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Finding value in information superabundance

Until recently we lived in a world of relative information scarcity. Information was hard to obtain and difficult to distribute. During this period information flows were, for the most part, controlled by a relatively small group of media owners, who created very successful businesses from this scarcity.

We are now entering an age of information abundance. As a result of the inexorable rise of digital technology the increase in information in recent years has been exponential. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt famously put this in some context back in 2010 when he noted that “there was five Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilisation through 2003, but that much information is now created every two days and the pace is increasing”

This extraordinary explosion in the volume of information created and the ease with which new digital tools enable all of us – not  just media owners –  to collect, analyse and distribute it is fundamentally changing the relationship that we have with information. Information is no longer an asset to be exploited by the few and passively consumed by the many. It is increasingly a universal currency that is actively traded by us all. Information is power in the digital age, but, in a radical departure from the past, this power is now spread much more evenly. And, despite warnings of impending information overload, it would seem that as our access to information increases thorough the proliferation of digital devices so does our demand for it.

The increasing importance of and demand for information ought to be seen as positive trend for the media industry, yet, more often than not, the digital revolution has been seen as a negative phenomenon for traditional media companies. Of course, there is little doubt that the fragmentation and increased competition inherent in the emerging digital media landscape is upsetting traditional media business models. However, the emerging thirst for more and more information and the explosion of new digital devices available to sate it also creates extraordinary opportunities for those able to see beyond the destruction of the status quo. 

Against this background, the challenge for media companies is clearly to meet this emerging digital demand for information in new ways that create more than enough value to compensate for the cost of creating it. And the good news is that, despite the doom-ladened predictions to the contrary, creating and extracting this value is not an impossible task even in highly competitive digital content markets – as Apple has shown with the success of iPod + iTunes. It just requires a new way of thinking that moves beyond the traditional approach of thinking simply about creating products and instead focuses on creating experiences. 

This distinction between product and experience may seem somewhat arbitrary, yet it is a potentially profound one as it requires us to fixate less on what a product is and more on how and why it is being used. Taken from this perspective, value does not lie solely in the features a product has, but instead in a combination of the product, the context it creates and interfaces that surround it. And, while all of this talk of products and experiences may seem strange in the context of the media business where the product is content and that content is king, if there is one overriding lesson to be learnt from the extraordinary fact that Apple has sold over 15 billion songs through it’s iTunes Store since its launch in 2003, making it the number one music retailer in the world, it is that the inherent value of even the best content can be enhanced by creating the right experience around it.

In this context, it is not surprising that new devices, and the tablet in particular, have rapidly established themselves as the saviours of the media industry. Tablet-based apps can provide an extraordinarily rich and immersive interface for media consumption, perfectly suited to the ritualistic and reflective context in which particularly longer form content is consumed. This is the lean back digital experience and, at it’s best, it is so compelling that that it provides more than just a convenient alternative to paper but rather a deeper and even more valuable experience that large numbers of people are more than happy to pay for.

Yet, just as the success of Spotify and Soundcloud have demonstrated that iTunes is not the only viable digital music experience, so too are there other opportunities for media companies to create valuable information experiences in addition to their tablet experiences. Specifically, just as tablets have created a compelling context for the lean back digital reading experience, the increasingly communal context of media can add value to the previously commoditised experience of consuming information on the open web.

Human beings are, and always have been, fundamentally social creatures; however, our evolving relationship with information means that information has become increasingly fundamental not just to our sense of self, but also to the relationships we have with each other. This has created a social information need that is different, but complimentary to, the lean back digital experience of the tablet. In particular this information need is more participatory, more social and less linear and as such is better suited to the characteristics of the open web.

This is media in a community context and, as Jeff Jarvis points out, under these circumstances the value of content “is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends”. Indeed, as Jarvis goes on to explain, this is how platform companies like Facebook and Twitter see content and extract value from it, albeit mostly through advertising. There is no obvious reason why traditional media companies cannot extract the same or indeed different value from it, provided they recognise the evolving role of their content. 

Indeed, even above and beyond the existing tablet and community-based experiences, the explosion in smartphone usage will create further opportunities for media companies to create new valuable information experiences, with searchability and personalisation at their core. Yet, whatever new direction the digital media landscape takes over the next ten years, it is clear that those media companies that can successfully create a set of complimentary experiences that harness the extraordinary capabilities of new digital devices and map to the exploding demand for information across different contexts will be best placed not just to survive but thrive in the age of information abundance.