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January 12 2012

16:53

January 10 2012

17:07

January 05 2012

15:15

The newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic

It’s an emerging issue of our time and place. They know too much about us, and we know too little about what they know. We do know that what they know about us is increasingly determining what they choose to give us to read. We wonder: What are we missing? And just who is making those decisions?

Today, in 2012, those questions are more pressing in our age of news deluge. We’re confronted at every turn, at every finger gesture, with more to read or view or listen to. It’s not just the web: It’s also the smartphone and especially the tablet, birthing new aggregator products — Google Currents and Yahoo Livestand have joined Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, and AOL Editions — every month. Compare for a moment the “top stories” you get on each side-by-side, and you’ll be amazed. How did they get there? Why are they so different?

Was it some checkbox I checked (or didn’t?!) at sign-in? Using Facebook to sign in seemed so easy, but how is that affecting what I get? Are all those Twitterees I followed determining my story selection? (Or maybe that’s why I’m getting so many Chinese and German stories?) Did I tell the Times to give the sports section such low priority? The questions are endless, a ball of twine we’ve spun in declaring some preferences in our profiles over the years, wound ever wider by the intended or (or un-) social curation of Facebook and Twitter, and mutliplied by the unseen but all-knowing algorithms that think they know what we really want to read, more than we do. (What if they are right? Hold that thought.)

The “theys” here aren’t just the digital behemoths. Everyone in the media business — think Netflix and The New York Times as much as Pandora and People — wants to do this simple thing better: serve their customers more of what they are likely to consume so that they’ll consume more — perhaps buying digital subscriptions, services, or goods and providing very targetable eyes for advertisers. It’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but sometimes it feels like it is being done to us, rather than for us.

Our concern, and even paranoia, is growing. Take Eli Pariser’s well-viewed (500,000 times, just on YouTube) May 2011 TED presentation on “filter bubbles,” which preceded his June-published book of the same name. In the talk, Pariser talks about the fickle faces of Facebook and Google, making “invisible algorithmic editing of the web” an issue. He tells the story of how a good progressive like himself, a founder of MoveOn.org, likes to keep in touch with conservative voices and included a number in his early Facebook pages.

He then describes how Facebook, as it watched his actual reading patterns — he tended to read his progressive friends more than his conservative ones — began surfacing the conservative posts less and less over time, leaving his main choices (others, of course, are buried deeper down in his datastream, but not easily surfaced on that all-important first screen of his consciousness) those of like-minded people. Over time, he lost the diversity he’d sought.

Citing the 57 unseen filters Google uses to personalize its results for us, Pariser notes that it’s a personalization that doesn’t even seem personalized, or easily comparable: “You can’t see how different your search results are than your friends…We’re seeing a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.”

Pariser’s worries have been echoed by a motley crew we can call algorithmic and social skeptics. Slowly, Fear of Facebook has joined vague grumbles about Google and ruminations about Amazon’s all-knowing recommendations. Ping, we’ve got a new digital problem on our bands. Big Data — now well-advertised in every airport and every business magazine as the new business problem of the digital age to pay someone to solve — has gotten very personal. We are more than the sum of our data, we shout. And why does everyone else know more more about me that I do?

The That’s My Datamine Era has arrived.

So we see Personal.com, a capitalist solution to the uber-capitalist usage of our data. I’ve been waiting for a Personal.com (and the similar Singly.com) to come along. What’s more American than having the marketplace harness the havoc that the marketplace hath wrought? So Personal comes along with the bold-but-simple notion that we should individually decide who should see our own data, own preferences, and our own clickstreams — and be paid for the privilege of granting access (with Personal taking 10 percent of whatever bounty we take in from licensing our stuff).

It’s a big, and sensible, idea in and of itself. Skeptics believe the horse has left the barn, saying that so much data about us is already freely available out there to ad marketers as to make such personal databanks obsolete before they are born. They may be forgetting the power of politics. While the FCC, FTC, and others have flailed at the supposed excesses of digital behemoths, they’ve never figured out how to rein in those excesses. Granting consumers some rights over their own data — a Consumer Data Bill of Rights — would be a populist political issue, for either Republicans or Democrats or both. But, I digress.

