Archive for the 'google' Category

Speculation on Links, Traffic, and Authority

We can say this: traffic flows along links that we click. For a few years—before google—we could even say this: a link is not a link until we click it.

But now that is wrong because google made links really something else—meaningful signals, not just infrastructure. Links have a deeply important role in pagerank, the backbone of google’s mighty search engine.

Thus the giver of a link tells google that the recipient of a link is notable or significant or worth your time and attention and consideration or engagement. This is authority—on average, at the very least.

Links are signals for authority. That authority is distributed throughout the network, and given Igon values, google built a magnificent business detecting, computing, and centralizing that authority.

* * *

We are not entitled to our own understanding of facts, which take root in the universe. Thus we call facts objective. But we are entitled to our own appreciations of authority. Indeed, appreciation for authority can only take root in ourselves as individuals and groups of individuals. Thus we call authority subjective.

There are very many facts that I will never need to learn or remember. I will rely on google to detect those answers. Like just-in-time inventory, I will have answers only when I need them, when I borrow them, avoiding the mental costs of carrying them in my jammed-up memory.

Likewise, there are very many authorities that I will never need to appreciate. I will rely on google to detect those signals. But unlike facts as stored in someone else’s inventory, something changes about authority when I don’t carry it with me. Something’s lost when I borrow authority—just in time.

Google delivers facts. And facts are facts. But google doesn’t really deliver authorities. It co-opts them.

Maybe this is why Clay Shirky calls it “algorithmic authority.”

So if I were settling a bar bet, I might well say, “Yes, you can trust me. I found that claim by clicking on the top google search return.” The page on which I found the claim doesn’t enter my justification. “Dude, I googled it” might not work for very many justifications today, but Shirky’s quite right that there’s “spectrum” and that “current forces seem set to push [algorithmic authority] further up the spectrum to an increasing number and variety of groups that regard these kinds of sources as authoritative.”

The authority belongs to the algorithm that found the source, not the source itself. Traffic flows along links out to the edges of the network, but authority pulls inward to the center.

* * *

And this is why it seems unfair for folks like Jeff Jarvis to make claims like, “The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.”

News sites should certainly be trying to establish engagement and trust and authority with users who come from google. But insisting that this task is an imperative of the link economy seems to under-appreciate that algorithmic authority centralizes authority. Google pushes the traffic but keeps the trust—or much of it, anyhow.

Maybe the best answer to “What Would Google Do?” goes something like this: build an algorithm that detects and hordes an elusive and highly diffuse resource distributed across a network.

* * *

So Danny Sullivan can jump up and down and yell about WSJ and google and bing: “Do something. Anything. Please. Survive. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do. Blame others for sending you visitors and not figuring out how to make money off of them.”

Sullivan can exhort newspapers to see google referrals as an opportunity. And they are. Moreover, I have little doubt that many newspapers should be optimizing their pages depending on the referrer, whether that’s google or facebook or twitter or stumbleupon or whatever. But let’s also remember that google changed links. A different kind of traffic now flows along them. And that traffic is fickler—and, yes, less valuable—than we might first imagine.

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.

The Wall Street Journal’s Fancy SEO Tricks

I’m not an SEO expert. So if there were a group of SEO experts standing in the corner, I wouldn’t be among them. I would be among the mere mortals, who apply basically their common sense to how search engines work.

All that said by way of longwinded preamble, I did happen upon a fun realization this morning, in the spirit of “The internet routes around….”

The WSJ does this thing called cloaking. It essentially means they show Google a different website from what they show you. The googlebot sees no paywall and waltzes right in. You hit a “subs only” paywall and get frustrated. Or maybe you pay for the subscription. Still, though, I doubt google pays the subscription, and so even if you see the whole website too, you see a costly website, whereas google sees a free website.

The net result for the WSJ is that it cleverly gets its entire articles indexed, making them easier to find in google, but is able to maintain its paywall strategy. The net result for you and me is that it’s sometimes a pain in the neck to read the WSJ—which is too bad, because it’s a great read. It’s also a pain in the neck to share WSJ articles, as Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor Online @alansmurray’s sometimes plaintive “subs only” tweets evince.

But there’s a way around the mess. Actually, there are a couple ways around. One involves the hassle of teaching my mom how to waltz in like google does, and one involves me doing it for her. I prefer the latter.

paywallBut let’s rehearse the former first. Let’s say you hit the paywall. What do you do? You copy the headline, paste it into google, and hit enter. This works way better if you’ve got a search bar in your browser. Once you hit enter, you come to a search results page. You’ll know which link to click because it won’t be blue. Purple means you’ve been there before, so click that link. It will take you back to your article, but you’ll be behind the paywall, gazing at unabridged goodness. It’s not too hard, and the upside it terrific. That said, this procedure is much easier to perform than it is to explain, and the whole thing is pretty unintuitive, so my efforts to spread the word have led to little.

