Friday, April 30, 2010

The Steve Rubel Lifestream: Thoughts on Media Reforestation and Algorithmic Journalism

Over a year ago, I published an essay on Media Reforestation. In a nutshell, it's my belief that all tangible forms of media will be in sharp decline or extinct in just a few years. I followed that up this week with some more thoughts for the folks at WeMedia, which you can read in full or view as a PDF below.

Media Reforestation Part II: Algorithmic Journalism It's a quiet April Saturday afternoon in Long Island, NY and I am holed up on the second floor of the Book Revue, writing this essay on my iPad. I could have not chosen a more ironic venue or a more ironic device to pen a think piece about the impact mobile devices will have on media consumption and creation. The Book Revue is one of the last independent bookstores on Long Island, a sprawling New York City suburb. However, it remains a popular hangout for local book lovers, families and singles. The store even attracts a who's who from the literary world for big book signings. That said, I know that my writing days here are numbered. You see, the Book Revue, just like countless of video rentals stores, arcades and newspaper printing presses, will one day fall victim to Media Reforestation.

In less than five years, all tangible media - everything you can see, touch, taste and smell - will be in sharp decline or extinct. This includes printed books, magazines and newspapers but also DVDs and disc-based video games. With connectivity slowly becoming ubiquitous and devices like the iPad, smart phones, the Kindle and netbooks becoming popular and relatively affordable, it's far less likely that we'll be consuming media in anything but a downloadable form. Every day a newsprint reader dies and she isn't replaced.

Media reforestation has been well chronicled. All of these devices are a runaway hits. And all one needs to do is look at the sorry state of newspaper industry financials to see that digital pennies are not, in the words of former NBC exec Jeff Zucker, ever going to replace analog dollars anytime soon. But the changes to come will be even more destructive. That's because they will involve algorithms.

Last decade the big story was how technology enabled all of us to become publishers. However, the reality is quality content remains work. Many people don't have the time or the motivation to consistently churn it out. Truth: those who did manage to attract large followings all worked their tails off to get there. People like Gary Vanyerchuck, Chris Brogan and Jeff Jarvis, just to name three, attained and scaled their influence thanks to a mix of talent and elbow grease. But that was the first chapter of media reforestation. Chapter two is about to begin and tablets and smart phones will take center stage, enabling us to all subconsciously publish and media to form like magic out of algorithms.

Content creation today still requires intent - thought then action. However soon we will be able to put our gadgets on autopilot and have them automatically contribute to the process even when they are safely tucked away in our pockets, pocketbooks and backpacks. When these millions of gadgets become powerful, always-on servers it will revolutionize media.

FourSquare is the beginning. Although the emerging location based service "only" has one million users, it is able to spot trends in data and surface news. When I checked in during the 140 Character Conference earlier this month, Foursquare was able to detect a swarm of check-ins from this one location and determine that news was breaking here - and it awarded me a special badge. Now imagine that our gadgets collect and publish automatically and on a mass scale. FourSquare could turn that data into a news service on the fly. It's services like these that will totally reinvent media, yet again, by opening up to the masses.

Servers - yes, servers - in our pockets will collect data automatically (and anonymously). Cloud services will aggregate this information and - on the fly - create media, some of which we will consume on the go. These consumption patterns will create more data and start the cycle all over again. Rich devices like iPads, iPhones, Blackberries, Kindles and their successors will collect, serve and assemble media on our behalf and in a very personalized way.

Here's what this might look like...

Novelist John Grisham recently made news when he became one of the last holdouts to make his books available on the Kindle. It's a one-size-fits-all experience. He writes. We consume - and on connected devices.

In the near future however, Grisham (or whomever is his successor) will write just the beginning of a novel and then publish it electronically - omitting the ending. Those who purchase it will determine the ending, but not in a manual, Choose-Your-Own Adventure way but in a much more personalized fashion. Ebook devices will spot trends among these Grisham readers and shape the ending based on data they're willing to share in exchange for a more personalized experience. Books won't be seen as static creations but living breathing things. Novels will have several endings that are based on the speed, physical location and duration of our collective reading habits.

It's not just books that will be reshaped by always-connected devices. As more of us consume video on the go, the same algorithmic model could reshape all storytelling, including TV and motion pictures as well.

Just as during the rise of social media, however, the news business will be the first to feel the impact of algorithmically generated media. As our devices begin to collect and share information in aggregate about our habits and environment (privacy concerns not withstanding), local and topical news sites will seamlessly form on the fly, curating torrents of tweets, news stories, images and videos about breaking news.

Tablets and smart phones are powerful, connected devices that we tote everywhere. But as more of them multitask and publish what we allow them to, automatically, it will further revolutionize media and perhaps one day make editing a relic of the past.

Download now or preview on posterous
Algorithmic Journalism.pdf (105 KB)
The Steve Rubel Lifestream

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