August 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Tim Berners-LeeSir Tim Berners-Lee, on August 19, 1991:

WorldWideWeb is a hypertext browser/editor which allows one to read information from local files and remote servers. It allows hypertext links to be made and traversed, and also remote indexes to be interrogated for lists of useful documents. Local files may be edited, and links made from areas of text to other files, remote files, remote indexes, remote index searches, internet news groups and articles. All these sources of information are presented in a consistent way to the reader. For example, an index search returns a hypertext document with pointers to documents matching the query. Internet news articles are displayed with hypertext links to other referenced articles and groups.

[...] This project is experimental and of course comes without any warranty whatsoever. However, it could start a revolution in information access. We are currently using WWW for user support at CERN. We would be very interested in comments from anyone trying WWW, and especially those making other data available, as part of a truly world-wide web.

Tim Berners-Lee’s original WWW announcement.

Almost twenty-one years later, Sir Tim tweeted from the London 2012 opening ceremony, following a multi-million-pound song and dance routine in his honor:

Tim could have chosen to license the system he developed, and he and CERN would have probably made some decent revenue through doing so. Instead, though, he had the foresight to open it to the world, even recognizing in his initial announcement that it could start a revolution in how information is accessed.

This website is hosted in Dallas, Texas, and runs open source software written all over the world. The words were written in Berkeley, California. The photo was uploaded from São Paulo, Brazil, and was served from one of Yahoo!’s datacenters. The embedded tweet was pulled from Twitter’s servers. It took me 20 minutes to pull all of this together and post it, and no more than a couple of seconds to reach you, and none of this is magic any more.

That any of us can reach each other, no matter who we are or where we are in the world, and can publish to a wide audience, is no longer something amazing or rare in 2012. It’s a baseline; something incredibly common in the developed world, that we hope to provide to the places that don’t have it yet, because they should have it too.

It’s a democratizer, a unifier, a tool of empowerment and social freedom, all because one man decided it should be free.

Thank you, Tim.

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.

Social networking: beyond the silo

June 8, 2009 | 1 comment

  1. The rise of social networking
  2. Monetization vs. collaboration
  3. The open web
  4. Fluid collaboration

The rise of social networking

Social forces have been the driving force behind application innovation on the web. Whereas previously we might have looked to advances in computer science for new directions, now some of the most dramatically impactful applications are lightweight, simple, and technologically unimpressive. The best new web applications have centered around collaboration, sharing and discovery with other people.

Correspondingly, enterprises have been relatively quick to pick up on this trend, and software vendors have been quick to grab the market. In an Intranet Journal article earlier this year, Kara Pernice, managing director at the Nielsen Normal Group, had this to say about the rise of social technology on the intranet:

"In the 9 years [the Intranet Design Annual, which highlights the ten best-designed intranets of the year] has been coming out (since 2001), I’ve never seen a change quite as great as this one."

On the Internet at large, social network use is growing at ten times the rate of other activities and now accounts for 10% of all online time, according to Nielsen Online in this March 2009 report (PDF), and is now more popular than email. Jerimiah Owyang has a list of more relevant statistics over on this digest blog post. Executive summary: social networks are big, transformative in terms of how we communicate and share information, and growing at an enormous rate.

Monetization vs. collaboration

Wikipedia defines a “walled garden”, in software terms, as being:

[..] A closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system).

In other words, a walled garden is a system where the data can not easily be imported or exported. These are often also called data silos, after the solid buildings used for secure storage.

Facebook, the #1 social networking site in most western countries, has over 200 million users, including over 30 million who update their profiles at least once a day. The network is free to use, yet their revenue for 2008 has been estimated at around $265 million, despite a decidedly “in progress” revenue strategy.

This has traditionally required a walled garden strategy: the content that users put into Facebook has not been easily removed for export or viewing in other interfaces, in order to preserve revenue from advertising (and – although this is a hunch – revenue from statistical analysis of users’ data). It’s only been in the light of some extremely negative publicity (for example this February 2008 New York Times article) that they have begun to relax this policy and embrace the open direction that much of the rest of the web is heading in.

Speaking personally, I get more enquiries from people wanting to build something “Facebook-like” than anything else, presumably because of its phenomenal popularity. However, this kind of walled garden approach is not conducive to true collaboration; generally people who ask for this are lacking a full understanding of the processes involved in social networking.

According to Nielsen, there are almost 1.6 billion people online. While Facebook’s 200 million sounds like a lot, it’s actually a drop in the digital ocean – so what happens if I want to share a Facebook conversation with someone who hasn’t signed up? The only way is currently to email them a link and force them to register for the service. Facebook would love me to do this, of course, because they get more eyeballs to view their ads and more people to fill in profiles. But what’s the point of even being on the web if you can’t make use of the decentralized communication features that form its backbone?

If I want to collaborate effectively online centering around a resource (which could be a file, a discussion or a pointer to something external), I need to be able to:

  • Share that resource with the people who need to see it
  • Grant access for them to edit it if required
  • Notify them that it’s been shared with them
  • Restrict access from everyone else

Furthermore, I need to do this with the lowest possible barrier to entry. My aim is to collaborate, not to get people to use a particular piece of software. By restricting this process, the Facebook model hinders collaboration.

