Something to Talk About

Here in the future, where the Internet rules, creative types have a problem: How do we get people to pay for content again? Consumers expect online content to be free, or at least amazingly cheap. Perhaps this is still due to the lingering novelty of the obsolescence of physical media, the seeming ephemerality of web content, or perhaps not.

Perhaps it's for quite the opposite reason: now that the floodgates of information technology are open, maybe "content" isn't a big enough word to describe the experience we're talking about. Maybe "content," the book, the album, the article, isn't the whole story anymore.

The problem is, the half-life of web content is so blinkingly short. If you published a magazine article in the pre-Internet days, you could take heart in the fact that it was going into a pretty package that would sit for a while in plain view at newsstands everywhere. In 2011, if you tweet a link to that article, you'll get all your clicks pretty much immediately, and then it will be gone. The hubbub will drown it out.

Unless, of course, the hubbub is about your article.

Certainly, hype has always mattered, but the speed and ferocity of the torrent of information on the web has caused a crescendo of this phenomenon. Consumers don't have time to browse the back issues anymore. Now, all that's important is Now.

Right now.

Now.

... Now.

I can keep typing it, and it's still true. The first "now" has been over for six "nows," and now it's too late.

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Take Twitter. Please.

Seriously, Apple? Buy Twitter. I don't want them to resort to sanctioned spam in my timeline.

Joking aside, Twitter is, whether you like it, get it, or not, is the New Newspaper of Now. I recently realized how committed they are to Now as I was contemplating my least favorite thing about their official software.

My favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, is made by a little third-party developer shop, and its makers only care about creating the best possible Twitter experience. They don't care, for example, about Twitter's efforts to monetize its content. Tweetbot is already monetized; you pay a couple bucks for it when you get it from the App Store.

Twitter has apps, too, but theirs are free. They want everyone to use their apps, so that they can have the most control over how people use Twitter. There is a free official Twitter client for every device I have, but mobile is a huge part of Twitter's format and appeal, and that's why, of their desktop, tablet, and mobile clients, the iPhone client is the best. That's also where Tweetbot is.

The official iPhone Twitter client is great, though. I used it exclusively before Tweetbot came out. And I still would, too, if not for one thing I absolutely, utterly despise about it, which Tweetbot solved. The official iPhone Twitter client doesn't save your place in the timeline, so you can't put it down and then pick up where you left off an hour later. It draws a jagged line across and starts with just a few tweets before right now.

This enrages me. They're deliberately causing me to miss messages from people I follow, and I want to read them all. "Why the hell do they do that?", I wondered the other day. It has to be deliberate. There's no technical reason their app can't save my place. Tweetbot does, and that was made by two guys.

But of course, when you put down your phone and don't check Twitter for an hour or two, and you come back, pick up where you left off, and start the loooooong scroll to the top, you're not reading about Now anymore.

Twitter is insisting that Now is where the value is. They are creating a kind of reading that takes place in a Perpetual Now. That may not be what I want, which is why I use Instapaper, but Twitter's main interest, unlike Tweetbot's, is not what I want. I'm their product, not their customer, remember? Their app is free for me. It's the advertisers who pay for it.

So Twitter is forcing users of its official clients to concentrate on "now," because it's more valuable to their advertisers, their real customers. Maybe that's also why Twitter doesn't care that your old tweets fall into a search black hole after a matter of days. They're trying to keep their product, our eyeballs, pointed at the content of Right Now.

Twitter is hardly the only place we find, read, watch, and share stuff, but it's one of the easiest. It's no wonder, then, that the company is capitalizing on the new importance of Now. They're frankly addressing a plain fact about the Internet: If it's not happening now, it's over. Old content is history.

But don't oversimplify the meaning of that statement. Web content may only live as long as people are paying attention to it, but it exists, at least theoretically, forever. If you still have the URL, you can bring it back to life whenever you want as long as it's still relevant.

Some content only needs to be relevant for a few minutes. That's fine. Other stuff might remain relevant for weeks, months, even years. Some might still be interesting as historical documents long into the future. Some might be great works of art that will last forever.

So, what happened to Now? On the Internet, "now" is whatever people are talking about. And if it's on the Internet, there's always someone who wants to talk about it.

That's because, now, the value has shifted. The content is a means to an end, and the people want that for free; what's valuable is having something to talk about.

That's true both online and off. You've noticed it, haven't you? It has become almost perfectly normal to talk in person about things that happened online. Next time you're in a bar, close your eyes, listen to the din, and start counting how many times you hear the word "Facebook." People may not want to pay for much content anymore, but they sure are spending more time on it. And time, in some sense, is money, right?

And that's not the only currency we're spending on this conversation. We're spending social capital; we're talking things up, endorsing them, staking our reputations on stories told by other people, all for the reward of getting 'likes' when we hang out in our networks, both real and virtual. And as long as we're talking about those stories, that content, we're keeping it in The Now.

Content creators still haven't found the magic formula, though. They still want to charge money for a piece of stuff, immutable, existing outside of time. They don't want to see their beloved creations as a means to some other end; they want a super-long blog post to be an end in itself! But that's not where the value is anymore. If I click 'publish' on this at 8:30 p.m. Pacific time on a Thursday, i.e. right now, it will vanish into the fog of drunken East Coast party tweets.

But tomorrow morning, the people (ha) who got it in their RSS reader will see it, and then it will be Now again. And surely, since it's my life, I'll talk about this again on Twitter or elsewhere and work this post into the Now of that conversation. And since this is what I care about and how I make my living, this post will add to my oeuvre on the subject, and, hopefully, that will help me keep finding work doing it. And work is where one gets money. And that's value from content, but the value is in the conversation. The content is just something to talk about.

The specifics of how this understanding turns into a profitable business for content creators will surely differ for every creator, every kind of content, and every audience, but I have to believe that the fundamental principle will hold true. If it's true for my one-man pro-bono blog posts — and I have to believe it is, since I have jobs on the Internet — it can only be more true for content that's more valuable, like great songs, films, books, or articles by real professionals. If the stuff we make becomes a topic of conversation, and it stays in The Now, that means it's socially valuable. That means its cool. And people pay for cool.

If we have to monetize something, it has to be Right Now, the current topic of conversation. The things we make are the fuel. The conversation is the fire. The value is the heat.

Some publishers still think they're in the business of chopping down trees for fuel. They're wrong. They can't chop fast enough anymore. The fire still needs fuel, but that's not the business. The business is to make a pot, to use the heat from that fire to cook something delicious. Then we can all chow down together over a great conversation. And that's what gives us the energy to pick up our axes and keep chopping.

This metaphor runs the risk of growing tiresome, but as I let it play out in my head, I realize it has quite a pleasant effect: I no longer have to think of my creative work as Work in the paying-the-bills sense. I always found that sucked all the joy out of it, anyway. Here in the future, the value is in the conversation, the reaction, the actions inspired by the work, and that's what we have to concentrate on harnessing. We have to work with our audience. We learn what they want to do, and we help them to do it. The art? The stuff we make? That's purely for inspiration.