Aol plans to go head-to-head with the Internet

December 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Quick …who was quoted recently in the Wall Street Journal saying the following?

Hopefully, we will spark a revolution of people doing content at a different scale.”

a. Tim Berners-Lee

b. Johannes Gutenberg

c. Tim Armstrong

The answer is C, Tim Armstrong, who was making further reference to Aol.’s emerging strategy to re-make the brand online for advertisers and consumers. Said Tim to the Journal,

“Content is the one area on the Web that hasn’t seen the full potential. Hopefully, we will spark a revolution of people doing content at a different scale.”

I’m sorry, what potential is missing from content online and exactly how much more revolutionary does Aol. expect that content development is going to get? The FTC is holding a workshop in Washington right now to assess the damage to news organizations that has been caused already by the content revolution online. That indicates to me that further spark is not necessary. There appears, in fact, to be an enormous fire raging that is toppling content structures that have stood for 100 years.

Permit me this outburst: If it suddenly dawns on anyone in response to Aol.’s “content revolution” that “Gee that seems like a nifty idea; why hasn’t it been done before?” then I am going to change the title of my book about the history of Internet advertising (which is currently, “What I saw on the way to the content revolution”) to – with apologies to A.A. Milne – In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle,” because Milne’s title conjures a better image of what happens when one walks, head down, following one’s footprints in the snow.

If Aol’s strategy of relying on an army of a few thousand free-lance writers to produce reams of content tied to popular web-searches represents progress in our minds concerning the “full potential” of Internet content, then we must question our roles as stewards of “new” media. The potential has been obvious for years thanks to countless writers and web publishers already working on a shared revenue basis to generate reams of Internet content. The potential is and has been the chance to reach highly targeted audiences at the very moment when they are pre-disposed to what advertisers are trying to sell, such as to the solution to defective baby cribs. It exceeds the potential of all other media, to date, to do the same.

What matters to content’s (i.e., media’s) potential is denial. “Hopefully we will spark a revolution of people doing content at a different scale” is denial. It says that the content revolution that came along and was responsible – in all respects – for lighting the fire that burned down the walls that Steve Case built (and many other walls since) didn’t happen. It insists something else happened, which we are now to believe was a chronic underachievement of content online. The Internet was weak and Aol. – and others – suffered because of it.

We are wasting valuable time here.

Aol. does not need to re-invent the Internet to restore its position. It needs to embrace it – finally, and for all time. Why does this matter? Why get exercised about what Aol. is up to? Because Aol. is a great Internet brand, whether it deserves the mantle or not. Leadership matters, but with this proposal, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Aol., like the OPA before it, turns its back on the very content revolution that has Rupert Murdoch and others in Washington D.C. this week pleading for mercy.

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