The Disrupter

The Disrupters: Ignore new technology at your peril

The importance of recognising new technologies as a professional digital media producer.

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this report is to gain an insight into the effect new technologies have on the networked media industry and how the role, responsibilities and skill-set of its professional content producers have evolved to overcome the challenges presented by the modern industry.

To ascertain this, the report will:

  • Gain an insight into the role of a networked media producer and how it has adapted to overcome challenges presented by new technological developments.
  • Recognise the more significant developments and the impact they have had on the networked media industry.
  • Explore the job profile of a networked media producer and the skills that are required to perform their responsibilities, contrasting them to that of a conventional web developer.
  • Study the way networked media producers are deployed within a real company and how they are preparing for the potential challenges presented by new technologies, using RedWeb as a key example.

Rationale and Methodology

The emergence of the internet uncovered the absence of an unprecedented skill-set; creating websites required not only the creativity of a designer but also the technical understanding of a programmer. As the internet evolved so did this role; the advent of smartphones and headless interfaces are just a few examples of content in demand online. The argument of this report is developers now need a more diverse skill-set applicable across multiple platforms and for this reason, it is more accurate to define the role, not as a ‘website developer’ but as a ‘networked media producer’. The outcome of this report will be threefold, to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the responsibilities that make up the role of a networked media producer in the modern industry; to act as a guide giving prospective producers in the industry an awareness of the skills they will need to learn; and to suggest the ways in which the role will need to be flexible to overcome challenges in the future.

To achieve the previously stated objectives this report will use RedWeb as a key example of how networked media producers are deployed in the industry. The decision to use this particular agency was made under consideration of it’s size, locality and the approach they have to the work they do. Research included conducting a small scale digital survey and distributing it to Redweb, other digital agencies and a selection of professionals who have experience working in the industry. This will be used to examine how conventional the approach RedWeb employs is as well as to recognise any other approaches. To understand the interrelationship of consumers, producers and technology, a second survey and poll was produced; this provided quantitative data that could be analysed and used to better understand how producers respond to consumer practices and vice versa. To ensure the survey wasn’t biased it was shared on various platforms; including LinkedIn with a professional user base, Facebook with a variety of ages and backgrounds and Twitter with a selection of users with similar and related interests to the author and this report.

To recognise past technological developments a selection of secondary sources were used, these included books, ebooks and websites. In the case of books these are often written from a critical perspective outlining the advantages and disadvantages of the internet and specific developments. The sources varied considerably, however primarily they consisted of blog posts by journalists and industry professionals as well as press releases from companies themselves and educational websites. A selection of networked media relevant job descriptions and person profiles have also been sourced from recruitment websites online. The intention is to use these to provide an understanding of what business are looking for in the role and as a comparison against a job description for a similar role at RedWeb.

Background

Growth of the internet
By the end of 2017 the internet is forecast to be worth $700 billion to a $2.15 trillion global media industry (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2013). Potentially more relevant to this report, in 2014 the UK itself accounted software, including web applications, for 41% of its own creative industry which had a revenue of £10 million every hour (UK Government’s Department for Culture 2016). Although these statistics are a suggestion of the importance of the internet and its content producers today, they don’t show the growth that has led to its success. The number of internet connected users is now fast approaching 50% of the global population, but in 2000 they equated for only 7% and in 1995 less than 1% of the population (InternetLiveStats.com 2017a). The rise of this new platform created a demand for people with the skill-set to create websites that outstripped demand (Dunn 2017; Gallagher 2015; Vyas 2015; Anderson 2015). The first website was published in 1991, from there it took a year to reach ten but by 2014 there was over a billion (InternetLiveStats.com 2017b).

Potential of New Technologies
Figure 1 reveals another disruptive development currently occurring on the internet, in 2016 mobile devices consumed the majority of online content compared to desktop, despite being less than 5% of online traffic in 2009 (StatCounter 2016). In their 2016 white paper, Ofcom noted “There is a preference among app users for accessing most types of content through apps rather than browsers…” (p.46). However, as figure 2 shows, websites are still the primary method for accessing online news, shopping and banking. With a forecast of 26 billion devices by 2020 (Gartner 2013), Internet of Things (IoT) devices are another new development only possible with the internet.

