Kevin Parker

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Content is Dead, Long Live Content

In January of 1996 Bill Gates proclaimed the ascensions of content on the internet when he wrote an online editorial titled “Content is King.” However, a lot has changed in the ten years since and the internet today is a very different looking place than it was in the mid-90’s. As I reflect back on what we have done this semester I realize that over the course of the last few month what I have thought about the internet, and specifically the communication of ideas through it, has changed as well. I used to think that content was measured simply by the intrinsic worth of the idea in question, and this meshes well with what we are taught in law school. What I have realized, however, is that what is important today is more than just the “worth” of the idea, but awareness of the idea as well. Content in the sense of just the worth of the idea isn’t important today, but rather it is the worth of the idea coupled with awareness of it that is important. In some sense this is still content, just a refined idea of how we define content.

I find it particularly interesting to consider what brought about this change and my perception of it. In the mid-90’s the internet was a relatively small place dominated almost exclusively by a small group of portals. Because these portals were most users’ first step into the web at large, being affiliated with them was the only conceivable way of being noticed. As a result it seemed logical that the television network model – the basis of Gate’s piece – would also serve as an accurate model for the development of the web. In this model content is king, at least as so far as establishing the dominance of one of the limited number of networks over the others. This is because when people have a lot of knowledge of the offerings on the few web portals (or television networks) they will naturally trend towards those which simply offer the best content and ideas.

However, all of this changes when there are so many ideas that people don’t have awareness of the total diversity of ideas out there. People will trend towards what they perceive as the best ideas, but they will trend not to the actually “best” idea, rather they will trend to the best idea that they are aware of. Now at first glance this may seem no different than the network television model. In the tv model there are still more ideas than any one person could hope to consider. As a result the network executive that decides what gets on the air works to filter the ideas for us. And similarly in the early days of the internet the small number of portals did the filtering for us. What is different about the internet today, however, is that while we still need a filter (whether it is Google’s pagerank, a favorite blogger, or simply a rss feed), all of the ideas are still out there and eventually, with enough effort, can become accessible in a way previously unimaginable. Furthermore, there are many more filters today than ever before and we have to work to even filter out which filters we consider for you. Because of this much vaster sea of information it is not just the intrinsic value of an idea that is now important, but awareness of the idea as well.

To be more precise what I have come to recognize is that the realized value of an idea on the internet is a result of a multiplicative function of both its intrinsic value and public awareness of it. Simply put:

Realized Value = Intrinsic Value * Awareness

Thus while the most awareness imaginable won’t make a horrible idea good, at the same time, a great idea without any awareness is destined to fail.

While I have found this recognition useful, at the same time I have also found it very troubling because this scheme is very different that the scheme that we usually work with in law school.

For the most part law school tries to teach the tools of advocacy in the adversarial process. Here it is simply is the substantively “best” idea that over the weaker prevails (or at least we are taught ought to). Because the arbiter is only deciding the single case before her there isn’t an issue of awareness. With only two competing ideas the arbiter will of course take in and understand both before deciding on the victor. Awareness doesn’t matter because it is taken care of for you.

But, what have I learned in this class is that when arguing in, and to, the public, awareness isn’t taken care of for you. Thus, when I was working on my project I was still first concerned about the intrinsic value of the argument that I was creating. Yet, I was also, and am still today, much more worried about the current awareness of my argument and what I can do in the future to try and generate more awareness. On the one hand I believe that simply being associated with this class will lead to some awareness because there is already awareness in cyberspace of this class generally. Still, I have struggled to try and come up with other ways to raise awareness at the same time.

Perhaps than it is this that is the most important lesson of this class for me: while crafting strong ideas might be the best approach to winning in law school, it won’t be the best approach to winning in public and in cyberspace. In order to win in the public you need to try and draft your rhetorical strategy from the beginning to not be just winning on the merits, but to be winning in such a manner that will also drive awareness. In my project I tried to do this by first creating and game and only then trying to persuade people to my ideas. I believe that once you can come up with a non-threatening way to draw people to your site you are then in a much better position to persuade them of the merits of your argument. Thus, I hope that the existence of the game will drive awareness. Yet, I still have the hurdle of first creating buzz for the game. As to whether I can ultimately be successful at that, only time will tell.