Remix Culture British Style

As I peek at media developments around the world, many of the interesting experiments in broadening participation in media are taking place outside the United States, such as a BBC program that allows Web developers to use its content in non-commercial ways that build on the original fare. The Informitv.com newsletter described the BBC initiative thus: “The BBC says it is committed to using open standards that will enable users to find and repurpose BBC content in more flexible ways. Suggested applications include: combining schedules with other web services; introducing a social element, such as rating or voting; or creating alerting systems.” Contact the BBC Backstage program for more information. Meanwhile, in the United States, the University of Maryland’s J-Lab has identified five noteworthy examples of media experiments that use the Web to gather citizen input or extend the usefulness of information by, for instance, posting crime reports on a publicly viewable map. They’re some good ideas and worth a look. Finally, an an unrelated topic, in scanning Paid Content this morning, I saw a note about a new principal joining Corante, a blogging company that gets far less attention than Gawker Media or Weblogs Inc. I read the Corante announcement on the arrival of marketer Francois Gossieaux, and also read Gossieaux’s blog entry on why he made the move. “Corante is not your typical publishing company,” he wrote. “Instead of hiring writers and publishing content, we connect readers with experts. And in this day and age of scarce reader attention span and information overload that is exactly what people are looking for.: I read all this because I don’t understand the Corante approach or business model, and still don’t. But I assume that is because their approach is too new to fit into the existing pigeonholes, and thus all the more interesting. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


The Optimist

Kevin Kelly has long been among my favorite prophets of modernity, one of that crazy gang of Northern California WELL-heads who've contributed so much to cyber culture. I first noticed his work in the late 1980s when he was at Whole Earth Review, and followed his words when he became a founding editor of Wired Magazine in the early 1990s. Thus I read with delight, and yet not without some dissent, his We Are The Web essay in the current Wired. It celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO as the claxon of the Web evolution, and describes the marvelous ways in which it has connected millions of people, creating the pathways for a global consciousness, "a new type of thinking -- part human and part machine -- found nowhere else on the planet or in history." Yet even as I smiled at his many trenchant observations, particularly the opening anecdote in which he described meeting that mad genius Ted Nelson, who alpha-tested hyperlink by scribbling notes on index cards which he cut-and-pasted together, I have always felt that Kelly hailed from the techno-optimistic side of the spectrum. Kelly tends to see the world and the future at a 30,000 foot flyby. And while his tech-amplified powers of observation make many of his insights keen and true, insofar as they go, I've always felt they glossed over the pain that I, perhaps because of the surly circumstances of my own life, see all too often in the faces of those who live with us in what the Chinese used to call interesting times. Yet who can doubt that society stands at an inflection point. "The revolution launched by Netscape's IPO was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge," Kelly writes. "At its heart was a new kind of partcipation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing." Later Kelly cites some of the phenomenal, unforeseen developments, such as eBay, which we now take for granted. "We have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions every year and operates from your bedroom." The Web has enabled an even greater and more fertile explosion of self-expression. "In fewer than 4,000 days," he writes, "we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people." We have created, Kelly says, "the community of collaborative interaction that futurist Alvin Toffler called prosumption." And that is where I begin to differ. Because while the Web has surely set us on a path to sharing, the fruits of human endeavor remain divided in a grossly unequal fashion. Whether you look at the distribution between the developed and the developing world, or the stratification within our own society, there is neither rationality nor fairness in the system -- either new or old. On a global scale perhaps things are equalizing. Outsourcing may be lifting the Indian and Chinese, and if this hits our working and middle classes there may yet be some good come of it. But is it my imagination or are the rich getting richer than even their greediest dreams? We hear that we live in an Ownernship Society, an Opportunity Society, and if my only input were Kelly's essay, I might imagine that we were on our way to the next stage of human development. But there keep occurring these nagging events in my own life that cause me to view the world with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Take last night for instance when unionized journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle -- where I have worked since 1990s -- voted overwhelmingly to ratify a five-year agreement that strikes me as less a labor contract than a surrender document. But shame on me for criticizing that in which I played little or no part. For while my colleagues were wrestling with bad and worse, I was voting with my feet, having a drink with my friend and journalist-turned-blogger Tom Foremski, talking about the crumbling business models that are today's mass media. Yet it is from that crumbling model that I have thus far derived my pay, my health plan and all the other support structures that have not yet been architected into the sharing system that is rendering content, and so many other goods, more widely and cheaply available. I don't know where all this ends, either for the world or for me. I do know that I'm a darn site less optimistic than Kelly. In fact, this morning I feel a deep sense of shame. We all have myths about ourselves, and a central element of the Tom Abate myth began on the streets of Brooklyn some 40 years ago, when one of the new kids in the Catholic grammar school that I attended, a fellow Italian-American, was set upon by some of the Irish boys who predominated in our neighborhood. It was not deadly stuff, just playground bullying, but I saw this walking by and, without much thought, because I could not let a paisan go down, I ran across the street and launched myself into the air sideways against the pack, who scattered, as surprised as I was by the tactic. Ever since, I don't know that I've ever backed down from a fight. To the contrary, I have sometimes been more belligerent than would have been wise or necessary in any given circumstance. But last night I let my paisan go down without so much as the benefit of my company. I refused to make the decision that was foredained. And this morning, I feel as mini as I've ever felt in my entire life, and my eyes fill with tears. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy 'Cause if you ain't Mass Media, you're Mini Media


