Archive for February, 2009

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.

In the news, is context possible?

As I’ve claimed before, a sure-fire way to think about the future of news is to think about the fundamentals. I discussed at some length how a more trusting relationship between creators and users can unlock serious value. (Thanks for the promotion, @jayrosen_nyu!)

Matt Thompson writes brilliantly about news and understanding. (See here too.) When we read the news, are we looking for understanding broader than the set of facts and overlaid analysis contained in a traditional article?

My sense is that the answer is something like, “Of course we are!”

“A focus on delivering context means that the news is never the endpoint,” he writes. “The trail of a story doesn’t end with the passage of a bill or the resignation of an official. It doesn’t end at all. It merely connects with more and more dots that form an ever-clearer picture of a better society.”

To some extent, this kind of context can be naively delivered through topic pages, which seem to me to be little more than a cluster of dots only faintly connected when what we’re looking for is a colorful picture.

One alternative is a kind of broad summary of the issue, place, person, company, etc. I’m still not certain whether newspapers are the best economic, social, and cultural structures in which to locate that job. Of course, the obvious point of comparison or target is the Great, Awesome, and Meritorious wikipedia. No sitting duck, that.

For one, there may be severe duplication of effort for any topic that’s not local. There’s only one wikipedia.

For two, it’s not clear that paying writers (per unit of time or per unit of understanding, as knol would do) will generate better results than not paying—for worries around gaming, spam, and other potentially perverse incentives we can’t even predict. That’s one catch about “understanding” as an end: it’s potentially so high-minded (in a good way) that the market, even buttressed by genuinely high-minded journalistic ideas, may not provide a great solution. That’s not to say that we humans are only competitive, adversarial, and conniving when the coin of the realm is in fact money. We also strive for status and influence, but they don’t seem to conflict with veritas as blatantly.

A virtue of one-off articles is that they’re relatively easy to verify. You can check the facts, for instance. And, as an editor or reader, your worry that the author is being appropriately focused or wide-rangingly ambitious is easier to allay because it’s easier to compare versus a necessarily narrower slice of reality. Likewise for your worry that the author is bring appropriately stingy with or indulgent of sources in pursuit of balance.

I’m not pretending to offer any solutions here. I just want to point out that there’s a reason journalism’s basic unit of information started as the article. Time-discrete units of information usually created by single authors are radically simpler things than infinitely relevant units of understanding created by teams.

Do journalists have enough time for trust?

Steve Outing’s was representative of the reactions to my proposal, which is just a deepening and an extension of Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea:

I’ve thought about that idea too, but I can’t [get] past the problem of the journalists you (reader/user) want to interact with will mostly be too busy to participate. Some do interact, but it’s more because they want to and feel some passion for engaging directly with their fans and followers and readers. Many journalists I know resist the idea because they’re “already too busy.” (Bad attitude, IMO, but not easy to change.)

At one level, Steve is obviously correct: no one wants more work, and to the extent that my proposal involves interaction between the journalist and the user, there’s more work. Fine. No one’s arguing that it wouldn’t be different, unfamiliar, tough, risky, etc.

But at another level, the journalist would be paid, potentially a big chunk of his income, by offering special access to some users. Is it really the case that journalists think of themselves as so busy that they can’t imagine a (potentially very) different way of doing business?

The actually good argument one might offer against my proposal is this: “Look, journalists only have so many hours in the day. Users will pay them for some things that don’t require additional work, but users will also expect some of their time directly. That means a journalist either loses sleep or has to cut back on reporting. Lost sleep isn’t an option. And although cutting back on reporting might seem plausible, it’s really not, because it would dilute the other side of reporters’ value proposition to their users so much that their users wouldn’t really want to pay enough anymore. The market’s just not there.”

Of course, I happen not to think that argument has much purchase. Arguing about how busy with reporting journalists are now fails to locate my proposition in the relevant context, which could look more or less radically different from now. (It all about the counterfactual conditional.)

The amount of reporting per journalist might decrease, but that’s not a reason in itself that the aggregate amount of reporting would decrease. There could simply be more reporters! So if the average reporter had to reallocate twenty percent of her time to reader interaction, a twenty-five percent increase in reporters would fill the gap.

Of course, the whole proposition is that there’s a real human value proposition, trust between creator and user, that Kachingle’s kind of charity simply lacks. So while it’s certainly true that my proposition would be a big flop in the market if it turned out that users were only willing to pay creators for interaction that amounted to BFFs, which would prevent creators from actually creating, it’s not at all clear that users wouldn’t tolerate somewhat less reporting in order for access to and some connection with creators, especially in light of the fact that trust is sorely lacking between journalists and readers today.

