Archive for ‘Technology’

Larry Lessig admits “he’s an old Communist”

By , 23 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Four years ago, Lessig’s book Free Culture unleashed a movement to abolish copyright and bring down the evil corporate producers of “mainstream culture.” I have never believed in this movement. Tonight, Lessig told Charlie Rose he doesn’t believe it either.

He says he’s an “old Communist,” a la Gorbachev, trying to reform a system; the younger free culture radicals who quote him are Yelstins, who’ve taken his policies too far. Lessig says he doesn’t want to get rid of copyright because it still incentivizes some people to produce valuable content who wouldn’t do it for free. His hippie proteges think anyone who produces art for money is not worth society’s time. Now whenever I’ve read Lessig, I’ve always felt he falls on the radical side of the line. Either I was wrong, or he’s now changing tacks because he realizes the moderate approach has a better shot of reaching its goals.

He’s not alone. Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis says he doesn’t have it out for print media and media corporations at all and outlines a business model for how established news organizations can coexist with a gift economy of citizen-journalists. It’s a good plan and it strikes me as a deviation from the things Jarvis has written in the past; again I wonder if (as he claims) this is what he meant all along, or if he’s just getting practical at last.

Either way, it’s good to have people of Lessig’s and Jarvis’s clout advocating a middle-ground. Then again, Gorbachev tried to remind people to take it slow too…and it didn’t work out so great for him.

Jeff Jarvis has a crush on Google

By , 18 November, 2008, 2 Comments

I wish Bruce Greenwald, my Corporate Strategy professor, would call Jeff Jarvis and tell him to stick to his competitive advantages. The man is pretty solid as a commentator on media, on why some newspapers are screwed and how serious web news outlets ought to develop their businesses to become serious competitors.

He is not, however, an all-around economic pundit and should not try to become one. Yet that seems to be exactly what he’s trying to do on his blog and in his new book “What Would Google Do?” trying to use the company as a model for everything. In this post, he tries to give us the Google model for the financial sector, but he winds up spending many words undercutting (hedging?) himself as he takes melodramatic (highly leveraged) positions. Some gems:

“Google’s first advantage is being digital. Who wants to be in the business of stuff any more – building cars, printing newspapers, selling CDs, growing food… Now the best retreat is to the value of knowledge.” You cannot engineer food…the characters in Brave New World tried that, and it didn’t work out so well.

“In Google’s economy, small is the new big. Of course, big is still big — Google itself is gargantuan.” Point being?

“Indeed, Google does not want to own the assets — content to commerce — upon which its empire is built.” This is different from banks that re-packaged and sold off their bad loans like hot potatoes how?

“Another hallmark of Google’s economy is transparency. Even as Google remains opaque about details of how it does business — its ad commission, for example — it demands transparency of the rest of us. For without openness, we get no search-engine optimization, no precious Googlejuice.” Hypocrisy much?

So much for the argument that being in the blogosphere forces reporters to keep it real.

I have seen the future of media…

By , 12 November, 2008, 1 Comment

…and even the people there can’t agree on how it works.

Last night, I went with high hopes to a panel at Columbia on the Changing Media Landscape, hoping to get some tips on how to prepare myself for the jobs I’ll be applying for when this program is over. You can watch a video here but it’s about 2 hours long. Or read my recap of the major points below.

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Now What?

By , 31 October, 2008, No Comment

It may be speaking way too soon, but I’m betting that the panic phase of this financial crisis is over. It will get worse before it gets better, but at least most of the experts and analysts I’ve called are starting to agree upon how long it might be (a year-ish downward, then a slow recovery into 2011 is the prediction I’m hearing). So imperfect as it was, the enormous infusion of cash into the banks across the world has addressed the immediate doom.

Now the real challenge. With Alan Greenspan of all people saying uber-deregulation might have had “a flaw” (or two or three hundred?), it’s time to rethink the long-term system. I’ve suggested before some reflections on how to fix the public sector regulators and recruit smarter people to those roles. But what about a financial industry that equates “innovation” with unsustainable assets (those mortgage bundles) and irresponsible risks?

Interestingly, the best reflections on that problem aren’t coming from financial experts (who remain stunned by it all) but from design blogger Bruce Nussbaum (full disclosure: He’s a former boss of mine). Nussbaum says the future of capitalism will be a lot like the ZipCar–based on bottom-up, collaborative growth instead of top-down, proprietary models. His BusinessWeek colleagues make the point that even Web 2.0 (collaborative and bottom-up by default) will have to change in the ZipCar world–the techies too have been hooked on “irrational exuberance” before.
Link
I’ve got my usual bones to pick with the collaboration theory–how is it capitalism if you aren’t motivated by ownership; how do you incentivize sharing–but overall, I think Bruce is right. So, as a Halloween gift, no long diatribes. Just an encouragement to read Bruce’s blog.Link

In case you didn’t believe me

By , 30 October, 2008, 1 Comment

I wrote on Monday that blogs will add to, not subtract from or replace, existing media forms like the narrative or the investigation because people still want to know facts and tend to process facts best in narrative form.

