User-Created Content and the Future of Entertainment
The NY Times has just published a somewhat puffy "state of the company" piece about Nobuyuki Idei's vision for Sony.
While there are some interesting elements in the article, including the point that Idei has been unsuccessful in his attempts to get Sony engineers to focus more on software vs. hardware [sure rings true with me!] what I find most interesting is what's missing.
The "convergence" vision that the article discusses is very 1995 -- it's the old, centralized, push-it-to-the-consumer model of music+movies+hardware, with formats and players and content interconnecting in one seamless vertical stack.
* Why did I buy the SACD player? Because the Sony artist CD I wanted was in SACD.
* Why did I buy that other new SACD release? Because I wanted to play something new in my Sony SACD player. Etc.
I think we're all pretty clear that this is dead. Rich's "bits is bits" mantra and the mostly-networked world has pretty much killed off hardware/format driven verticalization (although the Memory Stick just might have enough legs to make it, as a last gasp for the concept) This is far too fragile a stalk for Sony to hang its hat on, and they really need to come up with something else.
That something is what's missing from the article -- any recognition whatsoever that the biggest trend in the entertainment/media/communications world is user-created content (UCC). The Web started it, with home pages, forum news such as Slashdot, and AOL chat rooms; blogging has extended it enormously, and now many people's major time on line is spent doing email (UCC) surfing eBay ( a UCC mall, effectively) or Match.com (where users *are* the content). The success of "reality TV" shows from Survivor to American Idol is yet another aspect of this trend -- both the user-like people on the TV, and the viewer's ability to vote and thus participate, are critical aspects to the experience.
Already, we are seeing the fragmentation of major single "channel" UCC forums (from CBS's Survivor to eBay) into smaller, self-forming communities. I've found it fascinating that Duncan, Rich, and I are all part of separate, semi-formalized forums for discussing the war and/or world politics. I've been running mine for about two years, and it has about 40 members; I would say that at least 30 minutes a day, and sometime two hours, are taken up by my either reading the forum, researching for an essay I want to write, or writing for the forum. While you can look at "the Fray" on Slate, or Mickey Kaus's blog, and say, "that's user-created content, and it has a certain relationship to the 'centralized convergence' content of Slate [Microsoft + MSN + Slate + Comcast is also a classic convergence play ] what you miss is all the little micro-forums like mine and Rich's and Duncan's... which by my measure (and a survey of friends that I've taken) occupy at least 50% of people's time and attention... and growing.
We made some suggestions around "community-based" video ideas to Sony... community is a somewhat discredited concept because it's been tough to monetize in the ways people have done it in the past. But user-created content is a slightly different (and I think more accurate) take on the concept, and the importance of both self-organizing and centralized "editing" methods of selecting which content gets "promoted" and which doesn't, is crucial to the concept.
Sony has a giant hole in the middle of its strategy -- that hole is where all the action and ferment is. Not only do they need to do the video TV show that both we and Duncan have thought of, they should be thinking about how to mediate and drive communities of content-creating users in any number of different ways. After all, Top 40 radio used to more or less honestly reflect what people around the country wanted to listen to -- before it got co-opted by the media conglomerates. On scales both large and small, Sony should be thinking about how to return to that world, re-create that world, and make money from it.
If we're not careful, this will turn into classic relationship marketing -- get close to your customers, let them tell you what they want, and then give it to them ;-)