Category Archives: mainstream media

Calling your web site a ‘property’ deprives it of something bigger

BBC offered another history of London documentary the other night, a sort of people’s perspective on how the character of the city has changed over time, obviously inspired by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.

Some of the sequences were interesting to me particularly as a foreigner – the gentrification of Islington, the anarchist squatters in Camden, the urbanization of the Docklands, etc.  – a running theme of haves vs have-nots.

It’s one of a collection of things inspiring me recently including a book called ‘The Return of the Public‘ by Dan Hind, a sort of extension to the Dewey v Lippman debates, what’s going on with n0tice, such as Sarah Hartley’s adaptation for it called Protest Near You and the dispatch-o-rama hack, and, of course, the Olympics.

I’m becoming reinvigorated and more bullish on where collective action can take us.

At a more macro level these things remind me of the need to challenge the many human constructs and institutions that are reflections of the natural desire to claim things and own them.

Why is it so difficult to embrace a more ‘share and share alike’ attitude?  This is as true for children and their toys as it is for governments and their policies.

The bigger concern for me, of course, is the future of the Internet and how media and journalism thrive and evolve there.

Despite attempts by its founders to shape the Internet so it can’t be owned and controlled, there are many who have tried to change that both intentionally and unwittingly, occasionally with considerable success.

How does this happen?

We’re all complicit.  We buy a domain. We then own it and build a web site on it. That “property” then becomes a thing we use to make money.  We fight to get people there and sell them things when they arrive.  It’s the Internet-as-retailer or Internet-as-distributor view of the world.

That’s how business on the Internet works…or is it?

While many have made that model work for them, it’s my belief that the property model is never going to be as important or meaningful or possibly as lucrative as the platform or service model over time. More specifically, I’m talking about generative media networks.

Here are a few different ways of visualizing this shift in perspective (more):

Even if it works commercially, the property model is always going to be in conflict with the Internet-as-public-utility view of the world.

Much like Britain’s privately owned public spaces issue, many worry that the Internet-as-public-utility will be ruined or, worse, taken from us over time by commercial and government interests.

Playing a zero sum game like that turns everyone and everything into a threat.  Companies can be very effective at fighting and defending their interests even if the people within those companies mean well.

I’m an optimist in this regard.  There may be a pendulum that swings between “own” and “share”, and there are always going to be fights to secure public spaces.  But you can’t put the Internet genie back in the bottle.  And even if you could it would appear somewhere else in another form just as quickly…in some ways it already has.

The smart money, in my mind, is where many interests are joined up regardless of their individual goals, embracing the existence of each other in order to benefit from each other’s successes.

The answer is about cooperation, co-dependency, mutualisation, openness, etc.

We think about this a lot at the Guardian. I recently wrote about how it applies to the recent Twitter issues here. And this presentation by Chris Thorpe below from back in 2009 on how to apply it to the news business is wonderful:

Of course, Alan Rusbridger’s description of a mutualised newspaper in this video is still one of the strongest visions I’ve heard for a collaborative approach to media.

The possibility of collective action at such an incredible scale is what makes the Internet so great.  If we can focus on making collective activities more fruitful for everyone then our problems will become less about haves and have-nots and more about ensuring that everyone participates.

That won’t be an easy thing to tackle, but it would be a great problem to have.

Gatekeepers need to stop calling themselves gatekeepers

Time business columnist Justin Fox questioned the success of the new media methods in a recent post “The reign of the enthusiasts“.

He suggests the algorithms that proudly surface the deep dark corners of the Internet are actually just self-referential popularity contests. When searching for his name Justin found that the articles he’s written that are likely most influential in the real world fail to rank higher than the articles he’s written which attracted the most link love from media-obsessed blogger types, like myself.

“There are web2topians out there–Battelle and my friend Matt McAlister immediately spring to mind–who are convinced that the Googles (and Diggs and del.icio.uses and Amazons and Last.fms) of the future will do a vastly better job of steering people to what they want, such a good job that most of the gatekeepers of the current media universe will prove wholly extraneous.”

This isn’t the first time someone has accused me of being a Web 2.0 blogger. Coincidentally, the same day Justin posted this, I was mocked by a local construction worker waiting for the bus with his buddies as I passed on my way to the office. He shouted to nobody in particular,

“Man, you know what I hate? Dotcommers.” He watched me walk by stonefaced and waited for a response. The guys standing around him turned to look. Unsure still, he blurted out, “Architects, too. Hate all of them.” He got the laugh he was looking for.

