Value is a concept that keeps coming up in debates about the future of news. In the eyes of many publishers, their industry made a mistake by letting audiences get used to reading news online without paying. But, channelling Marx, they insist that their content 'has value' if only because creating it is not free. They hope that if enough publishers start charging then readers will pay.
In this blog I have tried to challenge some of the thinking involved here. I have argued that it is not news content itself that is valuable to audiences, but rather the everyday experience of reading the news - what I have called coverage. And while content is important in this, it is only part of the story. For example, reading a (print) Sunday paper is as much about having a nice breakfast - perhaps while discussing some of the news with your partner, as s/he reads another section - as it is about the writing. Yes, you do make an active choice to read this paper rather than that one because you like its writers and you identify with their views. But that is secondary; just think of the times when you've bought a newspaper in a foreign country, even if you barely understand the language. To paraphrase marketing guru Patrick Barwise, the category comes first, the brand second. To exaggerate a bit, I've quipped that newspapers are in the breakfast business.
My objections to the value of content are not only related to the 'physical' aspects of reading, but also to the 'mental' aspects (these words are not ideal but will do for now). In the web, how valuable a piece of content is to a given reader is closely related to how that person came across the content. If I receive an email from a colleague with a link to an article that I really must read, then I have a clear interest in reading the article itself. But if I go to a newspaper's website as part of my morning routine and then follow a link to an article, my interest is not so much in the article itself as in being able to get on with my reading routine. And if I find a link to the same article in my Facebook group I may want to click on it so as to know what my friends are talking about, but I won't be very upset if I can't do so. As marketing practitioners will recognize, distinctions like these have implications for whether, how, when and how much online newspapers can charge their readers.
Over the last year I've been doing lots of practical work around turning this thinking into value for publishers, but this post is not about that. What I want to explore here is some of my own emerging ideas behind this line of thinking. Please be warned, this is a rather philosophical post, with a bit of marketing theory thrown in. If that's not your kind of thing, look away now.
In his main opus Being and Time, Martin Heidegger said we have various ways of relating to things. Here I'll focus on two of these:
In the first way, things can appear to us as available or unavailable for something we are doing. To use an example given by Heidegger, consider a hammer that a man uses to build his house. For him, the hammer is not something to be contemplated but rather to be used in connection to something else: the house and the life he will live in it. The idea is not so much that the hammer is a means to an end, but rather that for a builder a hammer only comes into the picture when it is relevant to a meaningful activity (similarly, a violin is relevant to the meaningful activity of playing music, even if this is not a 'utilitarian' means to an end). Note two important things here: first, what has value is the activity (building the house and living in it) and not the thing (the hammer or the house). Second, the activity links the hammer with many other objects - e.g. nails, slabs of wood - in a network that only makes sense in terms of the activity and what drives it.
A second way in which things exist is occurrentness. Suppose that in the process of building his house our man breaks his hammer and, giving up on it, leaves it on the floor. When he looks at it again it is no longer a tool for him - it is neither available nor unavailable - but is just a piece of metal that lies there, occurrent, as an object of a certain shape, weight, color etc but essentially worthless because it is irrelevant. He may then wish to buy a new hammer, which until then is unavailable and valuable, but these words do not apply to the broken hammer. Or imagine that on his way home our man drops his hammer, in perfect condition, and someone else who has no plan to build anything finds it on the floor. For this person the hammer does not appear as a tool (even if he knows that it is a tool) but rather as an irrelevance. Again the hammer is worthless (unless we know of a place where we can sell it, in which case the hammer is an asset - but I'll ignore that here).
Now connect this to the world of marketing - i.e. to the tasks of designing and selling products at a price and at a place. People don't pay for occurrent objects but do for available things - or rather, to make unavailable things available. For us, these things are always part of a network of other things, a network that makes sense in terms of our activities, our lives and our social world. I don't buy a washing machine because it is a good piece of engineering. I buy it because it lets me wash my clothes so I can live and work in a society where wearing clean clothes is the norm; and I choose a white model so that it fits in my kitchen with its white furniture, which in turn reflects my style; and I care about this because I like to express myself through my style.
Marketing's role here is twofold. First, it aims to understand my world so as to design a machine that fits in it well. Second, it aims to place it in my world. It shows me that this brand and design is approved by my social milieu (if necessary, through advertising and 'positioning'), by selling it near my work or home, by offering to take care of the installation, and by helping me chose by asking me intelligent questions about the rest of my kitchen.
Content and value
Heidegger says that nothing 'is' anything on its own, without a 'referential whole' that is meaningful to someone - e.g. the washing machine vs the rest of the kitchen and my life. In the specific realm of content (text, video, etc), these references have always been explicit: if an admired author references an unknown author repeatedly - whether positively or negatively - the second author and his work becomes relevant to all those who care about the first.
Note, importantly, that this account of referencing has nothing to do with 'filtering', 'recommending' or helping people 'discover' new content that they might 'like'. I may find it worthwhile to read the referenced content even if it I don't expect it to be 'good'. For example, Mein Kampf may be a repulsive and uninspired piece of writing, but reading it as part of a course in modern history which refers to it is a valuable enterprise (yes, value). Conversely, an otherwise brilliant piece of writing may be relatively worthless to me, even if I stumble on it, read it and 'enjoy' it, if it is outside my network of relevance. And an otherwise boring statement can become funny in the light of something else that reveals its pretentiousness.
Note how this contradicts traditional thinking about content according to which products have certain attributes, consumers have certain needs (real or perceived, 'hedonic' or 'utilitarian'), and the challenge is to facilitate the 'search' so that the right people can be paired with the right content with minimal pain. The better the match, the higher the value delivered. By contrast, I am saying that the value also depends on the path taken to get to content, because the path is part of what the content is.
Now back to the web. Above I noted how different contexts - checking the news in the morning vs following a link in an email from your boss - lead to different valuations of a given piece of content, for the same person. At a technological level, the web embodies this through the hyperlink. But at a deeper level, what the hyperlink allows is an unprecedented richness in the art of reference. Of course referencing is not a new art; footnotes and library cards have existed for centuries. But with the hypelink the space between referring and referenced text has been brought to zero.
It matters that something was linked off the Drudge Report precisely because it was Matt Drudge who placed that link. This is not because the Drudge links to good content, but because (for certain people) something is a must-read by virtue of being mentioned in the Drudge. If micropayments ever become easy and widespread, it may make sense to increase an article's price when it is linked from the Drudge report - but only for people following that link - and it may make sense to give Matt Drudge a cut. By contrast, a link found by accident on Google is relatively worthless, even if the content it leads to is exceptional. This suggests that the Wall Street Journal's decision to allow Google readers to by-pass its pay-wall may be sensible.
Note the role that Matt Drudge as a curator plays in this example. I give value to following his links because what he says (through his linking) matters to me, and this is only possible if he is already part of my world. Of course, Matt Drudge could just as well be the BBC, Reuters, Fox News, my friends or whoever it is that I have somehow allowed to decide what should matter to me (decide, not judge - but the distinction is a subject for another post).
This says at least two things about the role of brands online, and specifically about the role of curator brands. First, editorially they are as powerful than any old-media editor may have been before the hyperlink was invented – if not more. Second, commercially curators and aggregators are the kingmakers, not only because they drive traffic but also, and crucially, because they 'charge' that traffic with a layer of value. One day they may find a way to turn that to their financial advantage more aggressively than they do today.