Today, I listened to a great NPR session with Nick Lemann (Dean of Columbia’s J-school, and my professor in a class on journalistic methods and ethics this fall), Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic writer and blogger extraordinaire) and Tina Brown (former editor of Vanity Fair and a newcomer to the blogosphere). Here’s what this trio of media giants thought:

Even on the blogosphere, people aren’t giving up on the need for information and analysis, for Linkdefinitive answers in the way Jeff Jarvis et al contend. They just verify information in different ways. Lemann reminds us that the biggest web traffic still goes to the “established” sites. Sullivan says that among amateur blogs, the winners are still people with expertise in some niche, people you can “trust and verify” because they give you the links to their sources and encourage readers to correct them. If print professionals get you to trust that they tell the truth because of their personal intelligence, bloggers earn trust by transparency and humility.

Yet Sullivan just wrote in the Atlantic that blogs are a bit postmodern, based on cultivating a back-and-forth of opinions that might in a theoretical aggregate contain the objective truth, but not in any one place you can hold in your hand or read from start-to-finish. But, he says, just as postmodern criticism has failed to swallow up all of academia, blogs cannot and should not swallow up all of news production: for some things, people still like and need the fixed narrative.

Sullivan, Lemann and Brown make the same point in the NPR spot–newspapers shouldn’t mimic blogs by getting more vitriolic, going all-digital or cutting stories to 150 word blurbs. They should worry about finding better ways to finance the kind of in-depth, objective-fact reporting blogs don’t do.

I often talk about media convergence. What I mean by this is not that one form will win out and everyone will go there, but that news organizations will learn to produce some combination of old and new media so that individual journalists can work across platforms. Sullivan is a great example of that–a magazine man who is also a full-time blogger and understands the difference between the two forms. Lemann is getting there–he used to think blogs were the end of journalism, now (in this NPR spot at least) he thinks they are the “golden age” for free discourse and commentary, but should not and cannot replace old school investigations.

At the individual level, then, convergence is moving along fine. Even at the institutional level, many newsrooms are learning to strike a cross-platform balance. The issue is one of financing that balance and that’s the one area where I thought this NPR dialogue covered new and controversial ground: late in the session, the group discussed the possibility of more public financing for print media, akin to the funding streams for NPR and PBS. I hadn’t really thought about that, since newspapers in America have never had state aid.

But is there any inherent reason why public financing for print should be unacceptable when we already do as much for broadcasters? I’m still not sure what to make of the proposal, whether it’s feasible and whether it would help the situation. What do you think?

From the talking heads to the echo chamber?

By , 27 October, 2008, 4 Comments

I consider myself something of a Web 2.0 moderate. Though I’m bullish about the prospects for technology to expand the reach of news to those who might not otherwise join in public discourse, I don’t believe that populist outcome makes bloggers and tweeters as individuals inherently superior to their New Yorker foes. I find the moralistic tone of netroots commentators decrying the “establishment” pretty repulsive, just as I find the conspiratorial fears among print journos about the insurgent techies to be silly and exaggerated.

Yes, people are tired of a he-said-she-said model of media that often involves going back and forth between talking heads of various ideological poles and winding up with no answers at all. But bloggers are swinging in two equally dangerous directions.

Some, like Jeff Jarvis, have gone postmodern on us: forget answers, they say. Jarvis foresees a digital echo chamber where there aren’t any narratives or accounts or collections of data. Instead, there will just be the “web” in its entirety, with any one blog post having value solely in its connections to every single item out there on the web on a given topic. I’m a big believer in the importance of links, and I see those as one of the web’s main assets, but I see links as helping to deepen a reader’s understanding on any one article or blog post. Just as I have never bought the litcrit argument that it’s impossible to hold and analyze one aspect of a text when it’s the “process of making meaning that matters”, I don’t really buy Jarvis’ argument that Web 2.0 readers will be so wrapped up in the process of following the links that they will no longer want some conclusions about their world. Narrative–and thus some single unit like a story or a blog post–will still matter.

Other techevangelists, like Larry Smith, think the web is going to get more more fractured, more opinionated, with people embracing the spin of the single subset of definitive answers they choose to read, caring as much about the identity of the journalists as they do about the news. As people embrace what Larry calls the “Fifth Estate,” the old media will become irrelevant and slip away. I don’t buy this picture either: just as people still want to walk away from their daily media digest with some coherent narrative, they also still want that narrative to tell some facts. The human impulse for information is as real and enduring as the impulse for interpretation.

People have been predicting since the the 1840s that technologies which allow for the blurring of fact, fiction and opinion would somehow debase the public’s ability to differentiate between these categories. 19th century public intellectuals angsted that readers would be so committed to factual objectivity that they would no longer value worldviews and social institutions. 19th century sociologists worried that readers would be so entranced with the fictional subjectivity of serialized novels that they would cease to care about real events–elections, wars, urban crime on their own street corners. Neither prediction came through; it turned out people wanted both information and interpretation, and the same print technology had to meet these two needs in separate ways. Newspapers, novels and magazine essays each found their place.

