In Which I Criticize CBS for Doing Something Good

March 18, 2007

For this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, CBS is broadcasting all of the first three rounds on its website, for free. Except that it isn’t. Due to blackout rule – which, er, CBS made up (and, to their credit, explain forthrightly on their website) – users cannot see any of the games being broadcast by their local CBS affiliate. This is due – again, helpfully explained by CBS’ website – to the local CBS affiliates’ having “exclusive rights” to the broadcast of whatever it is they happen to be broadcasting at any given moment. And good for them.

The thinking behind this decision is straightforward enough: CBS pays a lot of money for the NCAA tournament broadcast rights; affiliates pay a lot of money to CBS for the exclusive rights to content, including the tournament; hence, the affiliates want people watching that content to be watching it through them, to maximize eyeballs and therefore maximize advertising revenue. Inherent in the assumption driving the blackout policy, then, is that there is a more-or-less finite number of possible viewers for the content. Any viewer watching the small, grainy window on their computer (a PC running Internet Explorer) is one not watching the local CBS station, so it only makes sense to give them access to content they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

This works great for someone who either doesn’t much care which game they’re watching, or someone simultaneously watching the TV and the PC. But let’s posit that there’s another kind of viewer – let’s call them ‘JKD’ – who doesn’t own a television and without access to the content online, might not watch it at all. Obviously, CBS and its affiliates are within their rights to say to this hypothetical user, “Screw you – buy a TV”, or force them to a local bar (though when CBS got in the biz of encouraging bar patronage isn’t clear to me). But why would they want to do that? Seriously – why? What’s the margin in, having constructed a method and venue for expanding access to content – for expanding total possible audience past what existed previously – then introducing an artificial and relatively arbitrary barrier preventing some or much of that possible new audience from accessing relatively arbitrary categories of that content?

I’d offer that, while CBS has introduced this great new service they don’t really understand what they’ve done. Which is odd, especially given how basic what they’ve done is. But since I’m a helpful guy, I’ll tell them what it is they’ve done: they’ve put television on their website. Really! It’s pretty cool. It also makes a lot of sense, given that CBS is primarily in the business of producing and distributing content that is television, that their website feature…content that is television.

It’s kind of dawned on TV people recently that the Internet isn’t really going away – that it’s in fact something that a lot of people do rather than watch television, and that rather than using their websites to convince people using the Internet that they should stop doing so at particular times of day on particular days of the week and instead watch television, it’d really much easier to bring their primary product to those people. It’s refreshing, the lack of obtuseness.

Except as the strange and arbitrary blackout rule demonstrates, they really don’t quite get it, yet. I’m not exactly sure why, but then I’m not and never have been in the business of running a television network and am, after all, just Some Guy With a Blog and without a television. But wouldn’t that make me a perfect customer? Evidently yes, but only to a certain point.


The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged

December 3, 2006

Nothing to add to this:

If Only Empathy Was Java-Enabled

That’s the problem with these messianical internet types. Their intense enthusiasm for the web’s democratic properties is really, by virtue of it being a computer-accessible medium that offers the greatest rewards to the earliest adopters, an intense enthusiasm for further channels through which educated white guys can get rich, grow famous, and enhance their speaking fees. They’re very interested in the expansion of opportunity for guys like them. Not so much in the crushingly hopeless existences of others.


Yahoo! and the Identity of Things

December 2, 2006

I’ll admit that Yahoo!‘s purchase last year of Flickr and del.icio.us has long been a source of speculation and excitement for me. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing, but I felt it had to be something pretty cool.

Now comes at least part of the answer:

If you like the Wii, you’ll love Yahoo’s new Wii portal, which aggregates Flickr photos, games, avatars with custom Wii gear, links from del.icio.us and MyWeb, stories from Yahoo’s Games section, Wii-related questions from Yahoo Answers and links to buy consoles and games on Yahoo Shopping. It’s the first of many sites in Yahoo’s “brand universe”, says Variety, and the plan is to roll out over 100 more of these fan sites during 2007, each one focused around a popular brand. They can then use these niches to sell targeted advertising. And while Yahoo isn’t seeking the approval of the brands themselves, they hope that these companies will play ball and provide them with some extra content in exchange for promoting the brand. Future portals could include “American Idol” and “The Lord of the Rings”, according to Yahoo. Just like the relaunch of Yahoo Food and Yahoo TV, these portals might help Yahoo to bring together some of their scattered social offerings. Since Flickr and del.icio.us have such unique identities, it wasn’t clear how they’d be integrated into other services: now it seems they’ll be treated as huge, free content repositories.

