It's Saturday, Oct. 24th. Be there. Aloha.
Tony Romo is a good quarterback. He has a winning record, good statistics, a great arm and above-average wheels. In Week One, he threw for a personal best in yardage, plus three touchdowns.
But in Week Two, the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants in their stadium opener. Romo's stats were poor, and he threw three interceptions.
By Monday morning, the media was calling for the man to be ritually eviscerated. One after another, the talking heads on TV paraded by, talking about what a failure Romo was. How he couldn't lead. Blah, blah, blah.
Welcome to what's worst about America.
What's worst about America are retired prima dona wide receivers who ought to know better, reducing the ultimate team game down to one man. Posturing and preening former stars talking about how "it all boils down to winning."
Why do they do that?
Because we encourage it. Because we love this in-your-face, reality TV psycho drama.
Because the truth is boring. The truth is that after two games, the supremely talented Dallas defense still hasn't picked up a fumble or an interception, much less a sack. The truth is that, when it counted, Romo led the Cowboys from behind to take the lead with less than four minutes left. The truth is that the Dallas defense let the Giants drive 56 yards in 11 plays, milking every last second off the clock before kicking the winning field goal.
The headline on Yahoo Sports the next morning? "Romo costs his team the win."
This is destruction of human beings and their reputations as entertainment. And we're all of us implicit in this farce, because we encourage it. We allow it.
Here we go again. If Romo has a decent game, will we then anoint him the second coming of Christ?
I'm going up the road to talk with the folks at Social Media Club Columbia on Oct. 8, and in preparation for the event the organizers posted short bios of the panelists, along with a series of possible questions. There's no way we'll have time to get around to each, but I thought these questions were so excellent that each was worthy of yet another Virtual Interview.
What’s the best way for media companies to move from a print first to a web first mentality?
The tricky part is that what you're really talking about here is swapping out engines on an airplane in flight, and I think we should acknowledge the difficulty of that maneuver, plus the fact that doing something like this is never going to be as efficient as starting from scratch with a dedicated staff and a blank tablet.
But when it comes to the print-first vs. web-first shift, it's actually not rocket surgery. You have to take some of your staff and give it the mission of doing incremental, breaking news on the Web. And then you have to get your key newsroom people, and I'm talking managing editors, city editors, sports editors, and you've got to make the success of the website part of their mission. If you do those two things, you're going to wind up producing news in a different workflow and it's going to work.
Most places want to treat this as a training issue and a systems issue, and don't get me wrong. Both are important. But it's really a trust and accountability issue. Unless your top leaders are actually accountable for the success of your Web efforts, they're going to be sabotaging or at least undermining them. It's just too easy for them to give the Web lip service, and then stick to doing the same old thing. And employees aren't stupid. They see that, and they just wait out most “web-first” initiatives.
There are plenty of people who can walk into your newsroom and set up the workflows and training sessions that can make a web-first system work (like, say, me for instance). But unless your top management is accountable for its success, and by that I mean that their salaries and bonuses are tied to it, it's not going to change. This is a cultural challenge masquerading as a technical problem.
How will mobile computing pay into the future of journalism?
The word here could be “pay” or it could be “play” and in either case it's an interesting question.
So let's assume two things: 1. The early adapters of mobile computing are both the high-end tech users and another demographic of users who will invest in smart phones but not desktop or even laptop computing. You're going to have lots of people who won't invest in computer technology who will invest in a snappy phone that is basically a handheld computer, and I think we have to understand that divide and what it means. I think one laboratory for that is Twitter, which is divided into the pre-Oprah group and the post-Oprah group, and they're both using the same service with basically zero overlap.
The second thing is, you don't use a handheld device the way you use a desktop. You relate to things differently, for various reasons.
So how does mobile computing "play" into the future of journalism? Well, I think the first thing you have to recognize is that the news you deliver on a smart phone is going to cross the line into annoyance very quickly if your method of determining what to deliver and at what level of intrusion isn't extremely sensitive. And the way to do that is that you have to have apps that learn from the users' actions.
