It’s not often that I have an epiphany in a book store. Today, however, was the exception. I was lazily wandering around Trident Bookstore (a sort of Boston version of the Tattered Cover but with more humus options on the menu), looking in vain for a present for my mother. Granted I was distracted by the idle bookish banter going back and forth between myself and the friend I was with, but I finally got tired of the hunt, said “forget it!” and walked back up to the front of the store. And there, neatly displayed in convenient impulse-buy format was the book shelf devoted to employees’ picks of the month. From a small set of choices I was quickly able to find something I thought she’d like (The Red Tent). And herein came my epiphany: what the world needs now is not more content but more editors. And to boot, it dawned on me that a lot of the interesting startup ideas I have seen recently are following this trend - reintroducing the editor back into our lives.
You Can’t Make Choices without Bias
Let’s step back a second and understand what’s happened in the world of media consumption in the last 10 years. Pre-internet (which sort of sounds like “pre-modern-day” now) pretty much everything we consumed was controlled by a limited number of sources. Whether it was classic fourth estate newspapers, Sam Goody and the Wherehouse, or a small offering of cable channels, our access to content was limited. Of course not every newspaper or television channel that leveraged its distribution monopoly into our homes became successful. Those that rose to the top did it through excellent editorial oversight.
essentially have two functions: pick the most important content from the
various sources they have at their disposal and manage the brand or positioning
that is projected through those choices. That said, the blessing, the curse,
and the not so unobvious dirty little secret of said editorial function is that
it introduces bias into the equation. In the end though, it’s this bias which
leads to consistent editorial choices.
Slouching Towards Authorgeddon
a newspaper editor’s choices of content for example. They have AP feeds, staff
writers, freelance writers (stringers),
op ed pieces, etc.. all at their
disposal when putting together their dailies. On top of that, they have
multiple choices about richer media with which to emotionally paint their
pieces. Remember the bru-ha-ha
[scroll down] over the differing OJ Simpson
covers on Time and Newsweek? For every issue, an editor makes 1000s of choices
to about what to print and what not to.
A friend of mine who is the editor of the Atlantic Monthly recently told me he has over 12,000 non-fiction submissions (not including his own staff’s work) to choose from a year. And in the television world, through a friend of mine who has written for CSI, Vanished and Chuck, I have heard about the reams of spec pilot scripts that NBC, CBS, etc.. have to choose from each season. Any way you slice it, the editorial function has been busy at work for us over the last 10 years.
all changed one day when someone inspirationally stuck the word “citizen” in
front of “journalism” and “media” in
every 2002 VC presentation about the changing face of online content. And with
that one small step, a giant leap for mediakind was taken.
With the dawning of user generated content, we have cast aside the editorial function, and in the process migrated from a consumption generation to a participation generation. Blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia, Podcasting, Facebook, Flickr – the alphabet is littered with participation economy portmanteaus and poorly spelled company names that allowed anyone with an internet connection to become a content producer. The last time I checked, Technorati reported 57MM blogs in existence (its probably much more by now). As of 6:00pm EST, MySpace has had 75,195 videos uploaded TODAY. And last year’s 90,000 member strong National November Writing Month [www.nanowrimo] novel-in-a-month club generated 473,201,894 words all slouching further towards Authorgeddon in only 14 days!
of this goes through an editor. It’s all headlines on the global front page
that is the Internet. Unless I get to start using more than 10% of my brain, I
think I’m going to have to pull a Gary Larson pretty soon:
The Production Curve and Community Percolation
so after a few years generating all this stuff (insert appropriate George
Carlin “stuff’ reference here) we clearly have the problem of too much stuff. How
do people end up picking what to read and watch and what to ignore. Well, what
we’ve seen so far is three emergent solutions to this problem. The first is
what I would call the quality over quantity (QoQ) approach, the second I’m
going to name “community percolation”, and the third is the authority approach.
Quality over Quantity (QoQ)
occurs when content producers decide that the best way to attract consumers to their
content is by adding a higher degree of production to it. By pushing up the
production value, one can argue there is a direct correlation to moving from
the right to the left in the classic long tail curve. The most obvious (and
first) examples would be produced blogs. Sites like TMZ, Gawker, TechCrunch,
Engadget, AskTheVC, etc.. are all what I would call lightly produced QoQ content.
