Archive for the 'attention' Category

Curating the News Two Ways

There are two relatively new efforts to curate the best links from twitter. They’re both very simple tools, and their simplicity is powerful.

As with any good filter of information, there’s a simple, socially networked mechanism at play, and analyzing how that mechanism works helps us predict whether a tool will thrive. The name of the game is whether a mechanism fits social dynamics and harnesses self-interest but also protects against too much of it. (This kind of analysis has a storied history, btw.)

First came 40 twits, Dave Winer’s creation, with instances for himself, Jay Rosen, Nieman Lab, and others. It’s powered by clicks—but not just any clicks on any links. First Dave or Jay picks which links to tweet, and then you and I and everyone picks which links to click. There are two important layers there.

Like the others, Dave’s instance of 40 twits ranks his forty most recent tweets by the number of clicks on the links those tweets contain. (Along the way, retweets that keep the original short URL presumably count.) The result is a simple list of tweets with links. But If you’re reading Dave’s links, you know Dave likes the links by the simple fact that he tweeted them. So the real value added comes from how much you trust the folks who are following Dave to choose what’s interesting.

Note well, though, that those self-selected folks click before they read the thing to which the link points. They make some judgment based on the tweet’s snippet of text accompanying the links, but they may have been terribly, horribly disappointed by the results. Of course, this presumably doesn’t happen too too much since folks would just unfollow Dave in the longer term. In equilibrium, then, a click on a link roughly expresses both an interest generated by the snippet of text and a judgment about the long-term average quality of the pages to which Dave’s or Jay’s links point. Dave adds the data (the links), and his followers add the metadata (clicks reveal popularity and trust).

Are there features Dave could add? Or that anyone could add, once Dave releases the source? Sure there are. For one, it doesn’t have to be the case that all clicks are created equal. I’d like to know which of those clicks are from people I follow, for instance. I might also like to know which of those clicks are from people Dave follows or from people Jay follows. Their votes could count twice as much, for instance. This isn’t a democracy, after all; it’s a webapp.

But think a bit more abstractly. What we’re really saying is that someone’s position in the social graph—maybe relative to mine or yours or Dave’s—could weight their click. Maybe that weighting comes from tunkrank. Or maybe that weighting comes from something like it. For instance, if tunkrank indicates the chance that a random person will see a tweet, then I might be interested in the chance that some particular person will see a tweet. Maybe everyone could have a score based on the chance that their tweet will find its way to Dave or to me.

Second came the Hourly Press, with an instance Lyn Headley calls “News about News.” It’s powered not by clicks—but by tweets. And, again, not just any tweets. Headley picked a set of six twitter users, called “editors,” including C.W. Anderson, Jay Rosen, and others. And those six follow very many “sources,” including one another. There are two important layers there, though they overlap in that “editors” are also “sources.”

“News about News,” a filter after my own heart, looks back twelve hours and ranks links both by how many times they appear in the tweets posted by a source and also by the “authority” of each source. Sources gain authority by having more editors follow them. “If three editors follow a source,” the site reads, “that source has an authority of 3″ rather than just 1. So, in total, a link “receives a score equal to the number of sources it was cited by multiplied by their average authority.” Note that what this does, in effect, is rank links by how many times they appear before the eyes of an editor, assuming all editors are always on twitter.

The result is a page of headlines and snippets, each flanked by a score and other statistics, like how many total sources tweeted the link and who was first to do so. If you’re already following the editors, as I am, you know the links they like by the simple fact that they tweeted them. But no editor need have tweeted any of the links for the to show up on the Hourly Press. Their role is to just to look at the links—to spend their scarce time and energy following the best sources and unfollowing the rest. There are incredible stores of value locked up in twitter’s asymmetrical social graph, and the Hourly Press very elegantly taps them.

Note well, though, that editors choose to follow sources before those sources post the tweets on the Hourly Press. Editors may be terribly, horribly disappointed by the link that any given tweet contains. But again, this presumably doesn’t happen too too much since those editors would unfollow the offending sources. In equilibrium, then, a tweet by a source roughly expresses the source’s own interest and the editor’s judgment about the long-term average quality of the pages to which the source’s links point. Sources add the data (the links), and editors add the metadata (attention reveals popularity and trust).

There’s so much room for the Hourly Press to grow. Users could choose arbitrary editors and create pages of all kinds. There’s a tech page just waiting to happen, for instance. Robert Scoble, Marshall Kirkpatrick, and others would flip their lids to see themselves as editors—headliners passively curating wave after hourly wave of tweets.

But again, I think there’s a more abstract and useful way to think about this. Why only one level of sources? Why not count the sources of sources? Those further-out, or second-level, contributing sources might have considerably diminished “authority” relative to the first-level sources. But not everyone can be on twitter all the time. I’m not always around to retweet great links to my followers, the editors, and giving some small measure of authority to the folks I follow (reflecting the average chance of retweet, e.g.) makes some sense.

But also, editors themselves could be more or less relatively important, so we could weight them differently, proportionally to the curatorial powers we take them to have. And those editors follow different numbers of sources. It means one thing when one user of twitter follows only fifty others, and it means something else altogether when another user follows five hundred. The first user is, on average, investing greater attention into each user followed, while the second is investing less. Again, this is the attention economics that twitter captures so elegantly and richly.

But it’s important to circle back to an important observation. In both apps, there are two necessary groups. One is small, and one is large. One adds data, and the other adds metadata. The job of the builder of these apps is to arrive at a good filter of information—powered by a simple, socially networked mechanism. That power must come from some place, from some fact or other phenomenon. The trick, then, is choosing wisely. Social mechanisms that work locally often fail miserably globally, once there’s ample incentive to game the system, spam its users, or troll its community.

But not all filters need to work at massive scale either. Some are meant to personal. 40 twits strikes me as fitting this mold. I love checking out Dave’s and Jay’s pages, making sure I didn’t miss anything, but if I thought tens of thousands of others were also doing the same, I might feel tempted to click a few extra times on links I want to promote. I don’t think a 40 twits app will work for a page with serious traffic. And, ultimately, that’s because it gets its metadata from the wrong source: clicks that anyone can contribute. If the clicks were some limited to coming from only a trusted group, or if the clicks weren’t clicks at all but attention, then maybe 40 twits could scale sky-high.