The upside to a bit less reporting and a bit more trust-building is that society as a whole might have more regard for journalism. The hope is that journalism experiences a net gain in readership and mindshare.

PS. This post is repurposed from a comment left at Steve Outing’s further thoughts on Kachingle and voluntary monthly content payments, which he does not want you or Alan Mutter to compare to a tip jar. That comment is awaiting moderation at the time this post is being published.

Why I dislike micropayments, don’t mind charity, but really have a better idea

A sure-fire way to think up a great idea for the future of the news is think about the fundamentals. “What’s news?” That’s a good place to start. Dave Winer gets at the fundamentals really well.

Let’s ignore most of the fundamental components of the news and focus on a couple: users and creators. Very roughly, those map to readers and writers. But “users” and “creators” emphasize that readers are active and don’t simply passively consume the news. Users want to re-purpose the news, get more out of it. We also don’t want to forget that creators aren’t just writers; they’re also photographers and editors.

inverted_jennyOne pretty important fact is that users and creators are all people. And people can trust one another. Obvious? One would think so, but there’s been a big corporate wall between them for decades now. The publication has overshadowed the writer. We viewed newspapers as the creators. Writers and photographers were faceless bylines most people ignored.

For example, we once trusted the New York Times to give us all the news that’s fit to print. It’s an awesome slogan, containing a slant rhyme and some serious alliteration, sure, but it now works much less well as a promise. I doubt its author ever intended it to be strictly accurate, but now it’s no where near artfully true anymore. Only the internet can make that promise now. It is the great disintermediator.

And so creators of news are re-emerging as real people to their users, who are also real people. That relationship, however attenuated, is a better place to locate trust. Let me put it another way: there’s greater potential trust in user-creator relationships than in reader-newspaper relationships. Humans are built to trust other humans, personally.

Now, we certainly also have relationships with groups. I’m no anthropologist, but it would certainly seem that, as humans, the concept of group identity runs deep. We can trust a person because he’s part of a club or a tribe. It’s a good thing, then, that appreciating user-creator bonds doesn’t demand that we deny the existence of reader-newspaper bonds. The internet may erode—but it doesn’t destroy—the concept of a traditional brand, anchored in a group of people who share a common purpose. The internet supplements, or unlocks, the concept of a personal brand.

Why all the fuss about brands and user-creator relationships and, ultimately, trust? Simply put, trust is an economic good. It’s worth something. It makes markets work more efficiently. As a trader might say, trust is positively accretive to value. This is not just about peace, love, and harmony. Trust creates value. Value gets monetized. Money pays journalists. Journalists save the world.

So if there’s trust to be created, there’s money to be earned. Trust is the foundation for a value proposition. All else equal, it stands to reason that users will pay more for the news in which they have more trust. If so, then it follows that users will pay more for the news they use based on a relationship with creators, in whom they can place more trust than they can in newspapers as brands.

Whew, so all that was wildly theoretical, blurry stuff. Before moving on to something more concrete, let’s sum it up. Shifting the news relationship from reader-newspaper to user-creator increases potential trust, an economic good, and unlocks value, which people may pay for. But even the strongest value proposition does not a business model equal.

So let’s move to the concrete: the business model. How do we monetize this theoretical value tucked away in user-creator relationships?

You do it with an idea I’ve been flogging the past couple weeks. You do it with Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea, in which users pay creators for “added convenience or increased interaction.” Note the elegant fit: increased interaction between one person and another is what fosters relationships and trust. Giving paying users otherwise exclusive twitter access to the creator could work. SMS updates could work, as could a permission only room on friendfeed. Even something as simple as a gold star on paying users’ comments—a symbol that they support the creator financially—would provide incentive for the creator to reply. Tiers of stars—bronze, silver, gold—are possible too.

There’s a social network lurking not too far below the surface. Because we’re in the business of fostering trust, transparency is paramount. So this social network would do best to require real identities. Users would have to be clear about whom they support, and creators would have to be clear about who supports them. Both users and creators would have personal pages of their own, identifying whom they support and who supports them and what dollar levels are being exchanged for what levels of interaction. This way, creators would have the ability to avoid potentially conflicted supporters. (Of course, a person could be both a user of some news and a creator of other news, paying for some and receiving too.)

Paying users of different authors would eventually form their own communities, if creators nurtured them well in the context of a supportive information architecture within the social network. Done right, membership in a community, which could suggest and debate tips for the creator, would represent its own value proposition for which users would be willing to pay up. Creators could have multiple communities, populated by groups of users characterized by different interests, areas or expertise, or even locations.

