We're all swimming in media now

William Gibson, "Father of Cyberpunk," long known for his prescience, has put his finger on a fundamental truth about the world we live in today. His new book, Spook Country, contains a couple passages everyone concerned with media business models should read and consider (along with the rest of the book, which is a pretty good yarn about the hidden currents of American paranoia).

William Gibson, "Father of Cyberpunk," long known for his prescience, has put his finger on a fundamental truth about the world we live in today. His new book, Spook Country, contains a couple passages everyone concerned with media business models should read and consider (along with the rest of the book, which is a pretty good yarn about the hidden currents of American paranoia).

When developing media offerings these days, we still think of an audience. These are people whose attention we own and attempt to control. At least, that was the habitual practice of newspaper, magazine and broadcast television network folks. But Gibson's observation that we have moved from a time when mass media was something we observed to one when we are all part of mass media, that it has become the channels through which we interact with one another, is a spot-on analysis of the problem with trying to treat the "audience" as something outside the medium.

Because the old way of thinking about media persists, we have social networks that treat member data as commodity (a commodity is only valuable if it is managed by a company or trader, rather than having an inherent value—just ask any farmer who has seen his crop values manipulated by the middlemen). We get "programs" that speak at us rather than media we participate in, because individual value is minuscule when the audience is merely being aggregated by a Web site or network.

The recent postings about a bill of rights for social network users is an expression of the frustration felt by people who understand they dove into media years ago, but still are treated like they are merely watching from the edge of the pool by those who make "media properties." You'd think, looking at the binary all-your-data-or-nothing approach to personal information on major social networks, that we need a lifeguard to caution us about eating before swimming.

We know how to swim. The "new" media that surrounds us is made by us. We can point a camera at anything, record anything, write and publish. In this world, anything can become a trend or media phenomenon, even if most of it won't be a hit. Recognizing that the value is flowing everywhere, rather than only from the studios, producers and web site creators, unlocks the respect for the value of all participants in the network that bill of rights supporters are seeking.

Competent participants in a community or network don't need a warning that they are about to give away every bit of information they have collected in social network profile in order to try a new application or find a new friend. They need control in order to maximize the value of their contribution. That's an ethically, politically and economically responsible perspective on this new media.

Gibson's other insight explains how, once you get past treating people like lost children in the media stream, revenue is unlocked:

"Intelligence, Hollis, is advertising turned inside out."

"Which means?" [Hollis asked].

"Secrets," said Bigend, gesturing toward the screen, "are cool.... Secrets are the very root of cool."

When you recognize that all of us have secrets we use to negotiate with others, the value of giving users control of personal data becomes plain: If they can't keep secrets, people don't contribute to value creation. Instead, they are always scrambling to recoup the value they've lost.