September 11th, 2011

September 11, 2011 | Leave a comment

The events that occurred ten years ago were undeniably horrific, scary and tragic. They were also an opportunity to show how strong democratic values are; to show how powerful reason is when armed with information; to unite behind our belief in freedom of speech and freedom of knowledge.

I was working at Daily Information, writing some new features for their web platform. It was a little past two in the afternoon, and I was sitting with one of the high school students who occasionally did work there, and its proprietor, John Rose. John was an eccentric but brilliant man – an outsider entrepreneur who had become the hub for a cross-section of Oxford life. (I learned a lot from him, and he’s massively influenced everything I’ve done since.) He had set up the office in the basement of a house he owned; paper, computer parts and assorted detritus occupied every available surface. Although I was writing code and checking on the website, we would often break for conversation. (A sample John Rose icebreaker: “aren’t other people awful?”)

My dad happened to be nearby, and came into the office to tell me what had happened. The second plane had hit by this time, and it was obvious that it wasn’t an accident. He feared that this was the prelude to something bigger. We had ISDN in the office, and we immediately began checking the news sites: the BBC, CNN, and so on. I remember vividly that within a few minutes, the only website that stayed up was the Guardian, and we all sat there at our Windows 2000 workstations, on a makeshift network in a cluttered office in North Oxford, reloading the page in the newly-released Internet Explorer 6 and gasping in horror at each new revelation. John had been to New York not long before, and told us about his trip to the top of the World Trade Center. By 5pm, though, we’d returned to work, shaken but determined to continue.

I waited at the bus stop for twenty minutes that evening, and remember thinking that the world had changed irrevocably. Although I would become increasingly politicized over the next few months (and have been ever since), I didn’t know enough about the world to really understand what was going to happen. But I knew enough that day to understand that President Bush would probably want to go to war, and that rather than being mourned as a great loss, this was going to be used as an excuse to do some pretty terrible things. I remember watching the faces of the people driving by, behind the wheel or sitting in the Oxford buses, searching in vain for a mirror of the unease that was welling up inside of me. Person after person seemed unemotional; distant; detached.

I browsed my Livejournal friends page that night, using the Demon Internet dial-up connection at my parents’ house (I was staying with them that autumn), and reactions ran the gamut from fear to – and here I sadly quote word-for-word, the post etched forever on my memory – “burn, America, burn!”

It wasn’t a lone sentiment. I was the only American in my friends group, and many (but by no means all) of the people I knew felt that, at least to a certain extent, America deserved this. Not in the third world, not in the midst of fundamentalist religion – but well-educated, middle class kids all over England. I’m close to being a third culture child, and often say that my family is my nationality and my religion all at once, but for the first time in my life I found myself defending one of my source countries. I love America, and I love the values of its people – even when its government is clearly not in sync.

The Onion said it best, of course, both following the attacks and a year earlier, when George W Bush finally assumed the Presidency. And as the insanity ramped up and the Bush administration began to drag much of the western world into illegal wars (enabled by a fabrication or two from Tony Blair’s government in the UK), news sources who dared to bring the irregularities to light had their wings duly clipped. I was one of over a million people – over 2% of the entire population of the UK – who marched against the impending war in Iraq. Nothing happened; the war went ahead as planned. And as the government failed us, and the TV news became more obviously watered down, two sources stood out. One was the Daily Show, which became the primary political commentary source for a generation by pointing out the increasing hypocrisy. And the other one was the vast expanse of independent websites and communities on the web.

This is my personal opinion about the decline of the news media over the last decade: they’re dying not because someone came up with a better model, but because they lost our trust. From the events of September 11th itself, through Enron the month afterwards, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the entirety of the Bush Administration, and so on and so on and so on (pick a scandal, any scandal), right up to the curated illogicality and overstated popularity of the Tea Party, my perception is that, as a whole, the news media hasn’t been with us. Instead, I think the best analysis has been found in books (a hat doff to my colleague Jim Moore, whose book Bush’s Brain was one of the first in-depth criticisms of Bush); in magazines like Rolling Stone and the New Yorker (Seymour Hersh has become a personal hero); in documentary movies (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, though imperfect, is a kind of turning point). The television news and the daily newspaper, once staples of modern life, have all but obsoleted themselves by bowing to pressure to neuter the principles that underwrite their content, and by reacting poorly to their economic decline. This is a tragedy of democracy, because my god, the investigative journalists are still out there. We need them more than ever, but they’ve lost their platforms, either because those platforms have lost their ability to be honest, or because they’ve lost their ability to pay for experienced journalists (or both).

