Wednesday, December 16, 2009
This peculiarity can have strange consequences. Take the open source software model: the premise here is that an army of dedicated individuals can pool resources to create a piece of software they can all use and maintain with no license costs. The model presupposes large numbers and common interests, so works best on ubiquitous or commodity applications – web browsers, word processors, operating systems. (I'm writing this using OpenOffice running on Linux and the experience is faster, better and definitely cheaper than Word on Windows.) Stating the obvious, there's never going to be an open source car, or loaf of bread, or pair of socks; we could readily design one, possibly agree that it fits the needs of a very large number of users, but you'd then have to manufacture and ship it, so what's the point?
Open source works for another reason – producers are are also consumers. People that contribute to open source almost always have some self-interest as users of what they create. In fact, most contributions to major open source projects such as the Linux operating system are employed by companies that use it heavily or are engaged in offering it as a product with paid-for support services. This is communism as the dictionary originally defined it, put to the service of capitalism.
Over the last few years we've seen more and more of our lives get translated from our analog reality to the digital otherworld. In the process, there's been a huge shift in how we consume news and entertainment, and the peculiarity of 'no manufacturing costs' has come into play. Trouble is, most people conflate this with “free.”
At the heart of this debate is an argument often reduced to the aphorism “information wants to be free.” In the political sense we might all agree with this, but in the dollars-and-cents sense it's hard to see how this would work. In the dollars-and-cents sense, most useful information has a real cost. When a composer writes a tune, or a journalist a breaking news story, there's often considerable resources involved. It takes work, and inspiration, and training. Yet in much of the digital world today, the presupposition is that everything can and should be free. In a recent BBC interview the director Steven Soderbergh argued that this was an attack on the notion of the professional, something echoed by Nick Carr. In my view, free only makes sense when you have a model close to that of open source software – where consumers are also providers, which liberates information from having real ownership. Otherwise, you gotta pay if you want anything of real value.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Ask any First Amendment lawyer and they'll tell you that the press have the right to be wrong. Journalists can and do make mistakes all the time, and in the vast majority of cases the usual recourse is to print a correction after the fact, usually unsatisfactorily buried somewhere at the back of the newspaper. But what happens when this isn't enough, when the law is broken, or when there's a disagreement about the facts of the issue?
Enter the Ombudsman. Almost all major daily newspaper and most magazines employ someone to act as a referee between the publication, its editors and reports, and external parties. The Ombud* works off a code of business ethics and the existing laws that protect against libel, slander and the like. They will vet a complaint and try and arrive at a fair outcome. They exist as a recognition that the mass media command a loud megaphone, and the subjects of which they write usually do not.
Often, the Ombudsman is trying to balance contradictory ethical and legal issues, such as with the New York Times' coverage of the Duke University rape case. Other times, they're dealing with issues that can seem entirely absurd, as with criticisms leveled by Fox News at producers of the kids show Sesame Street, which did a very funny parody of cable news shows, including Fox.
Ombudsmen exist in other walks of life too, including politics. Even the large industry analyst firms employ them. And if you blog at a reputable publication's website, the ombudsman will pay attention.
Many blogs now purport to be legit news outlets, and a lot live up to the billing. But to be credible, they need to be accountable – and most fail at this. And having the ability to post a comment at a blog does not in any way constitute a retraction or formal correction.
What bloggers need is an Ombudsman of their own. They need an independent third-party that will provide redress when bloggers get it wrong. Recent FTC rulings could be enforced, along with much broader issues about conflicts of interest. One approach would be to have someone like the Organization of News Ombudsman (ONO) take on the role, possibly by certifying blogs that they work with and providing an Ombudsman that could deal with complaints across their member bloggers.
Credibility is one of the hallmarks of great journalism, and independent bloggers will struggle to gain this level of trust with their readers until they are more accountable.
