Micromedia futures or the emperor’s new clothes?

Disposable, atomised media is all the rage and I’m as guilty as the next person of wallowing in it.

Web 2.0 and all its trimmings is no exception to this trend, in fact it glories in all things transient.* But what does it add up to? This question is an itch worth scratching, so sometimes we revisit particular events after their initial outing.

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Which is why, after it’s May 2008 debut (which garnered some good coverage), Chinwag Live took the Micro Media Maze panel on tour to the annual ad:tech London expo in Olympia on September 24th 2008, for an afternoon session on the issues of widgetised, disaggregated media – exploring the trends they embody and are driving forward.

PANEL:
Umair Haque – Director, Havas Media Lab /Bubblegeneration / Harvard Business Online
Miles Lewis – SVP European Advertising Sales, Last.fm
Nick Halstead – CEO & Founder, fav.or.it
Chair: Steve Bowbrick – digital media consultant & entrepreneur

Steve Bowbrick opened by remarking that we’re coming to the end of the IP4 phase of the internet and moving into IP6 (what happened to IP 5 nobody knows). In IP 6, there is 2 times the power of 52 addresses to every star in the universe.

This fits with the trend that we see emerging today in the digital world of everything being connected to everything else.

Every device – whether it’s a PC, or a phone – can have its own address in the IP space, Steve said. Steve I’ll raise you a bunny and the arrival of that old stalwart the interactive fridge :-) . Conjuring up a picture of billions of interconnected end points, this reminded me somewhat of Bruce Sterling’s concept of spime but I digress…

The micro media era – content unbound

Micromedia” – a term coined independently by both panellist Umair Haque and new media theorist Lev Manovich in 2005 – held out the promise of content being able to move between these fixed places (or IP points), to be unbundled and rendered remixable; the resulting formations of which could unlock new sources of value. Steve Bowbrick didn’t mention this explicitly, but it’s worth revisiting Haque’s original 2005 Media Economics Powerpoint presentation. The implications certainly informed the discussion.

Nick Halstead of fav.or.it observed that widgets are catering to the ability to customize, another trend we’ve seen explode over the last few years as media becomes more personalised. In turn, the widgets provided by MyBlogLog, Digg, etc, are using the medium in a very viral way, he noted.

fav.or.it’s widgets expose what widgets are popular on fav.or.it. There’s also an attention tracking element to their widgets, Halstead explained, as they’re tracking the number of seconds each user who has installed the widget spends on it and on the sites / URLs visited via the widget.

Widgets and the media balance sheet…

Last.fm now has 21 million users and an additional 19 million more people coming in through widgets. But they have a problem, as their SVP of advertising Miles Lewis explained. They can’t monetise people who only visit and experience Last.fm on widgets, and hence can’t pay for the music rights (publishing, recording and streaming rights).

Currently, there are 350m active Last.fm widgets [I need to check the podcast coming this week to verify this figure], and they also have free streaming on the iPod. Their recent re-design has helped them in terms of streaming rights and deals with the labels, Lewis explained.

But, Steve Bowbrick asked, isn’t that reversing the entire widgetisation trend? To which Lewis replied:

“It’s less about reversing a trend than it’s about building a bigger widget that has an ad on it.”

‘Last.fm In A Box’ is a new solution they’re working on, Lewis revealed [see Mashable and CNET's coverage of the announcement in June 2008]. If you click on the link, it opens a player and a commercial message starts that you can then minimise if you wish to proceed immediately. It’s on Rockstar.com on the Guitar Hero game.

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Mile Lewis of Last.fm

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Miles Lewis of Last.fm

Trojan horse for toxic media?

Umair Haque took the premise of widgets – and media more broadly – to task.

“We need to step back and realise that if we use widgets to bring the same old paradigm, that trend will eat itself, as it has done on Wall Street. The stuff we trade in, in media, is in danger of becoming toxic waste.

