John Naughton - Media as an Ecological Study

I was lucky enough to attend a talk on Monday by John Naughton about The Totally Networked Society.

The talk was about how the media landscape is changing and how there is a lot of bewilderment about it - and why he thinks there shouldn’t be.

I took a lot from his talk - but I’m not sure I completly picked up the right end of the stick John was throwing - here are my musings inspired by his talk though.

He proposed a idea that was new to me - that economics is struggling to cope with modelling and explaining how things succeed or fail in this totally connected world. His theory is that economics was created for and works with markets that have a scarcity of resources. The world of on-line applications and digital media means that there is a no longer a scarcity of resources, but in fact there is an abundance of resource - and economics struggles to cope with modelling this.

The proposition of abundance is true - internet sites such as google, flickr, myspace and youtube have all been started as small “bootstrapped” projects. They needed money and resources to get to where they are now - but by the point they looked for capital either the capital they needed was low - or they had taken out a lot of the risk of the investment by proving things worked. (OK OK I know that there are a lot of companies that have failed - but lets just put that down to bad investment decisions by idiots rather than ruin my whole flow here!).

So where an Economist would talk about supply and demand - we can see that the only big supply issue here is ideas. If demand is there - you have a nice model, if not - go get another of those cheap ideas and try again. Abundance of resource is confusing things - consumers are in the driving seat.

In this world though where the consumer calls the shots and resources are abundant - the idea that a competitor can copy what you are doing overnight (almost) means that things are harder for on-line businesses.

Take Microsoft for example - they have lived in a distorted marketplace for years, where they have all the power - I don’t believe in the on-line world this will happen again (but they can probably look forward to another 5-10 years).

Google - the Internet’s favourite new monopolist (and the Overloads of, they have created their position by listening and reacting to the consumer - recognising the consumer has the power - and rarely disagreeing. Could it all change for them? yes I think so - their monopoly is not with consumers it is with advertisers. They now have the majority of the search market and therefore have considerable power with advertisers (there is no abundance of consumers - so supply and demand still work here). Onewrong step though (maybe 5) - stop listening to consumers - and that will be the end of that.

This is where Ecology comes into the picture - John’s argument was that Ecology is used for studying complex interactions and symbiosis of many organisms. Our totally networked society is such a complex landscape of interacting people, organisations and applications that Ecologists already have the tools to start analysing it.

OK - I don’t think John was suggesting we all go and get our stock tips from the nearest Ecologist quite yet - but what he was saying was that the fact that so many economists are baffled by the behaviour in this “new” world - is completely understandable - they have no way properly understand it.

What next then - how to use these ideas? I’m not sure I’ve emailed John for any links and papers he can give me on the subject.

His talk ended with a point that success on-line is less survival of the fittest (resource rich) but the smartest (listen, look and analyse) - a rallying call if ever I heard one - when you are a small company - let’s hope it holds true.

I’m not sure if my piece here makes 100% on the subject - John has written about New Media Ecology previously and this could well be a good starting point for anyone interested.

I’d also suggest - reading the Wikipedia article on Media Ecology to see that the idea was first raised by Marshall McLuhan when looking at the dominance of television as “the” dominate media in 1977.