Archive for May, 2009

Net neutrality now

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Many readers of this blog are well-versed in the key issues facing the software, media, and telecommunications industries today.  I assert that there isn’t a more subtle yet important issue than net neutrality.  In a nutshell, net neutrality is the idea that all internet access should be on a level playing field.  Preference should not be given to certain protocols, applications, or internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Canadian professor Michael Geist regularly and eloquently discusses this issue on his blog.

Net neutrality is a great concern for me as a Canadian.  I am especially concerned because there are people out there who believe that market forces should determine net neutrality.  “Our position on network diversity/neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation,” Jacqueline Michelis, a spokeswoman for Bell Canada, has said in an e-mail to the Canadian Press (quoted at CBC.ca).  I like market forces and competition as much as the next guy, but there are three problems with the statement:

  1. The forces are in cahoots. Bell and Rogers don’t really have competitors in any particular geography.  In fact, as wholesalers of network capacity, Bell’s “network management” or traffic-shaping policies have impacted the providers (like Acanac) who could and would offer competitive products.  The competition Rogers now provides versus Bell (voice-over-IP as a replacement for traditional phone service) could be considered an exception but it amounts to two monopolies splitting a pot of gold — and see below why Rogers affects the other VOIP competitors like Skype.
  2. The market is clueless. Most consumers of ISP connectivity or other telecommunications have no idea about the issues of traffic shaping and the providers themselves do their level best to keep the issue out of the public eye.  Additionally, average people believe that internet access amounts to web access; they infer (perhaps not consciously) that the hypertext transfer protocol is all they need.  The advertising certainly doesn’t say: “advertised transfer rates not applicable for P2P applications, VOIP, or certain encrypted traffic like VPN”.  They also don’t (of course) say: “Telus reserves the right to block access to websites that say mean things about our company or advocate for unionization of our employees.”
  3. This is fundamental public policy. When an issue is prone to manipulation by big corporations and is not well understood by the public, we need regulation.  Witness, please, the recent sub-prime mortgage financial catastophe where market forces were essentially left to their own devices.

Recently Geist pointed out how net neutrality needs to be discussed on both the content and distribution side of the equation.  This is because any impact to the delivery of service affects the content, even if indirectly.  This aspect of net neutrality is worth its own separate post.

One example Geist provided in his article also highlights how anti-competitive some network shaping policies are.  Rogers says they limit bandwidth on applications that tend to use excessive network capacity.  An example they gave was VOIP.  I know firsthand how bandwidth intensive VOIP services can be, and have been reluctant to switch over.  But Rogers sells a VOIP service (which they call “Rogers Home Phone” and sales reps often deny being VOIP-based).  Surely that puts them into an unfair competitive situation with other VOIP providers like Skype.  If Rogers limits Skype users and keeps their own level of service on VOIP high, that seems clearly unfair.

I am especially revved up about this issue because my small and independent cable company (Aurora Cable Internet), that had provided me with years of unparalleled service, was bought by Rogers.  I was “switched over” a few days ago and I am already noticing the difference in reliability and transfer speeds.  I am paying top dollar for the biggest residential data pipe that Rogers offers and I feel like they have oversold me on the “maximum speeds”.

Here’s a nightmare scenario that some clever wag put together to show how scary ignoring net neutrality could become:

‘Readers must pay’ and other fallacies

Friday, May 29th, 2009

charge-for-content

Newspaper industry executives met this week in Chicago to figure out “Models to Monetize Content”.  I like the title, but I am troubled by some of the assumed results.