Now I’ve heard of toxic boyfriends and toxic hangovers before ;-) , and this week’s been all about toxic debts in financial markets, but toxic media was a new one for me. Haque posited an alternative:

“Ads have to become benefits for consumers – communication as benefit, not cost. Media and communications need to help people improve their abilities.”

“But most media – all the stuff we’re surrounded by here at ad:tech – is about making stuff 1% more efficient than it currently is. Most widgets are just distribution mechanisms for the same old junk, and these widgets are about amplifying the devaluation of that junk.”

Off-the-peg widgets for social networks

From the audience Miko Coffey asked the panel’s view on Widgetbox, which allows creation of widgets on the fly that run on Bebo, Myspace and the like.

Miles Lewis replied that Last.fm are open source. Nick Halstead explained that fav.or.it supports Creative Commons licensing, but the problem is that many of these sites promise to deliver widgets that work everywhere but they’re still not mass market enough.

Another audience member from a charity told how they had created an alcohol tracking widget, where users could enter their intake of alcohol and track how that changed and added up over time. How could they get older people to use this widget, when use of this media is dominated by a young audience?

Game-changing moves and creating new markets

Umair Haque turned the question around.

“Nintendo would never have created the Wii if they’d asked who the average game player was. Ten years ago, we never would have thought that old people would be playing games.”

Implicit in Haque’s statement was the understanding that Nintendo have eschewed recycling the same old ideas and assumptions in a new wrapper. Instead, they have done something different and created a whole new market in the process.

He cited companies like Kiva, who have pioneered micro-lending to entrepreneurs in developing countries, as salutary in that regard (the Grameen micro-financing initiative is in a similar vein and was recently mentioned by Vint Cerf in a piece for The Guardian). They show how enabling micro-transactions in a counter-intuitive fashion (from the financial norm in this instance) have been incredibly powerful and transformative.

Business models and the limits of social media

Another audience member who only wished to be identified as coming from “a social networking property”, asked about Last.fm’s business model. Lewis explained it was fourfold: advertising, affiliates, subscriptions, and on the biz dev side, a client like a retailer could use Last.fm In A Box to stream music and place an ad it, so people could listen to that while on the retailers website.

I took this to mean a white labelled widget or plug-in powered by Last.fm that adds ambience to a site, and the user experience, and monetises itself simultaneously.

While the crowd-pulling seminars at ad:tech London seemed to revolve around monetising social media, it seemed that our panel was more frank about the progress made to date. Last.fm, as the poster child of the UK’s Web 2.0 scene (they spoke alongside Skype at the first Beers & Innovation event I organised in February 2006), is still to turn a profit despite its huge audience. Since its acquisition by CBS/ Viacom, it has leeway to continue to grow whilst it pursues this objective.

The next wave of micro media

In turn, the economic shocks reverberating around the world should give us pause for thought. Perhaps the recession we’re poised to enter will precipitate new ways of creating value, and innovative services and strategies that foster that. Recall that game-changing services Craigslist and Flickr were born out of the utility and creativity fostered in the downtime of the last doctcom bust. Keeping an eye on mobile services is probably a good idea.

Steve Bowbrick, reflecting on the session, gives his view:

“The business of marketers should be to invest in durable, authentic content and experiences for their customers, not coming up with increasingly effective ways of taking them to the cleaners. At a conference and trade show devoted to online advertising I think this was a good message to leave behind.”

Whatever happens, we should assume that while micro media may be here to say, its deployment by companies and organisations is not intrinsically clever.

Instead, what will make micro media strategies fly is a combination of experimental chutzpah and purpose to solve real problems. Or else, like Haque says, it could just be about making stuff 1% more efficient, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

[* Of course Web 2.0 has many upsides too, collaborative software being my particular favourite, and services such as Zopa]

—-

PREVIOUS EVENTS ON WIDGETS & MICRO MEDIA:

Beers & Innovation: Aggregator & Upsetters – October 2006 (event report)

Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised – May 2007 (event report)

Mobile Monday London: Mobile Widgets – May 2007

Chinwag Live on Tour: Media Widgetised at ad:tech London – September 2007

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze – May 2008 (event report)

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