/ 16 September 2011

App, app and away


Chris Anderson is one of the world’s foremost commentators on web trends and future technologies. He publishes Wired magazine, an international authority on technology culture, trends and innovation, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Anderson’s most recent books, Free: The Future of a Radical Price and The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More are bestsellers that have influenced views on internet business today.

You speak about the “app economy” — do you get the feeling that the web is out of fashion these days and that people are opting for controlled platforms such as Apple’s app store?
You’re referring to my “web is dead” article of last year?

I love the web, I hope the web isn’t dead, but there is a demonstrable shift in user behaviour towards mobile, and mobile brings with it two things. First of all there is a shift towards apps: mobiles tends to be optimised for apps because of smaller screens. The apps tend to come via app stores, not because Apple controls so much of that ecosystem. The other aspect of the web, which was implicit in your question, is the notion of the “openness” that is built into the web. And increasingly we see closed platforms that happen to use the web as their transport and display — sites like Facebook — which are not open.

Will there be a web in 10 or 20 years’ time?
Absolutely. In my article I made that very clear. Right now we’re seeing a shift — commercial content is tending to shift towards these more closed platforms. Other content, such as community, amateur content or content that doesn’t intend to have a business model, tends to seek openness for the sake of the largest possible audience.

So you could imagine a bipolar world where there is a completely free world that isn’t intended for business. This is the world of human-to-human communication and that exists in the open web. Then there is the commercial web, which is increasingly closed. That again leans to the point that the “web reflects human society”. You have your job and you have your life. Your interactions at work are paid interactions. Your interactions with your friends and family are unpaid.

The two worlds coincide and superimpose, but the notion of commercial and non-commercial existing in the same domain is completely in line with our civilisation, so I don’t see any problem there.

What technologies do you think are defining our future in the web and the media world? Obviously, the shift towards mobile and tablets and smartphones, in particular, is the biggest driver. I think what we’re seeing here is an opportunity to rethink the user­interface — rethink the experience of consuming media. It’s rethinking pricing, rethinking how we get media, rethinking what social media means as a form of marketing. So it’s like the web was 20 years ago; it’s a brand-new domain. Nobody really knows anything and we’re all groping in the dark. We’ve learnt a lot from the web about what works and what doesn’t work, and I think that we have an opportunity to right some wrongs. For example, on the tablet: this time these platforms have come out with an e-commerce model built in via the iTunes or the Android stores.

This means we have the capacity to try different pricing and economic models. Before, we didn’t have the physical ability so everything had to default towards banner ads as a business model. But now we have the capacity to do everything from freemium to micropayments and pure paid content. We have the capacity to integrate with social media and really understand what people want — how they get content in a way we didn’t have 20 years ago on the web.

What’s your take on Google+? Do you think that it is a fresh new take on social networking or just more noise?
I like it a lot. I think it’s early days yet so I am still trying to figure out quite how to use it and get critical mass, but I think it solves one of the problems of Twitter, which is a lack of a secondary engagement stream and the notion of comment and of being able to engage in a conversation with people that doesn’t have to be broadcast to all your followers. I like that a lot. I like the multimedia aspects of it. It’s really easy to share pictures and videos and get a little preview of the links.

I think that it’s still harder to navigate than Twitter, and there is still the feeling that it doesn’t have the same critical mass of Twitter. It’s coming out of the gate, because you can write longer, which I like, and you can include photographs. It’s become a more contemplative or thoughtful place than Twitter. Google+ feels less newsy and ideas are more fleshed out than condensed into snippets like Twitter, but by the same token it feels less urgent. Google+ is a more contemplative place and more incoherent. I haven’t yet managed to create a stream that feels as focused as my Twitter stream, but these are early days yet. I am pretty bullish on Google+. I do think that it’s going to work this time. It’s relatively well designed and it gets better by the day.

What will the media company of future look like?
Well, when you say media company, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Is Facebook a media company? Is Google a media company? I don’t know. I think media companies won’t define themselves as solely “a media company”. I think they will think of themselves as a brand company — they have brands and those brands have many manifestations. There will be traditional media; there will be community; there may be e­commerce; there may be events; there could be product development. I think the media company of the future won’t constrain itself by thinking of itself only as “a media company”.

So a company like Facebook will practise activities similar to that of the New York Times or Wired, for example?
Obviously they come from a different place — I don’t think Facebook wants to be creating original content. But there are some similarities as well. Facebook realises that a social graph is important and creating a place for people to talk to each other, a platform for communication, is core to their strategy. Traditional media companies are ­recognising that social media is important to what they do as well, so I think there is a lot of overlap. Some companies are basically technology development companies— Google and Facebook are clearly that. Other companies are largely content-creation companies, but at the end of the day we are serving the same customers.

Should media companies offer their online content for free or pay-wall it, or opt for a pay wall where there is free content that lures users into paying for more in-depth content?
Yes, all the pay walls I know are using freemium, which is to say there is a free tier. Certain stories are free, others aren’t. Sometimes there is a number of stories per month that are free; sometimes sections are free; sometimes the first half is free. So everybody I know of uses ­freemium, which is to say a ­carefully calculated balance between free and paid through which people can engage at no cost, but the most appropriate consumers are ­encouraged to upgrade to a superior paid experience.

Is Wired considering a pay wall on its website?
Over time we would like to offer a premium experience, but I certainly don’t think we want to take anything that’s currently free and put it behind a pay wall. We offer a freemium experience on tablets and we obviously offer a paid experience in print. We’d like to be able to offer a premium experience for advertisers that’s a superior experience across all platforms, but that isn’t to say we will take what is currently free and close it down. It will be more that we would add.

If I remember correctly, five or six years ago the blogosphere was an exciting place — there was great content be found. And then something seemed to happen: it seemed like a less compelling place, and that seemed to coincide with a greater quantity of bloggers coming on board. It seemed harder to find good content in that space. Do you think the blogosphere has lost its shine? Well, we were the first people to write the “kill your blog” story a few years ago and we certainly, in a cheeky, semi-serious way, have claimed as much.

I discontinued my own blog a few years ago, the Longtail. I continue to blog every day in another format on DIY Drones — much more narrow, shorter posts. I also write a lot on things like Google+. You may not call that a blog, but it feels like a blog to me. I think that on some level we’re trying to figure out what is the natural unit of communication. Twitter says the natural unit is 140 characters; Google+ says to me it’s closer to 100 words; Facebook says maybe the natural unit is a status update. I think we’re just groping our way towards what feels right in the end, and maybe it’s not the same thing for everybody.

But the idea of posting your thoughts in public is alive and well, only it’s migrating to platforms that fit in with our lives and needs better. So the blog is dead, long live the blog.

This is an edited version of an ­interview provided by technology trends site memeburn.com
o Anderson is in South Africa to speak at the forthcoming Discovery Invest Leadership Summit