I was watching ABC’s Nightline last night and was fascinated by a story on how movies on DVD have given way so quickly to movies streamed over the Web. It is one more indication of how things are changing so fast and why the future of virtual reality is unknown.
Specifically, the Nightline segment was called “Netflix Redefined,” and showed how flexible that company is at responding to the business adage of “Adapt or Die.”
Then and now
Just two years ago, as correspondent John Donvan pointed out, his story on Netflix focused on how well the company was doing by mailing out its red-jacketed DVDs to movie renters.
USPS to the rescue
The U.S. Postal System was deemed by Netflix founder Reed Hastings as the perfect delivery system, and his company was paying the USPS some $300 million annually to deliver disks of its movie collection which totaled 46 million DVDs.
Hastings was not only convinced about his USPS delivery system; he was also convinced that the future of movies was in DVD form. The reason? The plethora of DVD players in homes, cars, laptops, and stand-alone DVD players.
Oops … wrong road
Fast-forwarding to the present day, Hastings tells Donvan, “By far the majority of our delivery now is by streaming. Most of the people get their content in streaming, too. Streaming is everything.”
With streaming, you can watch movies almost anywhere, on MP3 devices smaller than mobile phones. The result of this quick adapting to streaming by Netflix? A membership that doubled from 10 million subscribers to 20 million, and stock prices that leaped from $43 to $192. Its main competitor, Blockbuster, has declared bankruptcy, and Hastings was named Fortune Magazine’s business person of the year for 2010.
The Netflix story in itself is amazing, but what it shows in a larger vein about managing change in a world of technology is scary. Especially if you are a manager responsible for matching your service to a world that is changing at warp speed.
One segment of the media world that has been the subject of much scrutiny and (some would say) premature eulogies is the newspaper business. Many see printed newspapers as dinosaurs, congratulate them for taking a lead in Web presentations, but predict there is no real money for a newspaper to make in online advertising. Others disagree with that, and show some pretty good examples to back it up.
Good news, bad news
But the dilemma a newspaper publisher faces is a good news/ bad news situation: With the exception of a few cities, there is only one metro daily newspaper operating in any American city. That means if you are an advertiser wanting to advertise in such a daily, you have only one option in most cities. That’s great news for the publisher.
The bad news is that the reading audience has largely moved online, and many believe the future of newspapers is online. But when a metro daily newspaper which holds a monopoly-like position in a city, moves online, it moves into a world teeming with competition and a few million other Web sites. So much for owning the only game in town.
Additionally, that online world is continually changing, as witnessed by the rise and evolution of the interactive social media of the past few years.
About that dinosaur
Adding to the problem of shifting revenues to an online world of competition and tougher advertising dollars, is the fact that most of the revenue of any daily newspaper still comes from its print advertising. So even the dire descriptions of that product as a dinosaur is – er, excuse me – not quite correct. The dinosaur is still paying the bills.
In short, a metro daily encounters a world where the audience is moving to another platform, but the newspaper’s ad revenue still comes from the platform the audience is moving away from.
Clearly there will come a point where ad dollars will not remain with a product read by only a relatively few readers, but that day has not arrived yet. And it could be forestalled by newspapers that change their editorial model to focus on a specialized audience (ie., those customers still interested in the news) as the magazine industry did in the 1970s.
In short, why try to be everything to everyone if everyone doesn’t care?
So, in the interim, how much do you adapt, how quickly, and how do you know you are adapting in the right direction? Netflix knew the old model of video stores was changing, so it went into the mail with its DVDs, committing millions to that delivery system, only to have to change it two years later and switch its investments to video streaming instead.
So far, for Netflix, it has worked, although the cost to the company of making that quick change has been high.
A ubiquitous problem
The dilemma that Netflix and the newspaper industry face is the same dilemmas faced, to a larger or lesser degree, by nearly every business in the world: trying to understand the changes that technology has thrust upon us, and trying to respond to those changes in ways that will work now and in the future.
Or at least for the next two years.
It’s never been easy being a teenager, has it?
We all have our own bittersweet memories of those years ourselves, and high on the list of challenges was this nagging question of … Who am I?
Educators and psychologists call the troubled years “adolescence.” Singer Pat Boone once wrote a book simply calling them, “twixt twelve and twenty.” Teens and parents alike often just call them frustrating.
In the Social Media Age, that era this blog calls the Virtual Unknown, teens may have an even tougher time developing an individual identity that is reflective of who they actually are.
After all, actuality and virtuality are not exactly the same thing, and the latest studies show the average teen spends 31 hours per week online, according to www.cybersentinel.co.uk
Adding in some additional time for cell phone texting, and you could say the average teen has a full-time job of living and interacting in a virtual world.
That’s about 50 percent of a kid’s waking week spent in a world where they and other teens can say pretty much anything they like on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., without having to worry about any immediate non-verbal reaction from the person they are saying it about.
That releases all kinds of inhibitions and bypasses a lot of internal censors normally in place when an individual is interacting with others in a face-to-face setting.
My own years in teaching online college classes have proven that to be true. Students released from their perceptions of how other facial expressions in the room are evaluating them, feel a lot freer to jump in and shoot from the lip.
Sadly, as all of us who ever wished to un-strike the “send” key know, talking before thinking is not always such a great thing.
The recent cases of teen suicide resulting from embarrassing, personal, social-media disclosures made about them shows the extreme tragic reaction that can occur when that happens. When the embarrassing parts of a teen’s identity – imagined or real – is cybercast without permission, humiliation is on the doorstep.
Teens, who are just in the midst of forming those identities, are the most vulnerable to these thoughtless disclosures which strike with the full force of barbarians at the gate. In my pre-Web adolescence, I remember that kind of embarrassment resulting from a public puncturing of my own identity.
