Archive for ‘Technology’

Good Riddance to Tired Biz Memes

By , 23 February, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one thing that really raises my blood pressure, it’s people misusing the word “innovation” to describe any and all kinds of newfangled change. In the business journo world, that usually applies to PR representatives who call to tell me that their client’s new product/venture is innovative just by virtue of being new. There’s a subcategory of these people who think anything that uses the Internet is innovative by definition. But innovation is more than just a new way of conceptualizing; it’s that new concept applied, successfully, in the real world. A new idea that is unworkable, or turns into a bad idea on contact with reality, is not innovation.

BusinessWeek’s Innovation expert Bruce Nussbaum is normally pretty sound on this point. He called President Obama out early in the transition for conflating technology investments with “innovation.” But then he misapplied the innovation label to praise Secretary Hank Paulson when Paulson began flip-flopping between his initial plan to create a “bad bank” for bad assets and the British strategy to take big stakes in existing banks to help them deal with bad assets. Yes, Bruce is right to argue that innovators must have the freedom to change their minds and optimize their ideas as they learn more information; that is Design Strategy 101. But that’s not what was happening at Treasury: what had Paulson changing his mind was not new economic data, but the changing office politics of his department. Calling pillar-to-post behavior innovative cheapens the term.

No surprise then that Nussbaum now feels innovation is a dead concept, killed by its misapplication and “overuse.” His proposal for a new concept? “Transformation.” I like it because I think it carries the practical side of new ideas on its sleeve. Innovate is an intransitive verb, but transform is a transitive verb. You innovate, period but you transform something, which means the USE of the new idea is baked into the concept.

Meme cleanup may be the new meme these days: TechCrunch says it’s time to stop calling everything digital “Web 2.0.” I’m guilty of misuing that label; consider this post my promise to stop.

Apocalypse 17: Brownie points for experimentation

By , 15 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I posted earlier this week that one of the few upsides of this economy is the cover it provides for newsrooms to make a bunch of necessary changes that everyone has known about, and postponed, for the last decade or so. Why does a media holding company need to pay for a White House correspondent or a film reviewer for each of its papers or magazines, instead of just funding one such reporter whose content can appear in all their outlets? Why does a small town paper need to bother with national or global news at all, since readers the world over can now get access to international and national information online, and even without the web, since the local paper can get that content from the wires? In the digital economy, it makes even more sense for news outlets to focus niches of expertise and aggregate the rest from other sites. But it means a permanent downsizing of newsrooms and that’s hard to do when the rest of the economy is growing. Still, even now that editors and publishers are ready to make these cuts, no one has figured out quite how the smaller newsroom will make money. Which brings us to the second upside of a recession for media–the willingness to take risks that comes when there’s really nothing left to lose. There’ve been a few recent stories highlighting directions the media could take:

–Walter Isaacson says we could charge iTunes-style for individual digital articles, but Mike Kinsley says no one would pay for that (Note that he doesn’t have an alternative, really)
–the NYT says it might try charging for select and archived content again
–Fox has a new ad model that charges buyers more per ad, but reduces the number of ads sold in total so viewers will have less incentive to forward through the shorter commercial breaks
None of these is perfect, but I applaud anyone who is willing to head scratch a bit about devising a solution. That’s why I was so thrilled to speak a few days ago with Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. His hometown paper is on its last legs too, and Rep. McDermott has been inspired to try to save the American newspaper industry. His solution is the out-of-the-box idea no one IN media  really likes–that news just shouldn’t be a private sector enterprise to begin with, but a nonprofit venture funded either by the state or by charitable donations, or some combination of the two. McDermott is researching a bill for the House that would set up funds, akin to those that back NPR and PBS, to support nonprofit newspapers in American communities. Here’s what he had to say:

on newspapers as a public good: “I worry that we’re losing our democracy. I don’t know whether this is just generational, but if we lose newspapers [and] everyone is gonna get the news off the internet, then a whole slug of people is just off the game. If Jefferson was right and an educated electorate[is key], then you can’t have vast numbers of people without access. [Even if we expand access to broadband], you have to be more devoted to go in search of news on the web.”

on the downsides to digitization: “It used to be that Congress had roll call voting, and it took hours, and then they made it an electronic scoreboard, and now we can pass amendment in 15 minutes. Therefore we’re no longer inconveniencing people with new amendments, [which led to an] expansion of the number of those amendements that people insert. Now [there’s a] movement to vote from their offices. This isn’t a Congress, because Congress is a coming together. You can’t influence the opinion of others if you’re not in the same room. If I thought that investigative journalism was being preserved and just print costs were being cut, that would be fine. But the decision [about what to run online] is being made by accountants not professional editors.”

How much does news reporting really influence politics day-to-day?: “Without investigative reporting, I’m gonna get away with stuff. Gotta have somebody poking me in the eye with a sharp stick to find out what’s going on. Moreover, how are we gonna communicate with constituents? [The way things are going,] It’s all gonna be done by the president in uplifting (or not so uplifting) speeches? I just want to alert people to the change taking place—are we sure this is where we wanna be going?”