We like to think you can ask people some questions and then use that to determine their preferences. But we communicate much more honestly by what we do than what we say. So if I were in the news business today I'd be working with an iPhone app developer to create an app that tracks a user's actions while interacting with news. And I would be creating formulas that match your expressed interests AND your unexpressed preferences to determine what priorities to give certain types of stories and headlines. Because if it's just editors picking stories for you, you're not going to use it. It's going to become an annoyance, not a tool.
How does mobile computing “pay” into journalism? I think the answer there is that I probably won't be able to sell you content, but I might be able to sell you an intelligent application that keeps you satisfied and informed about things that actually concern or excite you. I think we should be trying to create mobile devices that act as extensions of each user's interests and personality. And I think you could sell that both as an application and as a subscription-based service.
Should media companies focus on developing the semantic web on their sites?
Semantic Web in the capital letter, W3C, perfectly validating code sense? No. That becomes a question of abstract correctness rather than utility.
Semantic in the sense that the structure conveys meaning? In the sense that the structure adds, captures, enhances and expands meaning? Yes, yes, yes. I'm usually with the geeks on most subjects, but the discussion of semantic structure has degraded into a snarky pissing contest about using the tables tag, and it's just bullshit. The semantic web is not about web design. It's about building an information economy.
The big lesson that analog thinkers have to grasp before they pass Go is that a fact without a context is simply noise. Its value approaches zero. Facts that exist in “stories” have analog value to human readers in the moment that they read it, but the cost of extracting those archived facts and putting them into a structure that provides a machine-readable context (and preserves that value over time) will typically be greater than the value of the original facts.
So what news companies should be doing is creating workflows that capture facts within a structure that connects them to their context and stores them with those connections. You don't have to create new jobs and add work – you just have to provide workflows and tools that make digitizing information as much a part of the process as typing your byline. Once you've done that, all sorts of options open up for you. Until you've done that, you're just on the receiving end of a massive historical change.
You have to think ahead, and media companies hate that.
Will the singularity save journalism? :)
Ken McLeod says that The Singularity is “the Rapture for nerds,” and I agree. I think about The Singularity a lot, because in the abstract sense it's inevitable, but in the historical sense it's impossible, because humanity is chaotic and defies mathematical abstraction. In other words, we generate enough friction to keep The Singularity always over the next rise..
I kid around about how we'll wake up on Jan. 1, 2045, look around and we'll be surrounded by flying golden unicorns. But there's a serious side to this question, and it's really about expectations based on the pace of change. You don't have to go over an event horizon for the rate of change to become destabilizing, and I would argue that's what mass media is experiencing now.
When I arrived at The Post and Courier in April 1994, the editor who showed me around the newsroom proudly demonstrated the new 486 computers he'd just purchased. “These are top of the line,” he said. “We won't have to upgrade for another 10 years.”
That sounds absurd now, but you have to understand that from the perspective of a late-20th century executive, that was a very reasonable assumption about capital amortization. If you invested in a major equipment expense like a newsroom technology upgrade, you just assumed it would be good for 10 years. Industries that depend on computers have adjusted their expectations since then, but most leaders and managers are not comfortable with the idea that the pace of change keeps doubling and doubling and doubling.You can tell them that, but they just can't imagine it, and things that you can't imagine are invisible even if you're staring at them under Klieg lights.
So the singularity won't save journalism, but the acceleration of change should give us clues as to how we're going to have to manage information and make decisions. You could say that our inability to imagine that acceleration is part of what's killing mass media journalism, and the act of imagining adequate responses frees the act of committing journalism from the control of people who simply want to extract 20 percent profits from it, regardless of the effect on society.
What are your thoughts on Augmented Reality and data relationships in journalism?
William Gibson's most recent novel features a character who is an augmented reality artist, and he's going around creating these scenes that you'll see only if you're a user. In one instance he's created a holographic recreation of a horrific murder in a hotel lobby or something, but it's visible only to the people who are wearing the proper devices and know how to tune in. So you have the people who aren't tuned in walking through the scene in real life, but users with the right headgear are seeing the present reality and the recreated image, simultaneously. That stuck with me, because if you wanna talk about the ultimate mashup, there you go, and if you want an analogy for what it all means, there it is.
