The Power of Perspective: Evan Shapiro’s Media Universe Map Explained at SXSW

Since August of 2020, Cartographer Evan Shapiro has been creating a constellation of data to help us visualize and comprehend our current Media Universe. 

“I teach about the media universe in real time,” the mapmaker explained to the crowd at SXSW

As a university professor, Shapiro was inspired to create a graphic of media business, scaling “all the combattants in the war for your attention and the resources that they bring to this battle.”

The result is a snapshot of an expanding and evolving communications cosmos.

From Accenture to AT&T, Disney+, NVIDIA to Netflix, OnlyFans to Twitter or Roblox… each planet in Shapiro’s galaxy represents a player competing for the same subscribers, consumers and media dollars across platforms and mediums. 

Depending on media news, economics and mergers each week, these planets “affect the vibrancy and gravitational pull of the entire ecosystem.”  

When looking at this data viz on a map, what immediately becomes apparent, in terms of relative size to the rest of the universe, is what its creator calls the ‘Trillion Dollar Death Stars.’ That is: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and the company formerly known as Facebook. 

The Death Stars, clearly, take up ample space in his Universe. The industry is well aware of their powers. 

But Shapiro believes that fortunes are changing. 

Too big to fail?

In 2022, for the first time since Shapiro began working on his map, all of the Trillion Dollar Death Stars have gotten smaller in Q1. 

“It’s been disaster land, man, all major stock is down,” he told the SXSW crowd, citing Apple’s recent losing streak. “They’ve lost [$400 billion], which is twice Netflix’s total value since the beginning of the year and, by the way, it doesn’t bother them.”

But Shapiro doesn’t believe that the relative scale of these players will automatically make them incumbent winners of the media wars. Just look at Meta, he said: a year ago it was worth a trillion dollars but has since lost half of its market cap. 

“It has [failed]. It’s done. Either they will be broken by the government or break up themselves. Their path is not sustainable unless they find a subscription product, which is why they are moving into the metaverse so heavily.” 

Not to mention all the new planets that are beginning to appear: 

Gaming, Web3 and open-source omniverse companies are currently generating three to four times more than the movie generation on the map, he noted. 

But “if I were to pick one survivor from traditional media, it would be Disney,” said Shapiro, since “they are the most diverse of the OG media companies” and don’t need to sell subscriptions to survive. 

Disney’s diversification — from “[owning] Winnie the f***ing Pooh” to a recent, Hotstar bid for rights to India’s Premier Cricket League (which is worth as much as the NHL) — is central to their influence and staying power, he said.  

Ultimately, “size matters. [Death Stars] can invest… in a way that Netflix can’t because they have other businesses that aren’t directly related to things that you think this map is about.”

4 trends changing the Media Universe 

Shapiro identified four shifts that will change the face of his map over the next five years. 

1. Up first, of course, are the Death Stars. 

“Everything that happens on this map will either be something that they do or a reaction to the things that they do,” said Shapiro. 

Some examples: Apple controls 60% of app sales on the app store in the United States, taking a piece of the subscriptions. Amazon just launched their own television set, which customers will likely buy off of… Amazon. “Not only are these companies influencing every one else on the map, they are touching everybody else on the map, too.”  

2. A second big driver is balance. 

“It’s not a tug-of-war, not a battle but a balance between advertising (single unit sales) or recurring revenue bundles (subscriptions),” said Shapiro. “It’s a ‘yes, and…’ Who can do the best mix of these two?” 

He has a feeling the winner will be Amazon. “They have the greatest subscription in the history of mankind,” he said, “[and] one thing that none of the other subscription video services have: churn proof. Churn f***ing proof. And the fastest growing ad platform on Earth.” 

Amazon may not have the greatest library of content but its marketing platform was built to sell things,” Shapiro observed. “They have the greatest subscription membership, flywheel and ongoing generator of revenue,” which allows the enterprise to experiment.

3. The third major shift is demographic dominance. 

Over the next five years, industry dominance will transfer from the Baby Boomers and Generation X to Generation Z, Gen Y and Gen A. Get ready for a brand new media era. 

Just look at Roblox, an online game creation system and platform that allows users to program and play games created by other users. “It’s not a game, it’s an arcade,” said Shapiro. “This is a completely Gen Z [and] Gen A driven product.” 

The way the next generations consume, what media they consume, and their place in the media industry is bound to transform it, said Shapiro, predicting that things will change dramatically as they take the helm. 

“[They will drive change not only as consumers but as] owners of companies, bosses and programming executives… Who gets to tell stories [is] going to be decided by two generations that we don’t understand that well.” 

4. Finally, the creator economy will be equal to corporate content. 

Who remembers when the battle was between broadcast versus cable? Television versus streaming? Today, Shapiro says, it’s about “corporate content versus creator content.”

“At the end of five years, the creator economy will be seen on equal footing as corporate content, as streaming now is to television,” he predicted. 

The difference between Web2 and Web3 is, essentially, that more money goes to the artist, he added, which is why creator platforms are growing: Think of Patreon. Substack. OnlyFans. TikTok. NFTs… 

“Last year, 2021, was the first year that you could make a middle class living in the creator economy,” he added. “It used to be that the top 1% made any kind of f***ing money and everyone else made nothing but the platform made money because you are the product.”

More recently, he said, podcasting comedians like Tim Dillon and TikTok creatives like @charlidamelio are becoming multi-hyphenated millionaires. “Right now we’re bifurcating into corporate content and creator content and it will be relatively soon, equal channels… you won’t necessarily only do one as a consumer or an artist.” 

So what’s the best way to get into the creator economy? 

“The key is to find your best lane and understand how those platforms work, study them and treat them like a business,” said Shapiro. “What you have to do in order to survive is to become CEO of your own stuff. That means looking at your art as a business and looking at the channels of distribution that make the most sense.”

Laura Beeston
Laura Beeston is a writer, editor and content strategist from Winnipeg. In 10+ years of media making, she's worked on a variety of projects but was notably a breaking news reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star, and an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail. Since 2017, she's worked as multimedia content producer and is a media advisor and mentor at The Link.
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