Tubes, Tunes & Tears

I woke up today to read a kickass column by Hollywood.com's Diane Mermigas, who says TV networks can reinvigorate their revenues by repackaging content and delivering it to daytime audiences via desktop and mobile means. Her advice for mass media moguls applies in spades to mini media startups. Thanks to MediaPost for steering me to Mermigas's column, which is chockablock with revenue estimates and a valuable read for startups that have to live and die by these new, emerging markets. For anyone in or near that space (I'm thinking about folks like Bay Area media maven Mary Hodder, Mermigas's insights won't be news -- tomorrow's video successes will be the firms that find ways "to be paid for providing their most popular content to all digital broadband venues -- from cell phones and video game consoles to streaming media on any Internet-connected device." But Mermigas makes good points as to why soaps or sports delivered to mobiles or at-work computers should be worth more because the content reaches a better demographic than daytime stay-homes. (Although I shudder to think of the productivity hit and wonder how long before corporate sysops learn to screen out the interruption). But forget that curmudgeonly comment, and focus on what Mermigas writes: "upward of 850,000 MLB.com (major league baseball) subscribers watch baseball games on their computers even though many of the games occur during work hours. Telemundo had about 600,000 unique users watching its soap operas online in March." I have blogged along similar lines myself, though my concern is whether small producers are allowed into the distribution channels and get a fair deal. On that note let me switch to tunes. I read a hopeful bit that goes like this -- Apple Computer used to pay independent music producers less for iTunes downloads but that appears to have changed and now they get equal treatment. So writes Good Morning Silicon Valley columnist John Paczkowski, who cites a blog posting by Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby the online music store. Tune-makers who want to learn more about Sivers should read the LA Weekly profile that was also pointed to in the column. I just started reading Paczkowski's posts. They seem concise and informative. Now let me weep for the staff of WiredNews.com, which has been riffed according to a CNet report. I have (or had?) friends there. Time to reach out and see if I can help. Of course I'm in a tenuous position myself. It may be a great age for users to content, but for content creators every day seems to bring a new kick in the teeth. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy 'Cause if you ain't Mass Media, you're Mini Media


The Last Word

I am infatuated with new media but my first love is print. I was delighted when the current issue of Paid Content pointed me to an EContent Magazine article that surveyed tools print publishers can use to distribute content over the Web. This posting is a brief syopsis a piece by EContent writer Ron Miller, so if the print-to-web shift interests you, do read the original. That article, by the way, is now a year old so some of the information is a bit dated (there are, for instance, references to MacroMedia’s FlashPaper development that don’t take into account its acquisition by Adobe). Adobe and its ubiquitous PDF format are central to the article. Miller notes that since Acrobat debuted in 1993, Adobe has distributed “more than a half billion” copies of its free Acrobat Reader, which allows document receipt and display with the art and layout intact. The article notes that Adobe’s thrust, with regard to the publisher’s version of Acrobat, is to put “PDF on a Java-based platform and provides a way to build in business logic and XML hooks into a PDF document, making it possible to move information from a PDF into a workflow or to distribute data to databases.” As for the reader, Adobe wants to build in “digital rights management (DRM)” to give publishers greater control over what uses can be made of the content after delivery. (Since the piece is a year old, some of this may already have occurred.) The EContent piece notes some of the alternatives (again this piece was written before Microsoft made rumblings about challenging Adobe). Miller writes: “most publishers want to use the power of the Web, while preserving some of the look and feel of traditional media. This has resulted in a number of approaches from vendors such as Zinio and NewsStand, which use a reader to download and view publications, or NXTbook, which incorporates the look and feel of a traditional page-turning publication delivered via a Web browser.” EContent points readers to “Frank Gilbane, publisher of the Gilbane Report, a publication that focuses on content trends” who cited the emergence of RSS as a distribution format but said it was only just being noticed by users. Gilbane told EContent, “Most people don't even know what it is, and those that do often don't appreciate the potential.” That statement was made a year ago, and much has happened since then to raise the stature of RSS, but in a funny way and with mild calibration, I think that statement still rings true. I will return to print-via-web as I notice other developments. I am particularly interested in production methods to pull down stuff out of archives to print customized books or magazines, and will be particularly alert for developments in that realm. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media



My relaxations include listening to books on tape while taking long walks. Over the weekend I was enjoying a fabulous rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Listening to this rich and beautiful tale made me think about the differences between oral storytelling and the linear print tradition that supplanted it. Now we have hypertext (a concept that turned 60 years old this month). Does hypertext unify the oral and linear traditions? And how does all this affect our thinking? Perhaps you’ve read Tolkien and, even if not, you’d have to have been buried in a hole (not a hobbit hole, obviously), to have missed at least the movie version of this tale of good and evil, heroism and treachery. So I can bypass the review and get to the difference between oral and print traditions, print being easiest to understand because you are caught in its spell of one-word-after-the-other-leading-to-some-point. Print – or rather mass printing and literacy -- are the 500-year-old legacy of Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg, storytelling was a performance art, a non-technological peer-to-peer phenomenon to use a modern reference. The oral tradition was not only P2P, it was custom-made. The words were not always exactly the same. As National Geographic noted in an article about the oral antecedents of Tolkien’s trilogy, the story was not a manufactured commodity. It had a variability that reflected the abilities of the story-teller and that person’s interactions with the audience. Print changed that. Words weren’t exactly carved in stone. But they were impressed on paper and thus on minds in a very specific way. The diffusion of knowledge made possible by the spread of books had many, many consequences, the most positive of which was that long period of scientific and social advance called The Enlightenment. So let’s fast forward to hypertext, a word coined in the 1960s, but presaged in a July 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the man who was quite arguably also the godfather of the military-industrial complex. But let me not digress. We live hypertext. We can link anything. I’ve written previously about the power of writing in hypertext. But my own thinking is too linear. I can’t help myself. I used to be a bookworm. Now I’m a writer. But walking around this weekend with Tolkien’s blend of print and oral story echoing in my ears, I wondered how thinking will change when the young people, growing up with the option of ingesting information in a linear or eclectic way, start taking over the world. This global Internet, and its many forms of communication and community, represent a historic inflection point. Looking back I know that much grief followed Gutenberg as well, specifically, the long wars over religion that were tied to translations of the Bible. Now we see beheadings publicized on the Internet and read reports of terror attacks and learn about groups claiming credit on Web pages and I wonder if this social upheaval is déjà vu all over. A glimpse into the mirror of Galadriel would provide some hints, but my understanding is that the elves have lost their magic. Oh, darn. We'll have to muddle through as best we can. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media



