Written byJohn Allsopp. 4 comments
Is the web really the deathknell of print? With its ability to augment, to manage risk, and reduce friction, it might just be its renaissance.
You’re reading this article, whether online, or on the physical page, because of the magazineScroll (it appears in the very first issue of Scroll). ButScroll only exists because of a conference series, Web Directions, evolving as it did out of the printed programs for these conferences. But the chain of causation doesn’t stop there.
Web Directions began in Australia. People outside Australia might not realize that the country is geographically very large (almost identical in size to the contiguous US), with a relatively tiny population (roughly the same as that of New York State). It’s also geographically highly isolated. The nearest country, New Zealand, is 3 or more hours from the main population centres, while South East Asian countries are 8 to 10 flying hours away. So an Australian conference must attract attendees from across a huge geographical space.
In 2000, only 4 years before our first conference, a return airfare from Sydney to Melbourne (about the distance of Los Angeles to San Francisco) that did not include a Saturday night stop over cost in the order of $1,000. Airfares had to be booked in person at travel agencies. Information about prices, itineraries and ticket conditions were only available through travel agencies. Changes to travel once booked were costly and time consuming. Couple this with the associated cost and inconvenience of organizing accommodation, and the likelihood of someone traveling even as short a distance as from Melbourne to Sydney to attend a grass roots conference was small. At best, any Australian conference of this nature could rely only on city level audience.
In 2008, you can fly return from Sydney to Melbourne for as little as $160. You can book months in advance, or hours before you fly, and do so anywhere you have an internet connection. Itinerary changes are simple and self service, and relatively inexpensive. Information about pricing and conditions is transparent, and available directly and easily from the airlines.
In 4 short years, it became feasible to hold a conference like Web Directions, because the size of the market grew 300%, simply with the increase of the geographical catchment area from Sydney, to the whole of Australia and beyond. What happened in those years? In one sense the answer seems banal: the web became a central part of the way people conducted all kinds of commerce. But the web didn’t simply make existing businesses more efficient, allowing them to pass on their cost savings to their customers. Critically, it enabled new kinds of businesses, and new ways of doing business in even very established industries.
It’s hard to imagine that Tim Berners-lee would have envisioned that his World Wide Web project in 1990 would little more than a decade later change aviation, and many other industries. John Ross’s expression “the law of unintended consequences” seems to capture these developments perfectly.
A Law of the Web’s Unintended Consequences?
Do the consequences of the web have a discernible pattern? Can we understand and predict how the web will wring such changes into the future? Can we even take advantage of these patterns?
In thinking about the role of the web in the origins ofScroll, it seems to me that at numerous points the web reduced friction.
Think of the cost, and effort, in arranging travel and transportation to the event as a huge source of friction, limiting the number of people who’d go to the trouble to attend.
Imagine, for a new airline, the cost and effort of developing a “distribution channel” (travel agencies, and corporate accounts) as huge sources of friction impeding their growth. The web helped airlines (in the way it has a huge range of other industries and professions) reach a far larger audience with far less cost.
For the traveller, the web reduced the inconvenience of making the trip to a travel agency, waiting, the nagging doubt that you weren’t really getting all the information you required unfiltered. All these are sources of friction impeding a potential traveller at each step from ultimately making the decision to fly.
“Make it Virtual”
In the “web 2.0″ world, the instinct of so many entrepreneurs, pundits, bloggers and bull artists is, to recast Ezra Pound’s exhortation to the modernists, “make it virtual”. Rarely do we stop to question the assumption underlying this — that something online is always better per se. But if we return to air travel and conferences, there is something about their physical nature that is intrinsic to them. The web has augmented, or improved, rather than replaced them.
Our exhortation then should be not “make it virtual” but “make it better”. And to me it’s the interweaving of the real and “cyberspace”, rather then the replacement of the one with the other which offers the greatest opportunity for the web to improve our lives.
Let’s return toScroll, which (figuratively, or literally) you have in your hands right now. In the age of the instant, low cost, online world of blogs, where every form of traditional media is scrambling to get online, why on earth would anyone print a magazine? One reason Joe Clark captures so well in his essay “Unreadable” in these very pages. For many kinds of reading, and many contexts in which we read, it’s hard to imagine a purely electronic experience replacing the tactile, rich, sensuous experience of the printed word.
But how might the web “augment” traditional ways of reading? At the end of this article you’ll find a URL. Follow it, and you’ll find notes, links to ideas, people and works explicitly and implicitly referred to in that article. The friction involved in looking up a word or phrase, learning more about Ezra Pound, is dramatically reduced, because the authors and editors have done a lot of the work for you. You’ll also be able to see how other readers have responded, and add your voice to that conversation. Reading has traditionally been a largely individualistic experience. The web can augment it by making it more social, by reducing the effort, the friction, involved in connecting with people who share your interests.
But even then, simply typing a url into a device like a web enabled mobile phone (which increasingly we’ll all have with us almost all of the time) is a source of friction — it’s frustrating and time consuming. So, at the foot of every article you’ll find a semacode (a two dimensional barcode) that encodes the URL for this article atScroll’s web site. Many mobile phones are already equipped to use these — just take a photo of the semacode, and your phone will open the encoded URL in its browser.
The risk of upfront capital expenditure is a huge impediment to any business venture. In the world of print, an enormous risk is the cost of printing. There are significant start up costs, and then unit costs that even with runs of thousands, will typically be many dollars per unit. Even if you don’t pay writers, designers, editors and so on, to even ship a single copy of a single issue requires the upfront investment of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. How can the web address this enormous source of friction in the print publishing industries?
Scroll is available via the print on demand service of MagCloud. There are no setup costs, and a fixed cost per unit, that the purchaser pays when they buy a copy of the magazine. The web dissolves the need for a very significant part of the capital required to start such a venture. But with print on demand not only is this impediment removed, but so too the friction of traditional distribution bottlenecks (only a limited number of books or magazine titles will appear on the shelves of bookstores and newsagents).
Rather than being the long expected deathknell for print, the web, by facilitating print on demand, may well drive a renaissance for print, by making the cost of production dramatically lower, by reducing the financial risk of experimenting with print publication significantly.
I suspect (and hope) such apparent ironies will abound in the coming years, as we increasingly understand how the web transforms and augments, rather than destroys and replaces. By looking at businesses, industries, processes, media, and the way we communicate, and seeking out the points of friction, which impede decision making, the ability to deliver a product or service, or even undermine the very feasibility of an enterprise, and then asking how the web might reduce or remove this friction, I’m certain we’ll see the transformation for the better of everything from the political process to the “price of tea in china”.
And I hope, and have every faith that the fear and misunderstanding of the web that drives many strange, futile and frustrating decisions among law makers and business leaders around the world comes to be replaced by the same sense of excitement, optimism, and opportunity that we who come to be involved professionally with the web share.