Jeez, am I that boring? Or that obvious and annoying? (Please don’t say anything. I think I know the answer.)

Anyhow, Justin’s question is top-of-mind for a lot of people in the media business. Where I disagree with him and the wisdom of the media industry crowd is on the notion of “gatekeepers” or rather the need for them at all.

Perhaps the most important part of being successful in media is distribution, and the reason we’re asking what the role of the gatekeeper is today is because the Internet has disintermediated the media distribution models that helped them become gatekeepers in the first place.

Online search changed the way people access relevant information, and those who once thought of themselves as gatekeepers suddenly found themselves at the mercy of the link police, the new gatekeepers, the search engines.

Yet, Justin’s explanation of the weakness of Google’s algorithm is exactly what I think many people who get mocked for their trendy glasses, old man sport coats, carefully orchestrated facial hair events, designer shoes and man purses (I don’t have a man purse) all see improving with the introduction of explicit and implicit human data into the media distribution model. The act of hyperlinking to a web page is not a strong enough currency to hold together a market of information as big as the Internet has become in recent years. It’s a false economy.

But the link currency opened the door to the idea of using behavior to help people find things. I love Last.fm not just for the music it recommends to me but because it proves this to be true. The Internet is made of people, people with a wide range of knowledge, tastes, and interests.

Now, there will always be a role for experts, and there are many cases where being an expert is not just subjective. Experts are hugely influential on the Internet as they are in other media. But I don’t see that a gatekeeper is an expert by definition.

There will also always be a role for enablers. Good enablers are often community builders who understand the rhythms of human psychology and emotion. Henry Luce was such a man, and I think he might have been a very successful web2topian today.

If those who call themselves “gatekeepers” want to share their expertise in valuable ways, then they will need to understand how the role of human data helps with distribution of that expertise. If those who aim to be enablers of communities want to be relevant, they will find ways to do that in many of the social technologies that have proven successful in this new world.

Similarly, if the people Justin affectionately refers to as web2topians appear smug, glib or arrogant when talking about media, then they are only doing themselves and everyone in the business a disservice. Gatekeepers know better than anyone that expertise does not by definition make you important. That’s a lesson the Internet generation will learn the hard way when someday they become irrelevant, too, I’m sure.

Are big product launches necessary?

A commenter in Mark Glaser’s recent post on MediaShift about the USA Today redesign sheds light on a problem that Internet companies seem to struggle with a lot.

“I think there may be a lesson to be learned in how to roll these things out. Most of the problems people are having are usability issues that it is nearly impossible for designers/developers who are in the weeds to notice.”

Similarly, Scott Karp asked the right question:

“Could it be that it’s really the social media revolutionaries who “don’t get it” when they assume that what the people want is to rise up against the media autocracy and take control, when in fact what most people want is to get high quality information from a reliable source?”

Unfortunately, even if you do the user research the recommendations of the studies often don’t fit into tight product release deadlines. And the studies often just support product direction rather than fully investigate a user need.

But the problem isn’t the research, it’s the product roadmap. In order to deliver a big punch in the market and cut through the noise, you need to be bold. And big changes that get noticed by big audiences require a lot of planning and complicated scheduling. Big changes are expensive on many levels.

But do you really need a big punch?

Most of my favorite online services tend to evolve organically as if responding to the way people are using the tools. Last.fm, for example, subtely rolls out new features that can occassionally have a significant impact on my usage. They had a pretty crappy web-based player for a long time. Of course, they upgraded it, as I knew they would, and I found it when it was relevant for me to look for it. There’s no amount of marketing they could have done to make me upgrade, and if they had done heavy marketing I might have actually been annoyed with them and considered a competitor.

The online media market is way too fickle to annoy your loyal customers.

But what about reaching new customers? Subtelty won’t win market share.

Admittedly, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, but the lessons of the web services market can be instructive. When you empower people to build businesses (or audiences) with your core offering, then you create a multiplier effect and reach all kinds of markets that you might never reach otherwise.

Winning market share in online media can happen by giving people the ability to distribute your offering for you, to create loyal customers for you out of their own customers, to build their own buzz for your product because they have an incentive for it to succeed.

Building the kind of passion required for a distributed customer model like this will never come from big bang marketing. It comes from fostering trustworthy relationships, establishing meaningful brands, proving tangible value, and responding quickly to market changes.

It’s not about noise. It’s about relationships.