Creators would set their own prices, reaching their own equilibria between cost and numbers of paying users. Users would tend to pay less to a creator who offered less-value-added interaction by ignoring more questions and comments. But there would tend to be more users willing to pay a smaller amount than a larger amount. Users and creators would have to think about their elasticities of supply and demand. Over time, individual users and creators will find a balance that strikes her fancy. On the one hand, some creators might prefer a smaller set of users who pay more money and enjoy more interaction. Other creators, concerned about possible undue influence, might prefer a larger set of users who pay less money for a thinner relationship. And on the other hand, some users might prefer to be among a small community with better access or thicker relationships to the creator, while other users might prefer spreading themselves around and having thinner relationships with more creators. I don’t see any obvious reasons why a basically unfettered market wouldn’t work in this case.

Note that this represents an end-run around the problem that news is an experience good—you don’t know the value of an article till you read it. (New is not like buying a pair of pants.) This solves the problem that news itself is often nearly worthless the day after its published—yesterday’s news is today’s fishwrap. (It’s not like buying a song from iTunes. Also, ed. note: please, please, please follow that link to Doc Searls. The VRM parallels are clear and profound.) Finally, this also solves the problem that any given news article has myriad relevant substitutes—articles about the very same topic, event, or person and articles about equally interesting topics, events, or persons. (News is not like the Inverted Jenny. Yay philately!)

As with Kachingle, recently blogged by Steve Outing, this kind of freemium news doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s certainly compatible with advertising, though another feature might be a lack of it, just as it’s compatible with charity.

The point is that this idea and the business model on top of it are inspired by deeply human phenomona. Personal interaction and trust are constitutive of what it means to be human. They’re a large part of what makes the world go around generally, and we should look to them to save the news too. The right tools and insights can help right this airship called journalism.

Reduced, but not that much!

I’m cross-posting my comment left on Nick Carr’s lengthy and good thoughts on the paywall for news:

While I agree that the supply of news is greater than it will be when more than a few smaller papers go dark, I’m not at all sure that the long-term supply of news will be radically reduced. That’s a big reduction!

You write that amateurs and part-timers “can’t do all of the work, and they certainly can’t do all of the most valuable work. The news business will remain a fundamentally commercial operation.” I agree, but I don’t think it has all the purchase you’d like.

The current explosion of content is not just “an illusion born of the current supply-demand imbalance.” It’s not enough that “the labor costs remain high” despite the fact that “the capital requirements for an online news operation are certainly lower than for a print one.”

A more or less intelligent armchair blogger’s take on some news event may be worth only a fraction of a pro’s account. It may me more prone to error. It may be published later. It may hide more bias. But it also may be free and therefore good enough. We now have the option of satisficing our news, and that will likely never go away. (Of course, let’s not deny that an amateur expert’s take on the news might also be more valuable.)

So, fine, “it ain’t going to a purely social production model,” but I’m afraid that might not be enough to protect pure paid content. Even if we settle back to a world in which we have only one-tenth of what we have now, that world will still have hundreds of times more news and opinion than we had when buying a subscription to the newspaper was de rigeur.

Fow what it’s worth, however, I too believe there’s a model according to which we will pay those who create our news. But I see us buying not the content itself but value-added interaction with the content and with the writers and editors.

News Is A Medium. It Carries Our Conversation

Too true, via Clay Shirky:

We’re not just readers anymore, or listeners or viewers. We’re not customers and we’re certainly not consumers. We’re users. We don’t consume content, we use it, and mostly what we use it for is to support our conversations with one another, because we’re media outlets now too.

News outfits need to redesign their information architecture so that it carries our conversation. I’m very much in like with that image—of “carrying conversation.”

What carries our conversation is not the article. In fact, the article is about the worst unit of information for carrying a conversation. What we really want to talk about are attributes of the article. This has always been so. After we read an article about football game, for instance, we talk about the players, coaches, and teams first of all. We talk about the people. We also talk about particular plays and drives or the game as a whole. Or we talk about controversies. The proposition may seem dull, boring, and utterly obvious, but we rarely talk about the article itself. Instead, we talk about the newsmakers in the articles, the topics that characterize them, the locations and events they discuss, the political ideologies they convey, the storylines that contain them, or the authors that write them.

This is, I believe, why stand-alone newspaper sites won’t work unless there’s some underlying universally integrated and federated architecture that can carry the conversation. Individual news outlets will not be able contain the conversation to their independent websites. That explains part of twitter’s runaway success: its asymmetric architecture of following carries the conversation well. Absent that federated architecture—parts of which OpenSocial, Facebook Connect, Disqus, and others are attempting—the future of news will come to be housed under the roof of a some small number of big aggregators. And their architecture—it “elegant architecture“—will fit the conversation, the re-use and re-purposing of authors’ ideas for our own public and private reasons.

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.

Quick Thought on the New Likeness of Politics and News

Here’s a PDF to check out: Digital Government through Social Networks: A Natural Alliance?

