We are facing a communications medium extinction on a scale never before seen… or so I hear. Every day in my feeds I see someone saying that something is ‘dying’. Whether it’s newspapers, blogging, e-mail, or even telephones as we know them, if you believe the hype then you better start building time capsules to show your children what you had to work with before holonews, lifelogs, and thought-sends came around. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of their death have been greatly exagerrated. Read on to find out what ‘death’ really means, what life after death looks like, and why the real story is rebirth.
The Truth about Death
Everyone loves a good headline – I hope mine jumped out and hooked you with a scythe – but there’s a big difference between stretching the truth over a headline to grab a reader’s attention, and stretching it to cover an entire entry or article. Most articles I’ve read reporting the pending doom of one medium or another have a thin layer of credibility stretched over a thick slice of sensationalism.
The truth is, old mediums rarely die, they just stop being interesting. New tools come along and steal the spotlight, bouncing around with their youth and vigor, and make the old tools look so still, rigor mortis might be setting in. ‘Death’, as announced by these articles, is really just a stupid way of trying to say ‘boring’.
E-mail is still the most-used web service in the world other than the world wide web itself. Blogging is experiencing continual adoption by enterprise and other business markets. The recent Skype outage shows VOIP isn’t ready to take over for phone service yet, and newspapers? Their market is changing, not dying. Their business isn’t about providing the most immediate news anymore, but really it hasn’t been for a while. Newspapers have staff, editors, foreign bureaus, and many assets that give them different capabilities than online news services. Newspapers aren’t dying. They’re transitioning.
Do you know what the last communications medium to truly die was? The telegram. After a century and a half of existence, the Western Union stopped providing telegram service in January 2006. There simply wasn’t any benefit left to telegrams that other mediums didn’t provide better. So unless you think that’s the case with all of these mediums, maybe it’s time to stop writing eulogies.
Communications, and Life After Death
One of my favorite social network services to take digs at is Friendster. It’s nothing personal against those in charge, but it conceptually respresents all the worst mistakes of web 2.0 services: poor planning for scaling, poor customer service, limiting user expression, and relying too much on a first mover advantage. So I love to poke fun at the fact that it’s still hanging around, like a high school superstar who washed out of college, despite, as I pointed out in my last article on globalizing web services, still being relatively successful in some markets. 24.7 million users is nothing to sniff at.
The sad truth is we’re not satisfied with success anymore. It’s not worth talking about steady profits and satisfied customers. The blogosphere and even mainstream reporting is obsessed with Google-killers, superstar startups, the next big thing, anything that rises fast or falls hard. But consumers (of information, of products, of services) don’t have the energy to keep jumping from shiny new thing to shinier new thing. And if investors, writers, and developers keep trying to force-feed us the new before we’ve had time to digest the old, the market is going to burn out, and it will be a while before it’s ready for more.
Innovation, or, The Potential of Rebirth
The good thing about dead mediums not really being dead, is that it’s much easier for them to come back to life. Many services face problems of users getting bored, staff getting unmotivated, media no longer talking about you. While it’s one thing to maintain a status quo everyone’s satisfied with, it’s another to rest on your laurels while others are serving your customers’ need for more/better options. If ‘death’ is being boring, the trick to rebirth is making a medium exciting again.
Adding new features is not rebirth. Redesigning, while it might get you a mention on TechCrunch, is not rebirth. Waking up to the fact that you need to offer something new, and offering something that’s new to you, is not rebirth. Rebirth of a medium only happens by making a dramatic, innovative leap forward. It happened when cars stopped looking like Model Ts and started looking like LaSalles. It happened when cellular phones stopped being carried in your car and started being carried in your pocket.
So how can it happen for the services all the nay-sayers say are dying off? For newspapers, I believe rebirth will come when customer-accepted e-paper connects with ubiquitous wireless. Or when information overload reaches a peak level, and newspaper publishers accept a role as information aggregators, filters, investigators, and expert commentators. For e-mail, I can’t wait to see what Xobni has in store for us. For blogging… well, I have some ideas of my own about that, and maybe I’ll be able to tell you more in a year or two. For phones? That’s the tough one, and a perfect example of why sometimes, “good enough” really is. Cell phones continue to become mini-multi-magic-boxes, but landlines have their strengths, and will continue to serve office buildings for decades to come.
So next time you see someone writing about the death of whatever, leave a comment and tell them that if they find it that boring, you’d rather they not waste your time writing about it unless they’re going to suggest a way to improve. And if you enjoy *not* receiving needless predictions of doom, make sure you subscribe to Social Strategist.