Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The sleep of reason produces stationery

While I was on holiday last week, Jeff Jarvis appeared to me in a dream. (This is true.)

Did the uber-media-blogger and proponent of all things 2.0 want to impart his wisdom about the democratisation of political debate, the future of local reporting, or the potential of Facebook to provide people with a single identity across the whole interweb?

Sadly not.

But he did give me a goody bag of BuzzMachine notebooks, presumably in which to record my own fifth-rate thoughts on the future of society and that.

Thanks Jeff.

Still, paper, though - not strictly very 2.0, is it?

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Ending paid-for content a risky move for Economist.com

Quality media websites are increasingly abandoning subscription fees in favour of freely accessible content supported by advertising, but it's a strategy that may be compromised by their first tentative forays into social media.

Today's Technology Guardian reports that CNN.com has followed in the recent footsteps of the Economist and the Wall Street Journal in doing away with online subscriptions and making its content available to everyone online.

The assumption is that advertisers will stump up more cash if the publication has a larger community of online readers. But for quality publications like the WSJ and the Economist, the move to free content carries a high risk of damage to the publication's 'brand', especially if the publication actively involves readers in generating the site's content.

At the Blogs and Social Media Forum in June, Economist.com publisher Ben Edwards said that the quality of Economist readers was such that there was little danger of comments threads on the site's new social media sections descending into unpleasant flame wars or ad hominem attacks, as is so often the case elsewhere.

Specifically, he contrasted the high quality of reader commentary on economist.com with 'partisan and nasty' comments evident on washingtonpost.com, saying:

What I want to create is an experience that reflects back to my readers, my customers, the sort of experience they expect when they come to the Economist [...] The Economist is quite formal, it’s a little bit stuffy, it can be irreverent, the readers would consider themselves, I think, clever, worldly, intellectually curious, and I suspect – I don’t know this, but I suspect – that what they’d like to see on economist.com is all of those attributes reflected back to them in the reader-generated comment and content that we attract to the web property.

[A video of Edwards's presentation is available at Cybersoc.com]

Not only was Edwards relying on his 'clever, worldly, intellectually curious' readers to reflect the Economist's high editorial standards in their comments, he was actively using these attributes as selling points to attract advertisers:

I tell my advertising clients that my readers are in positions of power and influence, and they have average household incomes of $160,000 a year, and they are three times more likely to be driving a luxury car and so on. Actually this sort of [reader-generated] content validates my message back to my advertising clients, that yes, look at the quality of my readership.

This attitude was all and well and good when economist.com was subscription only. After all, no one is going to fork out £23 a quarter to mete out online abuse when they can do that for free on washingtonpost.com, Comment is Free or any number of openly-accessible media sites that allow user comments.

But with economist.com now freely accessible, comments threads are now open to everyone, not just thoughtful Economist readers with their comfortable incomes and luxury cars. The paper no longer has any control over who reads the site, and with its apparently laissez-faire moderation policy*, it also seems to have largely opted out of controlling who contributes to it. For financial reasons Edwards wants to make the fledgling community self-regulating, because 'if you don't do that you're going to be ending up employing lots of people'.

At the time of writing, the letters to the editor pages (the first on the site to be comments-enabled) are almost completely devoid of comments, suggesting that so far, the paper has failed to create any sort of online reader community, whether respectful, abusive or otherwise. With the opening up of its content, it may find its self-imposed task of creating an online 'community of letter-writers' to be an easier one, but the quality of those 'letters', the quality of the advertisers it is able to attract and the integrity of the Economist's brand may all suffer as a result.

* Reading out economist.com's stated policy of not publishing letters that the paper judges 'are not intended for publication, or are otherwise inappropriate', Edwards added 'I'm not quite sure what that last phrase means.' If he doesn't know, I wonder if anyone at economist.com does.

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Thursday, 12 July 2007

The new boss, same as the old boss?

When Time magazine chose 'you' as its person of the year back in December, it looked like a historical moment.

It looked like an admission that the mainstream media had lost control, and that 'the people' were now in charge. It looked as though blogs and amateur videos were taking the place of newspapers and TV. In Marxist terms, it looked like Time had cheerfully surrendered the means of production to the masses.

