody’s an expert at something.” (Or thinks they are, which in this context is the same thing.)
The future of the Web, as they see it, will be the ghost of Content: electronically mediated community. Hundred of thousands of people will produce proto-content, which will automatically be filtered for noise, sorted by subject matter, and arranged in attractive displays. These tiny thought-units, like Richard Dawkins’s memes, will live and die in the millions, and from the survivors will come the New Content: opinions.
Opinions are better than facts, because they don’t have to be checked for accuracy. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion, even if it’s wrong. To me, this sounds like the best of CB radio, as determined by a management committee from Wal-Mart. It brings to mind something the counterman at my neighborhood deli said, as I was digging in my wallet for a couple pennies change: "Keep your two cents," he said. "I don’t need it. Everybodyaround here wants to give me their two cents."