Choices and Complexity

Human life tends toward complexity-towards more and more varied choices. That's a statement of belief, but I think it can be demonstrated by a clear view of history and the present.

Complexity is an important principle if you're trying to build new media and new ways to make content work. Following this principle, new media and forms of content must complement existing media; you can't assume that you'll replace them. That can happen, but it's a long shot-unless the existing forms are broken in a way that's apparent to users, not just to you.

Make New Friends...
At a simple level, it goes back to that camp song. "...But keep the old; one is silver, the other gold." We treasure what we know, for good reason. We look at the new in relationship to the old, and it's easier to view the new with interest if it doesn't conflict with the old or demand that we abandon it.

As always, "we" is an oversimplification. The extreme fringe of early adopters seems always dissatisfied with what works, always anxious to try the new. I think of this as the Wired crowd, but that's unfair to Wired. It's the crowd that believes new is better simply because it's newer; that "digital" automatically means "superior"; and, to be sure, that George Gilder is a demigod. Technology journalists and pundits tend to be extreme early adopters much more often than other people: why else do we get so many implausible new ideas written up as though they were inevitable? These days, treating the word "inevitable" as meaningful is another trait of extreme early adopters.

At the other (but much larger) extreme, many people lack the time, resources, or interest to try many new things. Consider the astonishing percentage of Americans who have never traveled outside their home state, never been on an airplane, never needed a passport. How many of these are ready to overthrow the sources and channels they know and love for your newfangled contrivance?

The rest of us are interested in new ideas, but not desperate for them. We have lives, jobs, hobbies, families; we have magazines, TV shows, newspapers, and authors that we enjoy and have no intention of abandoning. Most of us (at least in the United States) use the Internet to some degree-but that may mean little more than occasional email.

That's the "we" that values complexity, but only as it offers new choices and that will resist change for change's sake. By now, you should be aware of the dangers in planning based on extreme early adopters-too many revolutionary ideas chasing after a relatively small audience.

Tell Me Something Good
We're willing to try something new if it offers an interesting choice. I believe we're more willing to try something if you don't tell us it replaces our old standbys, unless those old standbys are breaking down (in our opinion, not yours). We may be more willing to try it if there's a connection with the old.

The San Francisco Chronicle touted The Gate in its pages and still does from time to time. The newspaper suggested the Web site, with its discussion groups and free email newsletters, as a complement to the print paper. EContent does much the same thing-using its Web site and free newsletter to enhance the print magazine, not replace it.

Once we're reading online articles and essays, we'll try different forms-if they make sense to us and work within the overall medium. You already know what that means for content that you expect to be read online. If it's more than 500 words, you're probably in trouble. If deep analysis is needed, you need to find a way to layer it, make it easy to print, or both. Packaging still matters-context remains important-but the nature of packaging differs in the digital environment.

Will we abandon old media and content in favor of the new? Some of us will, to varying degrees and over varying time periods. But you'll be better off if we add you to our menus (within time constraints) instead of expecting us to remove something else.

Don't Lie to Me
We're not stupid. Let's refine that a little: the people you need as readers and buyers aren't stupid. With luck, we're skeptical rather than cynical. You're offering a new choice. Eventually, you want us to pay for it (directly or indirectly). You've couched your new approach in a way that shows us how it relates to the approaches we know and love. That's good: we like choices, and it's always been true that we like choices that expand on what we already know.

There's a reason National Geographic Traveler advertises heavily to subscribers of Condé Nast Traveler. Travelers are more likely to consider a new travel magazine than are people who have shown no interest in travel. We'd be plausible candidates for an online travel site as well.

Don't tell us your new online travel site will do it all for us, and do it so well that we'll abandon the print magazines and our favorite travel agent. (If we don't book cruises or complex tours, we may abandon our travel agent anyway-but that needs to be our choice.) Such a claim will be untrue and it will sour our relationship with you. "The only x you'll ever need" is a dangerous pitch: most of us know better.

Too Many Choices?
Extremism in the defense of complexity is no virtue. Of course, choices can go too far, and generally do. What's too far? That depends on the potential audience and their tastes and appetite.

It also depends on the choices themselves. I believe that people who make good candidates for serious Internet media are also people who dislike phony choices-who view the panoply of 40 different detergents with some disdain. (In this case, I have no real evidence for such a belief.) We want dozens-hundreds-of different restaurants offering different styles of food and setting; we're less interested in a new burger chain that's just like the other burger chains. We'll try out a dozen different online magazines, portals, and search engines-but when we see the same set of stories turning up over and over in different packages, we'll trim sites from our favorites list.

Growing complexity and a wealth of choices cause new sets of problems. That's a topic for other columns. Betting your business plan on a grand convergence and general willingness to abandon the old for (your) new is a good way to go bankrupt; finding ways to complement current choices with new ones offers a better bet.