Hourly Press—which I don’t think is terribly well suited to being called a “newspaper,” because the moniker obscures more than it adds—doesn’t face this limitation. The fact that Hourly Press is powered by attention, which is inherently scarce, unlike clicks, is terribly powerful, just as the fact that twitter is powered by attention is terribly powerful. Write large, both are incredibly wise, and they contain extraordinarily important lessons in mechanism design of social filters of information.

The Wall Street Journal Isn’t Starbucks

I am at pains here not to seem like a big, gruesome troll. I am therefore going to avoid anything that could be even reasonably construed as an argument anything close to “information wants to be free.” That would give lazy opponents a too easy strawman, which is too bad, because what I’m really giving up, it seems, is arguments stemming from vanishingly small marginal costs. Oh well, such seems to be the price of admission to conversations about the future of news in which curmudgeons may lurk, which is certainly to say nothing at all about whether Mr. Murray is curmudgeonly. (It’s far too early in this post to poison that particular well.)

And so but my question is, “At a human level, why would @alansmurray push us into a paywall when he could avoid it?”

And Mr. Murray’s answer is, “I feel the same way about the folks at Starbucks.”

So let’s take a look at whether it’s an appropriate argument by analogy. Let’s see where it holds up and where it’s weak.

First, the folks at Starbucks rarely know their customers. No denigration to them at all—I’ve put in my time working the Dairy Queen in the mall’s food court—but they have a rote job. Starbucks the corporation may wish it hired pleasant workers, but in truth it doesn’t want to pay for them. Call me cynical or call me a member of Gen M, but low-level food-service workers are not in anything near even quasi-social relationships with buyers of coffee. It’s not their fault; they’re not really paid for their social graces or interpersonal talents. It’s a structural problem.

But Mr. Murray is in an altogether different space. He’s in a space quite literally defined by its human connections. There is little reason to be on twitter at all if it’s not to be social at some level.

And, I can say from my not-so-remote experience in food service that when folks like the folks at Starbucks do find themselves in a social context with customers, they’re deeply tempted to give away product. When I was a kid, working the blizzard machine at the tender age of fourteen, I gave away way more product than I’d like to admit. There was too much soft-serve on my cones. There was too much candy or cookies whipped into my blizzards. And I also just gave it away. Maybe it was part of a swap with the pizza guys or the sandwich guys or the taco guys. Or maybe I just handed out blizzards to all my pals, when the boss wasn’t looking. This corporate-profit-be-damned attitude was rampant across my food court on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, in the second half of the 1990s. It’s called a principal-agent problem, and although it’s not unreasonable for Mr. Murray, an agent, to side with his principal, his analogy hides the difference, pretending it doesn’t exist. (NB. I haven’t a clue whether Mr. Murray is an equity holder of News Corp.)

Also, it’s illegal to give away someone else’s coffee. As best I can tell, however, it’s perfectly within the bounds of the law to encode a long google link within the bit.ly URLs Mr. Murray uses. It’s not against the law for Mr. Murray to route us around inconvenience rather than push us into a paywall. In fact, the route-around is perfectly normal and appropriate. Again, there’s nothing wrong or shady or sketchy about routing around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall. You don’t have to be hacker; you only have to be frugal and spend a few extra seconds and clicks.

But maybe it’s against the rules. Maybe Mr. Murray’s boss has decreed that WSJ employees shall not distribute link that route around the paywall. That doesn’t answer the question, however; it just passes the buck. For why would Mr. Murray’s boss—who is probably Robert Thomson, though I’m not certain—authorize or oblige Mr. Murray’s twittering of paywalled links if he hadn’t deemed it appropriate? Does Robert Thomson believe it makes business sense to twitter paywalled links?

Maybe it is. Maybe Mr. Thomson believes that, if Mr. Murray twittered route-around links to normally abridged articles, then fewer people would pay for subscriptions. And maybe fewer people would. It’s not impossible. Note well, however, that I’m not saying Mr. Murray should hurt his company’s finances by twittering route-around links to normally abridged articles. I’m saying that Mr. Murray might consider twittering only links to normally unabridged WSJ articles and other content around the web. But that would be odd, wouldn’t it? That would be awkward, silly even.

The Wall Street Journal leaves the side-door wide open, hidden only by slight obscurity, but charges at the front door. The Wall Street Journal is wide open. The fact that google indexes its content fully is dispositive—it’s all the proof we need. Let’s try a good old counterfactual conditional: Were the route-around not legitimate, then google would ding the WSJ’s pagerank. But google clearly hasn’t, so the route-around is legitimate.

The point requires an underline lest we succumb to a kind of anchoring cognitive bias. The paywall is not normative. You are not stealing content by refusing to be treated differently from google. In fact, the use of terms like “front door” and “side door” subtly, but completely inappropriately, encodes moral judgments into the discussion. In fact, there are—rather obviously, come to think of it—no “doors” at all. There are, in technical reality, only equal and alternative ways of reading the news. One’s convenient, and one’s not. One’s free, save the attention extracted by on-site advertising, and the other’s not. Maybe one cushions News Corp.’s bottom line, and maybe the other doesn’t. Maybe one supports civically important journalism, and maybe one doesn’t.

At bottom, though, there’s this. Mr. Murray is a human interacting socially with other humans on twitter, saying, “Hey, read this! Trust me: it’s good!” He gestures enthusiastically toward a bolted door, his back disguising an open gateway. “Please, ignore the actually convenient way to take my suggestion that you read this really interesting piece.” Mr. Murray would rather you remain ignorant of a loophole his paper exploits in order to maintain its googlejuice but keep its legacy subscribers. (Note that I’ve pointed out the loophole to several fellow mortgage traders, asking whether they would consider dropping their subscriptions. They all declined, saying they prefer to pay rather than take the time to make the additional clicks.)

