If there’s one buzz word that’s promised to solve all the monetary problems of every Internet-based startup in the past two years, its “Big Data”. Everyone’s collecting it, everyone’s recording it and everyone’s saving it for tomorrow. From Twitter’s Billions(of tweets) to your Netflix queue and even your Google Search history, everyone’s looking to figure out how to sell you more stuff based on your habits.
But no one’s actually selling the data. The data in itself is useless, no matter how much of it you have. It’s the connections that are formed from it that are important and that’s what everyone is hankering to sell – information. However, all that these companies are trying to do is sell information to advertising sources and point of sales organizations like Amazon because that’s where they can easily get a large paycheck in exchange for a much larger database of customer information.
The Newspaper Model
Let us take a detour and look at one of the oldest forms of information sale that the modern world knows. We’ve been buying and reading newspapers since generations. In a lot many countries, newspapers have always been free or extremely cheap. This is because they were always supported by advertisements. But that’s not the reason why the public bought them. Any one really interested in newspapers was reading not because of the gory murder details on page two or the embedded advertisement on page three but for the editorial at the middle of the newspaper. People have always looked towards newspapers for analysis instead of the raw news or the advertisements.
With the coming of the Internet, the news shifted up to blogs and twitter. This meant a completely free platform where anyone could go and read the news without paying a penny. But this also meant that the noise increased. Companies now want to charge you money for access to the news but the same headlines are available for free everywhere else and so they’re fighting a loosing battle. What they’re not realizing is that the news doesn’t matter. The list of bomb blasts and murders and nuclear tests conducted by rogue countries affects only the general ethos of humanity but not the individual directly.
So what does affect the individual? Analysis. What was the consolidated effect of every activity that humanity has done in the past few hours? That is the question that the Internet is failing to answer, instead concentrating on finding newer and better ways of showing us advertisements. This is the right question and this needs to be answered soon or else this entire exercise of collecting and trading Big Data will fail.
Today’s journalism is not just compromised by advertisers but also diluted by link bait. The future is in good journalism, paid for by readers.
There will come, hopefully soon, a businessperson who will look at the Internet and think, “I can’t sell goods, Amazon does that for cheap. I can’t sell listings, Craigslist does that for free. I can’t sell news, Reuters, AP and NYT do it for nearly free on Twitter. I can’t sell social networks, Facebook and Twitter have mastered that space. I cannot even sell data, everyone already collects that in their own walled gardens. I can, however, sell research. But not to the big companies in exchange for Ad dollars, someone already does that. I can sell it to the people.”
There are some who already do that. WolframAlpha doles out a nice Facebook information analysis for you for free, stats and all. If you want more in-depth information about your Facebook-ing habits, pay a small fee and you’re get that and so much more. The Magazine sells you well written articles by well-known tech authors, in essence giving you their two cents about the things that are happening around you. Netflix and Hulu analyze your most recently viewed videos and recommend more to you, indirectly selling you movies that suit your taste. I fail to find examples beyond these because there aren’t many.
We’ve got to look towards models where a large number of subscribers pay to a select group of authoritarians for their knowledge and analysis. Encyclopedias may be dead or dying but the authors that wrote for those publications aren’t. They have moved on and they need a way to connect with the common people. Newspapers may be dying because every tween with a camera phone on a street corner is a newsmaker today and in this deluge of information, newspapers have forgotten how to ‘sell’ news. But the thirst for information and analysis is not dead yet. I can follow a hundred news reporters on Twitter and find out every intimate thought of theirs, but I cannot look at the bigger picture that way.
With the coming of the Internet, we were supposed to find a medium of information and research that had unlimited possibilities instead of the limited scope of the local newspaper. But there is too much noise in the signal and those who’re able to help us, the masses, filter it will be the business victors of tomorrow. After all, a hundred thousand subscribers paying a dollar a year for real research and analysis will pay off better dividends than a million paying nothing for drivel.
Update: This excellent article about the Financial Times and it’s journey to the digital space, while keeping its customers happy and engaged shows exactly what I’ve been talking about in this post.
Update: Forbes, the ultimate news source is also the ultimate example of a victim of this link bait weed growing across the Internet. Their tech articles are full of nonsense news and listicles, trying to grab the viewer’s attention.