I first realized that academic publishing was going to be transformed by consumer media in January of 1994, when I stumbled on the Mosaic browser (progenitor to Netscape), then 3-4 months old, with its promise of making entirely new categories of information available directly to end-users. I was sitting at Encyclopaedia Britannica at the time, where we already had an Internet version of the encyclopedia in the works, but that version was being built for the library market. With Mosaic we pivoted and developed a consumer version, Britannica Online, which launched in October 1994. From that point on, or so it seemed to me, it was best to take one’s bearings from the likes of Yahoo! and GeoCities, later Amazon, AOL, ICQ, and countless others, until we come to the present age, which is dominated by the still-thriving Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple. The fact that some of these companies are no longer with us or are in conspicuous decline is beside the point, as we can learn from both the living and the dead. Do you want to develop a journal on the medical use of nanomaterials? How would Google do it?
I write as someone who is ambivalent about the content of consumer media, and on this score I imagine I have some spiritual bedfellows among the readers of the Scholarly Kitchen. But the form of consumer media — its shape, its flow — is another thing. Scholarly publishers did not realize that they would have to develop products and services for consumer media until they held an iPhone in their hands; librarians safely went about their business of cataloguing and acquiring various indexes to their catalogues, but then Google came along and changed the discovery of academic materials forever. No matter that Google makes much of its money from advertisements for products like hair pieces and sexual ointments, though I suppose there is some science behind those products, too.
Which brings us to House of Cards. Netflix has underwritten a new version of this multi-episode video (I don’t dare call it a TV show any more). The original version, starring Ian Richardson, was set in Britain; the new version has moved to corrupt Washington. Of course the “original” of the original is Richard III with a graft of Macbeth, but who’s counting? The new version (that is, the new new version) has adapted to the emerging habits of video viewers, who, instead of swallowing one episode per week, now routinely sit down on a Sunday and sit through 12 consecutive hours of their favorite show. This is something new, and it bears watching (in both senses).
For readers who don’t want to put 12 hours into this, I recommend the excellent piece in the New York Times, which describes the phenomenon well. Most important to me are the comments of people in the film/TV/video business about how the new viewing habits change the nature of the content itself. Shades of Marshall McLuhan! The medium really is the message. With people watching long works in a single sitting, there is less reason to shape each episode as a piece complete in itself. But perhaps most intriguing is that this emergent behavior takes all we have been hearing about shortened attention spans and throws it out the window. You could make quite a dent in “War and Peace” in 12 hours. Anyone up for the unabridged version of “Clarissa”? One producer remarked that people are now watching TV the way they read a novel. A novel? I thought the novel was dead, replaced by short, highly interactive multimedia with a game element.
Consumer media tell us that content evolves to fit its containers, that compelling content can break the time barrier (buck up, monograph publishers), that it is consumed in new venues (large-screen TVs, tablets, mobile phones), and that it is entirely unpredictable. It also tells us that the producers of content must look beyond the boundaries of the institutional market (the Mosaic example) to develop direct connections to end-users, a phenomenon I call library bypass. Consumer media are also developing their own form of altmetrics now that content is not exclusively measured by how many people tune in at 8:00 pm.
And so we in scholarly communications sit here with our wretched PDFs, which we download and print out before reading. A PDF is modelled on the printed page. For all the talk of digital libraries and digital this and that, we have barely begun to catch up with how we experience content in our non-professional lives.