I’m not saying it doesn’t make business sense. Businesses are free to capture whatever “thin value” they can, Umair Haque’s warnings notwithstanding. I am saying it doesn’t make human sense. I am saying that particular business practice looks silly, awkward, and disingenuous on twitter. And, ultimately, that’s Umair’s point. In a world of exploding media (PDF), we’re inevitably going to come to rely more on human connections, based on real trust, in order to make choices about how we allocate our attention. Mr. Murray’s cold business logic may work, but I suspect it won’t.

Not by Links Alone

At this unthinkably late hour, many of even the most recalcitrant journalists and newsy curmudgeons have given themselves over, painfully, to the fundamentally important fact that the economics of abundance now govern their world.

For many, of course, stemming that tide is still paramount. Their goal, as David Carr writes, is to squelch the “new competition for ads and minds.” Thus Walter Isaacson’s “E-ZPass digital wallet” and Alan Mutter’s “Original Sin.” Thus Michael Moran’s obnoxious “NOPEC.” Thus Journalism Online. And, of course, thus we have David Simon’s recent call for Congress to “consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions” or this call in the Washington Post to rework fair use. I wish them all good luck, but mostly good night.

There are others, though, who think it’s great that the Internet and Google are opening up the news to competition. In fact, “Google is good” strikes me as nearly orthodox among the basically Internet-savvy set of news talkers. Marissa Mayer crows about how Google delivers newspapers’ Web sites one billion clicks a month, and Arianna Huffington insists that the future of news is to be found in a “linked economy” and “search engines” like Google.

In this narrative, Google’s the great leveler, ushering the world of journalism out of the dark, dank ages of monopoly and into the light, bright days of competition, where all news articles and blog posts stand on their own pagerank before the multitude of users who judge with their links and their clicks. Its ablest defender is probably Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? Jarvis was relatively early in pointing out that “Google commodifies the world’s content by making it all available on a level playing field in its search.” In that and other posts at Buzz Machine, his widely read blog, Jarvis allows that Google “can make life difficult” but insists, “that’s not Google’s fault.” The reverence for Google is thick: “The smart guys are hiring search-engine optimization experts and trying to figure out how to get more people to their stuff thanks to Google.”

But defenders of Google’s influence on the broader market for news and newspapers themselves make a striking error in believing that the market for content is competitive. That belief is wrong—not just a little bit or on the margin, but fundamentally, and importantly, wrong.

Which is not to say that news publishers aren’t competing for readers’ eyeballs and attention. Publishers compete with one another all day long, every day—with some local exceptions, the news has always been competitive like a race, and is now more competitive like a market than ever before. But the market for that news—the place where consumers decide what to read, paying with their attention—is not competitive. Google may well be the great leveler, but down to how low a field?

To be very clear, this is far from a neo-classical purist’s critique that picks nits by abusing uselessly theoretical definitions. I am not a purist, an economist, or a jerk. This is reality, as best as I know it. Nevertheless, to say that the market for content is competitive is just to misunderstand what a competitive market actually entails. The market for news content as it currently stands, with Google in the middle, is a profoundly blurry, deeply uncompetitive space.

*    *    *

“The difficulty of distinguishing good quality from bad is inherent in the business world,” Nobel laureate George Akerlof wrote in the kicker of his most famous paper, published in 1970. “This may indeed explain many economic institutions and may in fact be one of the more important aspects of uncertainty.”

Akerlof fired an early shot in a scholarly marathon to study the effects of asymmetric information in markets. What do parties to a potential transaction do when they know different sets of facts? Maybe that seems like an obvious question, but economists in the middle of the twentieth century had been pretty busy worrying about perfecting complicated models despite their grossly simplistic assumptions.

So Akerlof set about to write about how markets can fail when some of those assumptions turn out to be bunk. The assumption he tested first, in “The Market for ‘Lemons,’” was certainty, and he showed that when sellers know more about the goods being sold than the buyers do, sellers abuse their privileged position and buyers leave the market.

Writing in the same year, the economist Phillip Nelson studied the differences between what he called “search goods” and “experience goods.” Search goods and experience goods express a certain kind of asymmetry. For search goods, consumers can overcome the asymmetry before the point of purchase by doing their homework, while for experience goods, consumers must take their time and invest.

A pair of pants, for instance, is a search good—you can try before you buy, and shop around for the pants that fit you best. An apple, on the other hand, is an experience good—you don’t know whether you’ll like one until you consume it, and you can’t really try before you buy.

News articles are experience goods. Just as with an apple, you need to consume the story, reading the article or watching the video or so on, in order to judge its quality. “Stories can vary in length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus,” writes economist James Hamilton in All the News That’s Fit to Sell. “For a given day’s events, widely divergent news products are offered to answer the questions of who, what, where, when, and why.” We can’t know which one’s best till we’ve read them all, and who’s got time for that?

Moreover, a multitude of subjective editorial decisions produce the news. Each reporter’s practices and habits influence what’s news and what’s not. Their learned methods, their assigned beats, and even their inverted pyramids shape what we read and how. Reporters’ and editors’ tastes, their histories, or their cultures matter, as do their professional ethics. Each article of news is a nuanced human document—situated aesthetically, historically, culturally, and ethically.

Ultimately, the news is afflicted with the problem of being an experience good more than even apples are. At least Granny Smiths don’t vary wildly from farmer to farmer or from produce bin to produce bin. Sure, some may be organic, while others are conventional. One may be tarter or crispier than another, but tremendous differences from the mean are very unlikely. With the news, though, it’s hard even to think of what the mean might be. It may seem obvious, but articles, essays, and reports are complex products of complex writerly psychologies.

For a long time, however, as readers, we were unaware of these nuances of production. That was, in some sense, the upshot: our experience of this journalism was relatively uncomplicated. This profound lack of context mattered much less.

Call it the myth of objectivity maybe, but what NYU professor Jay Rosen has labeled the “mask of professional distance” meant that we didn’t have much of a chance to bother with a whole world complexities. Because everyone usually wore a mask, and because everyone’s masked looked about the same, we ignored—indeed, we were largely necessarily ignorant of—all the unique faces.

