Friday, December 12, 2008

Seven Mass Media --A framework

I like frameworks, frameworks that help you understand bigger issues. And I think the concept of seven mass media that Tomi Ahonen has been explaining can be considered as a framework. Why? Because this concept nay framework I believe can be used to understand many of the developments in this area of mass media. In this blog I attempt to explain this in some detail.

Seven Mass Media
I start by considering the seven mass media as explained by Tomi Ahonen. These are print, recordings, cinema, radio, TV, internet and mobile. Details of these are given in this post for those new to the concept. By the way, in this blog we do not consider enhancements on these media such as the DVR, cassette recorder etc. That would be the topic of a separate post.

These mass media can be studied along several dimensions in order to understand the developments in this space. In this post though I consider only the dimensions of content creation, content distribution, content discovery, content charging, content consumption, content modification and user interaction. The objective here is to understand some of the current developments in this space and possibly predict the characteristics of the next version of mass media.

Content creation
This dimension considers the way content is created. The content creation has not changed much for all these media. In all cases, a human being is the originator of the content. The transcoding of the content to enable the distribution though has changed drastically. Note that we use the term transcoding here loosely to refer to the translation of content from a human mind to a technical medium such as paper, analog, digital media as appropriate.

For the print media, the created content is transcoded onto a paper. This process itself is not easy and requires access to printing presses etc. Some of the current gadgets such as laser printers have made this process easier. The second media namely recording results in transcoding of media on to a "recording medium". Not very easy in the early days but now very easy considering a cassette player and the corresponding tape. So what we see here over a period of time are developments which make the transcoding process easier while the medium is still the same.

On the other extreme consider the internet and the mobile. Content transcoding is definitely easy in the internet (you only need a device such as a desktop computer which can connect to the internet) but much more easier using the mobile. All that you need to do with a mobile is aim and shoot and viola the content is created. A creative human can "create" a great picture and then transcode it easily using the camera, so easy that probably my grandmother can do it with some practice.

But where will we go from here; can we think of a mechanism where a human does not have to be involved in content creation and transcoding at all? Maybe in the long run but for the immediate future we will possibly see more easier ways of transcoding possibly using voice commands. So I could take my mobile and order the camera on the mobile to capture what I am seeing or order the recorder on the camera to record my "off-key" singing. Some of this such as voice activated dialing is already possible provided my accent is right. At this time though I need to "train" myself to get the right accent.

Content distribution
This characteristic is about how the content is distributed from the creators of the content using the transcoded media to the consumers of the content.

For print media, this involves distributing the books/papers etc. This needs a physical infrastructure (press/printers to wholesalers to retailers) and a process for the distribution. Recording and cinema has similar requirements though it can be argued that the physical size of the distributed media itself makes it easier to distribute "cinema medium" as compared to "print medium". Note also that the distribution infrastructure itself does not require any special considerations. I can open a warehouse or a shop and become part of the infrastructure. Or I can open a cinema hall and become part of the distribution infrastructure. Some local licensing rules might apply.

Radio and TV use the TV/radio station transmitters and the electromagnetic waves to distribute content. Cable connections can also be used to distribute TV. Both these cases are typically characterized by high fixed initial costs and possibly a lower recurring operating cost. (I guess the same can be said for the first three mass media) Additionally, special organizations only (those with licenses to spectrum and which can set up the transmitters) can participate in this distribution. These licenses are more difficult to obtain than in case of the licenses for distributing the first three mass media.

Internet and mobile make content distribution very easy. Additionally, any organization or person can easily participate in the distribution (without any special license) such as by setting up a web server where people submit content. The cellular link for mobiles that makes long range connection (as opposed to short range for WiFi) though cannot be set up except by special organizations (called operators) who have licenses to use the spectrum needed for this.

In the future though we might see all aspects of the distribution being open for all. Thus we should expect unlicensed communication links with long ranges though I am not very clear about how this might happen from the technology aspect. Still the concepts of real time spectrum auctions, white spaces etc seems to tie in here.

Content discovery
This dimension is concerned with the way that content is discovered by the users of the content.

With initial media such as print, recordings and cinema discovery was easier because of the limited (when compared to internet scale) quantity of content. Discovery was also facilitated via recommendations from the social network. Concept of search was limited to searching the indexing cards in a library. Of course, as gadgets to make transcoding easier started appearing we started seeing a rapid increase in quantity of content. We have similar issues in case of the Radio and TV media.