Is it the message or the medium?: “I get more engagement from constituents in web community meetings than I do in live ones, but I come from the city where every software maker has an office, the city which has highest reading and movie-going numbers per capita. I guess the way everybody twenty years younger than me is zipping things around on email, [it might be okay] if there was investigative journalism available on the web. “I myself read papers from Lebanon and India online, and I do my own winnowing process, and I have people that do it for me. Managing information has become such a process and many people have just given up or can’t afford to do it.”

I have a few bones to pick with Rep. McDermott’s argument, but I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’d like to hear your takes first: is the notion of the news media as a private sector, for-profit enterprise fundamentally flawed or eternally doomed? are there downsides to state-subsidized media? could the NPR model ever translate to print? is it more logical to bankroll transitions to digitization or prop up the older technologies? If there’s any way to test the value of new media, it’s by sounding out some of these tough questions right here.

Not everyone can be Google

By , 1 February, 2009, 1 Comment

You’d think the above was a fairly simple statement, but apparently Jeff Jarvis, big shot of media commentators, does not understand it. He’s written a book called “What Would Google Do?” in which he takes Google’s business model and suggests that since they have been successful with it, everyone should run their companies–in all industries–this way. I haven’t read the book, but I know this is the argument, because Jarvis has taken his own advice and generated much of the book through suggestions from his blog readers this past year. You can watch him explain the idea here:

I’ve been whining that I find Jarvis’s argument about media unsatisfying for some time.

Read More →

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Breaking News: People Like to Shop

By , 15 January, 2009, No Comment

In an oft quoted passage of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith once wrote “The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is a necessary consequence of the faculty of reason and of speech.” In other words, every nation is a nation of shopkeepers and we are all innate consumers.

That would explain why those who aren’t asking for money so often adopt the language of commerce to make their case, and why biological analogies to evolution are so key to economic and social models.

Example: political blog FastTalkExpress lays out the five techniques that are prerequisite for building a digital persona, or a political brand: they are “Be A Character,” “Start with a Bang,” “Have a User-Friendly Website,” “Attract Traffic” and “Watch for Threats.” Translation: key principles are speed, access, personalization, simplicity, and interactivity. Google search those buzzwords and you turn up business stories and company websites, not political campaigns. I plugged similar themes myself in a series of articles aimed at business leaders in 2007.

It works both ways: business leaders can take lessons from other types of “sales pitches” to influence their decision making. Barack Obama’s campaign tactics have become case studies in B-school classes and story starting points for countless business journalists. The best dissection, however, is still Fast Company’s story on Obama-as-brand from last spring. That’s my pre-inauguration recommended reading.

Cheeseburgers in Cyberspace

By , 9 January, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one analysis of viral marketing that has really stuck with me, it’s a post my former colleague Burt Helm wrote at Brand New Day in July 2007. He traced the multiple impressions–roadside stands, banner ads, marketing-only websites, special promos, YouTube! videos, a radio soundtrack–it took to persuade him to buy a Wendy’s Baconator! In part, it sticks with me because Burt was my cubicle neighbor, so I got a nice whiff of Wendy’s fast food grease the day he ordered from them.

I thought of that post, and that smell, again today when I read about a new project, this time on behalf of Burger King’s Whopper. We’ll get to the campaign in a second, but first a quick comparison of the advertising interface itself. There’s a mini website, and a promotional deal, but so far no big adverts or street displays. The website is far more understated than the complex design-your-own-burger page set up by Wendy’s last year, and there are few platform’s targeted.

Now Wendy’s and BK are competing for a similar audience of 18-25 year olds, but that audience has dramatically shifted in its attitudes to social media in the time between the campaigns. Where Burt, or I, or our peers were all gung-ho about social media in 2007–more impressions, more platforms was always better–the tide has now turned, with young people annoyed by the frenzy and lack of control that has infiltrated networks like Facebook as they’ve opened up to adult users and corporate sponsors. The personal, intimate connection with real world peers that drew most of us to these networks is fading. Facebook’s not so useful when you have all kinds of ‘friends’ you would never really want to call or see in person cluttering your news feed with their minute-by-minute updates.

THAT’s the key insight, in fact, behind the BK campaign, called the Whopper sacrifice. Realizing that young people are now losing interest in Facebook, BK is offering a Whopper to anyone who will delete 10 friends. In a clever little twist, they’re using a Facebook app to do it.

Put the two campaigns together and you realize what they share is the symbiosis between fast food retailers and adolescent cultures. That’s nothing new: Al’s diner on Happy Days, anyone? Indeed, new technologies aside, there’s a lot in the digital environment that echoes the analog age.

Insult to Injury

By , 23 December, 2008, No Comment

…is how the recession feels to many in media. The industry was hard hit even when the U.S. economy was booming, barely scraping together enough ads to keep the lights on, so the current collapse is a serious kick when we’re already down.

A telling sign: in trying to devise a forecast for media in 2009, I went out in search of the full range of experts, but there was no diversity in their views. The most bullish and bearish of analysts agreed that there’s aways to fall. Read the story here.

