The Most Important Statistic of them All

The most important statistic on the Web in the last year is the one delivered in a NYTimes article last week: Like This? You’ll Hate That. (Not All Web Recommendations Are Welcome.) [behind paywall :( ]. The statistic involves media, technology, and the ever-increasing burden on our collective attention.

Here it is: 2/3 of Netflix rentals come from recommendations.

The most important statistic on the Web in the last year is the one delivered in a NYTimes article last week: Like This? You’ll Hate That. (Not All Web Recommendations Are Welcome.) [behind paywall :( ]. The statistic involves media, technology, and the ever-increasing burden on our collective attention.

Here it is: 2/3 of Netflix rentals come from recommendations.

Why is this so important? Because it helps to solve the big question of the moment: the dynamic between media and technology. Oops, I mean Media and Technology, in capital letters.

The solution that folks are stretching for is either one or the other. On the one hand you have Scott Karp suggesting that we need “trusted sources” and wonders whether media “brands” can “survive the chaos”.:

“So let’s focus on the user. What the user needs is help allocating a finite amount of attention. And the solution needs to be personal — perfectly tailored to each user’s needs. The user needs a personal killer app.”

In a world of infinite choice, who will be the new “trusted sources” that Paul (Kedrosky) refers to? Can the notion of trusted media brands survive the chaos?”

Karp sees what he calls “Old Media” going down in favor of a new, chaotic system in which it is hard to create a business model. He even suggests that the bubble we should be paying attention to is actually a bubble in media, not technology. I think he might be right about that.

And on the other hand you have Susan Mernit, who takes a more tools-oriented approach:

“The talk about attention, personal media and new tools is dead on–but we’re making BIG assumptions about how users will change–and how long will it take for the remix generation to move to the center–that’s the question that can drive the economics of the market–plot the curve correctly and you win.”

Indeed, I think both are right to focus on users, as Alex Barnett did in his reply.

But they’re both wrong, too, to think that Media with a capital M and changing people to technology are also part of what we should focus on. Imagine if all the media companies just up and died…who would complain? I’ll tell you a group of folks who wouldn’t: creators. Creators create whether or not there is a industry-sized business model.

Instead, media is something people want and technology is how they get it.

And the best technology is that technology which models what people do already. It’s not about changing people, or looking for media brands to carry us forward. I know that people who make money selling their own version of Media want to continue to do that, but for the most part real people just don’t care. Do I care whether this movie is distributed by Disney or Pixar or if Atlantic Media publishes the Atlantic Monthly? No, I just want the first season of Lost to pop off my recommendations queue (which just happens to be on Netflix).

Note that I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a healthy communication between media outlets about how their stuff works. I’m just suggesting that users are already showing us the answer to the problems.

The media is people, folks. You got a blog, you’re the media. You gossip at the hairdresser, you’re the media. Just because someone sticks a capital M on Media and wants to make money from it doesn’t mean they’re more important than the recommendations you get from your loved ones, your family, or your friends.

Oh, did you know that Netflix models all of this? Yes, they call these people “friends” and “family”. Huh.

See the NYTimes over there? They’re a sinking part of the media. I tried to recommend Laurie Flynn’s fine article on recommendations to you in the first paragraph of this post but I can’t because you now have to PAY for it. My link doesn’t even work anymore! I got it FREE last week, and now it costs 4 bucks. Forget that media. Instead, I want access to what I had access to last week. With hyperlinks that don’t break. Ever.

So, what is the “personal killer app” that Karp is looking for? It’s recommendation systems, just like Netflix. They’re out modeling where YOU pay attention, what media YOU want, not the media THEY try to sell you. So the question is not “how can Media survive” or “how will people change?”.

The question is: “How can we use technology to model people’s wants, needs, desires?”

And you know what? Netflix knows this better than anyone.

Published: February 1st, 2006

Hi there. So...I'm trying an experiment. I'm experimenting with product design and growth hacking strategies on a new project called What to Wear. It's a super simple service that sends you a daily email containing clothing recommendations based on the weather. My focus is to make it really useful, and it's free to sign up. Let me know what you think!