Watching the Internet: An Interview with Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo (Part Two)

What aspects of the Long Tail theory do you find convincing as a means of explaining what kinds of content will thrive in a networked culture? What do you see as the limitations of this model?

I don’t believe the Long Tail exists, neither socially nor economically. The Net has permitted the emergence of a certain unsatisfied demand, but it is very small. The physical barriers to analogue distribution are greater on the Net. Added to that, the most difficult barriers to break down are the social, cultural and psychological ones. For example, World Cinema in the United States: before it was not possible to see these films because they weren’t distributed, but even with the Net, the viewing of them has not increased. This is spite of them being free in many cases (P2P or Megaloud).

Some have imagined that user-generated content will eventually displace commercial media content (seeing this either in terms of a liberation or a decline). Yet, you seem to be suggesting that different kinds of content will co-exist on the web for the foreseeable future. In such a world, what mechanisms will need to exist to help viewers find content which is meaningful and pleasurable to them?

It is a Utopia. I think that the UGC will grow considerably in the next few years, but will coexist with professional content. The new viewer will be omnivorous but we can’t generalize, it is necessary to distinguish. A film is not the same as an application for an iPhone or a poem. There is content which will greatly develop but it is difficult to imagine that USG will substitute professional content. This needs a large investment of capital which needs to be translated into income or corporate earnings.

You are generally dismissive of what you call “the utopia of free-of-charge.” Yet, many have wondered how they can develop business models to get people to pay for content given these expectations. What steps do you foresee which might enable a transition from “free” to “paid” content models on the web?

Small subscription payments and advertising cannot sustain the current investment in content. It’s impossible. The content should be more attractive to people to the point where they are willing to pay. I think we should maintain the neutrality of the Net and wait for innovations from the users and the logical evolution of the social networks. Facebook and Google set the standard. New business models will also appear with low profits and prices which are more attractive to users. But, advertising investment in the internet is still small and, added to that, all advertising which exists on the Net is not going to finance content (yellow pages).

Much of the book is spent describing some of the risks that television content producers face in the digital era, yet you also identify some advantages of operating across these media platforms. What are some of them?

The risk for the content producers is the difficulty they have in making money from the internet. The use of the internet is on the rise and the income from it is not increasing at the same rate. The advantages come from the fact that the net is a cheap and efficient system of distribution. It can unite producers and consumers and thereby exclude the intermediaries from the supply chain. I sometimes dream about millions of consumers in the world who can pay a little to watch a hit film, an episode of a series or to read a newspaper at a price which is much lower that what they are paying today. For the rest it could be free. This would be a good business for the producers. It is economy of scale.

Throughout, you seem skeptical of some of the claims made for collective intelligence emerging via networked communications. Where do your reservations come from?

For me it is very difficult to understand the concept of collective intelligence. The example of Wikipedia is usually given, but the management of the information demands time for it’s organization and structuring. A company can do this much more efficiently than an army of net surfers. I am also not convinced by the idea of giving our individual know-how for free for the benefit of the collective. At the root of it is work. Although I also believe in the free-time productivity of the net users. We will see over the next few years how this matter develops.

What do you see as the biggest threats to the hopes for the web remaining a more participatory medium than previous forms of broadcasting?

The interests of traditional companies: media, Hollywood etc. This is a medium that they do not control and from which they do not obtain sufficient profit. They lose more than they earn (those who read the press on paper Vs those who read it digitally, a cinema goer Vs a net viewer). The most successful companies on the net are those which do not have content: Google, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon etc. Companies will try to question the neutrality of and to limit the freedom which exists on the net. The signing of the ACTA agreement by different countries is a clear signal of the danger. They are also going to defend the current system of control of content, that’s to say, conventional distribution via different methods (cinema, video, cable, etc.). They are reluctant to release content using the new global distributors such as iTunes, Netflix, Facebook or Microsoft with the XBOX etc.

Another big threat for the internet as a participatory medium is the privacy control of personal information on social networks. Also, the collection of data regarding people’s surfing habits which other companies are interested in, in order to target their marketing campaigns, as the press highlighted days ago.

I am also a great critic, perhaps unfairly, understanding that their thesis could be more pertinent than mine. But the majority of people don’t have much to say. It is the convenience of passivity and the lack of “habitus” which was highlighted by Bordie. To be an expert takes a lot of work. There have always been social networks. When the Bastille was stormed the internet did not exist.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo is Professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. In addition, he currently holds positions as the Vice Rector for European Harmonisation and Convergence and Director of the International Doctorate School of URJC; Course Director for the Master’s in Television Journalism; Coordinator of the Masters in Film, Television, and Interactive Media Studies; and Director of the INFOCENT research group. Professor Alvarez has written and co-written thirty0six books and more than twenty papers for scientific journals on the economy of communications, the cultural industries and new information technologies. Some of his works include The Future of Audiovisual Media in Spain (1992), The Film Industry in Spain (1993), Premium Images (1997), The Present and Future of Digital Television (1999), The Future of Home Entertainment (2004) and Cultural Policy Alternatives (2007).