On the web, we are at the forefront of a new kind of discourse – we not only participate in the content, as I am with this piece, but also by influencing the form of conversation, debate, communication and dissemination. Imagine being back in the 17th century, inventing the form of the newspaper, or creating the newsreel in 1908 – that’s what our industry is doing today, except we’re also inventing the wire, the telephone, the telediagraph, the telex, the fax machine and the wire photo: the back-end technology that makes the content that goes into the end-user product possible. Sure, we’re building cool new music apps or remixing kitten pics, but we’re also influencing how people will create and consume information for generations. It’s an exciting field to be in, but it’s also a great responsibility. Information and community sit together at the center of democracy.

Back to those events ten years ago; for me, back to sitting at a bus stop, watching the faces of passers-by, searching for meaning and wondering what would happen next. I think there’s great value in reflection and remembrance on September 11th, not only of the tragedy that occurred, but all of the tragedies and all of the injustices that occurred in its name. This was an opportunity to show how strong democratic values are; to show how powerful reason is when armed with information and education; to unite behind our belief in freedom of speech and freedom of knowledge. I believe that in the content of our actions, discourse and stated values, we went the other way.

But if we remember what’s important, and build what we know, we have the promise, perhaps more than ever, of creating something much greater. Freedom is a core value of both us as a people and us as an industry. Let’s bring it on home.

Where to find me at SXSW

February 27, 2011 | Leave a comment

I’m stoked to be at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin.

As well as enjoying the talks, attending events and enjoying wandering around one of my favorite cities in the world, I’m appearing as part of two panels:

The Why & How Of Decentralized Web Identity with Blaine Cook and Christian Sandvig (March 12, 11am in the TX Ballroom 2-4 at the Hyatt)

Wikileaks, the Web, and the Long, Strange Journey of Journalism with James Moore and Scott Braddock (March 15, 9:30am in the Town Lake Ballroom at the Radisson)

Power!In both cases, these are part of a stream. If you’re interested in decentralized identity, you’re probably going to want to start with Federating the Social Web, a panel with Status.net’s Evan Promodou, TummelVision’s Kevin Marks and Socialcast’s Monica Wilkinson, which starts at 9:30am in the same room. Meanwhile, if you want to hear more about Wikileaks, you may want to stick around for Wikileaks: The Website That Changed the World?, with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, Vanity Fair contributing editor Sarah Ellison, and ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg, which takes place in the Town Lake Ballroom at 12:30pm.

I’m very excited about working with the participants at both events. I’m pleased to say that James Moore, my co-panelist for the Wikileaks event, is a colleague at Latakoo, and it’s a pleasure to have found another way to work with him. You may know him best for his book Bush’s Brain, about George W. Bush and Karl Rove’s role in his presidency; he’s made a name for himself as an incisive political commentator in print, on television and in documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11. Here are his not inconsiderable contributions to the Huffington Post. For his Wikileaks panel, he’s brought Edward R Murrow award-winning investigative journalist Scott Braddock on board, and I’ll be there to provide technical and web culture context.

Blaine Cook, meanwhile, was the primary author of both OAuth and Webfinger, which are two of the most important building blocks for the decentralized social web; they’ve been influential in how web applications have been designed and built over the past few years. Formerly lead developer at Twitter, he’s now part of Osmosoft, a part of British Telecom that works on open source, web-based collaboration tools. As well as kindly asking me to join him on his panel on decentralized identity, he’s secured the wisdom of Christian Sandvig, who is Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Finally, although I won’t be speaking at this one, my colleague at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab Rohan Gunatillake will be speaking with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society’s CEO Kath Maitland about Edinburgh, Austin and the Future of Festivals on March 14th. If you’re interested in digital and the arts, or my work as Geek in Residence at the festivalslab, this will be worth your time.

If you’re in Austin this March, I’d love to see you at either of these events, or anywhere else. I’ll be heavily using Twitter during the festival, so you can always message me there, or drop me a note here in the comments. It should be a lot of fun.

For your consideration at SXSW Interactive

August 11, 2010 | 1 comment

I’ve submitted a talk for South By Southwest 2011:

Building the User-centered Web

By establishing a general standard for social application interactions, the services and technologies used to make connections become less relevant; the Internet is people, one big social network, and users no longer have to worry about how they connect. We can all get on with communicating and collaborating in contextually appropriate ways. In this talk, I’ll discuss how to build a decentralized, user-centered web using existing and emerging technologies. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like to see this at the next SXSW, please visit this page to vote.

