Every week, we shine a spotlight on a founder, designer, researcher or leader in product who is building something that will shape our future. We share these stories to lend our support, spark interesting conversations, and create visibility among a global community of those who are building the future.
Richard MacManus is a writer and consultant working at the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. In May 2019, he launched a new email newsletter: Cybercultural. Previously, he founded ReadWriteWeb in 2003 and built it into one of the world’s most influential technology news sites. ReadWriteWeb was ranked among the top ten blogs in the world by Technorati and was syndicated by The New York Times (2008-11). ReadWriteWeb was sold to SAY Media in December 2011 and Richard left the site in October 2012. Since leaving ReadWriteWeb, Richard MacManus has written two books: Trackers, about how technology is helping us monitor and improve our health, was published in December 2014. And Presence, about the future of virtual reality, was published in September 2016.
Alpha sat down with Richard to explore how he used his blog ReadWriteWeb and is currently using his newsletter Cybercultural to explore the ways new technologies are impacting cultural industries like radio, TV, and publishing. Below are excerpts and highlights from our conversation:
What are some of the things you’re truly proud of and would like people to know?
I started a site called ReadWriteWeb back in 2003, and it was one of the early technology blogs and one of the first kind of professional blogs in general. That’s what I’m best known for, because I built that up into a thriving niche media business over the next decade. It became one of the most popular blogs in the world for a while, it was syndicated to the New York Times for a few years. It began before the whole social web took off in 2003, and as things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube began to really take off around 2006, 2007 onwards. ReadWriteWeb also took off about the same time, because it was covering all that technology and explaining to people how it impacted our culture and world.
I ran ReadWriteWeb from 2003 until I sold it at the end of 2011. I stayed on until October 2012. That was really exciting and thrilling journey over that period of time, building up a niche media business and watching the social web taking over the world.
After I sold the company, I wrote a couple of books. One was a nonfiction book about health technology, and the other was a self-published science fiction novel. After that, I really wanted to get back into online media in some way so I’ve tried out a few different things since then.
This year, I started a new project called Cybercultural. Cybercultural is an email newsletter. The business model is hopefully paid subscriptions over time. I’ve just started it, but the topic area is the intersection between technology and the cultural industries. So what I’m trying to do is figure out how digital technology is impacting and shaping the cultural industries going forward. So that’s things like TV and movies, books, news media, radio and podcasting, anything where a cultural product or a cultural service is being produced. Digital technology has fundamentally changed all of those industries.
So what I’m aiming to do with Cybercultural is cover and analyze that intersection. As part of that, I’ve partnered with Alpha to get some interesting datasets about how people are using cultural products these days and what impact technology is having on their experience of cultural products. So that’s been an exciting development as well.
When the question arises of why does Cybercultural exist, what sticks out in your mind?
I think it’s the massive impact that digital technology has had on the cultural industries over the past decade. You only need to look at the likes of Spotify and Netflix to realize just how much things have changed in the last decade. With music, for example, people used to buy albums, listen to the radio and watch MTV for their music fix, but now, it’s all about streaming, and it’s changed the way we listen to music.
So for example, albums are not quite so popular these days in terms of how people listen to music. And now, people listen to playlists or even automated playlists that Spotify or Apple Music or whoever gives to the consumer. And it’s the same with TV and movies. We used to watch cable TV or sign up to cable TV stations, but now it’s about streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Again, how we watch TV and movies has changed a lot so you binge watch TV shows now. You can watch an entire series in one evening or two evenings. Whereas before, you used to take months to watch a season of a program. That’s happening to each type of cultural industry like books. People are not reading so many books these days, but how they are reading books has changed immensely. You can read a book on your phone or on your Kindle device.
Technology has changed the way culture is consumed, bought, distributed and produced even, so it’s been such a sea change in general, and that’s what I’m trying to cover with Cybercultural.
Have you seen the things you write about shape your habits? Have they shaped how you consume media? What personally speaks to what you’re writing about to you as a human being?
I am definitely a consumer of cultural products myself and quite a heavy one at that. I read a lot for example, but I wrote recently in Cybercultural how it’s a struggle to read books in the evening times nowadays because you’re spending so much time on a screen during the day. And I found that it’s the same for other authors and other heavy readers. So I guess these things have changed how I consume media personally.
The other part of it is that when I started ReadWriteWeb back in 2003, digital technology was at such an early stage and people were still experimenting with how to build, how to integrate cultural products and media onto the web. So it was all brand new and building ReadWriteWeb was a lesson for me in terms of how to adapt to that world. I did an English literature degree at university, so I came from that analog world of cultural creation and products. It was just fascinating to me how that was evolving back in 2003, and now, it’s just another stage altogether.
That’s why I wanted to start Cybercultural, because digital technology is so ingrained in every sort of cultural product and service around these days. I felt like it was really interesting to be able to devote a publication to tracking and diving deeper into all those changes.
What would you love for people to know about your writing? What is something that you personally think that your writing really exudes or really touches on that you would love people to know?
What I’m trying to do with my newsletter is a little different from what most people are trying to do, because most people focus on one particular topic or one particular subject. So for example, they might start a newsletter about the music industry, and they’ll specifically cover that particular industry. What I’m trying to do is cover a bunch of different cultural industries like music, TV, and books and so on, and I’m looking for the commonalities across those industries in terms of digital technology. Something that is working in the music industry in terms of streaming technology, I might look and see how that could be applied to the TV and movie industry or the book industry. So I’m looking for those kinds of commonalities, and I’m also trying to analyze the traits that cut across those different industries.
