A Year In Digital: The Great Content Wars Of 2011

High Priest Of Smoothness Charles Ubaghs tells us where the battle lines have been drawn in the content wars. It may help to imagine that Barry White is reading this feature to you

People need stuff to talk about. We may have moved on from discussing the thematic undercurrents of Grok’s lastest cave painting while sat around the campfire but the need to meet, gossip and shout our opinions is as ingrained in our DNA as the urge to eat and mate. Discussion is part of our learning process and without the incessant need to share our thoughts and experiences with each other, we, Grok’s descendants, would probably still be scurrying around in the bushes while bashing each other over the head with stones.

Why bring this up in 2011? Because how we discover the latest stuff (news, music, film, culture etc) and how we consume and then talk about that stuff in 2011 has changed in ways that the previous years only hinted at. It also means that we all better start flapping because we’re now so far over the digital precipice there’s no going back.

Digital gurus have been shouting about this pixelated paradigm shift long before William Gibson opened his mouth and let out a yawn that sounded an awful lot like ‘cyberrrrrrrssssppaccce’. But Gibson’s oft quoted point about the future already being here, it’s just not very evenly distributed suddenly feels less like an amusing barb by a prescient writer and more like a very real situation in 2011. And for those who haven’t been paying attention, that jerky arrival of the future is being fuelled by a mammoth land-grab for our digital ears and eyes.

Recently, I cut across Piccadilly Circus on my way to meet someone in central London and found myself walking past the former home of Tower Records. Tower was my first stop after stepping off the train on my first ever trip to London in 1999. Living in the US at the time and being unfamiliar with the city outside of what tiny scraps of information I could glean from the few imported Brit music and styles mags I used to pay far too much for, it was one of the only landmarks I knew outside of the Palace, Trafalgar Square and all the other places tourists still flock to. Inside I found the expected trove of music, film and books I couldn’t easily get my hands on back in the Mid-West. I spent hours browsing the racks and finally left having spent a good portion of a budget that was supposed to feed me for the next few weeks on nothing but records.

Tower became Virgin. Virgin became Zavvi. Now it’s a clothing store.

Just a few years ago, splurges like mine still felt common enough. At the end of 2011 they feel endangered. Walking past the sensible jumpers on display in the windows of the former Tower Records, I couldn’t shake the idea that a generalist record shop like Tower is now an absurd notion. Almost everything I want to listen, read or watch is within reach of my nightstand. Unless you’re a specialist like Rough Trade who offers something the generalists don’t, then the future is looking more and more like it’s going to be written almost exclusively in ones and zeros. Luddities, long standing armchair critics and musty, rose-tinted spectacle wearing types will continue to scoff as they wave their scratched CDs and inky broadsheets around for years to come. But their arguments against the great digital shift are brushed aside by two simple words.

The Bus.

Look around the next time you’re sat on a crowded city bus during commuting hours. Most people’s headphones are now plugged into their phones. If by some chance they’re not listening to music then they’re reading the paper, a book, checking twitter, posing on facebook, writing an email, updating their diary or taking a photo and sticking a vintage filter on it while on their phone, or tablet, or e-reader. And they probably are listening to music while doing all the above.

The digital tipping point has been reached. The wall between our digital lives and our ‘real’ lives has collapsed for good. Online or off, our lives are simply our lives now and what happens in the digital space has very real implications in the real world. Does it mean that even great specialists shops like Rough Trade are doomed? Not yet but it’s clear we can’t underestimate the disruptive nature of technological change and its impact on how we choose to discover, access and enjoy stuff.

Case in point, in 2011 Apple scrapped their white MacBooks – the more affordable model most people chose when they didn’t want to splash out on the pricier pro models. If you want a slightly more affordable Apple laptop now, you’re pointed towards a MacBook Air. The Air is a computer with no disc drive and no built-in ability to rip a CD onto your hard drive. Many now think the Air, or ultrabooks as they’re also known, will sit alongside tablets as the next dominant consumer laptop. The future may well be a place where the majority has no ability to rip music from a CD they’ve purchased onto their hard drives.

