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Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Fourth Estate Vs The Third Way

In 1841, Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) wrote,"... does not... the parliamentary debate go on... in a far more comprehensive way, out of Parliament altogether? Edmund Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important than they all."The Fourth Estate that Carlyle was alluding to was the newly established estate of the Printed Press (or newspapers) - with its explicit capacity of advocacy, its implicit ability to frame political issues and, more dangerously, an increasing ability to rouse the proletariat. The other three estates, were presumably, the church, the nobility and the commoners (or middle-class bourgeoise).Since that statement, one might argue that the arsenal of the Fourth Estate has been expanded, in time, by radio and more recently, 24-hour news channels as instruments of sway. It has generally been conceded that media giants such as News Corporation have the ability to win or lose national elections through their grip over public opinion. But is that steely grip about to amount to nothing more then grasping a handful of dust?

I was recently sent this intriguing link: . It is a fanciful flash presentation created by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, formerly students of the Poynter Institute of Journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida. The clever premise that they use is that what we are watching is a presentation from the Museum of Media History in 2015 looking back retrospectively on the last 10 years of evolution in the media world. The simple predictions they conjure, though startling, have a strangely compelling hint of accuracy about them. In their vision of the future, Google and Amazon have merged to form Googlezon, a media behemoth which ultimately goes to war with an embattled Microsoft as the content purveyor of choice online. The New York Times, in retaliation to Google's perceived copyright infringements goes offline. The Fourth estates fortunes wane as personalized and user-created media news content takes precedence over the long established editorial. Sound too fanciful? Not really when you consider what is going on at the moment and the lumbering reaction of the traditional media.

What is going on is that the media is now moving from the control of the Fourth Estate to the relative freedom of the Third Place. If you are not familiar with that phrase, it is one that was coined in the
Sony Playstation 2 advert campaign directed by David Lynch a few years back.At the time, David Patton, European Marketing Director of PlayStation described the campaign as "not just about launching a new product; it's about kick-starting the growth of a new market: connectainment. The nature of technology means that the potential for this machine will grow and grow. We want to inspire people to enjoy the new found possibilities it provides - that's what the advertising is all about."

The press releases put a more pseudo-spiritual spin on it when they say "The Third Place cannot be defined because although it exists for everybody, everybody's Third Place is different. It is a state of mind - a spiritual place rather than a physical place. It is whatever you and you alone want it to be."But in reality, the term the Third Place could be used to describe the growing phenomena of instant connectivity that produces a medium whereby people can be both entertained and informed (much like the traditional media), but more importantly can interact and contribute to instantaneously. The Third Place (whether it is accessed through the web, peer to peer applications, the mobile phone, a games console or the interactive TV) is a place that is uncensored and niche. It is a self-created community. It is a place where people of like minds can go and discuss things that are of interest to them, hear news that is of interest to them and play or watch content that is of interest to them. The Third Place isn't a destination - it is the environment created by personalized access to media content made possible by connected technologies with storage capabilities. The Third Place is what the user makes it.

All this is made possible because, as Negroponte put in Being Digital: "it's about bits not atoms". This is what Google understands best. This is what the traditional media understands least and is endanger of losing its two prized possessions because of - the advertisers and its audience.Consider this: Google have just recently made a bid to run a free Wi-Fi system in San Francisco. The idea is that Google will make its revenues from offering advertisers targeted access to its users, complete with location specific (and no doubt demographic specific) information.

If successful, there is no reason why they wouldn't roll this out worldwide. Since their IPO, Google have been buying up the "dark fibre" (i.e. (fiber optic cables which have yet to be used) left by redundant co-location facilities after the dot-com crash. This fibre gives them a significant broadband backbone to offer such services. Such a move would make enormous sense, even from a traditional point of view. They have the network; they have the content which is mainly free (thanks to the global content-creators who have gone on online); they have the advertisers who are willing to pay for it and more importantly, they have a near monopoly on the audience. In fact, it is not unlike the business model of a number of traditional broadcasters.Google is also rubbing other traditonal media purveyors up the wrong way. The
Authors Guild of America are in the process of suing Google, charging that the Google Print Library program constitutes massive copyright infringement.

The program, as reported previously on these pages, involves scanning books from libraries and universities to make the texts searchable through Google's engine. Google intends to sell advertisements on those pages. The Guild, and others, had previously criticized the program, and Google last month said would halt the initiative temporarily and make changes to its Google Print Publisher Program, in which books are scanned at the request of the publisher so people can view excerpts. The search leviathan defended its program in a company blog posting, saying that it "respects copyright" and arguing that the program is protected under the "fair use" doctrine.Google seems firmly to support the "information wants to be free" mantra. One needs only look at the digital music phenomena, fuelled by the Apple iPOD, to see who will inevitably will win the day.

This is yet another example of the building blocks of the Third Place. Why does anyone want to browse in a bookstore store, a library or a record shop, when they can find exactly what they want when they want online. Google Print will be their virtual librarian. It will not only help them locate the relevant book, it will locate the relevant chapter and words that they might be looking for - invaluable for a student - and then direct them to an online bookstore of choice, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble...or they can ring their local shop and see if they have it in stock. Why authors feel that this is an infringement of copyright when in fact, to their benefit, it will cut out the ineffective middleman of the offline retail stores is just another example of the slow pace in comprehending the paradigm shift among traditonal media brokers.

And the audio-visual media are about to see the same shift more rapidly then they might have expected. Recently, the launch of the
Sony Playstation Portable (PSP) saw the unexpected success of their proprietary film disks (known as UMD). Worldwide, they have sold, for example, over 100,000 copies of Spiderman 2. This may well be the reason that some expect the imminent announcement of an iPOD-type video player from Apple. With the PSP being proof that a younger audience are willing to watch films on smaller screens, Apple may look set to give them what they want in the same ways as they have been doing with music. The Third Place is coming to a screen near you!

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posted by Neil Leyden @ 5:00 p.m. 0 comments