Sunday, October 29, 2006


The Age of Content Redux

Democreatization? Yes, I'm coming up with dumb new words again. At some point, I will figure out that this makes me sound like a nut-job, and then I'll stop. But we're living in a mash-up world, and I like doing it, and this is my blog, so quit yer whinging.

Two-and-a-half years ago, in March 2004, the first newsletter I published for my then consulting firm was titled, "Welcome to the Age of Content." In it, I argue that we have moved out of the "Information Age," where the ability to move data around is the quantifier of success, into the "Age of Content," where the ability to make creative use of that information is the key ingredient of success. To quote myself (which always makes me a wee bit itchy):

I believe we are in the first decade of the Age of Content. And by "content" I mean the creative use of information to establish meaning... In learning theory, "knowledge" is one step above "information," which is one step above "data." But in the case of content, we're not necessarily talking about leveraging information to increase knowledge. Some services do provide
learning (an increase in knowledge) as a byproduct of content. But the raw, basic definition of "content" is information that is manipulated, arranged, categorized, crafted, and tweaked in order to provoke in participants a sense of value received from original, created meaning.

The gist of the newsletter was about the role of content creation in marketing and, specifically, brand creation. The idea of storytelling... how bringing "thought ownership" to your brand gives you the ability to associate valuable, unique, identifiable, legally protectable content with a product or service. Since I was selling marketing consulting services at the time, I had to tie the ideas back to marketing, after all. But the overall point was about how, in a world that we're now (thanks to Friedman) calling "flat," creativity and content are becoming more and more the ways in which we understand, transfer and distinguish value.

What Engine for the Age?

Go read this MacArthur white paper now. I'm dead serious. I don't point y'all at 60+ page tree-killers very often, so please print out the PDF, kick back, fix some chai, and have at it with a highlighter and an hour or so. It's called "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." This is the best friggin' thing I've read on the Age of Content ever. Period. Makes me wonder who this MacArthur guy is and why we don't hear more about him on the talk shows.

In the executive summary, the paper notes:

  • Forms of participatory culture: affiliations (memberships, eg Facebook, MySpace, guilds, clans, board), expressions (new creative forms, modding, sampling, mash-ups, fanfic, zines), collaborative problem solving (Wikipedia, ARGs, spoiling, guilding), circulations (blogs, podcasting)

  • Policy and pedagogical needs: the participaion gap (unequal access to oppos, experiences, skills), the transparency problem (learning to see the ways media shapes perceptions), the ethics challenge (breakdowns in traditional forms of training and socialization that prepare for public roles as media makers and participants)

  • Skills needed for participation: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation

And the summary then goes on to say that, "Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to media education in the United States. Everyone involved in preparing young people to go out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need to become full participants in our society."

OK. Let's merge that with some neat data from just a few pages later in the paper.
According to a 2005 Pew Internet and American Life project study, more than one-half of all American teens, and 57% of teens who use the Internet could be considered media creators -- someone who created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations. Most have done two or more of these activities. One-third of teens share what they create online with others, 22% have their own websites, 19 percent blog, and 19% remix content.
So... we have a situation where half of teens are now creating content and a third are sharing it. And where we, as adults, educators, parents, voters, policy-makers, etc. are supposed to "contribute" to that world. You know... all of us old farts who spent 5 years watching our VCRs blink "12:00:00" rather than reading the manual. I ain't saying there aren't grown-ups who can't play on the Web, and new data suggests that there are lots of adults on MySpace, etc., and gosh-durn-it, old foggies built the Web and all... but I'm guessing that the numbers of 30-40 year olds who create content on the Web ain't 50%.

Participation is one way of terming the engine of content. And participation is also at the heart of what we've been terming "social" networking, computing, online platforms, etc.

No, not all participation will result in content that is very interesting to very many others. As a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, "It's mostly crap." That may be true. But I'd point out that lots of stuff that's hit the mediasphere prior to our current age -- stuff that was part of a much more official, but much smaller participatory circle -- could certainly fall under the rubric of "crap" as well.

Implications of participation-based culture

The McArthur paper has lots of good stuff to say about education and participation 'cause, well... that's the subject of the report; the skills kids will need to thrive in this environment, how to teach and enable participation for all children, who should do it, etc.

What I'm thinking about today, though, are the memetic implications of a new cultural system -- widely, easily available, easily shareable participation in content creation -- that is, at its heart, rooted in so many self-reinforcing routines that tend to spread "thought contagions" extremely easily. Because one of the root tenets of memetics is the rule that those ideas which promote the promotion of ideas are more quickly and easily spread.

It only makes sense, but it's a basic function that is often ignored. The most widely used example is the "Big family vs. small family memes." If one group of people believe that having big families is a good idea, the various concepts and defenses of that belief will spread more quickly. Why? Because they will simply have more children to teach them to, and parents have the strongest platform for teaching family-related beliefs. Family "A," with ten kids, has ten chances to pass along any "Big Family is Best" memes. Family "B," with two kids, has two chances to pass along their "Small Family is Best" memes.

That's a very simple, physical example. It gets more complex when you talk about concepts that are less... biological. For example, education. Does "Education is Good" contain a set of self-enhancing memes? Some argue that it is, because education tends to lead to higher income, and to situations where the meme can then be shown to have had positive effects. Others say that it doesn't, because you can't truly understand the benefits of education until you have one; i.e., the price of admission into the meme is too high.

Examples aside, examining the list of new "participatory skills" given in the MacArthur paper in terms of their self-enhancing memetic capabilities is a good way to see how social context and participation will be (and already are, to some degree) going to be incredibly important in our culture.

These skills -- play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation -- are almost all highly "contagious" from a memetic standpoint, and also require mastery not just of tool or craft skills, but of high-order social, group, cognitive, game and ego-balance skills. They can be easily manipulated by folks with bad intentions, and can go all pear-shaped and akimbo even when intentions are good.

In short, these are dangerous toys.

I may come back to them on an individual basis in future posts, as it seems a good list to work off of when breaking down what makes up "social" behavior.

Thanks to Nate Combs at Terra Nova for the link to the MacArthur paper.

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Also... reciprocal link-love back to Walt Crawford, who mentioned my "Enough 2.0" post in the November issue of his "Cites and Insights" publication. Note: Walt really liked the "Enough 2.0" logo in that post, and, if you click on it, you'll get taken to the site where it was created, Alex P's "Web2.0 Logo Creator." I linked the logo to that site previously, but didn't note that source explicitly in the text of the original post. I've done so now.

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