Now, though, it looks as if the glorious revolution was just a dream - at least if this week's MediaGuardian 100 list is anything to go by.

Billed as an indicator of a massive shift to web 2.0, the list of the most influential people in UK media is actually very conservative. Sure, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is in first place, but Google isn't dictating any sort of media agenda; it's just taken custody of the world's advertising revenues. The rest of the top 10 - and indeed the rest of the list - is occupied by the usual suspects: two generations of Murdochs, BBC director-general Mark Thompson, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, and so on.

Individual fortunes rise and fall (it's been a bad year for Channel 4 execs following the Big Brother racism furore), but there's no question that, in the Guardian's eyes, media power is still concentrated in the head, rather than in the long tail.

So what of the shift to Web 2.0? YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steven Chen are at number 14, but the assumption seems to be not that user-generated video is the new television, but that YouTube is a new way of distributing mainstream broadcast entertainment. In other words, YouTube's influence lies in its technology, not its content.

This focus on infrastructure, rather than content, permeates the list; the Telegraph is praised for its whizzy new digital newsroom, Guardian digital director Emily Bell for overseeing the paper's online growth, and BBC Technology boss Ashley Highfield gets a cautious mention despite the Corporation's failure to launch its iPlayer technology.

Buried at number 81 is a lone outsider: political blogger Guido Fawkes. He claims to write stories that mainstream journalists are too scared to write in case they lose access to political figures. Last December, it looked like Guido Fawkes was the future of media. Now it looks like bloggers still have a long way to go.

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Thursday, 5 July 2007

All the world's a stage...

Less than ten years ago, the idea of someone's life being broadcast to the world 24 hours a day was still in the realm of speculative fiction.

In 1998, Truman Burbank was just a movie character, unaware that his whole world was contained inside a giant television studio surrounded by cameras, cranes, lighting rigs and production staff.

Today, Truman exists in the real world, in the guise of Justin Kan. Justin began broadcasting his life over the internet 108 days ago, by means of a webcam strapped to his head and a laptop stowed in a backpack.

Visitors to justin.tv can watch what he's up to at any given moment, wherever he happens to be, unless that place doesn't have internet access. And yes, that includes all the things that only fetishists really want to watch someone else doing.

But while Justin is still a novelty, he isn't alone. His site isn't just intended to show his own 'lifecast'; it's also a hosting platform for other lifecasters. And with the cost and technological barriers to lifecasting tumbling rapidly, more people are donning webcams and backpacks and broadcasting their lives to the world*.

The implications are far-ranging. Media blogger Jeff Jarvis thinks it will become more likely that breaking news gets streamed live over the internet by lifecasters before mainstream media outfits can get their cameras, reporters and satellite dishes to the scene.

I can see a day when social networking platforms like Facebook are made up of thousands of people broadcasting their lives to each other in real-time. Searchable archives of video footage will render the notion of personal privacy obsolete. The justin.tv blog anticipates this scenario when it says: 'Tips [archived clips] are a great tool for identifying the most compelling content of Justin's life so that it can be viewed and shared at a moment's glance.'

The mania for continuously updating one's Twitter or Facebook status with the most staggering banalities suggests that many people have a strong appetite for living life in public. It sounds like a horrible Orwellian dystopia to me, but in another ten years, broadcasting your entire life over the internet might be completely normal.

* For more on how it works, the Technology Evangelist blog explains iJustine's lifecasting equipment.

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Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Blog Prog

Word has it that BBC Radio 4 is recruiting staff to work on a new programme called (possibly slightly condescendingly) 'The Blog Prog'.

Details are sketchy, but the programme will apparently aim to 'recreate the best of the debate from the blogosphere', or words to that effect.

I'll be intrigued to see how they manage to recreate blogosphere debates via a one-way mass audio broadcast medium. Perhaps by getting bloggers and their commenters to come into the studio and read out choice slabs of sophistry?

I also wonder what bloggers will make of it. The last time BBC Radio ventured into blog territory, the results didn't go down too well...

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