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April 04 2010

16:25

iPad danger: app v. web, consumer v. creator

I tweeted earlier that after having slept with her (Ms. iPad), I woke up with morning-after regrets. She’s sweet and pretty but shallow and vapid.

Cute line, appropriate for retweets. But as my hangover settles in, I realize that there’s something much more basic and profound that worries me about the iPad — and not just the iPad but the architecture upon which it is built. I see danger in moving from the web to apps.

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.

The iPad’s architecture supports these limitations in a few ways:

First, in its hardware design, it does not include a camera — the easiest and in some ways most democratic means of creation (you don’t have to write well) — even though its smaller cousin, the iPhone, has one. Equally important, it does not include a simple (fucking) USB port, which means that I can’t bring in and take out content easily. If I want to edit a document in Apple’s Pages, I have to go through many hoops of moving and snycing and emailing or using Apple’s own services. Cloud? I see no cloud, just Apple’s blue skies. Why no USB? Well, I can only imagine that Apple doesn’t want us to think what Walt Mossberg did in his review — the polar opposite of Pogue’s — that this pad could replace its more expensive laptops. The iPad is purposely handicapped, but it doesn’t need to be. See the German WePad, which comes with USB port(s!), a camera, multitasking, and the more open Android operating system and marketplace.

Second, the iPad is built on apps. So are phones, Apple’s and others’. Apps can be wonderful things because they are built to a purpose. I’m not anti-app, let’s be clear. But I also want to stop and examine the impact of shifting from a page- and site-based internet to one built on apps. I’ve been arguing that we are, indeed, moving past a page-, site-, and search-based web to one also built on streams and flows, to a distributed web where you can’t expect people to come to you but you must go to them; you must get yourself into their streams. This shift to apps is a move in precisely the opposite direction. Apps are more closed, contained, controlling. That, again, is why media companies like them. But they don’t interoperate — they don’t play well — with other apps and with the web itself; they are hostile to links and search. What we do in apps is less open to the world. I just want to consider the consequences.

So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

There are alternatives. I now see the battle between Apple and Google Android in clearer focus. At Davos, Eric Schmidt said that phones (and he saw the iPad as just a big phone… which it is, just without the phone and a few other things) will be defined by their apps. The mobile (that is to say, constantly connected) war will be won on apps. Google is competing with openness, Apple with control; Google will have countless manufacturers and brands spreading its OS, Apple will have media and fanboys (including me) do the work for it.

But Google has a long way to go if it hopes to win this war. I’m using my Nexus One phone (which I also had morning-after doubts about) and generally liking it but I still find it awkward. Google has lost its way, its devotion to profound simplicity. Google Wave and Buzz are confusing and generally unusable messes; Android needed to be thought through more (I shouldn’t have to think about what a button does in this use case before using it); Google Docs could be more elegant; YouTube’s redesign is halfway to clean. Still, Google and Apple’s competition presents us with choices.

I find it interesting that though many commercial brands — from Amazon to Bank of America to Fandango — have written for both Apple and Android, many media brands — most notable The New York Times and my Guardian — have written only for Apple and they now are devoting much resource to recreating apps for the iPad. The audience on Android is bigger than the audience on iPad but the sexiness and control Apple offers is alluring. This, I think, is why Salon CEO Richard Gingras calls the iPad a fatal distraction for publishers. They are deluding themselves into thinking that the future lies in their past.

On This Week in Google last night, I went too far slathering over the iPad and some of its very neat apps (ABC’s is great; I watched the Modern Family about the iPad on the iPad and smugly loved being so meta). I am a toy boy at heart and didn’t stop to cast a critical eye, as TWiG’s iPadless Gina Trapani did. This morning on Twitter, I went too far the other way kvetching about the inconveniences of the iPad’s limitations (just a fucking USB, please!) in compensation. That’s the problem with Twitter, at least for my readers: it’s thinking out loud.

I’ll sleep with the iPad a few more nights. I might well rebox and return it; I don’t have $500 to throw away. But considering what I do for a living, I perhaps should hold onto it so I can understand its implications. And that’s the real point of this post: there are implications.

: MORE: Of course, I must link to Cory Doctorow’s eloquent examination of the infantilization of technology. I’m not quite as principled, I guess, as Cory is on the topic; I’m not telling people they should not buy the iPad; I don’t much like that verb in any context. But on the merits and demerits, we agree.

And Dave Winer: “Today it’s something to play with, not something to use. That’s the kind way to say it. The direct way: It’s a toy.”

