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Symbiotic Relationships

May 10th, 2009

Every Monday morning, I enter the classroom at Northwestern University and I try to impart knowledge on some of the brightest young minds regarding the state of media. But, my task is far from easy! What do the students need to understand in this fluid media economy? The textbooks aren’t much help: something that was printed as recent as six month’s ago is no longer “current”. And, the press doesn’t help much, either! In their quest for a good “story” they tend to sensationalize what is happening: according to the press, whole media structures are on the verge of collapse. What is true/what is hype? Maybe it’s my sense of perpetual optimism, but I just don’t think that we will see a wholesale replacement of media structures in favor of “new” platforms. But, my opinion is simply that: an opinion. It doesn’t replace a basis for reasoning.

In my search for some plausible explanation, I revisited some of the fundamental laws of nature. And, low and behold: I stumbled across something that may just explain what is truly going on out there. Can the notion of “Symbiotic Relationships” explain what is truly happening in the media ecosystem?

*First, what exactly is a “symbiotic relationship”? According to the collaboration of the Wikipedia, the term symbiosis (from the Greek: σύν syn “with”; and βίωσις biosis “living“) commonly describes close and often long-term interactions between different biological species. The term was first used in 1879 by the German mycologist Heinrich Anton de Bary, who defined it as “the living together of unlike organisms.”

If we agree that a “symbiotic relationship” is one where two separate (and uncommon) entities are reliant upon each other for their survival, can we find such relationships in the media? There are several:

*Think of YouTube and the “Tube”…aka television. YouTube was supposed to be an internet forum for creative self-expression. Hence, the tagline, “Broadcast Yourself.” But, what wound up happening? YouTube became an online destination for repurposed television content: memorable scenes from television shows, commercials we like/dislike, and then the plethora of parodies from this content. If you stripped away the content that is some form of a television derivative, what would be left to view? Probably, not much! We can, therefore, propose that YouTube and Television exist in a symbiotic relationship.

*This week, I read of new generations of “Kindle-like” devices that will be suitable for newspaper and magazine content. The articles positioned these devices as “saviors” that will stave off the demise of the newspaper industry. But, what if we looked at the situation through a different lens? What if these new devices can only exist if consumers want their newspaper and magazine content in a portable, electronic form? Can these devices succeed without the content? Probably not. What is truly at stake? Maybe we can argue that the “paper” itself is becoming unnecessary; but the stories, the photography, and the craft of a brilliant journalist is still in demand. So, we may choose to download a subscription of a newspaper or a magazine onto a screen. A new, symbiotic relationship exists!

This phenomenon isn’t new. Think back to the advent of the motion picture film. This transformative medium gave novels a voice. Instead of leading to the demise of the written story, the film industry became another medium of expression for great stories. Numerous films, too many to even mention here, were borne from great novels. They introduced these stories to a whole new generation of consumers. Again, the two media have co-existed for decades and both are doing just fine.

So, what should we do with this thinking? The book “MEdia Generations” by Martin Block, Don Schultz, and BIGresearch call for more intermedia comparison. And, they’re right. We tend to fixate on media platforms as single, distinct, and discrete entities. We measure their growth/decline/engagement in isolation. When, in reality, media work in symbiotic ways with strange, and often unrelated partners. I am looking forward to a time when we measure a true “cumulative effect”…across symbiotic relationships. Imagine a television commercial rating that is an accumulatiion of exposure on television and derivative exposures on YouTube all wrapped in one! That will signal a time when we stop “killing” things and we celebrate what is truly happening in our dynamic and complicated media world.


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