Category Archives: theory

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.

The useful convergence of data

I have only one prediction for 2008. I think we’re finally about to see the useful combination of the 4 W’s – Who, What, Where, and When.

Marc Davis has done some interesting research in this area at Yahoo!, and Bradley Horowitz articulated how he sees the future of this space unfolding in a BBC article in June ’07:

“We do a great job as a culture of “when”. Using GMT I can say this particular moment in time and we have a great consensus about what that means…We also do a very good job of “where” – with GPS we have latitude and longitude and can specify a precise location on the planet…The remaining two Ws – we are not doing a great job of.”

I’d argue that the social networks are now really honing in on “who”, and despite having few open standards for “what” data (other than UPC) there is no shortage of “what” data amongst all the “what” providers. Every product vendor has their own version of a product identifier or serial number (such as Amazon’s ASIN, for example).

We’ve seen a lot of online services solving problems in these areas either by isolating specific pieces of data or combining the data in specific ways. But nobody has yet integrated all 4 in a meaningful way.


Jeff Jarvis’ insightful post on social airlines starts to show how these concepts might form in all kinds of markets. When you’re traveling it makes a lot of sense to tap into “who” data to create compelling experiences that will benefit everyone:

  • At the simplest level, we could connect while in the air to set up shared cab rides once we land, saving passengers a fortune.
  • We can ask our fellow passengers who live in or frequently visit a destination for their recommendations for restaurants, things to do, ways to get around.
  • We can play games.
  • What if you chose to fly on one airline vs. another because you knew and liked the people better? What if the airline’s brand became its passengers?
  • Imagine if on this onboard social network, you could find people you want to meet – people in the same business going to the same conference, people of similar interests, future husbands and wives – and you can rendezvous in the lounge.
  • The airline can set up an auction marketplace for at least some of the seats: What’s it worth for you to fly to Berlin next Wednesday?

Carrying the theme to retail markets, you can imagine that you will walk into H&M and discover that one of your first-degree contacts recently bought the same shirt you were about to purchase. You buy a different one instead. Or people who usually buy the same hair conditioner as you at the Walgreen’s you’re in now are switching to a different hair conditioner this month. Though this wouldn’t help someone like me who has no hair to condition.

Similarly, you can imagine that marketing messages could actually become useful in addition to being relevant. If CostCo would tell me which of the products I often buy are on sale as I’m shopping, or which of the products I’m likely to need given what they know about how much I buy of what and when, then my loyalty there is going to shoot through the roof. They may even be able to identify that I’m likely buying milk elsewhere and give me a one-time coupon for CostCo milk.

Bradley sees it playing out on the phone, too:

“On my phone I see prices for a can of soup in my neighbourhood. It resolves not only that particular can of soup but knows who I am, where I am and where I live and helps me make an intelligent decision about whether or not it is a fair price.

It has to be transparent and it has to be easy because I am not going to invest a lot of effort or time to save 13 cents.”

It may be unrealistic to expect that this trend will explode in 2008, but I expect it to at least appear in a number of places and inspire future implementations as a result. What I’m sure we will see in 2008 is dramatic growth in the behind-the-scenes work that will make this happen, such as the development and customization of CRM-like systems.

Lots of companies have danced around these ideas for years, but I think the ideas and the technologies are finally ready to create something real, something very powerful.

Photo: SophieMuc

The problem with being popular (part 2)

One of the more interesting sciences, in my mind, is how information relevance is both determined, surfaced and then evolved.

In Fred Wilson’s recent Cautionary Techmeme Tale he argues that making news popular takes away its social context and therefore becomes meaningless. He found Techmeme more useful when its sources more closely resembled his network of friends:

“For years, I’ve been using curators to filter my web experience…Techmeme has been the killer social media curator for my world of tech blogs. Lore has it that it was created using Scoble’s OPML file. It doesn’t matter to me if that’s true or not, I love that story. Because my OPML file was unusable until I found Techmeme and after that I stopped reading feeds and started reading curated feeds.”

This feeds into a larger argument about why pop culture and the art of being or becoming popular can be a bad thing. Not long ago I was inspired by the movie “Good Night and Good Luck” to dive into this idea myself:

“The real problem with popularity-driven models is that they reduce both the breadth and depth of the sources, topics and viewpoints being expressed across a community. Popularity-driven models water down the value in those hard-to-find nuggets. They normalize coverage and create new power structures that interesting things have to fight through.”

