Thoughts on the Future of Content

(I recently spoke at the India Social Summit in Delhi on the Future of Content. My slides, video and a transcript of my talk is below. I am deeply indebted to Nandita Saikia for transcribing my talk.)



The Future of Content – Gautam John at the IndiaSocial Summit 2012

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So, I’m ostensibly talking about the future of content but what I’m really going to do is trace an arc of content from historical times to the present to see if anything has really changed. So when we first think about content, be it in the modern age or in the historical age, we think about books is something that we can touch, or music that we listen to, or video that we watch. And, truthfully, the content age we imagine started with Gutenberg and the printed Bible.

What that allowed us to do is to actually produce accurate copies faster, and most likely cheaper, than ever before. So it was the Gutenberg press and the Gutenberg Bible that pretty much kicked off our entire content revolution, so to speak. But that is not to say that there has not been content before that. Before Gutenberg, monks in monasteries handwrote books, and what’s interesting to note is that we lost something with the Gutenberg revolution; we lost the ability to make changes. Whereas when monks wrote and copied out manuscripts and books, it wasn’t rote copying. What they did was introduce small little changes that kept stuff contemporary and changed with the times. 

And even before that we had, in India, the guru-sishya system of learning and of storytelling, which allowed stories and content to morph with time to take on local flavour and context. And in some way, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, we lost that entire subtlety that have content had — which begs the question: what does all of this content do?

Content has historically, and today, been what I’d like to refer to as social objects. They have catalyzed conversations. The old coffee shops of London, and of Europe, were centres of conversation, and this conversation always was catalyzed by objects of content – be it a talk, be it a newspaper, be it a book, be it a political philosophy. Coffee shops have played a role in revolutions as well, and I’d like to think coffee shops were the original Twitter. They talk about content, people voice unasked for opinions, and they have fomented revolutions as well.

When you talk about content, the next thing that people consider is piracy. That’s the big, big, big thing. And piracy isn’t new. As far back as 1557, the Queen of England gave the Stationers’ Company an exclusive monopoly to publish and copy content in United Kingdom. They were the only people who could make copies, and in 1603 was the first recorded use of the word ‘pirate’. People who made unauthorized copies of content were called Pirates.

Of course, this entire model of content is something that I would like to look at in a more structured to way and as what I call ‘the content lifecycle’. And as I see it, the content lifecycle has four essential ingredients: [One:] Is the creation of content, and the creation can be in multiple ways. It can be, for example, the Gutenberg press, rote copying, or with manuscripts introducing small modifications. [Two:]  The distribution of content be it through bookshops and centralized models, or even through peer models. [Three:] The consumption of content which otherwise, as we like to say it, to watch a movie, to read a book, or to listen to music. And the last one, which actually closes the loop, is the conversation around the content.

And the truth be told, historically, till about 20 years ago, these conversations were all horizontal groups of peers but never really exploded on a global scale. And what made that possible was the Internet, of course. What the Internet has primarily done in terms of content is three things: the first one is that geography is now history. I’m as close to Manu who lives close to my house as I am to people in the US who live far away and I have never seen. And what the Internet has allowed us to do is (a) break down geography as an issue, and (b) to accelerate the speed of conversation and to amplify it, in the sense of the velocity of discussion, so to speak. And the third most important thing from a content perspective is, because the Internet is all-digital, it functions as one big copying machine. Bits and bytes are far more easily copied than physical objects.

When you bring content and digital era together, what are some of the things that could happen? For one, we longer have the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica; first published in 1768, 2010 was the last hardcover edition. If I look at this through the lens of the content creation model that I posit, it’s interesting to see and examine why, perhaps, this is the last edition of the printed Britannica model.

Britannica is produced in a very traditional, hierarchical notion; the content creation is done by experts, and is done in a slow, methodical, analytical, and quite truthfully, verifiable, manner. It has then been historically been distributed through one format which is the 26 volumes of Britannica that grace our shelves, or the World Book which was popular in India. It’s only ever really used as a referential encyclopaedia; no one ever says, “I want to read Britannica today,” and flips open a book of Britannica and continues reading it. Nobody ever says, “What does someone think about Bangalore?” and open Encyclopaedia Britannica anymore. The third one is around the consumption which is very specific and not really consumed widely. And the fourth one is the conversation loop. Very rarely do we have conversations about Encyclopaedia Britannica. 50 years ago, sure, it was the de facto reference piece but that’s no longer the case.

And if you contrast this with what many people say caused the death and downfall of the Encyclopaedia Britannica — Wikipedia — you’ll see that that content cycle is completely different. The creation is not done by high priests of knowledge; it is done by you and me, it is validated by you and me. The distribution is not via print although you can buy Wikipedia in print; Wikipedia is available on as many devices as you own, and then a few. The consumption is fantastic; Wikipedia links are tweeted every day. I am having an argument with Kartik about the nature of global warming; I will tweet him a link about Wikipedia and not about Encyclopaedia Britannica. And the fourth one which is really, really important is the conversation loop; what Wikipedia has built on is that conversation: Wikipedia’s content. And that content has been built upon by the conversation that goes on not just between people using Wikipedia that people editing Wikipedia. Editors talk to each other, editors keep content current. And that to me is the huge charm of what the digital era allows. 