As Clay Shirky has pointed out, we haven’t arrived at any proven conclusions about how the industry upheaval will shake out.  But here’s my take on the current buzz:

Assumptions we’ve heard

  • Newspapers can’t survive in an online world (true and false)
  • Journalism can’t survive without newspapers (false)
  • Advertising doesn’t work (false)
  • Advertising can’t command the same revenue levels once accurate metrics are in place (true)
    • Newspaper circulation was used to “prove” advertising impact (true)
    • Measurement of clicks online is more accurate proof (true)
  • Newspapers are dying without lucrative advertising dollars (true)
  • Only newspapers can do objective, investigative, and local reporting (false)
  • Readers should not expect to get this wonderful content for free (false)
  • Aggregators “steal” readers away from content creators (true and false)
  • Good content costs money to produce, therefore we must charge for content (false)

The fallacies and truth are intertwined in many cases but the list above is just a sampling of what we’ve heard recently in both the mainstream media and from the thought leaders in the industry.

For the items I listed as both true and false, I think an explanation is in order:

  • Newspapers can’t survive in an online world (false): News organizations can survive in an online world once they establish a new business model.  They may need to go through the “cleansing fire of a radical restructuring” like Bob Lutz just prescribed for GM.
  • Newspapers can’t survive in an online world (true): Cutting down trees, mashing them up, and then rolling ink onto them is clearly a doomed aspect to the news industry.  There is no future in the paper part of the newspaper industry.
  • Aggregators “steal” readers away from content creators (true): Google and other news aggregators provide enough “overview” that many readers are satisfied with what they get from the aggregator alone and they do not progress any further. (Of course it remains a question as to how far they would have gone if the aggregator didn’t exist at all.)
  • Aggregators “steal” readers away from content creators (false): Google and ethical news aggregators tease with the opening lines of a story and drive way more traffic to the content creator’s web site.  It is up to the content creator to leverage the additional traffic they are getting from all over the world.

I believe that the huge infrastructure built up by traditional media companies may not be sustainable under the current advertising model.  But I also believe that there are alternative business models to support a very vibrant and relevant community of journalists.  Depending on how they are funded, they can be objective, investigate deeply, and tap into the local community.  It is a struggle to come up with a good business model for three key reasons: there simply isn’t as much money floating around, channels to reader eyeballs are highly fragmented, and bias results from most third party “interests” paying the bills.

More pondering is clearly needed, which makes the meeting in Chicago sound great on the surface.  But we simply cannot allow close-minded approaches to prevail.  Here’s a quote that illustrates what I consider dangerous tunnel thinking:

Just because you got something for free on a trial basis for a few years doesn’t mean they can’t (and shouldn’t) turn off the spigot.

Content costs money to make and display ads don’t pay enough.

End of story.

Prepare to pay. Why do you expect to get this for free? It’s not a natural right.

It is not a natural right, but the laws of economics can’t be ignored either.  Newspapers thrived because they shouldered the expense of production and distribution.  Now that those costs are all but eliminated in the digital world, the content creation costs seem to be the remaining factor.  But in economics cost (and even price) does not equate to value.  (Breathable air is free, but highly valuable.  Jewelry is expensive but of questionable value to society.)  Thus some content, specialized in nature, will likely command a price.  But the greatest value delivered by news organizations will be in their archivist or analysis role. Read Dan Conover’s thoughts about “informatics” being the key to this kind of added value.  Still, if micropayments or other “charge the reader” schemes work… more power to those whose experiments succeed.

As an aside: I would hate to be a journalist at this time in history, but there is hope.  Michelle Manafy’s column in this month’s EContent magazine outlines a few ideas about where journalists can go from here.  The rise of content as a vehicle for marketers might feel like a sellout to hardcore journalists, but the more research I do into the advertising-supported model journalists have labored under for years, the more I realize that things are not as radically different as they first appear.

Semantic Web is still on its way

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

The light at the end of the tunnel never seemed to get any closer where the Semantic Web is concerned.  For ten or more years it has been a promising idea, destined to solve our information overload problems.

I’ve talked briefly before about some of the technologies behind the Semantic Web.  Recently I attended a meeting in Toronto which featured some of the bright minds in semantic technology: people who are not just theorizing about it, but actually making businesses around it.  I was encouraged by the diversity of ideas that people are pursuing — all with the intention of reducing information overload.  Some go beyond that altruistic goal and are trying to determine ways to monetize content, meta-content, or content analysis.

