"Disintermediation" is not a new concept, but it seemed to be popular at this year's SXSW Interactive. As buzzwords go, I like it. It's useful, relevant, and slightly mind-bending. Dis-inter-mediated: it makes it clear that you're meddling with something and then unmeddling, rather than leaving it alone to begin with.

What is disintermediation? Basically, it means cutting out the middleman, or using a middleman with a more open approach. eBay, for example, is disintermediated. The advantages for e-commerce are apparent. By minimising the way stations between the seller and the consumer, you can reduce overhead and transaction costs. That's one factor in the growing disintermediation of media, although not the most important one in many cases, because intermediated media (i.e., traditional media, like the print paper) brings in more money than the online version. A more important driver of media disintermediation is that the product of media is content, and that's what the internet is designed to transmit. Babbage offered a structural explanation of this in 2010:

...Not only is content going digital but, in the process, it is also becoming connected. This change from linear type and airwaves to interactive bits and bytes has caused the balance of power to shift to those who aggregate and distribute digital content online. Take the way consumers are swapping from printed books, magazines and newspapers to digital versions that can be downloaded to e-readers, tablets, laptops or even smart phones. It is not only bookshops and newsstands that lose from this process. Publishers, too, are suffering as advertisers abandon printed pages and television slots for the online world.

There's also, of course, a question of consumer preference. Traditional media involves some bundling (magazines, television packages, and so on), a structural situation that reinforces the value of oversight. If your product is a magazine, in other words, you want an editor to articulate the overarching vision, ensure common standards, etc. With disintermediation, however, you can consume exactly what you want--whole seasons of Parks & Recreation on Netflix, exactly the articles you want to download as PDFs and no others, etc--meaning that the editor role goes missing. But note that the absence of the editor is almost an accident. It's not that consumers have a problem with editors; it's that they want to personalise their consumption stream, or they want to pay as they go, and so the editor, as a middleman, is cut out inadvertently.

Whether people notice the loss, and how they will respond, is one of the big questions for media today. The Babbage post linked above discusses the possibility of moving 'beyond content'--meaning that media can be more directly responsive to consumers and provide supplemental services, like if you watch a cooking show and can buy all the ingredients used therein on the show's web site. A related approach is curation, which I would consider a form of 're-intermediation'. You already see revivals of the editorial function, even in disintermediated media. Netflix has a famously sophisticated algorithm that effectively works as a personal curator; I subscribe to a few newsletters that send out weekly reading selection, and would expect to see more popping up in this space.

In the interim, it can be a bewildering media landscape for readers. My advice is to 1) subscribe to The Economist in print, and your favorite daily paper; and if you have any money left over, throw in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books; 2) use Twitter--if you follow people with interests similar to your own, it turns into a crowdsourced RSS feed; 3) Reconceive your problems as opportunities--serendipity rather than chaose.


03/15/2012 21:38

Bring disintermediation to real estate!


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