At colleges with liberal curricula like the University of Rochester, students sometimes have the opportunity to design their course of study, and those with enough foresight can even create a new major just for themselves. The titles of the majors that these people graduate with can sometimes be pretty sexy; I know someone studying “Entrepreneurship in Society”. Cool. I wasn’t focused enough as a Freshman and Sophomore to invent my own major, but I sincerely wish I had. This is an opportunity to tailor the books you read and the tests you take to be directly related to the cutting edge and to make your degree uniquely marketable for employers.
So if I could go back in time to design the perfect major for the 2012 job market, what would it be? I think I would call it something blunt like “Making Money in Digital Society”, and I have very definite reasons why.
The dot-com boom changed everything. All the newest, biggest, and sexiest companies in the past decade or so have been internet-based companies. Think Google and Amazon. And the most recent web giants are based on services in the social sphere that connect users to one another. Think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and anything else you could call “social media”. More and more websites today are engaged in providing a suite of services to the connected consumer, and I believe that much of this trend can be attributed to how advances in telecommunications and mobile devices have shaped the expectations of the public. We expect companies to have mobile-ready websites. We expect to be able to have instant access to anything and everything in the cloud.
Digital society is connected. It is interactive. Media has become a conversation that the business world must engage in so as to not be left behind. More than anything, its necessary to provide a service to savvy consumers to get them to listen (and hopefully, buy!). While technology continues to promise new services through the Internet every few months, the fact remains that the profitability of this service economy remains tenuous. Business models still lag behind what technology can do. Pandora Radio barely makes a profit, and the only value behind Facebook’s celebrated IPO is the goodwill of its users. Many investment professionals remain wary of these companies’ revenue streams.
This is cause for concern because many Americans have gotten used to Facebook, Twitter, Pandora., and mobile apps. We like these services, and it is becoming absolutely essential for the business world to engage consumers on these platforms with further conveniences to get their message heard. Consumers can only demand so much service, though, before a breaking point. Unless providing these services is profitable, business won’t do it. Then we all lose.
To my mind, the dawn of crowd-funding, typified by websites like Kickstarter and Kiva, signals an effort to apply the multiplicity of the digital social media world to more concrete, pecuniary pursuits. I anticipate a limit to the digital media services that an economic model familiar to us can support; the corporal business entities through which consumers’ money flows into developing Internet services constrain these services’ expansion. We need new business models to continue developing the digital frontier.
Studying how to do this would be an academic dream. But sadly, no class can teach innovation. A mixture of history, economics, and political science plus a lifetime of practical experience wading through digital media might do it, though. I’m glad so much of my generation can boast such a background, because while finding a better business model for the Internet could be dramatized as a holy grail of the digital age, the fact that by its very nature this business model must symphonize billions of users prevents any one person, from creating it unilaterally, whether that person is human or corporate (thanks, your honors). This business model must evolve from the small, innovative activities of many individuals whose efforts are unconsciously coordinated by humanity’s natural desire for progress to move together toward an age in which the economy can be as egalitarian as the user-fueled Web 2.0.
Traditional forms of media are on their way out. How many people do you know who have “cut the cord” to cable? Advertising dollars are flowing in to new media on the Internet, but how can producers distribute content in a traditional way expecting traditional pay over the web when piracy prevails? Legislation against piracy aims to translate the business models that society is familiar with into the language of digital media, but these must be allowed to die. The horizon of digital media is exciting because whoever can make something like Pandora profitable will hit a gold mine.
It really pains me to say all this without providing any hint of concrete ideas on to build an innovative Internet business model. The truth is that I have no idea what to do. If I had only gotten my degree in “Making Money in Digital Society”, maybe I would have an idea. But could I really have thought of that as a Freshman? The world changes too fast to target a four-year degree like that. I’m going to ask Google about graduate programs for making money in digital society… but I only got ads! Of course.