Internet and mobile is accompanied by a avalanche of content since it is very easy to create content. Therefore, this exacerbates the problem of discovery. Search engines, recommendation engines etc are all ways to address this problem.

Yet, we are some ways off from solving this problem completely. In the ideal case I would want to know of all content and only that content that is according to my tastes. Throw in audio/video content and you can see the amount of work that needs to be done to solve this problem.

Content charging
This dimension looks at the ways in which the content creators are paid by the content users. For the earlier media, we typically we have the content creators selling their product to middlemen who then sell it to the end users. We could have multiple tiers of middlemen.

Of course, the role of middlemen has diminished or more precisely the dependency of content creators on middlemen diminishes as we go to radio, tv, internet and mobile. With tv/radio, a content creator can purchase tv/radio time; this is much more easier with internet/mobile. I just need an account (typically free) at a web server to start posting my content.

In all these cases, the charging mechanisms have continually improved in terms of the level of difficulty for both the users and content creators. While earlier it was cash and cheques, currently credit cards, paypal, eyeballs, operator billing etc make this much easier for me as a content creator to get paid.

Where do we go from here? i guess we need mechanisms to root out wrongful charging but otherwise the basic charging mechanisms themselves seem to be fully developed. Efficient mechanisms for microcharging seems to be something that we could desire for.

Content consumption
Here I look at the issues associated with the consumption of content after it has been discovered and purchased by the users.

There was no requirement for a device with the print medium but then for all the other media we need special devices to consume content. For some such as cinema the devices (projector, cinema room) are very costly. The cost of the devices went down from cinema to radio, up again for TV and then down for internet devices and mobile devices. Of course, this has also resulted in participation of more people which increases the reach of the mass medium.

Where can we go from here with respect to this dimension? In the long term probably towards a world without requirement for any special devices to consume content; any wall, any surface could be used to project and read/listen. In the short term though probably towards a pervasive all in one device much more affordable (and easier to use) than current mobile devices.

Content modification
When considering this dimension, I want to focus on the level of difficulty for the content owners to modify their content after it has been accessed by the content purchasers.

For print, recordings and cinema it is not possible to modify content once the genie is out of the bottle (content has been distributed). In a way this is also true for radio/TV. Although you can retransmit the modified content for radio/TV, it can be argued that this is similar to redistributing modified content for print/recording/cinema. Thus modification of content is possible though not easy for these media.

For internet and mobile though, though modification of content is very easy. The content creator will have to modify the relevant files. Notifying users of changed content is also easy if the users have registered for it. Of course, this would require the users (content consumers) to re-initiate connection and consume content again.

Where do we go from here in this dimension? Probably you the reader can help me here.

User participation
This last characteristic that we focus on in this blog is concerned with the participation and interaction of users with the content creators and with others who might be interested in the content. The types of users who can consume the content is also considered here.

Initial media such as print, recording, cinema, radio and TV did not allow for user participation easily. In these cases the users would have to write letters or call the content creators/content distributors. Yet, this communication was not seamless. With internet and mobiles we now have more efficient and real time two way communication between the consumers and the creators/distributors. This communication is also much more personal when considering mobile devices.

Are we at the pinnacle of achievement with respect to this dimension? I don't think so. Going forward I believe we will have a conversation rather than just a two way communication. This conversation would be used to personalize content delivered to me. This personalization would require knowledge of factors such as location, context, preferences etc.

Also in terms of users who could have purchased the content, the first media required people who could read. Recording, cinema, radio and TV required nothing more than people who could understand the language. Internet requires that people have basic computer and possibly reading skills. Mobiles require mobile skills which are much easier than computer skills and yet not something that is easy for all. The touchscreen on mobiles though makes this easier. Still it is not completely user friendly.

For the future the participation requirements have to go down such as were needed for radio or TV. I need to turn on my device (or better still wave my hands or speak the commands) and select content from the various channels; do not bother me about typing urls, clicking hyperlinks and all that.

There are several other dimensions also that can be considered such as ability for the medium to allow for time shifting, place shifting, ability for the medium to provide secure content and also to protect my information, purchasing models, content lifecycle management etc. I hope to look at some of these in future posts.

Have to point out here that I have tried to simplify the various dimensions; have also ignored the impact of one dimension on another. Hope to look at all this as part of future posts.


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