What people really want: film vs digital, longform vs shortform

26 Jan

Whereas Kodak has so far failed to adapt adequately, Fujifilm has transformed itself into a solidly profitable business, with a market capitalisation, even after a rough year, of some $12.6 billion to Kodak’s $220m. Why did these two firms fare so differently?

Both saw change coming. Larry Matteson, a former Kodak executive who now teaches at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business, recalls writing a report in 1979 detailing, fairly accurately, how different parts of the market would switch from film to digital, starting with government reconnaissance, then professional photography and finally the mass market, all by 2010. He was only a few years out.

Both firms realised that digital photography itself would not be very profitable. “Wise businesspeople concluded that it was best not to hurry to switch from making 70 cents on the dollar on film to maybe five cents at most in digital,” says Mr Matteson. But both firms had to adapt; Kodak was slower.

…Kodak sold cheap cameras and relied on customers buying lots of expensive film. (Just as Gillette makes money on the blades, not the razors.) That model obviously does not work with digital cameras. Still, Kodak did eventually build a hefty business out of digital cameras—but it lasted only a few years before camera phones scuppered it.

Kodak also failed to read emerging markets correctly. It hoped that the new Chinese middle class would buy lots of film. They did for a short while, but then decided that digital cameras were cooler. Many leap-frogged from no camera straight to a digital one.

The Last Kodak Moment


The article talks about the different corporate environments at the two companies as well as Kodak’s failure to diversify contributed to its eventual sinking, but at heart the problem seems to be simply that the company failed to realize what it was that consumers were really buying.

Most consumers are not after a high quality camera – they are after the shareable moment. Even when we all had physical photo albums the point was to show it to people and share memories, and that is an act that has moved online. That Kodak thought it could be a powerhouse in digital printing indicates how out of touch they are with what people want to use their technology for.


I came across a couple of rants (ironically online) about the pointless noise of social media and when I saw this analysis of Kodak and Fuji, I realized that Kodak fell into the same trap people fall into when they complain about how the internet has increased the proliferation of absolutely useless crap and mindless exhibitionism.

What these people don’t realize is that a tweet about the morning coffee is not really significant for its content. It’s the act that is the key – people are reaching out for a social connection, and as long as humans have this urge, social media will thrive. And it will thrive in shortform. Shorter attention spans may have something tangential to do with the rise of Twitter, but I suspect the real reason is that most people want short bursts of interaction that mimic conversation, not primarily one-sided broadcasts.

Before Web 2.0, the technology was not truly capable of enabling short real-time interactions that can be simultaneous targeted toward specific organizations and individuals yet public and therefore injected with the exciting potential of hearing a strange new voice from the back of the room. We wouldn’t make as many horror films as we do if we didn’t enjoy the buzz of this scary surprise factor. Now that tech has caught up, we are sowing our conversational oats everywhere, just like we’ve always wanted in our caveman hearts.

To focus on the content of individual messages is to miss the real draw and usefulness of Twitter: the ability to see in one place what the masses are thinking and chatting about, and that has been something we’ve been deeply interested since the beginning of it all because, lt’s face it, we are all motivated to eavesdrop on what other people are saying about us and figuring out where we stand in the social hierarchy. (Full disclosure: I favor evolutionary explanations.)


That the iPhone has been a boon to the mobile web is almost poetic. What you believe to be your LCD screen has a secret identity as a giant ear. What Apple has done is to put pretty packaging around what is quite possibly the most impressive eavesdropping device we’ve ever invented. (Can you believe you also hold that thing up to your ear? It’s like a conspiracy or something.) When you think about it that way, can you really blame people for becoming device-zombies? We like gossip a lot more than we like brains, I tell ya.

That Twitter doesn’t really have any competition gives it a viability that Livejournal or Moveable Type or WordPress never really had – every conversation is searchable in one place rather than over the entire scattered net. Google’s good, but not that good. And, given that each message is only 140 characters, searching Twitter feels more like overhearing conversations than doing research, which is what searching the longform net resembles. Not that there’s anything wrong with research, but let’s not kid ourselves. The existence of this post indicates which way I swing, but I can’t deny that on any given night, the number of people who prefer to sit in a cafe or bar and chat vastly outnumbers the number who sit down to hear hour-long talks.

Now, I suppose the number of people who sit in front of their TVs in fact outnumbers either of those, but then again TV production values exceed those of your average lecture or conversation (hat can we do to ensure that conversational production values will skyrocket in the next decade?) and your average working human will prefer relaxed passivity to many things in his end of day stressed out, sleep-deprived state. But that’s neither here nor there.


The world will not end because everyone sees what your neighbor’s kid did last night on Facebook. We are not getting stupider because we’re tweeting up a storm even if our brains are changing. As far as I can see, the world still runs despite our Twitter fixation. (Ask me again in ten years.) And, generally, the best thing to do before complaining about anything other than the complainers is to ask yourself if the train has reached its last stop. Is this the endpoint technology? (The answer is always no.) Is this situation unchangeable? (Um, never, no, how could that be?)

Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and what have you – all these things are simply a nutrient-poor substitutes for normal social ingestions. We still miss Ingredient X – the eye to eye and skin to skin contact, but we’re such social creatures that even a recluse like me will trade Ingredient X for the possibility of making contact with someone out of my pre-web broadcast range. This is how we’re wired. We like social bonding and we’ll try almost anything to get more of it.

5 Responses to “What people really want: film vs digital, longform vs shortform”

  1. loci 01/26/2012 at 5:35 pm #

    I’m not reading all that.

    • Jin 01/28/2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Well then that comment was a great use of your time!

  2. loci 01/30/2012 at 6:08 am #

    I did read it all, hence the joke.

    “We are not getting stupider because we’re tweeting up a storm”

  3. O 01/30/2012 at 11:52 am #

    “What these people don’t realize is that a tweet about the morning coffee is not really significant for its content. It’s the act that is the key – people are reaching out for a social connection, and as long as humans have this urge, social media will thrive”

    I disagree with your reasoning about people reaching out for social connection. Many people post tweets, instagram images, facebook status’ of their morning coffee or other mundane daily rituals because they want to feel a semblance of accomplishment of doing something, anything. Subsequently, they desire, even demand that it be recognized by their peers, in the form of retweets, reblogs, diggs, likes, etc. It’s like the kid who receives a trophy for JUST showing up to the game, instead of trying to compete, win, and earn that trophy.

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  1. The Digest – Sunday, January 29th, 2012 | LPV Magazine - 01/29/2012

    […] ranting about social media. But they often miss the point of both. Jin Zhu doesn’t though. In her post, she articulates why we’re so drawn to social media tools like Twitter. What these people don’t realize is that a tweet about the morning coffee is not really […]

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