I believe the Semantic Web and its attendant technologies still have great potential.  But, as Greg Boutin theorized at the meeting, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.  The mere deployment of more semantically rich tagging will probably result in more rather than less information to consume.  Nirvana will only be reached when the applications exist to take advantage of all that extra information about the content we’re consuming.

At least that light at the end of the tunnel seems a little closer now (and no — it is not an oncoming train).

Slogan decisions

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

I have a catchphrase that I developed many years ago as a news editor for my university newspaper.  My dream was to start a company eventually that would help people craft their words for greatest impact.  I imagined people writing more concisely, conveying their meaning quickly.  My advertising slogan was going to be: “Make your point.  Sharper.”  I still love that slogan — the grammatical ambiguity is one of the intriguing things about it.  I started using it for my current company since I focused on editorial assistance and information architecture as well as content management systems.

Eventually though, I had to admit that the company was doing more than just word-crafting or even conveying information to others. It was more broadly based in content improvement: creating, storing, and retrieving content for a whole enterprise.  Content is the focus, but its application for business success is really what I am helping people with.  I also strongly believe that we should never “settle” for anything less than our best.  In fact, being better than our best can happen through collaboration.

So my company’s new slogan is “Content to overachieve.”  It still retains double meaning through two different pronunciations of “content” and it emphasizes business success.

The Bozo Bit and Twitter

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

I’ve been a longtime advocate of diverse teams.  Fresh opinions add value to any problem solving exercise.

On Twitter and other social networking technologies, you tend to “follow” or “friend” people you enjoy reading.  This often means following those people with whom you have something in common.  The more you have in common, the more you likely enjoy following them.

Unfollowing someone who displays naivete (or is consistently “wrong”) about a topic is like “flipping the Bozo Bit“.  It is natural (I’m sure I do it myself) but probably counterproductive in the long run.  Now, please note that I am talking about divergent opinions on the same topic.  I am not talking about following everyone; those people who tweet about completely unrelated topics are obviously not ones to follow.  But people who disagree with you about relevant topics are perfect people to follow and learn from.

A corollary to this is the point that Jason Pontin makes about trying to conduct a debate on Twitter.  The format doesn’t really lend itself to serious debate.  The 140 character limit is probably too limiting for deep discourse.  But, as it always has, microblogging can provide links to the more substantial blog entries that you post to make your point.

Discussion forums and community building

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

There were two key articles published yesterday that illustrated something I had observed in my previous roles, but never really ascribed much import.

CommunityFirst, Robert Niles pointed out the chilling effect of a 1995 court decision that held online discussion forum hosts accountable for content if they assigned moderators.  Unmoderated free-for-alls were not subject to the same standard.  In other words, forum hosts were punished for trying.  This is similar to the lunacy of recent decisions where failing to adhere to your own policy is punished more severely than having no policy at all.

As Niles points out, from a legal perspective, the decision was overturned not too long afterwards… but the chilling effect remained.  I noticed it myself as we prepared to roll out community participation on our information sites at IBM.  There is strong concern in organizations about “bad comments” or “disruptive users”. Sometimes these concerns paralyze the business and prevent them from reaping the benefits of strong community participation.

Fortunately, there are people out there thinking about how to overcome some of these concerns. Dan Conover provides an excellent round up of why comments on news sites tend to suck compared to “real” online communities.  He also goes on to say how newspapers can fix the situation.  These ideas apply to other organizations too; getting your customers involved in your business requires commitment and a different approach.  You’re no longer talking to them; you’re discussing with them.

Ad metrics: the pendulum swing

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Jeremy Pennycook wrote a piece for his graduate class that is published on MediaShift Idea Lab. I noticed one sentence that prompted me to respond here.

Despite some signs of life in the internet advertising market, the advent of more precise, dynamic metrics measuring clicks, page-views and engagement times has exposed the little secret journalism milked for years: advertising is not as effective as people thought.