This is exactly why personalization, recommendations and social media technologies really matter. They can solve this problem of creating conformist media consumption practices by creating relevance through networks of people rather than through networks of commercial institutions.

I haven’t used My Yahoo! as much as I’d like, but there is a simple function in it that I love which could ultimately create amazing benefits for people who want a human filter for the Internet. It’s called “Top Picks”.

“The Top Picks module automatically highlights stories from your page, based on the articles you have recently read on My Yahoo! The more stories you click on, the more you will see this module reflect your interests.”

Actually, the technology beneath it is not so ‘simple’ but the application of it here makes so much sense that it feels like it’s simple when you watch it work. It works by using implicit behaviors. I don’t have to tell it what I like. It learns.

If it could also show me what my social network is tapped into right now, then the experience would feel nearly complete.

Media researchers will note here that people need pop culture to feel connected to a greater whole. I believe that’s true, too. Television is an amazingly powerful community builder.

But I would gladly trade a powerful singular social voice tied together by networks of distribution ownership for a less unified but still loosely connected network of pop culture tied together by my personal activities and my social connections.

Is attention finite?

John Hagel explores the economics of attention and describes the issues for today’s business leaders:

“Attention economics starts with the observation that, as products and information proliferate, attention becomes the scarce resource … we each have only 24 hours in the day. Where we choose to allocate this attention will increasingly determine who creates economic value and who destroys economic value.”

He provides some insightful advice for an executive in the attention economy:

“The attention economy is surfacing around us today … it is not some distant future. As with most economic trends, those who spot them and act on them early are most likely to create significant value. Here are some early action items:

1) Explore the implications of attention scarcity for firm structure … I view attention scarcity as a key catalyst driving the unbundling and rebundling of firms that is occurring on a global scale
2) Master the management techniques required to increase return on attention, not only for customers but for employees and business partners as well
3) Create mechanisms to help customers and employees attract the attention they need to become more successful in their endeavors, especially in terms of their talent development.”

Hagel’s arguments are valid, but this view sounds a too narrowminded to me. He’s proposing a way to make tomorrow’s new business models backwards compatible with today’s business models.

The problem with discussing attention in economic terms, in my opinion, which is, by the way, completely uninformed by any kind of economic education, is this notion that attention is finite.

It’s true that time limits how many words I can read on a page, how many links I can click on in a browser, and how many billboards I will see in a day. In addition to time, the language, user interface and art of design as we know it limits what I can take in and digest.

But the fluidity of attention is limited more by the medium and the information therein than it is by the brain’s ability to absorb, interpret and output ideas. The brain has an amazing ability to abstract things, to alter viewpoints and understand them both on macro and micro levels. Depending on your perspective, ‘time’ can be as literal as the movement of shadows on the ground or as abstract as evolution of species.

Imagine describing to someone 100 years ago the idea that you could play hours and hours of new and interesting music from a personalized stream of songs produced by pros and amateurs alike from around the world that never repeats itself. Imagine describing to a teen as recently as 1990 that she could build a nearly infinite network of friends and interesting strangers and stay in touch with all of them almost all the time.

It’s as if attention is expanding because of better production methods, easier distribution mechanisms and deeper meaning in the information that gets produced and distributed. While discussing this with Cameron Marlow on the train this morning, he came up with the term “attention inflation” to describe this phenomenon. I like that.

Hagel is right about the most obvious approach to making money in this world. There will always be opportunities in the inefficiencies (or “friction” as edge economists say) in the way information is communicated.

We see this now in the way media properties charge advertisers a fee for the cost of reaching valuable eyeballs. But advertisers are forever chasing people to get their attention. They are always paying for the inefficiencies in the market. And media properties are motivated to retain inefficiencies in order to capitalize on that friction. This business model locks companies on both sides into the status quo.

The opportunity, on the other hand, is vast for those who are able to alter our viewpoints and abstract the way we understand information. It’s about offering new methods to communicate and taking advantage of the methods that are already infinitely fluid. The supply of attention can be limitless when the barriers are removed and the right lubricant is applied.

I guess all I’m testing out here is the idea that the attention economy is not so much a supply and demand issue as much as it is an issue of abstraction. New markets form when people can expand their attention rather than allocate it. And the early movers to find abstract solutions to communication and information problems enjoy enormous benefits down the road when everyone else wants to hop on the ride.

Designing for the future

There’s a great presentation by William McDonough speaking at the Bioneers Conference back in 2000 about designing for the future available via Google Video (thanks Metafilter). He has a revolutionary perspective on how humanity needs to think about its current institutions and processes compared to the kind of future we’re currently designing for ourselves.

