Fractionalized Attention and the Real Definition of “Media”

In a recent story, Wired devotes considerable attention to media and media startups, thanks in large part to the hefty investments in many of these entities, like Vox, Vice and Buzzfeed. They all have similar narratives. Other less-well-funded startups such as Circa make an appearance as well.

When I read the piece, I tweeted that perhaps media people who write about media don’t have a good understanding of their own business. In a follow-up tweet, I pointed out that perhaps people should pay more attention to what web-savant Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had to say about books in a recent conversation:

“The most important thing to observe is that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against people reading blogs and news articles and playing video games and watching TV and going to see movies. . . . If you realize that you’re really competing against Candy Crush and everything else, then you start to say, ‘Gosh, maybe we should really work on reducing friction on long-form reading.’ That’s what Kindle has been about from the very beginning.”

Books compete against everything else for attention, and in saying so, Bezos has essentially summed up the reality of the post-internet media landscape. It is a hypercharged race for increasingly fractionalized attention. In the recent past, I wrote:  

“Media companies are those companies that have our attention — they can be social networks (Twitter), games (Farmville/Zynga or Candy Crush/ or photo-sharing services (Instagram) or a listicle-powered flywheel of social attention (BuzzFeed). Like I have said before, they all are basically trying to get us to spend many fractions of our attention on their offerings.”

That’s my long-standing view, and every new app or service only reinforces that point of view. It is the reason why I think a company like Foursquare is competing not only with Yelp but also with traditional magazines and old-school recommendation services like Zagat. Foursquare is less of a technology company and more of a post-internet magazine/guidebook/destination media product. Similarly, the fashion magazines of the past struggle to get traction with younger readers because those younger readers are getting the same advice from videos.

Product Hunt is just a more efficient next-generation media entity that is optimized for discovery and short attention spans. Similarly, GrowthHackers or Hacker News are not really anything like the classic idea of “media”: magazines, newspapers, news outlets. Media isn’t simple anymore; it is messy and marvelous. I am betting that there will be a lot more of these types of companies around. The challenge for media when writing about media is that people almost always like to think about it as they know it. Vox is familiar. Vice is familiar. Blah! Blah!

A letter from Om

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