UPDATED 13:20 EDT / MARCH 09 2009

Content Distribution is Changing Again

Content distribution is changing again, as it has in each recent decade. This time around content distribution is shifting from Web sites to people. But to understand this shift and what it means, it is first useful to look at the recent past, and then where things are heading in the near future. For reference, please see my visual map of the evolution of the Web over time – I will be referring to concepts from this map in the article below.


In the years 1980 – 1989, content was distributed mainly through offline media outlets. Most people got their news and other information from newspapers, television networks, and magazine publishers. The creators of the content generally owned the outlets by which consumers were able to discover the content and consumer the content. For example, a media company not only performed the editorial creation of the content, they also ran the newspapers and TV stations and wire services by which the content was distributed, syndicated, and eventually consumed by audiences. The entire content process was owned and controlled by these organizations.

However, in subsequent decades we have seen a steady degradation of the pre-1989 media monopolies, and a progressive evolution of new content distribution paradigms.

In the first decade of the Web revolution, from 1990 – 1999  (what I call Web 1.0), the centers of content distribution began to shift away from offline media outlets to new online media outlets including online services like AOL, and upstarts such as Yahoo! and other Web portals. The incumbent offline media companies were slow on the uptake and in most cases either worked through third-party online services and Web companies, or tried to ignore the Web (at their peril). By the end of the Web 1.0 decade, the offline media companies were losing massive amounts market share to online media portals. The trend was clear: Web portals were the new leading edge of how media was being distributed and consumed. Offline media sales and audiences were falling precipitously, while online media pageviews and audience were growing dramatically.

By the second decade of the Web, from 2000 – 2009 (what I call Web 2.0), another shift began to take place. This time around the transition was from large online services and Web portals to smaller aggregation and discovery outlets such as Digg, personal or professional Weblogs, and RSS readers. A small but growing percentage of Web surfers began using these as their primary sources of news and content. By the end of this decade, services like Digg will have grown to have enormous audiences and traffic, and Weblogs and niche Websites will have superseded many major offline and online media companies in traffic. Instead of going directly to a media company portal, cutting-edge consumers are discovering their news via Digg, other aggregators, or postings on Weblogs and feeds they track. Mainstream users are not far behind – they too are getting increasing amounts of news and content through Google search, Google News, other news aggregation services and personal start pages.

Which Leads to Web 3.0

The main point to notice is that in the Web 2.0 decade, the places (on the Web) where news and other online content was discovered are not owned or controlled by the creators and owners of the content. Content aggregation and discovery is effectively separating from content creation. Another observation is that content distribution is no longer controlled via business-to-business relationships between content providers and content aggregators or outlets as it used to be in the pre-1990 era of wire services and syndication deals. Instead, content distribution has been completely democratized via the hyperlink. Anyone can link to anything, perhaps with a short synopsis, and post it to their blog or social bookmarking site. Others can then discover the content and click the link to view the full content.

This is a double-edged blessing for content creators. On the one hand their content is suddenly being more widely redistributed and promoted on the Web than they could ever accomplish via their own tightly controlled networks of relationships, and this in turn is enabling them to reach new audiences and is driving traffic back to their content from a wide array of locations around the Web. On the other hand however, content creators have completely lost control of the process by which and places where their content is discoverable – they are effectively no longer in the content distribution and discovery business. For example, a newspaper like the New York Times creates vast amounts of high quality original content, but most of the traffic to the site is not via direct consumer visits to the home page or sections of the site. Rather it comes from search engines and blog posts and bookmarks in other sites that linked to articles in the main site.

In the third decade of the Web, from 2010 to 2019 (what I call Web 3.0), another shift will take place, and we can already see the signs of it happening now. Content distribution is shifting from Web sites to people. People, not websites, will become the primary drivers of how content is distributed and discovered. People will read something interesting and then in various ways they will redistribute it to other people they are connected to. For example, people are increasingly redistributing interesting links and content via Twitter, Friendfeed, or via Twine (my own online service for tracking and sharing content around interests using the wisdom of crowds and the Semantic Web), or via Facebook and other social networks.