He talks about the design flaws in a society that doesn’t yet respect the rights of non human species or the future generations of life. The Endangered Species Act was passed only 30 years ago, the first acknowledgement that another species has a right to exist. He discusses the design flaws in the Industrial Revolution that led to man’s intent to constrain nature.

McDonough goes on to talk about waste and the idea of “throwing things away”. Such phrases and concepts will undoubtedly be challenged by our children who have to own the future waste problems today’s generations are creating for them. He asks how you would map the plutonian disposal locations buried deep below the earth’s surface today for generations thousands of years from now who will surely need to know where we put it.

Anyhow, this presentation really captured my imagination in several ways including the important question of what we are designing into our future world with today’s Internet innovations. What can we do today to at least mitigate if not correct the known errors in judgment made to date?

For example…

Social Decay
The tools of the Internet have enabled us to connect to other geographically diverse people in amazing ways at amazing speeds at low cost. In most cases, those connections are lighter and looser and less involved than the connections people create when spending time doing things together.

Are the lightweight connections on the Internet costing us time spent face-to-face? Are we isolating ourselves from the real world as we bury ourselves under the many media experiences surrounding us all the time? How can the Internet connect us more deeply and meaningfully to the people and the things that matter rather than distance us?

Information Classes
Knowledge is power. But the power of knowledge should never be used for subjugation.  Couldn’t we mitigate abuse of knowledge by giving everyone access to as much knowledge as they want to have?  Is Internet access a right on a global scale that should be protected for all? Should objective information such as independent journalism be not just a protected public service but a requirement for modern global society?

Energy Consumption


Photo: Fully Armed Vishnu

The power requirements needed to sustain all the web sites in the world are escalating. Are there other ways to power the Internet? Can computers and networks use less power and create less waste? Is it possible to have a entirely recyclable phone? More importantly, can they create power and reduce waste?

McDonough challenges traditional capitalism and government policy alike. He sees a triumverate forming where a “Bill of Responsibility” much like the “Bill of Rights” might reconstruct the incentives for making the world a better place. It’s not about creating efficiency but rather creating a design for growth.

The questions is, “What do you want to grow?”

Leadership lessons from China

There are some interesting leadership and management lessons from some of the Chinese manufacturing systems that can be applied at all levels of an organization to make it more innovation-friendly. The contrast between leading and managing may be subtle to some, but it’s hugely important in making a company capable of competing in the fast-paced Internet economy.

Not knowing the path to a particular outcome can be excruciating to someone who knows what they want. Managers find it much easier to make lists of things that add up to the sum of the final goal, and they like to put checkmarks next to all the items in the list as they are completed. This system never scales no matter how talented the manager is because that system is totally dependent on the manager.


Photo: Hocchuan

John Seely Brown and John Hagel examine how a network of motorcycle parts assemblers in China break traditional centralized management tactics to optimize for innovation in a paper called “Innovation blowback: Disruptive management practices from Asia.” In the Chinese city Chongquing a supplier-driven network of parts developers work together under the loose guidance of their customers rather than under the orders of assemply-line management:

“In contrast to more traditional, top-down approaches, the assemblers succeed not by preparing detailed design drawings of components and subsystems for their suppliers but by defining only a product’s key modules in rough design blueprints and specifying broad performance parameters, such as weight and size. The suppliers take collective responsibility for the detailed design of components and subsystems. Since they are free to iomprovise within broad limits, they have rapidly cut their costs and improved the quality of their products.”

As a manager, when you define what is to be done and how it is to be done, then you are setting the exact expectation of what is to be delivered. There is no room for exceeding expectations, only for failing to meet expectations. Your best-case scenario is that you will get what you asked for.

As a leader, on the other hand, when you set parameters for success, you let the contributors in the system share ownership of the outcome. This is participatory production which includes an important incentive for each individual contributor: pride. The outcome becomes a somewhat personal reflection of each contributor’s capabilities as a person.

There’s another interesting paper on the concept of peer production called Coases’ Penguin written by Yochai Benkler in 2002 that talks about the incentives that drive users of online media to contribute content to a web site such as Slashdot or Wikipedia. One of the interesting conclusions is that financial reward can sometimes have a negative effect on participation and collaboration:

“An act of love drastically changes meaning when one person offers the other money at its end, and a dinner party guest who will take out a checkbook at the end of dinner instead of bringing flowers or a bottle of wine at the beginning will likely never be invited again.”