Should I puke until my stomach aches, or put on my Italian silk suit and go money-hunting? Those are the only ways I know how to react to the news, which came our earlier this week, that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation will become the new owner of teen hotspot MySpace.com, assuming that Intermix Media, which is MySpace’s parent firm, accepts Murdoch’s $580 million buyout offer. I could say that I withheld commenting on the deal until now while I carefully considered my words. But the truth is I only read about the news yesterday. And my own words put the lie to the careful consideration bit. About the best I can offer in the face of a deal this monumentally pathetic is this compromise -- how about if instead of vomiting I merely vent? But before my bile gets the better of me, I should at least point you to one of the news reports on the deal, or the insider interview that Paid Content got with Ross Levinsohn. He is president of newly-formed Fox Interactive Media, the News Corp. division that will oversee MySpace if the deal is consummated. That laudatory write-up includes this observation: “when the deal closes in about three months, Fox (Interactive Media) will nearly double its (Internet) traffic by adding 27 million-plus unique users for roughly $21.48 a piece.” Details like that confirm that if you’re a well-behaved new media startup, you should be shopping yourself around because the Fat Checkbooks are open. Of course there have been earlier such deals, of old media buying new media. And Rupert insinuated that he was looking to buy some cool stuff in a speech he delivered in April before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That MySpace.com is cool, I have no doubt. A few weeks ago I was working with a couple of dozen young people, from age 15 through the mid-30s. All they talked about was MySpace. We were supposed to be putting out a student newspaper together, but very often when I peeked over a shoulder to see what was being done, the kids were diddling around with their MySpace accounts. One of the teenaged boys gave me a tour. His screen was filled with flirty messages from girls hailing. As I checked out the screen, I recall seeing a box that could be checked for “wife-swapping.” That, in combination with the age-segmentation feature, struck me as a rather interesting utility. The graphic artist in our group, a musician in his 20s, said he used his MySpace account to post some of his original music, and it helped him land performance gigs. In that regard he’s dead center of what seems to be the deal’s most attractive feature to Murdoch. As Forbes.com put it, “The tunes . . . are what drew the attention of the News Corp. chairman and chief executive. According to a New York Times report, a slew of bands, including R.E.M. and the Black Eyed Peas launched new releases via MySpace.” So why am I so worked up about this deal? I guess it’s because the trend seems to be that popular new media will simply be absorbed by old media, which does nothing to solve the problem of concentrated ownership. Even without this sort of acquisition, Web media are stratifying into the Big Few and the millions that don’t matter, as I have lamented earlier. So a deal like this is not surprising. It simply makes me sad. There. At least I got it out of my system. Now I feel better. See you Monday. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Patents & Ads & Time, Oh My!

A trio of items caught my eye today, beginning with a CNet article on the perennial debate over whether patents aid or inhibit innovation, particularly in the realm of technology. Patent debates are a recurring theme in American business history, but the issue has sharpened in recent years as these 20-year-legal monopolies have been applied to software, Internet and biotech developments. In “Staking a Claim,” CNet’s Michael Kanellos brings this debate current in what struck me as an interesting and thorough examination of whether patents are allowing little guys to protect ideas and gain funding for startups, or whether they are being misused by large companies and patent mill firms. This is a subject I’ve covered in the past, and two things strike me as important. First, the trend seems to be toward extending patents to new areas. I was among the reporters who covered the 1993 fracas over the Compton’s Multimedia Patent. It was eventually reversed but while the anti-patent forces won that battle, they seem to be losing the war. Part of the reason, I think, is that the federal courts were reorganized in 1982 so as to create a special circuit that hears appeals on patent trials. This special circuit has generally strengthened and extended patents, allowing, for instance, the patenting of human genes. Arguments could be and have been made that patents in some areas are counterproductive, particularly as regards software and Internet processes, where ideas can spread with viral rapidity and where IP laws may be anachronistic. But the federal courts seem so far persuaded that patents continue to perform their function, as spelled out in Article One, Section Eight, of the U.S. Constitution, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Moving quickly to advertising, the mother’s milk of media, a New York Times article highlighted a debate among the ad buyers who indirectly underwrite most content – does their spending produce results, or is it money wasted and how do they discern the difference? This angst is being worked out in a forum called the 2005 Marketing Accountability forum, and while we may despair of hearing a definitive answer, the Times articles suggests that old media have more to fear from this debate than new media, which allow greater measurement of click-thru and the like. However, as I’ve written in the past, I’m not so sure click-thru rates tell the complete story online. I think advertising in any medium is likely to have a subtle and accretive effect rather than a directly measurable stimulus-response loop. But it’s difficult these days to argue with numbers, and new media have numbers coming out the wazoo. Lastly and most puzzlingly is a finding by the Online Publishers Association, which tracks how much time Internet users spend each month pursuing activities in four various online categories: e-commerce, content, communication, and search. The association was pleased to report that browsers spent more time perusing content in June than in previous months, and less time engaging in e-commerce or search. Communication, though, still accounts for the largest single block of time spent online (41.3 percent for commo versus 36.9 percent for content, followed by e-commerce at just under 18 percent). But when I checked out the association’s index, which listed the raw figures, I was puzzled. Search accounted for just 4.3 percent of online activity in June as measured in time, yet I have seen elsewhere that search firms are getting something on the order of half of all the advertising dollars being pumped into cyberspace. Now I have always heard that “time is money.” But in this instance it’s obviously not. Perhaps not all time is created equal. Or it may be that too much in advertising is being lavished on search, click thru numbers notwithstanding. But I wouldn’t worry. There’s probably a patented algorithm in the pipeline that will straighten all this out. (Note: Paid Content pointed me to the patent and ad items; MediaPost alerted me to the Online Publisher announcement.) Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media