This is really exciting for a couple of reasons:

  • The focus is on user-centric identity and evaluation. By basing the content of each of these channels of the “brand universe” on Flickr and del.icio.us users’ content and assessment of products, the products become not about themselves but instead about how people use and talk about them, and how they’re important to their lives. In a recent column on the future of publishing, Cory Doctorow said the following:

“The thing about an e-book is that it’s a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list. It begs to be converted to witty signatures at the bottom of e-mails. It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life. Nothing sells books like a personal recommendation…”

And that’s exactly right, but it’s true even beyond e-books. All cultural objects and phenomena are social. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting, but what makes it GREAT is all of the millions of words written about it; all of the millions of trips to the Louvre that people have taken – all of the many things that people do and say and create because of that one painting. The Nintendo Wii is no different, really: it’s just a bucket of wires in a cool case. What makes it worthwhile as a cultral object is the experiences that people have with it and what they say about those experiences, and this method of organization recognizes that central fact.

  • Yahoo! seems to understand the power of the second economy (aka, “(a) amateur economy, (b) sharing economy, (c) social production economy, (d) noncommercial economy, or (e) p2p economy”) and the potential for a hybrid economy. By making each of these channels in the “brand universe” more about those who are using and doing things with cultural objects, it enables those members of the second economy to gain greater exposure and, potentially, commercial viability of their own right in the first economy.

People identify themselves in many different ways, and one of those ways is through the things that they use and enjoy. There’s no shame in that, necessarily – after all, “things” are, in their inception, dreamed up by and created by other people. For as long as consumer products have existed, they have been adopted by people and often modified from their original purpose in ways that assert individual identity. This latest effort by Yahoo! acknowledges that central fact of consumer culture: that things become what people make of them, and that what people make of things is valuable, sometimes more valuable than the thing itself.


Soup Bowl for a Square Peg Part III – Audience

October 25, 2006

In yesterday’s post I referenced an e-mail sent from HOTSOUP! Editor-in-Chief and former Associated Press political reporter Ron Fournier. There was one more very noteworthy passage from the e-mail, which follows:

Your voice is already being heard…
Fox News began its interview Monday with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with a screen shot of HOTSOUP.com, and asked him the question you’ve been answering in the Soup: “What is the biggest issue being ignored by the mainstream media and our leaders?” Cornyn pointed to the importance of the judiciary. The host followed up by citing some of your opinions – health care, education, poverty – and asked the senator whether those issues “are moving the meter” on Capitol Hill. Congratulations!

This community is only a few days old and you’re already MOVING THE METER!

HOTSOUP!, again, was founded and is run by

  • Four Democratic political consultants who are partners in one of Washington, D.C.’s largest consulting firms and were key advisers to the last two Democratic presidential nominees
  • Two Republican political consultants who were key to the advertising and message development strategy for George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns
  • A former Associated Press political reporter – Fournier – who covered all of the above campaigns

And yet, the above referenced e-mail gives the impression that it is the dynamism and excitement of the HOTSOUP! community – rather than the political and press connections of its founders and proprietors – that landed a screenshot of HOTSOUP! on Fox News and had the newscaster asking HOTSOUP!’s questions to a sitting United States senator.

This is, to say the least, deeply dishonest. But it’s also a useful window into what kind of “community” of “Opinion Drivers” HOTSOUP! strives to be. In short, it’s classic vaporware – a lot of hullaballoo over something that is simply not what it claims to be. In point of fact, there is no community per se at HOTSOUP! – or at least no evidence of a community.

One of the few observable interactions of the site thus far is that a member – who, as I discussed yesterday, fits exactly with the ideological aims and goals of the proprietors of the site – has been granted the opportunity to participate on equal footing with other, proprietor-selected “Opinion Drivers”: Applebee’s International Chairman Lloyd Hill; Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes; American Idol Judge Randy Jackson; and Civic Enterprises President John Bridgeland (who are not even ostensible members of the community). It is, as I proposed, blogging and social software as sharecropping: please the owners with your work and you get your reward – otherwise, there is not much of value offered by this community.

It also is derived from a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic nature of online communities and user-generated content in communal or networked settings. Users join communities for two basic reasons:

  • Shared interests – to read others’ ideas and opinions and contribute their own; a desire to make new friends and allies
  • Presence of pre-existing friends in the community

HOTSOUP!, by casting itself as a place for

  • people who are different from each other
  • people whose friends ask them about stuff (but not their friends)

is actually intentionally isolating itself from the basic principles of online community.
Additionally, the “reward” for being a successful (whatever that might mean, though correct-thinking seems to be the metric in use) member of the community is the opportunity to interact with and on the same level as people who are even more different from them: celebrities.