For a long time, therefore, the orthodox goal of American newspapers virtually everywhere was news that really wasn’t an experience good. When news existed only on paper, it hardly mattered what news was, because we had so few seemingly monochrome choices about what to read. We returned to the same newspapers and reporters behind the same masks over and over again, and through that repetition, we came subtly to understand the meaning and implications of their limited degrees of “length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus.”

As a result, we often grew to love our newspaper—or to love to hate it. But even if we didn’t like our newspaper, it was ours, and we accepted it, surrendering our affection either way, even begrudgingly. The world of news was just much simpler, a more homogeneous, predictable place—there were fewer thorny questions, fewer observable choices. There was less risk by design. Our news was simpler, or it seemed to be, and we had little choice but to become familiar with it anyhow. One benefit of the View from Nowhere, after all, is that basically everyone adopted it—that it basically became a standard, reducing risk.

But a funny thing happened in this cloistered world. Because it seemed only natural, we didn’t realize the accidental nature of the understanding and affection between readers and their newspapers. If, as the economists would have it, the cost of a thing is what we’ve sacrificed in order to achieve it, then our understanding and affection were free. We gave nothing up for them—for there was scarcely another alternative. As a result, both readers and publishers took those things for granted. This point is important because publishers are still taking those things for granted, assuming that all people of good faith still appreciate and love all the good things that a newspaper puts on offer.

*    *    *

But when our informational options explode, we can plainly, and sometimes painfully, see that our newspapers aren’t everything. Different newspapers are better at answering different questions, and some answers—some as simple as what we should talk about at work tomorrow—don’t come from newspapers at all. So we go hunting on the Internet. So we gather. So we Google.

We have now spent about a decade Googling. We have spent years indulging in information, and they have been wonderful years. We are overawed by our ability to answer questions online. Wikipedia has helped immensely in our efforts to answer those questions, but pagerank elevated even it. Newspapers compose just one kind of Web site to have plunged into the scrum of search engine optimization. Everyone’s hungry for links and clicks.

And Google represents the Internet at large for two reasons. For one, the engine largely structures our experience of the overall vehicle. More importantly, though, Google’s organization of the Internet changes the Internet itself. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization estimates, in this PDF report, that North American spending on organic SEO in 2008 was about $1.5 billion. But that number is surely just the tip of the iceberg. Google wields massive power over the shape and structure of the Internet’s general landscape of Web pages, Web applications, and the links among them. Virtually no one builds even a semi-serious Web site without considering whether it will be indexed optimally. For journalism, most of the time, the effects are either irrelevant or benign.

But think about Marissa Mayer’s Senate testimony about the “living story.” Newspaper Web sites, she said, “frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content.” Because those similar pages share links from around the Web, neither one has the pagerank that a single one would have. Mayer would have news Web sites structure their content more like Wikipedia: “Consider how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity.”

Setting aside for the moment whatever merits Mayer’s idea might have, imagine the broader implications. She’s encouraging newspapers to change not just their marketing or distribution strategies but their journalism because Google doesn’t have an algorithm smart enough to determine that they should share the “authoritativeness.”

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s style of following a story over a string of blog posts, poking and prodding an issue from multiple angles, publishing those posts in a stream, and letting the story grow incrementally, cumulatively might be disadvantaged because those posts are, naturally, found at different URLs. His posts would compete for pagerank.

And maybe it would be better for journalism if bloggers adopted the “living story” model of reporting. Maybe journalism schools should start teaching it. Or maybe not—maybe there is something important about what the structure of content means for context. The point here isn’t to offer substantive answer to this question, but rather to point out that Mayer seems unaware of the question in the first place. It’s natural that Mayer would think that what’s good for Google is good for Internet users at large. For most domestic Internet users, after all, Google, which serves about two-thirds of all searches, essentially is their homepage for news.

But most news articles, of course, simply aren’t like entries in an encyclopedia. An article of news—in both senses of the term—is substantially deeper than the facts it contains. An article of news, a human document, means substantially more to us than its literal words—or the pageranked bag of words that Google more or less regards it as.

Google can shine no small amount of light on whether we want to read an article of news. And, importantly, Google’s great at telling you when others have found an article of news to be valuable. But the tastes of anonymous crowds—of everyone—are not terribly good at determining whether we want to read some particular article of news, particularly situated, among all the very many alternatives, each particularly situated unto itself.

Maybe it all comes down to a battle between whether Google encourages “hit-and-run” visits or “qualified leads.” I don’t doubt that searchers from Google often stick around after they alight on a page. But I doubt they stick around sufficiently often. In that sense, I think Daniel Tunkelang is precisely correct: “Google’s approach to content aggregation and search encourages people to see news…through a very narrow lens in which it’s hard to tell things apart. The result is ultimately self-fulfilling: it becomes more important to publications to invest in search engine optimization than to create more valuable content.”

*    *    *

The future-of-news doomsayers are so often wrong. A lot of what they said at Kerry’s hearing was wrong. It’s woefully wrongheaded to call Google parasitic simply because it the Internet without it would be a distinctly worse place. There would be, I suspect, seriously fewer net pageviews for news. And so it’s easy to think that they’re wrong about everything—because it seems that they fundamentally misunderstand the Internet.

But they don’t hold a monopoly on misunderstanding. “When Google News lists one of ours stories in a prominent position,” writes Henry Blodget, “we don’t wail and moan about those sleazy thieves at Google. We shout, ‘Yeah, baby,’ and start high-fiving all around.” To Blodget, “Google is advertising our stories for free.”

But life is about alternatives. There’s what is, and there’s what could be. And sometimes what could be is better than what is—sometimes realistically so. So however misguided some news executives may have been or may still be about their paywalls and buyouts, they also sense that Google’s approach to the Web can’t reproduce the important connection the news once had with readers. Google just doesn’t fit layered, subtle, multi-dimensional products—experience goods—like articles of serious journalism. Because news is an experience good, we need really good recommendations about whether we’re going to enjoy it. And the Google-centered link economy just won’t do. It doesn’t add quite enough value. We need to know more about the news before we sink our time into reading it than pagerank can tell us. We need the news organized not by links alone.

