As Steven Johnson notes in his wonderful new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation often happens when hunches and concepts from different disciplines bump up against each other in ways that are unpredictable and unplanned. This has implications for the future of media, which has been entirely too nearsighted in its approach to re-inventing itself.
For traditional media to survive, it will take more than just publishing a more beautiful version of their magazines and newspapers on an iPad, creating Facebook fan pages or developing news reader iPhone applications for mobile users. It will require a fundamental re-thinking of what it means to be a "media platform" at a time when the near-ubiquity of the Internet means that the physical world is now a "platform" for publishing content.
Media companies need to start thinking in terms of "social layers" that publish information and data on top of the physical real world. This will require a tremendous shift in mindset -- they are no longer publishing to "the Web" or "mobile" - they are publishing to the real world. In order to do so, they will need to build on nascent trends in augmented reality and geo-location, enabling them to create layers of meaning everywhere in the real world. Media companies will be able to publish "social layers" of content, and readers will be able to subscribe to them. If the content is good enough, media companies will be able to charge for it. (That's the ka-ching factor.)
Correcting the nearsightedness of traditional media might just start with a visit to the local eye doctor. Think about the whole process of getting an eye exam at your optometrist -- the eye doctor hooks up the phoropter and spends about 30 minutes adjusting the various lenses to optimize your vision. After changing each lense, the doctor asks a simple question: "Better of Worse?" If it's better, the doctor leaves the lense and starts to adjust a different lense. Each lense is literally a different "layer" that slightly improves your view of reality.
Now, imagine a media publisher in the role of the optometrist. The publisher starts with a simple premise -- "I'm here to help you better understand the world around you, wherever you are" -- through the use of different layers. From there, the publisher provides a simple solution (flipping a lense "layer") that helps you see this world best. At any step, the reader can ask the publisher to reverse a lense "layer" or to see two lense "layers" side by side. A media company might publish an "arts" layer or a "business" layer or a "shopping" layer.
Social layers are already being "published" on top of the real world - we just don't call them social layers. Here, for example, is what a basic Google Map looks like.
Now, here's what it looks like when you add a "retail layer" on top of it...
Social layers are also starting to be published on top of geo-location services like Foursquare. Visit Foursquare.com and scroll to the bottom of the homepage -- you'll see how media properties like People magazine, Lucky magazine and History are publishing "tips" and "news items" that are relevant to their media brands for specific real-world locations. (There's even a Gossip Girl layer, if you want to see your world through the eyes of Blake Lively, Leighton Meester and Chace Crawford.)
What's exciting is that there's already a company - Layar - that is taking the idea of "layers" to the next level through an online catalog of layers for its augmented reality browser. "Layers" in the store so far include one by travel-guide publisher Berlitz that points out hotels and places to shop and a layer for Disneyland and Disney World. There are also layers that could potentially disrupt the Web in the same way that the Web disrupted print -- such as "online classifieds" layers that display listings for available apartment rentals in a certain neighborhood. Why scroll through pages and pages of listings, when you can just walk around a neighborhood and see exactly what's available?
Social layers could become big, the same way that apps became big. But how many media companies are monetizing their applications? How many media companies have figured out in-app advertising and in-app purchase events? These are two questions that need to be resolved if they are to shift their thinking to layers.
In contrast, social layers feel much more like what media companies have always done -- create amazing content, and make it available at our fingertips, no matter where we are in the world. You don't need to put on a pair of rose-colored glasses to see how layers could revolutionize the way we think about media. Instead of saying something like, "I subscribe to The Weekender version of the New York Times," we'll say something like "I subscribe to the New York Times' view of the world."
[image: Phoropter and Google Maps]