September 16, 2004

The New Business Model Is the Old Business Model, Sorta...

I've been thinking about why people in the top down, traditional journalism media business have so much trouble with the new distributed horizontal media 'business' (if you can call it that, what with all the free online media from bloggers and other content creators).

The traditional media folks keep getting stuck on trust and credibility, upset as they are by the fact that people pay so much attention to Fox news or blogs or The Daily Show, all of which require the user to decide what is credible, real, questionable or a flat out lie, or a joke. This conflict between people with different frames of trust has always been with us, but it's amplified by information technology, and the ease with which networked communities flit around from source to source, gathering information wherever they decide, not the traditional media editors of old who used to control our access much more than they do now, which is zero.

The conflict is one of metaphors and frames, where users have varying concepts of how they see trust, credibility and truth, depending on who says it and how it grooves with the information purveys stated role (ie, when Fox tells us something, users know it's a half truth, so if we expect it, we are not upset by it, verses say, Dan Rather/CBS, who tell us they are telling us the complete truth, and we should 'trust them,' so when the alarm bells go off, we are much more apt to be upset about it, and feel betrayed by them or disgusted.)

So depending on how each of us frames trust, credibility and truth, information takes on different meanings. For some of us, watching how bloggers link, and what they link to, is a kind of trust model we understand and want to see. Political bloggers link to an article or blog post or book, and it means something, a kind of truth. For others, this is bunk. They only 'trust' a recommended book or article from the NYTimes, or CBS. They don't want a bunch of cranks and crazies pointing out what interests them. They frame trust as information from controlled editorial sources, following traditional journalistic processes.

What does that have to do with business models? Well, the old model, pre-internet, was that the local newspaper published news framed in the local views around truth and filtered by trusted editors, and the locals bought it. End of story. The publisher, the reporters, the editors and readers, all lived in the same physical community, and so didn't have to think about what that community was. They self-selected into it because they moved or lived there to begin with. And because they lived together, they understood each others frameworks around trust and credibility, even if they disagreed over them, or had differing political frameworks. It was subtext in all of their minds. Living together physically gave them some common contact and frame of reference for each other's understanding. So the information filter, the local newspaper, simply reported based on the physical community its framework of trust and truth, and there was the business model.

This new information model, which traditional media folks seem to be avoiding and utterly confused by, because it doesn't fit with their framework of journalistic integrity, editorial control or truth and trusted information, has to do with networked communities with a great variety of frameworks of truth. These communities are hard to see if you are looking for a physical representation. They are expressed through links, blogs, comments, forums, games, chat rooms, and the people, well, the people are fickle. They flit around from site to site, or worse, the use those damned aggregators to read hundreds of blogs and news sites. They have different information values, are time sensitive, and abomination! They have such a variety of frameworks of trust, truth and credibility. It's out of control!

Some people think a blog is okay, if they read it for a while, to find some truth, some information, to iterate on a question, to find expertise greater than those in traditional media. Some people get all their news from the Daily Show. Cripes. And some people think they NYTimes is still it. Thank God for small favors.

The new business model? It's a lot like the old one. Just perpendicular. And it feels invisible if you look on the internet, and can't see it the way you could look at your physical community. It's about finding a networked community, one that might include 20 people in Silicon Valley, 20 people in India, and 20 in Belgium. But they might just be exactly the right 60 people, if small by old media standards. Or maybe it's 60 thousand or 6 million. Just depends on how they self-select into the community. But you can be sure it's most likely not location based unless it's specifically, topically about a location.

Then work backwards. How do those networked people frame trust, truth and credibilty. Figure it out, then figure out why they self-selected (user experience, a desire to connect over a topic or game or share their creativity), and then figure out how to filter information for those frames and community needs. And figure out the user interface. It's the interface, stupid.

But wait, that's not all. You must also figure out the social interaction between people. Because just like when the telephone was invented, and they thought it would all be about people making business calls, but they were wrong, it turned out people just wanted to talk to each other, the internet is also all about the distributed social communication between people, whether it's a business person or a friend or a blogger you don't know. It is the social interaction that matters. It's a lot of figuring, to be sure. But get all that, and voila! You too can be in the information business online.

I realize it's not so simple to execute. That each of those elements is a big sticky nightmare of latenights, user testing and consideration up the wahzoo, each requiring much thought. I'm just really damned tired of arguing about whether we do it, why people don't trust old media (because they are just as trustworthy and just as untrustworthy as the next website or blogger, ya know? Use your judgment on each, please, and you'll be better off, though it's true the traditional guys don't keep much power in this model, except as authors who earn trust and respect through transparency, openness about biases and honesty, not to mention linking love for their fellow creators.)

