July 9, 2014

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New Media: Success or Failure?

Mary Hodder at bIPlog points to Steve Lohr’s odd piece, “New Media: Ready for the Dustbin of History?” in Sunday’s New York Times. Mary argues that Lohr’s thesis – that the Internet has failed, except as a vehicle for e-commerce – is bunk. I agree.

Lohr makes two errors. First, he mistakes the financial failure of dotcom startups for a lack of social impact. Yes, many people lost money when the dotcom bubble burst. But the Internet kept chugging along, and the pace of real innovation (as opposed to “let’s sell pet food on the Net” pseudo-innovation) didn’t change.

The airlines are a perfect illustration of this profit-as-social-impact fallacy. The airline business has been, at best, a break-even proposition over its entire history. Despite their lack of profitability, the airlines have given us (relatively) cheap and easy air travel, and transformed our lives.

Lohr’s second fallacy is mistake the bad forecasts of a few prognosticators for the failure of an industry. Some of the “new media” visionaries turned out to be wrong in their detailed visions, but that doesn’t mean that online media were irrelevant.

It’s hard to predict the future. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the vision of online magazine Slate, as forecast by editor Michael Kinsley in 1996, hasn’t completely come to pass. Despite its midcourse corrections, Slate has been a cultural success, earning a dedicated readership and publishing a lot of good writing.

Internet pioneers should remember that it’s not always easy being on the cutting edge. Sometimes you lose money. Sometimes you misjudge the future. Even so, you’re creating something that changes the world.