The Sun Never Sets

By , 28 May, 2008, No Comment

Some people have too much time on their hands. Like this kid at Trinity College, Dublin, who calculated the number of links it takes to get from any article to any other article on Wikipedia. But thanks to his procrastination project, I can confirm that the British Empire is alive and well.

See in today’s world, connectivity is power. There might be more Google searches for “food” or “sex” or “Barack Obama” than there are users signing online to learn about the United Kingdom. But the Wiki entry on the UK has more links to other articles, is more centrally located in the Wiki universe than any of its flashier competitors.

In its 19th century peak, the British Empire worked because England acted as a hub, a barely visible hand for protectorates and principalities that perceived themselves autonomous. London made out well not so much because people wanted to go there, but because they–and their resources–passed through London on the way to everywhere else.

Plus ça change, it seems, plus c’est la même chose.

Up Close and Political

By , 27 May, 2008, 3 Comments

So Gordon Brown’s Labour got a pretty severe walloping in elections earlier this month. Pundits are predicting a similar defeat for Brown himself in the next general election vs. David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Cameron has been making waves for some time for bringing youthfulness to Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories, complete with a hot pink website. How could Gordon Brown, curmudgeonly and old-school compete?

This week, Brown launched his counterattack: a Web 2.0 version of Prime Minister’s question time. “Ask the PM” is a new feature on YouTube!’s 10 Downing St. channel, where Britons can submit 30 second questions and vote on the questions of their peers. Brown will periodically sign on to give video responses to the most popular spots.

The Guardian, whose editorial line is pro-Brown to begin with, gave the project a rave review. Brown certainly gets points for taking Labour in the right direction, and he’s already got tons of videos from (mostly) young voters.

But can “Ask the PM” become a voter mobilization device? Or, like so many politician-goes-techie ventures before it, is it just a gimmick?

Insurgent Media

By , 21 May, 2008, No Comment

There’s a fascinating cycle of media coverage coming out this week after Hillary Clinton’s bloggers-only conference call over the weekend.

In the call, she made her usual arguments about the need to seat Michigan and Florida at the Convention, and her electability in the fall. The tagline that most bloggers took away was “it’s the map, not the math,” meaning that Clinton is winning in states that will be important battlegrounds in the general election. She went on to specifically thank bloggers who have supported her and continued to cover her campaign as the mainstream media has pretty much accepted Obama as the Democratic nominee.

Disclaimer: A Clinton supporter at heart, I’ve recently come to terms with the inevitability of her defeat.

What’s interesting though, is that the mainstream media devoted ample coverage to the call itself. The New York Times ran a piece on it, and then argued that it reflects Ms. Clinton’s fall from frontrunner grace that she is resorting to the “megaphone of insurgents.” If the blogosphere is so counter-cultural, why does the Times–“megaphone” of the liberal establishment–use it as a source? And if Clinton and McCain are supposed to be the old fogies in this race against young, hip Obama, how come he’s the only candidate who hasn’t reached out to the political blogs this way?

I’m hardly making the case that Clinton and McCain are young hipsters, but rather that the line between the blogs and the so-called “mainstream” is a lot fuzzier than the NY Times makes it seem.

“Apocalypse” the sequel

By , 16 May, 2008, 1 Comment

In a post last week, I argued that the Washington Post’s new deal with TechCrunch was the sign of the future of media, where big media companies will acquire and aggregate the expertise of niche bloggers while maintaining the credibility of their brand.

Today brings a sequel: Conde Nast, the magazine giant that already owns tech magazine Wired, has acquired the blog arstechnica.com. In case you’re skeptical of how big this is, they paid about as much for arstechnica as they did for the whole Wired business back in 2006.

I know it takes three examples to make a trend, but these two buys back to back seem pretty striking to me. Thoughts?

1, 2, skip a few…

By , 12 May, 2008, No Comment

…99, 100.

That’s how I used to count to 100 when I was a kid and trying to be cheeky. In real life, you can rarely skip steps that easily, but sometimes, it works.

Last night I went to see the most charming movie about elderly folks who sing covers of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. It’s called Young@Heart and it reminded me a bit of Buena Vista Social Club set in Massachusetts. Both are movies worth seeing, and calling one’s grandparents immediately afterwards. A little cheesy, yes, but the music is pretty awesome and even a jaded Gen Yer like me can be inspired from time to time.

In one scene that really struck me, one of the singers, Bob Salvini, died of cardiac arrest just before a concert. He was meant to sing a duet of Coldplay’s Fix You with another very ill man, Fred Knittle. Suddenly, Fred has to sing the whole thing alone and doesn’t know Bob’s part.

All throughout the film, there are jokes about how the singers’ own musical tastes turn to opera or classical, except when they’re singing at Young@Heart. When the conductor gives them CDs of Sonic Youth or the Talking Heads, they can’t figure out which side goes up in the CD player.

But when Fred has to learn Fix You, he sits down at his Dell computer and pulls up this video from YouTube! to sing along to.

The result is heartbreakingly beautiful:

Web 2.0 technologies are reaching people for whom the big step is not from analog to digital, Ethernet to wireless, but from ink on paper to pixels on a screen. My grandmother, for example, cannot use a DVD player but she knows that “Google” is a verb and has an email account.

