Made-to-Order Media (Part I)

The ever-growing array of online and handheld communications tools has revolutionized how we receive information. But as technology writer Nick Bilton explains, the old-fashioned urge for storytelling hasn't died, and the wise association will imagine new ways to satisfy it.

Associations have often treated their content as monolithic and inflexible: Staff or third parties make magazines, books, and education sessions, and members get in line to consume them. But as the internet smashes content into tweets, blog posts, and aggregator fodder, the demand for personalization and customized media has grown. That's something writer Nick Bilton (@nickbilton) knows firsthand, both as an obsessive fan of new technology and as a staffer at The New York Times, which exists in a world where the Gray Lady is no longer a singular, unquestioned authority for information.

In his new book, I Live in the Future and Here's How It Works: How Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted, Bilton describes how the trend to customization has played out in a host of ways, from the adult-entertainment industry to newspapers to classrooms. In the next few years, Bilton writes, we'll become increasingly comfortable consuming content as "bytes, snacks, and meals"—from tweets to articles to interactive books—and designing flexible content to serve all three sizes. Associations have an opportunity to lead with that content and to become a critical part of the "trust markets" and "anchoring communities" that Bilton says we'll increasingly use to receive our information.

In Part I of this interview with Associations Now, below, Bilton discusses how smartphones and Twitter have reshaped content creation and consumption, why we're better at multitasking than we think, and more. In Part II of the interview, Bilton discusses e-readers, touchscreens, and the changing definition of "authority."

Associations Now: If I'm running a membership organization, I know from reading your book that members want more information that is targeted to them individually. How do you figure out what sort of customization you should be focusing on? 

Nick Bilton: You have to have the customer tell you. We're starting to see this happen now. [The iPad "social magazine" app] Flipboard says, "OK, you tell me what you're interested in, and I will develop an experience for you that really represents that." News media are still trying to work on a customized experience where you get more news about New York if you live in New York and you get more science news if you click on more science links.

Let's take books as an example. An e-reader has the technology, so why can't it track when people, in the aggregate, stop reading a book? Let's say I made it all the way through Malcolm Gladwell's first book, but the second one I only made it through to the sixth chapter. So could Malcolm Gladwell's publisher say, "Hey, we're noticing in the analytics of this book that people are making it to the sixth chapter and they're kind of falling off. Why don't we rewrite that chapter or move a few things around in that place?" It starts to customize to people who are having trouble getting through that area.

How do the "trust markets" you discuss evolve over time? How likely is it that the trust markets I create on Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere will become untrustworthy or irrelevant in the future?

I think that one of the things that we're seeing is that people are definitely looking for randomness. Remember the Chatroulette [website that pairs random strangers from around the world together for webcam-based conversations] craze earlier this year? That was randomness. People wanted this random experience, and people are building tools that try to help you find people to add to your trust market in a way that you can add new voices. You're not necessarily going to get stuck with the same kind of [information sources] that you're focused on at this point in time. I've had instances where I follow people on Twitter or Facebook who say something that I don't believe or that turns out that it's false, and I can either mentally push them down or get rid of them. That's the way we navigate the content that we're consuming.

So there's something to be said about being honest and forthright, because people can be fickle. As soon as they decide you're a person who is not trustworthy they're willing to drop you.

Without a doubt. Yelp was the preeminent user-generated place for people to go and find reviews. And [then] there was a lot of really bad press that came out about them, saying they had been taking negative [reviews] off if companies paid $300 and highlighting the ones that people were paying for. The backlash was just ginormous. They really are struggling now to come back to where they were before with the user growth that they had. [Yelp has denied claims, made in multiple lawsuits, that it punished companies that did not buy advertising on the site by manipulating ratings. Earlier this year, Yelp modified its site in response to the ensuing criticism.]

Trust can go away quickly. It's not just company based—it's personal-based. If I go out right now and I write an article or send a tweet that says Apple's bringing out a 3-D TV, and if it turns out that's not right, then my trust goes away, and that's something that I built for a long time. I'm really careful about what it is that I share.

You wouldn't venture to say that the long-form story or book is dead, or because people are multitasking they want to have more tweets and short articles.

No. One of the things I really try to get across is that I don't think that the long form is done. I think that the way long form is told is dying. We complain that kids don't read books. We say they need to be reading more books, but they play videogames for 10 hours a day. And that's long-form content, right? You know they're watching TV and they're text messaging and they're IMing with their friends. Their brains are looking for this multiscreen, multidimensional experience. And if we want to engage with them we have to create that.

