Archive for March, 2008

Right and Wrong on Attention

Wrong: Our attention spans are hopelessly on the fritz.

Right: The internet has brought our world more information choices. Sure, we give the average choice less attention because it’s competing with a larger number of alternatives. But we abandon reading one newspaper article not because it bores us to death but because an alternative article in some alternative publication presents itself as more interesting.

So we may read less of your newspaper article before we decide that another one looks better. The switch results from a marginal cost-benefit judgment between alternatives, not from a stunted conclusion that whatever in front of us is beneath us.

In other words, a fancy counterfactual: Imagine a possible world much like the one in which you posit that people still have healthy attention spans—a world circa 1958, for example, fifty years ago. Now imagine that your possible is world is different from the actual 1958-world only insofar as the people who inhabit it have as many (analog) sources of information at their fingertips as we do (analog and digital) sources of information. I claim that the people in your world give their average information choice about as much attention, not much more and not much less, as we do ours in our actual 2008-world.

Thanks to Jeff Jarvis for inspiring this post.

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News Is Not the End

Consider entertainment on television. People watch sitcoms or dramas, more or less, as ends in themselves. People want to laugh, cry, or just ogle the actors and reality-show personalities. Not much more, not much less. Seinfeld is an end. America’s Next Top Model is an end. Again, more or less.

Quite the opposite, however, news is the beginning—and always has been. People watch the news or read the news to learn about something else. People want to know about the war-torn country, the gridlocked school board, or a high-flying stock. News is a means to something else.

But to reflect on the history of the news broadcast or the broadsheet—or to see the news media’s foray into the interwebs—you’d never think it. The poised anchor with a firm grip on reality comes to mind. “The first draft of history” does too. Current exhibits A, B, C are undoubtedly the embarrassing lack of outbound links. Journalists want to have the last say, and the historical lack of comments further illustrates the point.

It may be loosey-goosey at best, or unfair at worst, but it’s nevertheless my sense that the public’s twenty-odd-year-old sense of the news media’s “self-aggrandizement” and attempts to hand down opaque (bogus?) neutrality from on high underscore the point. Walled gardens are haughty.

News appears to be an end. In a dead-tree world, in which craigslist was a far-off cyber dream, cultivating that appearance may have made sense. Scarcity, borne by high production and distribution costs, prompted the temporary mirage.

But, in a digital world, that’s largely why Google is running away with all the interwebs’ advertising dollars. Google realized what seems like long ago that advertising sitting idly on a page that has attracted the user for unrelated reasons isn’t valuable. If you’re already where you want to be, you’re not going to click to go elsewhere. The valuable ads actually help you get to your end; they don’t greet you, or blink and scream from the periphery, once you’re already there.

So it is in this context that a very grave report (PDF) has concluded, “The crisis in journalism…may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising,” which “isn’t migrating online with the consumer.”

And it is, furthermore, in this context that the same report exhorts the news media to shift away from being a product and toward being a service. “How can you help me, even empower me?” This vision “broadens the agenda” from “story telling.” Instead, “journalism must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and…give them the tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves.”

The report says, news web sites “must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper.”

Ultimately, the first question is whether you can put your ad in places where users are hunting for something, and the second question is whether you can make your ad relevant to what the users are hunting for. For google, a search engine is the obvious answer to the first question, and looking at the content of the user’s search is the obvious answer to the second.

For the news media, the answer cannot be quite so simple. But neither must it absolutely be so hard. Journalists must remember that people come to their work because they want something else. Journalists can help them on their way, helping them figure out where they’re going, informing them about the facts en route.

Of course, it will still be harder for the New Yorker to monetize an in-depth article about Abu Ghraib than it is for google to monetize a search for “new camera.” But the point is that maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that News As A Service is extraordinarily valuable.

Twine Beta

I read an awful lot of RSS feeds. Not a record-shattering amount, but enough that it’s hard for me to keep them all organized in Google Reader.