That means that someone (or more likely a team) with actual writing or
journalistic skills puts some effort into silly little things like fact checking,
correct punctuation and grammar (clearly I don’t strive to elevate myself to
this level), editing, and generally well-written or thought out pieces. People
go to these blogs because, on the whole, they are guaranteed a more valuable
consumer experience (e.g. there are few posts about what movie Mike Arrington watched last night). But wait, you say, this is really just like a newspaper or
magazine. Well, as I will explain in a bit, it’s not, because for the most part
it’s all sourced by the staff bloggers themselves. Yes, there is an editorial
choice about what to write, but the key is that it’s not culled from multiple
We see the same phenomenon on YouTube and MySpace with the emergence of higher quality content channels (MySpace’s Roommates excepted!) and also with a number of higher production quality independent pod/videocasts like the one from my good friend Dana Brunetti at TriggerStreet.com. In general “production” can mean higher core quality (e.g. using something more than a Motorola Razr to take video at a Tool concert) or thoughtful post-production editing like you see on TriggerStreet or another friend of mine’s Citizen Sports Network.
to some extent the QoQ approach has worked. Feedburner quotes 768K (yes that’s 768,000)
subscribers to TechCrunch. While that’s not quite the New Yorker’s 1M
subscriber base, if you include what is probably a much higher secondary and
tertiary readership with blogs (most people not using subscriber email or RSS
feeds), we’re talking aggregate readership levels that the ABC would register firmly as a blip on their
solution I mentioned is what I call community percolation. Community
percolation can really be attributed in origin to Digg (and its multiple
successors and automated derivatives like TechMeme
and StumbleUpon). Many people call this community
filtering but I think that moniker is a bit misleading. Filtering, to me,
implies an intentional slicing of a data set using specific criteria. By
definition, the masses have no common criteria other than grunting “this blog good” while hitting a
button. Semantics set aside, the idea here is that the wisdom of the masses
shall help the cream of the blogosphere rise to the top. If you believe this
will solve all of our problems let me remind you of two things: first, Jaron
Lanier’s fantastic treatise on lowest common denominators, Digital Maoism and second,
Bush’s second term (come on guys, that one was tee ball). While Digg does
reduce the overall noise, it serves in reality as a band-pass filter not a
high-pass filter (yes, I took one EE course at MIT – and all I got to show for
it was one semi-intelligent sentence in a blarticle).
last solution is the authority approach. This has a few derivatives but
generally follows the mantra “if X is an authority on Y and I am interested in
Y and X recommends something about Y its worth my time to check it out”. This
takes place in the form of recommendation engines (Amazon and NetFlix), the
Technorati Authority system,
and my friend Matt Cutler’s random indie music recommendations (most recent
would be Bassnectar and Phantom Planet). In general this can work in limited
circumstances (picking a horror movie to add to your NetFlix queue), the
problem is that it’s hard to find out who is an authority on anything very
quickly on the net. Go ahead, try and find out who is a real authority on
Bangladesh in less than 2 minutes. I just tried this and it’s not so easy!
So after a few years of user generated content, what we’re seeing is that the three solutions I mentioned do help a bit but not in the way that any of us really want. The metric for “really want” is simple – it still frigging annoying to find content you like on the net. And the more people hit the publish button the worse its getting.
The Return of the
If you consider a spectrum with the New York Times on one side and your average blogger on the other, it’s interesting to consider what the two end points really represent. Some might see that spectrum as simply the continuum from professional journalism to citizen journalism. But I’m sure most people could point out a blogger that writes better than an in-house journalist or a journalist that is more insightful and free of voice than some bloggers. So I don’t think that’s the scale. What I think the scale is really about the editorial function.
the left we have a tightly controlled editorial function performing both a
filtration and assembly mechanism pulling from a number of different sources and
also introducing bias to the benefit of the readers. On the right we have an
individual voice, someone who by definition has a bias, but generates all
content and thus provides no filtering or assembly other than what they choose
to write about. So what’s half way between Bill Keller and me? This is what I call Editor 2.0.
can have citizen journalist (bloggers), citizen media (YouTube and people on
the street uploading live coverage on UStream.tv) we can definitely have
citizen Editors. This, in my opinion, is the next step in the future of media.
