Five Myths of New Media, Revisited

A reader suggested that I should take a look at an article I wrote back in 1997, Five Myths of New Media, and consider how those predictions panned out. Good idea, here goes…

1. Business use is driving the growth of the Internet

That myth is long since busted — I called it right. The action, and most of the traffic volume, are in social networking and P2P and other on-line communities not tied to someone’s line of business. Personal use dominates even in measures as simple as tallies of broadband connections; “home” accounts vastly outnumber “business” accounts.

Note: I’m not claiming business use is unimportant, but then I wasn’t claiming that in my original article either. It’s just not the main driver of volume growth today, and probably never has been.

In truth, I think I was actually more prescient than almost anyone else about this, at least anyone else who was willing to speak up in public.

The Internet is the future of mass entertainment and news.

In my prediction I was being derisive of video-on-demand services and the notion that old-media moguls could shoehorn the Internet into a dumb, centralized broadcast medium, issuing entertainment and news over an essentially one-way pipe. Busted: that hasn’t happened either, my negative prediction was correct.

Eleven years later the Internet looks like the future of news, but in a different way than I anticipated in 1997. What it’s done instead is turned everyone who wants to be into a publisher. I didn’t make that positive prediction, but then nobody else did either.

So I’d say I got this half right; I was correct in terms of the questions we knew how to ask in 1997, but I didn’t quite foresee a more radical development that would change the questions.

The techno-literacy problem can be solved in isolation.

Despite the more general title, I was mostly talking about the broadband-deployment problem in my original prediction. But I don’t think anyone would even argue the more general claim in 2008.

Notice that you don’t hear much squawking from the “digital divide” crowd any more? As I correctly predicted, attempts at grandiose government interventions came to nothing and markets mostly solved the Internet deployment problem. Free wireless Internet provided by private citizens and businesses has spread like crazy.

The big remaining deployment issue isn’t rich vs. poor, which is what the do-gooders were obsessing about in 1997; it’s urban vs. rural. Below a certain population density it’s difficult for anyone thinking about dropping in cable or fibre to recover their infrastructure costs. I expect mesh networking and WiMAX to solve this problem during the next five years.

I think I got this one entirely right.

On-line magazines can make money.

…by subscription. If anyone has actually managed this yet, I have yet to hear about it. All the “successful” operations I know of are cross-subsidized by a print business or float on advertising revenue. So I was right as far as that went.

I’m going to concede half of this one, however, because I was wrong in the more general sense. Slate, my example of 1997, started making money in 2007 after the Washington Post bought it from Microsoft. The advertising revenue did it.

And it’s still the case that even specialized devices like ebook readers “cannot replace the experience of leafing through a magazine with your feet up.”

Paper will be history soon.

Busted. Obviously it isn’t, and won’t be in the foreseeable future. Displays aren’t good enough or cheap enough, or light enough, not by an order of magnitude. The technology to make them better than paper is now realistically imaginable — that’s a change from 1997, when high-resolution color CRTs were still pretty novel — but only barely so. It will be a long way off yet.

I wrote: “Internet (like other media) has a natural ecological/economic niche which it fills better than its competitors,
but that said niche is different from any of its competitors. We won’t serve anyone by trying to fit the Internet on a Procrustean bed of old-media forms, nor by assuming any of them is inevitably going to be completely subsumed by the Internet.

One thing we can see a little more clearly ten years later is which old-media forms do look most likely to be replaced. My post on Converging curves cites long-term trends suggesting that general-circulation newspapers look like being one of them.

The learning process continues. I was solid on predictions 3 and 5. I got 2 and 4 at least half-right. And I was ahead of almost everyone on prediction 1. That’s at least an an 80% hit rate, which is pretty good in the prognostication business.

Categorized as General


  1. What it’s done instead is turned everyone who wants to be into a publisher. I didn’t make that positive prediction, but then nobody else did either.

    Does SF count? Because if so, Orson Scott Card made precisely that prediction in 1985, in Ender’s Game.

    I’d also argue that NetFlix/YouTube/BitTorrent are getting pretty close to video-on-demand.

  2. I actually think that paper will survive for a long time, just in a different form. First, the use of pulp has gone up not down, every year since the creation of elthe laser printer. We humans have had 6 centuries to become accustom to a format. It darn near part of our genome now.

    But what I think will change is the medium. Rather than pulp it will go plastic. firms like eInk have developed the technology for improved displays using a ‘printed’ electronic matrix. Moving that matrix to a sheets of reusable ‘paper’ is probably going to happen for content that has a long to medium storage life. I am thinking tax forms, documentation, etc. When its use has been consumed or expired, you just reload the media into the printer and out pops a new content. Essentially reusable paper.

    Other transitory forms like the pulp dailies are better suited to the web as you envisioned. What baffles me about the dailies is their hind bound resistance. It should have been a natural fit. The Web Server instead of the 4 color press. All the other front end systems and processes stay intact. They had a natural advantage having already gathered the reporting staff. But the legacy press looks at bloggers as their natural enemies. Odd….

  3. Hey Eric, I would quibble on the last one a bit. While I don’t think “paper will be history soon”, I would argue that the electronic ink displays we are seeing from Amazon and Sony are going to do the trick. I bought a Kindle not long ago and it is amazing. I still buy magazines, but haven’t bought a book since. And the Kindle, with its over the air delivery of content in mere seconds is the model that will be the “killer app” that changes things.

  4. superb

    you’d never cut it as an industry/stock analyst, eric. all this focus on facts and human realities gets in the way of jumping on bandwagon memes.

  5. [Yes, I’m late. I didn’t know you were back until today…]

    There is one sense I’m seeing in which the Internet is becoming the future of mass entertainment, if not news: Steam, Stardock, and other digital distribution sites. So far, it’s all games and related media (game trailers, patches for games, etc.). But Steam is proven that the application can be useful and unobtrusive, and seems extremely scalable (admittedly, I’m not familiar with its architecture, but if the only bottlenecks are account validation when requesting a resource, how bad could it be as the number of resources increases?).

    The other question is whether Steam is profitable. The business model seems transparent enough. After that, it’s a question of whether this and other digital distributors can forge deals with content creators. Within a decade, we might be hooking our HDTVs to our computers (assuming we haven’t already), and trading $50US for The Simpsons, Season 23…

  6. I think JohnMC is right, paper will still be there… There are still many parts in the world who doesn't have 24/7 internet access.
    But new media will still continue to revolutionize the way people make business.
    More and more people are into using new media to promote their brand.
    It's far more efficient.
    Nice post!

  7. Well many prediction has lead to reality but its up to our individual faith and principles in life if we are going to tolerate this attitude. Yet somehow, global modernization has a great impact nowadays, in the world of business it has a great relevant and many others. because of the curiosity of human the impossible things will result to possible in high technology . However, this high-tech invention will lead also negative effect in the society and to the people. Let us also be reminded that all this things that coming from earth will be returning to earth.

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