There is zero distance on the web, but a vast chasm between creation and consumption

In the midst of a very busy schedule this past week, Doc Searls did me the honor of linking to one of my posts as part of a longer essay about the web being a giant zero.

Only now have I had the time necessary to devote to a full reading of the post. I wanted to give it some time, because of who Doc is and the fact this was obviously an important post.

The Net is a giant zero. It puts everybody zero distance from everybody and everything else. And it supports publishing and broadcasting at costs that round to zero as well.

Regular readers know I agree with the sentiment here, but it’s worth parsing this statement a little bit to see how well it holds up.

Yes, Doc is zero distance from me and I am zero from him (if you count one or two clicks as zero distance), but how often do we read each other? He as much as admits he doesn’t read me, and his blog hasn’t been a part of my regular information diet for a few years. So, are we really a zero distance apart? In an era when even for the most rabid media consumer, there is wide and torrid fire hose of information (if not a literal Niagara Falls) to consume, one person can’t possibly get to it all. We all need to make choices.

Physical distances are removed in a distributed media world, but the price to be paid in the attention economy remains high, and gets higher all the time.

As for the second half of his statement, the net supports zero cost production, but it doesn’t necessarily reward it. Let’s face it, the vast majority of non-professional content is utter crap (and some portion of professional content as well).

While quality content can be produced on a near zero-cost basis (nothing is entirely free), it is no accident that the majority of the best content is produced by people who get paid to create it. There is a high volume (at least high enough that it remains impossible to keep up with all of it) of quality coming from non-paid producers, but professionals or aspiring professionals create the majority of the best content.

Because of, I surf around a lot looking for free MP3s. There is an amazing number of great songs available in the digital world. The vast majority of it is obscure and probably only ever heard by (at best) a hundred people or so. This is stuff that is obscure as it gets. It couldn’t possibly be even more obscure in a world without the web. These songs mostly remain hidden little treasures tucked away in forgotten corners of the digital world. I bet for every good song I find, there are 10 I’ll never find, just because the web is so sprawling and some of great stuff remains buried deep in the vast Milky Way of 1s and 0s.

That is not, I think, a zero-distance existence.

Part of the reason I created is because I saw some value in a reasonably well versed music consumer like myself acting as a filter to help other people find worthwhile music.

So much content, so little time.

An then there is the free stuff.

As Scott Karp alludes, there is no evidence that there is mass demand for people to create their own content. I bet if you added up all the people who regularly create unpaid content on the Web, it would amount to about 1 percent of the total web audience. Now, that’s a huge number, and I think quite sufficient to justify all the hoopla about participatory content creation, and enough of an audience to justify MSM sites getting into “social media,” but there remains a large part of the web audience who remain and always will be lurkers.

(I’d say this about the lurkers — probably 50/50 between those who value contributions from participants and those who don’t, and I would further lay money that the 50/50 split skews along age lines, with younger users preferring personal-voice participation and older generations longing for the good old days of packaged goods media. That’s all just a guess based on experience and observation in this realm.)

At even 1 percent, with maybe 1 percent of the 1 percent being worthwhile, that is a lot of content to sift through and deal with.

The next strand in the thought process here is a quote from Chris Hendricks: “Everbody loves an editor.” What I think Chris meant by that statement is the same thing I’m getting around to saying: There’s so much content to consume, people who filter it for you provide a valuable service.

Sure, with RSS and TiVo and other distributed media tools, along with an army of bloggers, it’s never been easier to consumer filtered information without the aide of a professional editor, but that doesn’t mean paid editors don’t have a role in distributed media.

In fact, I’m rather hopeful (as an MSM guy) that over time the value of filtering content for consumers only increases.

In my media world, there is no one way or one right way to filter content. Filtering is a distributed process, and just as i wrote in “We Are the Media,” professional editors are as much a part of the filtering process as volunteers.

Doc’s right when he says “UGC” is an ugly term.

Framing is a huge issue here. We have readers and viewers, not just “audiences” and “consumers”. We write articles and essays and posts, not just “generate content”. “User-generated content”, or UGC, is an ugly, insulting and misleading label.

“Content” is inert. It isn’t alive. It doesn’t grow, or catch fire, or go viral. Ideas and insights do that. Interesting facts do that. “Audiences” are passive. They sit still, clap and leave. That might be what happened with newspapers and radio and TV in the old MSM-controlled world, but it’s not what happens on The Giant Zero. It’s not what happens with blogging, or with citizen journalism. Here it’s all about contribution, participation. It involves conversation, but it goes beyond that into relationship — with readers, with viewers, with the larger ecosystem by which we all inform each other.

In the end, I think Doc and I are saying the same thing: It’s all a conversation, and MSM is as much a part of it (both in creation and in filtering) as anybody else, and MSM managers need to get that.

I guess my concern is that Doc makes it all sound so easy and so obvious. I don’t think it is. I think it’s a very complex ecosystem where the paid side stands on equal footing with the free side. For the MSM, I think we need to build content models that breathe deeply the air of that ecosystem, but on the flip side, the non-paid producers and editors would do well to see themselves not as something apart from the MSM, but as fellow travelers.

God, how egalitarian of me.

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