the double back theory

I have an old friend who swears by The Double Back Theory, which basically goes like this:  Any important revelation will immediately strike you as obvious and true, but because its significance lingers with you for years, you will have too much time to develop alternatives and corollaries that overcomplicate the picture. Nevertheless, if you keep on thinking about the central idea, you will inevitably double back to your original revelation as the most profound revelation.

Today’s example: The Internet is a new platform for consumer media. That’s a striking revelation . . . in maybe 1994 or perhaps as late as 1998. This may be hard to believe today, but there was a time when it was revelatory to describe the Internet as a new form of popular media, rather than as a niche technology.  Today most people would declare the Internet as the second most important form of media (behind TV).  It seems so obvious now that the Internet is a consumer media delivery system.  And yet, it’s easy to find ways to overcomplicate this simple picture.

Take for example the argument over whether The Web Is Dead. Putting aside the easiest objection – that many claims of death are exaggerated – the thesis basically says that “the Web” was supposed to be this great open playground that changed the world forever, but a variety of closed systems now threaten the promised paradise. We are supposed to get hysterical over the idea that content that was free on the Web will not be free forever, and that there will be special access channels that only some people will be able to afford.

But the Web isn’t dying, it’s just evolving the way that consumer media have always evolved.  The history of consumer media is littered with similar patterns of free and paid content, amateur and professional content, sponsored and bought content. There are many examples where a new medium was popularly established with free content, and evolved into a tiered system of both free and paid content. Look at television – once it was free (i.e. ad-supported), then cable TV came along with both an ad-subsidized paid model (basic cable) and an ad-free paid content model (e.g. HBO, PPV).

The same thing is happening with this wondrous new medium of the Internet, and the most wondrous thing of all is that anyone thought it would be any different.  The Internet is wonderful and has changed many things in the consumer content landscape, in terms of interactivity, variety, engagement, and low production and distribution costs. But one thing it hasn’t changed is that consumer media, as a whole industry, will always trend toward payment for quality content, and toward concentration of media power in the hands of a relatively small number of players.

I wish that weren’t true, but it is true today and will always be true for as long as we remain human beings.

We like to think that technology frees us from the scarcity-based economics of the past.  And it’s true that changes in scarcity can free up new business models.  But there is no kind or amount of technological advancement that can eliminate scarcity in two areas:

  • Quality. Quality content is by definition scarce: no matter how great the aggregate improvement in overall quality, there will always be some portion that is better than the rest. The development and application of new technology to content only heightens the divide, not flattens it – because the quality of the content includes not just artistic merit but its presentation and convenience to the consumer.
  • Attention. Human attention is limited, both in the aggregate and for any individual. No matter what automatic aggregation, filtering, or curation tool is ever developed, we can’t radically increase the finite amount of real human attention for consuming media. Even if we develop technology that actually stops time, our biology dictates a finite attention span – there’s only so many hours of media a brain can absorb in a day, no matter how long the day is.*

Since quality is scarce and attention is finite, there will always be an opportunity to charge money for the best content – and since this includes charging for the best quality presentation and delivery, it means that there will necessarily be a two (or more) tiered Internet. You can call it surrender, you can call it the death of the Web, you can call it whatever you want – but recognize that it’s progress, it’s evolution, it’s the future as well as the past.

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On a related (and more obscure) note, lately there’s been a lot of conversation about the evolution of certain parts of the venture capital business. I can’t do the whole conversation justice – but basically the narrative is that there is a new mode of investing in the consumer Internet sector, with smaller but smarter initial investments, giving rise to an expanding birthrate of web startups, and raising the specter of a seed investor bubble.  Again I’d ask, should we try to understand all this as a new phenomenon, or is this just a different variation of a familiar pattern?

Consider that a lot of “Consumer Internet” is no longer mostly about technology development, it is about media content development. From that perspective, a lot of the shifts in venture investing are about a certain class of savvy investors becoming media investors instead of technology investors. They’re not evolving to some kind of new model of investing, but cycling into the model of investing that you see in more mature content production businesses.

I think that consumer Internet investors will become more and more like television producers and financiers, and less like “hard” technology investors.  If that’s right, you’ll stop seeing conversation about equity vs convertible debt, and will instead see a move toward the revenue-sharing model that is common in the TV and movie industry.

Some people will regard this theory as idiotic, controversial and even demeaning (if you think being a TV producer is worse than being a VC), but for me it’s just doubling back to the basic insight that the Internet is a new platform for consumer media.  Now that the original mid-’90′s revelation has come true, you can expect that the investment economics will repeat old patterns more than they create new ones.

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* I realize that there are people who believe that in the future, technology could enhance brain function as well as create endless renewable energy – making essentially limitless time and capacity to enjoy leisure activities, including consumption of media.  Without opining on the likelihood of that future, I’d just note that it’s a future in which we are no longer human, as we understand humanity today.