I think in many ways we're already experiencing separate realities, but that makes it graphic.
So the main thing is that because your mobile device is going to locate you within a two-dimensional plane, you're going to have all sorts of information pushed towards you. And the question, again, is how to create systems that manage your interests in a non-complex way.
If I'm walking through Charleston and every time I pass a store I get an unwanted sales pitch on my phone, I'm eventually going to turn that app off. But if my mobile device is essentially an intelligent agent operating on my behalf, and it's finding things that I want, in real time, and picking them out of my physical environment in interesting and entertaining ways, I'm going to be all about it.
The augmented reality that I think about most is restaurants. You can only tell so much by looking at them, which is why I'd want an augmented reality that told me more. And since I want reliable commercial information rather than just sales pitches, I think there's value in a system like that.
The issue with augmented reality, then, isn't the technology. You need a platform that communicates it, a system that structures and creates it, a business model that understands its value and how to communicate it, and user devices and software agents that accurately interpret and negotiate it. The issue is content and how to pay for it.
The problem is that we need a business model that rewards someone for adding value (i.e., meaningful content that people actually want). Until that happens, then every business that approaches augmented reality is going to treat it as just another way of delivering no-cost crap. It's going to be mass-media executives trying to figure out how to use Facebook all over again. Business people tend to look at networked media as a way to make free money off of somebody else's content, but there's not going to be a sustainable business here until we work out the connections and expectations and exchanges..
We're all going to live in a highly augmented world. But the reality is, our brains are tuned to only a certainly degree of awareness, and everything beyond that is not only surplus, it's actually unhealthy. The challenge for humans, and for media companies, is that from here on out, we're going to be managing attention very judiciously. The secret will be to create signal-to-noise ratios that are extremely high, and the only way to do that is to make everything as personal as DNA.
And I don't have to tell you what worries and challenges and nightmares come bundled with that statement. But it's where we have to go.
Content Managment Systems for media companies, cloud-based (Drupal) or client-based (CCI).
I don't know. Great question, but I haven't studied it yet.
Discuss how the general-interest product has become obsolete.
I tell people that the problem with the kind of mass-media news judgment that I learned over 20 years in the business is that it's just this giant averaging machine. It's creating news and information products that are based on the lowest common denominator within large groups , delivering content based on what's the least objectionable compromise versus what people care about.
And my advice has been, base your business on love. Create content for people to love, not for people to encounter in this zipless, bloodless, view-from-nowhere mass-media fantasy world that we created in the 20th century.
You have to leave the mass-media business to talk that kind of craziness, because these executives have, for the most part, spent the past 20 to 40 years learning that system, and it's all they know. You cannot underestimate how threatening these ideas are, in a very personal way, to many top editors and publishers.
You'll hear a lot in the coming years about post-scarcity economics. Well, the first model for that is the information economy, and while post-scarcity sounds great, it's an enormous shift for everyone involved, and it isn't all sunshine and dancing penguins. What it should teach us is, in a world in which there is more than enough of Commodity X, you simply have to stand out. Being average isn't a good strategy anymore.
People feel this way and that way about Seth Godin, but he plowed this ground early and he has plowed it very fine. The Television Industrial Complex is broken, and it's never coming back.
I say thank goodness, but the result is a very lean time for people like me.
Here's my big news: I feel good.
That's pretty meaningless to everyone else, but it means the world to me at the moment. After years of unhappy inactivity brought on by an even longer period of chronic pain and multiple injuries, I'm moving around again and feeling progressively better.
My secret? Underachievement.
Coaches and drill sergeants taught me that the only way to live legitimately was to push things, starting with my own limits. My instructors at Wolfcreek Wilderness Institute taught me at 14 that no matter how bad things got, I could always take a little more. And then a little more. And so on.
So while I've never been much of an athlete, I was usually game to push on a bit more. And over the years, that attitude got me into a lot of trouble. Because the answer to every question isn't "More." Sometimes it needs to be "Enough."
I've lost 50 pounds since December, and since I limped into my doctor's office in January to complain about my feet, I've gone from hobbled to happy. I didn't do this by starving myself or pushing my exercise limits. I've done it slowly. And when I've felt like "being all that I could be" (as my drill sergeant used to put it), I've waited until that feeling passed.
