Consumers vs. Creators (or Will the iPad Destroy the World?)

At a talk I gave a while ago, I was introduced as one of the early champions of "citizen journalism."

I cringed a bit.

While I revel in the idea that in the new digital age any one can create, I realized early on, not every one will.

While I’m a fan of Jay Rosen’s aphorism, "the people formerly known as the audience," I’ve never took it to mean that EVERYONE will become content creators.

I’m down with Power to the People. Digital tools have unleashed a new era of creativity that is explosive and energizing.

The era of digital media created new threats for established publishers, and it also created new opportunities.

For most of my career, and most of my boorish, loudmouth pontificating, I would like to think I’ve been more about pushing for newspaper people to embrace change as opportunity, albeit, because ignoring the threat will kill you.

I’ve never hearlded citizen journalism as a replacement professional journalists (I’m not sure many people ever really believed that, but I’ve certainly not been among them).  More, I’ve loved Dan Gillmore’s phrase, "journalism as a conversation."

I love the idea that stories are no longer static. We no longer live an era when an article is discussed with an editor, researched with an eye toward "the official record," written with great seriousness, edited with great thoroughness, and committed to paper as an inviolate document (at least, that’s the newspaper journalistic ideal).

Now, the savvy Web journalist can take what he knows, publish immediately, correct on the fly, collect input from readers (might be a comment, a phone call, an e-mail, a Tweet, etc.), link to a responding blog post, write an update, and let the story breathe its own life, whether that life might be minutes or days.

And, of course, any member of the "people formerly known as the audience" can start from scratch themselves, any place, any time and for their own purposes.

This approach leads, or should, I believe, to better informed citizens, and I hope, to greater civic engagement.

But all this new power does not mean that just because citizens will participate in the news process, they will. Just because you can drink beer, doesn’t mean you will. Just because you can watch baseball doesn’t mean you’ll turn on the TV. Just because you can plant seeds doesn’t mean you’ll choose to grow peas rather than flowers.  People make all kinds of lifestyle choices that are not powered by the ability to do something, but rather the preference to do something.

Today, Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) posted this Tweet:

This whole consumption v. creation (& app v. site) thing worries me because it reverts power to companies v. us all.

My reply led to a short conversation in which, once again, Jeff and I don’t see eye to eye.

Jeff pointed me to an article from ClickZ that contains a very impressive number for the total count of people who have posted something to the Web: 48 million. Wowza! That’s a lot of people.  Or so you think until you stop to consider, there are 309 million people in the United States

That means about 15.5 percent of the U.S. population has posted something to the Web.

That number tracks pretty close to the 90-9-1 Rule, which was never meant to provide a precise measure of the actual participation inequality, but it is a consistent rough measure.

The vast majority of people in the United States (and I’m sure the world, but to keep the argument straightforward, we’ll deal with this limited scope), are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.

And like people who prefer beer over wine or cats over dogs, they are making a choice of preference, not compulsion.  Putting more beer in the world won’t create more beer drinkers.

Jeff isn’t buying it. He’s quite apocalyptic about the meaning of the iPad — bad Apple and big media are trying to destroy us creators and turn us all into audience again.

Where Jarvis sees a conspiracy to destroy the wonders of the Web, I see a savvy business man — Steve Jobs — recognizing reality and going where the money is: That vast sea of consumers who have not the slightest interest in creating content and never will.  The iPad is aimed at them (and perhaps those geeks among us who want both the laptop for serious content creation and the iPad as an entertainment device).

Steve’s timing seems impeccability brilliant: I think consumers are ready for more portable, convenient, easy-to-use Internet.  The iPhone and iPod helped create the market and now Jobs is going with the next logical step in a sustaining innovation strategy.

Jarvis seems to think that evenutally all 309 million Americans will create. He tweeted:

Why draw a distinction w/online? Telling friends at Denny’s is little different from telling your on email, Facebook.


The Internet will get closer to what we do in life (not the other way around). In life, we talk. So do we online.

My response:

You’re a Utopian, Jeff. Which isn’t a bad thing. Helps drive innovation. But at some point Utopian visions hit brick walls.

To me, it’s pure fantasy to expect the 90-9-1 Rule (it should really be called the 90-9-1 Law) to be broken.  The whole world will no sooner become a populace creators than it will become a planet of dandelion eaters.

The reason most of this morning’s Denny’s patrons will never submit a status update to Facebook is because they think nobody cares about what they have to say (a far more admirably humble attitude than those of us who expects the world to hang on our every tweet), or they fear such postings will come back to haunt them. Or: They. Just. Don’t. Care.  There are a multitude of reasons why even very savvy Netizens will never do a status update, tweet, blog or comment, even on a post about their own grandchildren.

Steve Jobs is not evil for introducing a product aimed at that vast, immovable sea of humanity we sometimes derisively call consumers.  There’s money to be made there.

The big question is, who will make the money creating content and games for them: The established media companies, or new disruptive innovators?

Media companies have famously failed to recognize the true disruptive nature of the Web, and have fallen hopelessly behind in the world of HTML, links and video uploads.  I wouldn’t assume they will not do any better in adopting to the world of apps and touch screens.

Just like the 90-9-1 Law is unchangeable, the "audience is control" nature of the digital era isn’t going to be changed by any one device, and in fact, each new digital device further fragments the digital media world, making it harder for large corporate media concerns to survive and prosper.

Digital publishers should not be sending flowers to Steve Jobs, but neither should online innovators be hanging him in virtual effigy.

1 thought on “Consumers vs. Creators (or Will the iPad Destroy the World?)

  1. Howard, you (once again) have aptly and expertly described a most difficult position to sum up that some try in a few “spellbinding tweets” that usually are only snarky look-at-me posts. I have been amazed at the clanging thoughtless commentary in 140-character tweets woven in the waves of the tide since the emergence of e-readers and the announcement and final birthin og the first iPad.

    It is as much about consumer behavior, and a device’s ability  to provide a DESIRED (not just cause we think so) consumption model and how that (ultimately) serves and inteweaves technology into society. There are so many more dynamics at play — as you expertly say — than simple techno geeks, journo geeks, digital or print-only blinded, tunnel vision “because this is my field NOW it is the only right path” to the future than anyone can catch with the butterfly net.

    Fact is, so many folks feel the need to take a yes or no position on anything any more that sensible takes such as yours are lost in the shuffle — nay CRITICIZED for not being on one side or the other. Same thing is happening in our political discourse, too, but that’s another story.

    As an expert who works (often quietly for lack of wanting to be yet one more noise in the clamor plus I don’t have the time or patience to suffer fool’s noise) I think you nailed this one. You touch on the dynamics of behavior and habits people develop as technology develops and changes the internet that none of us in the “expert field” can predict with much more accuracy than the weather.

    There’s plenty of time and no matter, plenty of smart folks out there to maintain quality journalism no matter what comes our way.

    Well said, Howard, well said.


Leave a Reply