What we need is a search experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust. These are all people—and their reputations or degrees of authority matter to us in much the same ways.

We need a search experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent, a stream of news. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search experience that merges automatization and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

The people at Senator Kerry’s hearing last week seemed either to want to dam the river and let nothing through or to whip its flow up into a tidal wave. But the real problem is that they’re both talking about the wrong river. News has changed its course, to be sure, so in most cases, dams are moot at best. At the same time, though, chasing links and clicks, with everyone pouring scarce resources into an arms race of pagerank while aggregators direct traffic and skim a few page views, isn’t sufficiently imaginative either.

UPDATE: This post originally slipped out the door before it was fully dressed. Embarrassing, yes. My apologies to those who read the original draft of this thing and were frustrated by the unfinished sentences and goofy notes to self, and my thanks to those who read it all it the same.

Thinking the Unthinkable Parable of the Future of News

Most of us humans profoundly exaggerate the powers of our imagination. Indeed, I submit that we’re out-and-out horrible at imagining possible worlds even modestly different from our own.

Ask yourself, “Seriously, what would the world be like had John McCain been elected president of the United States?” If you’re American, your answer is not at all easy to come by. You’ve got a whole host of possibilities and their possible ramifications to think about.

In some ways, the country would be a very different place. For one, many of those who were thrilled at Obama’s election would be depressed, while many of the rest would be elated. All kinds of conversations between friends and colleagues would be dramatically different—and not only those about politics. Of course, all manner of domestic policy would be different, as would international politics.

But in other ways, the country would be nearly identical. We’d still have an credit crisis generally. We’d still drive on the right-hand side of the road. We’d very likely still have fifty states. We would still be Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, and atheists in roughly the same number.

We’d still have a mostly temperate climate, with cities, towns, and rural communities scattered throughout. We’d still have a basically functional economy, with poor, middling, wealthy, and super-wealthy folks for whom it works unevenly. Our taxes might be somewhat higher or lower, but we’d still have a populace that generally believes in paying its taxes. I’m risking a good flaming, but I submit that, in our hypothetical John McCain America, the rule of law would basically still prevail.

Up would still be up, and down would still be down. We’d still have hipsters. Red would still be a different color from blue. Time would still march forward, not backward. It would still make no sense to hear your pal assert, “It is the case that A and not-A.” And so on. Some things never change. Or they seem not to, anyway.

*    *    *

It’s kind of like DNA. We humans are radically different from one another. We’re tall and short, weak and strong, bright and dull. We’re creative and analytic, fast and slow. I’m quite I certain I can do little justice to the bewildering diversity among us.

And yet we share some overwhelming percentage of DNA. We all, generally, have brains, lungs, and bones. We eat and sleep. Even the dullards among us laugh from time to time, privately. We all, generally, recoil at morbidity and fear pain. Exceptions tend to prove the rule here, to the extent that we consider someone who never laughs alien and someone who doesn’t flinch at the prospect of death superhuman.

Now consider yourself: you. Changing around your DNA within the tiny fraction that makes you unique—i.e., that you don’t share with other humans—is akin to America electing John McCain. You’d pretty much be a different country—maybe better, maybe worse, depending on your views and whether they’re wrong—but at least you’re still here on earth. At least you’d still have a circulatory system and a central nervous system. You’ve got a home. You have friends, if you’re nice, though they’re probably different friends. You still have or had parents. If you were born here, you speak some dialect of English, though you may say “pop” instead of “soda.” You might not be as attractive or witty, but you know what beauty is and you have some grasp on the levity of brevity. If you’re the right age and able-bodied, you’ve got a job. In short, your hypothetical life is very different, but it’s still roughly normal. Because these changes are relatively modest, they’re said to the stuff of close possible worlds.

Mucking around with the rest of the DNA that you do share with others is like imagining the Soviets won the Cold War or like imagining cold fusion were perfected years ago. It might be good or bad—utopian, dystopian, something odd in between, or something wildly outlandish—but, most importantly, it’s very likely simply radically different. It’s tough to imagine possible worlds like this. Not only would you pretty much be a different country, as above, but it’s not even clear that you would still be on earth—or on an earth in a form anything like what actually prevails today.

Your whole biological nature could be different—no blood, bones, no brain. You might not be carbon-based. You might be part of hive-mind. All manner of good and bad science fictional possibilities abound. Because these changes are severe, they’re said to the stuff of distant possible worlds.

* * *

Since it’s very hard to imagine such far-out possible worlds, good storytellers have developed rhetorical devices to help us broaden our view. They put us in the mood, push us toward an open mind, offer us the widest frame.

We need the widest frame in order to think about the future of news. Recently, @cshirky and @jayrosen_nyu have offered us just that.

Shirky asks us, more than mildly paradoxically, to consider an unthinkable scenario. At first, he puts his scenario on offer as a hypothetical possible world, someone else’s nightmare, suggesting just that we peer into its void as they do, vicariously.

“As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. … In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.”

Oh, and what might that nightmare look like to them? What possibilities do they see? Well—still in the mind’s eye of newspaper executives—it “unfolded something like this….”

Then Shirky warns us about being closed-minded. “Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception,” he writes. When Soviets win the Cold War or when you wake up in the Matrix, the world is sharply different, and concocting explanations about how it’s actually the same doesn’t work. “When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.”

Only then, after hundreds of words of set-up, do we get the punch: “One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” Your world is going away.

Shirky takes a stroll through some history, pointing out a previous occasion when the future broke from the past, and comes back with devastation. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. … They are demanding to be lied to.”

Then, ultimately, we get the distinction here. These newspaper folks know something’s got to give, but they’re still only willing to imagine close possible worlds. They can handle John McCain. They can handle being taller or shorter, leaner or fatter.