You see where I’m going with this.

This isn’t a piece about the end of all record shops as we know it, though. Their future is up in the air. Just like everything else right now. All anyone knows is that our relationship with record shops and what they provide us is still in flux.

Are we destined to a future of nothing but iTunes downloads? No. If there’s one thing 2011 has shown, our future is in the clouds. Instead of storing all your files, data, applications, photos and MP3s on a single computer, you simply store them on a cloud service (or services) and use them when you want on any number of connected devices. Amazon, Google and Apple have all launched cloud storage services in 2011 that allow you to do just that.

But it’s still services like Spotify that showcase the real potential of the cloud. Why upload and then stream when you can simply tap into Spotify’s cloud and play music on demand. Anyone with a smart-phone and a premium Spotify account will attest to how quickly the ability to set entire albums to offline listening quickly replaces the need for an ipod. The Spotify model is peer-to-peer made legit. It’s music on demand and that’s all most people have been asking for since the moment they caught whiff of Napster.

Those digital clouds are having an impact on more than just music. Read stuff later services like Instapaper and Read It Later allow people to bookmark longform articles and read them back on the device of their choice at their own leisure. You can even read them offline. What tools like Instapaper offer is hope for those still clinging to the fear that the digital shift equals cultural lives filled with nothing but news speak ridden edits punctuated by the occasional lolcat.

There are other signs that point to a healthy future for lengthy, informed writing. In a recent interview in The Guardian, the Chief Executive of The Economist discussed what he termed ‘the mega trend of mass-intelligence’ and the fact that people appear to be smartening up and not dumbing down. The Economist has just announced a 6% increase in profit. People are hungry for information and they’re finding it in the growing streams of information they’re immersing themselves in via their digital devices. It’s not just savvy members of the old guard like The Economist who are noticing and acting on this. Longreads and Longform.org are helping to facilitate the discovery of great, in-depth pieces from across the web and making them easily accessible to anyone who follows them on twitter.

Ah Twitter.

It’s Twitter that kickstarted what should rightfully be called The Great Content Wars of 2011. For many, Twitter is still a place for celebrities to babble on about their day and for the rest of us to smugly tell the world about the amazing sandwich we made ourselves. For anyone who uses it regularly, the oddly compelling 140 character limiting service has turned itself into a powerful information distribution platform.

In 2011, Twitter did everything from playing a role in the Arab Spring to highlighting the absurdity of super-injunctions during Giggs-gate. It was blamed in part for the UK riots and in turn praised for its part in the clean-up. Over in the US, National Public Radio’s (NPR) Andy Carvin has since the start of the year been using Twitter to cover the Arab Spring at every possible flashpoint by retweeting trusted sources on the ground and using his followers to help verify the news, images and videos that are brought to light by his constant monitoring and sharing. Many critics are debating whether Carvin’s work should be called journalism. Whatever the label, tweets from Carvin’s account linking to videos of government guards shooting at passersby or twitpics of tanks in residential streets taken from parted blinds removes the emotional distancing and filter that is the by-product of traditional reporting, making the situation in the Middle East feel very, very real to anyone following.

It’s little surprise that Twitter has distanced itself from the term social network and now prefers to be known as an information network. The growing use of platforms like Twitter on an ever-growing number of mobile devices means people are hungry for content to absorb and discuss. If there’s one thing twitter excels at, it’s the sharing and distribution of content. Hence why its recent redesign tweaked the platform to help further encourage information discovery. (They’re also quick to point out that you don’t need to tweet to get value out of it. Which is a point I’d second.)

