The Trick To Understanding New Media: Nobody's In Charge

For about a year back in the late 1990s, some people had the idea “push” technology was going to take over and make the web irrelevant. 

Instead of people going onto the web and looking for something in particular, companies were going to figure out ways to “push” information to people that they wanted.

Wired did an infamous cover story on it — one of many “the web is dead” prediction stories that turned out to be wrong. But now, at least one investor thinks the push era is really happening, citing a couple of critical differences that might actually make it succeed this time.

PointcastGed Carroll via FickrPointCast, a 1990s system for pushing information to PC desktops.

Chris Dixon, who’s a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and helped lead their $US50 million investment in media company Buzzfeed, says the 2000s were the peak of the “pull” era. People hunted for information using search engines like Google and sites like Yelp.

In the old era, the media companies that did best were the ones who could create the best resource on some topic — like product review guides or “how to” articles — and guide users to that content again and again through search.

Today, Dixon argues, people spend a lot more time reading material that their friends have pushed to them through social media like Facebook.

In this new era, the beneficiaries will be media companies that can create a constant “flow of content” using people and technology. The successful ads will be part of this flow — so-called “native” ads — rather than banners and other types of sponsorships sold in and around the content, says Dixon.

Companies like Buzzfeed excel at this, much to the annoyance of older media companies that built their digital strategies around creating those one-of-a-kind resources on particular topics. 

But the last time we heard this push argument, it turned out to be bogus. What’s different this time?

Who’s in charge. The first era of push failed because web users did not want some content company or uber-editor to choose the information they were reading — that was like the old network TV and traditional publishing model they’d just escaped from. But this time, dozens (or hundreds) of friends and colleagues are pushing information to each other. Media companies serve the audience’s need by creating material they think and hope is useful, then relying on their readers to pass it around.

Mobile devices have made the browser less relevant. During the first era of push, everybody used a personal computer to get online. Despite the efforts of AOL and many others to get people to use their applications, most people gravitated to the free web browser already installed on their computer. But smartphones changed all that: Instead of opening a browser and figuring out what you want to do, you tend to go to an app first. So, in a sense, the “pull” part of the equation happens first — when you decide which app to open — and then the serendipitous “push” happens within the app.

The truth is, the best media companies will excel at both kinds of material: useful resources that people will still be searching for years after publication, and of-the-moment news content that goes viral. But social sharing is definitely a lot more important than it used to be. And as much as media companies want to control it, it’s very hard to do so.

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