Saturday, May 28, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Ben Compaine on Media's "New Western Frontier"

Media guru Ben Compaine has posted an important new essay on his site entitled: "Peercasting as the New Western Frontier." Ben argues that the Internet and new media are creating the equivalent of a new Western frontier for the expansion of ideas and creativity. Here's how he puts it:

"The expansive western frontier offered anyone an opportunity to build a farm and become an independent member of society. Free land thus tended to relieve poverty in the Eastern cities while on the frontier it fostered greater economic equality.

What does this have to do with the media? Here's what: Though it may be a tad premature to know with certainty, in the equally unlimited expanses of information available through the Internet and its related ecosystem I see the makings of a similar safety value for expression and communication."

Whether is web sites, blogs, Net radio, P2P, podcasting, vodcasting, or whatever your new favorite form of media transmission may be, these new forms of "peercasting" as Ben calls them are revolutionizing today's media marketplace by giving every man, woman and child the opportunity to speak to the whole planet.

Some critics will argue that all these new outlets really don't make all that much difference since other, larger media outlets continue to attract more eyes and ears. But that is just silly.

While we know that "power laws" are at work for all forms of media--typically 80 percent of the audience for any given marketplace is captured by 20 percent of its producers--that doesn't mean all these new outlets are not incredibly important. Power laws (or the "80-20 principle") exist for old and new media alike because some forms of media are always going to be more popular than others. Clay Shirky's seminal article on "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality," has shown us that this is equally true of blogs even though they are more open to entry and competition than older forms of media. For whatever reason, a handful of blogs attract the overwhelming amount of attention. This same 80-20 power law relationship has been shown to be at work in a variety of other media industries, especially popular music and movies.

But the amazing thing about new digital media "peercasting" outlets is that while these power laws exist for them too, the opportunity still exists for millions of people to participate in this revolution in some small way (and perhaps even gain a decent audience in the process). More importantly, keeping Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" insights in mind, we know that the other important difference today is that media can be searched and filtered more easily than ever before. This means that niche outlets and viewpoints have a chance of gaining an audience in a way they likely would not have been able to do in the past.

In sum, what we are witnessing with the rise of this new Western frontier of media services is the complete death of media scarcity. Even the Federal Communications Commission has recently published an eye-opening study entitled, "The Scarcity Rationale for Regulating Traditional Broadcasting: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed." Folks, when the agency that owes its entire existence to the notion that media and communications scarcity is rampant and requires extensive regulation of the market is publishing a paper with a title like that, you know things have changed in a BIG way.

Anyway, read Ben's new essay and you will gain a new appreciation for just how much the media world has changed for the better in a remarkably short period of time.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 4:07 PM | Mass Media