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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Content, The Challenge Of The 21st Century
January 22nd, 2001

There are many dreams that people fantasize about. Having more money; driving expensive cars; traveling around the world; finding the perfect mate; starting a business and succeeding... The list goes on and on.

The advent of the Internet and the astonishing boom in the world of technology and communications have combined for quite an explosion. What explosion? The one in TV channels, Web sites, wireless telephone companies and many other types of services.

Yesterday versus today

The days when a province, state, or country had from 10 to 20 TV channels are definitely over. Do you remember when you had nothing but a few big broadcasting companies that divided the market segments between themselves and managed to get everybody's attention? Now, with the raging competition between cable and satellite dish providers, the number of channels has taken a quantum leap.

When I was little, TV channels in the Canadian province of Quebec were between channel 2 and channel 10. Now, the most basic service I could get would be around 30 of them. With digital TV, I have access to hundreds of networks, some focused on specific topics or demographics.

The days when the United States and Canada had nothing but land line telephones are over, too. The number of wireless carriers is incredible, and the variations can be extreme, depending on where you live. I know that we Canadians enjoy fierce competition, with four major companies, including two giants, duking it out without mercy to own ever more market share.

With the arrival of the Internet, the number of publications and startups created as a result is terrifying. With a basic computer, basic connection, basic software and basic hosting package, you can start your own company, from your bedroom if you wish. This breaks down the old pattern of investing substantial sums to pioneer into something.

The consequences

On television, you get overspecialized channels. Conan O'Brien, the host of Late Night on NBC, makes fun of the this when he does some channel surfing to watch fictional channels with ludicrous topics. He exaggerates for the sake of comedy, but he actually illustrates things pretty well. You also get 24-hour news channels that repeat the same darn things hour after hour, or that try to stay on air with special reports for 10 hours, although they have nothing to say.

On the Web, we see some bedroom-based companies and publications with little to say or little to offer. The increasing number of Internet startups upped the number of Webmasters, CEOs and presidents, but how many of them can you consider as serious enough to do business with, whether it is purchasing or advertising?

The problem: content

You can see it now. Content, and sometimes professionalism, is missing. It is often shallow and superficial, sometimes on purpose! I remember some guy posting a message to a Canadian newsgroup, asking what people thought of his business plan. He bought a dozen .ca domains when the Canadian authorities loosened the registration rules and thought that he could build a bunch of sites with shallow content and sell products through them.

My my, how exciting for us surfers!

Is that it? Do we have the basic stuff in our bedrooms, build a few good Web pages and proclaim to the world that we are stellar businessmen? Does it take a superficial storefront and a big shot's attitude to become something?

You see entertainment giants buying each other out, acquiring sports franchises and Internet portals, or multiplying the associations with the sole intent of finding content. Even cell phone companies do all they can to find something to send you on your PCS phone. Well, if you can get wireless Internet from your two-inch monochrome screen - By George! How marvelous! - you better get the basketball scores and stock quotes to justify the existence of the service, right?

This is the heart of the problem. Everybody has a storefront. Everybody has something to offer and knows how to whip up a few Web pages or an advertisement to tell you how their junk is going to make you feel good. It would be like having a few fine restaurants in a town of 600 000 people, and then see an invasion of McDonald's franchises. McDonald's food does fill you up and give you the calories you need to function, but just how nutritious is this stuff? Not very.

The same applies to too many publishers, dot com businesses, and TV networks. They have very little to offer, sometimes little expertise and often no content depth. This applies to freakin' big names like CNN that keep doing little news, and reports signed by a front man who did not even do the investigation himself! These people should, since their focus is news casting, offer the pinnacle of TV journalism. Right?

All those entities and individuals struggle every day to "generate" content, but hey, they are in business. They have pages to fill, time to kill and material to pump out. The hell with quality if it is a slow day.

It is not that the revolution of digital communications and the advancement of technology are all bad. I love the fact that there is more opportunity for dreamers to turn their fantasies into reality. I benefit from it myself as I walk in my dream employer's building to work. All of this just because I got into the Internet early and was able to get some experience.

What bothers me, however, is to see that for every good publication, TV channel, startup or company, there seems to be a lot of junk to sift through to find the diamond in the rough.

We can understand shallow content if you offer a personal Web site, but not if you pretend to have a storefront and to think big.

Content is the challenge of the 21st century. It will be a day-to-day battle for most entities that want to adopt the attitudes and business models I described above. I have the impression that when the smoke clears, an overwhelming majority of those entities will have been crushed by the harsh reality that you can rarely build something out of nothing.

Darwinism is likely to play a role on the Internet...

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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