Some resources for Victoria’s MSM

April 29, 2010 at 10:13 pm | In free_press, local_not_global, media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist, victoria, web | 7 Comments

Someone named Adrian (not sure if it’s the same Adrian, different email address) just …um, remarked that I haven’t yet responded to the comments thread on my No policy …no strategy, either post.

Ah yes, newspaper and MSM people get to complain about being understaffed, but we bloggers are expected to be on 24/7/365 (for free!)…? 😉

As I mentioned in yesterday’s brief post, my internet went down around 3pm. It didn’t come back till this afternoon, so my usual method of snatching a moment here and a moment there to go online, to listen in, to read, and even to write was down the tubes for nearly 24 hours. I don’t own a smart phone (mobile telephony – drool, one day, one day!), nor do I ever seem to have the luxury of taking myself off to a third place to be alone and work in peace – my first and second places are one and the same, and they get crazy. When I go out, it’s for meetings (as happened today) or to walk the dog. So, if I can’t glean a minute inbetween other minutes, it seems it doesn’t get done.

But let’s see if I can now expand into some sort of follow-up on No policy …no strategy, either.

First: I was very impressed by Bryan Capistrano’s comments, who commented initially via Twitter and then on my comments board. Among other things, he noted:

I’ve mentioned that radio stations can sometimes get into an easy habit of talking AT a listener and not TO a listener. The social media that we use has allowed us on a number of occasions to be an ear and not just a mouth (I thought of that while walking back to my car last night and kicked myself for not saying it)! If that’s not considered a strategy, I would at least consider it a good starting point.

This is of course one of the basic tenets of markets are conversations (see Cluetrain Manifesto), a kind of blueprint (now 10 years old) for what new media (and new business) is all about. I would really really encourage local media people to familiarize themselves with the Cluetrain’s theses. Of course you don’t talk AT people, you have conversations. This means you can forget about hierarchies, too.

Bryan gets this when he writes,”I’m a firm believer that the only way to learn about something is by looking at it from all sides.” I would argue that Adrian doesn’t quite get this. In his comment, he writes, “The notion that everything in daily papers is suddenly a bunch of bunk seems to be rather overstated.” That’s an unnecessarily defensive statement since neither I nor anyone else on the comments board said “everything in daily papers is …a bunch of bunk…”

After all, a cardinal rule of conversation is that you also learn to listen.

Bryan was one of the panelists, along with Dana Hutchings, who I thought would have the best overview of the managerial/ revenue questions since his station isn’t owned by some corporate overlord(s). (I think his station is independent – I could be wrong; happy to be corrected if so.) In his comment, Bryan wrote, “social media has in no way affected our medium’s revenue stream.” I wish I knew more about the radio business, but I don’t. TV and radio are two mediums I rarely pay attention to (I don’t have cable, so no TV for me; and I listen to radio once in a blue moon – say, while driving, which means for ~10 minutes at a time). But it’s obvious from Dana Hutchings’s CHEK TV saga and also clear from Bryan Capistrano’s comments that these two do have incredible potential for steering their own destiny. I also wonder if it’s a condition specific to Victoria (which still has a deep digital divide) that revenue streams have not been affected.

Bryan and Deb (not sure if I should note which organization she’s from since she didn’t provide that link in her comment) noted that my body language further into the evening spoke volumes – and yes, while I was initially intrigued by what people were saying, I grew more impatient as the panelists began to respond to questions from the audience.

If anyone was making this an “us and them” issue, it was, I’m sorry to say, the panelists themselves who grew increasingly defensive at being questioned.

This was all really bizarre since, at the very end of the evening, Sarah Petrescu in particular sketched out a fairly detailed vision for what her ideal online news world should entail – and it’s one that absolutely includes the participatory “we.”

But as long as the wall between editorial and management persists, any visions will exist in silos – and the editorial side stands to lose because, as newspapers die, their jobs will evaporate.

Janice commented:

There was an interesting discussion on CBC radio the other day about the increase in citizen-generated news (and its credibility as real news!) on the internet and in SM, often around things that MSM deems un-newsworthy like re-zoning.

This speaks to revitalizing local coverage. We are terribly under-served right now: City Hall makes important decisions that directly affect us where we live, but we don’t hear about them. Social media can be way ahead of traditional media in being able to cover this (via that mobile telephony I don’t have, or if City Hall ever gets its act together to provide wi-fi), and the only way that traditional media can catch up is by including bloggers and others who will cover these news. It’s not rocket science.

Overall, I’d say Tuesday’s meeting was a great start – props to Social Media Club Victoria and Paul Holmes for organizing the event. There should be more, there should be follow-ups.

Speaking of follow-ups, did anyone see if the MSM that attended reported on its own participation? (I get my news online, and since the internet was down, I missed whatever was on. Give me a link if it was reported, thanks.)