I think there’s a way for us to reclaim our reading choices, and I’ll call it the News Dial-o-Matic, achievable with today’s technology.

While Personal.com gives us 121 “gem” lockers — from “Address” to “Women’s Shoes”, with data lockers for golf scores, beer lists, books, house sitters, and lock combinations along the way, we want to focus on news. News, after all, is the currency of democracy. What we read, what she reads, what they read, what I read all matter. We know we have more choice than any generation in history. In this age of plenty, how do we harness it for our own good?

Let’s make it easy, and let’s use technology to solve the problem technology has created. Let’s think of three simple news reading controls that could right the balance of choice, the social whirl and technology. We can even imagine them as three dials, nicely circular ones, that we can adjust with a flick of the finger or of the mouse, changing them at our whim, or time of day.

The three dials control the three converging factors that we’d like to to determine our news diet.

Dial #1: My Sources

This is the traditional title-by-title source list, deciding which titles from global news media to local blogs I want in my news flow.

Dial #2: My Networks

Social curation is one of the coolest ideas to come along. Why should I have to rely only on myself to find what I like (within or in addition to My Sources) when lots of people like me are seeking similar content? My Facebook friends, though, will give me a very different take than those I follow on Twitter. My Gmail contact list would provide another view entirely. In fact, as Google Circles has philosophized, “You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle.” The My Networks dial lets me tune my reading of different topics by different social groups. In addition, today’s announced NewsRight — the AP News Registry spin-off intended to market actionable intelligence about news reading in the U.S. — could even play a role here.

Dial #3: The Borg

The all-knowing, ever-smarter algorithm isn’t going away — and we don’t want it to. We just want to control it — dial it down sometimes. I like thinking of it in sci-fi terms, and The Borg from “Star Trek” well illustrates its potential maniacal drive. (I love the Wikipedia Borg definition: “The Borg manifest as cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind, linked by subspace radio frequencies. The Borg inhabit a vast region of space in the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy, possessing millions of vessels and having conquered thousands of systems. They operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to “add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of their view of perfection“.) The Borg knows more about our habits than we’d like and we can use it well, but let’s have us be the ones doing the dialing up and down.

Three simple round dials. They could harness the power of our minds, our relationships, and our technologies. They could utilize the smarts of human gatekeepers and of algorithmic ones. And they would return power to where it belongs, to us.

Where are the dials? Who powers them? Facebook, the new home page of our time, would love to, but so would Google, Amazon, and Apple, among a legion of others. Personal.com would love to be that center, as it would any major news site (The New York Times, Zite-powered CNN, Yahoo News). We’ll leave that question to the marketplace.

Lastly, what are the newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic? As we perfect what we want to read, the data capturing it becomes even more valuable to anyone wanting to sell us stuff. Whether that gets monetized by us directly (through the emerging Personals of the world), or a mix of publishers, aggregators, or ad networks would be a next battleground. And then: What about the fourth wheel, as we dial up and down what we’re in the marketplace to buy right now? Wouldn’t that be worth a tidy sum?

August 18 2010

09:39

Paparazzi agencies delay People iPad app launch

Celebrity magazine publishers could have problems getting their products onto the iPad device, according to the Hollywood Reporter, as photo agencies are reportedly “banding together” to try and reach an agreement with one title – People magazine – to seek extra compensation for use of their images.

This has been linked to the postponed launch date of the publication’s new app, although this is denied by a spokesperson for the magazine in the report.

While the standoff centers on one publication for now, just about any other brand that makes photos of the rich and famous their stock in trade is watching nervously from the sidelines. Whatever deal they strike could set the terms of trade for the industry going forward.

See their full report here…Similar Posts:



June 25 2010

15:00

Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”: Is creating and sharing always a more moral choice than consuming?

