Carl: Your books are safe. While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe.
Bastian: But that’s what I like about them.
Carl: Mm hmm. But afterwards, you get to be a little boy again.”
—The Neverending Story (1984)
It’s 2016 and the attention economy has officially collapsed.
My sense is that most of you are professional attention-grabbers, aspiring pros, or in the attention-grabber “helping professions”—editor, agent, barista—so I figured I’d let you know: It’s Over.
We had a good run, you know, writing stuff down, getting other people to read it, let alone movies, music, video games, etc. but now that we’ve reached Peak Content, well, your best friend in the world couldn’t give two shits about your latest HuffPo thought piece, let alone the AAA sports franchise video game your company spent millions of dollars developing over the last three years.
All of it, everything anyone would ever have paid to read or watch or suffered through an ad to enjoy, has gone into the dustbin of history along with stone tablet chiselers, snuff box enamelers, and the company that specialized in making the big front wheel on old-timey bicycles.
Not long ago, an art critic could expense a lavish four-star meal to his magazine to impress an exotic beauty, but today pretty much the only word of that sentence that’s still in the OED is “expense,” which is what retired parents of middle-aged writers now secretly nickname their children.
I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.
So put the pencil down and step away from the iPad Pro. Your services as an artist are no longer needed. (In fact, science shows that our civilization could get along just fine with the right proportion of nurses, hedge fund managers, and Uber drivers per capita. The rest of us would be better off just sitting still.)
One of the few workable business models in this age of digital disruption has been to produce as much content as cheaply as possible. But flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.
Every time someone with a shaky understanding of economics employs the phrase “it’s a simple matter of economics” to describe a situation that is vastly more complicated than a textbook supply-and-demand scenario, an angel doesn’t get its wings because of global goose feather shortages.
Anderson goes on to offer some helpful advice for media companies:
- Improve strategic focus. This is consultant-speak for “figure out something that will work.”
- Iterative agility. This took me a second (on account of English), but I believe it’s consultant-speak for “spend less money while you figure out what will work.”
- Decide what you stop doing. I’m going to guess based on the first two tips that we’re supposed to stop doing whatever we were doing while not spending money on what we’re going to do instead.
- Invest in media revenue innovation. Here, Anderson advocates for graduate school programs to train “publishers, chief revenue officers, circulation directors, and sales chiefs” to help us innovate our way into relevance. (You can check the link if you don’t believe me. It’s not a rick-roll.)
More grad school will definitely fix the problem.
“Hey Mom, I’ve decided to go back to Columbia to get my master’s degree in circulation directing. Yeah, like magazine circulation. Mom? Are you there? Did you just mutter ‘Expense’ under your breath? I knew that was your secret nickname for me!”
I’m going to say it again: people will pay for content they like, whether with money or attention to ads and often with both—the value is there, on account of all the eyeballs. There are 15 billion eyeballs on earth. Let alone ear holes. That’s 30 billion media orifices and counting!
It may not be your content, but somebody’s going to continue to get rich off words and sounds and images and stories till long after we’re dead.
But how? Like the man says: figure it out.
Take a look at this Japanese bookstore for example. Morioka Shoten in Tokyo only stocks one book at a time. Each book essentially gets a one-week exhibition. And it works.
Is there any way you can take your media company, your agency, your own writing, and shift your approach from “inventory” to “exhibition”?