At a very basic level, this might make a kind of sense: after all, people love celebrities, and celebrity culture is perhaps the most prevalent form of contemporary American culture. But while people love celebrities, very few actually flatter or delude themselves that they could actually be friends with celebrities, even if they harbor dreams of being a celebrity themselves. Mostly, people like spending time with and talking to people who are like them: people that they know – their friends.

Tomorrow and/or Friday: credibility, identity and language.


Soup Bowl for a Square Peg Part II – Content

October 24, 2006

In a continuing analysis of HOTSOUP!, today I’ll address some issues of content.
The proprietors of HOTSOUP! offer the following rationale for the site:

“There is no single place for Opinion Drivers to gather online. That was the day we set out to build HOTSOUP.com.”

Not entirely grammatical, but that’s picking nits. It’s arguably true that no “single place” exists online for the set of all “Opinion Drivers” – there are hundreds, thousands of those places, where for the most part like-minded people – assembled along measures of similarity in knowledge, politics, interests, kitten-photo-taking, etc. – gather. The Internet hasn’t been around forever, but it’s been around long enough for many of these sorts of communities to be born, die, and be re-born in dozens of different ways. There’s been plenty of opportunity for a “single place” to arise and by using some basic deductive logic one might easily conclude that the fact that one hasn’t might signal that people don’t want a “single place.”

But maybe I’m wrong, and there is room for such a general-interest community site. To that end, I’ll offer an e-mail that went out today to HOTSOUP! members from the site’s Editor-in-Chief, former Associated Press political reporter Ron Fournier. It read in part,

Look for Ian Broverman, a suburban Maryland robotics engineer and the first Hot Issues panelist drawn from the community, to join Applebee’s International Chairman Lloyd Hill, Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes, American Idol Judge Randy Jackson, and Civic Enterprises President John Bridgeland.

Since HOTSOUP.com premiered less than a week ago, we’ve been flooded with requests to include community Members in the homepage feature. Ian emailed us in July, shortly after we announced plans for the site, and asked to be a part of the HOTSOUP community. “Biased Internet has isolated and galvanized viewpoints like they never have been before,” he wrote. “I’m glad to see people coming together, as you are.”

We stayed in touch with Ian, and asked him to answer our first Hot Issues question. Ian, whose panel will remain “in the Soup” for several days, said polarization is the most important issue ignored by the mainstream media and leaders today.

“When you have people changing jobs quickly and talking in chat rooms to people who think exactly like them, they start forgetting how to deal with people not like them,” Ian says in his Hot Issues viewpoint. “That’s why it’s really important for people to come together and really talk to people that don’t quite think like them.” As you know, that’s a core value of HOTSOUP.com.

There are a few things going on here that I’ll return to later, but for current purposes by far the most important is the last paragraph. Fournier and the rest of HOTSOUP!’s proprietors enumerate such a wide range of topics for discussion as to be essentially meaningless in forming boundaries for usage, but are explicit that the very first “Hot Issues” discussant has been chosen because he is interested in an issue of the most interest to the site’s proprietors. It’s a community where you can talk about anything, but some – those who agree with the site’s proprietors – are more equal than others.

Secondly – what do a long-time Bush family political operator (Hughes), a CEO about whose corporation Fournier just wrote a book (Hill), Randy Jackson, and a former policy adviser to George W. Bush (Bridgeland) have to say about “polarization,” and why should anyone care? I frankly have no idea.

Getting back to the attitudes of the proprietors towards the users, there is a consitent thread running through what appears in the above e-mail from Fournier, and the Membership Agreement.

3. Fees. You acknowledge that Hotsoup.com reserves the right to charge for the Services and to change its fees from time to time in its discretion. If Hotsoup.com terminates your Membership because you have breached this Agreement, you shall not be entitled to the refund of any unused portion of subscription fees.

HOTSOUP! is currently a free service, but feels the need to include a “Fees” section in its Membership Agreement. The first principle of this service is its treatment of Members as, principally, revenue units. This is reinforced later in the same Agreement, in how HOTSOUP! treats the content produced by its Members. This is a long excerpt, but important:

5. Non-commercial Use by Users. The Services are for the personal use of Users only and may not be used in connection with any commercial endeavors except those that are specifically endorsed or approved by Hotsoup.com in writing prior to such commercial use. Illegal and/or unauthorized use of the Services, including collecting usernames and/or email addresses of Members by electronic or other means for the purpose of sending unsolicited email or unauthorized framing of or linking to the Website is prohibited. Commercial advertisements, affiliate links, and other forms of solicitation may be removed from Member profiles without notice and may result in termination of Membership privileges. Appropriate legal action will be taken for any illegal or unauthorized use of the Services.

