Media’s in cataclysmic shape these days — publishers closing big and small, newspapers going out of business, consolidation and layoffs everywhere — and it’s easy to blame technology.
There was a war that happened here — and media lost. Who won? Well, the truth is that no one did. The monopolies that Google and Facebook made money, sure — but now they face a steep backlash, social ridicule, oversight, and regulation. A pyrrhic victory, if you ask me.
Who started this war for attention? What was at the heart of it? Who should have ended it? The truth is that the lion’s share of responsibility for a fatally broken media industry lies with advertising, not technology. Let us think about it one step at a time.
Ad agencies had two roads before them, as the digital revolution dawned. One, go on selling the same old ads — nuisances, basically, that people had to put up with, in order to get to what they really valued — only in greater volume, because they would be cheaper. Two, innovate — and turn ads into things that people genuinely benefit from a little bit. Road one was an algorithmic, dehumanized road. Road two was the human, creative one.
Which road did the ad industry choose? The easy one, of course — the first one. It turned billboards into banners and glossy magazine ads into “microsites” and so on — at least at first. But nobody clicked. They tried more variations on the theme. Nothing worked. Ads just kept deflating in value — right down from thousands into pennies.