As I noted in my comments board yesterday, this is a huge topic – presumably this isn’t the end of it in Victoria, unless the MSM want to shut down the dialog and leave it to social / new media to sort things out. My follow-up, such as it is, is already too long, so let me wrap up with a list of what I’d call must-read resources.

My favorite post is now nearly three years old: Ryan Sholin’s 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head. Must-read. Ryan posted a follow-up in 2008, 10 obvious things, one year later, which reports on how well (or not) the industry has dealt with the points he raised in 2007. Pay special attention to #5 (I heard a few rumblings from some panelists that maybe charging for content is a good idea. It’s not. Don’t go there.) And of course those who think it’s an “us v. them” issue, puh-leeze: check out #7. The next point, #8, is really great, too. Just go read the whole thing now.

Clay Shirky, the here-comes-everybody (and long-tail) guy. Read his The Collapse of Complex Business Models (which I blogged about here), and watch his superb presentation, Clay Shirky on Internet Issues Facing Newspapers (on Youtube). Shirky delivered this talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in September 2009. Must-see.

Dave Winer, who writes about many things – often technology, and very often with a special focus on media. Check out his January 2010 entry, Why newspapers should host blogs, for a glimpse of innovative thinking around both content and business models.

Why should news orgs host blogs for members of their community? Because the business of news organizations is information. Gather it up, sort it, organize it, keep it current and do it again. People have a huge thirst for new information, more these days than ever and increasing all the time. It’s ridiculous that information-gathering orgs should be shrinking in a time where what they do is in such high demand. (source)

Pop in on his blog or tweets to see what he’s up to with Jay Rosen of NYU, too.

Ok, that’s it for this evening. I’m deeply embarrassed that my list has only guys on it. I know there must be women I’m forgetting/ leaving out. Maybe something for another follow-up …or comments?

No policy …no strategy, either

April 27, 2010 at 11:57 pm | In advertising, black_press, facebook, free_press, local_not_global, media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist, victoria, web | 13 Comments

Tonight I attended the 14th meeting of Victoria’s Social Media Club to listen to five panelists from Victoria’s mainstream media (MSM) talk about how new media (including social media) is affecting their business.

Panelists included Bryan Capistrano (promotion director for radio station The Zone); Amanda Farrell-Low (arts editor for weekly paper Monday Magazine); Dana Hutchings (producer/ host for “Island 30” on TV station CHEK News); Sarah Petrescu (reporter and webmaster at daily paper Times-Colonist); and Deborah Wilson (journalist for CBC Radio-Victoria “On The Island”). The panel was moderated by Janis La Couvée.

blog might render photo cropped – click on picture to see original


The setting was the gymnasium of a former elementary school (now used as the University Canada West campus), hence the …well, gym-like setting.

But the setting wasn’t really the disappointing bit: it was the panelists. They all came across as very sweet people, but I left wondering just what the hell they’re doing.

The panelists (representing local heavy-hitters CBC Radio, Monday Magazine, CHEK News, The Zone Radio, and the Times-Colonist) all stated that their organizations have no specific social media policies in place.

Maybe that’s fine – but what was striking was the absence of clear thinking around social media strategy. The one glimmer of an exception was Dana Hutchings of CHEK. In the summer of 2009, while on vacation in Sweden, she received an email from her boss, letting her know that the owners were about to shut down the station.

CHEK had orders from its owners that forbade the station to report on its own troubles. In his email, Dana’s boss wrote (and I’m paraphrasing): “You’re on Facebook! What can we do?”

First, a brief digression on the history of CHEK News, which is worth knowing: see this wikipedia page for details. In brief: CHEK launched on December 1, 1956, which makes it a venerable local institution. Over the decades, CHEK underwent various changes in ownership, and by 2000 it was owned by Canwest, which happens to be the media conglomerate that owns so much of Canada’s media – including most newspapers, the Times-Colonist among them. Canwest, however, was in deep financial trouble by the middle of the decade, and by late 2009 it had to file for creditor bankruptcy protection. Leading up to this, Canwest tried various downsizing moves to save itself, including pulling the plug on CHEK in August of 2009. But by September 2009, the employees had managed to put together a scheme to buy the station and keep it in operation as an independent in Victoria.

Social media played a huge role in CHEK’s turnaround. Dana Hutchings answered her boss’s question (“You’re on Facebook – what can we do?”) by starting a Save CHEK News fan page, which in turn galvanized the local community who learned about the true goings-on at the station through the Facebook page. Before long, the page had thousands of fans.

The employees at CHEK, spurred by the support they saw pouring in through social media, worked feverishly around the clock for over 46 days, and in the end the station was saved – bought by the employees and contributors.

