The Flux Before the Storm: The Media World Bares its FANGs

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"Flux”—and not the soldering type. That’s the word I would use to describe the media industry at the moment.

In the book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, written in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers challenged the status quo of the credit economy. I first encountered the “collaborative consumption” model in 2001 at a Wired conference in London. It was an interesting—if slightly optimistic—view that while we had evolved into a culture where our social and economic mobility was referenced by our credit rating, there were signs of a new culture emerging, one where our ability to exchange goods was increasingly based on our eBay stars or the points on our Airbnb profile.

With this would come (so Botsman and Rogers proposed) a displacement/reduction of the traditional influence of banking and monetary economies on our lives, and, in what was more recently described in Black Mirror’s“ Nosedive” episode—and even more so in reports about China’s state government actually adopting the idea—a movement toward our “social credit” exerting a strong influence in our interactions with both people and institutions.

In the past few months we have seen news networks battling with trust. “Fake” is the new vernacular for “different opinion” at the same time it accurately describes a shocking amount of content that’s posited as actual news. Hence the new focus on the growing societal influence of the hitherto untouchable FANG cluster of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (or, if you add Apple, GAFAN).

Obviously these companies were, for the first 10 years or so of their lives, held in awe but not considered competition by most industries. But in the past decade the creep of scope of operations of the FANG companies has caused competitive concerns for telco and media.

So it’s no surprise that rather than seeing FANG as potential customers or potential partners, the telco and media world has become cautious. Neither is it a surprise to see the arrival of the term “cord cutter” at the same time as the term “fake news.” The traditional news and broadcast industries have both much to learn and, more importantly, much to lose as FANGs are bared and the trappings of an inflexible, slow-moving infrastructure of these traditional models tie them to the post, while the wolves eat flesh and start to chew on bone.

This is a period of great change. Flux. And what is stranger is the ripples through the generations. The change isn’t unidirectional; as you look up and down the generations you see “ripples” of adoption and rejection of media technologies.

While we all think about Millennials as social media addicts, the Millennials I know are bloody hard to get hold of. They are on many platforms, but are picky about what they respond to, and rarely make it clear what their high-priority messaging platform is.

More to the point, they barely feel obliged to respond to messages in the same way the most senior members of society—for whom every postal, handwritten letter commanded a considered and well-crafted response—would.

There is a sharp contrast of two essences with the internet natives: they are on the one hand blindly trusting of many aspects of our technological interactions. They have adopted that blind trust from the ignorant trust of the first generation of internet adopters.

And yet on the other hand, in their own adoption of the technology, they are instinctively aware of and comfortable with the downsides. For them, a credit card number being cloned is just a random thing that sometimes happens and can be sorted in 10 minutes, whereas that’s something that frightens earlier generations enough that they may never return to online shopping.

And so media and networks find themselves in this tough, rapidly changing cultural revolution of their own making, and yet it is one where they opened the floodgate and discovered they were standing downriver too. That floodwater of change is unstoppable, unless we tear up the fibres and jam the radio waves, or turn off the DNS servers and cut the electricity.

But it is also an exciting time to get on with swimming with the tide. And while we are seeing a significant maturation in the network and media technology world, we are only now taking baby steps in discovering what messages we can convey and who we can reach with those technologies.

For me, the innovation is within very tightly defined scopes, and as someone who has played with streaming and online video for more than 23 years now, I find it all rather slow-moving. We threw out the scalable session-based streaming protocols 10 years ago in favour of a myopic commoditisation of HTTP within our CDNs. Yet now the topic of the year is low latency. Of course RTMP, and before that RTSP and so on, actually scales better and offers much finer control of latency than HTTP, but it means investing in multiple strategies. Until HTTP is broken or creaking at the edges, why fix it?

Indeed, that latency limitation is just the tip of the iceberg. HTTP is highly and cheaply scalable, and the Betamax vs. VHS war of Session-Based vs HTTP streaming is firmly placing HTTP as the VHS. We could do better, but the market is making us wealthy doing this, so let’s let the market lead.

But we will logically reach a limitation of scale. Our copper last miles used to provide capacity for a phone call. Now they provide many people in the same building with many channels of streaming audio and video at the same time and in ever-higher quality.

The broadcast networks are not broken, but no one wants to improve them: they would rather capture IP subscribers who can be sold many services. The model has taken hold, and, in reality, the only way to go back would be to create discredit and mistrust.

The great thing is that these reactions are stimulating a new generation of innovation, and while things move more slowly at the lower layers of the network now, I can see that in the upper layers the pace of change has reached boiling point, and I can feel the innovation flow warming up as a result. Exciting times, indeed.

[This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue of Streaming Media European Edition as "The Flux Before the Storm."]

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