Hoarders and Old/New Business Models

I came across Hoarders on Hulu recently, then started watching it commercial-free on Netflix, and it started me thinking about old/new business models and hoarding.

Mike Masnick, and other writers at the blog TechDirt, have been methodically analyzing the disintegration of old media business models and the emergence of new (or renewed) ones.  One point Masnick makes repeatedly is that making digital copies has a near zero marginal cost. That is, unlike making copies of DVDs or CDs or books or films where there are physical media costs and transportation costs, etc., digital media can be copied (and distributed) for costs near or at free. (Copying and distribution costs are separate from production costs, of course.)

This fact has been a difficult one for legacy media industries to embrace. The dominant oligopolists of film, music, television and print media had built media empires based on a scarcity model. To access media, consumers had to purchase objects or pay for access during limited windows of availability. As we know, most of the profits from these business models redounded to those controlling distribution, rather than the producers (or creators) of the media. Digital networking, however, undermines this economics of scarcity, not to mention the ability of any one entity to control distribution.

So, legacy media industries call unauthorized digital sharing “piracy” to defend their legacy distribution systems instead of finding ways to exploit the “economies of abundance” that cheap/free distribution might provide them. In places, industry resistance to building new business models  has softened in the face of growing awareness that consumers logically resist paying legacy prices for digital files with zero marginal cost.

However, large swaths of the media industries are still in denial, still demanding legacy prices for digital products, still enraged that consumers don’t “value” media products highly enough to pay legacy prices. (It is worth reading all of Masnick’s posts about the difference between “value” and “price.”)

Which brings me to the hoarders. One theme many of the hoarders repeat is that their stuff has value. They can’t throw it out because it is valuable to them or to someone somewhere. As the camera pans the mounds of stuff crammed up to ceilings, a viewer can congratulate herself for believing that all that stuff has little or no value: the viewer knows better than the hoarder, who is delusional. Yet, much of the stuff the hoarders kept did once have value (it cost them money perhaps), or some of the stuff embodies emotions they know no other way of expressing or managing. I find myself empathizing with the hoarders’ delusions of value: if they say it is valuable to them, who is to say it is not?

But the hoarders can’t manage the stuff; their houses are about to collapse around them; their health is compromised. Many hoarders risk the health of their families in order to keep their stuff: they value the stuff more than their families.They must face their delusions of value and begin to discard. We watch some of the hoarders break down in tears (the necessary trope of all reality TV) as they resist the total re-valuation of their stuff. They often yell at the psychologist/movers/family members helping them, expressing betrayal.

I don’t intend to psychologize those media industry folks who resist new business models as hoarders! But the very human emotions we can see in Hoarders–delusion, resistance, need, fear–has helped me understand the basic human emotions that prevent many of us from adapting to threatening changes, including new business models.

If legacy media industries could let go of their attachment to legacy formats (such as CDs and other objects) as a measure of their success, if they could start throwing out all the stuff that used to be valuable but is no more, if they could stop suing customers  for taking all their “valuable” stuff, if they could learn to create value in new ways from the lowered costs of digital distribution, if they could realize that they have to throw things out to keep their houses from falling down and to keep their customers from fleeing, if they could learn to value their relationships to their customers more than they value those now-less-valuable objects–if, in other words, they could take some lessons from Hoarders and rethink their theories of value, well, they might be able to build better business models!

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