As the media work out what consumers want before giving it to them, it may not be the win-win situation it seems.
Trendspotter: Using social media to predict what you, the rlvp, wants
What made you decide to read this article? How long will you spend on it, and what will you think when you're done? Will you recommend it to friends?
Every day - multiple times per day, most likely - you make a decision to consume a piece of content and so become an audience member; or, to use a term now quickly gaining traction, an rlvp: reader, listener, viewer or player. The nature of that decision and how to influence it, is of great interest to people who make content, from The New York Times, to Universal Studios, to your favourite blogger. They're all trying to figure out how to get a little more of what is, arguably, the most valuable commodity on Earth: attention.
Up until recently, that's been a hit-and-miss affair. The equation, by necessity, was simple. In essence: make great content and it will eventually pull people in. Trouble is, media producers are then thrown to the mercy of "creatives" - directors, writers, musicians - charged with making that content. And sometimes, they get it badly wrong. This year, Disney released John Carter, an action adventure film about an Amercian Civil War soldier who is transported to Mars. Confident of a smash hit, the studio spent US$275 million (Dh1.01billion) on production and $100 million on marketing. But John Carter flatlined at the box office, and now ranks among the biggest flops of all time.
Now, 21st-century connectivity may be about to take the risk out of creative content. Take one example: researchers from Budapest University of Technology and Economics have built a model to predict the financial success of movies from social media data. Welcome to a future in which movie studios will analyse chatter on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to help them decide on movie plots, themes and, crucially, stars. Do Cameron Diaz movies do well when they are released in summer or winter? Do audiences prefer to see her in romantic comedies or action comedies? The answer is in the data.
But that's not the only way big media has designs on getting closer to you. Microsoft has just filed a patent for technology that can be fitted to its Kinect Xbox 360 system, which will use the Kinect camera to track the number of people watching a screen and their age, gender and level of attention. The "living room snooper" would provide executives at television networks from Sky to NBC the kind of audience insight they only dream about. It is possible now to imagine a future in which live television is shaped on the fly: not simply by telephone voting as with the spate of American and PopIdol-style shows that now air across the world, but according to real-time data on how audiences at home, in their own living rooms, are responding. Too many 15- to 25-year-olds are losing interest? Get that Lady Gaga video on right away.
Taken at face value, it can be hard to see the downside of all this. Audiences get what they want and media producers get to sell advertising and make money.
But amid the enthusiasm, take a moment to ask: in this new world of content shaped by real-time audience data, what happens to the creative genius of the artist? The vision of a Martin Scorsese or a Spike Lee? The data may tell us everything about the content we want. But how much can it tell us about the books, films and TV that we need?
David Mattin is a senior analyst at www.trendspotting.com