Paul Adrian also has submitted a talk, this time about the future of journalism, and how technology can help:

Technology Can Create a Press for the People

I believe it is time for a “news” revolution. A new press should produce comprehensive streams of rigorously non-partisan original reporting on the issues that are most important to our lives. Once informed, we the people should have a space where we can discuss the important issues of our times without having to submit to intolerance, deceptive campaigning and fear-mongering. Through the use of technology and new business models, news innovators can provide more credible information and space for civil discussions. The goal is to empower citizens by providing access to superior reporting and the platform for community organization necessary for the People once again to become powerful participants in democracy.

As well as being an award-winning journalist and technology entrepreneur, Paul is an inspiring speaker who is worth listening to. You can vote for his talk over here.

The death of newspapers, and why it matters

January 4, 2010 | 4 comments

The Internet has, undeniably, changed our culture.

For most of the 20th century, we paid for our news, entertainment, art and literature. We allowed businesses to act as gatekeepers for this content, and accepted that the media landscape would be dictated by decisions made in the boardroom. Publishers, movie studio bosses, broadcasters and record company executives dictated what we read, saw and heard, based on financial projections. Their opinions about what was commercially viable regulated supply. Content had a price.

This situation was dictated by economic scarcity. That is to say, not only did an original work, such as a novel or a movie, cost money to produce, but each item used to distribute it, such as a book or a DVD, had its own individual cost of production. To make money, a publishing house or a movie studio needed to recoup its initial production costs for the original work, as well as the per-item cost for each book or DVD. The exception to this in the media landscape was broadcast media – television and radio – which anyone could watch for free, in exchange for a regular advertising break. However, in both distributed and broadcast media, the content needed to be commercial enough to either attract buyers or advertisers. In order to recoup the production cost. the companies involved controlled what was released according to what they thought would sell. As a result the market for content was led by supply – what the content companies deemed worthy of release – rather than consumer demand.

The first continuously-published American newspapers launched in April, 1704. Since then, their philosophy of objective journalism has played an important part in American culture. For democracy to function, a citizen must understand the facts surrounding an issue, so they can vote on it in an informed way: access to impartial information is key. One New York resident remarked in the 1840s that “one thing is certain – nowhere will you find better informed people – that is, those who better understand all the principal movements of the day, whether political, moral or religious, than the readers of a country newspaper”. As the primary method for disseminating facts and information to the public, newspapers have been fundamental to democracy.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the model for distributing newspaper content changed. In 2008, newspaper circulation in the US dropped by 4.6% on weekdays and 4.8% on Sundays. Meanwhile, visits to the top fifty news-related websites, which all are free to access, increased by 27%. Correspondingly, the first quarter of 2009 was the worst ever for newspapers, with sales plunging by $2.9 billion.

The seeds of the Internet were sewn in 1969. However, it wasn’t until Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 that its effects on the media began to be felt. While content had been made available on the network for twenty years, it had been purely text-based, required a level of technological knowhow to operate, and needed to be accessed through specialist communications software. The Web was based on hypertext, a more accessible way of joining documents and articles together through linked topics and phrases. Most importantly, though, it brought with it the Web browser, a single portal for accessing all content, and allowed the use of embedded images, movies and sound.

In 1992, the Internet was opened for commercial access, and online services like AOL, Prodigy and Delphi began offering connectivity. Anyone could run a site on the Web, which was now accessible to millions of people worldwide. In 1993, Global Network Navigator became the first online publication to support itself with interactive advertising banners, and the path forward was clear: newspapers could make their content available for free to anyone in the world with Internet access, and pay for it with advertising. Due to the nature of the network, once a piece of content had been produced, the cost of disseminating it indefinitely was negligible. The barrier to entry had also been dramatically lowered: anyone could publish news without having to establish a distribution network. Other advertising-supported sites like the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and opinion-orientated “Web logs” like DailyKos began to spring up. The former media gatekeepers were no longer an effective part of the news ecosystem.

These events moved newspaper content beyond the scarcity model. Wikipedia says this about scarcity: “Goods that are scarce are called economic goods. […] Other goods are called free goods if they are desired but in such abundance that they are not scarce, such as air and seawater”. Thanks to the Internet, content became like air and seawater: almost infinitely abundant, and free. The possibilities provided by Internet advertising seemed to have heralded a new era.

Internet advertising has a major benefit over its printed cousin: it can be targeted towards its audience, and statistics about advertisement effectiveness and reader engagement can be captured in real time. Advertisers know exactly how many people have responded with an advertisement, and can tailor it to a particular viewing demographic. Contrast that with the print medium, where by necessity everyone must see the same advertisements, and advertisers must make inferences from the newspaper’s readership statistics and their own sales to determine an advertisement’s effectiveness. It should be no surprise that in addition to its $2.9 billion in lost sales, print advertising sales in American newspapers declined by $7.5 billion in 2008.

