Humans are really bad at predicting the near future (except for Nate Silver, and our own pollster Mark Blumenthal). Our minds have evolved to handle the immediate situation (fight or flight) as well as the long-term trends (winter is coming). Predicting how events will turn out in only a few months can leave us shell-shocked.
I'm going to take a big risk here and make a near term prediction: The mobilization of live streaming media is going to hit in the next six to 12 months, and hit big. By this I mean that consumers who are currently streaming recorded news and entertainment on their TVs and laptops are going to phase-shift to interactive streaming live news and entertainment on their phones and pads.
We have the following events to thank for this tipping point: the Summer Olympics, the 2012 election and Hurricane Sandy. At the Huffington Post, we witnessed huge engagement via HuffPost.com and HuffPost Live as hundreds of thousands of Americans streamed video and shared their experiences during these three seismic events on their mobile devices. I'm sure Facebook, Twitter and Google experienced monumental mobile and streaming video traffic as well.
Mobile and streaming video traffic is only going to skyrocket from here: This holiday season millions of affordable mobile streaming devices like the iPad Mini, iPhone 5, Microsoft Surface, Kindle Fire, and Android Nexus will appear under Christmas trees and Chanukah bushes. GigaOM noted that smartphones will represent 54 percent of all phones worldwide in 2013, while just last year smartphones were only 35 percent of the market. Pads are going through a similar hyperbolic growth curve from 5.1% of the global PC market in 2010 to 36% in 2015 (Computer Industry Almanac).
Downloading is not going to be the main user activity on these high tech toys. Streaming and sharing music, TV, movies and news is what these devices were invented for. In many ways we're already on the streaming bandwagon. That's not new. What is new is that in the near future consumers -- that is, you and me and our friends and family -- will be streaming primarily on our mobile phones and pads, commenting and sharing as much as we are watching and viewing.
The big live events of 2012 showed that interactive streaming -- sharing up as well as streaming down -- is about to become part of our national consciousness.
Hurricane Sandy has shown that an interactive streaming mobile device needs to be a part of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When the lights go out, a 4G smart phone is more important that a flashlight. In a disaster we don't just need to call for help, we need to share millions of bytes of information with our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
What will this near future of mobile look like? How will it affect both consumers and media companies? What kind of genie is about to be uncorked? (Remember you only get three wishes!)
Here is my countdown to the near future of media:
Number Five: The Fifth Column is built in.
Every day on the Huffington Post we get hundreds of thousands of comments, over 200 million so far. These commenters are only growing in strength. Media companies who provide a great home for this "Fifth Column" get to stay relevant. Letting communities naturally form around content and enabling them to keep their own agenda nurtures engagement.
In the 1930s America tried to suppress its Fifth Column. We feared those whose politics the mainstream didn't agree with. In the 2000s we learned to embrace our Fifth Column and we called them "bloggers." In the 2012 election, we started to depend on our Fifth Column and now we call them "fact checkers."
In the near future, millions of consumers will have easy to use, interactive, streaming mobile devices that will enable them to join the conversation whenever and wherever they are. The road blocks of access, editorial approval, and good spelling simply no longer exist in a world where you can pick up your iPhone, record a short video comment, and post to your favorite social network or steaming network. When you are really engaged it's natural to whip out your iPad and join the conversation in real-time.
Number Four: Live from New York, It's the Fourth Estate
One of the reasons that Saturday Night Live is still on the air after 38 years is that it is live. It's topical. It keeps changing.
I remember watching the very first episode of SNL in October 1975. The "Not Ready for Primetime Players" were so low budget and youthful they looked like more like a UGC webisode from today than a TV show from the height of TV's golden age.
The best part for me was "Weekend Update," SNL's snarky parody of the "Fourth Estate." Over the years "fake news" shows have become the primary way millions of consumers get their news. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert make "fake news" that requires their audience's real-time participation, both in the studio and on the Internet. They are not broadcasting as much as conversing.
With HuffPost.com and HuffPost Live we see the same effect. Our live audience, both the commentators and Google Hangout guests, drive the conversation, point us in the right direction and keep us just as informed and up-to-date as we do for them.
In 2013 millions and millions of consumers will want to engage in the news with hashtags, not just watch it happen.
Number Three: Live Streaming Kills the Third Person Narrator
The archetype of the newscaster is, of course, Walter Cronkite, the Third Person anchorman who was the "most trusted man in America." In today's world of mobile applications and websites we can think of Cronkite as a "user interface" into the news. The news happens out there in a distant world, and Cronkite, the trusted mediation layer, reflects the important parts of the news back to into our living rooms, ready for consumption.