Oh, and btw, this is very democratic in the Jeffersonian sense, where makers of information have to think about what they create, and users have to think about what they are seeing, and those that are smartest win. Those that are most controlling and have the most money and lobbyists and distribution channels, don't necessarily, as they have in the traditional media business of late. I mean, they may win in court, or not, but those that overcontrol on the internet are losing in the practical sense that users have control, and will self-select into a different system or whatever, if you put up a roadblock. Just ask Napster and the children of Napster. Napsterization is about the loss of control, among other things.

Just get on with the business of your model: filtering information for a community that understands truth and credibility in a certain way, and wants to interact with each other.

Posted by Mary Hodder at September 16, 2004 09:32 AM | TrackBack


I think you're attempting to invent something that already exists, but by another, more familliar name - bias. People increasingly find that, through the Internet, they're able to find sources of views that match their own beliefs. They no longer have to settle on the prevailing views of the local newspaper editorial staff.

That's all true and obvious - and has nothing to do with "metaphors and trust." It has all to do with bias. Blogs and other elements of your "new distributed horizontal media business" mainly dish out interpretations and perspectives, all of which relfect certain points of view (aka, biases).

To give them credit, conventional media editors worry not so much about the existence of opinions other than those expressed in their editorial page. Rather they are concerned that opinions are increasingly (it seems) passing for news. Newspaper "news" has to pass through a gauntlet of fact-checking and copy-editing - that's what produces true credibility and trust (and, if done right, an absence of bias). But that has little if anything to do with the editorial page (although, hopefully, the editorial statements will also be based on accurate, verifiable facts).

You describe the new business model as "filtering information for a community that understands truth and credibility in a certain ways and wants to interact with each other. I describe it in the old familliar way as "providing opinions and interpretations that reflect a certain set of biases and interests to people who like to interact with like-minded people."

As old as time itself.



Posted by: Terry Steichen at September 16, 2004 07:15 PM

Hi Terry,
Actually, in referring to frameworks of trust, I don't mean it in terms of opinion verses verifiable fact. What I mean is that some people believe that say, Fox news is a trusted venue, because it fits with their framework of the world, while others believe that the NYTimes fits with their framework where Fox does not, and still others believe that word of mouth is best, and so believe what they hear from those they know, whether they get it on a blog or in person verbally. The point is that the framing is not actually about opinion or fact, but rather that framing has to do with the story of their world they understand it and their information needs to fit into this. All of those sources I mention are capable of giving both fact and opinion. So if a particular group sees information as credible when it comes from say, an elder, or a teenager, or whomever or in particular terms and metaphorts, it's the way the information is delivered that matters in causing the information to appear credible, regardless of the backend system of editors or fact-checking or algorithm that actually pulls the information together.

People believe information if the words used to frame it fit with their concept of things. For example, in the old business model, where everyone agreed to community definitions of their stories and people, then when more news appears about them, the framing of what is trusted and agreed to is already in place. While facts may be reported and editorial control is there, the fact that the information fits that community's frame of trust means that it will be more credible.

For example, in my community where I grew up, which was a one paper town, the framing around who controlled things was around business men in the town and at the time people believed this was the way things should be and that it meant things were secure. So when something happened, and a business man was quoted in the paper, it always was framed as the final word and the descriptions were often metaphors such as, "stands for the x thing." Standing meant authority and power and brought respect, where as everyone else who wasn't his peer, was below, or less than and needed to be led by those who were powerful and stood tall. The metaphor we agreed to was that standing as an authority meant we trusted the authority, who were men in business who framed whatever was happening from a position of strength. The facts were facts, but the reported ones were framed to reinforce them as being important and relevant and the ones we should pay attention to as opposed to other facts that were removed because they didn't fit the metaphors about what was important.

For people in communities where business leaders were not symbolic of authority or trusted leadership, describing the person as "stands for the x thing" would have produced laughter and ridicule among readers. That person would be seen as condescending and overbearing of those less powerful.

The same words ("standing for...") in a story can mean very different things, because of different frameworks of trust and the meaning of credibility.

So when I say that there are frameworks of trust, that is separate from bias, although bias affects it and may help shape it. But when thinking about how a community of interest sees what is trusted and how they frame credibility, people who wish to create information filters (newspapers or online information systems) need to think about what the community understands as trustworthy, and what it doesn't. If the community sees sources and frames and situations as untrustworthy, they simply won't access that information, no matter how great it is and no matter how hard you try to give them credible information.

Posted by: mary hodder at September 16, 2004 08:46 PM