Web first. Digital first. Crowd first. Well, someone has to go first. Or something has to come first. Blathering “x-first” borders on the banal, but probably hammers home the paradigm du jour.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine has posted some most excellent words on our inexorable turning away from printed paper to whatever it is that informs or entertains us in the digital-only (sigh, OK: digital-first) medium.

Jarvis mentions pursuit of the strategy that will generate an “abundance-based media economy.” I like that, even as I acknowledge that this particular information ecology might appear to have abundant information while lacking a proper market for it.

I wonder if we’re headed to “digital-first” and an abundance of information simply because we can. There are all kinds of ways we can whack a digital bung into the information keg, but who is going to flip a farthing for a flagon of fact? That is, are we going to pay? And why would we? I’m begging the question: What is the market?

Charging for online content implies that there is value in that content. There are maybe only three value considerations:

  • The content helps me save or make money
  • The content is entertaining
  • The content provides information that sustains and improves my self-governance
  • Helping me save or make money is why the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have success with paywalls. The market, and its incentives, are obvious.

    Entertaining content is whatever stimulates our mirror neurons. This is why online sports and pornography succeed. But editors and curators intuitively understand that stimulating those particular neurons means their content will be primarily scandal, death, gore, and innuendo. If it must be called a market incentive, it is certainly one-sided. That makes it dubious.

    That we hunt and gather “news” from a marketplace of ideas in order to make ourselves better citizens is the self-delusion we use to justify the trouble we go through to inform ourselves. The incentive is supposed to be intellectual and social responsibility. But our information is saturated with the type of content described in the first two bullets, so we are “trained” to be informed that way, instead of being trained to be intellectually and socially responsible.

    We won’t have a central government come in and re-train the population to be socially and intellectually responsible. But we can develop market incentives for that. It’s tantamount to anarchy, though.