: By the way, back in the day, about a decade ago, I worked with Intel (through my employer, Advance) on a web pad that was meant to be used to consume in the home (we knew then that the on-screen keyboard sucked; it was meant to be a couch satellite to the desk’s PC). Intel lost nerve and didn’t launch it. Besides, the technology was early (they built the wireless on Intel Anypoint, not wi-fi or even bluetooth). Here’s the pad in the flesh. I have it in my basement museum of dead technlogy, next to my CueCat.

April 01 2010

18:06

The hunt for the elusive influencer

Maybe there is no such thing as an influencer.

We keep hunting the elusive influencer because marketing people, especially, but also politicians (marketers in bad suits) and media people (marketers in denial) think that if they can find and convince or brainwash that one influencer, he or she will spread their word like Jesus and their work will be done. But I think this quest is starting to look like a snipe hunt.

At this week’s very good Brite marketing conference at Columbia, Duncan Watts, Yahoo research scientist, presented interesting work trying to track down the influence of influencers via Twitter, with help from the data Bit.ly provides about links. He asked — hypothetically, thank God — whether it would be worth it to pay Kim Kardashian $10k for a tweet to her alleged 3.27 million followers. He found that targeting instead lots of people who have far fewer followers would yield “much, much higher ROI.”

What that says to me — ironically — is that trying to find the big influencer with big audience is really just old mass marketing in a cheap dress. Old mass marketing (go with the largest numbers … and breasts) isn’t economical; neither, it turns out, is marketing to just one or a few powerful people — the mythical influencer. That brings us to a new hybrid to mass marketing, which is what I think Watts is suggesting: Target many people who at least have some friends who’ll hear them. (Disclosure: This was a key insight in the development of the company 33Across that made me invest in it.)

Or to put this question in the current argot: Is there more influence in the tail than in the head? If you talk to 100k people who talk to 10 people each, do you get more bang than talking to one person who has 1m followers? (Watts did also say that a combination of mass and tail marketing is effective.)

In his talk, Watts referenced me and Dell Hell as an illustration of influence. But I protested. I’m no influencer, I said. When I wrote about Dell, I had no juice in the tech/gadget world; still don’t. I then pointed to the amazing Dave Carroll, he of the “United Breaks Guitars” viral phenom, who’d spoken earlier, and said he was no influencer in airline travel or customer service. What was influential in both cases was not the messenger but the message.

But if it’s the message that is, indeed, the key to influence then there’s really no way to predict and thus measure and replicate its power; messages spread on merit. That is a frightening idea for marketers because the viral influencer in social media — pick your buzzword — is their messiah for the digital age, the key to escaping the cost and inefficiency of mass media (and the cost and apparent tedium of real relationships with us as individuals). If you can’t bottle influence, you can’t sell it.

Now it’s true, of course, that the most magnificent message ever won’t spread if no one hears it, if a person with zero followers on Twitter says it. (Tree, forrest, etc.) But a banal message in Miss Kardashian’s Twitter feed — I know, it’d never happen — will go thud and die no matter how many people she speaks to if no one cares about it. Some people need to gather around the speaker for what she says to be heard. But more people doesn’t equal more influence. And this doesn’t make that speaker an influencer. The speaker is merely a node in a network.

So the message spreads not because of who spoke it but because the message is worth spreading. What makes us spread it? First, again, we spread it if it resonates and it is relevance; it has value to us and we think it will have value to others. Second, trust or authority is a factor. If I see Clay Shirky or Jay Rosen or Kevin Marks tell me to click on a link I’m more likely to do so because I respect them and trust their judgment and I’ve found in the past that clicking on their links tends to be worth the effort. They give me ROC (return on click). But if I followed Miss Kardashian (I don’t) and she told me to click on a link, I’d be less likely to, both because I don’t put her in the same intellectual corral as my other friends and have no relationship with her and because I have seen that clicking on her links gives me lousy ROC. Is trust or authority or experience influence? In a small circle of actual friends, I don’t think so. And in any case, having only a small circle of friends isn’t the one-stop-shopping influence marketers are seeking.

So abandon the hunt, marketers. You’re not going to bag the influencer. She doesn’t exist (well, one did but she quit her TV show).

What does this mean then for marketers in social media? I think it means they need to reread The Cluetrain Manifesto (out in a 10th anniversary edition) and recognize that messages and influence aren’t the future of marketing; conversations and relationships are. No getting around it. No shortcuts.

Think about it: I don’t want someone to influence me. I don’t want to be influenced. The whole idea of looking for influencers is so old marketing: spewing messages to people who didn’t ask for them. So looking for influencers only perpetuates the mistakes of marketing past. Stop.

November 30 2009

12:58

Media after the site

Tweet: What does the post-page, post-site, post-media media world look like? @stephenfry, that’s what.

The next phase of media, I’ve been thinking, will be after the page and after the site. Media can’t expect us to go to it all the time. Media has to come to us. Media must insinuate itself into our streams.

I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be and then I was Skype-chatting with Nick Denton (an inspirational pastime I’ve had too little of lately) and he knew exactly what it looks like:

@stephenfry.

Spot on. Fry insinuated himself into my stream. He comes to us. We distribute him. He has been introduced to and acquired new fans. He now has a million followers, surely more than for any old web site of his. He did it by his wit(s) alone. His product is his ad, his readers his agency. How will he benefit? I have full faith that he of all people will find the way to turn this into a show and a book. He is media with no need for media. I was trying to avoid using Aston Kutcher as my example, but he’s on the cover of Fast Company making the same point: “He intends to become the first next-generation media mogul, using his own brand as a springboard…. ‘The algorithm is awesome,’ Kutcher says…”

That’s media post-media.

This view of the future makes it all the more silly and retrograde for publishers like Murdoch to complain about the value of the readers Google sends to them. Who says readers will or should come to us at all? We were warned of this future by that now-legendary college student who said in Brian Stelter’s New York Times story (which foretold the end of the medium in which it appeared): “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

If a page (and a site) become anything, it will be a repository, an archive, a collecting pool in which to gather permalinks and Googlejuice: an article plus links plus streams of comments and updates and tweets and collaboration via tools like Wave. Content will insinuate itself into streams and streams will insinuate themselves back into content. The great Mandala.

The notion of the stream takes on more importance when you think about your always-connected and always-on device, whatever the hell you call it (phone, tablet, netbook, eyeglasses, connector….). I recently saw a telecommunications technology exec show off a prototype of a screen he says will be here in a year or so that not only has color and full-motion video and can be seen in ambient light but that takes so little power that it can and will be on all the time. So rather than hitting that button on the iPhone to see what’s new, your post-phone post-PC device is always on and always connected. You don’t sneak it under the table to turn it on now and again. You leave it on the table and it constantly streams.

Is that stream news? Only a small portion of your stream – whatever you want, whatever you allow in – will be. Just as publishers’ news is only a small portion of the value of what Google returns in search, we mustn’t be so hubristic to think that the streams flowing by readers’ eyes will be owned, controlled, and filled by media with what they declare to be news. They will be filled with life.

The real value waiting to be created in the stream-based web is prioritization. That’s part of what Clay Shirky is driving at when he talks about algorithmic authority and what Marissa Mayer talks about when she says news streams will be hyperpersonal. The opportunity in news is not to try to mass-prioritize it for everyone at once – impossible! – but to help each of us do it. To make that work, it will have to be personal and personal will scale only if it’s algorithmic and the algorithm will work only if we trust and value what it delivers. So how do you learn enough about me, who I am, what I do, and what I need so you can solve my personal filter failure and show me the emails and tweet and updates and, yes, news I’ll most want to read? What tricks can you bring to bear, as Google did and Facebook did: the wisdom of a crowd – perhaps my crowd? the value of editors still?

So imagine this future without pages and sites, this future that’s all built on process over product. If you’re what used to be a content-creation – if you’re Stephen Fry, post-media – you’re all about insinuating yourself into that stream. If you’re about content curation – formerly known as editing – then you’re all about prioritizing streams for people; that’s how you add value now.

Getting people to come to you so you can tell them what you say they should know while showing them ads they didn’t want from advertisers who bear the cost and risk of the entire experience? That’s just so 2008. Now it’s time to go with the stream.

November 23 2009

16:55

The half-life of news

At a Yale conference a week ago, Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer talked about the life cycle of the value of news in his business.

When a piece of financial news come out, it is at its most valuable for a very short time, he said. I asked him later how long that is. “Milliseconds,” he replied. Milliseconds. That’s as long as a computerized trader has to take advantage of news before the market knows it, before the news is knowledge and is thus commodified and loses its unique and timely value.

Reuters still gets high value out of its news in stages, turning this tidbit into a headline and a story and selling it as part of its financial data services and then its wires. It finally lands on Reuters’ web site, visible to consumers, where Reuters collects ad revenue directly. That, Glocer said, is about 2% of Reuters’ revenue.

Of course, one can’t view this timeline in isolation. The news is being spread in all kinds of vectors: other news organizations get it and it’s masticated and repeated in print (slow), on broadcast (faster), on websites (faster), by aggregators (faster), by conversation (aka Twitter – getting faster all the time). The faster that distribution is, the quicker news becomes knowledge and thus a commodity, the faster it loses its unique, saleable value. And that chain is getting only faster.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one reason why trying to lock up the value of news behind a wall won’t work, in my estimation.

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