Consider for a minute some of the trends that are pointing in this direction. First, let’s consider the editor function of filtration and assembly. Last time I checked, pretty much every single thing on the web was getting delivered by a feed or was designed to share. Flickr, blog entries, YouTube videos, del.icio.us tags, etc.. these are all input sources akin to the Reuters and AP newswire feeds that most daily editors cull from. Second, while blog entries are already published when you find them, such fragmentation in the market means they are probably relatively unread and assembling them into an aggregate format and republishing them to a broader audience probably encroaches little on their readership loyalty by the fact that they might exist elsewhere as well.
consider that many people already play the editor role, if but for themselves.
iGoogle, myYahoo, NetVibes, the Daily Me, etc.. they are all really just
systems set up to let people become their own editors using the familiar
section-based format of a paper with access to all the feeds underlying those
sections. If you took this model and you turned it outwards, not inwards, this
would be citizen editing in its simplest and roughest form.
let’s get a bit more specific about what the next generation of media is going
to look like. Let’s take the easy one – blogs. A while ago a friend of mine,
Eric Herman, and I came up with an idea we called Tabula Rasa (TR). TR was in
essence my first exploration into citizen editing. I was frustrated with the
insane growth in blogs and more particularly the breadth of topics covered in
most blogs I read (e.g. a blog purportedly about PeopleSoft sometimes has
random entries about a vacation spot the blogger went to). I was so overwhelmed
culling through the sheer volume of blog entries in my blog reader every day
that I simply gave up and took the lazy blogosphere approach (a derivative of
the more general Lazy Web). The lazy blogosphere
approach relies on me staying in sparse communication with the smarter bloggers
and entrepreneurs I know and relying on the fact that if anything really
important comes up, someone will send me a link to it. Frankly I think this
works pretty well as I just got two links to the same NYT article related to
something I am working on within 5 minutes this morning. This, as a side note, was
a subconscious default to the authority solution I mentioned above.
What we really need is a new platform designed for the editorial function. This is what Eric and I envisioned TR to be. A sort of console for taking incoming feeds, finding related media, and cobbling together a front page of the best of the best. If you wanted to add your own blog entries to it, then by all means. Imagine that rather than write a blog about Tennis I was more interested in pulling together the best writing about Tennis on a daily basis. The TR platform we designed would let you do this in 15 minutes.
of the beauties of the TR concept is that it would publish in a newspaper front
page format. What I mean by this is that it disrupts the time based entry
format of blogs. This is one of the biggest problems with blogs in my opinion.
The best content is seldom at the top of the blog. When I scan my blarticle
readership, seldom is the top entry the most read (due to inbound links from
Google and emailed links to outside readers). With the front page format,
citizen editors could choose to keep important articles and stories on the
front page for longer, swapping out side stories that might be more current. In
my own blog I’d love to keep some of my better and more timeless pieces
prevalent on the blog but I am relegated to making a “best of the best” sidebar
set of links.
The other beauty of the TR concept is that different media types about a subject could be sourced from different places. Maybe there is a fantastic blog entry on Wimbledon but the best picture is from Flickr and a great video of the final match is on YouTube. TR would allow me to assemble these quickly into one seamlessly produced front page.
know, I know, everyone will say “what about licensing issues”. Well there are a
few simple half-solutions (like creative commons licensing) and blurbing (ala
Google News) and such, but in general I think the benefits would outweigh the
means and you could always include attribution and eventually advertising
revenue share to all the content contributors.
And the same thing is emerging in video. With live video platforms like Ustream.tv and Justin.tv becoming more popular, it won’t be far off when we can skip between multiple live video streams of events. An editor can easily insert themselves into this process and hand direct the best “camera” angles in real time just like TV stations do for sporting events and live TV programming.
or later someone will construct something like this and the citizen editor will
emerge. And once the citizen editor has emerged, community editing will emerge
as well. A few like minds can pretty easily keep on top of a topic or two on
the net and edit it into one useful front page.
Swinging the Pendulum
starting to think there is a palpable gestalt emerging around this right now.
You can even see it in traditional media. Walk into any bookstore and you will note
that some of the most popular titles on shelves are edited compendiums. A good
example would be the “Best American Writing” series. These things are everywhere and they espouse the value of an editor. If
you hunted around you could find all the articles yourself but I can tell you
from personal experience it’s worth just buying the book. It’s scary to identify
a media trend by pointing at something from the printed media world, but let’s
not get too full of our internet selves here.
Whether traditional media goes first or entrepreneurism comes to the rescue, it’s definitely time the pendulum starts swinging back towards the middle.