Archive for the 'scarcity' Category

Blue-skying Brands; Plus, Summize Delivers Sensical UGC to Twitter

Traditionally advertisers’ job has been to talk about a promise of expected utility about their, or their clients’, goods and services. To do that, they’ve paid producers of content to attract readers, listeners, and viewers and get them to engage with advertising.

But now—for a whole mess of really interesting economic and social reasons, like cheap interaction and expensive attention—people think that listening is becoming more important that projecting. Advertisers, or their clients, are supposed to listen to their consumers, who in markets, networks, and communities , are collectively generating UGC, or “user generated context”—”the result of the complex, multilevel network effects that hapen when millions of consumers connect.”

Can content producers “seed” the conversational context to which advertisers are supposed to listen?

Consider a restaurant that once would have stuck slick ads in fancy magazines. Now the restaurant might pay a blogger to review the magazine and attract a lively customer-driven conversation comprising replies to the post and comments on it.

But wait! Doesn’t that represent a hopeless conflict of interest? Isn’t that just payola? Well, not if the restaurant is actually interested in listening—because they want to form their strategy around their customers’ beliefs. If they were engaging in payola, on the contrary, they would be trying to form their customers’ beliefs around their strategy. That’s projecting, or talking.

The idea is that restaurant welcomes a bitter review for the opportunity to draw out customer agreement (in which case it can learn what to change or improve) or, hopefully, provoke customer rebuke (in which case it can focus on new improvements).

Note that the money still flows from an advertiser (or its client, like a restaurant) to a producer of content. Content still flows from producers to consumers. This hasn’t changed.

But the thing that contains the “beliefs” about the brand used to flow from the advertiser to the consumer (via an ad); flowing in the opposite direction was engagement from consumer to advertiser. Now the thing that contains the beliefs about the brans flows from the consumer to the advertiser (via UGC); flowing in the opposite direction is now engagement from advertiser to consumer. This has reversed.

PS. This is more or less how you monetize twitter+summize.

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.

Right and Wrong on Attention

Wrong: Our attention spans are hopelessly on the fritz.

Right: The internet has brought our world more information choices. Sure, we give the average choice less attention because it’s competing with a larger number of alternatives. But we abandon reading one newspaper article not because it bores us to death but because an alternative article in some alternative publication presents itself as more interesting.

So we may read less of your newspaper article before we decide that another one looks better. The switch results from a marginal cost-benefit judgment between alternatives, not from a stunted conclusion that whatever in front of us is beneath us.

In other words, a fancy counterfactual: Imagine a possible world much like the one in which you posit that people still have healthy attention spans—a world circa 1958, for example, fifty years ago. Now imagine that your possible is world is different from the actual 1958-world only insofar as the people who inhabit it have as many (analog) sources of information at their fingertips as we do (analog and digital) sources of information. I claim that the people in your world give their average information choice about as much attention, not much more and not much less, as we do ours in our actual 2008-world.

Thanks to Jeff Jarvis for inspiring this post.


News Is Not the End

Consider entertainment on television. People watch sitcoms or dramas, more or less, as ends in themselves. People want to laugh, cry, or just ogle the actors and reality-show personalities. Not much more, not much less. Seinfeld is an end. America’s Next Top Model is an end. Again, more or less.

Quite the opposite, however, news is the beginning—and always has been. People watch the news or read the news to learn about something else. People want to know about the war-torn country, the gridlocked school board, or a high-flying stock. News is a means to something else.

But to reflect on the history of the news broadcast or the broadsheet—or to see the news media’s foray into the interwebs—you’d never think it. The poised anchor with a firm grip on reality comes to mind. “The first draft of history” does too. Current exhibits A, B, C are undoubtedly the embarrassing lack of outbound links. Journalists want to have the last say, and the historical lack of comments further illustrates the point.

It may be loosey-goosey at best, or unfair at worst, but it’s nevertheless my sense that the public’s twenty-odd-year-old sense of the news media’s “self-aggrandizement” and attempts to hand down opaque (bogus?) neutrality from on high underscore the point. Walled gardens are haughty.

News appears to be an end. In a dead-tree world, in which craigslist was a far-off cyber dream, cultivating that appearance may have made sense. Scarcity, borne by high production and distribution costs, prompted the temporary mirage.

But, in a digital world, that’s largely why Google is running away with all the interwebs’ advertising dollars. Google realized what seems like long ago that advertising sitting idly on a page that has attracted the user for unrelated reasons isn’t valuable. If you’re already where you want to be, you’re not going to click to go elsewhere. The valuable ads actually help you get to your end; they don’t greet you, or blink and scream from the periphery, once you’re already there.

So it is in this context that a very grave report (PDF) has concluded, “The crisis in journalism…may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising,” which “isn’t migrating online with the consumer.”

And it is, furthermore, in this context that the same report exhorts the news media to shift away from being a product and toward being a service. “How can you help me, even empower me?” This vision “broadens the agenda” from “story telling.” Instead, “journalism must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and…give them the tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves.”

The report says, news web sites “must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper.”

Ultimately, the first question is whether you can put your ad in places where users are hunting for something, and the second question is whether you can make your ad relevant to what the users are hunting for. For google, a search engine is the obvious answer to the first question, and looking at the content of the user’s search is the obvious answer to the second.

For the news media, the answer cannot be quite so simple. But neither must it absolutely be so hard. Journalists must remember that people come to their work because they want something else. Journalists can help them on their way, helping them figure out where they’re going, informing them about the facts en route.

Of course, it will still be harder for the New Yorker to monetize an in-depth article about Abu Ghraib than it is for google to monetize a search for “new camera.” But the point is that maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that News As A Service is extraordinarily valuable.


I’ve been reading a lot about copyright for a while now. Intellectual property. Does something analogous to a property right make sense in a digital world?

It’s hard. As near as I can tell, we’re seeing two fundamental changes.

First, what are we to make of scarcity just vanishing? What’s a newspaper to do when I don’t have to buy their paper or watch their program because I can find the same information ten or twenty other places online? Or, just as importantly, when I can find other information that’s just as interesting to me hundred or thousand places online? This is important, for when I hit a paywall or am obnoxiously prompted to log in, I close the window or click a link and find something else that suits my tastes at least nearly as well in twenty seconds. Sure, your article about Barack Obama would haven been great, but I can find others elsewhere, and I like reading about Hillary Clinton too.

Second, what are we to make of the plummeting costs of duplication? What’s record label to do when I don’t have to buy their music because I can download it? What’s a newspaper to do when I can easily replicate their content in my feed reader by scraping their site? Or when a splogger does something actually harmful?

There are maybe some answers.

To the first, many propose inventing new business models around goods and services that are necessarily scarce. Bands, for instance, should let go of making money off CDs and embrace concert tours and t-shirts. Kevin Kelly writes about eight other ideas, which he calls generatives. Make your goods and services premium or easier to find or personalized, etc. Good ideas.

To the second, there’s something like Attributor, which could let us track our copyrighted material and force re-publishers to share the monetization. Copyright is still the basis here. Well, without copyright, there would be no basis for technologies like Attributor anyhow.

Are there more problems? I’m sure there are. But fighting ubiquity is a losing battle. Why not encourage it, track it, add up the duplications, and create something that tells us what’s most duplicated? Aggregate the publishing and the re-publishings. Then we’d know what to read or watch—that something is more duplicated indicates some kind of relevant popularity and interestingness (one hopes).

Re-publishers can each have some slice of the pie they helped grow. They keep a share of the ad revenue, and original authors get the rest. This should make everyone happy as long as the copyright owner’s slice of the new, larger pie is larger than the whole of the original, smaller pie. It’s win-win.

So, yeah, I suspect copyright’s still a useful legal construct. It can still promote economic efficiency. But it’s foolish to rely on copyright to enforce scarcity. Instead, embrace ubiquity and monetize it.

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