The point, however, is that without the resonant support from CHEK’s fans – support that would not have found a gathering spot without social media because of Canwest’s gag order on what was happening at CHEK – the employees wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy and enthusiasm to save the station.

But when asked how social media was affecting their business models, the other panelists relied on the old separation between “editorial” and “management” to absolve themselves of any strategic thinking around how the new media might save their old media bacon.

“I don’t know, I’m editorial, that doesn’t concern me,” was the gist of it. The panelists also seemed to think that the new media folks in the audience were trying to find ways to “pitch” to them, the arbiters of media truth. It was laughable.

First, people in the audience weren’t trying to figure out how to “pitch” to the MSM – they were trying to sound out the MSM to find out how they could get it to listen to them, the community.

Second, the panelists repeatedly told the audience that what would work – what they would be willing to retweet or run a story on – would be semi-sensationalist crap, like “there’s a house on fire on X Road,” or “the ferries are running late,” or “it’s snowing on the Malahat.”

Aside from sensational “news” like this, the MSM wants “human interest” stories: “how I found my true love on Twitter,” or, “my child survived bullying on Facebook,” or similar stuff.

This is truly sad. There must be more to MSM than burning buildings and true romance, no?

There were other annoying contradictions, and then also outright delusions. For the latter: the belief that bloggers are just the rumor mill, while the MSM are the arbiters of truth. Hahahaha. If anyone still believes that what is written in the daily paper is the truth, I feel sorry for them – I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know plenty of bloggers who are more assiduous about fact-checking than so-called professional journalists – and bloggers don’t mind correcting themselves. Try getting a newspaper to do that.

At the same time, every single one of the panelists belly-ached about being underfunded and understaffed, which was their main excuse for no longer doing investigative journalism.

Ok, so which is it? You can’t do investigative journalism because you’re understaffed and underfunded? Or you’re the arbiters of truth because only you are the professionals who can get at the truth?

You can’t have it both ways, kids.

While thumping their chests to claim truth-telling status, the panelists also begged “social media” to “spoonfeed” them potential news items (because, remember, they’re underfunded and understaffed and can’t get their own stories – the news are “thin” these days, as one of them put it). In other words, please spoonfeed us, but don’t think you can pitch us.

Are they nuts?

Which is it?

I could go on, but this entry is already costing me dearly in a town where everyone has to play nice and not step on anyone’s toes – and besides, it’s almost midnight and I’m on a deadline here.

Update, April 29: a follow-up post here (also noted in comments).

Do complex systems need resilience?

April 3, 2010 at 11:44 pm | In futurismo, ideas, media | 2 Comments

Fascinating new post by Clay Shirky: The Collapse of Complex Business Models. Shirky takes Joseph Tainter‘s theories around social complexity and collapse (less well-known than Jared Diamond‘s) and draws parallels to business complexity – and collapse.

This paragraph from Tainter’s wikipedia page expands on the differences in Tainter’s and Diamond’s approaches:

Tainter begins by categorizing and examining the often inconsistent explanations that have been offered for collapse in the literature. In Tainter’s view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is an economic one, inherent in the structure of society rather than in external shocks which may batter them: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. For contrast, Jared Diamond‘s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, focuses on environmental mismanagement as a cause of collapse. Finally, Tainter musters modern statistics to show that marginal returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation are diminishing today. The globalised modern world is subject to many of the same stresses that brought older societies to ruin. (source)

Shirky’s piece takes Tainter’s economics-based analysis of social complexity and applies it to analogous complex systems, such as specific businesses or industries themselves.

Reading the piece, it struck me that collapse or survival comes down to what sounds like resilience (or its absence). Shirky describes Tainter’s proposition, that societies build up to benefit from complexity, but that then, something goes wrong:

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. (source)

In other words, complexity without resilience becomes a precondition for collapse.

So the question might be, how do you bake in resilience? Is it feedback loops? Early warning systems? But those (by themselves) don’t guarantee action – it’s really easy to keep on the same path, even if the red lights are blinking and sirens are sounding.

Tainter wrote that “under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response,” and Shirky adds: “Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”

He describes a mid-90s conference call with ATT, where the company couldn’t conceive of running a simple, failure-prone system. Its internal culture valued perfection, because the latter depended on a high degree of complexity, bureaucracy, and failure-aversion (naturally). ATT’s problem was diminishing returns on investment: how could it make money on a (quite possibly flaky) $20 per month web-hosting model when the company culture valued its famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time)? Furthermore, it would be impossible to sign up enough users at $20-a-month to deliver that level of service and still make a profit.

Since then, as Shirky puts it, “the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price.” That is, returns on investment have not perked up. Yet, “a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now.”

See the parallels to Tainter’s analysis of social collapse? “When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.” Substitute “companies” for “societies,” and that’s where a lot of companies are at.