Figure 1 — Distribution of internet traffic between desktop and mobile devices (StatCounter 2016).
Figure 2 — Preference to use apps vs browsers to access content (Ofcom 2016 p.47)

Redweb, A forward looking digital agency

“There is an old Chinese proverb that states: ‘When winds of change blow, some people build walls, others build windmills’. Redweb labs is where we dig the foundations for our windmills.” (Redweb ca.2017)

This excerpt from the Redweb Labs is evidence of their progressive mentality towards the work they do that has helped them prepare and overcome the challenges of new media. With twenty years of experience, 130 permanent staff, two branches and an average turnover of £10million (Cabinet Office ca.2017; Sitecore ca.2017); Redweb is a key case study in how agencies have overcome challenges to stay effective. Alongside their client work, Redweb also operate a department dedicated to investigating and experimenting with emerging technologies. Some examples of the work their labs have produced include cloud driven mobile apps such as Simpoll (Mullins 2013a; Mullins 2013b) and controlling music with movement (Redweb Labs ca.2017c). Redweb also run their own blog where employees can post regular updates and thoughts regarding trends and news in the industry as well as projects they are working on, the report will draw on some examples of these posts during the discussion.

Theoretical Context

The Internet as a Disruptive Technology

There is generally a positive perception of new technologies, when asked about twelve specific categories audiences ranked the potential benefits at 5.6 out of 7 (figure 3; Collins 2017). In some cases however technology is responsible for causing disruptive innovation (Christensen and Bower 1995). Christensen pointed out that it has the ability to “disrupt an established industry with something simpler, more reliable, and more convenient” (1997, p115).

Figure 3 — Perceived Benefits and Negatives of 12 Emerging Technologies (The Global Risks Report 2017 p.44)

This theory is underpinned by the suggestion that successful businesses focus on sustaining innovation, evolving their existing product features to target high quality, more demanding and higher paying users (Harvard Business Review 2013). By neglecting and over serving low quality users, they create a new niche in the industry. New business can create simple products without extra features that consequently are cheaper and easier to use for these low quality users, this will give it momentum and ultimately allow them to target more advanced users anyway (figure 4). Although this theory has been used and recognised in the business industry, it hasn’t been used to the same extent by the media industry.

Figure 4 — Graph showing the performance of disruptive technology as it gains higher quality users. (Megapixie 2005)

Fostering a Convergence Culture

The work of Henry Jenkins is well recognised and widely used by academics when exploring the effects and trends of new media. He recognised that in the contemporary industry there was increasingly a “…flow of content across multiple media platforms [and a] cooperation between multiple media industries…” (2006, p.2). It could be argued the internet laid the groundwork for the current industry state, one where an increasing range of technology is being simultaneously developed; one where apps, websites, television and social media are all used actively by audiences to understand content. It is this trend Jenkins attempted to explain, using the term ‘convergence’ as “a word that manages to describe technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes…” (2006 pp.2–3).

Similarly, this report will portray audiences as having an active role of engagement with, and even production of, content. Some professionals may cower at the idea of this type of empowerment of what was traditionally described as a ‘consumer’. However, considering their role, it is far more appropriate to label them users or ‘prosumers’ (Toffler 1980), and as this report will suggest, it’s undermining this role that often limits the career of a professional. Jenkins very much wrote about his theory in the climax of the internet, where the trend of Web 2.0, a term popularised by Tim O’Reilly (2005), was full pace. As early as 1995 Negroponte recognised “In the information age, mass media got bigger and smaller at the same time.” (p.164), but with the rise of Facebook, Google and Youtube there was an increasing amount of investment towards websites and technology allowing platforms to become more interactive (Morrow 2014; Appendix F1) and therefore profitable (Chui 2013).

