Sunday, February 22, 2015

Notes from Podcamp: Fragmentation Nation

An interest, nay, preoccupation of mine for the past few years has been not just the fragmentation of the media marketplace, but the ultra-fragmentation. The podcasts, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, and Vine accounts, music streaming services and Souncloud, YouTube channels, and  the rest of the sites, apps, and platforms that make it possible for anyone, anywhere to publish or broadcast their wares. And this is so much more than the fragmentation we came to know from, e.g, cable television or satellite radio. This is an exponential phenomenon that is often more than we can fathom -- and at the same time is becoming the norm. Trying to use a pie chart to illustrate the point is, for these purposes, essentially useless.

This week marks two years since I started writing this blog, and when I look back at the first post I am reminded of all the media forms that have emerged even since that time and also of how new intermediaries of the digital world are accumulating audience, and in turn, power in a way that the titans of the old broadcasting world did. Hopefully this is more than just ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, but I suppose time will tell.

Nevertheless, in this world of publishing plenty, of the millions of blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and websites, catering to every niche out there, the new axiom seems to be:

if you can imagine it, it exists

Our media diet has gone from one of limited choices that were fed to us to one that grows unchecked each day on which we can gorge ourselves. How this works, from the perspectives of logistics, economics, production, and consumption is a work in progress, and is why I do this blog.

That’s why attending events like Podcamp, as I did this past weekend, can be so interesting. It’s an ‘unconference’, meaning it’s participant-driven, not organizationally or corporately driven, and is typically free to attend. I’ve gone to the last two held in Toronto, and in both cases about 1000 people converged on the campus of Ryerson to take in this ‘let’s put on a show’, with panels taking the place of song and dance numbers. Real stories from real people doing their blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, from reasons ranging from hobby to job.

Today Part 1 of some notes from Podcamp, followed by Part 2 in the days to come. 

A selection of Toronto Podcampers, February 2015

Just a few of the sessions on offer at Podcamp 2015

I popped in and out of a number of sessions but one that not only stood out, but also spoke to the larger themes of how we arrived at this point in the media timeline and where we might be headed, was hosted by James Wilkinson. James’ website describes his skill set as: Interaction Design, User Experience, Content Strategy, Social Media, Web Design, Creative Direction, Mobile Applications, Web Development ...which makes it reasonable to assume this guy knows what he’s talking about. (Note: You never really know at an unconference, so caveat emptor, etc).

The session was called “The future of content consumption”, but rather than being one of those bleary-eyed looks at a Jetsonian utopia, it was as much about the past as it was about what is to come. In framing the then vs. now James put things simply yet succinctly.  “Someone else used to create, someone else used to curate.”

As you'll note in the slides below, it took us thousands of years to get from smoke signals to the telegraph, but only about twenty to get from the rise of the consumer Internet in the mid 1990s to the social media juggernauts of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter -- and the device that changed everything, the iPhone.

Previously expensive, fairly specialized gear, all squeezed into one chocolate bar sized gadget.

The new norm is billions of pieces of content, made by us, made for us, recommended to us, targeted to us, or sought out by us, and across a panoply of screens that many own: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, wearable device. There’s also the “Internet of things”, in which computing capabilities are embedded in objects ranging from appliances to clothing, furniture, and even pills. You probably don’t think about it, but today’s cars now have millions of lines of code in them.

A miniature Times Square at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square
The takeaway: Get used to more connections, across more screens. And these screens include not just the ones in your pocket or your home, but also ones in public places. To this end, here’s a new acronym for you: DOOH. Which is not to be confused with Homer Simpson’s D’oh. DOOH stands for digital out of home, a type of digital signage found in outdoor, retail, and special event environments, that has the ability to communicate directly to us, and vice-versa. There already is, and will continue to be, an increasing seamlessness between our own screens and these screens. The digital signage at McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s or downtown plazas is just the beginning.

“The future is smart”, said Wilkinson. “And scary”, said an audience member.

Whether or not it’s as scary as some would lead us to believe is another one for the  “remains to be seen” file. There has always been techno-fear mongering and while some of it certainly has a basis, I’ll take the net benefits of technology over a world without it any day. It’s obviously a much larger debate, and one that I’m not going to get into here, but to grossly oversimplify things, it’s the price we pay for 'always on' media and on-demand information and entertainment...and the fact that we directly  ‘pay’ for very little of it. So payment takes other forms. Deal with it? Yes, we're all trying.

In Part 2 of this post, a look at the realities, and advantages, of working in a content niche. 

Related Posts: 

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?
Podcasts outnumber Broadcasts 2-to-1 on iTunes charts
Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube