Archive for the 'innovation' Category

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.

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.

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.

Freemium News

I came across two great examples of freemium news. One was a reminder, and the other felt familiar but was a bolt from the blue.

First, the one. Blodget really does an admirable job digging into the fundamental economics of why the WSJ’s porous paywall. (Cf. this naive version at CJR.)

Second, the other. Mitch Ratcliffe drills deep into the economics of news on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. The supply side—what reporters need to report—is interesting. It asks, “How much money do journalists need to give scarce journalistic value to readers?”

But for my money, I like thinking about the demand side of the equation. Here the relevant (and symmetrical) question is, “How much scarce journalistic value do readers need to give money to journalists?”

What Ratcliffe and Blodget’s answers have in common is, essentially, price discrimination and luxury. In other words, make it easier or make it better (as in more value-added).

The WSJ’s habit of forcing me to jump through hoops to read its full articles is price discrimination at its heart. I have to pay with my time (instead of money) by copying the paywalled article’s headline and pasting it into a google search (generally adding “google news” as well) and then clicking back to wsj.com. Then I’m behind the paywall, and not a drop of google juice is spilt.

Ratcliffe proposes “added convenience or increased interaction” in the form of twitter access to the reporter, more timely alerts, or a “social page of your own” for giving feedback to the journalist. “It doesn’t need any new tech — all the pieces are there,” he tweeted (@godsdog). “Yes, integration is hard, but it’s good not to have to invent.”

These are great good thoughts—focused sharply on the economics of news, not BS about who’s a reporter and who’s not or what’s legitimately Web 2.0 and what’s not.

This is the future of news. This is networked news. Above all, this is the power of the interwebs: connecting unique buyers and sellers of information as individuals with diverse interests. Expect more soon.

What would a post-print Times look like?

My reaction, whenever I read stuff like this great piece from Michael Hirschorn, is frustratingly simple.

It’s about trading analog dollars for digital pennies. Or, to put it another way, even if we cut out all the overhead of paper and presses and delivery trucks, we can’t pay our existing writers and editors with only our revenue from online ads.

So what’s my reaction? Up your revenue from online ads.

Maybe my reaction’s not that helpful, or maybe it’s a needed slap in the face. A wake-up call.

Newspapers need to be way more imaginative than starting with the assumption that making “a Web-based strategy profitable” must involve the fearsome numbers we see today. If you don’t like today’s numbers, change them. Newspapers need to think about how they can quadruple their online ad revenue per reader.

I believe much of the answer lies in smarter advertising: make it fit the content contextually and make it fit the reader personally. These aren’t new ideas at all. They’re just important to bear in mind because, as worthwhile as Hirschorn’s piece is, it focuses its energy on the editorial side of the operation.

Which isn’t surprising at all, and that’s the point. Even in the best, most insightful posts on the future of news, writers who cut their teeth in a newspapering world in which editorial and business sat on different floors of the office still seem to forget that they really can try to reach into the business model and rejigger the numbers if they really want to.

If you can trade your analog dollars for digital dimes, after all, things don’t look so grim.

LATE UPDATE: Bringing thinking that’s a couple notches smarter, Felix Salmon begs to differ pretty seriously with Hirschorn on NYT.

Why Socialmedian, Twine, and Others Don’t Get the News

More than a year ago, I asked, “What Is Networked News?” I was thinking about how people really, actually want to get their news, and my answer came in three parts.

Let’s focus briefly on the first two. (1) People care about who writes it or creates it. In other words, people want their news from trusted publishers. (2) People also care about who likes it. In other words, people want their news from trusted consumers—their “friends.”

News in the modern era has naturally revolved around publishers. That part’s old-hat, and so people need little help from innovators in getting their news from publishers. But innovators have made tremendous accomplishments in helping people get their news from their friends. This is largely the story of the success of Web 2.0 so far, and many startups have engineered ingenious systems for delivering news to people because their friends like it.

FriendFeed is one such awesome story. Twitter’s another. Google Reader’s “share” feature and its openness, which has allowed others to build applications on top of it, make for another perfect example. The ethic of the link among bloggers is, in a very real way, central to this concept: one person referring others to someone else’s thoughts.

But I also wrote about a third way. (3) People want their news about what interests them. This may seem like a trivial statement, but it is deeply important. There is still tons of work to be done by innovators in engineering systems for actually delivering news to people because they want exactly what they want and don’t want any of the rest.

Twine‘s “twines” come close. Socialmedian‘s “news networks” come close. They’re both examples of innovation moving in the right direction.

But they don’t go nearly far enough. Twine looks like it’s got significant horsepower under the hood, but it lacks the intuitive tools to deliver. Frankly, it’s badly burdened by its overblown vision of a tricked-out Semantic Web application that’s everything to all people all the time. Twine is, as a result, an overcomplicated mess.