In terms of my writing style, I’ve always been very analytical in the way I cover things so even in the tech blogging world, which I was a part of with ReadWriteWeb. So it was less news focused and more how does this news impact society and how we actually consume these technologies.
So that’s what I’m mostly trying to do with Cybercultural as well, not just look at what’s the latest Netflix feature to come out or what’s Apple doing today with music. It’s more, how is this actually changing how we consume music or TV or whatever, and looking for those commonalities across the industries that both consumers and producers can learn from.
I’m wondering if experimentation or the ability to iterate and validate quickly is something that has bearing on what you’re producing now or should have a bearing on the cultural industry?
With technology in general, things change so fast, and new kind of paradigms come along so frequently that you always have to have that mindset, where you are trying to figure out how people are using new things or new technologies. And from that perspective, like experimenting, whether it’s from a data perspective or just trying to figure things out as you’re writing them and as you’re talking to people in the industry has always been really important to what I do.
So with ReadWriteWeb, when it started, it was very much a time of experimentation at that point, because that was after the dot com boom and bust, but it was before this thing called web 2.0 emerged so it was an in between period, and there was a lot of experimentation happening. Actually what I found with ReadWriteWeb is that a lot of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were actually very early readers of ReadWriteWeb. I was talking to those people, and they were commenting on my blog, and I was commenting on their blogs really early on. That was a really important part of how ReadWriteWeb evolved over time.
And similarly with Cybercultural, I’m aiming to connect with those people in the cultural industries, particularly digital professionals, and trying to figure out how they’re adapting to the sea change that’s happening. Where Alpha would come in for me is it’s really important to know how normal people, are using all these streaming technologies and so on. By actually doing these tests I’ve found the early stages to be really valuable because it gives me understanding of how normal people are using these technologies and not just professionals, digital professionals like myself. So that’s been fascinating too.
Switching gears a little, what is something that you think our future needs more of and then what is something that you think our future needs less of?
I’ll try and keep it to the cultural industries which I cover, but I think in general, they need more information about how people are consuming this stuff because the problem at the moment is that companies like Apple and Amazon and Netflix, they’re very opaque in terms of how consumers are actually using their products. So we don’t know a lot about actual streaming habits of Netflix consumers or Spotify consumers because those companies keep their data very close to their chest. I would love for things to become a bit more open in terms of the big tech companies actually releasing data about the individual, but also patterns of consumer data in general. I’d love to see that happen.
In terms of what the future needs less of, the whole social media era currently, I feel is still not optimal for our society. It’s very much driven by ego. I sometimes call social media selfish media because it’s all about your own ego and stroking that. I don’t feel like there’s enough actually true listening happening on social media. It’s all about your opinions and what you think of something, and it’s all black and white.
So I hope that lessens over time, and things become a bit more social, and people listen to each other and not just talk over each other. That’s something I hope for the future of digital technology anyway, that it becomes less selfish and more social and sharing and so on. I feel like the term sharing gets bandied about a lot, but it’s kind of a misnomer. People are just sharing their own opinions, but they’re not listening to other people’s opinions.
What role do you feel Cybercultural has in building the future?
I’d love to think that Cybercultural will help people understand the digital transformation of the cultural industries, and also I hope to uncover some of that data that people don’t have right now from the likes of Netflix and Spotify. And things have just changed so much. I don’t think we as a society really understand the implications of, for example, the shift to streaming culture. So what I hope to do with Cybercultural over the years is to be a place where people can come to understand that shift and understand that cultural change. And also to really dig into what’s next in terms of what’s going to happen to the cultural industries. Nobody really knows of course, but as I keep doing this newsletter, I hope to deepen my own knowledge about digital technology and how it impacts the cultural industries and use that knowledge to try and predict what’s going to happen next or where the trends are taking us.
So who do feel in the last six months has been the biggest champion for either you personally or for your work?
Well it’s actually one of the readers that I got early on, a guy called Jonathan Gardner who works for TuneCore. I wrote a particular email about music distribution, and it turned out he was one of the early subscribers to Cybercultural so he reached out to me via email and said, “I really enjoyed that particular article,” and that’s the kind of connection I was hoping to make with Cybercultural as I made in the early days with ReadWriteWeb with people actually doing this stuff. And so Jonathan’s been a big supporter of Cybercultural. Since then, he’s retweeted stuff, and he was one of the first people to actually subscribe. I’ve just turned on paid subscriptions, so I’m really grateful to him for that. I’d love to reach thousands more people like Jonathan.
At Alpha, we search for catalytic opportunities to support founders in their efforts to build the future. How can this community be better champions for you? What are ways that we can really be champions of your work?
When you’re starting a new brand, a new media brand, it’s always really difficult to get the initial traction. Any and all sort of amplification on social helps as I ramp it up, and also just meeting other people through the initial people that start reading you is always important as well. Like Jonathan’s introduced me to various people, It’s all about sort of slowly building out the network as you build up the media brand. It’s still very early stages for Cybercultural, but that’s part of the thing that I enjoy the most about starting something new is that initial period when you’re meeting new people and understanding how they work and how you can help them do their job better.
If you feel we can lend our support the work you’re doing, please reach out to Aaron Davis, Alpha’s Head of Community, at firstname.lastname@example.org.