‘Digital media’ evades easy definition, and so proper measurement

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By Maurice Smithdictionary

Define the term “digital media.”

Easy, right? It’s all about tablets and smartphones and the super-duper things we can do with them.

No, it’s all about the content that flows through and to these devices and many more. You know, apps and all that. Video…

Wrong. Digital media is an entire industry that defies definition because it is completely nebulous. It resides within the term “creative” yet it’s technical at the same time. It sits across many disciplines, from publishing to e-commerce.

Such is the debate I am grappling with right now. As chairman of the somewhat grandly-titled Industry Leadership Group on Digital Media in Scotland, I should know the answer to the definition question above in my sleep. Yes?

Well, actually no. As a group, we are attempting such definition at the moment. Or, more accurately, whenever two or more of us have any dialogue.

The group, which exists to advise the Scottish Government and its agencies about strategies to develop further the digital media sector, is drawn from industry and academia. It includes people from gaming, animation, online publishing, content development and so on.

Lately we have welcomed a few new members. They have come from the ranks of both local start-ups and big corporations with research interests in Scotland. For some, defining their relevance to the sector has been easy. For others, not so. For example, when does a conventional publisher of books become a member of the digital media? When it produces more e-books than printed ones? When it embraces online markets (and readers) as enthusiastically as traditional ones?

Will there ever be a place for a newspaper company in digital media, rather than just plain old media?

What on earth does a digital animation house have in common with any of the above?

Definition is key because in order to develop a supporting strategy, we need to know who is actually working in the industry, and what is the industry? Without that knowledge, it becomes impossible to measure.

One government body courted controversy when it hired a consultant to measure digital media. The answer came that basically there was no such sector.

Given that we claim that the industry employs tens of thousands of people and adds billions to the economy, this response was anything but welcome.

The source of debate is the way Britain classifies business. Here, a government agency called Companies House uses the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system that was first developed by the U.S. in 1937. We are all familiar with the general idea behind SIC codes: When you create a company, you register it under one of a range of descriptions, such as construction, engineering, retail trade and so on.

Back in 1937, there was no digital media sector. And even today, company registrars and others struggle with their own definitions. The consequence is that the sector is scattered across various SIC descriptions such as information technology, publishing, arts, newspapers and services.

The U.K. as a whole is struggling with the definitions. In Scotland, the official position is to use 2007 definitions of SIC codes, and apply them to the creative industries by using a percentage figure.

This was the basis of our group’s early strategy document, Digital Inspirations, which is now more than five years old.

In 2011, the U.K. government’s economic statistics made some changes to the assessment criteria, which achieved the effect of making the creative industries seem smaller.

A new consultation has recently finished and it will be interesting to see the results.

Overall, there seems to be consensus about the large and growing impact of digital media on our economies and in our everyday lives. Cities, regions and whole countries are staking a great deal of money and time into promoting themselves as creative hotspots, with all that entails in terms of academic investment, training and marketing.

London has Tech City, Manchester is marketing itself as Media City, and there are similar initiatives in Dublin, Berlin, Budapest and so on. In Scotland, we talk about a digital media triangle of activity between the cities of Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh.

In the U.S., New York City, Boston and LA all have huge claims to digital media status, as will Waterloo and Montreal in Canada.

A recent study by the charitable think-tank Nesta claimed that, by excluding certain software-related types of business, the U.K. government underestimates total employment in the creative industries or digital media sector by a staggering 997,500 jobs.

That’s a lot of people. By definition it implies that a lot of time and effort may be getting spent in the wrong direction when it comes to bolstering a very fast growing sector. Nesta argues that “significant numbers of new digital creative businesses in fact reside within this segment, reflecting an increasingly tight interconnection between content production and its digital interface.”

So how do we finally define digital media? Answers on a postcard, please.

Maurice Smith is a journalist, consultant and entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Image: Reverse Shot

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