Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This article was published as a guest post at TechCrunch, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently. And they’ve made it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.
The changes are smart. Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet. What is Faraday’s Law, again? What exactly is a geoduck?
But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter. This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed. There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking. Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers. And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!) The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer. If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does. Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.
What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).
Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent. (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)
What’s the endgame? In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner. And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot. And to find something to do on the weekend. I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?
The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today. I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”
The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other. But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am. (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)
Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:
Proactive: It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry. Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins). It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside. Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.
Personal: Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map. My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers. While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away. Talk about targeting!
Social: Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them. I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert. The only thing worse than not going is going alone. But who else do I know who loves them like I do? That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one. Two words: “Jason Hirschhorn”. Is that so hard?
There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue. (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)
Most of us don’t have personal assistants. But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes. It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me. But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.
And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser. And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.
We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us. In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.
The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?) Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships. That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking. Which is sooooo true. I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do. Why should we both get the same search results?
Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go. The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing. But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.
With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do? I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….
This article was published as a guest post at TechCrunch, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Without question, one of the greatest gifts of the human species is our ability to communicate. We can create, transmit, and absorb ideas with immense freedom in pictures, speech, writing, music, and more. And yet, from the earliest days of man until very recently, the state of the art of media has been about as sophisticated as cave paintings.
Truly great communicators don’t start out by focusing on their message. They start with their audience. They research, observe, and monitor every knowable detail – from background facts beforehand to micro-reactions during the conversation – and adjust their content and delivery precisely, so it will make an impact. But it’s not like this is a secret formula. Even toddlers do it, carefully measuring parents’ reactions and perpetually tuning in to the behavior patterns that get them the attention they want. That tuning is carefully optimized to achieve maximum effect from each individualized recipient.
Meanwhile, media has virtually ignored its audiences.
But it’s finally beginning to open its eyes and ears to them through personalization. I believe that personalization has the greatest potential to transform the media business.
But before we get to that, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in media that has made us blind to our audiences’ cues.
In the world of print and broadcast, there was fundamentally no data about audience interests or reactions. It was impossible to “read the room,” because the room was pitch black. If media leaders’ eyes were closed, I’d be hard pressed to blame them; there was nothing to see.
As a result, there were two operating principles that made sense at the time, but which have since become outdated anachronisms.
First, that an editor should serve as oracle for what the audience desires (I call this the “Editor Fallacy”); and second, that content created in that vacuum of data should then be distributed as broadly as possible (let’s call this the “Broadcast Assumption”).
These two assumptions – even though they came from the print and broadcast legacy businesses – have errantly managed to drive the entire Web media mentality.
And the resulting misguided formula – across the board – has been Prophesize, Publish and Proliferate.
The big hope with this media Ouija Board has been that the guesses will be right, and that those who broadcast widely will then draw a big audience. When the guesses miss the mark with audiences (no surprise there), publishers turn up the volume or amp up the sensationalism. To some degree, this is why the Huffington Post succeeds with its brash and blaring headlines, and it explains why, thanks to Henry, we’ve collectively Blodgetized Web 1.0 media.
But to make room for the new media model of the next 100 years, we need to let these old assumptions fall by the wayside. The new vision is for media to start doing the work that each member of the audience already does; and that means deliberately selecting and contextualizing the media we each consume.
Putting it simply: media’s great opportunity is to bring the right content to the right person at the right place and time.
And this is where things get very interesting.
Bring Me My Very Own World
The social transformation of the Web has already taken us half way down the road toward a personalized future.
We finally recognize that the Web is made up of people, and Facebook and others have made people and relationships the key “nodes and edges in the graph” of the Web, replacing pages and links. The social Web is now people-centric; and, increasingly, social is becoming the operating system for the Web at large. Most impressively, “what my friends like” is already proving to be a good starting point to predict “what I like,” and so much of the Web is beginning to get at least a clue of how to serve us.
Despite this tremendous progress, however, when you go behind the scenes, the Web is still organized by data, not by people. Server data is affiliated with accounts; cookies are associated with Web browsers; and activity logs are tethered by IP addresses.