The key point of the Web 3.0 decade is that people will become the primary content routers and content outlets for their friends, colleagues and other people who share their interests. Instead of getting content from major media sites, or even from niche sites and aggregation sites, we will begin to get our content directly from other people we trust. There are several drivers of this trend. One of them is simply the need to filter the growing amount of information overload we experience. By relying on people we trust, and people who share our interests, to help sift through the array of content choices out there, we can reduce our own workload and find the interesting morsels with less work. Content creators and even content aggregators will no longer be in control of content distribution. Instead the audience itself will control how the content is distributed. This is the culmination of the concept of “social media.”

The Beat Goes On: The Age of Agents

But the process will not end there. Another decade will follow and with it will come further evolution. By the fourth decade of the Web, 2020 – 2029 (what I call Web 4.0), content distribution will shift from people to programs. Human individuals will s
imply not be able to cope with the immense amount of change and complexity on the Web. Even the number of content choices they receive from their friends and colleagues every day will be totally unmanageable. Social media will become a source of tremendous overload. People will need help. This is when intelligent agents and smart personal assistants will be absolutely necessary to our information survival. Several other technology trends – such as the Semantic Web, the WebOS, and natural language understanding, machine learning and artificial intelligence will have matured sufficiently by this time to make these agents possible. The end result will be that every human individual (and every group and organization) will be paired with at least one intelligent agent that will help them manage incoming and outgoing content.

Our agents will subscribe to get content we are interested in from other agents, and will intelligently redistribute content we receive and/or like out to other agents. We humans will not have to manually be involved in the process of sifting and redistributing content anymore. We will simply see suggested content from their agents (perhaps summarized or pre-digested intelligently in some cases), we will then read what interests us and perhaps mark it as good or bad, and the rest will be automatic – our agents will do reasoning on our behalf, and then send links and other statistics about their attention and sentiment out to other relevant agents for our friends and colleagues.

The entire network of agents will reason and learn collectively about content on the Web, and the interests of the people the agents represent, in real-time, without human intervention. In this era, we will reach new heights of personalization technology. Our agents will learn about our content interests and preferences, and our implicit and explicit social networks and networks of trust, as we read and express our sentiment naturally. There will be more content than we can presently imagine dealing with, but we will be able to manage it effectively thanks to these evolving intelligent tools.

Far Future Content Distribution: We are Borg!

What will come after Web 4.0 – in Web 5.0, the decade from 2030 to 2039?  By that time, content distribution will no longer be controlled by individual people or by programs, but by a meta-level “hive mind” or “global brain” that will transcend the individual level altogether. There will be learning processes governed by individual agents or communities of agents and people working in tandem – that live out on the network “above” networks of people, software and content providers.

These meta-level processes will learn about content and then help to organize it and distribute it “down” to people and programs that will then consume it and redistribute it. We could see this is a phase transition to a higher level of order – new abstract functional agents or nodes will evolve in the system that don’t represent particular people or content providers – they will instead be true brokers or intermediaries that will learn and route content to agents for people and organizations. In some ways this evolution of higher and higher levels of network abstraction mirrors the structure and development of the human brain, where we have different layers of neurons that provide progressively higher levels of abstraction, coordination and reasoning.

In the decades discussed in this article I have mainly focused on how content distribution and discovery will change. However, the processes of content creation and content consumption will also change in step with the steady march of technology and network growth as well. All of this will have profound implications for content providers, media companies, advertisers and of course end-users. These are subjects for future articles perhaps. The trends I have outlined here are clear as day to me, but I’m sure there is more to the story that I have missed. Feel free to add your comments and ideas, and data to support or refute these suggestions. Perhaps together we can all figure this out with even higher resolution.

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