With mobile interactive streaming devices in the hands of chatty consumers the descendants of Cronkite have a new headache. In 2013 every user with a Kindle Fire has the capacity to be a broadcaster. We've seen this on HuffPost Live and YouTube. Ordinary people are no longer afraid to voice their opinions on every and any topic. One of my favorite user interfaces for commenting belongs to SoundCloud. As the music plays along listeners are able to pin comments to specific moments in time. The event of listening and commenting is perfectly recorded so that later visitors to SoundCloud can repeat and add to the experience. Imagine what an interface like that could do for live video streams? Fact checkers will gain laser precision.
It's important to point out that without the third person view, the news becomes subjective. Everywhere I go I see people in restaurants, business meetings and on the street using their mobile devices to record and stream their experiences. All those Instragramed plates of pasta are bits and bytes of highly personal news that we want to tell our closest friends about. On a grander scale, many of the Olympic athletes who marched in and out of the stadium in London this summer were recording and streaming their personal experiences on their mobile phones while we watched them on our mobile phones.
In the live mobile streaming world of the near future the newscaster functions as a host while his guests, the "I witnesses" and the community, create the news in real-time.
Number Two: The Second Screen Integrated with the First
The phenomenon of interacting through a second screen while viewing the "real media" on a first screen is a bridge behavior. It got its start when lightweight laptops gained wireless access to the Internet and streaming media was still sparse. The prototypical second screen activity is the sharing of thoughts and ideas about a real-time event on one screen with friends and followers on a different screen. We saw a great deal of this behavior during the Summer Olympics, the 2012 election and Hurricane Sandy.
At the same time we saw a new version of this behavior when the first and second screens were merged on phones and pads into a single experience. Millions of people watched the delegates being counted via streaming media on their favorite websites and mobile apps. As they watched they engaged with comments, jokes and predictions on a single integrated screen.
Our HuffPost Live iPad app was recently released to rave reviews and lets the user enjoy both behaviors. HuffPost Live segments can be viewed and interacted with directly on the user's personal screen or the user can "throw" the video stream up on to an AppleTV/AirPlay connected TV. My prediction is that users will find the large, shared "first screen" less and less relevant for real-time video streams like HuffPost Live. At a minimum, a mobile screen that you can take anywhere means no more fighting over the remote.
The second screen experience is an attempt to preserve the current media world by subsuming new technological advances. Like 99 cent downloads for music, the second screen experience is rendered obsolete by streaming. Apple might soon have a streaming music network to compete with Spotify and Pandora. Media companies counting on the second screen to stay relevant in the near future should start looking at building apps, not accessories.
Number One: The First Person Perspective and the Huffington Post
If you want to get a glimpse of the near future of media look no further than the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), where millions of players, kids and adults run around competing with each other in virtual landscapes.
In 1993, I played Doom, the iconic forerunner of today's billion-dollar online game industry. In Doom I walked around a 3D maze killing monsters from a "first person" perspective. My computer screen became a window into a real-time and completely interactive fantasy world. Doom was scary because there was little cognitive distance between me and the character I controlled on the screen.
Doom was played alone, it was a non-social experience. The designers of Doom realized the flaw of solo game-playing and created Quake with multiplayer mode in 1996. I still fondly remember playing multiplayer games with my development team at Apple Computer in 1997: Real people, friends and co-workers are more fun to play with than characters controlled by computer algorithms.
Today, games based on the paradigms that Doom and Quake pioneered are Internet enabled with tens of millions of users playing along in cloud-based virtual theme parks while chatting and texting. Players set appointments with each other so they can show up at the same time. Players create content while playing the games. The designers of these games only provide the starting points and rules. The players create the engagement.
In MMORPGs players continuously share their virtual experiences through social media. Search for "Starcraft" on Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr or YouTube. You will discover millions of pieces of user generate content that express the players' deep engagement and fascination with online gaming.
In the near future the mobile, live, social game of choice will not be a MMORPG. It will be real life interactively streamed through a phone or pad and augmented with comments, points of interest and links to Wikipedia entries. The players contributing content will not be playing pretend: They will be consumers on their mobile devices in real world locations like coffee shops and street corners. Participants posting photos and using their personal screens to watch live news shows while being the topic of live news shows.
Arianna Huffington and Roy Sekoff didn't have to play video games to realize the tremendous power of community building and real-time content. Since its inception the Huffington Post has been an augmented reality of its own, with millions of people reading, sharing, blogging and commenting on the national and world events that deeply affect their lives. From this unique perspective a mobile, live streaming network is a natural extension of the HuffPost original idea.
I like to think of it as the Huffington Post formula:
(Fifth Column) + (Fourth Estate) - (Third Person) - (Second Screen)
= The Mobile, Live, Streaming First Person Experience of HuffPost Live