Given its theoretical superiority, the loss of newspaper advertising revenue in print should have been made up for online. However, this is not the case. Scarcity provided a captive market: often there were only one or two newspapers available in any particular location. Suddenly, with the advent of the Web, there were tens of thousands of titles available everywhere. As a result, what had previously been a supply-constrained readership that read a relatively small number of sources fragmented into a demand-driven one that read articles in the most convenient way to them, from whichever source was most conveniently available. Competition for readers had become fierce, and the abundance of publications willing to host advertising meant that prices were much lower.

Furthermore, a lot of advertising that had traditionally been placed in newspapers was now being cannibalized by new, specialized websites like Craigslist and Monster.com. As New York University’s Clay Shirky notes, these new companies “all have the logic that if you want to list a job or sell a bike, you don’t go to the place that’s printing news from Antananarivo and the crossword puzzle. You go to the place that’s good for listing jobs and selling bikes.” Newspapers, or even their associated websites, were no longer hubs for local information. People were visiting specialized sources for each kind of information they needed.

Shirky also points out that the alignment of advertising and journalism was always going to be short-lived: “the commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.” In other words, the advertising attention they received was because they were the only, rather than best, option. As soon as the Internet opened up more efficient avenues, the money flowed away.

To replace this vacuum, some newspapermen are attempting to rebuild a captive audience through other means. Rupert Murdoch, the head of News International (the multinational news corporation that owns the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, among others), announced in the summer of 2009 that he would begin charging for access to all of his newspaper’s online content, from the Wall Street Journal right down to the Sun. With it, they will also ban readers from electronically sharing content with their friends, which is a kind of social word-of-mouth marketing that has driven readership levels in recent years. As Chase Carey, News International’s Chief Operating Officer, puts it: “we believe customers value quality journalism. We need to get paid for our product as it shifts to the digital world.”

Murdoch’s announcement sent a strong signal to the rest of the newspaper industry, and split commentators down the middle. Consumers, after all, were now used to getting their content for free. Both the music and movie industries had been having a very difficult time convincing their customers to purchase rather than pirate their wares. On the other hand, it was clear that making content free and advertising-supported was not delivering the revenue that publishers had been expecting. Variety, the entertainment trade newspaper, had experimentally made all its content available for free online in 2006. Although their website’s readership flourished, advertising dollars did not appreciably increase. On December 17, 2009, the “pay wall,” as website pages demanding payment for content are known, was re-established.

Indeed, a recent decision by the Dallas Morning News to bring its editorial department under the control of its advertising sales division (brought to my attention by Paul Adrian of Press for the People) would seem to support the idea that news content should be directly paid for. The old supply-driven model allowed editorial departments to maintain journalistic integrity: companies might have been ticked off by a newspaper article, but where else could they place their advertising? However, in today’s multi-source media, the loss of a valuable advertising contract is a very real possibility. The situation at the Dallas Morning News may help ensure the newspaper’s longevity, but it results in subjective journalism that is at the whim of overriding commercial concerns. Arguably, the only way forward for objective journalism is to charge the people who value it.

However, serious questions are being asked about the viability of this route. In particular, how willing will people be to pay for content, even from a trusted newspaper, now that there are thousands of competitors giving it away for free online? “When we look at why people quit buying the newspaper, it’s overwhelmingly because ‘I can get it for free online,’” notes William Dean Singleton, the CEO of the fourth-largest American newspaper company, MediaNews. It may not be possible to force an artificial scarcity in news reporting without all newspapers charging for it at the same time – something that would require widespread collusion in the industry. With the exception of reporting niches like finance, where, according to Shirky, “data is valuable in inverse proportion to its availability (unlike editorials, say, or political reporting),” most consumers prefer to receive their content for free. In the mainstream, Shirky suggests, “the key questions for the average publisher contemplating pay walls are: How serious will that competition be? How many users will you lose? Will banning sharing create a defensible advantage? And the answers are: crushing, most, and no.”

How, then, will objective journalism survive? One emerging suggestion is that we must de-couple journalism from newspapers. We may have to accept that the latter may become extinct in order to save the former. After all, it’s the factual reporting and analysis that are valuable to our society, rather than the bundles of low-grade paper they are printed on. I would argue that those things, when provided in a thoughtful way that makes full use of current technology, are worth paying for.

As O’Reilly Publishing’s online editor Kurt Cagle puts it: “When a previously thriving industry seems to be dying, it is most likely because the services that it initially provided are becoming obsolete. It is better in this situation to rethink what such services should provide, then build a niche for it. Otherwise, you’re just wasting money.”

It’s an open question, and one I intend to help address in 2010.

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