If you’re crunched for time or lazy as can be, here’s the punchline (emphasis mine for those really, really in hurry):

For the past four years, the authors have been working on (as principle designer and as advisers) on a software platform designed to tap the “participatory surplus” of the citizenry. But, our experience and research has shown that to accomplish the aims of such a system, it is not enough simply to put citizens together into a large, open, virtual space. A social networking system designed for participatory governance needs to mirror some of the structure of the government itself, and needs to provide a range of structured ways by which the government and the citizens can affect one another.

Maybe that seems obvious, or maybe not. I happen to think it’s the whole enchilada. If you know the deep structure that underlies the activity or practice on top of which you want to build a business or a project, you’re halfway to knowing what your business or project should look like and how it should generally work.

That’s why Blaser, Weinberger, and Trippi identify what they call the “four reality principles” that “govern every campaign.” They identify viewpoints (aka issues), money, votes, and careers as the fundamentals. I’m not sure that’s correct, but getting to four is pretty good if it is.

Note that is is also why, thinking about journalism and the news, Dave Winer writes posts like this one, in which he identifies “sources, facts, ideas, opinions, [and] readers” as the fundamental “constituent components.” I tried to do the same thing here, here, and here.

So, is it the case that P, where P follows the structure of the tried and true SAT analogy?

news : journalism :: politics : governance

It’s the fundamental constituent components, stupid.

Questions for Open Calais?

So I’m interviewing the folks over Thomson Reuters on Thursday for a piece that should be published at CJR. We’ll being talking about a relatively new service they’re providing freely. That service is called Open Calais, and it does some fancy stuff to plain text.

What fancy stuff? If you send it a news article, Open Calais will give you back the deets—and, way more importantly, it will make them obvious to your computer as well. That’s my description inspired by the Idiot’s guide, anyhow. (Yes, “deets” means “details” to cool kids, so get on board.)

<digression>Basically, the whole point of the semantic web is to make what’s obvious to you also obvious to your computer. For people who have always anthropomorphized their every laptop and piece of software—loved them when they just work, coaxed them when they slow to a crawl, and yelled at them when they grind to a halt—this can be a serious head-scratcher and a boring one at that. I blame Clippy the Microsoft Office Assistant. I also blame super-futuristic sci-fi movies that give us sugar-plum images of computers as pals—bright, sophisticated, and in possession of a knowledge like we epistemologically gifted humans have. Screw Threepio. Finally, I blame that jerk Alan Turing, who fed us the unintuitive half-truth that a computer could be conscious.

So it feels really silly so to say, again, but computers are ones and zeroes, NAND gates and NOR gates. They called computers because they do computation. They don’t do meaning as such. (Oh boy do I hope I get flamed in the comments by someone who knows his way around BsIV way better than I do.)</digression>

Open Calais will pick out people, companies, and places—these are called “named entities.” It will also identify facts and events in articles. Because Thomson Reuters is finance-focused information provider, many of the facts and events it can recognize are about business relationships like subsidiaries and events like bankruptcies, acquisitions, and IPOs. The list goes on and on. Finally, Open Calais will identify very broad categories like politics, business, sports, or entertainment.

Open Calais will also associate these deets with more further information on teh interwebs. So just for instance, if the web service identifies a person in your article, it will give you and your finicky, picky, and ultimately dumb computer a nice pointer to this computer-friendly version of wikipedia called dbpedia. Or if Calais identifies a movie, it will offer a pointer to linked data, as far as I can tell, is still a pretty vague notion. It promises to deliver more than it has to date, and that’s not a derogation.

But why freely—or essentially so in most cases? If you keep within liberal limits, you owe Thomson Reuters no money in exchange. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all they want, more or less, is that you offer them attribution and use their linked-data pointers (they call them URIs). Ken Ellis, chief scientist at Daylife, which may be best known to journalists through its association with Jeff Jarvis, took a stab at answering the “why free?” question:

Thomson Reuters has a large collection of subscription data services. They eventually want to link to these services. Widespread use of Calais increases the ease with which customers can access these subscription data services, ultimately increasing their ability to extract revenue from them.

That sounds to me like Thomson Reuters is interested in making its standards the standards. And that bargain really does sound reasonable. I guess.

But journalists are a wildly skeptical bunch. They’re skeptical—aloof even, way too cool for school and ideology. Journalists have a pretty acute and chronic deficiency in a little thing called trust. Maybe it’s justified, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s mostly justified, or maybe it’s mostly unjustified.

Either way, my gut’s telling me that journalists are going to need a fuller narrative from Thomson Reuters about why they should rely on another news and information company. When I talk to Tom and Krista, that’s what I’ll be largely interested in.

And you? What do you want to know about Open Calais. Leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to ask them.


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