I recently watched Douglas Rushkoff‘s video presentation, “Whose Story is this Anyway? When Readers Become Writers” from the 2008 O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference.
As Rushkoff points out, consumers of content often move from simple, passive consumption to an interactive mode over time. This leads to consumers using content in ways not desired or even envisioned by the creator/owner. As a result, owners of content are increasingly losing control over how their content is consumed/used, particularly if they release it over the Internet.
There are many implications to entertainment creation/consumption as a result of technological advances, but I want to focus on one aspect that I believe will become critical to media companies seeking to engage and retain interaction with fans of entertainment franchises: how to encourage and support the shift from passive consumer to active co-creator.
By active co-creator, I don’t mean posting forum comments on a website or being allowed to make mashups without being sued. I mean having a seat the the Table of Canonicity that comes with monetary and legal benefits. I mean being able to truly interact with the franchise content in a way that lets everyone benefit. I mean participating in a business model that leverages the inherent qualities of the Internet, harnesses the creative community’s passion and abilities, and takes a collaborative approach to world narrative. I outlined one such new model, the renewable entertainment franchise, in an earlier post.
There are lots of reasons why media companies eschew the idea of letting fans sit at the Table of Canonicity. Content owners view each additional seat at this table as being both expensive and fraught with legal risks.
However, most of these arguments stem from a mindset that believes (a) digital content piracy can be realistically fought, (b) fans are incapable of producing quality content, and (c) all revenue dollars must come from direct monetization of digital content. This mindset is based on business-as-usual presumptions which are no longer necessarily true.
Digital content piracy cannot be realistically fought. Content owners would be better off removing the reasons for piracy and finding ways to engage their audience than wasting millions of dollars on whack-a-mole approaches to stamping out digital piracy on the Internet.
Fans are capable of creating quality content. Where else does all the new talent come from except from former fans turned professional?
And the idea that digital content must be directly monetized in each and every case is out-dated. Pure digital content is shifting to the realm of advertisement. Sure, the markets for plastic discs and books (even television) are showing signs of decline, but they’re not going to disappear altogether. Sure, advertising may still be sorting itself out in the online world, but it’s not going away, either. And don’t forget merchandising. Don’t ignore the $600M industry of virtual goods. Don’t write off the potential for future revenue streams that haven’t been discovered yet.
The digital content landscape is still shifting, and it’s unclear where traditional media companies will be standing. But one thing is certain: companies that continue to pretend they can lock up their content, criminalize the consumers who are their most ardent fans, and dictate the terms under which fans interact with their content will find themselves fighting for attention. As Tim O’Reilly wrote back in 2002, obscurity is a far greater threat to authors than piracy.