From the perspective of industrial newspapering—in which “the core problem publishing solves” is “the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public”—the internet might as well be Jupiter. It is a distant possible world.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. “

* * *

Imagine a world, if you feel sufficiently creative, without newspapers. And imagine a world without newspaper companies—or with companies whose DNA used to be newspapers but is now seriously different. Still, though, imagine that world needs journalism nevertheless.

In other words, imagine a world that is distant but not so very, very distant that we don’t need journalism. That makes our creative job easier. In fact, Jay Rosen reminds us that not all is lost. He intends to give us a head start in imagining exactly this possible world—in which newspapers are out but journalism is still very, very in.

Whereas Shirky jerks and drags our imaginations to think the unthinkable, Rosen encourages us to look inward, contemplatively, offering simple parable of a fishing village. He does it with @davewiner in a podcast the two have come lately to recording on Sunday, and it’s worth taking in as a whole:

I like to try to understand things at their origins. When I think about news and the collection of news, I try to go back and imagine the conditions in human affairs and human settlements that cause people to need news that is collected by somebody, as an occupation.

If you think about a small fishing village, with several hundred people, around a harbor, there’s news every day. But it is communicated naturally, as it were. That is, people going about their day will find out when a new ship is in, and at the end of the day, they’ll know what’s happened in that town. There doesn’t have to be an articulated social function of news gatherer because people do it themselves.

If you imagine that town expanding in its social scale so that it’s not just a fishing village anymore, but a big metropolis, you realize that, at a certain point, the only way you can have news about your own environment—not a distant land, but your own environment—is if somebody actually collects it. The need for news is intimately related to the scale on which we live. As we live on a bigger and bigger scale—not just metropolitan but a national and global scale—our needs for news grow because we are not self-informing.

But, if tools of awareness grow, like we had when we were a fishing village, then the idea of the self-informing public, which was operable at a certain scale, is perhaps operable again. And so if you understand news not as an industrial product or the handiwork of a profession, but as intimately related to human settlement and the social scale people live on, we’ll be able to navigate better in the future of news.

When they gave birth to the United States, a huge experiment in scale, they imagined that part of the reason that you could have a voted-in government over a territory stretching from New England to Georgia was the press, which gave us ways of connecting. So when we try to reboot news, don’t think about rebooting the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Go back to the origins of why people need news in the first place and your own experience with news hunger.

Yes, go back to your own personal news hunger. Skirky admirably yanks our imaginations out of their slumber. That’s the real merit of his piece. Now, however, think not of the more or less terrifying abyss Shirky points at, yelling, “Wake up!” Instead, for now, consider yourself and your community. Consider that we are just groups of people, overlapping social circles composing different human settlements, conducting our own affairs. Consider that we always live on some scale. Sometimes it’s big, as now. Other times it’s small, as it was long ago, and as it is in Rosen’s parable.

And remember that the scale on which we live matters relative to our everyday “tools of awareness.” Better tools mean a self-informing public at larger scale.

* * *

Consider that sources, authors, and readers are all people. Consider that the internet gives us tools so that one person might be all three. When Winer says, “Sources go direct,” he’s pointing out that one person can be both the source and the author of a story. But we’re readers and authors simultaneously too.

Consider that people are busy, that our time is scarce. We make decisions about allocating our attention on the margin. In a fishing village, we’d love it if all our friends could find a central place to gather in order to swap stories at the same time, efficiently. All our friends, yes, but probably not all our fellow villagers, some of whom we don’t like or don’t trust. In other words, we like to aggregate our news, but mostly among our friends and trusted experts.

Consider that people like hearing the news from their friends or from experts whose judgment they trust on particular matters. We like to trust the news and want to be engaged with their storyteller to cultivate that trust. To the extent that we can only get a piece of news from a fellow villager we dislike, we appreciate it when a trusted friend verifies the facts or shores up the analysis. So, too, do our friends appreciate it when we return the favor.

Consider that social relationships are sometimes one-way. We often have less time for others than they have for us. This is especially the case for widely trusted experts on particular matters. This is the general asymmetrical social stuff of celebrity, which is surely an archaic notion, inherent in even the simplest of villages. As society scales, moreover, consider the natural—or, potentially, the morally optimal—distribution of those asymmetries of attention.

Consider that people like the news new. We want to hear what’s happening now, not what happened last week or yesterday or an hour ago. But we also want our facts to be true and our analysis to be sound, so we’re willing to wait for real verification and for wise interpretation. We’re imperfect, though, so sometimes excess haste or caution will blind us to better priorities.

Consider that we mostly don’t really care whether we get our news as a written note or as a verbalized recounting. We care about the topics and events the story discusses. We care about the people, businesses, and other organizations it mentions&mdas;the “newsmakers,” as it were. Politics exists even in modest fishing villages, and we care about the political persuasions of our storytellers. That knowledge helps us bring the appropriate level of trust to our use of their story.

Consider that people are social. We like to gossip about trite matters, and we like to debate serious affairs. We like to consume the news, sure, but we also like to spread it around and add our own perspective. We also like to use the news as a medium for our wills—as a kind of substratum for own meaning. We like to be heard, respected, admired, and loved. We also like to be paid.

Consider all of this and more. Consider how distant the relevant possible worlds may be, and then consider all of them in that sphere. Consider the Cluetrain too. Consider that people, governments, and corporations will always be able to profit from secrecy. Even if we come to demand, and even very naturally expect, transparency as a broad ethical matter, powerful operators will have an incentive to fake it. That seems true even of modest fishing villages, in which a tribal or quasi-political elder may benefit from offering false reasons for important decisions. Consider that people spreading the news about powerful operators make friends with them in so doing. There’s potentially less baked-in profit motive.

Consider that information is an experience good. Consider that it’s a public good. Consider (again) that news is non-durable. Consider that one person’s report of a story has very close substitutes in others’ reports on the same story or nearly equally interesting stories.

Some things change. And some things stay the same the more everything else changes around them. So, most of all, consider dropping the fabulist notion that the future will look very much like the past. The time has gone when we can offer arguments aimed at the future but grounded in the present and the part. Aside from what we share with distant worlds—including my considerations above—the tastes, habits, patterns of readers, journalists, and newspaper companies are moot. Your world is departing, and a fishing village is arriving.