Although these theories have been consistently cited in the study of audiences, they are yet to be used when exploring the role of a producer, they will however be key in supporting several findings later in the discussion of this report.

Discussion

What many perhaps consider the defining aspects of a website; interactivity, instant updates, flexibility and diversity, didn’t exist in the first websites (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008). The internet was a first, there had been nothing like it before so without hindsight, producers naturally tried to treat it like any other existing platform. The first website (Appendix G), created by Sir Tim Berners Lee in 1991, was essentially a hand-book for the internet; it was static, didn’t get regularly updated and consisted of just text and links. In these early days the skill-set of web developers consisted of having a technical understanding of computer science and being able code. The report previously mentioned the significance of web 2.0, this trend is what introduced the features many would consider essential for websites, but it also changed the skill-set required to create websites. Websites were originally coded using a language called hypertext markup language (HTML) and ultimately, in an attempt to more effectively replicate traditional media, Cascading Style Sheet (CSS); these are more logical languages and the first that many web developers start out learning (Appendix F2).

In 2008 Rupert Murdoch spoke about the ways in which the internet and technology was disrupting old media, he called it creative destruction claiming “Everyday new technology is tearing down old ways of doing business.” (Georgetown University 2008). The catalyst to the rise of digital media has been the internet, the ability to conveniently network together media for a relatively low cost is what the industry is currently built upon (Chui 2013). In his speech Murdoch was speaking about this shift towards digital technology, but the process hasn’t stopped or slowed. It could be argued the most significant development that has occurred since the internet’s inception has been the uptake of mobile phones. As previously highlighted in the reports theoretical context, mobile devices now make up over 50% internet traffic, this has had a significant impact on the industry. The increasing use of mobile phones have led to the concept of responsive and mobile-first design, this has become a standard for professionals (Google ca.2017a). Interestingly the small-scale qualitative research conducted for this report suggested large screen devices were still the most popular; with 53% of respondents preferring Laptop and desktop devices over 47% preferring Mobiles and Tablets (Appendix C2). However, this holds less credit over the more extensive research methods Google have available and says more about the specific demographic surveyed, generally professionals and students who predominantly work on laptops.

The consequences of these new technologies is the job specification of a web developer has grown to require an increased awareness of different languages in particular. Using a basic understanding of the way job profiles are created (Appendix F5), it is interesting to note both positions for web developers (Appendix D1, D2) list at least six different programming languages as being required, with one referencing over twenty different languages and API’s. This is a clear example of convergence, the need for professionals to have knowledge of so many languages, so that they can produce content simultaneously across a variety of platforms. It is this convergence and this diverse skill-set that makes it far more accurate to describe web developers as networked media developers.

It is testament to the consistency and versatility of the internet that it can continually develop itself into new and exciting forms. When professionals with experience in the industry were asked if they thought mobile devices and apps would continue to grow, particularly concerning Google’s recently announced instant apps (Google 2017b) which itself is a response to mobile growth; the consensus was that apps are actually losing growth (Appendix C2). One wrote “…we are at the high-point of user enthusiasm in mobile apps…”, interestingly this is also what a small Twitter survey (Appendix A) suggested, with only 26% of users saying they predominantly use apps. In the same survey another professional wrote that the next big technology challenging developers is bots and artificial intelligence.

It is this pace that makes it so hard to sustain a successful career as a web developer. But also exactly the reason renown digital agencies like Redweb don’t just ask for technical skills including the previously referenced job specifications, but also ask for “a Passion for the web and digital technologies” (Appendix E). By offering With the pressures of disruptive innovation, it is important for digital companies to not underestimate new technology that might enable new companies to take customers. Redweb haven’t underestimated this, with Redweb Labs they have set up a division of their company dedicated to discovering and experimenting with this technology. Redweb blogs are another example of how the passion of their developers is used, similarly to the responses in Appendix C2 they have already recognised the importance of Artificial Intelligence in the future (Redweb 2017b). By having an awareness of all future possible technologies they can prepare their web developers with the right skills to stay effective and survive the increasing pressures of convergence. Appendix F4 is a reflection from the author, as an aspiring and developing professional, in trying to understand the diversity of platforms available, the pressures of learning them and the exciting possible opportunities in the future.