The open web

The web was designed to be an open system, and adheres to principles (notably “every object addressable”, ensuring that every resource on the web has a unique reference address) set out by Doug Engelbart for open hypertext systems generally. Because web pages are interoperable, and all use the same basic standards, any page on the web is allowed to link to any other page on the web, no matter who wrote it or where it is hosted. In many ways that’s the key to why the platform is successful: despite being fragmented across millions of computers throughout the world, it navigates like a cohesive whole and can be viewed using a single piece of browsing software. (The downside to this is that the whole platform lives or dies depending on the capabilities of the browser you use: the sad fact is that Internet Explorer users, who often don’t have a choice because of policy decisions in their working environment, are at a disadvantage.)

While the original web was content-based, the social web is collaborative and centered around live data. However, because web applications are each developed separately using different sets of back-end infrastructure, their data does not adhere to the principle of interoperability – their user interfaces all use the same basic standards and can be viewed in a browser, but the underlying applications and data models tend to not work with each other. When social networks emerged, for example, there was no way to get Livejournal and Friendster, two of the pioneers in the space, to speak the same language; you still can’t add someone as a friend on one social network from another. More recently, this has become apparent in the walled garden approaches of Facebook and others.

Not only does this situation create a bottleneck for application design, and run contrary to the underlying principles that made the web a success, but it’s also a bottleneck to better collaboration. As Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, put it recently in this essential TED talk, data needs to be linked and interoperable in the same way pages are now. Beyond that, because walled garden services are making money out of the private information we’re loading onto them, there’s a human issue regarding the overall control of that data. Marc Canter, Joseph Smarr and others codified this into a Bill of Rights for users of the social web back in 2007. Though the issue has moved on since then, the underlying principles set out there are essential for open, collaborative, social tools on the web.

While the World Wide Web Consortium works on academically-developed standards for linked data in the form of the semantic web, developers have been getting their game on trying to solve the problems of interoperability between their applications and user control over their data. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – published sets of instructions for programmatically querying and extending web applications – have become popular, but in a very walled garden kind of way. Arguably the most successful has been Twitter’s API, which has led to a number of high profile third-party applications like TweetDeck and Tweetie that collectively eclipse Twitter’s own website interface in volume of usage. But these APIs are their own form of walled garden: an application written for Twitter will only work with Twitter, for example. The APIs are not generalized between applications, and as such are not truly open; in many ways they’re a way for services to get more functionality and reach for free.

One of the first attempts to publicize the benefits of truly open data was Marc Canter’s Data Sharing Summit, which I wrote about at the time for ZDNet. Chris Saad’s DataPortability.org attempted (largely successfully) to brand it, and latterly the Open Web Foundation has attracted some of the web’s leading lights in order to create a single organization to handle the creation of a set of open web application standards. Many of these comprise the Open Stack, which I’ve written about before; more generally, Chris Messina has written a very thoughtful overview on the topic.

Fluid collaboration

It used to be that to use the web, you would need to sit down at your computer and log on. Those days are over; the web is becoming more and more ubiquitous, thanks to devices like the iPhone. It’s also being integrated into software that wasn’t previously connected – it’s as easy, for example, to paste the URL of an image into the ‘Insert Image’ dialog box in most word processors as it is to pick an image from your own hard disk. The open, generalized API standards being created by groups like the Open Web Foundation bring us closer to enjoying that level of integration with collaborative social technologies.

The Internet is people, not technology: tools on the web (or anywhere else) facilitate social networks, but are not the network themselves. Currently they consist of destination sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter – places that you explicitly have to visit in order to collaborate or share. This is the currently-fashionable model, but it’s a necessarily limited view of how collaboration can take place: all of these sites thrive on the walled garden model and are designed around keeping participation within their walls.

Not everything on the Internet works this way. Email, and increasingly Instant Messaging, are two technologies that generally do not: messages on email, Jabber and to a much lesser extent Skype are peer-to-peer and do not go through a central service:

  1. You select the people you wish to collaborate (in this case, email or chat) with. Nobody but the listed recipients will be able to see the content you share with them, and it doesn’t matter if they’re using the same service as you; you don’t have to invite them to join email in the same way you have to invite people to join Facebook.
  2. You write your content.
  3. You send it.
  4. They (hopefully) send content back.
  5. The collaborative exchange lasts only as long as it’s useful, and then disappears (but is archived for reference).

Recently, Google announced Wave, a decentralized pairing of protocol and open source web application that took email and IM as its inspirations to redefine how collaborative social technologies could work. Questions have been raised about how a decentralized tool like this can work with corporate data policies present in most large enterprises and public sector organizations, but in some ways they miss the point: Google Wave is best thought of as a proof of concept for how decentralized, transient communities can work in a standard way on the web. In short, websites are a kind of walled garden in themselves: what we will return to is the idea of the web as an open patchwork of people, data and information that links together to form a whole, much stronger than the sum of its parts.

Predicting the future of social networking on the web is hard. However, I believe that as general open social technologies develop and become more commonplace, the “social networking site” will shrink in importance – instead, social network facilitators will become more and more ingrained in all the software you use. This will dramatically increase the types of content and communication that can be used, and present opportunities for much wider, more fluid and – most importantly – more productive collaboration as a whole.