In the future, social networks will dominate media distribution. But that's just a return to the way things used to be.
Imagine what newsroom looked like before newspapers, TV, radio or the internet. When I picture that scene, I see a campfire. Because before it was a professional product, delivered for your individual consumption, news was a social activity. Information spread person to person, group to group. People chatted around a village square, hearth or campfire, spreading stories and information to each other. Let's call this the era of social distribution.
During the era of social distribution, news moved through networks of people interested in that news. Vegetable prices were relayed among farmers. News of new innovations or inventions in trades spread through guilds. Political gossip was shared among the gentry. If salacious or important enough, news might spread through the rest of society. Few could read, so news spread face to face.
Some people were trusted with distributing news - Dublin's Evening Herald newspaper is a descendant of the royal heralds of the medieval era. They were messengers who worked for monarchs and nobles, and spread their bosses' proclamations throughout the realm.
Others were trusted simply because they were good at finding news and passing it on. Social life and discovery of news were completely interconnected.
The Newspaper Era
All that changed with the newspaper. Through a fantastic technological advancement - the printing press - news could be reproduced with high fidelity, at scale, and distributed for individual consumption.
The first newspapers appeared in trading cities in the 1600s. As a critical mass of society learned to read - especially during the 1800s - a formula emerged: the information was gathered by professionals, formatted by editors, and distributed to shops or to our door. The resulting information-rich package was far more useful than any fireside gossip or town herald.
The same rules applied to TV and radio, when these followed in the 20th century: produced and distributed by professionals for your individual consumption. During this era your friends might recommend movies or music, but save the occasional press clipping, they were no longer a source of news about the outside world. Your social network was not a way of discovering news.
During this time, the means of distributing news or other information was expensive - printing presses, delivery trucks, radio and TV towers. The editors and publishers who controlled those printing presses wielded huge power in society. They could talk up or take down governments. Suppress stories they didn't like. Set the news agenda for society each day.
In some ways, we're still in the newspaper era. You still have your favorite papers, and maybe even radio shows, which you'll seek out and maybe even pay for. But in the past few years we've started rushing toward a very different model.
The Return of Social Distribution
If you're reading this, there's a good chance you came here through a link on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. The Huffington Post is a monster in the world of social distribution, and a huge chunk of its traffic comes through social referrals.
In just a few short years, it's built itself the biggest social footprint on the web.
That means people are telling other people about Huffington Post stories. They're sharing them with their friends on Facebook or broadcasting them to their followers if they're latter day town heralds (today known as 'curators') on Twitter. News spreads person to person, just as it did around the campfire, back in the day.
The modern campfire of Facebook and Twitter is critical: there's so much stuff on the internet, we need these social signals to navigate. And we trust our friends to pick out stories that will be more relevant to us. Plus, we can get our friends' opinions on stories, argue with them, and generally do all the things people did with news back in the pre-newspaper days of the campfire.
In other words, social distribution is back. With a vengeance. And any news outlet that defines itself by reference to its historical method of distribution ('newspaper', 'magazine', 'radio show') needs to start looking a few years down the line.
It's still quality stories that get shared. We still need the journalists and editors. Trust is critical, and a paper like the New York Times is a highly trusted herald, guaranteeing quality in its proclamations. The problem for the Times is that its losing control of its distribution: getting its stories distributed is increasingly up to you, your friends, and the little like and share buttons on web pages.
There's a whole internet of content out there, and we increasingly rely on social signals to navigate it. It took newspapers a century to replace the campfire. This revolution, while not overnight, will be quick. And it might crush any news companies that don't deliver a digital product that's optimised for sharing.
The future of media distribution for everyone is digital and social. The good news: thanks to social network effects, no matter how small your publication is, your potential audience is now global.
Thanks for reading. If you think this little history of social distribution might be of interest to your friends or followers, please share it!
Follow Paul Quigley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulyq