Scarcity and the world of digital media

DesertThe favorite discussion topic of the media and Internet elite is currently how the economics of content will develop in our digital age. Several big media conglomerates recently announced that they would start charging for online content. This was mostly greeted with ridicule from the digerati, who are still high on the radical ideology outlined in Chris Anderson’s book “Free”.

Brad Burnham pointed out in a recent blog post that both sides probably lack a deep understanding of the fundamental economic shift that is going on here. He mentioned the work of pioneers like Herbert Simon and Michael Goldhaber on the economics of attention as a framework for better insights.

I think it’s correct to say that we are currently experiencing the rise of something like a parallel economy, driven not (like our currently suffering traditional economy) by money and scarce physical goods, but by information and scarce attention. However, probably nobody really understands yet what this economy will look like as it matures and how its interaction with the “real world” will work. Obviously, the two will have to coexist, because last time I checked, my local supermarket didn’t accept hyperlinks as payment for groceries.

We are all so deeply rooted in the principles of the traditional physical economy that it is easy to forget the basics. The good old economy as we know it revolves around scarce physical goods and (more recently) around scarce services. The goods are scarce because considerable work has to be invested into their production, starting from the (often scarce) raw materials that we find in nature. Services are scarce because most of them require some kind of skill, and acquiring these qualifications needs time, which is limited and therefore valuable. Humans trade these scarce goods and services amongst each other because of course not everybody can produce every type of good or service. And then there’s of course money, which provides a more efficient way to trade stuff by separating value from a lumpy physical item or perishable service. Money is basically condensed value, which stems from physical scarcity.

So far so good. But how is the digital economy different?

Most importantly, value in the Internet economy is detached from the physical world and its limitations. For instance, a digital text can be valuable without having a physical manifestation. Sure, all these bits have to be stored somewhere, but the storage medium is a reusable commodity, not bound to this particular piece of information. Digital information can of course be copied without loss of quality (this doesn’t exist in the physical world) and distributed over a network, instantly reaching every corner of the world. And all of this is remarkably cheap nowadays.

The result is a huge abundance of information. And this changes what is scarce: Not the actual product (information), but the capacity for consumption — attention. Every day more free information is made available to the world than a human being could consume in a lifetime. Obviously, human attention is finite, and therefore it’s the scarce factor in the digital world.

That’s why many Internet users can’t understand that media companies want to charge for their online content. Aren’t they already getting the most valuable thing that an Internet user has to offer, his or her attention? And obviously, attention can be converted into real money through advertising, so what’s the problem?

At this point the discussion typically breaks down, because media companies, and newspapers in particular, have a very hard time financing their costly content production just from online advertising. There are probably two main reasons for this problem:

First, on the cost side, newspapers still apply the old principles from the physical world to their content production process. In the old media world, news has to be distributed physically (or through scarce airwaves), and therefore it is most efficient to produce local newspapers that cover all the important news in one single information product. This results in probably dozens or even hundreds of editors slightly rewriting the very same news agency report, adding almost no value. In a digital world of ubiquitous information, that’s completely unnecessary.

Furthermore, a key value proposition of newspapers is the context that they create by selecting the most newsworthy content. Again, this process is duplicated for every single newspaper. In the online world, there are far more efficient and sophisticated ways to provide this value, even though most can’t exist without at least some human intervention. But frankly, semi-automated aggregators like Memeorandum often provide a better view of what is going on in the world than most newspaper homepages.

About 50% of the total cost of a newspaper goes into physical production and distribution, the rest into actual content production. But if you subtract the obsolete and redundant editorial work that most newspapers are still doing, what would be left? Maybe 5%, maybe 10% of the cost base? Most probably, it’s even less. The percentage of truly original reporting in most traditional media is surprisingly low. But in the digital world, there’s no mechanism to finance the unneeded redundant production of information, because there’s already so much information out there.