John Battelle similarly points out that Google’s latest attempt to monetize peer production in online media may actually have the effect of degrading the overall quality of their ad network. As they provide ways for user-generated content (UGC) sites to kick earnings from AdSense back to content creators on those sites, they are inviting spam and click fraud at pennies in earnings per user at the expense of quality contributions.

“I’ve never seen UGC sites as the least bit driven by money. They are driven by pride, the desire to be first, reputation, whuffie. But dollars? That often screws it all up.”

Of course, pride won’t replace the need for salaries, but it can certainly make up for the margin pressure these particpatory production systems are putting on themselves. When the production process reduces waste, that savings will get passed on to the buyer before the profits get passed back to the creators. That’s how this Chinese network has stolen marketshare from the big motorcycle manufacturers like Honda and Yamaha.

“The average export price of Chinese models has dropped from $700 in the late 1990’s to under $200 in 2002. The impact on rivals has been brutal: Honda’s share of Vietnam’s motorcycle market, for instance, dropped from nearly 90 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2002.”

Of course, everyone in the Internet business would rather be in a position of growth than one of decline regardless of the profit margins. The way to put your company on the growth track and to stay competitive through innovation is likely based on these types of leadership principles rather than micromanaging your staff through every step of an unpredictable journey.

Media needs to reflect attention, not collect attention

The “Edge” economists generated a swirl of activity over the last couple of weeks inspired by an attention economy paper apparently written in 1997 and referenced by Esther Dyson in a WSJ article.


Photo: eva8

In this paper, Michael Goldhaber wrote about the inherent desire for and scarcity of ways to get attention. He talks about how mainstream media created demand for getting attention and that the Internet then created the means for getting attention. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking paper. It’s particularly interesting today since most media insiders have been focusing on ways people give attention.

Here’s one particularly good excerpt:

It is a very nice feeling to have respectful attention from everybody within earshot, no matter how many people that may include. We have a word to describe a very attentive audience, and that word is “enthralled.” A thrall is basically a slave. If, for instance, I should take it in my head to mention panda bears, you who are paying attention are forced to think “panda bears,” a thought you had no inkling would come up when you decided to listen to this talk. Now let me ask, how many of you, on hearing the word “panda” saw a glimpse of a panda in your imagination? Raise your hands, please. Thank you. … A ha.

What just happened? I had your attention and I was able to convert it into a physical action on some of your parts, raising your hands. It comes with the territory. That is part of the power that goes with having attention, a point I will have reason to return to. Right now, it should be evident that having your attention means that I have the power to bend your minds and your bodies to my will, within limits that in turn have to do with how good I am at enthralling you. This can be a remarkable power. When you have superb control over your own body, so that you can perform great athletic feats, it feels great; likewise, it feels good when your mind feels focused and powerful; how much more wonderful then to be able to have the minds and bodies of others at your disposal! On the rather rare occasions when I have felt I was holding an audience “in the palm of my hand, hanging on my every word,” I have very much enjoyed the feeling, and of course others who have felt the same have reported their feelings in the same terms. The elation is independent of what you happen to be talking about, even if it is to decry something you think is horrible.

Several different bloggers have fleshed out intersesting perspectives on this topic including John Hagel, Umair Haque, Esther Dyson, Scott Karp, Nick Carr and Andrew Keen.

One of the important lessons from this discussion is for media companies to think of themselves more like a mirror. If online media brands can successfully help their customers to get attention then they will win.

That doesn’t mean you should resurrect that old message board system you trashed or stopped linking to. It means that you need to stop pushing content out and start introducing your online audience to each other.

After reading things like this I start wondering whether publishers should stop creating content completely. The efficiencies of leveraging an online media brand merely as a way to conduct 1-1, 1-many, and many-many conversations only amongst the audience itself seem intuitively more powerful and future-proof than almost any form of broadcasting we have today.

And it probably also means throwing out terms like “audience” in your corporate lexicon unless you are referring to the “audience” of one of your customers. This model suggests that media brands don’t have anyone listening to them. The sites’ “users” or “visitors” are interacting with each other instead…competing for attention amongst each other.

How many medium to large-sized publishers will be necessary when a few figure out how to enable people to get more attention? I would bet all of the teen magazines are panicking in the big shadow of MySpace’s market share. It suddenly feels like there’s another wave of disintermediation on the horizon, this time aimed squarely at publishers who are slow to shift gears.