McLuhan Redux: Is Content King or Commodity?

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A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution in New Media. Content, which once enjoyed consensus status as King of Digital Media, came under increasing attack to the legitimacy of its crown. The proliferation of online distribution was supposed to place a premium on content in order to fill the burgeoning bandwidth. But as high profile failures of content sites like NBCi and Disney's continue to mount, media critics are increasingly sounding the death knell for online content business models on the consumer Web.

Citing everything from Marshall McLuhan's theories on electronic media to AOL's acquisition of Time Warner to the death of conventional economics, media critics have argued that the future of online content is in dire straits, claiming that when content became "free" it became a commodity. And since commodities can't be king, the search is on for a replacement.

But what, after all, do we really mean when we say "content is king?" Depending upon your viewpoint, this can mean several things, but, for our purposes here, let's agree that this translates to the following two statements: Technology can't create value on the Web without content; and good content is harder to create than to distribute.

And what about "content?" In its broadest sense, "online content" can mean anything digitized. Certain content is surely commoditized: news, weather, sports scores, stock prices, Web search. But for now, let's have the definition mean "professional" content created by paid professionals, à la, The and, for externally facing Web sites (we'll concern ourselves here with only the consumer Web; internally facing enterprise content is a subject for another day).

So what is the relative status of content and distribution these days? Can professional online content survive, or have new media distribution technologies made content a commodity?

Marshall McLuhan, media theorist and intellectual celebrity of the 1960's, has made a comeback of late. His resurgence among the digerati, marked by the 1995 re-release of his seminal work Understanding Media and the recent reprinting of The Medium Is the Massage (the title is a play on his thesis "The Medium is The Message," the "Mass Age," and the media's "massaging" of our senses), along with a host of companion sets, has sparked a discussion of the relevance of McLuhan's teachings to today's high-tech media.

McLuhan's thoughts on media have been much debated, and often confused—precisely because they are so confusing. As a result, anyone with an opinion on McLuhan seems to fall into one of two camps; some still regard him as a prophet, while others dismiss him as an irrelevant eccentric.

McLuhan had many ideas—some of his more notables have even found their way into our digital lexicon: mass media, global village, hot and cold media. But most relevant to this discussion is his thesis "The Medium is the Message." On it's surface, the statement would seem to lend credence to the argument for content as commodity. And in fact, many media critics have translated such old McLuhanisms right into a defense of the argument that content sites will never be sustainable. What Does He Mean?

Is the medium the message, or is content king? Actually, it's a loaded question, but nonetheless worth exploring.

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