After running through the assertions of several famous representatives of the media elite (Barry Diller of IAC; Steve Brill of Journalism Online; and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp), who all claimed that users will just have to pay for news again, Shirky adds:

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.

Again: the analogy to Tainter’s view of complexity and collapse is clear: “When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.”

Next, Shirky looks at bureaucracy (which can, as he notes, “temporarily reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics” because for them “it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one,” all of which explains why change management in a bureaucracy is akin to squaring the circle). I was very interested in the bureaucracy angle since I live in a government town (Victoria is the capital of British Columbia), but the bureaucracy Shirky describes here is an industry-specific one (the Writer’s Guild and its role in the television industry), not government.

Within the television industry, simplicity is turning into a game-changer: if success is measured by how many times something is viewed, then simple, often user-generated videos (outside the complexity orbit of traditional television production) uploaded to sites like YouTube are winning the game.

Hence all the quailing about barbarians at the gates, just like in the days of ancient Rome…

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future. (source)

That’s Shirky’s closing paragraph, something to think about.

Shirky’s article has given me lots of food for thought, not least because part of me clings to the complexities of the past, that’s for sure, in spite of my latent iconoclasm. I’d like to think that with resilience, it may be possible to carry forward those things that have not just served well in the past but continue to inspire in the future.


For more on Shirky, see Mat Wright’s April 1 post, Why Online News Paywalls Will Fail, which includes a pointer to the excellent video of Clay Shirky describing “the changing news landscape that has put accountability journalism at risk, and outlin[ing] a ‘journalistic ecosystem’ that is needed to preserve essential watchdog role of the press.” (source)

A note: I wrote this late in the evening, excuse the nonsense title. Of course complex systems need resilience…

Comment quality?

March 25, 2010 at 11:43 pm | In media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist | 1 Comment

The other day I noticed some griping on the Vibrant Victoria forum about comments being either deleted or redirected to other discussion threads. That is, it can happen that a discussion thread (for example, Langford’s Skirt Mountain, Bear Mountain, or any other thread) veers off-topic, sometimes with partisan political asides or wild speculation, and the site moderators have to rein commenters in. The moderators will either give a warning or delete the off-topic posts, and then post a reminder along these lines:

The discussion in this thread veered in several directions since it was first started. This is a request to return to discussing ONLY the South Skirt Mountain project. Any side discussions from this point forward, including discussions about environmental organizations, Langford politics or development regulations/practices in Langford will be deleted.

We have dedicated threads elsewhere on this forum that deal with these issues and comments in keeping with those subjects should be left there.

Thank you.

(source – part of Skirt Mountain thread)


Folks, let’s remember this thread is about construction activity on Bear Mountain. Mentioning the sale of the TB Lightning is permissible given its potential relation to Bear Mountain monies, but this is not the thread to get into sports related discussions. Further posts on this topic will be removed.

Thank you

(source – part of Bear Mountain thread)

Almost always, everyone complies.

Consider what moderators on a well-managed forum do compared to what happens on the daily newspaper’s comments board. Take the story about environmentalists releasing a bunch of chickens in the office of Ida Chong, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of British Columbia. It appears that the animal rights activists are now ticked off at the environmental activists for using live chickens in their protest against the establishment politician. Hot stuff: a politician who’s often accused of being ineffectual and MIA – and who’s a BC Liberal; environmentalists and animal rights activists; right-left, and so on.

How does the local daily handle comments? (That is, how does it handle comments when it allows comments in the first place? Most stories do not allow comments.)

There appear to be some guidelines in place, but generally the commenters remain anonymous, and very often the discussion (such as it is) devolves to name-calling and overheated rhetoric. There’s the additional problem of comments being held in a “moderation” queue for hours on end, which makes true back-and-forth discussion almost impossible.

People have been complaining, specifically about how the paper censors comments. Aside from finding ways around the automated aspects (swear words are censored out), they’re mocking the censorship – they know it’s all sham:

Ida Chong is lucky they didn’t accuse her of being an aZZ. She could be knee deep in doodoo.

You know, the program that censors these comments is absurd. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t censor the word ri’dic’ulous. (source – posted by anonymous at 9:48pm on March 25)

More vehement comments critiquing the paper’s censorship have come up, but since I’ve become almost a non-reader of both the pablum articles as well as the often berserk comments they spawn, it would take me too long to find the ones that really zinged, so the above example, relatively gentle, will have to suffice.

I still bring myself to read an article if it’s about an issue I care about, and I’ll go through the comments just for a sense of the vox populi. But every time I ask myself: what is wrong with people? Why are the comments on the Times-Colonist daily newspaper site often so vicious and ill-thought-out and just plain ignorant, while the discussion on a forum like Vibrant Victoria always gets back on track, even if there’s the occasional silliness or derailment?