So rather than us saying that they don't read books or that they're ruining books and so on, why can't we say, "Hey, you know what? Maybe we should establish certain books for them." [For my book] I shot videos and I allow you to comment on a chapter on your mobile phone. I'm trying to take the book and make it more of a blog-like experience.

So what is the job description of a "content expert" going to be five years from now?

I think that it can be answered by looking at what people do with their mobile phones today. Ten years ago, even five years ago, if you gave an SLR camera to a person on the street I guarantee they would not be able to figure it out. Not a digital SLR—I mean a regular SLR camera with an f-stop and all those things. It was extremely complicated, but now everyone has a mobile video and photo unit built right into their phones. Everyone knows how to take pictures, everyone knows how to take videos, they know how to upload them to YouTube, and they know how to edit them and add fun titles. I think that when you look over the next five years, there's a generation where [that behavior is] just ingrained in them, and there really isn't any question that they're going to bring that into the workplace. Whatever they do, whether they're journalists or they're clothing designers or whatever, that's the mentality that they're going to bring with them.

So then there's pressure for authority figures to provide those same things but to do them in ways that are smarter in terms of, as you write, "price, quality, timeliness, or experience."

Yeah. For me what was fascinating was working on the porn chapter of the book. I thought it was going to be this fun experience of, "What happens with the porn industry? They must be making money." And there are parts of them that are not making any money—they're going bankrupt. But there are these small pods of organizations that are really, really innovating with how they tell stories, and that was really fascinating to me. In certain instances consumers just want something really quick and that's it. But there are also instances where people really want a full, immersive, professionally creative experience, and they will pay for that.

You can see it now with the things that people buy for their iPhones and their iPads and many of these 99 cent games. They can get Tetris for free on their computer—a really poor version of it—or they can pay a dollar for it and get a much better creative version. And I think the same thing's going to apply to the way news is written and stories are told.

What will some of these immersive experiences look like in education?

Right now kids go into a school where they're given a textbook and they're expected to stay along at the exact same pace as everyone else. But when they go out to their gym class they're not expected to all run a four-minute mile. Some people run faster. Some people run slower. The same thing applies with all different types of learning. I think where digital is the force is the fact that people can learn at their own pace and learn collaboratively. There's a school in New York that's experimenting with including gaming in learning. So rather than just sit there with a math textbook, there are these projectors where kids can touch the walls and things like that. They can move the numbers around, and they can collaboratively figure how their multiplication tables work.

I think any number of these things will help make the classroom a much more immersive experience. At the same time it's going to be better for kids learning because we're not all built the same. Our brains don't work the same in the same way, and having a digital experience that can cross between these different boundaries, I think, can be really important.

For content creators and consumers who aren't part of the mobile-native generation, how steep is the learning curve?

I think that there are definitely limitations. One of the things that has definitely changed is that the next generation is much more about gaming. If you look at Foursquare and things like that, the idea of leaving recommendations in places for people—it's a game. But look at Gary Small's research about how our brains adapt and change over time. He looked at people reading a book and how their brains interacted with it, and those reading the web and how they interacted with it. People who were in their seventies and sixties, their brains adapted to the web in seven to 10 days. There are going to be limitations to how that works, but at the same time our brains and our bodies are completely capable of it. I think that a lot of it is just trying to get around the fear that our brains are not designed for these things and show that they really are and just adapt to it in that way.

I grew up online. I had my first computer when I was four and my first videogame system when I was five. It was extremely natural for me, but I work with people that didn't have those things—who were 12 or 15 when they got their computers, or even 20 or 30—and they've adapted. I think a lot of it's definitely the mentality. It's not necessarily the physical limitations.

Do you think increased personalization means we risk ending up in digital echo chambers where we'll only hear what we want to hear?

With this type of personalization, people sometimes snark at it and say, "We're going to live in these little bubbles, and we're not going to know anything." The research says that that's not the case. The research really shows that we experience more information than we would have if we didn't have these digital hills to travel through. We want more content, and more instantaneous content: "What's this song? Oh, let me buy it right now." They want that with everything, and if they can't get it they'll go off and get it themselves. So what matters is trying to figure out how to work with the audience and how to help them find what it is they want to find. People, I think, will pay for that.

People draw to things differently now. There's a guy I know who buys music obsessively online. And he has no qualms with, if he buys something that's bad, stealing the next thing [the artist puts out]. What this "me economics" stuff is trying to say is that if you overprice something, if you don't offer something that the consumer wants, they are going to go out and get it in another way—and you're going to miss out. 

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]