Is the new 'widgetised' online culture set to collapse?
At this year's ad:tech there were a few decent seminars, but one speaker's comments in particular has stuck in my mind long after the event. Umair Haque was part of the Chinwag panel discussion called 'Micro Media Maze' and he drew parallels between the current financial crisis and the state of the online landscape. Now that's something you don't usually hear at these types of conferences, so I was intrigued. Haque explained that the reason for the huge crash in the financial markets was that Wall Street had sliced, diced and rebundled securities and sold them on, to the point where it was no longer sustainable. What made them fall is that they were doing this 'remixing' within an old paradigm. He drew a parallel between this scenario and the new online trend for widgets: after all, most widgets simply take existing content, and slice it up, mix it up, chunk it up and then spit it out for consumption. According to Haque (and I'm in pretty close agreement), most widgets today are just glorified redistribution methods for the same old junk, just streams of ads no one wants, repackaged with the shiny badge of being 'widgetised'.
Haque went on to say that the media needs to shift out of its old paradigm if it is to survive; the old paradigm being the practice of shoving ads down customers' throats. In an age where consumers don't have to watch ads anymore, using widgets as ads just doesn't fly. Tomorrow's ads need to give value to consumers, tomorrow's communication needs to improve or enhance the customer's skills, not dull them with 'stupid passive zombified entertainment'. That's a shift indeed, but I do have (perhaps naive) faith. I'm just not sure how long it will take for media to catch on to the idea.
There are some great widgets out there - for example, the last.fm / Google Maps mashup that shows where the bands you listen to on last.fm are playing live. But widgets like this are usually created by the developer community, not the big media companies. And with services like Widgetbox allowing people to create widgets without the need for a developer or any understanding of code, the ratio of rubbish to brilliant widgets is only set to get greater.
What media owners need to do is take a leaf out of the book of Creative Commons and the blogging community, where people regularly give things away for the sheer joy of giving or being helpful to another human being. Take for example, the coolest thing since free wifi itself: Londonist's free wifi map of London. It's been created and made public for free, is constantly updated by the steady stream of reader comments in the original post, and is the sheer essence of sharing something useful: 'giving back' without needing to be 'given to' first.
Whether or not this concept will fly with the business and revenue models of most media companies, is yet to be seen. I guess that's what Umair Haque meant when he called for a paradigm shift. I only hope that it happens before the days when today's young people, who have grown up living their lives online, take over. Because I will probably be too old by then to even remember what the hell a widget was in the first place.
Part 2 in the ad:tech London Follow-up posts