It all comes down to storytelling.
And, until recently, storytelling was a closed shop. Certainly average folks told stories at the corner bar or over the family dinner table, but the job of telling big stories to big audiences was a job left to professionals. And there was good reason for that. Because consistency and reliability were important; storytelling had a process. No matter if you were telling fact-based stories like news reports, or narrative fiction.
Either way, stories needed to move through a set of gates or filters. Editors, studios, writers, producers—each of them added or subtracted to make the work better and serve the consumer viewer or reader. And because the distribution of completed stories needed to be fed to a costly pipeline of antennas, printing presses, and FCC-licensed transmitters, mass storytelling was an expensive and highly limited process.
But in just 10 years, all of those barriers and limitations have almost entirely vanished. In the magazine world, the expensive printing press has been replaced by the free blog platform. In the book world, the costly distribution system that acquired, edited, printed, and sold books has been made significantly easier by self-publishing and e-book distribution. And in the video world, 70,000-dollar Ikegami betacams have been replaced by iPhones and HD GoPro cameras that cost hundreds. For editing, the multithousand-dollar editing bays now compete with Final Cut Pro and iMovie. And the wildly expensive and prime-time constrained network and cable distribution system has been displaced by YouTube, and a growing number of Web video distributors.
We've arrived at the emergence of The Content Explosion—a world in which consumers become creators, in which our devices turn our daily lives into digital dispatches, and perhaps most confounding, a world where audiences and editorial focus is atomized into tiny granular bits of images and words.
We're living in a Humpty Dumpty world, where all the king's horses and all the king's men struggle to put the pieces back together again. The only difference is in a fairy tale, we can and repair the fractured world. But it won't go back to the way it was. Endless fragmentation isn't the end of the content evolution; it's just one stop on the journey.
Why? Because, while the devices and connectivity we're experiencing open the media world to a whole new community of content creators and digital storytellers, not all of us want to be one. Think of the sewing machine. Before the sewing machine was invented in 1790, women were the family seamstress, spending up to 14 hours to make a single shirt. Pants took nearly three hours, and a simple dress 10 hours. Maintaining family clothing was significant work.
The arrival of the sewing machine reduced the time to make a man's shirt to just more than an hour. Pants took just 38 minutes. But the sewing machine didn't make home clothing creation more popular; in fact, it had the opposite result. It made clothing a factory effort, lowering the cost, increasing the volume of output, and over time, making the home effort of clothing creation a hobby rather than a necessity. It's not hard to think of clothing and content the same way. While the tools to make content have been democratized, to use a now overly popular phrase, the reality is that this rapid decline of costs and efforts serves to flood the content ecosystem with unfiltered content from unknown sources.
Today's "sewing machine" is the keyboard and camera of portable digital devices. It turns content creation from a chore into a point-and-click behavior. But rather than destroy the legacy of content professionals, it's driving the opposite trend. It's creating a new demand for content professionals, who are meeting a desperate consumer demand at publications, editorial institutions, and technologically sophisticated startups. People, it turns out, don't want more information. They don't want an unmitigated flood of raw voices, links, and images. They want less. They want a trusted, always-on filter, a gatekeeper between their devices and what they need to know.
The Content Explosion turns the tables upside down. It turns consumers into the creators of granular data. Information that is timely, location based and feeding into the larger ecosystem. It turns publishers and media companies into a new brand of curators. Responsible for both making and gathering content that their consumers can trust and share. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it creates a new role for brands to step out of the shadows and become full-fledged content creators in their own right.
No longer is content created by an engaged brand thought of as biased or untrustworthy. In fact, just the opposite. Brands that are honest about what they have to say and embrace and amplify related content within their areas of knowledge and influence will rapidly find that they're now a welcomed participant in the new world of content curation and categorization. Do consumers penalize Red Bull for sponsoring athletes and adventurers that jump off mountains in wing suits or out of space capsules high above the earth? Certainly not. We get that they want us to think of Red Bull as associated with extraordinary feats of adventure and energy—and we're more than happy to let them create content within their genre.
Here are three simple questions to prepare you for the world of content, with the new rules of the ecosystem adding new voices to the trusted table.
- Do you have something to say? If so, are you ready to say it and say it with clarity and focus and consistency. If so, you're a new creator in the explosion.
- Do you know something others don't in your field? If so, you're poised to take on a new role as an essential finder, categorizer, and organizer of content. A curator in the new too-much unfiltered information world. It's an important role.
- Are you overwhelmed with noise, hungry for clarity, and looking for trusted sources? If so, you're the future of content consumption. You'll add value by reading, sharing, "liking," re-tweeting, and otherwise endorsing content among your peers. But don't as though you have to be a creator; there are already plenty of them.
Creator. Curator. Consumer. Those are the three 'C's of the new information overload world. New roles, new opportunities, and new business models await. And as we head forward, the good news is there's no lack of need for clarity around these new roles. The current state of information simply can't continue its unending expansion. Without new roles and new tools, we'll all drown in a tidal wave of digital detritus.
[Image: Flickr user Taro Taylor]