*(apparently a gender-neutral and politically correct reference, although to me it sounds like something you'd plant in your yard)
Friday, October 23, 2009
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Shakespeare clearly hadn't heard about branding. The name of a thing, be it a product, company or even a person, is seen by branding professionals a critical step in driving perception, value and success. Marketing consultancies make a lot of money devising names-as-brands, something that's been in my mind a lot lately: in my day job, we're sweating over the naming of some new products we're launching. Of course, the names of things matters outside the world of branding, and we marketeers can learn a lot here.
A few years back the author David Lodge wrote a wonderful essay about names in literature and how they can have either connotative or denotative meaning. To understand what he means here, think about the discount home goods chain “Lowes” (connotative of their pricing and value) and their arch-rivals Home Depot (denotative, it says what they are). In literature all names are fair game for manipulation. Dickens particularly understood how names drive character: think the diminutive, contracted “Pip” and and the frightening Miss Haversham from Great Expectations (saying “Haversham” out loud, one syllable at a time, will extract the connotation). Nabokov famously made his eponymous heroine's name physical: Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. J. K. Rowling has great fun with her magical names: Mad-Eye Moody, Severus Snape, Fudge, Malfoy. In fact, names are so powerful in fiction that their absence can be used to great dramatic effect, such as the unnamed narrator in Du Maurier's Rebecca or the man and boy of McCarthy's superb The Road.
So what about tech world naming? Intel and Oracle are two very different companies, but judged just on the intended connotation of their names they have the same lofty aspirations. Microsoft and IBM are contractions and acronyms, and take the say-what-we-do approach. Google, Amazon and Pandora all have obscure origins and associations, but you really wouldn't extract much meaning from the names by themselves. The current trend in tech company names is to murder ordinary words – Flickr, Digg and Zune are good examples – probably in an attempt to land a decent domain name and get a watertight trademark. TheNameInspector has a very good list of IT company names.
In my day job the chore is to avoid the three-letter-acronym (which of course has its own acronym, TLA) product naming trap. It's challenging, although I try to remember that Shakespeare probably did have it right, after all: If the product's any good, who cares what it's called? Meaning follows naming and there's no short-cuts to the laborious process of creating a real brand.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Who to blame? Rarely at the top of the list of black-hearted, no-good, fat-cat swindlers who made all our 401Ks vanish are the ratings agencies: Fitch Ratings, Standard & Poors, and Moody's. But they played a key part in the financial meltdown: these are the organizations that assign credit ratings on banks, companies and others that issue debt obligations such as a bond issued by the State of California or a mortgage-backed security issued by Lehman Brothers. The agencies got into all sorts of trouble this year because of an obvious conflict of interest: agency analysts are paid by the same firms they rate. There's a bunch of hearings going on where various ex-employees of the agencies are saying they had all sort of pressure placed on them to overestimate the worth of otherwise dodgy and unintelligible financial instruments like credit default swaps.Hmmm.... conflict of interest by analysts paid by the firm they rate.... sound familiar?
Industry analysts the world over derive a good chunk of their revenues – in many cases all of their revenues – from the very technology firms they then write about. When Gartner rates vendors on a Magic Quadrant or Forrester does the same in a Wave, there's a good chance that the majority of the vendors they judge are paying clients.
For sure there's differences between industry analysts and the financial rating firms. First, for most industry analysts, fees paid by technology vendors aren't ear-marked specifically to fund a “ratings report”. Especially for the bigger analysts like Gartner, Forrester and IDC, any fees paid by vendors are for general access to written research and advisory services. Second, most reputable industry analysts have a strong account base among end-users of technology – most large companies around the world have subscriptions to industry analysts so that their IT staff can get informed opinions on products and services. This means that only a fraction of their overall revenues come from vendors – in the case of Gartner and Forrester, perhaps 30-35 percent. That said, a lot of smaller firms are almost entirely reliant on vendors subscription fees to be in business.
All this came to mind when I read Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman's excellent rant on how his integrity is often questioned. Bittman points out that in 14 years as an analyst he's never let vendors unduly influence his reports, although he says he “understands” why the marketplace has the impression that “analyst firms can be bought.”
Responding to Bittman, the good people at Sage Circle, an advisory firm for vendor analyst relations professionals, point out that you don't need to be a Gartner client to get a very strong rating, and that the correlation between payment and judgment is very poor. Shamus McGillicuddy at IT Knowledge Exchange points out the inherent conflicts analysts face when they take money from vendors and consumers.
The problem is that Bittman's argument is little different than the defense made by the ratings agencies. In both cases, no matter the integrity of individual analysts, there is the clear appearance of a conflict of interest. As Bittman himself states, the marketplace will always believe that it is harder to criticize a paying client than a non-paying one.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Stating the painfully obvious, social media is completely changing the way news is gathered and shared. It's also rewriting the economics of the news business. But because of social media, is news itself changing? In other words, is news new?I can see some obvious ways that social media is changing the substance and character of the news:
Velocity – The news business has always been about first-to-market advantage. Getting the scoop and being first was always the goal, and social media is clearly a news accelerator. Social media makes all news almost instant.
Volume – a side effect of social media is that the shear amount of news that we get is becoming overwhelming. It is repetitive, overlapping, redundant, contradictory and endless.
Veracity – A recent Pew Research report showed ratings for press accuracy had hit a two-decade low. The straightforward factual accuracy of a lot of news – in fact, the paucity of anything approaching a fact in a lot of news reports – makes this finding unsurprising.Validity – It's getting harder to take news at face value. It's difficult to know if a news source is always credible, and almost impossible to verify.
Value – the real dollars-and-cents value of a lot of news is plummeting, a victim of over-supply. The news market is saturated and the barriers to entry as a news source have fallen away.
What have I missed?
Saturday, September 19, 2009
If anyone had really bothered to read any of my books and paid attention they'd know that so-called “social media” is (a) a disagreeable tautology and (b) my invention.
Just today I came across a new example of said social media, hideously described as a “new invention” (tautology!) and named, in typical twee fashion, Twitter. The chattering classes are now the twittering classes, and everyone is aflutter about how this is revolutionizing the way we communicate.
Reluctantly, I need to join the flock. I need to make it plain that if it wasn't for my genius, foresight and erudition we'd all still be licking stamps and twiddling the rabbit-ears on the tops of our television sets, or something like that. I'm the Global Village Guy, goddammit!
My start with Twitter was not auspicious. When I tried to register as “Marshall McLuhan” I discovered that a namesake had already taken my identity, complete with my photograph (not too bad, actually). The impostor has the gall to be quoting me as me (tautology?). I took this as a considerable affront, especially since some of the material wasn't exactly in context, if there is any context to be “in” on the Internet (Note to self: Is there a book in this idea? Maybe the OuterNet???).
I tried reaching the owners of Twitter to no avail (employees of Twitter are Twits, I presume, har-har). I later found out that when it comes to having an identity crisis I'm in very good company: also on Twitter is Albert Einstein (rambling), Charles Darwin (literally rambling, he seems to have restarted his journey on The Beagle), and even by good pal Marty Heidegger (who pretty much out-rambles anyone I know).
Anyway, after extensive clicking I discovered I was relegated to “MarshallMcLuhan2,” which is humiliating to say the very least. Now that I think about it, this Global Village thingy has a way of humbling you. All the world is within my reach and I feel as small as an ant.
But now to work. I need to regain myself. And most important, I have to set the record straight on why I nailed the whole social media thingy way back in 1960-something, before even The Beatles and when computers ran on rolls of paper just like my dear mother's Player Piano, and when newspapers actually made money. But I digress....
I thought a pithy first post might be this little zinger:
MarhsallMcLuhan2: In Tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms the user and his ground.
Captures the whole idea nicely I think. Not too obvious, straightforward or dare I say it, even intelligible to anyone who hasn't pondered my opus for some considerable time. Then this happened:
MarshallMcLuhan2: In Tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms...
Turns out, Twitter assumes we all have an attention span of the average newt and limits posts to a meager 140 characters. A Dickens novel has more than 140 characters! “Existential angst” has 16 characters alone!
Crap. Ah, to hell with it:
MarshallMcLuhan2: The medium is the message.
"When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity...So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what's called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. He is so deeply involved in other people that he doesn't have any personal identity."
-- The real McLuhan, quoted in Forward Through The Rearview Mirror
Thursday, September 3, 2009
In the early 1800s most news came to America across the Atlantic aboard ships, and arrived weeks old. Old perhaps, but still valuable: news of wars, politics, and commerce commanded a price. Thus an enterprising newsman named Harry Blake, working for the Boston Courier, came up with a clever idea and began haunting the wharfs of Boston to scoop stories, eventually venturing out in a small boat to meet ships before they even berthed. Over time news organizations got competitive and began sending schooners as far as 200 miles out to sea to meet boats and get copies of newspapers and reports from sailors. By the late 1820s David Hale, who had recently taken over the failing New York-based Journal of Commerce, reinvented news gathering:
It will be a primary object to render the Journal a first rate commercial paper, worthy of the city. To this end an extensive correspondence will be maintained, the most ably conducted periodicals will be taken, and no pains nor expense will be spared to procure authentic reviews of the markets, prices current &c. It will be necessary to maintain a boat establishment for the collection of marine news; and this must be done at our individual cost, as the public and our establishment will be benefited by competition...
By setting out to sea Hale was able to gather information about European crop harvests, the prices of goods , the fortunes of nations, and a world of other information that could be traded on for profit. But he didn't stop there. In 1849 he pooled resources with several other newspapers and started running a boat and pony express network to quickly get news to New York from the inbound mail steamers that first docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was the birth of the Associated Press.
Fast forward to 2009. RavenPack is a small New York-based company that “provides dynamically tagged news feeds and analytics that meet the accuracy and low latency requirements of today’s markets.” Translation: RavenPack's software automatically sifts through news to very quickly decide what a story is about, and whether it is positive or negative. “Very quickly” in this context means processing hundreds of stories a few thousandth of a second after their publication. RavenPack sells the system to financial companies who use it to help make trading decisions. The company claims that in 90 percent of cases the information they provide can be used to profitably decide which stocks to buy, sell or hold.
I'd argue there's very little difference between Harry Blake rowing across the Boston harbor and RavenPack racing through terabytes of data: they are both in pursuit of news, and they both understand the value of getting the scoop. From a strict news perspective, all that has changed is the technology, velocity and volume.
And when we think of social media, we should see it for what it is – an improvement over a row boat. Social media is just a new means of delivery.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Anyone working in IT knows the power and influence exerted by Gartner, Forrester, IDC and the rest: Industry analysts can create markets, shape buying behavior, and even determine the fate of entire companies. They have a direct and measurable impact on the way organizations and individuals buy and use technology, from ubiquitous consumer products to esoteric emerging technologies.I'm employed by an enterprise software vendor, and working with the analyst community is a central element of our marketing mix. Analysts are uniquely positioned to provide a highly informed yet objective view of our ideas, strategy and product development plans. But more importantly, they also act as valued advisers and translators for consumers of information technology, aka our customers and prospects. And as a breed, analyst can be delightfully quirky individuals that are fun to know. (They can also be infuriating, pig-headed and far too enamored with themselves, but I digress...)
I've run AR programs for a handful of companies, and recently I inherited the AR brief in my current job. It's been a couple of years since I talked to analysts on a regular basis and it feels like the landscape has changed. If you've got experiences you can share – or resources you'd recommend – please get in touch.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
A lot of people, including me, have made fretful bleating noises about the dismal economics of conventional media. Not so many have made the same bleats about social media, even though these businesses aren't exactly printing cash.Just today the Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube owner's Google are “aggressively pushing new ad formats and ramping up deals with media companies” in an attempt to make some money from the popular video site. Google acquired YouTube over three years ago and has struggled to make it pay.
Google isn't alone. In 2005 News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million, only to see the site's popularity wain as Facebook adoption exploded. Earlier this month News Corp. announced a quarterly loss of $205M, citing MySpace as a big cost-sink. Not that rival Facebook is exactly rolling in cash itself – the company hopes to get cash-flow positive by 2010, even as the number of subscribers spirals above 250 million. In March this year Facebook let go of its CFO, and in May sold stock at an evaluation well below the price Microsoft took when it bought into the company back in 2007. Meanwhile, the social media darling Twitter is enjoying a kind of celebrity and ubiquity that seems to eclipse even famous users Obama, Kutcher, and the Iranian nation state, yet the company has essentially zero revenue and is fumbling for a business model.
This is an enviable problem to have. As more and more of our lives drift into the ether, many of these companies are becoming invaluable. Most will find a way to extract payment – directly or indirectly – from us all. The usual default model – advertising – might well work, although I remain skeptical that over the long haul this alone will be enough. And without a doubt some of the social media giants of today will wilt and disappear: People are fickle, fads change, and the very success that many social media sites enjoy will make them less appealing to users who's time and attention become stretched thinner amid all the clutter and noise.
All these services are turning the Internet into a modern-day Babel. The real money may be in technologies that keep all this information at bay, and offer ways to filter, find, manage, and assimilate content, or mechanisms for presenting and preserving our digital indentities in a coherent and controlled way. We need protection. Social media services may not charge a dollar but they ain't free -- they cost us all way too much time.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
At the end of last year Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, described the Internet as a “cesspool where false information thrives.” He advocated that “brands are the solution, not the problem.” While many saw great irony in Schmidt's comments, it's hard not to agree: most of what passes for information on the Internet is at best regurgitation, and much of the rest is vapid opinion or self-serving nonsense.
In the good old days, before said Internet, it was pretty easy to know who was saying what and why, and to form a reasonable opinion on how credible the information was. Back then, the media that mattered were massive, and they had a brand, and they had a certain credibility: ABC, New York Times, BBC, NewsWeek, NPR. They even had handy signposts to indicate when they strayed into overt opinion – the Editorial Page, for example – and they published retractions when they screwed up, which they did a lot. They had editors, even. And Ombudsmen. Really.
Now all that's shrinking away, and many say good riddance. We now have the wisdom of the crowd and we certainly have a more democratic media. Everyone has a voice. The problem is, we don't know who to believe and who to trust. As Peter Steiner cartooned it, “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.”
This isn't a new problem, it has just got a lot worse. Back when I was teaching Mass Comm classes it was labeled “source credibility” and was something academics studied and organizations strived towards. Public relations professionals aspired to be seen as wise, informed, trustworthy sources of news. Hack and Flacks traded on news as a commodity.
Today, the burden of being a credible source lies not with massive news organizations but has fallen back on the PR professional and the organizations they represent. This is where Schmidt has it right: more than ever before, PR is about brand preservation and about creating a voice for the brand that can be trusted. It is about providing valuable information. PR needs to assume many of the responsibilities that used to be the function of the mass media, and let the new social media do what they do best – express opinion and be a critic. To paraphrase Steiner, “On the Internet, everybody is a watchdog.”
Monday, April 27, 2009
Sherborne in Dorset, England is a sleepy, picture-perfect village. Sherborn, MA was originally Boggastow, the native American name for the Charles. Today it's a leafy, wealthy suburb of Boston. And in June, it'll be my new home. I'm moving from Natick, named for the native American tribe of the area, the so-called Praying Indians. I have a Natick dictionary at home, transliterated from the Eliot Bible that was translated to the native language. There's a wonderful 1930s mural in the town Post Office showing the terrible persecution the Natick Indians endured. American history may be short, but it's complex.
Friday, April 17, 2009
In the midst of the worst recession in living memory, everyone told me that selling our suburban Boston house would be challenging: within four hours we had an offer over asking and within a day we had two more. We've just passed inspection and will close in June.On the other hand, everyone also told us that it was a buyers' market and we'd have our choice of bargains. We missed our 'dream house' by hours, and after trolling the real estate market over the last week have no other prospects. Nothing. Our real estate agent says she's sold 5 homes in the last few weeks.
