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It's Time to Accept an Ambiguous Digital Fate

“Digital transition” articles and discussions tend to fall into one of two camps:

  1. The “change is inevitable and/or positive” camp — These pieces are typically marked by an enthusiastic tone and broad generalizations about the rosy future of digital industries, but firm numbers and case studies are in short supply. (I tend to write and gravitate toward this camp).
  2. The “path is murky; the money isn’t there” camp — Few of these stories fully embrace a sky is falling mentality, but they do plant themselves between the old rock (the current system is broken) and the new hard place (most digital business models aren’t viable).

But lately I’ve noticed a third camp emerging amidst the discourse, and I think this one might hold the most promise: It’s the “embrace ambiguity” position.

Chris O’Brien from Media Shift touches on this perspective in his report from the National Association of Music Retailers conference:

I listened hard for any obvious lessons or strategies that newspapers should consider, and I didn’t necessarily hear any. Experiment wildly. Study the audience. Be platform agnostic. Embrace any format or device where users get their music. [Emphasis added.]

Not exactly a “Braveheart”-esque call to arms, but O’Brien’s practical standpoint is thematically related to the forward-thinking “Valley of Death” concept developed by Michael Cairns from PersonaNonData:

The ‘valley of death’ is the graphic depiction of what will happen to your revenue line as you proactively make a transition from print to digital. If you are lucky, after 3-4yrs you will regain the revenue you had in the year before you attempted to transform your business. Ultimately, the business becomes stronger and more flexible in the manner in which the publisher can seek new markets and business development. It’s just that the valley looks so horrible (and no one will make their bonus) that discourages the publisher.

I’m sure many people would place both of these excerpts squarely in the negative camp, but I see it differently. They share an undercurrent of reality — a shoulder shrug toward acceptance — that says, “If ambiguity is the best we can hope for, then ambiguity is what we’ll work with.” At this point, as Web revenue continues to find its footing and the path toward digital sustainability is still being built, an embrace of ambiguity is the best available option.

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