6. Proprietary Rights in Content on Hotsoup.com.

a. By displaying, uploading, publishing or sharing (collectively “Posting”) any content, messages, text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, profiles, works of authorship, or any other materials or media (collectively, “Content”) on or through the Services, you hereby grant to Hotsoup.com, a non-exclusive, fully-paid and royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable and transferable license (with the right to sublicense through unlimited levels of sublicensees) to use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, syndicate, broadcast and distribute such Content in any manner, in any medium, for any purpose, including, without limitation, commercial purposes. Hotsoup.com and its licensees reserve the right to display advertisements in connection with your Content and to use your Content for advertising and promotional purposes.

b. You represent and warrant that: (i) you own all right, title and interest (including all intellectual property rights) to the Content posted by you on or through the Services or otherwise have the right to grant the license set forth in this Agreement, (ii) the Posting of your Content on or through the Services does not violate the intellectual property rights, privacy rights, publicity rights, copyrights, contract rights or any other rights of any person or third party, (iii) you have already paid, and you will be solely responsible for paying (to the extent any later become due) all royalties, fees, and any other monies owing any person by reason of any Content posted by you to or through the Website or Services, (iv) if your Content contains images, video, audio or other media, you are the individual who appears or is heard in your Content, or alternatively, you have obtained from any and all individuals (including consent from parents or guardians for any individual under the age of 18) who appear and/or are heard in your Content to grant the rights described herein, (v) you agree to keep all records necessary to establish that your Content does not violate any of the foregoing representations and warranties and to make such records available upon request of Hotsoup.com, and (vi) that you have no outstanding agreement or obligation that is in conflict with any of the provisions of this Agreement or that would preclude you from complying with the terms and conditions found herein. You agree to pay for all royalties, fees, and any other monies owing any person by reason of any Content posted by you to or through the Services.

c. The Services contain Content of Hotsoup.com (“Hotsoup.com Content”). Hotsoup.com Content is protected by copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret and other laws, and Hotsoup.com owns and retains all rights (including all intellectual property rights) in the Hotsoup.com Content and the Services. Hotsoup.com hereby grants you a limited, revocable, nonsublicensable license to reproduce and display the Hotsoup.com Content (excluding any software code) solely for your personal use in connection with viewing the Website and using the Services.

d. The Services contain Content of Users and other Hotsoup.com licensors. Except for Content posted by you, you may not copy, modify, translate, publish, broadcast, transmit, distribute, perform, display, reproduce, use, license, create derivative works from, transfer or sell any information or Content contained in the Website or any Content appearing on or through the Services. You may not develop or derive for commercial sale any data in machine-readable or other form that incorporates or uses any substantial part of the Website or its Content. You may not transfer to or store any data residing or exchanged over the Services in any electronic network for use by more than one user unless you obtain prior written permission from Hotsoup.com.

e. You grant the rights hereunder whether or not your Content is used by Hotsoup.com, any other Users or HOTSOUP.com?s licensees. You acknowledge that your consideration for the rights you grant to Hotsoup.com and its licensors under this Agreement in and to your Content is, among other things, the tools and functionality provided for your use of the Services. You will not receive any further compensation of any kind for your Content and you will not receive credit on or in association with your Content. Your Content will not be acknowledged, returned or held “in confidence” by Hotsoup.com or its licensors. Hotsoup.com and its licensors reserve the right in their respective sole discretion to remove or not post any Content, for any reason. Your Content will not be returned, and Hotsoup.com and its licensors have no obligation to inform you of any decision to remove or not post such materials.

7. Content Posted.

a. Hotsoup.com may delete any Content in its sole discretion, including, without limitation, any Content that in the sole judgment of Hotsoup.com violates this Agreement or which may be offensive, illegal or violate the rights, harm, or threaten the safety of any person. Hotsoup.com assumes no responsibility for monitoring the Services for inappropriate Content or conduct. If at any time Hotsoup.com chooses, in its sole discretion, to monitor the Services, Hotsoup.com nonetheless assumes no responsibility or liability for the Content, no obligation to modify or remove any inappropriate Content, and no responsibility for the conduct of the User submitting any such Content.

b. You are solely responsible for the Content that is posted on or through any of the Services through your Member account, and any material or information that is transmitted through your account to other Members and for your interactions with other Users. Hotsoup.com does not endorse and has no control over the Content. Content is not necessarily reviewed by Hotsoup.com prior to Posting and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Hotsoup.com. Hotsoup.com makes no warranties, express or implied, as to the Content or to the accuracy and reliability of the Content or any material or information that you transmit to other Members.