Despite my efforts to keep them in “folders” of different kinds—some organized by topic, others by how frequntly I’d like to read them—I lose track of feeds for days or weeks on end sometimes. Then, when I do get a firm grip on all my feeds, I find that I’ve spent several hours of time I could’ve spent actually reading. That maintenance is getting to be a pain.

I’m hopeful that Twine can help me add a permanent smarter layer of organization to all my feeds. That smarter layer could be sensitive to my evolving reading habits. I’m also hoping that Twine can help me groups of topically similar posts across scattered blogs on the fly.

So early access to the beta would be awesome!

Spiffy Concept

Caveat user: RSS lava lamps

So be good at long-term trends, not just short-term ones. And situate your visualization in the user’s context—different users see different visualizations depending on their differences. Also, make it easy, not difficult, to combine different data sources. Finally, make them actually social and easy to share.

Wow, sounds hard.

Programmable Information

From Tim O’Reilly:

But professional publishers definitely have an incentive to add semantics if their ultimate consumer is not just reading what they produce, but processing it in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In the past and present days of the web and media, publishers competed on price. If your newspaper or book or cd was the cheapest, that was a reason for someone to buy it. As information becomes digital, and the friction of exchange wears away, information will tend to be free. (See here, here, and here—and about a million other places.) That makes competing on price pretty tough.

Of course, publishers also competed, and still do, on quality. As they should. I suspect that readers will never stop wanting their newspapers articles well sourced, well argued, and well written. Partisan readers will never stop wanting their news to make the good guys look good and the bad guys look bad. That’s all in the data.

The nature of digital information, however, changes the what information consumers will find high-quality. Now readers want much more: they want metadata. That’s what O’Reilly’s talking about. That’s what Reuters was thinking when it acquired ClearForest.

Readers won’t necessarily look at all the metadata the way they theoretically read an entire article. Instead readers might find the article because of its metadata, e.g., its issues, characters, organizations, or the neighborhood it was written about. Or they might find another article because it shares a given metadatum or because its set of metadata is similar. Or, another step out, they might find another reader who’s enjoyed lots of similar articles.

The point is that, if your newspaper has metadata that I can use, that is a reason for someone to buy (or look at the ad next to it).

Actually, it’s not that simple. The New York Times annotates its articles with a few tags hidden in the html, and almost no one pays any attention to those tags. Few would even if the tags were surfaced on the page. Blogs have had tags for years, and no one’s really using that metadata, however meager, to great effect.

When blogs do have systematic tags, the way I take advantage of them is by way of an unrelated web application, namely, Google Reader. I can, for instance, subscribe to the RSS feed on this page, which aggregates all the posts tagged “Semantic Web” across ZD Net’s family of blogs. Without RSS and Google Reader, the tags just aren’t that useful. The metadata tells me something, but RSS and a feed reader allow me to lump and split accordingly.

Google Reader allows consumers to process ZDNet’s metadata in “sophisticated ways.” Consumers can’t do it alone, and there’s real opportunity in building the tools to process the metadata.

Without the tools to process the metadata, the added information isn’t terribly useful. That’s why it’s big deal that Reuters has faith that, if it brings forth the metadata, someone will build an application that exploits them—or that slices and dices interestingly.

In fact, ClearForest already tried to entice developers with a contest in 2006. The winner was a web application called Optevi News Tracker, which isn’t very exciting to me for a number of reasons. Among them is that I don’t think it’s a good tool for exploiting metadata. I just don’t really get much more out the news, although that might change if it used more than MSNBC’s feed of news.

My gut tells me that what lies at the heart of News Tracker’s lackluster operation is that it just doesn’t do enough with its metadata. I can’t really put my finger on it, and I could be wrong. Am I? Or should I trust my gut?

So what is the killer metadata-driven news application going to look like? What metadata are important, and what are not? How do we want to interact with our metadata?


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