But there’s a better way, for the sharing, a least—a way that involves letting the geekiest among us assume the responsibility of being geeky. It’s natural, and you don’t have to rely on your mother’s ability to route around. Instead, once you decide you want to share a WSJ article, grab the really long URL that sits behind google’s link on its search returns page. They look something like this:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=2&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB125134056143662707.html&ei=4oiWSouFJIuGlAez86GqDA&usg=AFQjCNEhRb_n571tSnJZrK-uru_0owFz9g&sig2=3rZbZnhOu11lo3bOUojDfA

Then push that horribly long URL—itself unfit for sharing in many contexts—into your favorite URL shortener. Send that shortened URL to your mom, or post it to twitter.

No one will ever know the article you’re sharing sits behind WSJ’s grayhat paywall.

LATE UPDATE: I write a follow-up post prompted by @alansmurray’s response, comparing his situation to the one occupied by the folks at Starbucks.

LATER UPDATE: Alex Bennert from the WSJ points out that the WSJ’s fancy trick is in fact sponsored by google and called First Click Free. See his her link below and my reply.

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.

What the Structure of Content Means for Context

My hero was perched high up in journalism. The writing he left behind is deep and broad. In so many ways, to read his writing is just to think and see more clearly.

Journalists, it seems to me, fancy themselves explainers. They are great synthesizers of the world—at length. It is a wonderful calling for those who choose it.

Print was a great boon to that self-image. Print may even have allowed it. It was a fine world, mostly.

But then came the interwebs and google and adversarial search, which foisted on journalists the great tyranny of pageviews. Click.

Suddenly, it seems, the world moves faster. Its pieces are smaller. Its harried citizens’ attentions are diced or crushed or pointed only inward. We are distracted.

Chasing after readers as only they know how, cheered along by SEOs, journalists and publishers of news are looking for content that fits the new us, distracted. It’s an arms race to the bottom.

But we are not at the bottom. Nor are we at the top. For the news doesn’t so simply fit us, as we don’t so simply fit the news or so thoroughly morph our minds to information or its forms or media. Were it only that simple!

*     *     *

The Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only barely.

Here’s the contrasting picture, set up by Michael Scherer of TIME: “Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event.” Again, that was their calling, enabled by print.

What matters now, however, is “the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information.” Why? Because “a click is a click, after all.” News “is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds.”

Are the interwebs, ineluctably, making the news shallow and narrow? The answer is unequivocally yes and also no. We now have more choice, a vastly wider, and growing, array of options for publishing. Our once-private gossip, carried in spoken words from neighbor to neighbor, is now online, in text, inviting misinterpretation from strangers. This song is not about you.

As certain as humans are petty, narcissistic beings, so impressed with their own lives and confident in their supreme ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be shallow and narrow. Please don’t read it, unless its brevity is the soul of wit.

But so, too, as certain as humans are profound, altruistic beings, so inspired by the world around them and hopeful of their modest ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be deep and broad. Please do read it, unless its length is the apppetite of self-infatuation.

Here’s the nut: The news will also be deep and narrow. And it will be shallow and broad.

The interwebs give us those options too. Let’s not forget about them, or forget that they are different from their purer counterparts of longing and loathing.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, inspired by @mthomps and this and other posts at newsless.org and by this post of @jayrosen_nyu‘s. Of course, the critical piece of the backdrop is a spectacular story by This American Life, called The Giant Pool of Money.

I agree with Jay that “Explanation leads to information, not the other way around.” I certainly agree that news often misses the forest for the trees. If I were a student at j-school, I’d want my profs showing me how to create omnibus stories like this. All writers—no, many writers!—pine for that awesome control over structure and narrative.

Cutting somewhat against the grain, however, I don’t think “Giant Pool of Money” should be the aim of all our ambitions. Which is certainly not to belittle it. Quite to the contrary, its status as masterwork is what makes it really, really hard for us to emulate. That’s asking too much—being a “national explainer” is too tough. Even the brightest among us, in memoriam, perform such dazzling feats of synthesis only occasionally. That’s not good enough for those of us who like important, responsible, thoughtful news all the time. And even This American Life’s story came after the disaster. Warning of the dangers of wildly complex securities and derivatives before they come crashing down is an even taller order—on the level of the GAO, for instance.

Here’s my chart illustrating why “national explainer” is really hard.

newsmatrix

“Deep” and “shallow”? “Broad” and “narrow”? Huh? We’re talking scope here, folks.

“The Giant Pool of Money,” in the lower-right quadrant, is “broad” in its subject and “deep” in its container.

When something is “broad” in subject, it engages a complex, multi-faceted, sweeping subject. It’s a work of synthesis, taking multiple angles on and bridging between and weaving different constituent subjects. It aims to be comprehensive—the stuff of the glory days, however real or imagined they may be, of print journalism.

When something is “deep” in its container, there’s something a bit more prosaic going on. Essentially, each discrete work is thorough unto itself. One document—whether it’s text, audio, or video—aims to say more or less all there is to be said about its subject—to connect all the dots in one place. If there’s very much to be said about a subject, as in “The Giant Pool of Money,” the document will be long.

Consider the alternative: shallow containers. They’re not an insult! When we say something is “shallow” in its container, we mean simply that one document doesn’t attempt to say all there is to be said about a subject. Josh Marshall’s reporting, especially on the US Attorney Scandal, is a high-profile example that bloggers invented.