One example of how digital agencies failed to react to disruptive innovation in the past was ignoring the increasing movement towards participatory culture, a consequence of web 2.0. Digital agencies were focused on creating larger and more complex websites for higher paying businesses. However, as had already been seen with social networks and services like Youtube, there was a growing market of amateur and fan content creators, which were being increasingly ignored by these digital agencies because they don’t offer the same return. WordPress was a disruptive innovation, it recognised there wasn’t an affordable way for people to easily create their own blogs, but by using web 2.0 the service could offer everyone the opportunity to create their own blog for free. Digital agencies didn’t take this threat seriously because the resultant websites were low quality, therefore they focused on sustaining innovation and improving the products they already offered. Slowly however, WordPress itself improved the quality of its product, offering themes and plugins that customise the platform, now many companies who would previously have used digital agencies to create their websites use WordPress, including the New York Times and Walt Disney Company (WordPress, ca.2017). To respond to this there has been an increasing focus by professionals on learning how to make themes for these blog services, for example in Redweb’s job specification they require knowledge of Drupal, another blog platform.

Conclusion

This report has explored how a convergence culture has transformed web developers, who understood a limited number of web-based languages, into networked media developers with a much wider skill-set that spans many languages on many platforms. The report also looked at how web 2.0 and mobile technology has impacted the digital media industry, creating what Jankins called a convergence culture. It then briefly explored how some digital media agencies have shifted focus from proprietary websites to creating themes for blog systems like WordPress and Drupal after underestimating them as disruptive innovations. Finally, it looked at how Redweb try to ensure their developers are passionate and engaged about their work, requiring it on their job specification and supplying them with a blog to write about the industry. They also encourage their staff to experiment with new technologies, ensuring they don’t again underestimate what could potentially be a disruptive innovation such as was the case with WordPress and web 2.0.

By exploring these aspects the report has tried to, for aspiring networked media producers, provide a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between technology and the networked media industry. This relationship is one that continually evolves, it has provided new platforms for content to be more effectively distributed to but also created more platforms for content producers to understand and develop for. The findings of Appendix A and C2 suggest consumers still want to consume content across a range of platforms, at different times and in different places. By speaking to professionals in the industry (Appendix B) it is suggested this convergence culture isn’t going to stop, with artificial intelligence and bots potentially providing the next challenge for content providers, and this is supported by a variety of online secondary sources. However, both these pieces of primary research were limited by their small scale.

Despite its limitations the report suggests it is as important as ever to be passionate and stay engaged with the industry. To work professionally in the industry, in particular the competitive digital media and convergence based one today, there is clearly a need to understand a range of different languages and platforms. The report also underlines why it’s important to be aware and not underestimate new technologies that might develop into disruptive innovations and change the way the industry works.

Recommendations

This report effectively manages to recognise some key developments and advice for aspiring networked media developers and supports the points made with instances in history and some limited primary research. However, it does in some aspects struggle to apprehend the real scale of the digital industry in such a short report. To more thoroughly underpin the key aspects of successful developers it would have been useful to have more extensive primary research, including a more critical analysis of results using graphs, and a transcript of a more in depth interview with Redweb. Appendix F (excluding F1) includes a series reflections in the form of blog posts by the author, prompted by the research and writing process of this report.

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Jamie De Vivo

(15 Posts)

I'm a digital producer and fourth year student at The Media School at Bournemouth University. Summarising myself is a difficult task, so I'll just leave it to the blog. But my posts will focus on everything from web and app development to behavioural science. Specifically you'll also find my views and advice on cameras, editing, business, culture, mentality, my adventures and my DIY projects. Enjoy.
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