Funny how the mind works in a hyperlinked Web. One moment we're searching for this, then we trip across that, and suddenly a distraction becomes a fascination. It was just such a train of . . . can I even say thought . . . that led me to a brief essay that expressed the tension many of us feel between the desire to share what we know, and the pressure to control, profit or merely get credit for our work. The focused mission that launched me on this diversion was an exploration of Remix Culture, the emerging practice of grabbing bits of this and that to make new whole that are presumably greater than the sum of the parts. That search led me to the nexus of alternative copyright, Creative Commons, and ultimately to Opsound.org, an experimental site for audio artists. And that’s where my thought engine got derailed in reading what Opsound artist Sal Randolph had to say about mix’n’match culture: “There is a tension between our need to be able to use cultural elements freely and the desire to make a living off of the kinds of value that are made by creativity and innovation. This isn’t only true for artists. The phenomenon is much broader, across all of our cultural knowledge, from science and technology to folklore and custom, games and sports. In a strange paradox, as technology multiplies our interconnections and access to each other’s contributions, it also motivates content owners towards restriction and control.” Randolph alludes to open source software, which evolved around the general public license, and the new media ferment that has been catalyzed by the copyleft licenses, and observes that these are crucial (but preliminary steps) “in the creation of a social consensus (another sort of social technology) that we all have a stake in a common culture which has been collectively authored.” That struck me as a deep and interesting notion, one that seems at the same time hopelessly idealistic yet temptingly plausible. One glance at the prime time television would suffice to depress. Yet at the same time there are quite obviously arising the tools that allow ordinary people to create works to amuse or inform each other. This could allow us in the not-too-distant-future to return to what I imagine to be the past. Before electricity people played pianos or fiddles or simply told stories. Industrialization and specialization squelched that. It was more efficient for most of us – who, after all, have limited talents in these regards – to outsource entertainment and information, freeing us to focus on whatever core competencies we might enjoy. I say that but it doesn't mean I like it. I fancy Robert Heinlein’s observation that specialization is for insects. Yet we live in a specialized world. At least those of us who enjoy the pleasures of hyperlink that is one of the sweetest honeys of our hive-like global economy. What a conundrum. Some few of us may rediscover the joys of self-expression, while many billions more could live comfortably for a month on what I pay for broadband access. I don’t know whether to clap or weep, so I guess I'll just go to work. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Training Daze

We hear a lot these days about citizen journalism, people taking media into their own hands to inform and entertain one another or to express themselves. What sorts of training will citizen journalists require and where will they get it? I’ve been thinking about that in light of the conference that will be held in San Antonio the second week in August by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. The Association appears to be populated by college journalism instructors, the same folks who turned out people like me – card-carrying mainstream journalists. A quick look over the conference schedule shows sessions on a gamut of topics ranging from the unique concerns of college professors (there seems to be a panel on the trials and tribulations of a being a dean) to topics more sympatico with this blog (like the session about citizen journalism hosted by New York University professor Jay Rosen). As we enter new territory, it must be apparent that the old training ways do not necessarily apply, at least not in the forms in which it is now packaged. True, aspiring citizen journalists would be wise to learn the rudiments of libel law, and they would be advised to get a dose of ethics as it applies to communicating ideas. But they are not going to get four year college degrees in order to pick up this knowledge. Are night classes available? It is also quite likely that some of the current norms will be rejected by these new, grassroots communicators. The elusive notion of objectivity, for instance, would seem alien and contrary to media initiatives that spring from an activist conviction. Aside from the likelihood that some of today’s journalism values may be, or at least seem, anachronistic, new production skills are certainly required, and it is not clear where these will be taught. Will the technologists of new media come from computer science departments? Or will they be wannabe communicators with the patience to patch together computer code? Or a combination of these and other sources? Our current training apparatus is geared to graduating content producers who will be plugged into some media enterprise in which everything from the desks to the computer networks to the sales, distribution and paychecks are handled by a hierarchy. Citizen journalism would flatten that hierarchy to one or perhaps a few. So are citizen journalists already media polymaths? Or will they need to acquire new skills and form partnerships to gain the skills they are unlikely to learn? I wish I had some answers but I’ve just started thinking about these questions, so perhaps you’ll think about it with me and we’ll talk more at some later date. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media