And yet, as the social revolution has proven, the real value of the transformation has been to stop looking at me as an IP address, a browser, or an account; and to start holistically realizing that I’m a person – I am me.
So, the great opportunity is to move from a Web of sites to “my” Web of me.
Media is at a critical transition point today, because we are about to completely redefine our sense of the audience. Starting now, the audience is no longer one massive opaque agglomeration. It’s not a “them” or an “us”; it’s a lot of individual “me’s.” (This must-watch from Monty Python paints the picture.)
In this context, the Broadcast Assumption of content creators is completely out of touch with the 21st century zeitgeist. It revolves around the played-out maxim of “create once, distribute everywhere,” which made sense when audiences were opaque and distribution channels were just big dumb pipes. But it totally ignores the “me’s” in the audience – when it comes to both creation and distribution.
The bottom line, then, is that media experiences, which used to be one-size-fits-all, must now be customized so they’re just for me.
In other words, the media experience of the future must take a cue from Facebook, and bring my world to me – regardless of where it originated.
The Six Elements of Ultimate Digital Personalization
Social represents progress toward this vision of fully personalized media, but it’s only one part of the game.
In my view, there are six key elements that contribute to ultimate digital personalization – and these elements are the basis for the ultimate success model in digital media:
After considering these six elements as a whole, I’m most inspired (and encouraged) by Facebook, Twitter, AOL Editions, the recent Flipboard clones, NetFlix, and the potential of a new Siri-powered Apple TV.
Each of these demonstrates the central aspect of this new vision for media: bringing my world to me.
Data Is the Currency of Personalization
To be successful, we all need to be data companies – as data is the clear way to know what our audience wants. Data is the currency of personalization, and so it is our best path to delighting our audience.
News sites should know by now what topics and stories to program for whom; and no sports site should serve a balanced home page when no sports fan likes all teams equally.
It’s an approach that, of all companies, Yahoo! ‘gets’– and for them it’s been paying huge dividends for a long time. And so it should for the rest of us.
What this means for media is that it’s not all about the content – instead, it’s all about the audience. And that means the nature of media has changed.
It’s all about you. It’s all about me.
That’s the digital media future. And we need to start going there today – because audiences are asking (and even demanding) that we pay attention to them, that we really know them, as true individuals.
So, if you’re a publisher, here’s the challenge as you try to create meaningful content experiences today: Each member of your audience – no matter how vast it is – has to become the most important person in the world to you. Or, looking at it in a slightly different way, you have to become deeply involved and digitally intimate on a global scale each and every day.
This follows my recent post about how a new TV interface from Apple could decimate the television landscape.
Even though Steve Jobs never talked about changing the face of search with Siri, its natural language interface.
But doing so would certainly be a riveting Hollywood screenplay in which Jobs, the uber-innovative, uber-inventive CEO, ultimately gets revenge on a corporate rival he views as a “copy cat.”
In this fictional script, that rival would be Eric Schmidt, one of the top executives at search giant Google. It’s Google, after all, that’s breathing down Apple’s neck with its rapidly expanding Android phone platform – a platform that, according to Jobs and his lawyers, mimics Apple’s breakthrough iPhone technology.
Putting this Oscar dream aside, there’s intensifying competition heating up between Apple and Google, even though Jobs is –sadly – no longer on the scene.
Indeed, even though Google has had voice-enabled search for some time on iOS and Android devices, Schmidt has said it’s possible that Siri could be a real and radical game-changer.
Schmidt may be right. And if he is, then Google will be facing a serious threat as Apple reinvents Google’s home turf of search.
With a “personality” that displays a unique understanding of humanity, Siri’s digital chromosomes enrich the user’s experience. This sets it apart from Google’s more mechanical offerings, and shows why Apple’s consumer-obsessed culture is so different from Google’s corporate DNA, which is as robotic and algorithmic as the “Android” name suggests.
There is rich irony here, as Apple disintermediates the greatest disintermediator of all time. When Google’s superior search service started, it practically single-handedly reduced the brand-driven experience that consumers had thereto relied on with directories and a fully editorialized Web. Google replaced those channels and home pages with 10 blue links. And in the process, became users’ destination of first resort 13 times per day.
