03/03/2013 04:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Voluntary Media

Two important but too-unsung women in media -- performer Amanda Palmer and Google ad exec Susan Wojcicki -- met at an idea this week: that media and advertising are becoming voluntary.

They also touch on ideas I've been trying to write about: that media should be in the relationship business, not just the content business. In other words, media's value isn't necessarily intrinsic in content -- as in, "you should pay for this product because the work to create it has value" -- but can be realized in the relationships that form around content.

First, the amazing Amanda: She gave a rousingly-received TED Talk that has been seen almost half a million times already in which she argues that artists should not be afraid to ask for support, a lesson she learned as a street and stage performer and on Kickstarter. The nut of it via BoingBoing:

"By asking people, you connect with them, and by connecting with them, they want to help you. 'When we really see each other, we want to help each other. People have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, How do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, How do we let people pay for music?'"

Value comes to Amanda through relationships. Given the opportunity, people want to support her. In a very good post today, Reuters' Felix Salmon contrasts her model with Andrew Sullivan's. His purposefully mimics big media's -- from the New York Times to the Times of London: building a pay wall around content because content is valuable, damnit.

I've been arguing to media that relationships are more valuable. Knowing people because you have their trust and give them value builds a rich and deep relationship -- builds data about that relationship -- that can be far more valuable for far longer than a mere transaction.

The problem in media is that we are not built for that. We are built to serve the masses. Hell, we made the masses. Our manufacturing and investment and technology and business models have all been aimed at serving people in bulk, never as individuals because that wouldn't scale, not in the age of presses and broadcast towers.

But now relationships do scale. See: Google. Now serving individuals scales even better and is even more valuable than mass media. Enter Susan Wojcicki, senior VP of advertising at Google, who wrote an important post on Google+ about the future of advertising. The nut of it: "In years to come, most ad views will effectively become voluntary." Or as she also put it, choice shifts to the user in both content and advertising.

Just as it becomes difficult -- in an abundance-based media world -- to force people to pay for content, which is no longer scarce, it also becomes impossible to force them to see advertising, which may become more scarce (and perhaps more valuable). That means it won't be advertising. It will be something no one -- including Google -- has invented yet. But Wojcicki's thinking about what that can be. I'd bet on her finding it over a legacy media company just as I'd bet on Palmer finding a new model faster than a record company can.

The argument about paywalls -- and copyright and the value of content -- is the wrong argument. It's an argument about trying to preserve old, industrial media model in a very different technological reality. I get accused of trying to kill paywalls or free content. I'm not. I'm just arguing that we need to recognize new opportunities because if we don't, someone else will. Read: Google. Read: a street performer.

The discussion we should be having is how better to build valuable relationships of trust with people as people, not masses, and then how to exploit that value to support the work they want us to do. We can't force them to do what we want anymore. For now, media are voluntary.