Apr 04, 2012

The New Digital Wars: The Conflicts That Are Shaping the Future of Communications

“EPIC 2015″ is a look into the not-very-distant (anymore) future of media and information.

We are now in the aftermath of Web 2.0.  The promise of interoperability and information sharing has been realized.  It has raised enormous opportunities and some equally enormous concerns.  Here are some of the conflicts that will shape where we go from here.

  1. Big Data vs. Big Government

Big data is big news right now.  If you missed this discussion you might think it is about big databases, big servers, big analytics.  It’s not.  It’s about you and me.

The importance of big data is that it is perceived as a way to identify how people behave and thus predict what they are going to do.  What’s pertinent in the business world is what they are likely to be interested in buying.  This is the promised land for marketers.  It also has more than passing interest for all those online properties that built a big audience and now are trying to figure out how to make it pay.

The premise here is that carefully targeted messaging is better than traditional approaches that were by comparison mass scattershot communication.  Can’t argue with that.

But there is one flaw in the plan.  Nobody asked you and me what we think about this.  A lot of us aren’t so interested in having our behavior analyzed and predicted.  In fact we might not be any more interested in this than we were in having hawkers call us at dinnertime to sell us aluminum siding.

So that’s where big government steps in (think of the “Do Not Call” registry).  Government has a lot of things going against it.  It’s slow.  It’s generally behind the times from a technologist’s standpoint.  And it has enormous baggage, an archive of rules and regulations, some so old they were originally drafted on parchment and intended to protect the guy who needed a musket to score his next meal.

But government has got the big hammer.  And when it comes down in the form of “do not track,”  “do not sell,”  “do not even store” data that has not been permissioned by every individual covered, a lot of the industry that has been built up around converting big data into targeting marketing gets crushed.

  1. Google vs. SEO.

Search is a primary means of distributing information.  It is distribution that is owned by the audience.  We like that.  Google dominates.  So we want to make Google happy.  Or,  at least, we want to curry favor with its algorithms.

So what should we do, Google?  We only get a few scraps from Google about what they think but we know they don’t like too many keywords, they don’t like too many links or too many links above the fold, they don’t like to see your stuff in more than one place, etc.  Basically they don’t like SEO at all.  “Create good stuff, put it on good sites and we’ll take care of it,” is what they seem to be saying.  That is when they choose to say anything at all.  Fair enough.

Only trouble is SEO tactics often work.  In fact sometimes they work so well they become a life and death matter for an online based business.

SEO is really about gaming Google.  No wonder Google hates it.  One suspects the tech monolith is dreaming of squashing the whole SEO industry with its enormous boot.  But the thing is that the harder and more puzzling SEO becomes due to Google efforts to eliminate it, the more businesses need it because of the fact that it’s now harder and more puzzling.

I don’t see the end to this one.  This is the digital equivalent of the Hundred Years War, meaning the conflict is likely to be around for at least another 18 months.

  1. The Media vs. the media

Okay that is a little confusing.  Think of Media with a capital M as media organizations, newspapers and their digital descendents, wire services, broadcast outlets, etc.  And think of media with a lower case m as all the different vehicles for storing, delivering and providing information.

If you’re a big M guy you’ve got to be a little ticked off.  You pay all the bills to create the best content you can, but your P+L is hemorrhaging and all the buzz, not to mention eyeballs, is going to the aggregators, the curators, the sharers, the linkers, the little m guys.

NewsRight (http://www.newsright.com/) is the latest venture by the Media to try to get the upper hand here.  It’s hard not to sympathize with them.  If you think of a good book, you want to think the rewards from the sale of that book go to the author.  Most of us think that the primary beneficiary of a great song should be the person who wrote and recorded it.

The cost of big Media became disassociated with a good portion of the revenue it generates when the Media lost control of the distribution of its content.  I don’t think that’s going to prove easily reversible.  Search and social are now fundamental to the distribution of information.  Both work within the context of the free flow of information.

So the Media find themselves in a position of inadvertently limiting and potentially reducing their audience by seeking the just reward from their product.  I’m not sure that moving in the direction of having fewer people seeing your content is the best thing for the future of the business.

  1. Big Technology vs. Big Technology

Does big technology eat itself?  What I’m thinking about here is Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and others.  We all think we know what these companies do and probably have a short but sweet description of how we use them.  I buy presents on Amazon, search on Google, talk to friends on Facebook, network professionally on LinkedIn and so on.

Well it seems like the Earth has started to turn the wrong way.  Amazon is making devices to browse the Web, Google built a social network, Facebook created a feature than looks like Twitter and my LinkedIn home page is starting to look like iGoogle or My Yahoo.

It’s as if Tony, the guy who runs the best pizza shop in town, stepped out in front of his store and saw people going into the nail salon on the corner and the dry cleaners in the next storefront.  So he decided to focus his future business development on cleaning shirts and providing manicures.  Just make the best pizza Tony, please.

Can all of these companies go after everything they see each other doing without losing their focus on what they do best – and why their customers come to them in the first place? A few years down the road will we be able to describe in a few words what each of these companies do or will we need a couple pages of PowerPoint with bullet points to figure it out?  And if we do, what happens to these tech giants?

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s executive vice president of social media & audience development.

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