The opportunity for Slow Media
In June 2010, sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling posted to Wired’s “Beyond the Beyond” blog a manifesto for “Slow Media.” The “Slow Media Manifesto” was written by Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt, and Benedikt Köhler, and for anyone made weary by the incessant torrent of Twitterized information it makes for beautiful reading. “Slow media,” the men argued, is like “slow food.” It’s “not about fast consumption but about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner.”*
The writers laid out 14 tenets of Slow Media, stressing quality and respect, timelessness and progressiveness (as opposed to being reactionary). Rather than being a contradiction to Twitter and blogs, Slow Media is about finding a way to use them, they suggested.
The manifesto resonates with me personally, because I have found that as information delivery mechanisms have been sped up – through tweets, especially, but also live updates, blog posts, and listicles – I have increasingly wanted to slow down. The onslaught of the immediate has made me value more the quietude of immersive; the “flow” state, I have found, is far preferable to the “flood” state. It is less stressful; it allows more time for contemplation and consideration; there is more chance to see textures and depth rather than outlines and lacunae.
Of course, there is plenty of research to suggest that our daily distractions have a tremendous impact on productivity. One study estimates that social media distractions cost the US economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.
These points are similar to the argument made by the writer Rolf Dobelli, who thinks that news is bad for us and giving it up will make us happy. While Dobelli endorses longform articles and in-depth books, he has few kind words for news, which he says inhibits thinking:
Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers.
The impulse for Slow Media also resonates with a point made by Longform’s Aaron Lammer in praising the value of archives, even as we live in a media environment that increasingly emphasizes the now. “A lot of these things break along an extreme axis, so that as things go very, very short and very, very fast, they simultaneously go long and timeless,” Lammer told me. “There is a polarizing effect.”
Tucked away in that observation is, I think, an expression of the opportunity for Slow Media – one that can perhaps be translated into good business. While many people are rightly worried about the future of the media business and, especially, struggle to see a way to fund expensive-to-produce longform reporting, I see some hope.
As pieces of timely information become ever cheaper, deeper, more contextualized information becomes more powerful and valuable. Thanks to the networked power and immediacy of the Internet, we have almost perfected the “horizontal” approach to the distribution and consumption of media. Every person with an Internet connection now has a place to go to find news as it breaks. We are only just beginning, however, to realize the Internet’s power as a promoter of longform content, a recognition that is helping to drive the rise of micropublishing, a movement that emphasizes the quality of the publishing environment over timeliness, and one that eschews the primacy of the pageview. We are just starting to see the emergence of startup publications that are seeing opportunity beyond the blog format. Included among the most prominent proponents of the written form are Medium, Atavist, Byliner, Longform, and Longreads.
It is not clear today how such ventures will become highly profitable concerns – and, let’s be realistic, none of the companies mentioned above are exactly raking it in – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be.
The idea of Slow Media has within it several key advantages over the “fast media” mindset that has prevailed in these earliest years of the Internet. The fast media era has been built around the CPM ad unit, which demands constant output, ceaseless agitation, a mania for content and pageviews. The CPM ad unit – the chief economic strut for online media until today – feeds all the worst impulses of instant gratification and the subsequent hollowing out of insight. It is also a prison. As PaidContent founder Rafat Ali told me when discussing his multifaceted approach to his new media company, Skift, the only way to grow his former company, one of the first blog businesses on the Web, was to keep pumping out more blog posts.
Slow Media, on the other hand, has opportunities beyond display ads. It favors deep engagement rather than brief contact with ad meat. It trades on relationships with the audience rather than fleeting touches. It builds affinity rather than habits. So far, we have seen media owners struggle to monetize those differences, and so many instead rely on the mechanics of the now to generate mass as quickly as possible, even as the ad units upon which such an approach is predicated produce diminishing returns. In these early decades of the Internet, the economic disincentives for longform reporting or analysis have been too great. What may emerge, however, are new ways to unlock the power behind that deep engagement and loyalty.
Perhaps the deepest power Slow Media has is that it has the ability to build meaningful relationships and trust. It reeks of credibility. That means there is an opportunity to drive revenue through recommendations. As the “Slow Media Manifesto” writers note:
Slow Media are distributed via recommendations not advertising: the success of Slow Media is not based on an overwhelming advertising pressure on all channels but on recommendation from friends, colleagues or family. A book given as a present five times to best friends is a good example.
While it is not strictly Slow Media, Upworthy presents a good example of how the power of recommendation can be monetized. So far, Upworthy’s chief source of income comes from getting referral fees from traffic it drives to non-profit organizations. Such recommendations can also be used to drive sales in other ways, as exhibited by gadgets site The Wirecutter, which has made an art of making money from affiliate links.
Slow Media producers might also take advantage of the intense brand affinity they can build with engaged audiences by selling them more things that aren’t content. We might well see more organizations that have their own NPR-like shops, selling T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other tangible indicators of association, as well as experiences. For example, PandoDaily’s own Sarah Lacy helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Charity:Water by getting readers to pay to sit down for a meal with her. As ecommerce tools and payment software become cheaper and more flexible, just as cheap marketing methods become more accessible, content owners might find they are increasingly able to exploit their one-to-one relationships with consumers in similar ways. There’s also the option to sell ebooks, which is something The Atlantic is just starting to invest in.
The loyalty that Slow Media proponents can build through a deeper relationship with consumers also has greater potential to be converted into subscriptions and memberships (sign up to be a PandoDaily member, by the way). While porous paywalls, as Paul Carr has argued, may not ultimately be the answer for news providers, paywalls in general make more sense for Slow Media, where readers should be more willing to pay for quality, especially as services like Tinypass offer more strata of paid content.
Slow Media, too, has a longer tail, because the pieces are timeless, almost as valuable decades later as they were on the day they’re published or broadcast. And, if you have to bring advertising into it, I think there’s a very strong chance that online advertisers will increasingly prefer to be associated with quality over cheap pageview tomfoolery. That’s the logic behind PandoDaily’s sponsored content, anyway, which revolves around editorial series and not single pages.
It would be naive to suggest that a combination of ecommerce, subscriptions, affiliate links, and longtail advertising is ultimately going to be enough to make Slow Media lucrative. But given the evolving distribution mechanisms of the cross-platform Web, and the potential for a longform revival in response to a Twitter-ized Internet, I think there is reason to be at least modestly sanguine about the future of media.
That “Slow Media Manifesto” was published three years ago. It’s about time that it started to take effect on a wider scale. In 2013, the best things come in slow packages.
* The irony is that I wrote this post in a great hurry, taking two hours from conception to publication.