Archive for the 'Doc Searls' Category

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.

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The information architecture must fit

I believe that the news business’s central financial struggle right now lies in its search for a new information architecture on top of which it can monetize its alchemy of products, like raw data, and services, like human and trust. This question of economics will determine, if only roughly, all of the answers to the questions about how we’re going to get our news from the news business, which I construe broadly.

Pinning that information architecture down is hard—for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason: it’s like a fish asking, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” (We’ll miss you, DFW.) The second-biggest reason: moving parts abound.

Let’s go through some of those moving parts—some tried-and-true and some previously latent and maybe unfamiliar—at as low a level as possible. Let’s not pretend to be exhaustive.

(1) Everything Is Miscellaneous. The Long Tail. Infinite variety. Radical unbundling. Micromedia. It’s called personalization, filtering, aggregating, and so forth.

(2) Feeds. Rivers of news. Because browsing and search are less efficient. News is what’s happening, not what happened.

(3) People care about other people. They trust businesses and algorithms, but they trust humans more. We love our friends, our celebrities. We gossip about people with people.

(4) Distribution is cheap. Content is therefore abundant and largely commodified. Attention costs dominate production costs. Fame beats fortune.

These four guide posts, however, can get us far down the right path, but that’s for later.

What We Talk about When We Talk About Neutrality

Jay Rosen says we’re really taking about trust, which we might very well be able to win through means other than neutrality.

For one, it’s far from clear that neutrality (or objectivity, insofar as the two are synonymous) ever really worked all that well for the business of journalism anyhow. (James Fallows writes a gripping story about how, starting with Mike Wallace insisting that he would endanger American troops in order to get a scoop. “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty [to the troops]. No. No. You’re a reporter!”)

So then we have something called transparency. I don’t want to attempt the kind of unpacking of what trust really means necessary to justify the claim, but I think it’s pretty obvious that transparency is at least a good candidate for building trust.

With these two beliefs in hand, Jay’s makes a point that resounds if only for its understatement:

“Trust me because I mask my true feelings about the matter” is not an inherently better way to journalize or gain cred. “Trust me because I show you what my true feelings on the matter are…” can also work.

So here’s my point: Neutrality is expensive, but transparency is cheap.

It’s much more difficult for you to figure out what an unbiased party would think about something than it is for you to figure out what you think about it. Poststructuralist issues to one side, an imaginary dispassionate man-as-an-island ain’t easy for Peter Post to envision, and journalists qua humans may not be the best vessels to carry his sacred Truth. The adage that “honesty will set you free” applies doubly here (psychologically and economically). Your own thoughts are yours free for the taking.

So I can see at least one big reason modern journalism has maintained neutrality as its polestar. As a norm, neutrality will tend to price out upstart news outfits with smaller budgets. If you get your cred from neutrality, and neutrality is expensive, and you got precious few dollars in the bank, then you got no cred. If cred’s the norm, then you also got no trust, and if you don’t got trust, you don’t got a news business.

Ultimately, in a world where printing and distribution costs can help price out competition, piling on with artificial norms of doing business made sense. But in a world where the costs of printing are those imposed by wordpress (precisely zero), those artificial norms may become untenable as competition finds cheaper ways of building trust.

In a world of cheap interaction—or an edge economy—the ground on which old giants try to erect artificial barriers to entry won’t hold them fast. The ground will shift or sink, and the barriers will crater as unceremoniously as the revenues newspapers once earned from the classifieds. If trust is the true coin of the realm, and if trust is more easily earned through transparency than neutrality, expect transparency to come out on top.

Cheap and simple beats professional and sophisticated every time in a networked world.

But why did neutrality seem like such a good idea to being with? (Or, does neutrality approximate transparency for very large non-networked audiences?)

To contemplate an answer, let’s start by swapping out “unbiased party” above and slipping in “impartial spectator.” We’re conjuring Adam Smith here; we’re calling on his Theory of Moral Sentiments to help us imagine a kind of synthetic ethics of imagination in which we judge ourselves by putting ourselves in the shoes of those we observe. If there were an impartial spectator-journalist, the results of his pursuance of transparency would look like the results of a conventional modern journalist pursuing neutrality. That’s where the two concepts of neutrality and transparency overlap.

The problem is that there is no such thing as an impartial spectator-journalist.

I can’t say precisely why, but my gut tells me that the industrial press was able to tap our trust because we just didn’t see the distinction between different ways to earn it. Not thinking about it, we believed that trust existed within, and only within, the small place where neutrality and transparency coincide.

Since my not-too-distant days in Ithaca, I’ve always been interested in how philosophers cross the bridge between objectivity and normativity—in Smith’ case deriving morality from psychology. But the two often collide, as in Rawls’ reflective equlibrium. I don’t pretend to know the why or the how, but I suspect it’s a particularly 20th century accident of industrialization and concentration of power—of Haque’s massconomy, in short. There were few enough printing presses and expensive enough distribution channels that we told ourselves, inaudibly, that shoe-leather journalists were only being upstanding members of the fourth estate when they wrote from a privileged place of self-imposed impartiality.

Because a networked economy goes hand in hand with a relationship economy of the kind Doc Searls discusses, the end of the era in which neutrality can purchase trust is nigh. Neutrality just isn’t human. That’s why Jay reaches for the mask as metaphor. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s wearing a mask.


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