And Apple has always been a curator extraordinaire – developing collections and exercising famous (and occasionally notorious) judgment to determine who deserves to be in its directories of songs and apps.
In all fairness, Page and his team are now trying hard to enrich the user experience by aligning their YouTube brand with media companies like Disney, and doling out big dollars for proprietary programming. The hope here is that YouTube can create dozens of lucrative user-friendly / user-favorite Web channels featuring comedians, sports stars, musicians and other entertainers. The company is building stocks of its ‘own’ media weapons in preparation for the coming war.
But, as always, it will be hard for Google to win the hearts of consumers when it comes to content; and it will be especially daunting because Apple is already so completely connected to users.
Meanwhile, with its enviable consumer connection, Apple will undoubtedly extract a toll from media companies, who still want to bathe in the warm digital light that emanates from the inviting and engaging brand Jobs built. And, as it has in every other media category, Apple stands to capture an outsize share of profits for delivering content into a magical consumer experience.
Jealous much, Google?
This article was published as a guest post at All Things D, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.
Steve Jobs died without fully transforming television, but the day after he passed away, Apple unveiled Siri, its natural language interface. Though it’s currently only embedded in the new iPhone 4S, Siri could eventually change the face of the TV industry.
Notice I said “TV industry.”
But from my perspective, Siri’s greatest impact won’t ultimately be on users, or on device manufacturers (though they certainly risk losing market share to Apple). It will be on the TV industry’s content creators and packagers. Why? Because a voice-controlled television interface will fundamentally disrupt the six-decade-old legacy structure of networks, channels and programs. And that’s a legacy that — until now, at least — has been carried forward from analog to digital.Most observers and analysts believe that Siri’s voice commands could eliminate the need for those clunky TV remote controls. With the blurring and exponential proliferation of television and Web content, telling your TV what you’d like to watch, instead of scrolling through a nearly infinite number of program possibilities, makes a lot more sense.
There’s an important underlying precedent here.
If the Internet can be generalized to have one effect across every industry that moves online, that effect would be disaggregation. Choices go from finite to infinite. Navigation goes from sequential to random access. And audiences choose content by the item far more than by the collection. We’ve gone from the packaged and channelized to the unbound and itemized. Autonomous albums are fragmented into songs; series into clips; and magazines and newspapers into articles and individual photos.
As much as we may think that has already happened with video, it is nothing compared to the great leveling that will occur in the voice-controlled living room. Voice-controlled TV means direct navigation to individual episodes, programs and clips. And it will almost certainly lead to a discernible deconstruction of the network and channel structure — not to mention the decomposition of even the aggregated marketplaces like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.
Here’s the simple reason: No one is going to sit on their couch and say, “Siri, show me NBC’s ‘Community.’” In a voice-activated world, monikers like “NBC” become useless. They don’t stand for anything meaningful to the consumer. They’re just remnants of a decrepit channel structure that’s unraveling. And, in the end, they’ll simply connote the fast-fading allure of mid-20th century mass appeal.
To be sure, the TV majors will lose much of their ability to realize network effects. Already, you’re hearing less about “lead in” and “lead out.” What you are hearing more about, however, is disconnected videos. A program on YouTube, for instance, will sit on a level voice-controlled playing field with an NBC show, and that field will soon become even more level, because Siri will eliminate the menus that structure the artificial hierarchies of content collections.
So how will we be able to get network effects back in video? Let’s look at four possible ways:
Beyond disaggregation, personalization is ultimately the most powerful consumer value of digital media. My mother’s TV experience was to walk over to her TV set and turn a dial to select among three channels to satisfy her individuality. But in the next generation, no two people will receive the same recommendations from the millions of content choices available.
Before he died, Jobs now famously told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he had finally cracked the TV code. It’s unclear what Jobs meant, what this entailed or what he thought it would lead to in the years to come. So, barring further posthumous disclosure, Jobs’s own predictions of his ripple effects will be a media mystery for now.
One thing that’s clear, though, is that Jobs’s Siri will start the dismantling — or creative destruction — of the TV industry as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.