I tend to agree with most online media insiders who appreciate the conceptual breakthrough for USA Today online and the balls to act on it, but I would be surprised if any of the positive comments in the blogosphere came from USA Today readers. And if USA Today damaged their relationship with their readers with this redesign, then they have made an incredibly costly mistake.

Online services need to roll out important new features constantly. But the days of hitting the market hard with a new product launch are fading. It works occassionally for major releases of things that are really new and require a reeducation of the market, like the iPhone. But fewer and fewer things fit into that category.

At the risk of invalidating everything I’ve said here by quoting a man who’s social and political beliefs go against just about everything I believe, Eric S. Raymond’sThe Cathedral and the Bazaar” included many astute observations about the way Linux development was able to scale so efficiently. Among the lessons is the classic “Release early and often” mantra:

“In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are tricky, insidious, deep phenomena. It takes months of scrutiny by a dedicated few to develop confidence that you’ve winkled them all out. Thus the long release intervals, and the inevitable disappointment when long-awaited releases are not perfect.

In the bazaar view, on the other hand, you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena…or, at least, that they turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release. Accordingly you release often in order to get more corrections, and as a beneficial side effect you have less to lose if an occasional botch gets out the door.”

Product Managers and Marketers need to bake these concepts into their thinking as well or risk missing the wider opportunity, the ultimate in marketing and distribution efficiency — customers as partners.

Photos: marble2, ccarlstead

Do you want my clicks or my attention?

I’ve been a believer for a long time that the magazine business is best-suited amongst the “old” media markets to embrace and extend the online media world successfully. They understand communities. They understand niche content. And they get targeted advertising. They intuitively understand some of the hardest things to get right.

But watching eWeek handle the recent IntelliTXT controversy (more here from Paul Conley and here from Jason Calacanis) reminds me why there are newcomers in every market nearly every day displacing the magazine incumbant in that space.

RollingStone is kicking itself while MySpace displaces everything they once were. It continues to pain ZiffDavis and IDG every day that CNet and Slashdot control more and more of their once-dominant market positions. Everyone who was working at Time Inc. while Yahoo! rose to power is embarrassed every time they check their email.

Instead of embracing the Internet, the magazine businesses, particularly niche publications, choose to hide under their old business models. Then each time a Digg or a BoingBoing or the next new media site screams across the network, the internal fingerpointing and backroom politics escalate. And while everyone plots the next move, key thought leaders inside the company head elsewhere for employment.

There was a collective ‘ouch’ when InfoWorld lost Jon Udell to Microsoft.

I’m surprised that the trade associations are only just now picking up on things like this and the damage they cause. Martha Spizziri of the ASPBE takes a first pass at what IntelliTXT means:

“…at best the IntelliTXT model is annoying–in the same way that even editorial links can be annoying when the text is vague. In both cases, you aren’t really sure what kind of information you’ll get if you click.”

The American Business Media, on the other hand, has chosen not to take a side. In fact, they’ve chosen eWeek as a Neal Award finalist instead. B2B media watchdog Paul Conley explains why that’s a bad idea:

“it’s beyond me why the screening judges at ABM would think that a site that embarrasses the entire world of B2B journalism should be considered a symbol of what is best in B2B journalism.”

And Bill Mickey at Folio faults eWeek for being desperate:

“I’ve written about this before, as has Conley, who this time suggests that pressures stemming from owner Willis Stein’s efforts to sell Ziff Davis have resulted in a revenue-at-all-costs Web site strategy.”

Its obvious to everyone that print is struggling. And the stories of a market in turmoil only get more critical when a leader like eWeek sells out its last asset…the words on its pages.

Look, relevant advertising is great. It works for everyone in the media ecosystem. But when credibility is the elephant in the room, you can’t disrespect your customers. It’s as if your own content is getting in the way of what you want from people.

Do you want my clicks or my attention? If you capture my click, you’ll have a dollar today. If you capture my attention, you’ll have a customer tomorrow.

My personal blogger hierarchy

It’s hard to resist adding my $0.02 in a debate about blogging like the one Nick Carr started this week with his post on The Great Unread, the story of the royal hierarchy in the blogosphere:

“As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.”

It’s definitely worth a read if you blog. If you don’t, it’s more echo chamber music, as is this post.

I suspect that the idea of the blogosphere and the blog elite is a temporary one. The blogger hierarchy does not make the substance of a post any more or less valuable. Ultimately, that value is completely up to me, not some shallow power structure.