Super Simple Behavioral Advertising Made Easy

So simple it hurts, from Yahoo by way of the New York Times.

The gist? The seemingly simple ability to remember the higher-value pages a user views lets you serve that user those higher-value ads on all pages. Tada!

So travel pages often fetch the highest rates from advertisers. Let’s say a user checks out some travel articles about Nicaragua and surfing, where you serve some awesome ad from some awesome hotel chain. Then the user reads about President Obama. It turns out—by virtue of the great good blessings of technology—that you can still serve the same awesome hotel ad, not some barrel-bottom trash, even though, all else equal, advertisers don’t care so much for the attention of users who care about civics.

Who knew, right?

A Modest News Aggregator for the Win

To the extent that sites or services that present professional and amateur content together emerge and become successful, they will do so only after they figure out a way to give users simple, intuitive, and powerful filters that are themselves the channels that carry our conversation and shape our communities.

We will tolerate only the writing we love. Discovering what we love is a job to distribute across very large groups of users with weak ties and small groups of users with strong ties, all empowered by tools far more subtle than those that characterize current state of search. We will act mostly self-interestedly, choosing by facets, sifting, sorting, sharing, appropriating, connected to one another asymmetrically, mostly pulling not pushing, trusting when trustful. We will participate in a gift economy. Reputation will count. Attention is scarce. Something like tunkrank will help, I’m sure.

The nodes are people because people and other actors are central to what it means to be human regardless of whether we’re reading the news, writing the news, starring in it, or all of the above. The edges are the ideas that capture our common interest over time, location, and predilection. It is beautiful, Doc.

News Is an Experiential Good; Or, Why it’s not like buying a pair of pants

When you buy a pair of pants, you try them on first. You want to make sure they fit. So clothing stores give up scarce retail space to enclose little spaces that are no good for displaying their trendy threads. They’re called dressing rooms, of course. If there were a store that rejected the idea that we should be able to try on our pants before we buy them, we’d reject the store. We’d protest that we’re worried about wasting our money on pants that we don’t like, and we’d threaten to go elsewhere. “Sizes and cuts and feels are too hard to predict,” we’d complain. “I really like your Sevens, but I’m not sure I’ll love them. What if I my hips are too big?”

One really seriously unfortunate fact about the news is you can’t very well try on an article before you read it. Sure, you can read the teaser, the first paragraph, or the pull quotes. Maybe there’s a cute sidebar or attractive graphics with catchy captions. But you don’t really know whether you and the article will make a great match till after you’ve already read the thing.

This is an age-old case study in brands. That’s why every issue of the New Yorker or the Economist or Cosmo or Men’s Health or Maximall seem vaguely, surreally the same, issue after issue, cover after cover, or cartoon after cartoon. High brow or low—the economics are the same. It’s their way of informing their reader that reading the last issue is a little bit like trying the new issue on for size. If you liked our work before, you’ll like it again. It’s different, but it’s really the same.

That’s one reason why Steve Brill’s “secret plan to save the New York Times and journalism itself” is flawed. I don’t have the resources to offer a top-to-bottom critique, so I’ll focus on one point. One the one hand, “All online articles will cost 10 cents each to read in full, with simple, one-step purchases powered by an I-Tunes-like Journalism infrastructure.” And on the other, “There would be a five cent charge to forward an article to someone else. Paying customers would get a license to do that” when they set up their accounts.

If the pants analogy suggests that it’s hard to charge for content before the consumer experiences it, what does it say about paying for it after? That’s essentially what this recommendation feature would be, after all. And I think it’s far from obviously crazy.

Maybe many people would be willing to pay five cents to forward the full text of an article to a pal. But it’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you recommend an article to a buddy. You’re trying it on, testing it out. You’re decreasing your pal’s risk that he’ll read the article and conclude he wasted his time. In short, you’re adding value, helping both the publisher and presumably your pal too.

This is of course ultimately why people are so hot to trot about linking, curating, aggregating, filtering, etc. It’s the economics of attention in a world of blooming, buzzing, atomized media. (UPDATE: It’s “superdistribution.”) So it would be awesome if a newspaper could get people to pay in order to add value to their content. But to the extent that charging for the ability to make recommendations will actually disincentivize them from adding that value, there’s an important bit of cost-benefit analysis to do.

Of course, people could still recommend the article without paying the five-cent fee, leaving their pals to sign up and pay ten cents if they’re not already customers, but I wonder whether that wouldn’t turn out to seem just rude in light of the fact that you and your pal probably have basically the same purchasing power with respect to five- or ten-cent articles.

Finally, I’ll repeat that this is why I’m so bullish on the proposition that journalists need to find in-demand scarce goods and services whose value is relatively easily quantified before the point of purchase. This is what I was thinking about in my recent post “Freemium News,” which was itself a reaction to Mitch Ratcliffe’s excellent thoughts on “the economics of great journalism.” My sense is that forwarding articles for free might be the kind of discrete, non-experiential feature for which someone might be willing to pay a flat upfront fee.

Age-Old Questions about BWBX

What’s BWBX? It’s Business Week’s new social network for users to discover and share business-related content. It resembles web services like socialmedian and twine.

As Paul Miller explains, “Members can access background material on stories, submit additional resources of their own, and comment on the content they find.” The central unit of organization is the “topic,” which both the BX staff and members of the community can create. Miller writes that he gets “the impression that topics tend to be approved” if they’re “in-scope” and “actively discussed out on the open Web.”

Given that these are the interwebs we’re talking about here, my mind immediately races to worries about spam. Does BWBX have controls to disincentivize and sideline spam? How do they work? Are they effective?

I’ve had these questions for a while now, but I’ve kept them to myself while observing BWBX’s initial growth. Today, I saw that Paul Miller, the widely respected Semantic Web evangelist, wrote a post praising the news platform. So I pinged him on twitter:

@PaulMiller Great write-up of #bxbw! Curious about how articles get assigned to topics. Users push articles to topics? Isn’t that spammy?

