When I worked at Penton Media in 2000, the promise the Internet held was obvious to me. Here I was at a business-to-business media company that made its money connecting people who need to buy and sell each others shit. Some of those markets were very vertical, you know, niches. It was expensive as hell to put out those dead trees and do trade shows, but look at how cheap it was to stuff on the Internet!
Well we all knew that, but the execution sucked. The execution sucked for a lot of companies around that time. The idea was still a good one though, and it has been the root of all media evolution in the past ten years: Stop trying to cater to everyone and give people what they want on a smaller, niche scale.
"The Ride and Fall of The Hit" in Wired really captured that whole evolutionary process with fabulous clarity. Finding exactly what it is that interests you isn't always easy, for sure, but we're getting there. Indeed, the mega-hit is becoming rare. That's not really a bad thing.
You know, I tell myself that this is all obvious, but I'd be lying if I said I always knew. As recently as Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace, which seemed like a ridiculous transaction to me, I would frequently lose sight of the formation of "micro-markets" and niche content.
So as this evolution continues, there is still the issue of figuring out how to pay for it. MySpace is huge, bigger than Yahoo now in terms of sheer page views, but someone has to pay for it. YouTube is a great and amazing service, but someone has to pay for all that bandwidth (they're bleeding a million plus a month for that pipe).
And then there's the generation of the content itself. That ain't free, someone has to pay for that too. What makes this a unique situation is that, for the first time in history, mass media is relatively inexpensive to create. But it's still not totally free. You can make a feature film for a couple of grand, but it's still a couple of grand. No one will ever be satisfied with short video clips of a fat guy playing Dance Dance Revolution.
As a niche content publisher, I struggle with this a bit. I make a nice profit from my Web sites, but I don't quite make enough to live off of the revenue. A guy that used to work for Nielsen told me that CoasterBuzz easily dominates the Internet in the coaster enthusiast and amusement industry world, but that's not a very big industry to begin with. Dominating a niche isn't a free pass to independent wealth, unfortunately.
That's why we're actually on the back side of a Web site creation peak. In 2000, every amusement park had someone doing an unofficial site about the park. Now they're few and far in between. There must have come a point where people no longer felt the return on investment, even if it was an emotional one, was worth the time and/or money spent on it.
What has changed is that there are now general purpose services that make it easier to share the content you create. YouTube and MySpace are obvious examples of that. You just have to get over the fact that you're making (or losing) money for someone else. Consumers win, the company wins, and you win if the only validation you need is to have your stuff be seen.
So going forward, in the niche world, I'm interested to see how sustainable it all is. While the distribution methods have changed, it's still true that 90% of the stuff put online is crap. If Google can really continue to get the best stuff you're interested on your screen, then hopefully there will be financial incentive for the niche content producers to keep serving what we crave.