Writing at gigaom, Ingram has become the orthodox voice of criticism of know-nothing newspapers and their superficial attempts at innovation in journalism. Cases of “Don’t get me wrong…” make his tone sound apologetic to me. My guess is that he’s moderating his frustration and anger in order to keep the readership of the editors he critiques. Reasonable enough.
For instance, check out this post, called “Memo to media: A Facebook app is not innovation.”
Journalism’s challenge: “No one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.”
Josh Benton has the goods: http://bit.ly/pFZsAI
The broad thesis under which I like the pwyw model is that there is a huge positive externality that goes to the payers. They look noble, the same way the endowers of chairs at universities look noble.
Now, I’m not saying that all the payers in a pwyw scheme will be rich and pay vast sums. That’s the facet of the analogy I don’t want to import. The relevant facet is that people are aspirational. We want to help the world, and we want our friends and colleagues and peers to know about it when we do. If that’s narcissism, so be it. We’re all narcissists then. There’s a reason we say “thank you.” It’s that we think we’re obliged to recognize the person who did the good thing. And there’s a reason we’re irked when we’re not thanked. It’s that we think others are obliged to recognize us when we do the good thing.
The point is that organizations charitable and otherwise have tried to tap that externality — in one way or another — for ages and ages and ages. Take the girl scouts. Delicious as they may be, people don’t buy thin mints because they deem them (the thin mints!) to be the right quality at the right price. People buy thin mints because they want to support the kids. The girl scouts organization frames the act of sales as a leadership activity for the girls. You go door to door, and you introduce yourself to strangers, and you pitch your product and your mission with poise. And cookies aren’t an arbitrary choice. Everyone knows what a cookie is. Cookies are a very easy thing for thousands and tens of thousands of super diverse children to sell all over everywhere and then some.
Which is precisely why it pisses me off when the parent sells his kid’s cookies in the office. It fucks up the whole jam. It devalues the cookies and saps the strength of the positive externality. But that’s the exact reason this example resonates resonates resonates. Would people buy more cookies if the girls themselves did all the selling, assuming that the girls were just as good at sales as their parents are? Yes, absolutely. That assumption is doing a ton of work for me, obvs. In fact, offices are basically the perfect place to sell charitable cookies for a bazillion reasons, and it’s hard for the kid to get to the parent’s office and walk cubicle to cubicle or send an all-staff email with a bubbly tone. And but so yet imagine the kid doing that, putting herself in view of her dad’s colleagues and saying, “hey, i’m a girl scout, and i’m selling yummy cookies for my troop, so what kind would you like?” Irresistible.
And not just irresistible-because-cute, although that’s the undeniable packaging. It’s ultimately irresistible because supporting a kid who’s being ambitious and working toward a goal is a good thing to do. And when one colleague shares his thin mints with another colleague, he’s saying, in part, “hey, i’m a good person who supports kids when they work toward goals.” And that’s awesome. That’s fucking close to magic. “Thank you,” says the other colleague.
And but so yet obviously the colleague who shares his cookies doesn’t actually say anything like, “hey look at how morally awesome i am!” That would be weird for reasons that are as obvious as they are complicated. That’s the whole point of the cookies! Sublimation! The cookies do the talking. They themselves are the communications vector for screaming, “i am a good person! please don’t cc my boss the next time i fuck up that weekly report you asked for!” And, really, can you imagine a better, sweeter, more delicious way to show the world how awesome you are than freely passing out charity-minded finger food that has tons of sugar to bleary-eyed and bored-stiff adults who are sick to bored to death of emails and meetings and other florescent drudgeries?!
So, at long last, it comes to this: news organizations don’t need pure hand-outs. They need their own cookies. The cookies unlock the huge positive externality. Give people something to talk about and share — something more than “hey, i just made a goddamn mensch of myself by funding the news.” Let them say something like “oh, did you hear that crazy tidbit about X? i just found that out from Jane Journalist, that one awesome expert reporter whose club i’m in.”
So, to repeat, the broad thesis under which I like the pwyw model is that there is a huge positive externality that goes to the payers. But there are all kinds of weird cultural and ethical norms around activating that externality. A great end result and donor list doesn’t cut it. Cookies work for the girl scouts because they sublimate the virtue of giving and because they’re super shareable. And, for the news, intriguing facts or interesting tidbits or smart opinions will work against because they sublimate the virtue of giving and because they’re super shareable.
People will pay to be cool or morally good. You just can’t be super obvious about it with outright pure money gifts.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.