I’m no lawyer, but on the face of it this Membership Agreement seems possibly illegal – certainly unenforcable – and, most importantly, incredibly insulting. In essence and in English, the text of this Agreement says:

  1. It is the responsibility of Users to make sure that they own content that they post – we are not liable if this isn’t the case.
  2. Once Users post content that they’ve certified that they own, WE own it. You can still use your own content, but so can we, for whatever we wish.
  3. You can’t use any other User’s content. For anything.

Section 6(d) is really one of the more remarkable clauses one could include in a Membership Agreement for what seeks to be a high-profile blog/social-networking service/something, as it purports to prohibit blogging. You’re not allowed to excerpt and link to HOTSOUP! content:

Except for Content posted by you, you may not copy, modify, translate, publish, broadcast, transmit, distribute, perform, display, reproduce, use, license, create derivative works from, transfer or sell any information or Content contained in the Website or any Content appearing on or through the Services.

It’s blogging and social networking as sharecropping, basically – all production for the benefit of the owners.
Of course, HOTSOUP! can’t actually enforce these terms, as many of the uses they prohibit are explicitly covered by Fair Use. But given this sort of draconian and insulting view of what its Users are there to do – provide Fees, due dilligence and Content for the site’s owners – I can’t imagine that enforcing the terms is going to be much of an issue – who in their right mind would bother dealing with or providing content for HOTSOUP!?

Well, the site’s owners do have an intended audience, as it turns out. I’ll return to that issue in the next installment.


Stuff2.0

September 4, 2006

This is going to get rather far into the weeds, quite quickly. So:

I need to buy a new phone this week.

It’s two years since I’ve been seriously interested in what a phone can do. In that time, the whole “moblogging” thing has gone a little cold, due mostly to punitive mobile communications costs in much of the world and limited, cranky functionality. This blog is run on WordPress, and the built-in post-by-mail option has stubbornly refused to work for me. And my old Treo 600 (which also needs replacing next year) is now refusing to connect to the blog’s Write Post screen. That’s why this place goes quiet when I’m away. I don’t have a laptop, and my current set-up can only post here via Flickr, which inserts weird formatting into the posts.

Point One: there are a lot of functions – full-function Web use with mobile sub-sub-notebook devices; blogging; word processing; VOIP and video-multi-conferencing – that current technologies should be able to do, that some people want them to do; that, in fact, many people pay good money with the idea of doing, but whose reliability is not anywhere near the reliability and functionality necessary to fully integrate them as standardized uses for the technologies. Put more simply – it’s gotten to the point where just about anyone can pick up a mobile phone and, without thought, conceptualize what it’s for, how to use it, and then use it. The same can’t be said for total wireless connectivity with hand-sized devices.

So when I get a new phone, I want to look again at how it can interact with the internet.

Which leads me to the notion of informational presence.

With a working moblogging system, there are all kinds of ways to translate physical presence into informational presence. A way to cast my shadow on to the net.

A glogging — “cyborglogging” — solution could have my phone automatically taking shots while I’m travelling and uploading them. You could see where I am in 15- or 30-minute spaces, perhaps. In theory, I could drop Quicktime-playable voice messages on the site whenever I had time to record them on the phone and MMS or email them off. Same with phone video — vlogging. It also seems likely that my GPS-logged physical presence could be placed on the site.

Or I could set up a module-powered site, like Protopage, and have it call RSS feeds from web services. So there’d be a separate page that acted as a snapshot of my presence, right up to running the weather report for the town I’m in.

A live record/recording on the web of where you are and what you’re doing. A collection of the information stream trailing behind me as I move through the world. To the point where someone could check your Protopage or whatever and see where you are, where you’ve been, what the weather was and is like and is going to be, and possibly even text you to let you know it’s going to rain in an hour, right off the page with an Ipipi function.

This partially mirrors some of the current thinking about “blogjects” and the like — wired objects that blog their presence and status. Or, to butcher some writing of Sterling’s, using a gizmo to create spimelike action.

Point Two: the above functionalities are also technical possibilities, and could likely be accomplished rather easily by someone with some expert software and hardware interface knowledge. But – in contrast to those functionalities I mentioned in Point One – all of the above functionalities are, at present, hacks. They are not even mentioned as the reasons that you would buy the products which are capable of the functions, but are instead inferred and imagined as functions that the devices should and, with the proper code and finesse, could do.

