Beware the black swans

When I put together my ten good-enough predictions, I didn't toss in any flying cars or Mr. Fusion generators. Everything I mentioned already exists; I'm just making reasonable guesses about adoption.

Here's what you can't predict: black swan events. A black swan event is by definition unexpected, unanticipated, rare and high-impact. A black swan event represents discontinuous change. It's so named because all swans were long believed to be white, and the discovery of black swans in Australia in the 17th century shook the scientific world.

In 1993, a lot of us believed we were on the cusp of great change in the world of media, but the form of that change was unclear. Online services were growing at mind-boggling rates.

The future seemed to belong to Compuserve, Prodigy, America Online, Delphi and similar services that were heavily recruiting traditional media companies to put their content into paid-access services. Those of us working on digital projects thought that would be the black swan for the print world.

People like Harley Manning at Prodigy and David Rollert at Ziff-Davis had grand designs for slick and beautiful applications that users would purchase and download onto their computers, gaining access to bundles of content and services for which they presumably would pay. Fearing it would miss the revolution, Microsoft poured millions into development of its own platform, codenamed Blackbird, that would change the world.

Then came the real black swan.

When nearly everyone believed these bundled services were the future, something happened to the Internet, which had been around for years as a research and educational network. The change was small but the results were huge: a general ban on commercial usage simply evaporated.

I was in Minneapolis at the time, working on an online project with a slick, downloadable app that people would pay for.

In early 1993, there was only one provider of Internet service -- a nonprofit co-op closely tied to the supercomputer technology community. By the end of 1994, there were more than 110 little entrepreneurial Internet service providers. Telnet and Gopher were replaced by Mosaic and the World Wide Web. Tripod and Geocities were enabling anyone to be a publisher.

A black swan had destroyed the world of scarcity, eliminated barriers between people and publishing, and demolished all the "content is king" plans of traditional media companies that assumed they would rule the new digital world.

Everything had changed. And here we are, some 15 years later, still trying to figure it out.

We may be on the cusp of another discontinuous change, another black swan. If so, then the more certain we are of the future, the more wrong we will be. What do smartphones and tablets mean? Disaster, if you're Microsoft. But do they create a black swan event for media companies? We can only guess.


The abolition of the anachronistic and now ineffective privileges known as copyright and patent is a black swan. Precisely when the swan of abolition will migrate from the event horizon to the shores of our present is unknown, but all the portents indicate its arrival is imminent - despite it being inconceivable to almost everyone (and most of those who can entertain the thought believe it to be heresy).

While you were in Minnesota, I was in Denver working on interactive services for the TV and power grid. When I see publishers proudly peacocking their iPad interfaces, I feel like Groundhog Day when Roger Black-inspired interfaces were thought to be somehow more authoritative than the amateurish visions of upstarts like evite or craigslist. But I think the transactional nature of the newer web will be additive to the value of newspapers, here's why. The Internet extends capabilities you already have. As I've noted elsewhere, the Internet is the Pac-Man power pill given form in the Real World. In the videogame, the power pill enabled the protagonist to turn the tables on his competitors. It did not turn him into a spaceship, an ape, or a plumber, or anything else he wasn’t. Like the power pill, using the Internet in a new and novel way only confers a temporary advantage, training us to use the Internet as the best way to find the next source of competitive advantage. Likewise, while print is an albatross in many ways it confers broad distribution to a geofenced audience. I predict newspapers that retain their print offerings and stay on top of circulation management will see tremendous revenue effects as we shift from a web of pages to an Internet of people. We will go from passive readership to a round-the-clock series of crowdsourced events. You see this today with the use of @reply and other social media-enabled behaviors. Those newspapers that discard their print offerings will be indistinguishable from blogs and fail to participate in the next chapter.

Maybe it's just old age, but I'm a lot less confident than I was when we were working together 15 years ago to launch the Strib online. What fundamentally hasn't changed in the minds of many news leaders and rank-and-file journalists is the attitude that they're better/more important than their readers and that they know best what readers should want. Until that changes, I don't hold out much hope.