10,000 Sharp Wedges
A couple of years ago, in a post titled Never-Ending Niches, Ben Thompson described various consequences of the transition from analog to digital media. The former era was, of course, defined by scarcity—not just the scarcity of analog storage but the constraints of time and space that limited its distribution and consumption. Newspapers catered to distinct geographic markets, films needed theaters to play them, and a television channel could only air 24 hours of programming per day.
The internet, Thompson writes, ushered in media’s post-scarcity era. “Suddenly every single media entity on earth, no matter how large or small, and no matter its medium of choice, could reach anyone instantly,” he says. Every newspaper was increasingly competing with every other newspaper, not just another one in the same city. Streaming platforms could offer infinite TV and movie options, all simultaneously available at all times.
Instead of distributing scarce content in time and space, new mechanisms arose to sort and manage what had become abundant and unconstrained. Over time, huge platforms like Facebook and Google (what Thompson calls Aggregators) became the primary distributors, with content increasingly shaped to fit their incentive structures—an adaptation process described by terms like SEO and clickbait. Content had become effectively infinite but human attention still wasn’t; the challenge was no longer connecting with a geographically and temporally fixed audience but pumping more and more supply into a flattened global market and doing whatever was possible to differentiate it. In this world, “eyeballs” were less an existential foundation for media—its ultimate reason for existing—than a way of measuring a given unit of content’s performance. In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings demonstrated a grasp of this when he said that the company’s biggest competitor was sleep.