Similarly, the narrative/story–with its interpretative value–, the blog post–with its ability to make bias transparent, and the article–with its emphasis on data and figures all have a role in the 21st century. Web journalists will add the narrative and the article to their arsenal of forms, while print writers and analog broadcasters will learn from the web how to be more transparent about bias in their opinion-driven work. Overtime, as every journalist learns the skills of each platform, this dichotomy of established vs. netroots journo communities will evaporate, but not (as Jarvis says) by eliminating the differences between the content and purpose of these various media forms.

In other words, calm down. There will be change, but the sky is not falling.

Experience Does Matter

By , 23 October, 2008, 1 Comment

The people want change, yes, but not for its own sake. Knowing how to make change rationally? Well, that comes with experience. No, I’m not resurrecting the Democratic primary. I’m talking about Yahoo! and Facebook.

The Facebookers made it big by showing up straight from Harvard with a lot of intuitive genius about marketing, but little-to-no experience with the nitty-gritty of graphic design. When they started out, they had so few features that it didn’t matter where and how they placed them. The page was sleek and clean because it had to be. As they’ve added more and more elements, however, Facebook has grown cluttered and this is not the first time I’ve complained about it.

In an attempt to deal with clutter, Facebook issued a major redesign this summer but it’s not going over well. From their business/product-oriented perspective, the new page makes sense–it effectively merges all the features [new friends acquired, new wall posts, new photos] into one information flow and therefore should make everyone happy. But it doesn’t look very appealing, and doesn’t recognize that most users don’t see all Facebook activity as equal. The Facebookers, it turns out, are very smart marketers and managers, but they’re not great designers because they have zero experience with design.

By contrast, the folks at Yahoo! have been running and designing websites for eons. So when it came time to spruce up the Yahoo! homepage, they knew how to implement a design:

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Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?

By , 20 October, 2008, 2 Comments

That’s the reaction, apparently, of many newspaper editors to the AP these days. It seems some mid-size papers are opting out of the wire service, aiming to fill their pages exclusively with their own content and cut their costs.

It makes sense: when a smaller paper uses an AP story about a major international event, most of its readers are likely to turn to a major international outlet–print or online–for that information anyway. The city papers of America would be well-served to focus on local content, and they can report that without the AP.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the AP can now get on without these papers: it puts its stories on its own website, where it can monetize them directly through advertising. Really minute-by-minute breaking news often stays there while items that develop into clear cut narratives get picked up by the member newspapers, creating a second revenue stream. Indeed, the AP is, financially, lot more than the sum of its (newspaper) parts:

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TV Still Matters

By , 19 October, 2008, 1 Comment

If the 1990s taught us anything, it was that video did not kill the radio star: despite their unappealing physical demeanors, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh did just fine. Radio survived the loss of the family dinnertime market by targeting a niche audience of political extremists at either end of the spectrum.

In a similar vein, if the financial crisis has taught me anything, it’s that the Internet has not killed TV news. On corporate hallways in the middle of the afternoon, TVs are still running. And while websites carry stock tickers and financial news stories, only 24-hour news channels carry live speeches by government regulators or live Congressional negotiations (they sometimes show up YouTube! several hours later).

Those speeches are the news behind the stock ticker: for example, the day Ben Bernanke announced his plan to buy commercial paper, the Dow tumbled several hundred points. DURING his speech. Which means traders were watching it live, on TV. Similar trends apply to the market response during the Congressional bailout bill hearings.

Then there’s the case of Jim Cramer, who spends weekday afternoons telling viewers how to make “Mad Money” on stocks. Not only did his ratings soar this past month with so much financial turmoil, but he learned (the hard way) that viewers really do care what he says. Many have gone as far as to blame him for some of the crisis: he was bullish on Bear Stearns when the company was about to go under; now he’s telling people to stuff their mattresses when many experts say a little less caution might help us loosen a stuck financial system.

We like to think of Wall Streeters and their fans as high tech high rollers. Ironic then that the financial sector is turning out to be the niche audience for the media stepchild that is daytime television news.

The mob is coming for you

By , 18 October, 2008, 1 Comment

It’s a pyrrhic victory when I find a cool new tech tool: more fun to be had but also more ways to procrastinate. Still, that doesn’t stop me from adding new sites to my diet:

Mobdub.com is a new (beta) startup where users add live captions to videos. You click on the video while it’s playing (say 39 seconds in) to add a caption, a relevant factoid or link and the next user sees your caption as a cartoon speech bubble embedded in the video, 39 seconds into the clip. For now, the clips on the site are all election related, but eventually–the founder tells me–there will be more diverse content. Other plans include sharing the software with other video sites, so that videos on YouTube! or hulu.com will have “dubbing” too.

When I showed MobDub to my sister, she thought it was a cool cross between Wikipedia and YouTube!. But when I saw it, the first thing I thought of was VH1’s PopUp Video. And anything that recalls ’80s music is in my good books.