In 1998, People magazine, trying to figure out how to use this new-ish tool called the World Wide Web, launched a poll asking readers to vote for People.com’s Most Beautiful Person of the year. There were the obvious contenders — Kate Winslet, Leonardo diCaprio — and then, thanks to a Howard Stern fan named Kevin Renzulli, a write-in candidate emerged: Henry Joseph Nasiff, Jr., better known as Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. A semi-regular presence on Stern’s shock-jockey-y radio show, Hank — whose nickname pretty well sums up his act — soon found himself on the receiving end of a mischievous voting campaign that spread from Renzulli to Stern to online message boards and mailing lists.

By the time the poll closed, Hank had won — handily — with nearly a quarter of a million votes. (DiCaprio? 14,000.)

In Cognitive Surplus, his fantastic follow-up to Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains what HTADD can teach us about human communications: “If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it,” he notes. On the other hand: “[I]f you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.”

Scarcity vs. abundance

Shirky may be a pragmatist and a technologist and, in the best sense, a futurist; what gives his thinking its unique verve, though, is that he also thinks like an economist. To read his work is to be presented with a world defined by the relationships it contains: the exchanges it fosters, the negotiations it demands, the tugs and torques of transaction. In the Shirkian vision of our information economy, supply-and-demand, scarcity-and-abundance, and similar polar pairings aren’t merely frames for coaxing complex realities into bite-sized specimens of simplicity; they’re very real tensions that, in their polarity, act as characters in our everyday life.

In Cognitive Surplus, as in Here Comes Everybody, the protagonist is abundance itself. Size, you know, matters. And, more specifically, the more matters: The more people we have participating in media, and the more people we have consuming it — and the more people we have, in particular, creating it — the better. Not because bigger is implicitly better than the alternative compact, but because abundance changes the value proposition of media as a resource. “Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance,” Shirky points out, “because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change.” But “abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.”

Cognitive Surplus, in other words — the book, and the concept it’s named for — pivots on paradox: The more abundant our media, the less specific value we’ll place on it, and, therefore, the more generally valuable it will become. We have to be willing to waste our informational resources in order to preserve them. If you love something…set it free.

Love vs. money

So the book’s easiest takeaway, as far as journalism goes, is that we should be willing to experiment with our media: to be open to the organic, to embrace new methods and modes of production and consumption, to trust in abundance. But, then, that’s both too obvious (does anyone really think we shouldn’t be experimenting at this point?) and too reductive a conclusion for a book whose implied premise is the new primacy of communality itself. Shirky isn’t simply asking us to rethink our media systems (although, sure, that’s part of it, too); he’s really asking us to embrace collectivity in our information — in its consumption, but also in its creation.

And that’s actually a pretty explosive proposition. The world of “post-Gutenberg economics,” as Shirky calls it — a world defined, above all, by the limitations of the means of (media) production, be they printing presses or broadcast towers — was a world that ratified the individual (the individual person, the individual institution) as the source of informational authority. This was by necessity rather than, strictly, design: In an economy where freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, the owners in question will have to be limited in number; distributed authority is also diffused authority. When the power of the press belongs to everyone, the power of the press belongs to no one.

But now we’re moving, increasingly and probably inevitably, toward a media world of distributed authority. That’s a premise not only of Cognitive Surplus, but of the majority of Shirky’s writings — and it’s a shift that is, it hardly needs to be said, a good thing. But it also means, to extrapolate a bit from the premises of the cognitive surplus, that the reflexively individualistic assumptions we often hold about the media — from the primacy of brand structures to the narrative authority of the individual correspondent to the notion of the singular article/issue/publication as a self-contained source of knowledge itself — were not immutable principles (were not, in fact, principles at all), but rather circumstantial realities. Realities that can — and, indeed, will — change as our circumstances do.

And now that scarcity is being replaced by abundance, our whole relationship with our media is changing. The new communality of our news technologies — the web’s discursive impulses, the explosiveness of the hyperlink — means that news is, increasingly, a collective endeavor. And we’re just now beginning to see the implications of that shift. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky focused on Wikipedia as a repository of our cognitive surplus; in its sequel, he focuses on Ushahidi and LOLCats and PickupPal and the Pink Chaddi campaign and, yes, the promotional efforts made on behalf of our friend Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. What those projects have in common is not simply the fact that they’re the result of teamwork, the I serving the we; they’re also the result of the dissolution of the I into the broader sphere of the we. The projects Shirky discusses are, in the strictest sense, authorless; in a wikified approach to media, individual actors feed — and are dissolved into — the communal.

And: They’re fine with that. Because the point, for them, isn’t external reward, financial or reputational or otherwise; it’s the intrinsic pleasure of creation itself. Just as we’re hard-wired to love, Shirky argues, we are hard-wired to create, to produce, to share. As he reminds us: “amateur” derives from the Latin amare. A corollary to “the Internet runs on love” is that it does so because we run on love.

Creativity vs. creation

As a line of logic, that’s doubly provocative. First — without getting into the whole “is he or isn’t he (a web utopian)?” debate — there’s the chasm between the shifts Shirky describes and what we currently tend to think of when we think of The Media. Our news economy is nowhere near comprehensively communal. It’s one whose architecture is built on the coarser, capitalistic realities of individuality: brands, bylines, singular outlets that treat information as proprietary. It’s one where the iPad promises salvation-of-brands by way of isolation-of-brands — and where the battle of open web-vs.-walled garden, the case of Google v. Apple, seems to be locked, at the moment, in a stalemate.

It’s an economy, in other words, that doesn’t run on love. It runs on more familiarly capitalistic currencies: money, power, self-interest.

But, then, the trends Shirky describes are just that. He’s not defining a holistic reality so much as identifying small tears in the fabric of our textured media system that will, inevitably, expand. Cognitive Surplus deals with trajectory. And the more provocative aspect of the book, anyway, is one built into the framework of the cognitive surplus itself: the notion of creativity as a commodity. A key premise of the surplus idea is that television has sucked up our creative energies, siphoning them away from the communality of culture and allowing them to pool, unused, in the moon-dents in our couches. And that, more to the point, with the web gradually reclaiming our free time, we can refocus those energies of creative output. Blogging, uploading photos, editing Wikipedia entries — these are all symptoms of the surplus put to use. And they should be celebrated as such.

That rings true, almost viscerally: Not only has the web empowered our expression as never before, but I think we all kind of assumed that Married…with Children somehow portended apocalypse. And you don’t have to be a Postmanite to appreciate the sense-dulling effect of the TV screen. “Boob tube,” etc.

But the problem with TV, in this framing, is its very teeveeness; the villain is the medium itself. The differences in value between, say, The Wire and Wipeout, here, don’t much matter — both are TV shows, and that’s what defines them. Which means that watching them is a passive pursuit. Which means that watching them is, de facto, a worse way — a less generous way, a more selfish way — to spend time than interacting online. As Shirky puts it: “[E]ven the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.”

The risk in this, though, for journalism, is to value creation over creativity, output over impulse. Steven Berlin Johnson may have been technically correct when, channeling Jeff Jarvis, he noted that in our newly connected world, there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing; but there’s a fine line between Shirky’s eminently correct argument — that TV consumption has been generally pernicious in its very passivity — and a commodified reading of time itself. Is the ideal to be always producing, always sharing? Is creating cultural products always more generous, more communally valuable, than consuming them? And why, in this context, would TV-watching be any different from that quintessentially introverted practice that is reading a book?

Part of Shirky’s immense appeal, as a thinker and a writer, is his man-of-science/man-of-faith mix; he is a champion of what can be, collectively — but, at the same time, inherent in his work is a deep suspicion of inherence itself. (Nothing is sacred, but everything might be.) And if we’re looking for journalistic takeaways from Cognitive Surplus, one might be this: We need to be similarly respectful of principles and open to challenging them — and similarly aware of past and future. Time itself is, both as a context and a commodity, is a crucial factor in our journalism — and how we choose to leverage it will determine what our current journalism becomes. It’s not just about what to publish, what to filter — but about when to publish, when to filter. And there’s something to be said for preserving, to some degree, a filter-first approach to publication: for taking culture in, receptively if not passively, before putting culture out. For not producing — or, at least, for producing strategically. And for creating infrastructures of filtration that balance the obvious benefits of extroversion with the less obvious, but still powerful, benefits of introversion.

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