I had waited for my 13th birthday to show that I was not a child any longer, and that I was now a teenager who – I reasoned – was almost an adult. My father, acting totally out of love, gave my name to the host of a local afternoon kid’s show (when TV stations still spent money on producing programs themselves) called, “Crusader Rabbit.”
A sad birthday boy
My name was read by the adorned man/rabbit as one of the “birthday boys” of that day. I saw it and was devastated. How could I face my “grown-up” seventh-grade classmates the next day at school? I was in junior high, for God’s sake; no longer a kid. Dad was simply seeing me as his little boy, as all parents do for quite some time with their kids, and failed to catch the nuance that was in neon lights for me.
When teens are neck-deep in the struggle to figure out who they are, and today someone who may not even know them decides to pop something onto Twitter without giving it a second thought, it doesn’t help. The kid can’t even console himself, as I did with my dad, that it was an innocent mistake made out of love and not a mean spirit.
Another problem with teen identity that has arisen with the social media is it’s easy to fake who you are to others who don’t know you well, or who may not know you at all. It doesn’t take long for a teen to figure out he/she can present an ideal self (that person who you think you’d like to be) to others in the virtual world. In fact, barring any face-to-face meetings or “corrections” posted by others who know you are lying, you can actually run with that presumed identity for some time.
This, of course, isn’t limited to kids. Adults on dating sites engage a lot in this promulgation of ideal selves as opposed to real selves. It would make an interesting study if some researcher decided to study just how much this process occurs. So the Web and its social media can become a kind of escape or netherworld where a teenager can be – for awhile and with some people – who they want to be.
The problem is we can’t go for long assuming that both the actual and virtual worlds – and the identities we have created in each – are real.
Social scientists and communication scholars study something they call “cognitive dissonance,” which basically says humans cannot live for long being in dissonance with themselves. We can’t go on convincing ourselves that two opposites are both true, or that someone we love and respect is right about a point, yet the point itself is wrong.
The only thing that helps us live in dissonance for a time is denial. And denial doesn’t do much to help us realize our true identity.
It’s a rough world
So anytime we parents think we had it rougher growing up than our kids do, we might think again. At least we didn’t have to grapple with a mean-spirited and/or thoughtless Twitter or Facebook post exploding our fragile attempts at protecting a very vulnerable identity in formation.
Several months ago I wrote a post about using the Web to travel the world without ever leaving the comfort of your La-Z Boy recliner. It looks like some innovators have taken that idea a step further, however.
Sites that offer 3D virtual reality experiences open new doors to world travel and adventure, allowing you to see yourself in these settings and doing the things which dreams are made of. Of course, the hitch is you aren’t really there; only an avatar you create of yourself.
Two such sites are Blue Mars and Second Life, and both let your imagination take over and propel you into far-off lands, historic events, and adventures. Not a bad way to spend a cold and wet winter afternoon.
When you enter Second Life for the first time, you’ll start on Welcome Island, according to the company’s web site. This area is designed to quickly teach you the basics of Second Life, including: walking, zooming with your camera, chatting, standing/sitting, flying, and teleporting. Along the way, you’ll be rewarded with a few entertaining surprises.
Once in your second life, you can start exploring exotic places, meet people (much as you would on Facebook or a dating site), go shopping, choose to settle down and live in any place you like, get creative in designing your own products, take on a virtual job in one of a variety of professions, or even use the site as an educational platform to teach classes from or take classes on.
Real and unreal spots
Current hot destinations on Second Life are both real and fantasy creations. For example, one destination is Green Acres Golf Course on the Carmel, California, coastline. A fantasy destination is Ambrea, a large medieval fantasy roleplay environment.
On one of the adventure sites in Second Life, “The Whiz,” you can travel to 47 locations seeking clues to solving a mystery. In another adventure, you can join with others in hunting for a serial killer.
Blue Mars was founded a couple years ago by a company called Avatar Reality “to create a next-generation virtual world platform dedicated to bringing people together on a massive global scale,” according to the Blue Mars web site.
The site’s creators pride themselves on offering unique levels of interactivity, fidelity, and scale. Users and developers can also create their own custom destinations. More on that later.
The Blue Mars platform scales to support thousands of simultaneous users per region along with cutting-edge graphics, games, and social engagements.
Seeking the wizard
The site is easy to use. Just create an account, log on, download the software, choose where you want your avatar to go and what you want it to do (Skiing in the Alps? Golfing on a PGA course?), and you’re off to see the wizard.
Wow. So essentially what we have here is a way to put ourselves in the midst of some of the world’s most fascinating places and adventures without having to endure the hassles of the full-body scan or pat-down at airports, or pay all those extra fees for having the gall to bring a bag along with us.
Count me in.
One of the neat things about Blue Mars is that users and developers can add in their own destinations and adventures, customizing the experience as they go along.
A living art gallery
For example, at Ball State University students in the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts are creating destinations ranging from China’s Yellow River, populated by several Buddhist sculptures, to the Ball State Art Gallery. And this journey takes you beyond a simple tour of the gallery to exploring the original settings where these artifacts would have originally been found.
To create these virtual worlds, students scan pieces from the art gallery and use those scans to create a kind of living art gallery after collaborating with historians to build the virtual environment where they then collaborated with historians to build the virtual environment where the sculpture would have originally resided.
John Fillwalk, director of the IDIA program, says Blue Mars allows users to explore world locations visually more than ever before.
Other applications of Blue Mars allow executives to hold business meetings with clients across the country and around the world, and old friends who haven’t seen each other in awhile can rendezvous vicariously in exotic places around the world of their own choosing.
So, if the real world gets boring for you on any given day, you can always open the door to one of these virtual unknowns.
Don’t forget to pack a toothbrush.