Secondly, on the revenue side, advertising is a very unsophisticated and inefficient way to convert attention into money. Today’s advertising models are still built on the scarcity models of the past — the type where ad space is scarce, not attention. If you wanted to reach people in a certain local market with your commercial message, your only option was to advertise in the local newspaper or on local TV and radio stations. Even in big markets, there were only a handful of channels available, with very limited and therefore expensive ad space. Targeting was only very basic, because reaching many people with a lot of wastage through mass media was still more efficient than other methods.

That’s of course fundamentally different in the online world, but ad agencies and publishers are still stuck in old thinking. Most online publishers complain about the low rates that they’re getting for display ads. But that’s not surprising, since online ad inventory is almost unlimited. The trick is to reach the right audience at the right time. But ad agencies still think in big demographic clusters, not in the situation-specific micro-segmentation that the Internet could provide. It’s therefore not surprising that paid search is by far the most lucrative form of online advertising, since Google and its competitors can convert very specific attention (somebody searching for a certain topic right now) into commercially relevant results.

So what needs to happen to make the attention-driven online media economy viable?

  • Clearly, media companies have to become leaner and more focused. They need to concentrate on original content that really adds value and therefore is worthy of people’s attention. That’s frankly only a fraction of the current media production. All the other fluff, as well as the fat corporate structures on top of the actual content production, will simply not be viable online.
  • Also, media companies need to recognize that unique context, filtering and editorial selection are more essential than ever in dealing with people’s limited attention. This will be a great way for media brands to get competitive differentiation. But today’s typical news homepage is still built on an old, generic one-size-fits-all model that is neither cost-effective nor customer-friendly.
  • Publishers and advertisers have to experiment with new ways of converting attention into commercial value, i.e. building the bridge from the attention economy to the monetary economy. I think we currently stand at the very beginning of this process. Traditional advertising is becoming increasingly ineffective. But new ways to channel people’s attention in order to sell them something are still embryonic. Almost certainly, there will be many ways to do this, but no silver bullets.
  • Media companies have to recognize and deeply understand that attention is the scarce commodity in the digital economy and therefore is a currency in itself. The current conflicts between Google and newspaper publishers show that old media executives are starting to get this, although most of their actions go into the completely wrong direction.

But at the end of the day, attention has to be convertible into money somehow, since people still live in the physical world, where scarcity is a reality and money is needed. Companies and their executives will continue to be measured by their financial success, not by the attention they accumulate. Determining the monetary value of intangibles like attention, intellectual property, brand assets and customer loyalty is a thorny problem, and it’s unlikely that there will be a commonly accepted solution anytime soon.

However, people working outside of the traditional corporate framework might be willing to forgo at least some of this conversion. Under some circumstances, people tend to value attention more than money. Let’s be honest: Most people in the Western world already have more material things than they need. Particularly the richest European countries are increasingly turning into post-material societies that don’t necessarily try to optimize their GDP, but instead the general well-being of their population. And getting attention is something of fundamental importance for humans.

So it wouldn’t be surprising if more and more people would add value to the digital economy without getting paid for it in monetary terms. The open source ecosystem is of course a great example of how this can work. And most bloggers blog (and Twitterers tweet) because they like the attention and the good things that can result from it, not because they get paid.

Another example: Craigslist provides fundamentally the same value as the many classified sections in newspapers that it basically killed, but it captures only a fraction of the monetary value. Does that make any sense at all? Yes, because Craigslist created a top 20 website that commands a lot of attention with minimal resources. It provides a valuable service and gets paid with huge amounts of attention and loyalty, as well as with quite a bit of money. It is wildly profitable in monetary terms, but obscenely profitable in attention terms. That’s bad news for the people who used to make a living selling classified ads, but good news for Craig Newmark.

Welcome to creative destruction, attention economy edition.

(Picture: Josh Sommers, CC license)

14 thoughts on “Scarcity and the world of digital media”

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