I have no advertising in this blog but I am trying to learn more about it. Today I’ll focus on a few bits about contextual advertising – placing ads alongside relevant words (dog food ads near dog story.) An article in Online Journalism Review notes that contextual ads sometimes create embarrassing matches, like the massage service whose ad ran alongside a news article about police raids on alleged sex parlors. That isn’t a problem unique to new media. Mismatches occur in newspapers. I’ve heard chuckles in the newsroom when it’s discovered, often after the fact, that an embarrassing story has run alongside an ad. Ad pages are laid out prior to news pages and I don’t know whether news layout people look at the juxtapositions. The two big contextual programs are Google’s AdSense and Yahoo’s ContentMatch. OJR notes that, unlike Google which relies upon word-matching technology, Yahoo has “a staff of more than 100 editorial people” to minimize placement gaffes. Jennifer Slegg, author of the JenSense blog, told OJR about another Google shortcoming. It indexs web pages monthly. Slegg told OJR that “writing a single entry about popcorn right before the (Goggle) bot visits can result in popcorn ads for about a month” even if that’s the only time in the month the word was mentioned. Contextual ad programs, says OJR, work best on focused commercial content. A travel site will do better than a general news site. Again, no surprises. It’s the same way in old media. Newspaper lifestyle sections are chock a bloc with ads. Don’t let these minor problems obscure the fact that contextual ad-matching programs are a great for beginning publishers who don’t have a sales force. For instance, Jason Calacanis old OJR he used contextual ads to “jumpstart” Weblogs, Inc. But, he added that he “derives the majority of his income from display ads sold directly to advertisers.” Heed the lesson. Start with the auto-placement programs. But use the money to hire a salesperson. The publisher who doesn’t sell his or her own content is missing the majority of the ad revenues that could be had. On a separate note, I think these auto programs turn off many advertisers. They’re too complex. For instance, Search Engine News recently reported a “simplification” of Google’s AdWords programs (by which advertisers bid for words). I read the piece but am not sure how the old program worked or how the new program differs. That may be why there is a cottage industry in helping advertisers choose words to buy. While I’m on the subject I found a survey article in Media Post that named several contextual ad vendors. I don’t think the list is complete but it’s a start. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Mid Year Review

I have an early breakfast with a mentor and friend this morning, and another tight deadline before then. But let me take a few minutes to reflect on what I’ve been doing since I began this blog at New Years and some of what I've learned since then. Mini media is what I call the creative community taking advantage of cheap computers, powerful software and broadband distribution. Some of these folks are satisfied with self expression. I am not. I want to find or create market systems in which small producers can earn a living from selling their works. Most of the money flowing into the Web today comes as advertising, and most of this goes to a few large sites. We need markets designed to give small producers a better shake. I've outlined some of these ideas in three blogs entitled Food for Thought (I, II and III). I’ve thought about payment systems, or micropayments to use the lingo of the net. Conventional wisdom says people won’t pay for Web content. That may be true. But as far as small producers are concerned, I don’t think the Web is where they’ll make their money. They may not be able to draw enough traffic. However, they can use the Web to attract an audience, and then sell other things – for example, compendiums of their works in the form of personalized magazines. Media is manufacturing. Creativity is essential to fashioning media products. But the business is in making and selling multiple copies. Expect that to be a continuing theme. We hear a lot about multimedia. I think the better term would be multimodal – take a basic idea and produce different versions, perhaps even in different media – such as using a short podcast to tease to a longer work. Give content away for free, but charge for customization and convenience. I had the glimmerings of an idea recently about creating media malls as physical focal points for mini media producers. I want to think more about that in the months ahead. I have to remind myself to learn more about RSS. And I think podcasting is more than a fad. Audio delivery of knowledge is at the early days of a long, strong secular trend. Above all new media should be delivered in short, sharp bursts. The Web is all about word-of-mouth. Make products brief and easy to pass. And remember that media is a habit. To make it habit-forming, deliver it on schedule. See you Monday! Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Tube Town

The doings of Big TV have little bearing on mini media dreamers like me but there’s so much ferment in television that I can’t resist a few comments, starting with CBS’s plan to create the Public Eye, a sort of ombudsman blog, as part of its re-launch CBSNews.com. Verne Ververs, who will play that internal watchdog role, will have his work cut out in defining his independence and restoring trust. After MediaBistro’s TVNewser mentioned the who and what of Public Eye, Rathergate.com picked up that report and said: “Blog patrons can smell a phony a mile away . . . If “Public Eye” turns out to be a sham, people can always get the skinny about CBS from (us).” USA Today reporter David Lieberman put CBS’s moves into context in an excellent analysis that looked at similar big media forays into the web world. Three thoughts jumped out at me: Comcast chief operating officer Stephen Burke said web users "want short, five-minute clips that are educational or entertaining," not traditional longer fare; Web video makes sense for short shelf-life news and sports and “esoteric” (niche?) content; and transmission costs for streaming video are down to 9 cents per viewer, per hour. In other TV news, Paid Content editor Rafat Ali laments the lack of attention being given to newly-issued set of draft directives from the European Information Commission which apparently thinks audiovisual media — whether broadcast, broadband or mobile — need rules governing “decency, accuracy, impartiality and more.” Ali writes: “These rules pitches EU against UK's media regulator Ofcom, which favors more liberal rules for online players and believes that traditionally strict broadcast regulations should not be extended to the Internet.” Ali pointed to stories on this in the London Times and International Herald Tibune but wants more fuss before the public comment period ends in September. The title of the EU directive begins, “Television Without Frontiers.” Apparently, however, this does not mean television without limits. Finally here in the good old U.S.A., I clipped a bit that said the National Association of Broadcasters is ready to go along with Congress, which TV stations to shift to digital broadcasting by 2009 and quit that analog stuff. The news bit mentioned the “windfall (the government) is expected to reap when it auctions off unused frequencies.” Are all those old channels going back out on the auction block? Is that a business opportunity for TV entrepreneurs? Or is analog on its way to extinction? Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


