What IS media, anyway?

What IS media, anyway?
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What is media? At Matter we ask ourselves this question a lot. Entrepreneurs ask us this question a lot. It’s led to fascinating discussions with our partners and mentors. It’s the question that comes up time and time again at the talks we give about what we do.

The answer is surprisingly elusive.

As the world’s only independent startup accelerator for early-stage media-focused ventures, we’re acutely aware that media means different things to different people. We know the verbs, we know what we believe media should do: inform, connect, and empower. As for the nouns that solve the needs represented by those verbs? We haven’t made up our minds about what those should be — but they should be enabled by new technologies.

It’s clear that media goes way beyond the confines of newspapers and television. It’s more than content creation, curation or consumption, but often contains aspects of them all. If you’ve ever heard our Managing Partner Corey Ford speak, you’ve probably heard one of his favorite conceptualizations of media, which comes from Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus: “Media is the connective tissue of society.”

That’s a great guiding principle, and helps us break away from creaky old definitions of media rooted in organizations that disseminate information to audiences in a top-down flow. The connective tissue of society is about networks, a peer-to-peer information transfer that defies hierarchy. It’s also quite a radical lens through which to view modern technology companies, as we do at Matter.

For instance, can we classify Airbnb as a media company because its users are creating content to market their homes to potential guests? What about Tinder? If online marketplaces are about connecting buyers and sellers, then is brokering a kind of media? Is Etsy a media company, or eBay? What about a payment platform like Venmo which has a social feed? And what about sites that enable collaboration? Is Slack a media company? Is Github?

Beyond our customized Facebook or Instagram feeds, or the chat bots that serve us up nuggets of news content, our relationship with “media” is profoundly personal. We decided to investigate some of those relationships within our own community, through a medium that hearkens back to a bygone era, when a great deal more media was physical:

It’s interesting to see how our entrepreneurs’ conceptualizations of media are refracted through their own ventures: Creative Action Network focuses on the people (e.g. artists and creatives) its platform empowers to make a sustainable living; for The History Project, media is inextricably linked with recording life and memory; and for data visualization startup Redivis, it’s about sharing knowledge and building surprising connections.

What does media mean to YOU?

Which companies do you see as non-traditional media organizations? Is there anything specific in your background or experience that’s made you look at media through a particular lens? Let us know in the comments!