I’ve been pointing out that better metrics are a goal.  We want better metrics.  But this sentence made me pause and wonder: are clicks and pageviews the only measurement of advertising effectiveness?  Of course not.  Big companies with lots of money were happy to spend money on advertising because their messages started to seep into the consciousness of the buying public.  The almost subliminal effect of background noise creates brand awareness.

Pageviews and clicks give you a tangible idea of who is responding directly to your advertising; but I assert that there will still be a need for billboards and other “environmental” ads (as in “existing in a person’s environment” — not the green bandwagon everyone is getting on).  For advertisers with deep pockets, this “blitzkrieg” on the consciousness could still pay off.

Last.fm starts charging some nations

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

If you’re not in the US, UK, or Germany, you’re going to be paying a monthly charge for streaming music from the Last.fm site.

LastIt’s been almost two years since I wrote about the challenges of finding a site that even catered to me in Canada. Now it seems the free ride is over.  I wish there was some change in the way music distribution was licensed: the geographic exclusivity clauses seem so archaic.

For now, I get 30 free tracks and then I have to start paying.  Also important to note: only live streaming is going to cost money; the really powerful “scrobbling” feature of Last.fm will continue to be free.  To me, the music industry gets a huge benefit from “scrobbling” because it gives a pretty accurate view of who’s listening to what music.  Demographics aside, this is a measure of actual listeners that was never available on traditional radio with any real accuracy.

What is a classified ad?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

I read Jason Pontin’s “How To Save Media” with a skeptical eye.

It was refreshing to see someone else in the traditional media industry thinking about some fundamental shifts that obviously need to occur.  But I also detected some assertions that are based on historical perspective.

The one that jumped out at me, but has not been highlighted elsewhere in the blogosphere was this: “Classifieds, except in the very narrow sense of job listings in professional publications, are no longer part of the business of publishing. Get over it.”  I think he is referring to the influence of Craigslist and Kajiji on traditional media.  But I strongly believe that the industry’s current definition of “classifieds” is problematic.

Short succinct ads, targeted by category are really what keyword advertising is all about.  To me this means that “classified” ads take on a new form in the new media — they will no longer appear in big long lists that the human reader needs to sift through.  Even Craigslist and Kajiji are a pain because of the huge number of “classifications”.  Search is surely a more efficient way to get at exactly what you want.  Synonyms help: in a folksonomy, the more people tagging content with what they think it should be classified as, the more accurate the search results become.  And if you have all those “synonyms” you’re really talking about keywords that “attach” a classified ad to editorial content.  More targeted (perfectly classified) advertising with conversion rates that can be accurately measured is, after all, the goal I think we’re all heading towards.

The science of classifying, accessing, and processing information falls into the realm of informatics.  Coincidentally, one of the most eloquent and brilliant responses to Pontin’s manifesto comes from Dan Conover, who says that an approach to journalism based on informatics is his “best new shtick.”

Another look at the future of newspapers

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

KlaxonThis year seems to be the time when the klaxons are sounding louder than ever for the crisis in the traditional media industry.

There has been a great deal written recently and it may feel like an echo chamber of sorts, but to me it means that the ripple effect is spreading to more and more thinkers.  There may be no solution yet, but with the widening circle of people calling for a new business model, I believe we’re getting closer to “the new reality”.

I particularly enjoyed Michelle Manafy’s introduction to Michael LoPresti’s article in this month’s eContent magazine.  Michelle says “news” and “paper” may not be linked in the future.  She also provides several examples of things people are trying: from the wacky idea in France to give free newspaper subscriptions to 18 year olds, to the rising popularity of sites like Demand Media. Remember, as misguided as some ideas may seem, no one knows for sure which foray will stick and which failures will be most instructive — but I seriously doubt that many 18 year olds will get hooked on paper editions of newspapers just because they are free.

Some other great reading from recent articles on the subject: