Looking back over the big stories of 2008, I’d have to go with the failed Microsoft/Yahoo acquisition as the least surprising and most interesting drama of the technology world. Coming as it did in the wake of Google’s rapid climb to the top, Yahoo’s failure to resonate and Microsoft’s to take advantage of the flattening of the Web 2.0 curve underscored the hard work ahead.
If it weren’t for the economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama, we might be tip-toeing into 2009 with very little underlying context for how to measure the importance of technology in our daily lives. As realtime media eats its parents and apparently destroys the economic constructs of the previous generation, few of our “thought leaders” seem willing to call the next winners. Instead, they settle for calling out the losers.
Newspapers are a common target. Certainly the handwriting is on the wall around the content, with current digital monetization returning a dime on the print dollar. So the conservative analysis goes: the 90 cents is gone, melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, not to return. The more liberal thinking is that the dime will grow, not fast enough to save the jobs but eventually because the value will find its audience.
Television seems more buttressed against complete collapse, but the banking implosion could foreshadow the speed of decline in broadcast media if some analog to incomprehensible derivatives lies waiting just below the surface. Imagining prime time becoming a shootout between Jay Leno, Comedy Central, and Keith Olbermann may not be too hard if the series cancellations accelerate past some threshold. If Heroes implodes, will Gray’s Anatomy be enough to stem the tide? Hollywood is having a tough time competing with reality these days.
The music business may be entering a climactic phase, as the social networks realize that’s where the real money is pooling. Facebook Connect is the third rail here; if users find out what their attention is really worth, some of these networks will be trampled in the rush for the doors. My money is still with Apple for now, but whoever controls the social graph as DVR will be in the driver seat.
Having just violated the Loser scenario if only a little, let’s handicap the next few months as they might play out. January 20th looms as the first inflection point, where the Republicans have to start playing regulation ball. Given the critical need for funding of the green and healthcare initiatives on the back of the Big Bailout of ’09, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see some posturing from the right overwhelmed by the grace period of economic data taking some time to reflect the impact of the money injection.
In the absence of cable news drama of the usual kind, the focus may shift to the new media rally. Already we’re seeing the beginnings of the attack on Page Rank, the canonization of realtime media, and the roots of a new authority model. In essence, Web 2.0 has lost its brand momentum to the social vortex. Google continues to mine the growing extensions to Adsense, but user awareness of the value of their gestures is changing the nature of acceptable user contracts.
Scoble’s vision of mining the Twitter (FriendFeed) database of gestures is colliding with the notion of the free Web. Couched as a religious issue, the choice seems obvious: the volume of ambient signals outperforms the scoped cloud of qualified micro-communities. This is where the digital dime lives today – not enough to jump but enough to undermine a significant portion of the remaining tail of the dollar.
From the user’s perspective, the choice will soon morph from one of access to one of curated value. A choice of an unmanageable stream of free data or a controlled metered aggregation where the ROI is recorded and fed back into the stream as a constant reminder of its effectiveness and the user’s value to the system. Once the user understands the value of time spent in navigation (filtering) the economics of the system will tip.
Thus we have the race to deliver realtime activity streams with recursive social filtering. We know who the horses are: Facebook, Microsoft, Google/MySpace, FriendFeed/Twitter – and the drivers: Apple, Ebay/Skype, Amazon. Where they meet head on – VoIP over the iPhone, videoconferencing over 3G, Twittercredits redeemable at the popcorn line – is where micropayments meet microcommunities.
Extrapolating from this moment where user value creates economic clout, where does the power reside in funding the new media? On the surface, the incumbents remain in charge – the Oscars, the SuperBowl, the Stones tour, and so on. But how we pay for our entertainment shifts to some degree from the work we do to the way we share our impressions, expertise, insights, humor, and emotions. And even more valuable – what we’re bored by, cheated by, pandered to, and so on. The social capital that’s built by studios, companies, political figures, religious leaders is an ongoing reputational referendum – authority rank in the most dynamic and fluid of systems.
How soon we see this recovery depends on how difficult the transition is from paper dollar to digital dime. The digital dime may be worth more for its efficiency in reaching targeted markets than the anonymous dollar it is replacing. The social clouds we maintain and the affinities they reveal are powerful tools for getting the attention of companies and government, and extracting discounts, responsiveness, and even equity in future products. These shared dimes can add up to real money.