John Naughton's feature in today's Observer, "The internet: Everything you ever need to know," is a fantastic read and a marvel of economy, managing to pack nine very big ideas into 15 minutes' reading. This is the kind of primer you want to slide under your boss's door.
4 THINK ECOLOGY, NOT ECONOMICS
As an analytical framework, economics can come unstuck when dealing with the net. Because while economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources, the online world is distinguished by abundance. Similarly, ecology (the study of natural systems) specialises in abundance, and it can be useful to look at what's happening in the media through the eyes of an ecologist.
Since the web went mainstream in 1993, our media "ecosystem", if you like, has become immeasurably more complex. The old, industrialised, mass-media ecosystem was characterised by declining rates of growth; relatively small numbers of powerful, profitable, slow-moving publishers and broadcasters; mass audiences consisting mainly of passive consumers of centrally produced content; relatively few communication channels, and a slow pace of change. The new ecosystem is expanding rapidly: it has millions of publishers; billions of active, web-savvy, highly informed readers, listeners and viewers; innumerable communication channels, and a dizzying rate of change.
To an ecologist, this looks like an ecosystem whose biodiversity has expanded radically. It's as if a world in which large organisms like dinosaurs (think Time Warner, Encyclopaedia Britannica) had trudged slowly across the landscape exchanging information in large, discrete units, but life was now morphing into an ecosystem in which billions of smaller species consume, transform, aggregate or break down and exchange information goods in much smaller units – and in which new gigantic life-forms (think Google, Facebook) are emerging. In the natural world, increased biodiversity is closely correlated with higher whole-system productivity – ie the rate at which energy and material inputs are translated into growth. Could it be that this is also happening in the information sphere? And if it is, who will benefit in the long term?