This & That

Here’s a non-shocker: 18-24 year olds are most influenced by new media, according to BIGresearch. The Ohio-based survey firm based its finding of age-related media use on 14,000 interviews. Taking a sample that size allows BIG to make statistically significant observation on sub-groups, by age, inside the overall sample. BIG’s press release summarizes the findings. Most are in keeping with what you would expect. Young people adopt new media more readily. What did surprise me, however, was the ubiquity of instant messaging — even among older folks in my age bracket. I don’t use IM, but 58 percent of my cohort does. In the Smart Mobs book and web site, online pioneer Howard Rheingold argues that camera-enabled cell phones give people enormous new powers to become news photographers, among other things. His prescient observations were borne out in the recent terror attacks in London. A July 8 report in the New York Times tells how London resident Chris O’Donovan photographed the aftermath of the bombings that occurred near his home. “By the end of the day,’’ wrote Times reporter Louise Story, “Mr. O’Donovan had taken about 40 photos, most with his Nokia cell phone.” The article (registration required) goes on to say that O’Donovan posted a number of his photos on Flickr.com, as did many other amateurs on the scene. In a quick visit to the Smart Mobs site, I note this lament from a professional TV photographer and blogger, who wonders how long specialists like him will be needed. The same thought has occurred to me. Are my days as a PWDJ numbered? Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


. . . No Stinking License

Eric Raymond is the author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” the 1997 essay that Wikipedia calls “the manifesto of the open source movement.” Today I think media need an open source revolution – a sharing of techniques in the public domain – to build a marketplace for small-scale content producers. But how can open systems encourage private profit? That’s the sort of thing Eric thinks about, which is why I recently read an interview several times geekier than my usual fare to grasp Eric's unorthodox views on that icon of open source, the general public license (GPL). First, here’s a quick primer. Open source refers to software developed in public, by volunteers. The source code – the actual working magic – is available for anyone to use and modify. According to Wikipedia, the general public license requires that improvements to open source code must be re-licensed under the GPL – the intention being that refinements will be tossed to the public, to be used by regular folks or improved by other code-writers. The June 30 interview in OnLamp.com, was intended to let Eric explain why he recently suggested the GPL is unnecessary. “Many people will view this as a heresy,” he tells the interviewer. “It’s part of my job to speak heresy in ways other people might feel afraid to do.” Apparently Eric believes that open source is such a superior development system that it doesn’t need to force developers (through GPL) to toss their improvement back into the public domain. Open source derives its superiority from the fact that so many developers scrutinize alterations that bugs are discovered faster. If developers cheat, and do not put improved versions back into the public domain, they give up access to this community of troubleshooters. And presumably they'll get buggy code. “My current belief is that the free market will do quite a good job of punishing defectors on its own,’’ Eric says. I’m not sure I agree or that I know enough about software development to venture an opinion. But as I've written before, Web media need to embrace open source methods. That means we're going to face the same issues as the software folks. How to create free and open systems that encourage and rewards private effort? How to prevent proprietary freeloaders from hijacking public efforts? If I had answers I would share them. All I can offer are these questions and an observation. People who create content are bound to be more fractious than software engineers. At least software engineers share professional norms. Content creators may have little in common as regards their beliefs, backgrounds, even training. It's inevitable that open source publishing efforts will schism. Like-minded cliques will peel off from the main effort and go their own way. Perhaps they'll come up with techniques that can be adopted back by the main group. Perhaps they'll just put out buggy content. Either way, Eric's observations about the market being the best disciplinarian is particularly appropriate in publishing. Ultimately, you have to believe the best ideas will win. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Blogging for Dollars

Technology Review recently published a piece on the business of blogging that focused on Jason McCabe Calacanis, chief executive of Weblogs, Inc. Since launching Weblogs in January 2004, Calacanis and his partner, Brian Alvey, have built a network of 80 blogs. I have extracted some germane points, given my focus on business models, but by all means read the original to get the full story. According to Tech Review, Calacanis and Alvey decided it might be impossible to scale up a blog. The style is so personal how could you add a second voice? And without additional voices, how many blogs could hope to get the hundreds of thousands of page-views per month necessary to generate real advertising revenues? So, writes author Andrew Madden, their solution “was to assemble a large network of bloggers who together would generate a river of traffic.’’ Tech Review goes on to note that Weblogs generates upwards of $1,000 a day in Google Adsense revenues alone, and broke the $2,000 a day barrier in May. The article quotes Calacanis, writing in his own blog, as saying that the AdSense revenues flowing in remain “much, much less than we write to our team in checks every month (think 75+ bloggers and 10 full-time staff.” (The article goes on to say that most Webloggers are writers-for-hire averaging $500 to $600 a month, rather than people with an ownership interest in their blog, the notable exception being Peter Rojas, principal of Engadet.) Here is a revealing section, quoted directly from Tech Review: “According to Calacanis, the majority of the company's revenues come from direct ads, which currently command a CPM rate (cost per 1,000 impressions) of between $4 and $12, whereas network ads generate between $1 and $4 CPM . . . (but Calacanis says) . . . to pique a direct advertiser's interest, a blog's traffic must exceed one million page views per month.” Network ads equate to Google AdSense and its rivals. Direct advertisers are sponsors who are sold on the site, much as advertisers today buy newspapers, radio or television. The way I read Calacanis's blog entry, and the Tech Review article together, while Google revenues aren't covering all of Weblogs' expenses, the firm is earning more money from direct sales anyway. So is Weblogs profitable? My guess would be yes. So while it's been said that content is king in this new media world, I think sales remains emperor for life – and that the winner will always be the team with the best salesforce. (Note: I recently blogged about a new network being launched by John Battelle, and made reference to Calacanis is a previous posting some time ago.) Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Who is Always Right?

