One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman. It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily. Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans. Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like lulu.com to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents. Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers. In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction. Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?
This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.
When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago. When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment. Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.
Same thing with making music. Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy. Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.
The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts. Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout… you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero. Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days? I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why? Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves. If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost. Barrier one gone.
The second aspect is one of distribution. Once you make something, you need to get it to people. You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous. Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists. The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.
The last aspect is promotion. Telling people about stuff. Getting the word out. Marketing. There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own. Not any more. Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen. Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.
I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week. After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels. I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say. If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.
The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education. So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it. But what about education? Is there such a thing as educational middlemen? If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education? Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune? I doubt it.
Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published, at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.
Who are the educational middlemen?