At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

The Empire Strikes Back?

For years, I only knew of George Lucas’ 1977 cinematic sci-fi breakthrough as “Star Wars.”  Then I found out that it was part of a trilogy. But wait, Lucas had a plan all along; this tale of an oppressed rag-tag alliance looking to overturn a hierarchical, monopolistic political system (aka “The Empire”) was always meant to be “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”

Of course, in a multi-part saga, if the good guys get their way initially, the Empire is always going to have to Strike Back to make it a good story. When I read Groundswell co-author Josh Bernoff’s The Splinternet Means the End of the Web’s Golden Age, that’s what immediately came to mind.

We’ve been declaring an end to media monopolies for a while now, thanks to networked communities who no longer require institutional intermediaries to share, collaborate or take collective action.  This ability to produce and consume media for almost free threatened the very economic model that media moguls had taken to the bank for over a century. As I made my own transition from corporate media journalist to independent content creator, I took advantage of new, inexpensive tools that we saw as the great democratizer of production.

Apple was part of this rebellion, helping us to crash through the barriers to entry with the digital weaponry of firewire, USB, Final Cut Pro, iDVD — this filmmaker’s “secret plans to the Death Star,” so to speak.  As digital content proliferated, The Empire writhed in agony, from The New York Times to Conde Nast to NBC, desperately in search of new business models.  Now, with renewed focus on pay walls and walled gardens, Bernoff sees Apple’s new iPad as the turning point as we leave the Web’s hopeful first age of universality and openness:

…[M]ore and more of the interesting stuff on the Web is hidden behind a login and password. Take Facebook for example. Not only do its applications not work anywhere else, Google can’t see most of it. And News Corp. and the New York Times are talking about putting more and more content behind a login…Each new device has its own ad networks, format, and technology. Each new social site has its login and many hide content from search engines.

Bernoffs Splinternet Chart

Without a camera or a USB port (unless you buy Apple’s proprietary dongle accessory), the iPad is intended as a media consumption device.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and many media companies see salvation in a portable device that serves as a safe, monetizable conduit to their content. What has some folks in a tizzy is how Apple is luring consumers into this enjoyable and convenient ecosystem by sealing off the very nature of the open Web. Witness what Cluetrain Manifesto guru Doc Searls has to say:

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

The geek elite has focused primarily on how Apple has not enabled the iPad for Adobe’s near-ubiquitous Flash multimedia platform.  For now, that means no YouTube or Hulu – competitors to iTunes.  Some say this isn’t such a bad thing, as Apple favors what it sees as the more open HTML5, and that Flash is on its way out anyway.  Web dude Robert Scoble himself stirred the pot (read the great comments!) with Can Flash Be Saved?

YouTube Preview Image

So, was Steve Jobs always more Anakin (good guy corrupted by power into Darth Vader) than Luke Skywalker all along?  The guy who gave us the signature 1984 Super Bowl commercial of a single woman taking a sledgehammer to tyranny, now sitting on Disney’s board, a hawker of music, TV shows, and movies, all wrapped up neatly (and Flash-free) behind iTunes? Judging from the heated debate about the iPad, some feel betrayed; others say it’s a natural next step in media technology that will set us free.

I’m absolutely fascinated by this conversation — and we need to pay close attention to it.  If Bernoff is correct, we are starting a new chapter in the story of the Web with the emergence of a new order that includes Apple, Facebook and Google.  This will have a direct impact on how we produce, consume and pay for media, and where we go on the Web to engage in those experiences.

Originally posted to The Storyteller Uprising

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is categorized in: Social Media

5 Responses to The Empire Strikes Back?

  1. jeffhora says:

    There will undoubtedly be a balance between open and locked/walled content and platforms. This has really always been the case, but the open side of the equation has been heavily weighted for several years now. The folks consuming on the walled side of the balance still need the creators, innovators, producers and disruptors on the open side of the wall, if only to make the terrific content they are consuming. One sad point is the potential for a gap to begin to grow between those who consume and those who create. The democratization of innovation may start to thin out unless the closed device owners happen to also keep their open, generative devices handy to respond, or better yet, imagine new things that can’t be imagined at the end of a road to a closed garden.

  2. David Baker says:

    I think a big contributor to this entire shift to the Splinternet is the quest for a reliable set of filters. Failure of a solid, open-source way to find meaningful video, talk to people you care about, or get the news and information you need has allowed new distributors to step into the gap once plugged by the monolithic gatekeepers of the past.

    People are willing to pay for a filter, especially one they can carry in their pocket. You plug your password into Facebook and suddenly your chaotic world is a tad simpler, with everyone from your boss to Grandma right there, and even the ads are tailored to your specific passions.

    Some may be willing to pay for the NYT to filter their media consumption, but only if the NYT can do it a whole bunch better than the system of RSS aggregation that exists now.

    Time is money, and consumers will give up all manner of freedoms if they can simplify their lives.

  3. Derek Belt says:

    When I read Bernoff’s post I took a wandered a completely different path. While there’s great insight into the future of the Internet and whether an open or walled garden approach is right, wrong or indifferent, I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said about “splintering.” As a marketing professional whose organization is just now wading into the shallows of digital media, this is an earth-shattering concept. Consider:

    “Web marketing has grown since 1995, based on the idea that everything is connected. Click-throughs, ad networks, analytics, search-engine optimization — it all works because the Web is standardized. Google works because the Web is standardized. Not any more. Each new device has its own ad networks, format, and technology. Each new social site has its login and many hide content from search engines. … It will splinter the Web as a unified system. The golden age has lasted 15 years. Like all golden ages, it lasted so long we thought it would last forever. But the end is in sight.”

    What this means to me is that, as an organization, we can’t bank on everyone viewing the same experience when they visit our site. Not everyone accesses the Internet from a computer… and I had never, ever thought about what that really truly means. Our site isn’t going to work on certain devices. Will we have to create different user experiences for each individual platform? Seems like it. What an eye-opener. *sigh* Another day in digital media.

  4. Pingback: The Future of Free? « The Storyteller Uprising

  5. John says:

    Can anyone post a comment here?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>