While searching for an old letter, I found an April 1997 article in which New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell analyzed the process of innovation. He focused on HDTV showing how, rather than being discovered in a “Eureka!” moment, the technology was pushed by government policy. But it was a different point that caused me to clip the article and reference it now. Gladwell also mentioned a web company that relied on beta testers to refine a software tool. “Customers,” he wrote, “are no longer the passive recipients of innovation. In many ways they are the engines of innovation.” In the margin of the page I wrote: Why not in publishing? The question reflected my sense then, and to some extent now, that publishers do not pay sufficient attention to what customers could tell them. And if this suspicion is correct, then content manufacturers are missing the boat. Product upgrades, driven by customer feedback, may be the defining characteristic of new media. The novelty is not a particular media type such as podcasting or videoblogging. The revolution is about feedback, a concept closely tied to customization. Regular readers may recall that I have likened content production to intermodal transporation – suggesting that our job is, first, to get a customer’s attention and then to figure out what types of information that customer wants, and how they want this delivered. A real life example of how this is already being done will illustrate the point. Riding home from work last night with my carpool buddies, I heard a fascinating science tale on National Public Radio, about a sea creature that spins complex and sturdy glass structures much as a spider weaves a web. At the end of the report the announcer said I could find pictures on the NPR website. Of course! NPR is not simply in radio. It is in the audience-gathering industry. And having gotten my attention, and lured me to the web page this morning, NPR offered me easy ways to get downloads of future research stories, All Things Considered reports, or pieces done by Nell Boyce, the reporter who did the sea creatures piece. This is the sort of customization that all media must embrace. But it is only the first step of listening to the customer. When working on complex pieces these days, I find that the first published version gets echoed through specialized web sites and mail lists. Weeks or months later, I get feedback from people who are deeply interested in and better informed on the topic than me. Incorporating that feedback into future reports is an audience-builder – and probably a public good. Listening to the customer has its dark side, namely pandering. I suppose if we just counted hits, we would run endless stories about Paris Hilton (or at least pictures) and forget about the state budget or the war in Iraq. But pandering may be a problem specific to mass media, which has lowest-common denominator considerations. New media are niche media. And in these smaller content communities, the customer may indeed always be right. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy ‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Fasten Your Seat Belts

My older son was gloating when he showed me the Doonesbury cartoon that mocks bloggers by saying: “If the market really valued what you have to say, wouldn’t someone pay you for it?” It’s a question I have asked myself. So I’m hyper-alert to changes in the all-content-must-be-free mindset, such as a recent Business Week online article entitled “Here come the iTunes of News.” The article noted that Yahoo and Google have started offering searchers a way to look inside the “vaults” of publishers that charge for content. These publishers, which include market research firms, and big info-clearinghouses like Lexis-Nexis and Factiva, are selling articles ala-carte. Business Week notes that, unlike music which sells for 99 cents a download, the market has not yet set the price for a dollop of content. Even so, writes Business Week’s Sarah Lacy: “If this trend evolves, it could lay the groundwork for something Web watchers have talked about since the dawn of the commercial Internet – the age of micropayments.” Lacy quotes Yahoo Search vice president Eckart Walther as saying: “We already have the micropayment infrastructure and user registration data. All the pieces are right there.” I was pointed to the Business Week article by a bit in (the ironically named free-zine) Paid Content. “Don’t hold your breath,” was Paid Content editor Rafat Ali’s reaction to the article. Being a wishful thinker in this regard, however, I connected that Business Week article with a month-old blurb that I also noticed in Paid Content. It pointed to a new European venture called Digital Payments that claims to “be a first, enabling retailers to manage consumer payments on digital sales channels including digital television, the Internet and mobile phones. Consumers will be able to pay by Direct Debit across these channels for the first time in the same way as they use a credit card.” Now I’ve written about technology long enough to know that there are many steps between promise and delivery. And even if the system works, there’s no guarantee customers will change their free-downloading ways and use this or any other service to pay for content. But there are precedents for pervasive changes in behavior. Take automobile seat belts. Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert McNamara introduced them to U.S. cars in the 1950s, but it is only in recent years, and after the passage of mandatory seat belt laws, that people began to routinely buckle up. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 50 years to change habits about paying for content. Nor do I think it will. Things are supposed happen faster in Internet time. I think the speeup rate is about seven-fold speedup. Meanwhile, do follow Rafat Ali's advice and breath while you're waiting. As for eating, the Doonesbury cartoon had some good things to say about the nutritive value (and affordability) of cat food. Fortunately for my voracious teenager, I have so far managed to put better meals on the table. Of course, I'm a PWDJ, so I may not be forced to eat pet food while I wait for the micropayment puzzle pieces to fall into place. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy 'Cause if you ain't Mass Media, you're Mini Media