Then he forwarded the question:

@jny2cornell Thanks Joshua. :-) Yes, users assign articles to topics. COULD be spammy. Doesn’t seem to be. Comment, @bwbx @roncasalotti

The folks as BWBX tweeted that they answered the question in the comments on Miller’s post. I’ve excerpted the relevant parts of the comment:

We track several user actions on each item and use a weighted algorithm to score both users and the articles/blog posts. We monitor those scores to not only determine top users or most valuable items in a topic … but also to determine gaming within the system. We also crowd-source user activity via a full reporting system and back-office moderation team.

Now, I’m no expert on “back-office moderation,” but that answer left me scratching my head. So I pinged again:

@PaulMiller What do you make of @bwbx’s comment on your post? http://bit.ly/hTL1 I must admit, I’m having a difficult time parsing it.

Miller answered my question quite aptly, I think:

@jny2cornell seems clear… “back office magic keeps it clean”… ;-) You should try #BWBX, and see how the site performs to your own needs

Yes, it does seem clear—clear as mud. And that strikes me as a problem. If I’m thinking about joining BWBX, I’d like some assurance that all my effort poured into it isn’t going to go to waste as usage scales up and inevitable abuse creeps, or floods, in. I’d be worried, for instance, if I knew that the “back office moderation” is mostly human. Of course, I’d also obviously be worried if I knew that the automated processes were quite simply unfit for the job.

Peer-to-peer moderation doesn’t work magically. Take the quintessential case of wikipedia. It’s got a small and hierarchical army of editors. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s perhaps the first human community in which vandalism is cheaper to clean up than it is to create. That ain’t trivial. It’s arguably not just important but an utterly critical disincentive against spam.

I wouldn’t have this level of concern were it not apparent that “push” logic drives BWBX. Consider a contrasting example: twitter works by “pull” logic and is therefore mercifully free of spam. I don’t worry about spammy content ending up wasting my attention because you can’t get content before me unless I invite it. And I can un-invite, or un-follow, very easy. This isn’t earth-shattering thinking here; it’s virtually as old as the internet—as old as spam itself.

So if we’re still getting it wrong, why? And if we’re getting it right, why can’t we be more transparent about it? We know how pagerank is the beating heart of google’s effort to out-engineer spam, and some argue that’s not even enough.

In fact, I encourage the folks at BWBX to give a close to read Daniel Tunkelang’s post, which asks, “Is there a way we can give control to users and thus make the search engines objective referees rather than paternalistic gatekeepers?” What goes for search engines ought to go for back office magicians as well.

Freemium News

I came across two great examples of freemium news. One was a reminder, and the other felt familiar but was a bolt from the blue.

First, the one. Blodget really does an admirable job digging into the fundamental economics of why the WSJ’s porous paywall. (Cf. this naive version at CJR.)

Second, the other. Mitch Ratcliffe drills deep into the economics of news on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. The supply side—what reporters need to report—is interesting. It asks, “How much money do journalists need to give scarce journalistic value to readers?”

But for my money, I like thinking about the demand side of the equation. Here the relevant (and symmetrical) question is, “How much scarce journalistic value do readers need to give money to journalists?”

What Ratcliffe and Blodget’s answers have in common is, essentially, price discrimination and luxury. In other words, make it easier or make it better (as in more value-added).

The WSJ’s habit of forcing me to jump through hoops to read its full articles is price discrimination at its heart. I have to pay with my time (instead of money) by copying the paywalled article’s headline and pasting it into a google search (generally adding “google news” as well) and then clicking back to wsj.com. Then I’m behind the paywall, and not a drop of google juice is spilt.

Ratcliffe proposes “added convenience or increased interaction” in the form of twitter access to the reporter, more timely alerts, or a “social page of your own” for giving feedback to the journalist. “It doesn’t need any new tech — all the pieces are there,” he tweeted (@godsdog). “Yes, integration is hard, but it’s good not to have to invent.”

These are great good thoughts—focused sharply on the economics of news, not BS about who’s a reporter and who’s not or what’s legitimately Web 2.0 and what’s not.

This is the future of news. This is networked news. Above all, this is the power of the interwebs: connecting unique buyers and sellers of information as individuals with diverse interests. Expect more soon.

Whoops! CJR lost (ignored?) my comment on “Music Lessons”

So I’ll post it here, pointing to the piece by Alissa Quart, who asks, “Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?” Check it out.

My comment?

Readers now care deeply about the biographies of the people who produce their news, writing or talking or what-have-you. But why? And how to convice journalists who want so badly to get it?

I think the answer lies in trust. I think trust is the general concept and can explain why the “Unbiased Media ideal” worked in the departing era and why the “premodern storytelling mode” will work the arriving one.

It is largely the story of Too Much Information, which is itself a chapter of the digital democratization of the printing press and a chapter of essentially free access to the internet. It is now orders of magnitude easier to produce and to consume the news, in other words. Interaction is cheap, even nearly free, between perfect strangers continents apart, and fast. More and more, trust just happens differently.

This explanation is nothing new. Prominent writers have been talking about these inside-out, upside-down profound shifts in media since many students at the j-school were in the fifth grade.

So what does “cheap interaction” promise? Instead of rewriting what others have already said (because links are free and clicks are convenient), let me point the way to Umair Haque on the erosion of brands.

Extra credit to the brave journalist who groks the flipping of attention from relatively abundant to relatively scarce (see the ppt).

This isn’t a tweak to the old system. This doesn’t call for a Friday meeting to develop a new strategy. This isn’t a call for a pretty new website or flashy widget. This simply a new business, a new industry, a new world; this is a return to first principles of old.

So what is the news? It’s producers, who write or share the news, and consumers, who read the news. They are be largely the same people; they must trust one another. The news requires sources. The news is stories about people and organizations, about topics or beats, and about events. The news is opinion, and the news is fact. The news is new—sometimes so new nowadays that it can happen in real- or near-real time and can thus morph into a conversation.

So, yes, write about journalists ripping a page from musicians’ script, if you like. But mightn’t it be more worthwhile to write our own, pieced together from basic facts and laws like these?

I bet it would be fun.


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