Yale Law professor Amy Chua is getting tons of traffic for preaching a brand of parenting that pushes kids to keep practicing until they’re perfect – but I don’t mean that kind of persistence. (Although I wouldn’t mind the traffic she’s getting).
It’s more about what the characteristics of the age of digital information are, and which ones we focus on. Obviously the web lowers – dramatically – the costs of communication, cuts time of delivery, expands reach and dismantles barriers to entry. That’s why even the smallest of media organizations – in fact, any individual – can publish globally now at minimal cost, theoretically reaching hundreds of millions of people instantaneously. Lower communication costs also mean lower barriers to setting up global – and local – communities, which is also why we see the explosion of social media and the viral spread of online networks.
All of this makes lots of sense, and hence so does media’s broad fixation on speed and reach – if we don’t have to wait for printing plants or Xerox machines to warm up, trucks or mail vans to reach far-flung places, or the price of paper or stamps, then why don’t we get the word out as quickly as we can and as far as we can? So we file 24-7, live-blog events, tweet every update, and look to build audiences around the world.
That’s one reason why communities can form relatively easily on the net – not everyone needs to be online at the same time for a discussion to develop. Conversations unfold over hours and days because comments, updates and postings remain visible for everyone to see.
In some ways, that’s great – instead of having to find someone who’s physically online that that time to ask about a topic, whether it’s good hotels to stay in a new town or the latest gossip about the government, you can simply look for a relatively recent conversation and trawl that for information. You can post questions and check back the next day. Beyond simply answering questions, that can be empowering to disenfranchised groups who can’t physically gather – although, of course, as much as it allows dissidents to organize online, it also lets neo-Nazis conspire.
And we’re only now grappling with how that level of persistence affects the way we behave and interact – comments that people say off the cuff now last for years online; mistakes in stories take on a life of their own; outdated information overtakes current news; and so on. All that will take time to sort out. Libel laws, privacy issues, responsibility for fixing errors – these are all areas that will evolve.
My broader point, however, is that news organizations have tended to fixate much more on their ability to move faster and reach further, and much less on how to make the most of the (new) persistence of their content.
We don’t adapt our archives to make them user-friendly – an old bugbear of mine – but also, in our push for faster-and-faster updates, we often don’t think through the potential longer-term value of what we do. Does it make more (economic) sense to use our limited resources to live-blog an event, knowing that very few people will want to ever read that string of updates again, or is it a better use of reporters to build/write a story/analysis piece about that event that will have longer shelf life?
Right now, frankly, the answer is a bit mixed – but that’s mostly because our business models are built around monetizing content immediately, and we haven’t yet really developed any systems for building products out of older income and collecting real money from them. (Selling access to archives, or putting Google Ads next to old stories don’t really count; that’s just getting marginal income for something we’re already doing.)
If we don’t correct that – if we don’t work on figuring out a business model based on the value of longer-term content – we’ll keep incentivizing ourselves to spend our resources on things of (relatively) ephemeral value, when we should be asking ourselves what else we could be doing to make things that last, and which tap into a fundamental characteristic of online information: Persistence.
Because maybe we’ll discover that Amy Chua is right. Maybe persistence does pay.