Archive for August, 2009

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 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:

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.

Parasites, readers, and value

The idea that some sites, like blogs and aggregators or whatever they’re called, are parasites on traditional news is interesting. It’s not crazy.

Those who run traditional news sites see aggregators benefiting from the resources of the traditional players and worry that they, the traditional players, may be hurt by that use. The worriers say, “Digital vampires” are “sucking the blood” out of traditional news players. (That’s a shibboleth, not a fair rehearsal of a smart argument.)

Some decry the notion that traditional players are hurt or harmed or injured by that use. The decriers say, “Wait! Vanquish your backwards self-pity because aggregators actually help you via the link economy.” (That’s a shibboleth, not a fair rehearsal of a smart argument.)

My sympathies lie deeply with the decriers. But I wonder whether they are right. I’m not sure they are—and, probably more importantly, I don’t see their argument convincing everyone it intends to, especially the worriers. So let me take a different tack.

What if it were the case that aggregators were parasites in the way the worriers worry about? But what if it were also the case that readers or users or whatever they’re called were actually better off as a result? What kind of parasite hurts one host in order to help another? And what might it mean if the help is greater than the hurt? What then?

Would we cheer the gains of the readers? Would we feel bad for the worriers? Would we despise the aggregators? And here’s the real question: Would we forsake the gains of readers in order to prevent the harm felt by worriers and brought about by aggregators?

I don’t know the answer to that question. For one, it’s really hard to imagine what we’d even mean by “gains of the readers.” Would we mean total utility people derive from news, however we define it? That seems empirically pretty impossible to measure. But could we use total traffic or pageviews of traditional news sites and blogs and aggregators as a proxy? But would all pageviews be created equal, as it were, or would we care about the loss of hard news if it were replaced by soft? How would we even know what blend of hard and soft news—serious and light-hearted, intellectual and whimsical—is ideal?

Or maybe we reject the paternalism inherent in claiming the right to answer the question about what blend of hard and soft news is ideal. Maybe all pageviews are created equal, or about equal, or about equal within some bounds of reasonability.

*    *    *

Blogs and aggregators or whatever they’re called as a group add value to the news on the web in a few ways. They add reporting, analysis, and context. They mobilize advocates; they amuse and entertain. They also decrease the uncertainty inherent in experience goods like the news—in other words, they add trust. They increase social capital.

There’s only so much attention in the world. The outfits that help allocate it efficiently—to content, comunication, games, etc.—will win it, even if it’s at the expense of civically important news, ceteris paribus. Worriers worry because they see their slice of the pie decreasing. And maybe it is. Maybe the theory of the link economy is wrong! But maybe the pie’s changing in other ways too.

Maybe the slice owned by traditional news sites is decreasing while the size of the whole pie is increasing. Maybe users are better off. That would be good, right?

*    *    *

And yet we’re not one inch closer to persuading worriers worried about their own demise. No, what we have is possibly an argument that let’s us look beyond their worries to a bigger picture in which it might well be the case that their worries will never go away till they themselves are gone. We may have freed ourselves from that responsibility, and maybe that’s important. After all, it’s unreasonable to blame a worrier for worrying about his own death. It’s folly to try to persuade a worrier to sacrifice herself.

Calling bottoms, calling tops, calling danger!

Cody Brown just wrote a piece bashing twitter, getting some decent play on a day twitter and other sites took a bruising.

twitterHe lodged a few complaints:

  • Its 140 character restriction is a blunt instrument. The site does not reflect the potential or nuance in which a public can speak to itself online.
  • Usernames are inconsistent and confusing. Twitter is mobbed by impersonators.
  • Twitter will either perpetually be simple insofar as its millions of users will have to hack the service to reflect their own values or it will roll the dice on a focus, put the site through chronic redesigns, and risk a mass user exodus.

I don’t know what to say. I just disagree. I mean, twitter’s not perfect, but it’s so open and promising that many very smart people are building it out, cleaning up messes, solving problems, adding value. I guess if folks are really concerned about why I disagree, we can flush it out in the comments.

Here’s what I tweeted yesterday:

By @CodyBrown, a twitter story of wildly exaggerated problems and wildly vague promises of infrastructure and elegance

And here’s what I tweeted this morning:

Really, @muratny? I’m sorry, but I think @CodyBrown’s piece is overblown and overwrought. And I’m sympathetic!

For me, this is one of those tough cases when you don’t want to blow your credibility—whatever you may have—by sounding shrill or acerbic. But let’s call a spade a spade: the piece is mostly vapid. Its reasoning just doesn’t follow.

And when it does make good points, they’re hardly original. Who isn’t gazing deeply into twitter, wondering which of its deep properties is driving its success and will in the future? Content delivered by streams defined in terms of (mostly) people? Or asymmetrical relationships? Overlapping publics? The collapse of the distinction between discourse and content? And who isn’t gazing deeply into twitter, looking for what will follow? Brown’s answer: something real-time and more elegant like facebook, picking up Dave Winer’s idea and trading in Jeff Jarvis’s words. Okay, great, thanks for the insight! Like facebook! Elegant!

They say calling a market bottom is like trying to catch a falling knife. It’s dangerous, and you never really know. Calling a top on twitter is like trying to predict with the naked eye when a rocket’s upward arc will turn back toward earth. What goes up must come down, right? We all know it’s bound to happen at some point, or maybe not, but no one really knows, and, if the rocket’s hurdling your way, insisting that it will fall is just dangerous. Or just silly.

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