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When is Content King?

2012 May 20
by Greg Satell

Throughout his career, Rupert Murdoch built a fortune by marrying tantalizing content with superior distribution.  I can see why he’s pissed.

The media value chain has been thrown into disarray. Lines between creation, curation and outright piracy are blurry at best.  Some would say that they don’t exist at all. And distribution?  Once information is out, it’s out.  The Internet has infinite memory.

It seems like some rules are being violated, but whose rules?  Shakespeare was a habitual plagiarizer (by today’s standards anyway).  Many scholars believe that Homer never really existed, but that the epics were created and honed by generations of oral transfer.  Many of the norms we revere are recent, not historical.  So, what should guide us?

Infinite Monkeys and the Library of Babel

To assess the value of content, a good place to start is the infinite monkey theorem, which rightly points out that an infinite number of monkeys randomly tapping away at keyboards would produce the works of Shakespeare, Homer and every other form of literature that we have come to embrace as masterworks.

Jorge Borges takes the idea even further in his story the Library of Babel, in which he describes an infinite library where  every combination of letters in every language is contained.  As a writer and librarian himself, Borges clearly struggled with the issue, as he makes clear in this passage:

The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms…  Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species — the unique species — is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure…

Thomas Kuhn makes a similar point in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argues that precedence in scientific discoveries is somewhat arbitrary; a matter of perspective rather than fact.  Clearly, every creation is some form of curation.  Where exactly do we draw the line?

The Media Turing Test

In 1950 Alan Turing published a paper which described a method of determining machine intelligence, known as the Turing test.  The idea was simple: have a panel ask a computer questions and, if they can’t tell the difference, than the computer should be considered intelligent.

In a media environment where content is delivered through brands, curators and robots, I think a similar litmus test applies.  If consumers aren’t making a distinction, then nothing of value is being created.  If a media brand can’t pass a media version of the Turing Test, then it is really just a distribution channel.

I think that’s what Mathew Ingram meant when he wrote that it’s not about piracy, it’s about a failure to adapt.  Our current media norms aren’t set in stone.  As a matter of fact, they are relatively new, mostly formed in the last half-century.  They are also local, different cultures make different assumptions about what constitutes intellectual property, libel and so on.

So it does seem a bit arbitrary, as well as naive, to expect that attitudes will support one media business model over another.  If your argument invokes posterity (and very recent posterity at that) it’s not much of an argument.

Media Memes

Another pertinent question to ask is how something valuable can be so easily copied.  The technical answer is fairly simple:  Analog signals are sampled and then turned into a series of ones and zeros, stored and transmitted through fiber-optic cable and then rendered on a screen or printed out.  In that way a great work of art can be widely distributed.

Like this, for example:

By the standards of the current discourse,  I am devaluing the Mona Lisa by displaying it here.  Once everyone knows what it looks like, the show is over, or so some say.  Yet, if that’s true, how can you explain the lines at the Louvre?  For that matter, why do people line up to pay at the movie theatre box office when they can soon see it at home for free?

As I argued in a previous post, it is the proliferation of Mona Lisa’s memes that drives our interest in the original, just as it is the New York Times reputation that drives our interest in its journalism and why the Jason Blair scandal was potentially so damaging.  It’s not just the content, it’s the context.

Creation is King

In the final analysis, content was never king.  Creation was and still is.  It’s distribution that has been devalued and the failure to make that distinction is what’s causing the so-called media crises.  It’s also why the Grateful Dead made a fortune allowing people to bootleg their concerts while the recording industry was driving itself into near bankruptcy.

Newspapers are failing, but Bloomberg and Reuters are prospering.  Columnists, movie stars, TV show producers, political pundits, even magazines pass the media Turing Test. TV and Radio stations don’t (although top Dj’s do).  No one mistakes Google News, Zite or Flipboard for a content creator or even a curator, they are filters and everybody knows it.

Do newspapers?

What makes content valuable is the act of creation itself.  Even the Library of Babel would be useless without a librarian (and a very good one at that).  Having infinite monkeys at our disposal would not be the least bit useful.  Creators are important and remain so because they are effective curators.  They point the way for us.

Content is only king when it provides a window into the soul of the one who creates it.

– Greg

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