That’s the techie standpoint. The social standpoint is something else. Either you’re stalking yourself, ha ha, or you’re making it disturbingly easy for someone else to stalk you. My girlfriend, navigating through the countryside with a TomTom GPS device, opined that someone with deep unauthorised access to the TomTom system would know when your home is unoccupied and vulnerable to burglary. I think about it every time I choose to let people on the net know I’m travelling. I’m not sure how smart it is to have a page that not only shows where I am, but where I’m not. Services like Dodgeball or the UK equivalent seem to me, on a cynical level, to invite personal disaster.

Look through any list of WordPress plug-ins and you’ll find a hundred things that seemed like a good idea at the time to the coders but are in fact utterly useless. The equivalent of chindogu — “unuseless” inventions that do actually do something, but they’re something you’d never actually want to do, like converting all the dates on your website to Star Trek stardates. I suspect that a lot of the tools for mobile informational presence are much the same thing. You don’t actually need to know that I’m taking a piss in a public toilet in West Stow, and I’m unlikely to choose to pass on that little bit of information.

(Setting up a Protopage in advance of visiting an area, filled with informational feeds about that area, is, however, a good idea, and with reliable phone-web access, I’ll be trying it soon.)

Ultimately, how much information do I need to broadcast? How many footprints do I need to leave on the net? And also: in an age where privacy is becoming an important political issue once more, how much do I choose to give up just to perform experiments of doubtful interest and practicality? Niki already has to drop to 29mph in the car on her way home from her mother’s in order to avoid being photographed by strangers. And her mother is fearing the insertion of a chip in her rubbish bin to measure how much waste she’s throwing away, and wondering if she’s going to have to start storing garbage in the house to avoid being charged for tossing broken objects and wine bottles she can’t get to a glass bank.

I need moblogging tools because I want to be able to produce and publish content from the street. The question now, as I wonder what new tools are available for my incoming shiny new phone is: what constitutes content? The difference between me and a blogject is that it doesn’t know it’s squirting useless crap on to the web. The difference between me and a glogger is that a glogger doesn’t care that they’re squirting useless crap on to the web — or, at least, has set the bar low enough for the term “content” that automatically photoblogging themselves taking a piss qualifies as something worth expressing through a webpage on its way to storage.

A lot of you have commented in email that this site now seems awfully pared down compared to the previous iteration. I mean, I haven’t finished rebuilding it yet. But there needs to be a conscious difference between being able to just cover it in stuff, and actually choosing where to focus your attention and mine where it’ll do the most good.

Okay. I understand why Ellis finishes the way he does – it’s the implications of it all that are relevant to him – but I’d like to first answer his “what constitutes content?” question and then take it in another direction.

Anything Warren Ellis puts up at his website is content, because he says it is. He is a brand and has earned credibility, both through his comics work and through the consistently excellent content at his site – but at this point, if he even maintains 75% of the quality of previous content at the site, he can continue basically forever with sustained and even increasing readership. Not that he would or should, but he could, because his place as an A-lister is well-cemented, not least because of the regular cross-linking from Super-A-listers BoingBoing and William Gibson. A random picture that he posts becomes of much higher value by virtue of his having posted it, just as Atrios’ Friday Cat Blogging is judged of much higher value than random cats because he’s Atrios.

[You’ll also notice that in one sentence I – a more-or-less-unread blogger – just linked to several of the highest-trafficked sites on the web. This is an interesting phenomenon, in and of itself, as is the cross-linking between A-listers – for more on that, read what Fred has to say.]

So it’s really not so mysterious what content is for someone who’s reached that threshold.

A more interesting question to ponder is: what is content for the rest of us – and what’s the relationship between availablility of technology and production of content, particularly social content? I’d argue that we’re caught in a bit of a time-lag right now, on these issues: there are a lot of people who see the promise and coolness of, e.g., real-time geotagging correlated with the *click* of a camera phone and a quick burst of SMS, but there aren’t that many people who are actually doing it. And hence, as the primary value of geotagging is in having a lot of people doing it – you’re not going to geotag your whole neighborhood, let alone your city, by yourself – there’s a disincentive for all but the very-early adopters to actually hack together the tech necessary for the cool new function.

There, too, is the other rub: there aren’t that many people geotagging yet because you can’t “just do it,” which roughly translated means you can’t just buy it.

This leads to an interesting re-assessment of Web2.0 phenomena. While the services themselves are, for the most part and at the first level nearly always, free, the means of producing and interfacing with them are not. I’m not arguing for any sort of digital-divide issue that would somehow deligitimize the production of culture on the Web – ultimately I think that, as has increasingly been the pattern for the past five or so years, the gadgets (spimes, blogjects, whatever) of tomorrow+1 will be cheaper and better at all their functionalities than any of the currently available stuff – but I think it’s quite worth noting that in many cases the social uses of the Web and new thingies, which long lagged behind the latest technological innovations, have now caught up with and in many cases passed currently mass-available means.