For a while, my take was that the ventilating ranters on the Times-Colonist comments board should just go and rant on a blog of their own if they object to the paper’s control. When I noticed a Vibrant Victoria forumer complaining the other day about moderation, I again thought, “Get your own blog, vent there.” You can even come back on the forum and post a link to your post! I’ve seen Dave Winer tell some people on his comments board to take it to their own blogs instead of trying to argue it out on his – and that’s absolutely right. It’s what makes the most sense, and can help the conversation go deeper and have diverse anchor points, too.

I was still stumped, however, as to why there’s typically such a huge difference in quality between comments on a good forum (or a good blog) and most of what passes for comments on a daily newspaper.

So, for an answer to that question, turn to Zombie Journalism‘s March 23 entry, Anonymity isn’t to blame for bad site comments, it’s a lack of staff interaction. Bingo – the title alone explains it. (Huge hat-tip to John Speck, aka Frymaster, of The Bucket Blog and Real Advertising for leading me to this entry.)

Zombie Journalism concludes that it’s not anonymity that lets commenters go off the rails. It’s lack of site moderation – whether by a blog owner moderating his or her comments board or a forum’s moderators doing the same …or a newspaper staff using human beings to shepherd the conversation.

It can’t be automated.

Here are the three concluding paragraphs (abridged, click through to read the whole thing):

A moderator is always online -and there is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed. It’s not uncommon to see a gentle “Hey guys let’s try to get this back on topic” or “I had to remove a few posts that got pretty heated, try to keep it civil, folks”. (…)

Contrast this with the moderator involvement on most news sites. Most users don’t even know a staffer was reading their comments until they are removed. Chances are most users don’t know a site’s moderators until they get a warning. (…) Community interaction is not a top-level priority to most news outlets – and that’s the real problem.

We as an industry like to collectively wring our hands about the toxicity of online comment boards, but if we really want to improve the quality of on-site discussion we need to be willing to get involved in our sites in a hands-on manner. (…)  (source)

Click through and read the comments, too (including Frymaster’s). These paragraphs hit on all the typical problems in the daily newspaper’s comments board: you post a comment and it’s like throwing something into a black hole. Your comment might appear …in an hour, or maybe in six. It might appear truncated or mangled – and there’s nothing you can do to correct it. It might take so long to appear, it’s no longer relevant. You have no idea whether or not there’s actually a human being taking it in, which in turn prompts the escalation of verbal outrage that’s so characteristic here. The spittle-flecked frothing-at-the-mouth ranter is probably someone who has never been listened to anyway, and in a comments board environment that suggests the absence of human moderation, his (or sometimes her) “outrage” finds its true home and amplification.

Contrast that to the immediacy of posting to a forum like Vibrant Victoria, which is well-moderated. You see your comment immediately. You can edit it for a short while after posting. It becomes part of a community conversation, not a verbal tennis match. If you make trouble by stepping over the line (whether in terms of going too far off-topic or being offensive), you’ll hear about it: there’s feedback, there are consequences.

It’s true that anonymity isn’t the defining marker of whether or not conversations will be constructive. The defining marker is ownership, embodied by people, aka moderators. Forums like Vibrant Victoria have it. The newspapers, on the other hand, not so much.

The future of publishing video

March 19, 2010 at 12:32 am | In just_so, media | Comments Off on The future of publishing video

This is pretty damn good: a video created by the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books and produced by Khaki Films about the death of publishing. Or not. The video runs forward to confirm every nasty stereotypical prejudice about “the younger generation,” but then…

But then runs backwards to reveal something quite different.

(Hint: click on the image to go to YouTube video – the static image is my hack for not being able to upload videos to this WordPress MU blog… 😉 )

Hat-tip to Arsenalia for the pointer.

Toward a new medievalism?

June 28, 2009 at 3:45 pm | In business, comments, futurismo, ideas, media, social_critique, web | Comments Off on Toward a new medievalism?

I just left this comment on It’s me going off on a typical theory bender, but the idea of Twitter’s Suggested User List (SUL) sparked another “here come the Middle Ages” image/moment for me. (As I note in the comment, they’ve been popping up for me since the late 1970s: my first one happened in the south of France, in a literally medieval town on a street with lots of commerce: pop!, a vision of what we could go back to – and I didn’t like the distinctly anti-modernist feel of it.)

That’s an interesting exchange between you and John Battelle, Fred. Now I’m going to go totally off-topic here and get all abstract, but I have to say that to my mind there’s something Medieval in some of the emerging business models and how they’re changing the nature of markets.

In the feudal Middle Ages, powerful patrons – either the Church or the Feudal lords – determined the markets. Markets weren’t free, they weren’t determined by market forces (as we think we understand them since the various emancipations) or really shaped by the “little people” (who in the modern period developed into powerful consumers).

