Friday, December 31, 2010

What does Twitter and a Charles Dickens novel have in common?

Answer: Both have 140 characters.

2010 may well be the year remembered for marking the watershed between old and new media. After all, this is the year in which the odds-on favorite movie to win the Best Picture Oscar is about a a bunch of geeks writing social media software. It's also the year were the WSJ among others foresaw a social media bubble emerging. But whether Twitter, Facebook and the rest are really worth their extravagant evaluations is almost beside the point; it is unlikely that by the end of the next decade we will have any US daily newspapers, and the conventional information economy will have been reinvented.

But that isn't why I'm writing on New Year's Eve. This fall my eldest daughter was in the school play Oliver!, and this encouraged me to reread the book. It is a dark tale world's away from the jaunty musical, though many of the significant characters like Bumble, The Artful Dodger and Fagin are similar and true. It's a great, long novel (originally serialized in monthly installments) full of the usual Dickensian cacophony of character and plot. Over the holidays I also started Paul Murray's new and excellent Skippy Dies; at over 600 pages, it too is packed with character and plot, humor and tragedy. So my question is this: Is the sea-change in the media world ensuring the end of this kind of rich, detailed and thoughtful discourse? Nick Carr thinks so, and he's not alone; his eloquence had me convinced. And truthfully, what passes today for "news" in the new media world fills me with dread.

But I'm no longer to pessimistic. My eldest daughter is also an addicted reader, and The Hunger Games series got to her. It's on my list to read too,  but I'll be doing this on our ipod. There is a real social media bubble, and it will burst. But new media has already destroyed the conventional economic model for how mass media works, and how we get information, art, entertainment, even friends... But there is plenty of room for 140 characters, be they Bumbles and Fagins or A and Bs. Information of value, stories that sell... the content itself will likely not change much at all. McLuhan's prophecy is at best only partly true; the medium is rarely the message.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FTC's “Do Not Track” Proposal is a Victory for Online Privacy and a wake-up call for Marketing and PR

Earlier this month the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a landmark report proposing new guidelines for guarding online privacy. Among a wide range of suggested options the most concrete and far reaching is a recommendation to develop and mandate a “do not track” system. This system would allow users to prevent websites from collecting any information about their identity or their online behavior without first getting consent.

This is great news for advocates of online privacy and a blunt wake-up call to marketing and PR professionals.

Increasingly we all live online lives – we shop, socialize, entertain ourselves and conduct our business via the Web. And increasingly, our every move online is being tracked and recorded, building up a rich composite picture of who we are, what we do, and how we act. At worst, this results in gross invasions of privacy or the loss of personal information; at best, it allows website owners to customize experiences to our liking and even anticipate and predict what we're searching for or what might interest us.

For marketing pros, the news is mixed. We've all become accustomed to being able to gather – usually anonymously, usually without consent – a lot of information about how customers and prospects act online. This helps tell us which campaigns and offers work, how people navigate around our site, and even when someone returns to us and starts to show behaviors that would indicate they're moving down a sales process. These data make it possible for marketing to create an almost closed-loop measurement of a prospect lifecycle, and have created a whole new industry for tools that help aggregate and process this data.

If the FTC has its way, much of this could go away.

This is not a new problem. Back in the day, when direct mail was the cutting edge of response marketing, the Direct Marketing Association waged a bitter fight to ensure any “prior consent” legislation never made it through the US Congress. Similar fights have waged around “do not call” lists and telemarketing.

But with the Internet, the stakes are higher. There are too many unresolved security issues and too much latitude in what information is being taken from us. The FTC proposal is the right idea and should be supported.