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?

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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.


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