In a social media driven world, content is THE currency that drives the chatter. If you build it, they will come but then you need to give them a reason to keep coming back. That reason in 2011 is content and none of this has been lost on the big players. Google’s core business will always revolve around their search engine but they also know that in 2011, your friends are increasingly your discovery engine for the latest news, videos and music via the links they share with you – links that you’re more likely to click on because they’re coming from people you know. It’s thanks to this that we said hello to Google+ this year. It may not be a facebook killer, as Google themselves have stressed, but it is designed to be the backbone for every other Google product you use, the glue that will bind them all together as it helps you facilitate discovery and sharing of content.

Of course, the social king in 2011 is still Facebook and in the Autumn of this year they announced a slew of changes to the site that may well turn the 800 million people strong network into the world’s largest single media distribution platform. Much of this distribution rests on the idea of ‘frictionless sharing’ via the various music, newspaper and film apps you connect with your facebook account. Once connected, every time you listen to a song on Spotify or read an article via the Guardian app, a story is published to your feed for your friends to see and they can in turn click on those links to experience said media for themselves. (Although you can turn off this feature if you choose.)

All of these launches, announcements, redesigns and the battle to be the media distribution platform of choice means the information stream that makes up our digital experiences is going to keep growing larger and larger. For a while (and even now), some argued that the role of the editor, the journalist and the critic was becoming meaningless in the sea of blogs and user generated content that was starting to form the core of our digital lives.

And yet, the inverse is happening as people look to fend off what web entrepreneur Nova Spivak has coined “The Sharepocalypse”, aka socially driven information overload. The solution for many is curation, the filtering of the information into a meaningful, digestible form. For some, that curation is achieved through algorithms that identify what content you’re attracted to and then delivers you more of it. News reader apps like Zite and Flipboard, all make use of this in some form or another. Others are banking on the human touch when it comes to curation. The BBC announced this year that it would no longer automate any of its core Twitter news feeds, instead handing over the reigns to a team of editors. Andy Carvin’s work is curation par excellence that simply wouldn’t work without a flesh and blood human at the helm.

Storyful, a social media news agency, uses professional curators and amateurs who scour the web during breaking news events and pull together videos and photos from anyone on the ground who may have posted, photos and videos of the event somewhere online. Storfyful understands that people now walk around with publishing tools in their pockets. As journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen likes to call them, the people formerly known as the audience are now often part of the story telling process – even if they don’t often mean to be.

All of this content requires a filter, a machine or person, to analyze, interpret and then broadcast back all that information to the rest us, helping us to sift through and understand the information streams that we’re consonantly adding to. Curation is in essence simply editing and therefore journalism and criticism in equal measure. The editor, journalist and critic isn’t dead in 2011. They simply don’t have the monopoly on information they once did. Those who attempt to hold on to that monopoly are finding it crumbling in their fingers. Those who adapt, who embrace the levelling of the information hierarchy and the fracturing of culture – which The Quietus’ Luke Turner discusses here – will discover new joys in the stream of information, joys that demand the very skills so many still believe are threatened by the digital shift.

That adaptation calls for bravery and innovation, which is something the tech industries have showcased plenty of this past decade. The culture industries, the creators, are only now just fully waking up to this. Both industries are now at a crossroads. Tech knows it needs great content for its hardware and software to keep growing and developing as it shifts away from the early adopter culture that fuelled its growth for so long. The content creators know they need tech for their content to have any kind of meaningful distribution platform.

What all of these developments mean is that the information starvation that caused my 19-year-old self to go on an ill-advised spending spree at a record store will become an ever rarer occurrence. Information overload is now the norm and while its disruption of our traditional institutions and consumption models will continue for the foreseeable future, a call for great content to make itself known and shine has been made in 2011.

The only question now is who’s ready to answer to that call.

Charles Ubaghs is the smoothest man we know. He occasionally tweets about digital stuff, as well as music and gentleman’s shoes. Follow him here but don’t blame us if this leads to you finding yourself in a jacuzzi, wearing designer swim wear, listening to the Love Unlimited Orchestra.

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