06/16/2010 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Online World Is Neither Flat Nor Round (It's Lumpy -- and Fractal-Like)

Originally published on

Fun thought question from Michael Clements, moderator of yesterday's Digital Capital Week/Future of Media panel: if the world was once flat, then round, then flat again (at least according to Thomas Friedman), what shape will it be in five years? The audience fired back several good answers, but the idea that popped into my head and stuck there was "lumpy."

What do I mean by that? Imagine the media world as a physical object resembling a 20-sided D&D die, but with many more points, each of them a publishing outlet. Some points will poke out more (the New York Times), others much less (a random dude's Twitter feed), but each of them projects some distance above the surface and demands our attention. As you get closer to the surface, you'd see more and more outlets, but they'll follow the same pattern over and over: you'll always see a handful of prominent voices accompanied by many smaller ones, which in turn are surrounded by smaller ones, which in turn are surrounded by...(you guessed it) smaller ones.

The world is lumpy
In this model, in other words, the arrangement of points would be fractal (a term also tossed out as an answer to the shape-of-the-world question), meaning that the distribution is the same whether you're talking about the macro level (the top online publishers) or the micro level (the handful of blogs and Twitter feeds about some obscure film genre). Dude, whoa.

Another description from the audience was "ethereal," which captures the cloud-like (and constantly shifting) web of connections among online voices, something that my model could incorporate if the points could move around relative to one another (imagine Brownian motion-style vibration, but with more vigor). Fun stuff! And if this model is accurate, let's hope that our own points keep rising -- like mountains driven up by clashing tectonic plates, only more quickly.