When I read (as per transcript): “…if you think about what businesses and celebrities and brands need on Twitter and what they’re not getting today, there’s a whole set of premium services that are there,” I’m *understanding* something that reminds me of feudal medievalism where markets are determined by the needs of powerful patrons (church and/or lords). (John Battelle repeats the point further down when he says, “You said something about brands on Twitter, sort of like celebrities having the ability to sort of build an official presence.”)

I didn’t understand recent controversies about Twitter’s Suggested User List (SUL). I saw Dave Winer’s tweets about the SUL, but didn’t understand why he questioned the concept. Maybe I do now – albeit in my own weird way (Dave probably would roll his eyes at my interpretation…).

The SUL concept nudges markets back into a feudal framework where forces other than actual market forces determine the market landscape.

Maybe I’m crazy – I’ve had occasional bad dreams for nearly 30 years now about how feudal Medievalism is clawing back bits of Modernity. (Blame Umberto Eco, whose writings encompass Modernity and the Middle Ages.) The idea comes to me in pictures, which is maybe why I struggle so much to get the words right (the anti-icons, the iconoclastics). Me no likey what I see with SUL-type aspects of the business model and how it has the potential to alter markets.

I love the internet and all the great stuff out there, I plunge right in, sound off, play along. I love pictures and emblems and icons, but at heart I’m a daughter of the Enlightenment (words, words, words). Pictures, specifically icons, are Medieval. Yet in the new world that we’re making, even words – such as passed links – are turned into image, into something that’s consumed like an image (in a glance, or uncritically). Exegesis – trying to understand and interpret words – is still important it seems, as per the comment that reading the transcript of the video is better than watching the moving image…! But you could chalk that up to Medievalism, too. They did a lot of exegesis back then. 😉

Ok, I’m generalizing (wildly?), and I’m going off into my own little theory-land here. But as you said yourself, “Social media together is going to be bigger than Google.” Google and the internet certainly changed our thinking about everything, including thinking about thinking itself. Tell me it’s not rewiring our brains – of course it is. Now social media are poised to rewire the market. I just happen to think that bits of it are kind of medieval, and every time the notion of the tribe (certainly an important idea in the new market place) is celebrated without critical reflection, something in me dies a little bit.

If my favorite enlightened Marxist, Groucho, were still alive, I wonder how he would position himself, market-wise, in the social media landscape, and if he would want to be on the SUL? 😉

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on A VC using Disqus.

Reblogged to here as mnemonic / string around the finger.

Continuing a conversation on avc

June 18, 2009 at 8:54 am | In media, web, writing | 3 Comments

Replying to a couple of comments on Fred Wilson, reblogging here:

Good points. In your blog you do, however, focus in on a specific area (as per your blog’s title, a VC). That makes it all hang together, and focuses your insights. Others might think out loud, but it’s unfocused (although in the aggregate, it can all cohere into a pattern).

Are you familiar with the term “bricolage” (in Levi-Strauss’ academic-structuralist sense)? The Bookman (blog) describes it as a “willingness to make do with whatever is at hand… The ostensible purpose of this activity is to make sense of the world in a non-scientific, non-abstract mode of knowledge by designing analogies between the social formation and the order of nature. As such, the term embraces any number of things, from what was once called anti-art to the punk movement’s reinvention of utlitarian objects as fashion vocabulary…”…

I’m way too scientifically-minded to appreciate bricolage as any kind of ideal, and I’m definitely not saying that either one of us is a bricoleur, or that I want to be one and do bricolage (although it sometimes feels like that’s what I’m doing). But even when you’re just “thinking out loud,” I do think that your expertise lets you record your “rarely … completely baked thoughts” like ingredients in a recipe. And your readers know that they often enough add up to a movable feast: they cook your stuff in the comments board – to use a typically bricolage-y analogy.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the rock star blogger, someone so star-like s/he can blog about underwear and people read it. (In fact, people would probably read it *because* it’s about underwear…) I’d rather chew off my own leg than fill those boots, though. The pressure would kill me. 😉

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on A VC using Disqus.

(See also my June 15 post, Fred Wilson Is:.)

Fred Wilson is:

June 15, 2009 at 10:20 pm | In authenticity, ideas, innovation, media, web | 3 Comments

Holy cow, yet another great learning-and-thinking experience, courtesy of  Fred Wilson‘s recent post, What Drives Consumer Adoption of New Technologies?, and the many amazing people who comment there! Reading regularly is like participating in an interdisciplinary college seminar – and even though  you never know in advance what’s coming up on the syllabus, the conversation is bound to get really interesting several times a week.

Last week (on June 9) Fred asked What drives consumer adoption of new technologies? He had been invited by a major media company to participate in a panel discussion set to start at 10 a.m. that day. Without further ado he gave his readers a couple of hours to talk about the topic. And, boy, did he get a lot of great feedback. The online conversation continued well past the real life meeting, too.