One interesting trend that emerged in those interviews is what Paul Krugman calls depression economics: there’s a moment (a tipping point, to borrow another economist’s phrase) on the way down where all the basic structures atrophy and what used to be prudent policy suddenly becomes dangerously stupid. ex: In boom times, saving is good, but in depression economics you want everyone to spend above their income to jumpstart growth.

In media, the conventional wisdom is that moving towards an advertising-based revenue structure from a subscription-based revenue structure represents progress. On the web, advertising is the only viable revenue structure, since consumers have demonstrated again and again that they aren’t willing to pay for content. But even in print, the explosion of media and the expansion of media companies happened when they were able to bring their newstand cost down to a mass-accessible price, and cover their own production costs through advertising. So this is longstanding conventional wisdom. In depression economics, however, when everyone else is so hard hit they stop buying ads, it’s the entities with subscription streams that do best. Fuddy-duddies like The Discovery Channel are apparently poised to make the big gains while big names like Disney will lose out.

It’s a compelling example of why we need more experimentation around media business models–the best practice is far from set in stone.

Some insights on the apocalypse

By , 14 December, 2008, 1 Comment

There’s no shortage of handwringing about the future of the newspaper industry these days and this blog has definitely contributed its fair share. But this item by John Gapper at the FT seems far more balanced than most of what I’ve read. Gapper’s argument is similar to the one I’ve made on this site:

1. We don’t need more than a few major news organizations covering national and international news. If the Miami Herald loses it’s D.C. bureau, it’s no big deal, because Floridians can get the WaPo online or the Herald can content-share with the WaPo on its own site.
2. Some things like weather and sports scores (ie pure information) can be done by any number of web start-ups and newspapers really don’t need to have staffs for this anymore.
3. City papers outside the national news hubs should stick to local news, and most of them are slowly going this way.

The innovation in Gapper’s article is the way he explains the current financial troubles of news media: no one should wring their hands for the NYTimes, even if they are starved for revenue right now, because AS the other city papers go more local, the market share of the NYT in national news will increase. The big guys will be just fine. It’s a nice silver lining in a dire newspaper economy and a well-written item I thought I should pass along.

The prodigal son returns

By , 13 December, 2008, No Comment

Larry Lessig, whose work I’ve written about before, is packing his bags for a cross country schelp. He’s leaving his post at Stanford Law to chair an ethics center at Harvard.

For some time, Lessig has been synonymous with the West Coast attitude to IP law. As the home of Silicon Valley, the engineers whose inventions are rewriting our economy, and with its laid back libertarian social ideals, California made a natural base for the free culture movement Lessig championed.

But Lessig didn’t start there; he started among the more moderate academe in Cambridge, and even did a stint amongst the uber-capitalists at U-Chicago. Since he left, Harvard has been working overtime to cultivate its own IP department and the big coup came in 2007, when they picked up Yochai Benkler from Yale.

Benkler is the anti-Lessig: just as committed to open source culture, but in the sense of free markets, not free lunch. To Benkler, a decentralized, deregulated web creates new opportunities for competition and new sources of profit. [Note that his book is called the Wealth of Networks after Adam Smith.] To Lessig, an open web is pure collaboration, a system with the power to undermine profit motive itself. At least that’s how his early work reads, though he recently tried to back down from this position in an interview on Charlie Rose (maybe this was initiation for his new job). Over the years, then, Benkler’s view came to symbolize the East Coast approach to IP law as much as Lessig was the California hippie.

Now Harvard wants to be innovative, so they’re trying to collect all the lights of IP law. Is this the new link economy at work, forcing opponents to collaborate? It’s likely that copyright law (which really sucks right now) will be rewritten in the next few years. And Lessig and Benkler are surely the people who will be called in to help pols draft new laws. Will working side by side affect the legal ideas these two develop?

In any case, I’ll be curious to see how the two of them interact at faculty lunches.

I am thankful for…

By , 27 November, 2008, 2 Comments

…two new additions to my tech life:

1. GoodReads, where I can keep lists of books I mean to read, see what my friends are reading, read and write reviews, and buy books over Amazon. This is helping transition the print intransigents, people who still want the culture of curling up with a good book, to the web, by showing them how digital tools can serve analog practices.

2. BloggingHeads.tv, which I’m convinced is truly revolutionary. Here’s how it works–two academics or journos each get on their computer’s built in cameras and simultaneously turn on their video recorders and their video phones–then they film their phone chat, usually for an hour, on a given public policy topic. The site broadcasts it as a “diavlog,” a video blog entry where we see a split screen of the two speakers simultaneously.

So far all the internet has done for broadcast media is enabled the uploading of clips; but this doesn’t come close to what blogs did for print, because it doesn’t allow for the interactivity of Web 2.0: you can’t link into and out of a podcast. The great thing about BloggingHeads is that as you watch, you see links to relevant items on the side of the screen–articles by the speakers, articles they reference, bios of people they reference and you get the sense of personal connection that comes with blogs. What I’d love to see is a marriage of this format with what I blogged about at MobDub, allowing users to add links to the diavlogs too.

For now, as you sit digesting your turkey, enjoy this conversation between my two favorite Bloggingheads, John McWhorter and Glenn Loury.