1, 2, skip a few…

The Friendly Face of the Newspaper Apocalypse

By , 8 May, 2008, 3 Comments

Pundits have been predicting the downfall of the newspaper for a long time. And while I agree that the news market is changing rapidly, I’m not convinced that the printed press is a thing of a past. Instead, an announcement by the Washington Post today suggests the direction other news media outlets might take.

The Post has essentially outsourced a chunk of its technology reporting to the bloggers at TechCrunch. All the blog posts from TechCrunch.com will appear on the Post’s technology page and according to TechCrunch, the next step is a comment feature that will allow reader discussion to take place simultaneously on both websites.

Imagine, for a moment, that the Post were to turn over all its breaking tech news to TechCrunch, all its breaking political tidbits to Politico, and all its entertainment research to the folks at PerezHilton. Each section of their website would become a mini-blog, which is effectively what the New York Times has done. Except the Times model requires a full staff of bloggers for every subject; for most print newspapers, the key now is to streamline staff and save cash.

The genius of the Post deal is that it gives readers the insider news of the experts at TechCrunch with the brand credibility of the Washington Post. For the Post, it’s a way to get around the fact that little guys in the blogosphere often know more about their small niches than big news outlet reporters. For TechCrunch, it’s a way to monetize and attract ad dollars, something internet news sites still struggle with.

See, the brand of The Washington Post still means a lot, even if according to some pessimists, the daily paper is a goner. Instead, I predict more deals like this, where blog-style news aggregates under the name of a big media brand. Meanwhile, I think a lot of readers still like getting things in print, but will be more likely to pay for print magazines, feature stories and in-depth pieces than daily breaking news. With more blog deals like this, the Post could devote a small in-house staff to the investigative and longer pieces, and put out a bi-weekly print edition, or a weekend ‘zine.

I’m not alone, in seems, in voicing this theory: Businessweek’s media guru Jon Fine was predicting last year that a big paper like the San Francisco Chronicle would do well to go all-online. This week, he writes that daily papers should downsize to publishing 3 times a week. The New York Times already offers a weekend-only subscription. What do you guys think?

Because it’s Cinco de Mayo…

By , 5 May, 2008, 1 Comment

…this post is just for fun.

Over drinks last weekend, some friends and I tried to write a palindrome story. We got a title “Project Racecar” and a few useful phrases — “he man Madam racecar madam name h-” — but nothing that made narrative sense. So I submit this for the wisdom of the cyber-crowds.

We’ll start with the word “racecar”

What letters, words, phrases can you add to either side to make a story that works backwords and forwards?

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.

Globalization Karma

By , 30 April, 2008, No Comment

America’s imperial chickens are coming home to roost.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and perhaps even before then, we have been the world leader in exporting our values and our products to distant corners of the earth: the McDonalds-MTV factor, even more than military might or political clout, confirmed our status as a superpower.

But in the flat world of YouTube and Second Life, rising powers are finding ways to turn American cultural hegemony in their own economic favor. A fascinating story in this Sunday’s NY Times describes the rat race at Korean prep schools to get students into American universities. The Asian students I’ve met at Brown certainly came here familiar with the American system, more so than the students I’ve met from Europe or Latin America. These Asian schools can replicate the American high school easily because our curricula, our syllabi, our AP exams are available online. And the students have as clear an idea of the universities they’ll end up at (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, CalTech) as any American teen does: these are big international names.

Because American culture is so widely disseminated, the Korean schoolteachers have an easier time reproducing it than American educators have connecting to Asian culture. A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes the challenge of creating American universities in China–not because American culture is hard to translate, but because Americans find the local culture difficult to connect to. While the students may know all about McDonald’s, the professors have a hard time adjusting to bokchoy, rice and Internet censorship.

There’s a parallel in market research. Because American culture is all over television and film, Asian tech or auto or consumer electronics producers know enough about our market to make products Americans will be eager to buy. American manufacturers know next to nothing about Asian markets. While we can outsource our production to India and China (and we do), we can’t market products there. Meanwhile, the same factory owners who used to make cars for us are going independent and selling their own handiwork to Americans. Smarter still, Asian universities are capitalizing on our weakness: Hong Kong Polytechnic University has a design consultancy that helps global (mostly Western) companies adjust their products to an Asian market.

As Rudyard Kipling once said of imperialism, I now wonder of globalization: have we sought another’s profit to work their gain?

The Internet Police

By , 29 April, 2008, No Comment

Throughout the Web revolution of the past decade, pundits and journalists have angsted endlessly about the implications of new technologies on privacy and the capacity for unwanted “Big Brother” surveillance or dangerous identity theft. Counter-arguments from tech-geeks have mainly centered on the entertainment potential of Google Earth or Facebook-stalking. Breaking the impasse means proving that the new technologies are more than a toy, but a useful and socially constructive tool.

The proof has arrived. Facebook and Google are putting their surveillance and information capacities to work fighting crime. A new Facebook list of suspected war criminals encourages users around the world to post information about sightings. A new Google Earth map marks crime scenes and likely locations.

How effective this will be, however, is still an open question. After all, criminals have computers too and it can’t help to tell them where we think they are. Not to mention that the Facebook lists wanted felons rather than simply suspects: due process dictates the individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully, the officials in charge will follow the law books over the Facebook.

On the other hand, there are interesting principles behind this technology: crowdsourcing, global technologies as a form of international law/world governance, linking virtual networks back to the physical world. As imperfect as this particular project is, these are the general contours of the coming era. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Facebook and Google would be the first to sign up.