Whose content is it anyway?


A couple of months back, I participated in a twitter poll on A-listers. The question put forth by @anaggh, a social media influencer in India, was ‘Who according to you is an A lister on twitter?” and I answered A Lister = people with visibility in topic sharing messages which create above average engagement. Earlier, in the week, a fellow journalist-turned-entrepreneur called to ask, how does content syndication work on mobile apps. Specifically, can the content he markets/ distributes through his curated e-newsletters be shared on mobiles, without specific permission, from the publications. His current play is to pay for the syndicated content, he uses on the web. However, the world has moved on, and a mobile app for sharing breaking news updates with his subscribers seems to be the next logical step.

Why these two seemingly unrelated conversations- one online and one over phone, becomes interesting, is because of another conversation, over breakfast with a seasoned digital marketer who was writing a paper for her thesis- “is digitization good or bad for the publishing industry?”
So here follows a longer discussion on what I see to be the shift in paradigm that is about to up-end almost everything we have assumed about content, copyright, and authorship till now.
First things first! Web 2.0 has automated the role of content curator or editor and replaced it with an app- Zite, Flipboard, et al have taken over the role of the editor/ curator in a world where online content is discovered on a mobile platform. So much so, that the artificial intelligence that allows these apps to learn about a user’s news and reading preference, is now central to the New Google search algorithm- aka Project Hummingbird. That’s the subject of a different post.

So, I agree with Om Malik, of gigaOM, when he says that ‘pure play’ digital publications are not about to succeed, as users seem to be interested in snacking on aggregated content via platform apps, rather than download and read content of a physical or web publication on mobile.

Secondly, and this converges on both my online publishing entrepreneur friend and @anaggh’s question, twitter is today one of the most prominent social media news discovery engines. Content creators, such as bloggers, and media persons, are promoting their content there, as well as content distributors, (aka social media influencers) who RT, or share opinions, and personalize the debate from, say, the statistics in a news media report, into a lively debate.
For my entrepreneur friend, it seems a no brainer, to build a mobile app around select twitter feeds. However, whether he will deploy a human resource or invest in an algorithm such as Zite, is a call he would have to build a business case around. And that wouldn’t be cheap and quick, given the iterative approach that is required, when all mobile platforms are in a permanent state of development, not to speak of the risk of the platforms banning the app on a complaint from the media houses he doesn’t want to syndicate from.

So, finally that brings me to the bigger debate around content. If the business model around content creation is not linked to content distribution, this finally changes the game for authors. This would probably have a long term impact on the publishing industry, which is finding itself shaken and stirred as traditional book buying and reading habits, get challenged by google reader, ibooks store, and Amazon kindle platforms. And all I can do is look at how the music industry has re-invented itself ( or has it?) from the days of Napster to find its mojo in the iTunes store.

So what are the learnings?

  1. Content creation and distribution may no longer be related. A content creator on Twitter, maybe an author, a blogger, or media person, where as a content distributor, may be an influencer on social media, by dint of his standing among his followers as an expert within the space, without having any publishing interests at all.
  2. Even though, Copyrights for written works of literature, stand for 70 years, where the author earns, at best, a small double digit royalty from that work of fiction, The web, and now the social web, has no respect for original content. In any case, 140-character limits, will change the thought as it passes, simply to add on the conversation to it.
  3. Source of revenues for today’s and tomorrow’s content creators and distributors are not going to be subscription or sales of the original pieces, rather more value is going to be created quicker, and faster than at the end of the long tail of copyrights.

Take an example:
Bollywood, more than Hollywood gets the game. Ever since, multiplexes made a virtue of smaller audiences, and higher ticket prices, the entire game has shifted from the number of seats sold to the number of screens showed on. Over the last 5 years, the entire business case of a movie has moved in such a manner, that in-movie promotions, marketing messages and pre-release promotions with aligned brands, net up the money invested in the production, the rest of the money comes from TV premiere shows where networks share a piece of the ad pile, and now increasingly, Google’s YouTube, which with 55 Million users in India, is as big as a Top 10 TV channel.

Popular movie songs are viewed on YouTube, and movie producers who earlier went after pirated versions with a vengeance, have now come to terms with it and are relishing the unpaid promotion power that comes embedded in social media.

End Note: I expect this logic to spread not just in the world of creative content, but go right back, and challenge the primary basis of content sharing, peer review of academic papers. As the stream of consciousness that is social media spreads and gets more power with big data analytics, conversations around content that create or set the context will gain currency. And the business case for protecting content with copyrights will probably transform into ‘monetizing’ attention in the stream. And that could change the game for creators and distributors alike.

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