This is backwards.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Most weeks I listen to the BBC podcast of From Our Own Correspondent, a series of dispatches from their reporters around the world. The show was first broadcast in 1955 and growing up in England I used to listen to it every week on the radio with my Dad. Later, when I traveled in Asia, it was a great thrill to tune-in on shortwave to the BBC World Service and hear the same show in Burma, Nepal, or Thailand.Recently I've listened to a BBC reporter recount giving evidence at the Hague against war criminals in Kosovo, and another from Madagascar talking about a simmering civil war. In the last few weeks journalists have joked about jokes being banned in Morocco and the bewildering experience of taking a very sick child to a U.S. hospital. The reporting is uniformly excellent.
Meanwhile, US journalism is falling apart. The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer are in bankruptcy, as is the Tribune Group. Denver's Rocky Mountain News and the Christian Science Monitor closed, and the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe are both at risk of closing soon too. The New York Times, saddled with enormous debt, had to borrow even more money to stay afloat. Along with all this, most newsrooms are shedding hundreds of jobs: 200 at the Miami Herald, 150 at the Atlanta Journal, 90 at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times, is being asked to find $20M is savings but even this won't make it a profitable enterprise. The economics of conventional print journalism nolonger work: most major newspapers loose money. The Gannet News group, which owns the nation's largest circulation daily USA Today, recently saw revenues decline 50 percent in 2008. The online model can't sustain labor-intensive news gathering, and other ideas for creating a sustainable business model sound, at best, far-fetched.
All this might be good for the environment (newsprint consumption is down from an estimated 12 million tons in the 1990s to about 7 million tons now), but it's terrible for everything else. At the risk of sounding like I'm hyperventilating, this is terrible for democracy.
Will online media take up the slack? Some think it's perfectly fine for the dead tree publishing business to die, arguing that the new openness and community-driven nature of online news will create a more democratic, more participatory journalism. Others disagree. David Simon (best known as the writer behind The Wire and other TV shows, but also a longtime Baltimore reporter and author of the excellent Homicide), sees conventional beat reporting dying, and not being replaced. Nick Carr, in a blog post titled “The amorality of Web 2.0”, talks about the cult of the amateur:
"The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call "the mainstream media." Here's O'Reilly: "While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole. This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls 'we, the media,' a world in which 'the former audience,' not a few people in a back room, decides what's important."Some people see the wisdom of the crowd, others see the madness of the mob. I don't think there's any doubt that so-called new media is not a like-for-like replacement of old media. It is different, and it is probably poorer. In the first place it is largely parasitic: it feasts on news from other places, rarely creating anything truly new, never mind newsworthy, itself. It is opinion-driven. It narrowcasts. Much of it lives off esoterica, or thrives in an echo-chamber of point-counterpoint with no end, and with very little purpose. In encourages specialization, which can quickly slide into division. It plays to the home crowd, the convert, the zealot.
Or at least it can seem this way.
So, what's the solution? My premise is that good journalism is a civic necessity, and it's a view shared my many countries. The British Broadcasting Corporation is funded by a tax on all television sets, and is essentially a government-run entity. The Brits aren't alone: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are the same. These non-commercial public broadcasters aspire to lofty goals; the BBC's royal charter includes “sustaining citizenship and civil society.” The BEEB runs several televison channels, a handful of national radio stations, and a multilingual website that is one of the most trafficked in the world.
The idea of taxpayer-funded journalism may seem entirely un-American. But as I watch US journalism collapse, I wonder if it isn't time the USA had a BBC.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
If you know anyone that's looking to move to the western suburbs of Boston, here's the link.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Maybe I'm a Luddite, but I preferred the wireless world of flight and the tranquil sanctuary of six uninterrupted hours in a window seat with a good book. Oh well, back to email...