There is, really, no good reason that a phone shouldn’t be able to take a picture, compose an accompanying blog post via voice recognition software, and post both via the best available connection (be it cell tower, Bluetooth, WiFi or what have you) – with geotagging – to your ClaimID-verified blog. It could do all of those things – it just doesn’t.


On-Line and Off-Line Discourse(s)

August 16, 2006

The magazine “Popular Mechanics” has been at the forefront of investigating – and debunking – 9/11 conspiracy theories. They write:

“The results of our research appeared in the March 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. That cover story, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” provoked a strong reaction on the internet and in the mainstream media. The online version of the article remains the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

That’s great! So what do they do with the most-read article in the website’s history?

“…we decided to extend our original investigation and publish a book-length version of our findings.”

NOOOO!!!!

You really couldn’t write a better script for – and I don’t like using this term, but have to in this case – an “old-media” company misunderstanding the existant and emerging models of readership than this one.

The whole thing is even more bizarre – for reasons I will explain shortly – because, as they state outright, this investigation seeks not to tell the story of 9/11 but “th[e] book aims only to answer the questions raised by conspiracy theorists themselves.” [emphasis in original]

So why do I find it strange that they’re writing a book? Let me explain.

Having a well-read magazine with a trusted name remains, for the time being, a pretty good and reliable way to make money, and “Popular Mechanics” remains a lead title in Hearst Corporation’s stable.

Writing a book, as has been the case more or less since books were invented, remains a pretty good and reliable way to not make money. To horribly simplify it: a tiny number of books make large amounts of money; a slightly larger number of books make enough money to feed their authors. The vast majority of books fall don’t do either, but rather fall into categories of cost/benefit analysis – namely, does a title make enough over break-even for the publisher to offer the author another contract, or not? The author, in these cases, is earning the satisfaction of publication and not a lot else.

Further, the vast majority of books sell very few copies. Shockingly few.

So while the publication of this book stands a good chance of making some – but almost certainly not bank-breaking amounts – money for the Hearst Corporation (not least because much of the book is apparently comprised of already-published material that has already paid for itself with magazine advertising), the authors will stand to benefit very little, at least in financial terms.

Okay. So why write a book? Well, unless one really really enjoys making money primarily for one’s corporate masters, presumably the motivation is intellectual – namely, a desire to engage with a readership in exploration and discussion of an issue. The book’s editors certainly seem impassioned on the topic when they write,

“The work of comprehending the events of 9/11 is not finished. It is vital to understand exactly what went wrong that day and to make sure it does not happen again. There were lapses and shortcomings on the part of government agencies in the months and years leading up to 9/11. Every American wishes our government had been more alert and better prepared. And every American is entitled to ask hard questions. But there is a world of difference between believing that our government should have known what was coming and claiming that someone did know and deliberately did nothing–or, even worse, actively perpetrated attacks on its own citizens. By deliberately blurring that line, conspiracy theorists exploit and misdirect the public’s legitimate anger over the events of that day.

Some argue that alternative 9/11 scenarios are valuable in that they promote skepticism of a government that has not always been as open as many would like. But a climate of poisonous suspicion will not help America adjust to the post-9/11 world. And the search for truth is not aided by the dissemination of falsehoods.”

The book is not a lark – these are people who clearly care about getting the results of their extensive investigative reporting, editing and writing into the popular discourse to combat what they see as a “poisonous” and unseemly line of thinking. And when you’re talking about an article that’s the website’s historically most popular, one that more than 850,000 people have printed out – well, that’s a pretty sizable readership, no?

No. Or at least – probably not.

9/11 conspiracy theories abound, and have quickly and widely found currency and community because of the Internet. There’s just no two ways about it: the basic fact of the Internet’s anonymity and ease of access to any and all information has allowed lines of thinking and investigation that would previously have been the province almost solely of leaflet-Xeroxing cranks to become accessible to previously-unimaginable numbers of people. While the authors of the book do mention (only to deride) “…Wikipedia, the open-source online encyclopedia, and Loose Change, the 9/11 conspiracy documentary that has become a sensation on college campuses,” what they fail to note about Loose Change is that it has become a “sensation” because it is freely acessible on the Internet – primarily through Google Video but also through YouTube (where a search for ‘loose change’ also includes a Spanish version and several videos de-bunking its claims).

Loose Change, too, would likely be relegated to much, much smaller audiences – those willing to make time for public viewing of DVDs or tapes passed through college and other fringe communities, or those willing to manually make those copies themselves – if not for the Internet. Or, more likely, it simply wouldn’t exist without current levels of information communications technology – the ability of a few individuals to find, piece together, edit and distribute video for little more expense than the already-sunk cost of a computer is a very recent and still pretty mind-blowing idea.

