Disrupt the mainstream

January 29, 2013 | 1 comment

Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen

“Mainstream culture,” as a concept, needs to die.

A little pre-history. The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text and the world’s oldest surviving printed book, was produced in China in 868 AD. It took another couple of hundred years before moveable type was invented, and another four hundred years for the printing press to be invented. Almost six hundred years after the first printed book was created, it became possible to mass produce literature. Two hundred years after that, the first newspapers began to appear, but they didn’t reach large circulations for another two hundred years – a thousand years after the first book.

Because of the advances in the printing press that allowed for larger circulations, newspapers could be distributed over a much larger geographic area. Prior to that, they had mostly existed in communities, where the publishers were easily reached. An unintended side effect of wider distribution was that this feedback loop was eroded. Newspapers became a one-way medium; a trend that continued with the invention of newsreels, radio broadcasting, and the television. Almost simultaneously, manufacturing techniques improved to allow for mass-market products made out of new materials like plastics.

The separation wasn’t clean. Because of its capacity to reach large audiences quickly, both government and business had interests in the media that went well beyond (while embracing) traditional advertising. They underwrote content, leaned on the companies who produced it, censored both explicitly and implicitly, and created a media environment that sold not just products and ideas, but a way to live your life. More than ever before, there was a wrong way and a right way. There was a mainstream, and then there were niche interests. This had always been true to an extent, but the main route for lifestyle propaganda had previously been churches, who fearfully controlled the means of communication. In the modern age, the media itself began to take the place of religion. (Think about the semantics of the phrase “mass culture” for a second.) Business and government had a direct channel to get their messages to the people. At the time, this seemed like a liberation.

It wasn’t a liberation compared to what came next. The beginnings of the Internet showed up in 1969, not at all coincidentally during the peak of the counterculture movement in the sixties – the first cultural movement to challenge the mass-market status quo. Usenet showed up ten years later, allowing anyone to participate in semi-public discussions. Ten years after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Ten years after that, Napster was allowing anyone to trade music. A decade later, mass-market publishing was in free-fall.

For ordinary people, the utility of mass culture was coming to an end. Information was freely available without the involvement of businesses, governments or churches – both to consume and to produce. Anyone could publish, without anyone’s permission, no matter who or what they worshiped, where they had gone to school or how much money they had in their bank accounts. There were no corporate policies dictating who could be heard, and no slush piles where ideas that didn’t fit pre-defined marketing templates could languish. It was a free-for-all. Free as in speech.

In the middle ages, the church decried texts that defied its authority, often sentencing authors to death. In the 21st century we’re a little more laid back, but it’s nonetheless predictable that corners of the mass media, sensing that it’s under threat, have been arguing that Internet content is less reliable, or shady, even, contrary to the views held by the public. Meanwhile, proposed legislation like SOPA and PIPA and the Communications Decency Act were transparently aimed at neutering the new medium, and were often sponsored by the media companies themselves. (Wiser corners of both business and government have gone another way, and are simply buying these new media outlets.) Even now, opposition to SOPA is spun as a tech company triumph, while the truth is more subversive: the Internet is a grass-roots people connector, and it was the people who spoke in defense of their free speech.

Just as the media had fragmented from a few large organizations to something that every single person in the developed world could participate in, manufacturing is currently enduring the same kind of shock that publishing experienced. Sites like Kickstarter are flying in the face of traditional manufacturing processes, and allowing anyone to begin making products.

Mainstream culture was a construct. It was created partially by accident, because we were all consuming the same products and the same media, and partially on purpose, because people who conform to a set of ideals make better consumers from the manufacturers’ point of view and better citizens from government’s point of view. Once upon a time, it improved most of our lives through new manufacturing techniques and distribution models. In a world where this is no longer necessary, however, this imposed conformity is a kind of oppression. One need only look at the prevailing American ideals of strength over intellect, wealth over integrity, or the dismissal of “special interests”, to see a kind of fascism at work.

We’re all special interests. Humanity is beautiful because we’re all so different. We have dreams, ideals, values, goals and loves, and for each of us, down to a person, they’re all slightly different. That’s why democracy is so great – or at least, has the potential to be so great – and why freedom of speech is so important. We create a better society, and better lives for all of us, by embracing those differences and letting them form a patchwork, building something bigger together than the sum of all of us. Different ideas, cultural contexts, sexualities, abilities, preferences, characteristics, likes and dislikes; all of these are complementary as part of a bigger whole. The technology we build is there only to make our collective lives better; it doesn’t exist for itself, or so that we can make a profit. We’re building to progress. Technology is subversive, and always has been, because it empowers the previously unempowered. With the Internet, the time for enforced values has passed; we can all have a voice, and we can all have a media that serves us for who we really are. Ideas can and should be freely exchanged. People can and should be free to be themselves.

The concept of mainstream culture needs to become obsolete. That’s not to say that all the things in it can’t live on, enjoyed by audiences, or that the people who make their livings creating it can’t apply their skills to make new things for different kinds of people. That’s the point: it takes all sorts.

Photo: Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen by Frédéric Bisson, released under a Creative Commons license.

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.

PubCasts: subscribe to publications through RSS

January 28, 2010 | 1 comment

This is inspired by the iBooks launch, but it’s applicable to any ereader that uses the ePub format. (Or, indeed, it could use any ebook format – MobiPocket, Kindle, DAISY, etc.)

A podcast is just an RSS feed with a file enclosure – part of the RSS standard – that points to an MP3 file. Similarly, video podcasts point to video files. An obvious evolution, then, is the pubcast: periodical publications delivered through RSS feeds.

Free publication subscriptions

In the free case, a user would simply subscribe to a public pubcast feed with a compatible reader. The reader software would check regularly for updates, and new publications would be downloaded and fed into the user’s ereader software on release. Easy.

Paid publication subscriptions

In the case of paid publications, there are two options:

An authenticated pubcast feed. When you subscribe to a publication, you get an address to an RSS feed that requires a username and password to download content. (Gmail is an example of an application which already does this.) This authentication ensures that only paid subscribers can access the file, but you could go a step further and watermark the publications themselves.

Activation within the ebook file. The RSS feed itself is public, but each downloaded publication could require an access code to read. This would open the door for public feeds of paid journals, where users could buy each issue individually to read.

Making subscriptions an open standard

Either way, this approach would allow any ereader using any compatible software solution to subscribe to periodicals. It could be used for newspapers, magazines, journals, zines, or new kinds of periodical; they could be hosted anywhere and, in the case of paid content, use any payment provider. I love reading, but dislike monopolies, so this is something I’d like to see.

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.