In his post he observed that:

…consumers are driven to new experiences that are simple and useful and/or entertaining. It is not enough to be the first to market with a new technology. You have to be the first to market with a version of the technology that is simple and easy to use.

I was struck by some of the themes that commenters developed in response to this observation, especially when I thought about them in relation to one another. It seems late in the day to add to the original post’s comments thread, so I’ll spin this out here, instead.

One commenter, Jennifer Johnson of  Hashtag Media alluded to Kathy Sierra when she mentioned that great consumer products create passionate users (a reference that was picked up by another commenter, John Lewis).

Cue Twitter.

Kathy Sierra became a Twitter user with some initial reluctance, for she recognized that Twitter is “a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines.” Intermittent variable reward works to keep users coming back again and again:

…behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It’s the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well… which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn’t be addicted to feel it. (more…)

With applications like Twitter, your brain also gets extremely rapid hits – and they are variable: not every visit or scan of the tweets is rewarding every time. But you know the tweets keep coming, and you know that often enough they’re studded with “hits” that provide pleasure. Addictiveness – including relatively easy access to getting those hits and rewards – is probably an ingredient in making successful consumer technology, particularly if it’s social media. (Fred Wilson himself refers to his Twitter habit as snacking… like those potato chips no one can eat just one of? Busted!)

So what about widgets and gadgets and things, and how they’re designed? Consider addictive qualities or “brain-state qualities” in relation to a comment made by Jules Pieri, the founder and CEO of Daily Grommet. She commented from the perspective of an industrial designer:

Here is the core truth about simplicity. When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper, spend more time, and uncover MORE functionality from a simple product than from a more fully featured one. So they get more feature usage from a product with, objectively, less functionality. Designers understand this. Engineers usually struggle with it. (But not the best ones.) (link)

Now think about those insights in relation to Kathy Sierra’s observation on addictiveness (the quality that keeps you coming back). If you can design a product or UI with Jules Pieri’s insights in mind, and simultaneously channel Kathy Sierra in order to bake in the qualities of addiction/ gratification/ rapid pleasure, your product has a head start for sure.

The design has to be friction-free and unobtrusive to the point of disappearing. But if the item delivers (provides pleasure) once the user starts working with it – as the iPhone’s interface and shape does, for example – then the user-experience that speaks directly to brain-state can take over. It’s all about the brain – we’re in the age of neuroscience after all.

But where is all this taking us, and do we really care? To the Lotus Eaters all leaves gleam like brand new Apples, and when we ingest them they release their magic right into the brain. We seem to get “more” – but “more what”? More self-expression? Self-revelation? More information, and still more information?

Here’s where it could get heavy, dear reader. It’s hardly possible to let 20th century theory constrain something as disruptive as the web-based and neuroscience-based revolution we’re living through now …but that’s not to say older theory doesn’t have some intriguing insights worth thinking about!

Sure enough, another commenter, Shana (no profile info available yet), responded to a comment by John Dodds (also no profile available – yet) by referencing Michel Foucault. Dodds had written that “simplicity and purpose” drive consumers to adopt new technologies. Later he added that he had written purpose rather than utility

because that Benthamite concept [utility] seems to have been corrupted into relating to commercial productivity. Originally it was much more to do with being worthwhile by whatever criteria one chose to expend one’s credit – be that cash or time. Something entirely frivolous and trivial can have utility if you value those traits.” (link)

It was the introduction of Jeremy Bentham (the reference to Benthamite concept) that prompted Shana to bring up Foucault, whose book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was inspired by Bentham’s Panopticon. Wikipedia’s definition of the Panopticon is nicely succinct: “The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the ‘sentiment of an invisible omniscience.'” (source)

So Shana asked the following questions:

All of these products [consumer technologies] so far bring together community. A good number of them actually track behavior- should we be concerned? One thought that I have been having is that the power of searching leaves us vulnerable to the fact that we are currently in a system where we

a) are trying to attract the guard of the Panopticon’s attention
b) which leaves us vulnerable to the guy who isn’t. he can look on behalf on the guard, underneath, at our vulnerabilities.

Is the loudness of all the information of the internet getting in the way that someone with enough power can use it for harm?

Should we develop products that also encourage segmentation to amplify as well take away certain powers of the “Guard in the tower?”

Or in other words- should we develop products and systems on the internet that afford privacy as well as community at the same time? (link)

Great questions. As for answers – that’s a trickier proposition.