I’m hoping that instead of reinforcing global hiearchical power structures that things like recommendation engines, personalization services, syndication and filtering algorithms will weed out the crap and bubble up what matters to me, empowering me to own my media experience.

Popular blogs, podcasts and videos will become just a sidebar to my daily intake when their relevance to my world is only tangential.

I respect what Jay Rosen says (and Nick, for that matter), but his posts are too long for me. I need the blogs I read regularly to filter out which of Jay’s posts are worth spending the time to read. I’m impressed not just by the quality of the posts Jeff Jarvis generates but also the volume. Again, I need an interestingness filter on Jeff’s posts to surface the ones that matter to me.

Yet all of Jay’s and Jeff’s influence on my thinking about journalism and media has no bearing whatsoever on the music I listen to, the basketball teams I follow or the technologies I find interesting.

What Nick rightly points out is that there will be an increasing tendency for people to publish for the sake of fame and fortune which will dilute the pool of interesting things out there. This is the popularity problem.

Perhaps I’m just optimistic. But it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll find technology answers to this issue, automatic ways to subvert wasteful power structures that may be forming in the world of personal media.

Someone call the conversation police

I find it a bit presumptuous that someone would try to end a discussion on a topic in the blogosphere or, for that matter, assume that they drive a conversation in the market.

In an attempt to stop people blabbing endlessly about bloggerism vs journalism, Steven Berlin Johnson redefined the 5 points of the debate, recapping Jay Rosen’s closing arguments on the topic from over a year ago. His post was a response to Nichalos Lehmann’s article Amateur Hour — Journalism without journalists in The New Yorker questioning the value of blogging:

“Jay Rosen tried to kill off this kind of discussion a year or two ago with his smart essay, Bloggers Versus Journalists Is Over, but obviously it didn’t stick. So let me propose a slightly more blunt approach.”

Similarly, it seems odd to me that Malcolm Gladwell has decided that blog commentary is merely derivitive of mainstream media conversation:

“Any form that consists, chiefly, of commentary and criticism is derivative. We need derivative media sources to help us make sense of what we learn from primary sources.

…although it maybe possible for some bloggers to think of their thoughts as rising, fully formed, from the blogosphere, it just ain’t so. Even people who do not think of themselves as being influenced by the agenda of traditional media actually are: they are simply influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by old media.”

He makes this statement in response to Chris Anderson of Long Tail fame (and Conde Nast’s Wired magazine). Chris used a comment Malcolm made to reinforce the point that mainstream media is not as powerful as it thinks it is:

“What we do has great value, but we no longer have a monopoly on leading the public conversation (not that we ever did, of course, but it was easier to delude ourselves before). The blogosphere doesn’t need us to give them something to talk about. When we do what we do well and add new ideas, information and analysis, blogs can be our best friend, amplifying our reach many-fold. But when we don’t, the former audience is very happy to talk amongst itself.”

There’s a bit of chicken and egg here, as I’m not sure it’s clear whose work is derivitive of whose.

A good reporter is a story teller of other people’s experiences. Nothing in the Wall Street Journal happens because the Wall Street Journal said it did. A good media company like the Wall Street Journal is able to catalyze important events and thinking happening in interesting places into meaningful and valuable chunks with a consistent lens, and there’s no doubt the Wall Street Journal influences what people think about.

But that role in not exclusive, even when their coverage of a topic is considered the best in its class or costs a ton of money or takes a lot of research to get right.

The conversations the Wall Street Journal covers are reflections of conversations that in many cases started years prior, and it’s not until the topic reaches some kind of tipping point does the Wall Street Journal then translate it for their lens of the world.

I would never deny being influenced by mainstream media. But that’s more a result of the fact that I have shared experiences with people than because the influence is meaningful or relevant. In fact, it becomes less and less relevant the more my media experience diversifies.

I agree with Steven that this particular topic lacks the juice it used to have. Jay Rosen has done a brilliant job of turning the discourse into a cohesive string that matters and feels complete from my personal perspective and obviously for Steven’s.

But closure for us may also mean it’s time for some fresh perspective to alter the dialog or extend it in sensible ways for other people yet untouched by it or confirm the premise of the argument with more useful research.

The effects of disintermediating media are still unfolding, and I’m betting that leaders at most big media companies will get more clarity on how to deal with that problem from each other and the individuals they know at competing companies or even their neighbors than they will from reading about it in their own publications.