Like Minds in 2011

Like Minds 2011

“All companies are becoming media companies.” Discuss.

That was the theme of a short debate yesterday at Like Minds 2011, a conference of media and tech types held in Exeter for the third year running.

The debate’s starting point – which one audience member attributed to internet guru and author of Here Comes Everybody Clay Shirky – was that all companies are now creating and supplying content in a bid for greater engagement with consumers. The audience member said Shirky’s point was that in the modern media age all companies have to manage information.

Glenn Le Santo, a journalist on the panel debating the idea, insisted it was rubbish to think all companies are becoming media companies. He said that by definition a media company makes its money out of creating or distributing information or entertainment. Other companies make their money out of selling other goods and services, although of course they use the media to sell.

Stephen Bateman, formerly of Pearson and Hachette and now a publishing adviser, pointed out that some brands have created content for years as well as sold their core products. He cited the Michelin travel and hotel guides and the Guinness World Records as examples.

The word disintermediation was used. As I understand it this means the breaking down of barriers between companies selling things and consumers buying things. Instead of needing the press or television or radio to talk to consumers, companies can now talk to them direct on Facebook, on Twitter and in a host of other ways I haven’t thought of.

I’m inclined to agree with Le Santo. All companies are not becoming media companies. They are merely using the media in new, sometimes more direct ways to talk to customers. All companies need people who think about and use the media, whether that’s in-house or via an agency. Nothing new there.

More revolutionary for me was Molly Flett of word of mouth marketing agency 1000Heads asking if we’re prepared to kill our babies. She’d listened to David Attenborough’s 2011 RSA President’s lecture about the problem of global over-population. Attenborough said all the problems facing our planet would be easier to solve if there were fewer people on it and yet the subject of over-population is almost totally taboo. Flett likened over-population to the growth of social and online media. The web may be almost infinite but the human attention span is not, she argued. What are we prepared to sacrifice to gain more peace and time to reflect, she asked?

It was a perfectly valid question. Until Like Minds organiser Scott Gould appeared on stage with his cute new baby daughter. Kill our babies? Flett ended up carrying the baby off into the wings while Gould continued chairing events.

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Downton Abbey

Behind the scenes at Downton

Lady Edith and the Dowager Countess

Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.

But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.

I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’

You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.

But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.

Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my  laptop.

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