Who Are Those “People With The Algorithms”?

I am continually fascinated by what mass media business leaders think about the Internet.

This was brought into relief for me recently while I was reading Steven Johnson’s new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, and simultaneously came across an interview in which James Schamus, the indie film legend and CEO of Focus Pictures, discusses the new world of distribution for filmmakers. 

 Scott Macaulay summarizes the key elements of Schamus’ perspective in his piece, 12 Tips From James Schamus and Christine Vachon At IFP Film Week.

 “The people with the power are the people closest to the consumer dollar,” James said. “The power is moving from the people who distribute to the people with the algorithms.” James, of course, was referring to Big Data and the Information Age companies (Google, Facebook, et al) whose business models are based on it. Every time you click — on a “like” button, or a download link — you are producing, said James. You’re producing “exhaust data,” information about yourself that is then used to market to you and others like you. “Filmmakers need to be aware of this new model,” said James. “Other people are monetizing it now, but they don’t have the same relationship to film culture” as the previous generation of distributors.”

In the interview Schamus paints a world in which we are all passive consumers who create data for the big guys that will be used to further shape and govern our consumption.  We (consumers and filmmakers alike) will be left with less control and will miss the guidance of knowledgeable film people.

His view is shared widely among many people in the film world, whether they work at studios or as independents. They see the Internet as the destroyer of the legacy media system to which they are wedded.  And they believe that little good will come from this destruction.

It is true that the Internet is dismantling the world of mass media.  Yet something new is also being built in its place.  Media makers need to understand what this “something new” is and what it means for them and for their audiences.  To do so, they need to know what is really driving this new media ecosystem.

Steve Johnson, a man who has been part of several Internet startups and has written about the Internet, agrees with Schamus that it is about algorithms.  As he states:

“The Net, is ultimately, software, and software is all about shape—shifting and simulation… Software interfaces are not fixed properties, they are possibility spaces, open to a near infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.”

Then Johnson comes to a different conclusion about who gets to control this new medium.

“Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of how they should work…  A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends…to build up a much larger community of people who want to help reinvent it…That capacity for shape-shifting leads to another affordance: digital networks like the Web can simulate and experiment with different social architectures more easily than other forms of media… On the Internet, the rules are up for grabs.”

Where Schamus sees Big Data domination, Johnson sees democracy.  Where Schamus sees destruction and loss, Johnson sees reinvention and renewal.  Where Schamus sees loss of control, Johnson sees more opportunity for individual action.

It is logical that mass media companies see this as a threat.  They have traditionally acted as the exclusive gateways to the consumer. They have been comfortable with the rules and they have profited by them. Now they have to work within a new universe where the “rules are up for grabs”.

Johnson makes one additional point:

 “At the most elemental level, the Internet and its descendants possess this defining property: they make it easier and cheaper to share information… So what does the Internet want?  It wants to lower the costs for creating and sharing information.”

What we see happening today is much like the media revolution of the 15th Century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.  If you were a medieval scribe, you were threatened. You believed that you represented “culture” and that this printing press would surely destroy a way of life which you viewed as the only way of life worth having.

Like the Internet, the printing press “lowered the cost for creating and sharing information”.  It disrupted the medieval world and helped usher in the modern era of science and democracy.

Johnson’s approach to understanding the Internet is deeper, more nuanced and more accurate.   Shamus reacts as you might expect a medieval scribe to react. (And for the record, medieval scribes produced work that is beautiful and enduring, as has Schamus.)  His reaction is not unique among filmmakers and distributors, whether part of the studio system or not.  It is actually quite widespread.

Instead of deeply investigating and shaping this new world—they mourn the world that is passing.

What Schamus misses, along with his mass media brethren, is that the Internet is making it possible for anyone in media to get close to consumers and their dollars.

Anyone can be “the people with the algorithms”.  This is not restricted to Amazon, Apple or Google. Algorithms can be shaped by those who create, market and distribute films whether big or small.  As Johnson points out, “software interfaces are possibility spaces”.

But you can only see these “possibility spaces” if you are willing to shed your basic assumptions about how this new world works.

You have to think your way out of the old world in order to shape the new one. 

Then you can become one of those “people with the algorithms”.

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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