Abu Dhabi – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has embarked on an ambitious project to make itself the possible centre of the media world. This week it is hosting the first ever Global Media congress, a three-day event that blends a full conference agenda with breakaway workshops and an exhibition of more than 140 exhibitors, all of which are expected to draw 10 000 registered media professionals when the congress closes on Thursday afternoon.
It is being hosted by Emirates state media agency WAM, a process that has been 18 months in the planning and execution, according to director general Mohammed Al Rayssi.
“There is a gap in the world, between East and West, the North and South, and it was important for us to create an opportunity for us all to come together, set aside our differences and talk about technology, our future as a media sector and to come together with new initiatives; new kinds of projects that we can do internationally.”
It’s an initiative that would not be a flash in the pan, he said, but instead an annual event combining conference, workshops and exhibitions. “We will continue doing this, we will continue learning from one another; already the next edition is scheduled for November 14 – 15 next year.”
The media landscape is changing dramatically, as Danish futurist Sofie Hvitved, the head of media at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, explained to delegates, saying the old adage that content was king was wrong; “your content is worthless without audience. Audience is king, relevance is king. The media cannot stay the way it is if it wants to stay relevant.”
She was disappointed, she said, by the level of innovation she had seen coming from media companies. Traditionally, planning for the future involved standing in the now, looking at the past and plotting a forward trajectory, but this was linear and produced one outcome, when the truth was that there were many futures; desired ones, preferred ones and possible ones.
“We are in the middle of tectonic changes in the media landscape; crypto is going down, big tech is getting smaller and the youth is leading the way.”
Many previously big media companies, such as Blockbuster, no longer existed, while Facebook was a lot smaller already this year than last.
“The world is changing and the world makes what you do irrelevant because you are not prepared to lean into (the change).”
New media users had different needs, they were “liquid consumers” with demands for context and seamless immersion. Their attention was fragmented and their trust in institutions declining. Media companies, Hvitved said, had to stop thinking of touch points in what they were creating for consumers and instead think of “trust points”.
The much heralded metaverse was more than “Meta” and one technology but rather a whole new direction. According to the latest survey by researchers McKinsey, by 2030 the average person would spend more than 6 hours a day online, more than half of all live events would be hosted on the metaverse and the value created would be $5 trillion.
The metaverse was a future of overlapping realities, not just virtual reality but the whole spectrum from physical to virtual, she said.
“Virtual is equally real, but the old people don’t understand this. Kids want skins for their digital avatars, we need to learn to navigate this. The future is already here but it is unequally distributed. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a much bigger player in this sphere than it already is, the question is how much content will be produced by AI and how much produced physically?”
The app Quillbot was a perfect example.
“I speak Danglish (a mixture of Danish and English), the app corrects and perfects how I write. AI can finish your stories for you. It can translate your stories seamlessly. AI will become part of your editorial team; it will be your new co-worker. What if 99% of the metaverse is created by AI in 10 years?” she asked.
Media owners, she said, had to adopt and invest in this new technology but with no guarantee of immediate returns on their investment (ROI). Any returns would be the harvesting of even more data from consumers, especially their emotional state and needs, allowing for the development of immersive advertising for them.
“The metaverse is an evolution, not a revolution. Don’t expect ROI now but have risk building capital, the real return is remaining relevant in the future. In times of change the learners will inherit the world while the learned will be equipped for a future that no longer exists.”
Australian futurist Dr Mark van Rijmenam warned that the metaverse could neither be ignored nor wished away, any more than social media could have been, quoting the legendary Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen who said “the next big thing always looks like a toy”.
“The metaverse is going to be a wild ride, it’s not gaming, VR or Web 3.0, but it can be all of them, a space where the physical and the digital world converge, with digital replicas of the physical world which you interact with.”
It was already happening; an example of metaverse 0.1, he said was the now ubiquitous MS Teams or Zoom meetings.
“The metaverse is not a fad or hype, it’s the immersive internet,” he said. “Phones will disappear in 10 years, along with tablets and laptops; you won’t make a conscious decision to go on because you will be already on the internet.”
The key concern, he said, was that the metaverse could not be centrally controlled, but had to be open, decentralised and interoperable with non-negotiable self-sovereignty, “where big tech doesn’t own you, but you own your identity and your reputation is personal, private, persistent, portable and protected”.
This was vital in a world where apps and platforms were not interoperable; unlike Gmail which could sent mail to any other platform, WhatsApp could only send to other users, while users wanting to leave Twitter for the decentralised Mastodon platform, could not port their identities with them but had to start afresh.
“We need to be able to move from one augmented world to the next,” Van Rijmenam said.
The current young users, Generation Z and Generation Alpha, were digital natives expecting an experience and this would drive the pace of change with media moving from 2D to 3D by the end of the decade with dramatic consequences for how we consume media, especially sport, while the rise of synthetic media created by AI would be increasingly prevalent.
“The metaverse requires a Gestalt shift, you either see a duck or a rabbit.”
* The inaugural Global Media Congress is being held in Abu Dhabi, UAE, from November 15 – 17
** Kevin Ritchie is a former newspaper editor turned media consultant who was in the UAE at the invitation of WAM, the organisers of the Global Media Congress.