“We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end,” Marshall said, talking to the New York Times about the Polk Award. “Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Each dispatch isn’t comprehensive. They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.

The point is that the containers are small—shallow in the sense that they’re often only exposing a few dots at a time and not necessarily always trying to connect them all up as they go along. These posts don’t feign omniscience the way some, though certainly not all, traditional journalistic pieces do; they admit doubt and highlight confusion. The goal is to isolate facts, issues, and relationships, not always synthesize them.

But a critical characteristic of the form is that Josh Marshall’s dispatches on fired USAs compose a series. Each post extends previous ones or adds more to the same canvas. They’re all part of some bigger picture; they’re cumulative. And that is why, taken together, they amount to journalism that’s broad in subject. The bits of content may be fractured over author, space, and perspective, but they’re one work—one “text” in the fancy sense. Josh Marshall’s infusion of himself and his joys and outrages into his blog do the human work of pulling together the moral logic that invites readers to be patient while he unfolds the political logic one small piece at a time.

The last of the three interesting quadrants contains Wikipedia. Here again, “narrow” is not an insult. More than anyone, Wikipedians know “What Wikipedia Is Not.” It’s not for original research or reporting. It’s not for opinion or analysis. It’s for documenting these things. It’s domain is facts—but not nearly all facts. It’s not a directory or a guidebook or a textbook. Wikipedia works because it factors out, as much as possible, the kind of human reason that we colloquially call “wisdom” or “insight.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in his Slate piece, “perspective and style don’t scale.” So you may “learn much more from David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of the star athlete than from the Wikipedia entry” on Roger Federer, but “writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths.” Metaphorical reasoning, subtle thought, subjective analysis, and artful synthesis—these are happily banned from Wikipedia.

For Wikipedia, NPOV is hard enough to enforce. Disputes over NPOV erupt every day, probably many times a day. Multiple people collaborating, mostly strangers, often anonymous, are woefully inefficient writers of an encyclopedia. Revert wars abound. So does self-promotion. Vandalism is rampant. All manner of muddy, crummy, and scattered contributions insist their way into Wikipedia, every day, thousands upon thousands of times a day. There is a popular myth, too, that Wikipedia is a flat organization that reaches consensus among co-equal members. In fact, Wikipedia has a wildly complex hierarchy of admins, mediators, and an arbitration committee. It’s not hard to get lost extraordinarily quickly poking around the various administrative, advisory, and community groups, like the now-inactive Esperanza.

And yet, as Manjoo writes, the Wikipedia whose fluid articles we know so well “works amazingly well.” I hope that’s not controversial. Wikipedia is a profoundly inspiring testament to human knowledge, warts and all. Hierarchies haven’t vanished, squabbles have multiplied, and all the messiness may be incredibly salient to the average person who pays a bit of attention to Wikipedia. Aside from the inventing a technology that makes cleaning up vandalism cheaper than to creating it, Wikipedia’s central success is discovering both that its subjects must be wickedly narrow and that wickedly narrow articles are wildly informative. As we’ve found with twitter, sometimes constraints set us free.

*     *     *

It’s extraordinarily important to remember the virtues of the deep and narrow and the shallow and broad. The Politico’s snack-sized news may be cheaper than the New Yorker’s longer fare. But the Politico can’t compete on price with Wikipedia or on community with Josh Marshall. It turns out, as well, that there’s more than one way to put an explanation on offer to the world. The fact that we associate the role of the “great expainer” with the long-form narrative, contra the Least Publishable Unit, grows out of the fact that we overlook hybrid forms.

Josh Marshall’s won’t be the last shallow and broad news. Storymaps and the Las Vegas Sun’s topic page on water are experiments. Wikipedia won’t be the last we hear of narrow and deep news and content.

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.

That’s one small step for Google, one giant leap for text-audio convergence

So you’ve seen the cult classic youtube video “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.”

It’s mostly about the wonders of hypertext—that it is digital and therefore dymanic. You can remix it, link to it, etc.

But form and content can be separated, and XML was designed to improve on HTML for that reason. That way, the data can be exported, free of constraints.

Google’s now embarked on a mission to free the speech data locked up in youtube videos.

There’s no indication that it’ll publish transcripts, which super too bad, but it’s indexing them and making them searchable. Soon enough every word spoken on youtube will be orders of magntitude more easily located, integrated, and re-integrated, pushed and pulled, aggregated and unbundled.

Consider a few simple innovations borne of such information.

Tag clouds, for instance, of what the english-speaking world is saying every day. If you take such a snapshot every day for a year and animate them, then you get a twisting, turning, winding stream of our hopes and fears, charms and gripes.

Clusters, for another, of videos with similar topics or sentiments. Memetracking could move conversations away from the email-like reply system in youtube to being something more organic and less narrowly linear.

Advertisements, for a last, of a contextual nature, tailored to fit the video without having to rely on human-added metadata.

Wait, announcements, for a very last, of an automated kind. If you create a persistent search of ‘obama pig,’ grab the rss feed, and push it into twitter, then you’re informing the world when your fave presidential candidate says something funny.


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