In an April 2004 post called C’mon, Confess about Foucault, art historians, and sex (not necessarily in that order), I wrote:

Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalized as social control. It is not the case that chatter about your sexuality or your neuroses or your deepest darkest secrets makes society a freer place. It instead makes it a more fully explored, more discursive place, which in turn contributes to mechanisms of control. People and their exposures are turning into social maps, we’re less multi-dimensional and increasingly flattened into a one-dimensional discursive space. At the same time, however, I would add an idealistic qualifier that probably wouldn’t sit too well with Foucault: while your confessions strengthen societal mapping (and hence control), there is the one-off/ one-in-a-million possibility that they just might liberate you, individually. It probably happens very rarely, but therein lies the dialectical rub. People might yet be capable of surprising others. (link)

That’s the Panopticon argument: everyone is watching everyone, which internalizes control even as individuals are free to reveal more about themselves than ever before.

I gave warning that this gets heavy, didn’t I? And I did wonder whether Foucault’s 20th century theory can be brought to bear (uncritically) on disruptive technologies such as the ones we’re seeing in the 21st century. And I’m much more critical these days of 20th century totalizing theories than I am of 21st century technology. Those theories still work insofar as we still worry about authenticity and about who we “really” are. So, if that’s a question you didn’t give up on when you turned 30 (or whatever), you’re in luck: there’s a massive body of theory to slake – but also feed – your anxieties. Measure your doses…

On the edge of “iffyness” we now have reality mining – which means there’s hardly anything that can’t become discursive, and if it’s discursive, it can become subject to Foucault’s critique. Reality mining is actually an interesting way to put it. In Pomo goes to market (December 2006) I wrote (again, apropos of Foucault):

The individual becomes the artist of his (her) own life, but the price is that we’re in charge of just a (relatively special) niche. Extinguishing the tutelage of authority in favor of a mastery of domain (the niche), we seem to have flattened the mountains and valleys of the past, exchanging them for a rupture-free landscape that somehow seems curiously the same, wherever we go. (link)

So is reality mining the strip mining of those mountains and valleys?

But all this “heaviness” aside, am I pessimistic? Not really. Either we are truly fucked or we’re living through an incredibly interesting revolution – and I’m hedging my bets that it’s the latter.

We’re learning so much about brain states and neurobiology – we might actually get a handle on addiction. If social media and new consumer technologies help us understand how that works, who’s to say that what they offer isn’t of great value? And is it any different than when people started using earlier (new) technologies to learn? People used to think books could be “harmful” because book-learnin’ was “unnatural” and a conduit for strange and dangerous ideas.

…Meanwhile, back once more to Fred Wilson’s post, to his blog and its amazing comments board. I’m going to suggest, cheekily, another analogy – one I hope Fred Wilson doesn’t mind, and which I make because of his ability to attract such an amazing community of users (that is, people who comment).

I’d suggest that his comments board itself becomes addictive, and that it actually shows the benefits of “addiction.” Users feel the need to check in frequently, to see who is adding to the conversation. The Disqus commenting system that uses has built-in features that enable tracking, as well as finding out more information about users, and that allows dissemination into other media like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. If you make a comment that someone else replies to, Disqus sends you a notification, so you feel compelled to go back, check again, read, think, perhaps respond. In this situation, you’re addicted to a conversation that enables the acquisition of more information, and also of learning.

And as to the title of this post, Fred Wilson Is:?  Listen again to Jules Pieri’s description of great industrial design:

When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper…

What manages to achieve could be described as Fred Wilson Is: the friendly interface: deceptively “simple” (I mean that in the best sense) and usually laconic (which means cool, not hot). The coolness (vs a hotter, flame-ish environment) ensures that users/ readers aren’t intimidated, that they can participate freely. So Fred Wilson Is: cool, maybe even a cool brand, and, as Kathy Sierra might say, helps the user kick ass.

Fake makes Hunch real

July 31, 2008 at 11:06 am | In business, media, web | Comments Off on Fake makes Hunch real

Over on Twitter, Jemima Kiss pointed to her Guardian post about Caterina Fake’s blog announcement that she’ll be joining New York-based Hunch as Chief Product Officer.  Cool — and good on her!

What’s interesting, for everyone who has been wondering whether a move away from the Bay Area is in the cards for Caterina and husband Stewart Butterfield, is that although Fake expects to spend a lot of time in NYC, she won’t be moving there.   She — therefore presumably they — will be staying put in San Francisco.

Alas, this will put the lid on the hope that the dynamic duo (Fake and Butterfield, co-founders of formerly Vancouver-based Flickr) would opt to live north of the 49th parallel once again.

I bet more than a few people are now waiting to find out what Stewart Butterfield will do next.

Perhaps something with moving images?  He’s a speaker at XMediaLab upcoming (Aug.1) “DIY TV” conference in Melbourne, Australia.  There’s probably plenty of tin still to be worked in the movies…

edit: for some reason I wrote Aug.9 instead of Aug.1 for that DIY TV conference.  Just corrected the date.  It is Aug.1, tomorrow.

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