Sotto Voce, Not

Multimedia pioneer Marc Canter is a giant man with an operatic build and, as I learned last night, at least some stage experience in that tragicomic art. He spoke at a dinner about his vision for a free, open source Web infrastructure upon which private businesses would be built. He also said that one of his endeavors, the free video storage site Ourmedia, has attracted 27,000 users in under four months. I’ve observed Marc, on and off, for more than a decade, and mention the opera bit because it explains a lot about this large, loud and, I think, brilliant personality. His passion for open source solutions is a recurring theme. I attended only a couple of sessions at the Web 2.0 conference in 2004, but one of my recollections was Marc holding forth about open ware. Others might, less charitably, describe his speaking style as a rant. Indeed, if I were ever to meet Marc around a big mahogany conference table I might have it bolted down, lest he grab it and shake it, like a pinball player using body English. But that's not a criticism because I like Marc. He is the sort of character beloved by story tellers like me. Besides, I think he’s absolutely right when he says future Web development must occur on an open foundation. At Tuesday night's salon dinner co-hosted by East Bay television archivist Jeff Ubois, Marc talked about several elements of this emerging foundation beginning with Drupal, a community-building software with a Linux-like story. Drupal was developed by the Belgian programmer Dries Buytaert (playing the catalyzing role of Linus Torvalds). Ourmedia, which Canter launched with blogger JD Lasica, uses Drupal as its organizing software. Marc said there might be about 1,000 Drupal sites worldwide, and perhaps half as many programmers. (Marc shared a table with Identity Woman, who is using Drupal to build other community sites, and she lamented about the lack of regular release dates from the freeware programmers. A scheduled August meeting in Oregon may resolve some of these issues.) Marc also spoke about Ajax, which is apparently the name for a collection of existing technologies that can be used together to make a Web page more interactive. Here’s what I gleaned. Today Web pages do a lot of fetching; when you click, electrons have to make a big round trip to and from the server. The Ajax tools apparently allow designers to embed executable modules (like Java code) in the body of the page. These executables reside in memory. So when the person clicks, the electrons need only go as far as the computer bus. At least that’s the way I think it works, and as for what designers will do with Ajax, I suppose we’ll find out. Marc made a larger point, about how these and other tools (such as digital identity registries) would enable people to have multiple personalities in cyberspace. He has a whole vision of so-called Digital Lifestyle Aggregators – different online personalities I guess. But I won't go there. That’s too sociological and I’m too conservative. I figure one personality per customer but, hey, that’s just me. Where Marc makes the most sense is when he insists that the basic foundations of Web applications should be open in one way or another. They can be truly open source, as in making the code available as is the case with Drupal. Or the sharing can be partial, such as when profit-motivated players like Amazon create applications with open APIs that other applications can be built upon them. Remember. The foundation is the Web, and beneath that, the Internet protocol. Every proprietary firm or application built on top of those free layers depend on the interoperability of the freeware that lies below. Freeware is the goose that lays the golden egg. If Web 2.0 developers are not careful to build a new freeware layer we will kill the goose. And that would be a tragedy of operatic proportion. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Sweat Equity Media

Trying to shake off the lethargy of the 4th of July holiday weekend, I came across this inspirational comment by Excite co-founder Joe Kraus: “There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur because it’s never been cheaper to be one.” Thanks to Paid Content for pointing me to Joe’s blog, Bnoopy. As he explains in his first post Bnoopy was the code name for Excite when he and some Stanford colleagues launched it a little over a decade ago. Excite soared for a time but ultimately crashed. Now Bnoopy is the forum where Joe shares lessons learned the hard way as he tries to get some altitude for his new startup, JotSpot. (Its FAQ describes JotSpot as a platform for building wikis to facilitate online collaborations.) “Excite.com took $3,000,000 to get from idea to launch; JotSpot took $100,000,” Joe writes in his “great time to be an entrepreneur” post. He attributes this 30-fold reduction to cheaper hardware, free and robust open source applications, the ability to work with talented people anywhere in the world, and the ability to target advertising and promotion dollars through innovations such as keyword searches. In an earlier post, Joe suggested that success, in the current Web environment, depended on finding and serving niches rather than mass markets. “Think about how to serve millions of markets of dozens instead of dozens of markets of millions,” he wrote. (That reminds me of what Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty told me in an interview in 1995, when I wrote about their sale of Global Network Navigator to AOL. As I recall, they said something like: the Web is a thousand $1 million opportunities.) To round out Joe’s advice, I found this nugget in yet another Bnoopy entry. Startups must set goals they can measure. These goals should be relative to the competition. Success is not simply launching this or that product on schedule. The effort must be timely and competitive. Inspired? Well, here’s another thought from me. Everything I’ve seen and learned about Silicon Valley suggests that honest failure is common. It’s almost necessary and expected when trying new things. Learning from failure is the art. In this light, it's never been a better time to be an entrepreneur because there's never been a better time in which to fail. Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Follow the Money (to RSS)

A new $100 million venture capital fund has been launched to promote startups in RSS, or Really Simple Syndication -- a technology for delivering electronic subscriptions directly to a user's inbox. So reports Tom Foremski, who leads the business reporting team at SiliconValleyWatcher. In an item dated June 30, Foremski, a veteran tech journalist formerly with the Financial Times, wrote: "This reminds me of years ago when Kleiner Perkins launched a $100m Java fund in 1996. It is milestone for RSS and its use." His piece offers a quick introduction to the principals, John Palfrey, director of an Internet think-tank at Harvard, and Jim Moore, an authority on business ecosystems. Palfrey blogged about his move into investing. Foremski's report included a quote in which Moore likened the Internet to "a mind constituted of millions of inter-networked neurons." Moore went on to say, "the participants in this exchange of information are capable of astonishingly rapid and sometimes subtle community consciousness and action. The evolution of these communities has already had a profound effect on the media, professions and enterprises." RSS has long been on my list of things to learn more about. Today I looked around for primers on both the technology and its implications. The implications are clear. RSS drops the newspaper on the driveway -- electronically speaking. J.D. Lasica gives an explanation with examples in a 2003 article in Online Journalism Review. On the technical I chose a few primers that seemed reasonably current and readily comprehensible. The Christian Science Monitor offers a tutorial that starts with the basics: how-to sign up for a news reader (the technology that the user employes to request and receive RSS feeds. Web publishers who want to use RSS to deliver content should read the Utah State Government tutorial compiled by Ray Matthews. Written for a non-tech audience, it is full of links to the technical information needed to add RSS publishing to a site. Danny Sullivan put together a good how-to in April 2003 for Search Engine Watch. So is RSS the next big thing? More likely it's the current big thing and I just haven't wrapped my mind around it. This report by Foremski, a friend and colleague for years, tells me it's time to catch up. (Note: I'm taking off for the July 4th weekend, so the next time I'll be in this space will be Tuesday.) Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy 'Cause if you ain't Mass Media, you're Mini Media