Socialmedian’s problem are worse, however. It’s simply underpowered. Nothing I’ve read, including its press release reproduced here, indicates the kind of truly innovative back-end that can revolutionize the news. Socialmedian wraps a stale social donut around Digg, and I’m afraid that’s about it.

When it comes to the news, people demand (1), (2), and (3). They want their most trusted publishers and their most trusted friends, and they want to personalize their interests with radical granularity. That takes an intense back-end, which Socialmedian simply lacks. That also takes an elegant user-facing information architecture, which Twine lacks.

We’ve had (1) for years, and I’m thrilled at the advances I see made seemingly every day toward a more perfect (2). But a killer news web application has yet to deliver on (3). When it does, we’ll have something that’s social and powerful and dead-simple too.

Whither Tag Clouds?

A few weeks ago, one could do relatively little clicking around the interwebs and notice the tear of pretty tag clouds powered by wordle. Bloggers of all stripes posted a wordle of their blog. Some, like Jeff Jarvis, mused about how the visualizations represent “another way way to see hot topics and another path to them.”

For as long as tag clouds have been a feature of the web, they’ve also been an object of futurist optimism, kindling images of Edward Tufte and notions that if someone could just unlock all those dense far-flung pages of information, just present them correctly, illumed, people everywhere would nod and understand. Their eyes would grow bright, and they would smile at the sheer sense it all makes. The headiness of a folksonomy is sweet for an information junkie.

It’s in that vein that ReadWriteWeb mythologizes the tag cloud as “buffalo on the pre-Columbian plains of North America.” A reader willing to cock his head and squint hard enough at the image of tag clouds “roaming the social web” as “huge, thundering herds of keywords of all shades and sizes” realizes that the Rob Cottingham would have us believe that tag clouds were graceful and defenseless beasts—and also now on the verge of extinction. He’s more or less correct.

I used to mythologize the tag cloud, but let’s be honest. They were never actually useful. You could never drag and drop one word in a tag cloud onto another to get the intersection or union of pages with those two tags. You could never really use a tag cloud to subscribe to RSS feeds of only the posts with a given set of tags.

A tag also never told you whether J.P. Morgan was a person or a bank. A tag cloud on a blog was never dynamic, never interactive. The tag cloud on one person’s blog never talked to the tag cloud on anyone else’s. I could never click on one tag and watch the cloud reform and show me only related tags, all re-sized and -colored to indicate their frequency or importance only in the part of the corpus in which the tag I clicked on is relevant.

But there’re also a cool-headed thoughts to have here. If tag clouds don’t work, what will? What is the best way to navigate around those groups of relatively many words called articles or posts? In the comments to Jarvis’s post, I asked a set of questions:

How will we know when we meet a visualization of the news that’s actually really useful? Can some visualization of the news lay not just another path to the “hot topic” but a better one? Or will headlines make a successful transition from the analog past of news to its digital future as the standard way we find what we want to read?

I believe the gut-level interest in tag clouds comes in part from the sense that headlines aren’t the best way to navigate around groups of articles much bigger than the number in a newspaper. There’s a real pain point there: scanning headlines doesn’t scale. Abstracting away from them, however, and focusing on topics and newsmakers in order to find what’s best to read or watch just might work.

I think there’s a very substantial market for a smarter tag cloud. They might look very different from what we’ve seen, but they will let us see at a glance lots of information and help us get to the best stuff faster. After all, the articles we want to read, the videos we want to watch, and the conversations we want to have around them are what’s actually important.

Pictures! to Accompany Words! about brands!

I won’t rehearse what I wrote before about brands and advertisers and content-producers and so forth. I just want to add a picture I’ve been sketching out in my head over the past few days.

Here’s roughly how the triangle of publishing-advertising-consumer, for instance, has worked and works now:

And here’s roughly how the triangle of publishing-advertising-consumer will come to look, to the extent that “advertising” and “consuming” are still relevant terms:

Other than the color of the magic sparkles—going from green to purple—what’s changed? Well, the direction of the arrows around them, of course!

Companies, says my interpretation of Haque, will be listening to consumers beliefs about their products. Consumers will have cause to air those beliefs, in a conversation among themselves, the publisher, and the company as well, because a publisher will “seed” that conversation and host it.

I don’t know how this will work beyond obvious examples of product reviews. But there are other possibilities that come to mind. What if an earnest politician paid an editorialist to start a conversation about some policy in order to elicit his constituents’ beliefs about it?

I may be pushing the limits of reasonability here, but what if a government paid journalists to write about its war-planning because it actually wanted its citizens’ opinions about it?

The point is to imagine a world in which it doesn’t pay to keep secrets. The point is to imagine a world in which, on the contrary, openness pays and listening pays because talking fails.


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