So if the degree of awareness and reach of 9/11 conspiracy theories is due almost entirely to the Internet, then it should be little surpise that the success of articles purporting to debunk these theories would also follow from their availability on… the Internet. Indeed, it’s so obvious as to be a tautology – an article that is “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times” can be classified as an enormous success because it’s “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

It’s clear that the article hit a nerve, and that it was able to reach a broad and interested audience. It’s still the top result when you Google “9/11 Conspiracy Theory.” For that matter, it’s the second result when you Google “Popular Mechanics.”
But it also seems to be clear that the authors and editors at “Popular Mechanics” don’t really know why the article was and is so massively successful and popular. Or maybe they do – maybe they realize that they tapped into a massive online community, and figure that their good work (since, clearly, “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com [that] has been printed out more than 850,000 times” means it’s good work) will encourage enough of those hundreds of thousands to buy the book that it will become a big success. And who knows – maybe they’re right.

Another possibility – and one that maybe they haven’t considered or internalized entirely – is that a great many of the people who’ve read the article online disagree with it entirely.

And that is manifestly the case – after the article itself, searching for “9/11 popular mechanics” leads to pages and pages of results of discussion on the article, with almost all of it expressing something rather less than fondness for the “Popular Mechanics” article. “Lies” is a popular modifier.

So am I saying that, given the enormous negative reaction to the article, that its authors and publishers misattribute page views and article-printings for agreement, and that it is not in fact a success? I am not saying that; in point of fact I’m relatively certain that a great many of the readers of the article have agreed with it, and found it a satisfying and well-researched antidote for the uncomfortable charges and avenues of discussion among 9/11 conspiracy theorists (or as the community refers to itself, the 9/11 Truth Movement – more on that here). What I am saying is this: the attention both positive and negative (it’s difficult to count how many thousands of words have been written de-bunking the “Popular Mechanics” de-bunking) paid to the article is a result not of its journalistic merits, or lack thereof. Rather, it is a consequence of the article filling a previously-vacant role in a massive online conversation, that of a major institution addressing not the “consensus narrative” of 9/11 but addressing the critique of that narrative. And it’s further my argument that, if “Popular Mechanics” wanted to effectively leverage their role in that conversation, it’s not the content – which it’s clear many of the article’s readers disagree with – that is their chief asset. It’s their position of institutional engagement with the 9/11 conspiracy theory/Truth Movement – and that position is online.

Now – developing a strategy to actually capitalize on their position might, especially in the higher reaches of Hearst Corporation, have ruffled feathers as being “diluting the core brand,” pulling “Popular Mechanics” away from its usual apolitical gadget-wrangling. Publishing a paper book is a safe way to leverage the article’s popularity precisely because it stands so little chance of any large impact. And it should come as little surprise that a 105-year-old core-brand magazine of a major international media conglomerate is thinking, as they say, “inside the box.”

But what might a winning strategy have looked like? That is a far different question, because there’s no one clear right answer – and probably a lot of different answers depending on the definition of success. They could, for example, have

  • used the article as a jumping-off-point for the creation of a 9/11-debunking community website, an analogue to 9/11 Truth.org. Maybe they’d get accused (as they already are) of being corporate lackeys for consensus reality – but I’ll bet they’d have some pretty excellent traffic numbers, and that’s all advertisers really care about. And for a wood-pulp magazine to be getting some of that sweet ‘Net-ads dollars right now is a big coup.
  • sold the book in both paper and digital formats, with digital copies substantially cheaper, and perhaps either making the intial few chapters free (though they probably are already, as much of the book is recycled from the inital reporting) or eventually making the digital copies entirely free, as several authors have done recently with successful and well-regarded novels
  • something else entirely that I’m not clever enough to think of (admittedly, this covers a wide range of possibilities)

The one thing I’m confident in saying they shouldn’t’ve done is what they ended up doing – they had a fascinating opportunity and chose a perfectly boring solution, whose tepid reception will likely convince them that the opportunity wasn’t really that fascinating in the first place. The jury is still out on a lot of questions regarding, “how to do business/have conversations on the Internet,” but there’s one approach that keeps failing time and again. When you stumble onto a new-media success, don’t try to stuff it back into an old-media box; don’t tell your users that they’re using your product wrong and that this is the way they should be using it, that this is the way this conversation should go.

[Note: I had originally intended to tie this discussion in with the profound failure that is New York Times Select, but will leave that for a later post.]