Of course, what I find charming, other people find terrifying. And the truth of the ma
tter is, I think, as much as we have nostalgic memories of the old, we’ve passed the inflection point where that can actually happen, and the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can build more innovative models. But something to keep in mind is that nostalgia will always have a premium. There will always be a place for older models of content and older forms but those will necessarily move to more premium models. Which, of course, is a good thing because the amount of content that’s available to us is just enormous.

The challenge for content creators really is that the distinction between the amateur and the professional is blurred. The amateur and the professional have access to the same tools, the same networks of distribution and the same limited attention span that you and I have. So the question really is: If everyone’s producing content, if everyone has access to the same tools, what are some takeaways content producers and businesses built on content can do?

The first one I’d like to think of is how we consume content today. So, this is an interesting comic from someone call the Oatmeal put up recently. (I don’t know if you saw it.) He read this wonderful book called ‘The Game of Thrones’ and then he said, “Oh! There’s a TV series out because people on Twitter are talking about it,” and he goes to watch it on NetFlix (of course, it’s not available), then he says, “Let me buy the DVD,” — and of course, as we all know, in India, because we’re Region 6 on the DVD, we get DVDs much later. So, finally, he does what most of us would do — not me, of course, but most of y’all — he downloads the torrent, which is consuming content, but it’s just a possible loss of revenue for an organization even though he’s tried really hard to make that [i.e. buying a copy] possible.

The four broad trends I’d like to touch upon — the first one is: I think the notion of control of content is over. The same thing that digital technology makes possible, it also makes impossible. We can no longer control the content. DRM is dead. DVD region encoding is dead. I’m happy that FlipKart agrees with me that DRM is dead. And the truth of the matter is that content now needs to be always available. There is no more artificial scarcity that we can introduce into the content ecosystem. You cannot say the US will watch it before me because I’m speaking to the people in the US everyday, and I want to watch it when they are talking about it. So content has to be globally available and always available. You cannot close your store like IRCTC does between 10 PM at night and 5 AM in the morning. It’s not going to happen because the bit torrent store is always open.

The third thing is accessibility, and I use accessibility in two ways. The first is: I want to buy content once and consume it everywhere. You, as a content producer, either need to make that possible or I will go on to make it possible. I will rip my DVDs, I will download my e-books because if I have the printed book, I don’t see it as morally ambiguous to do that.

The corollary to accessibility is something that I’d briefly like to touch upon about open standards. I think we now have the technological ability to make things consumable everywhere because we are driving towards a world with open standards. The other rationale for accessibility and open standards is that we now have the chance to include everyone in the consumption of content: the visually impaired, the print impaired — technology makes this possible. These content producers need to embrace open standards and make accessibility, not just for those of us who want to access content on multiple devices but for those of us who have never been able to access content historically otherwise.

The second point on content is around the consumption of content. We have traditionally looked at content consumption as something that is very individual, very personal: to read a book, to listen to music, and to watch a movie alone — and these are things that we glorify. And those will always exist — I don’t think those they’re going away — but what we now have the ability to do is transcend the consumption of content from an individual activity to a shared group experience; to actually consume content the way we live in groups. And what’s fantastic about that is that while the Internet makes this possible, it also makes possible the viral spread of this content consumption, and also, the word-of-mouth marketing, which is by far the most powerful way of marketing. So, to make your content consumption possible in groups and as an experience is also to make the viral spread through word-of-mouth marketing possible. 

Of course, this is fairly worrying and I think every epochal shift is marked by people bemoaning the loss of business models, and much use of law and technology to limit what is possible and to also criminalize what we otherwise called sharing. But there’s something very interesting that I also read recently. Nina Paley — I don’t know if you know her. She made this wonderful animated film called ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ and then not only did she make it available for free, she also made it available for people to remix and translate — she was recently addressing a group of 17 and 18 year old in the US, and her big concern was, you know: “Do you guys always want to download everything and just use it for free?” And their point was, “No, we don’t want everything for free; we just want everything.” And I think that’s the key takeaway for us to make.

I’ll briefly touch upon six broad takeaways that I had: one is to move from content to experiences because experiences are far more valuable. Content is based on an artificial scarcity whereas experiences are authentic and real. We need to move away from the ‘content is king’ model and move to the ‘people are king’ model. Dina briefly touched upon insight yesterday, and I think the corollary to that is that we now know more about what you and me like to listen and watch and hear and play with than ever before, and the content industry can no longer sit in its ivory tower and say, “Here is what you will listen to.” We have the ability to tailor and customize experiences.

I think the models of protection, be it law or technology, are fast dying and we need to move from protection to sharing. That solitary consumption of content will move to group and shared experiences. And what’s tremendously powerful there is that you then have the ability to influence not only what other people will watch and hear and listen to, but also the kinds of content that are being created. That the content industry needs to move from being gatekeepers of content to curators of content, and that top-down models of content creation will go the way of the dinosaur very soon because (a) we have the Internet to distribute content and (b) tools are available to everyone. So the high priest model of content creation will very soon be challenged, as we saw in the case of Encyclopaedia Britannica, by the community models of content creation.

And I’d just like to thank three people for their insights and comments in to this presentation: @dina @sumants and @karthik_perumal


About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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