On yesterday's run I thought I might double the length of my route, but when I got to the turn I thought the better of it. My body is getting healthier, but it's still a mess of torn ligaments and missing cartilage, ghost sprains and old hurts. It's like an old dog that enjoys the feeling of running in the park, not some young greyhound that's training for the track.
The need to achieve isn't a bad thing, but it's ego talking. My knees don't have an ego. By underachieving, day by day, mile by mile, I get a little better every week. And the healthier I get, the easier it seems for me to forgive myself for not being perfect.
When I left the newspaper business in a year ago, one of my goals was to see whether there was anything that could be done with The Key to Darbas, a novel I wrote in 2003. The book made it to the brink of publication in 2005 and wasn't out of options, but the experience of dealing with mainstream publishers and agents discouraged me.
Much has changed in the world since 2005, including the rise of social (networked) media, print-on-demand publishing, better e-book devices and public-spirited copyright reforms. So last fall I took my 2003 manuscript and rewrote it, then hired a friend to copy edit it, all with an eye toward an alternative means of publication.. But my attention turned to freelance gigs in early 2009, and the manuscript sat in a box for more than six months.
It was still sitting there in August when I decided to wrap up all my personal projects by the end of the month so I could go looking for more regular work in September. So over the past four weeks I:
On the one hand, The Key to Darbas is just a science-fiction/fantasy hybrid by an unpublished novelist (though not an unpublished writer). On the other, though, it's an experiment with an entirely new way of defining the relationship between writers and readers.
The crux of that relationship is a different approach to copyright. Under the traditional system, I would reserve all rights to the characters and situations I created in the novel, then sell some portion of those rights to a publisher. If the novel acquired fans, those fans could build an online community around the book, and perhaps even generate reference materials. But any hobbyist fan-fiction they produced would fall into a copyright gray area, and woe-betide the writer of a fan-fiction novel who tries to sell copies without the approval of (and payments to) the original novel's publisher (Sept. 4 update: and/or author)..
That's too bad, because as a genre, SF/F is different. A SF/F novel is a story that takes place in a unique world that extends beyond the plot. Many fans are devoted as much to what intrigues them about that world as they are to the story per se. They're curious its larger context. They want to know more about unanswered questions.
Before I wrote the first word of the novel, I wrote tens of thousands of words to help me imagine and understand the world in which my story would take place. At some point, Janet and I realized that I could have just as easily written interesting stories out of multiple other aspects of the world and its backstory.
So I thought, why waste all that?
Why not keep my story but give its world to the fans, and let THEM own it?
I didn't consider this in early 2005. I didn't know about Creative Commons then. Chris Anderson's Long Tail was still a new idea, and his Free: Why $0.00 Is The Future of Business was still three years in the future. Cory Doctorow hadn't yet boosted sales of Little Brother by offering it for free. In Rainbows hadn't been released. Wookieepedia hadn't been launched. Amazon hadn't yet acquired P.O.D. pioneer BookSurge. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. And so on. I didn't think of this idea then because the intellectual, legal, cultural and technical infrastructure necessary to support it didn't yet exist.
What remains to be done, then, is to figure out ways to connect these trends and tools and ideas into one system. I think the ultimate expression of this idea might look like this:
Why do this? Well, in the first place, it's good karma, and good karma is often good business. Plus, if a writer and his or her readers are literally partners, then everyone shares a mutual interest.
Think of it this way: Writing a book is easy compared to the task of finding readers. But if my book attracts a community of fans who are interested in the extended world I've created, then anyone else who chooses to write in that world automatically benefits from the readers I've already assembled.This means writers could self-publish in the Darbas world and make money without having to market their work, hire lawyers and agents, or sign over their rights to publishing companies.
In theory, at least, the majority of these people would want to read the original novels rather than just the descriptions of them on the free DarbasWiki. So even though I wouldn't be taking a cut of their sales, I'd still be profiting from their participation. And that's enough.
There are any number of problems with this model, the most obvious being the fact that my novel currently has only one fan (Janet) and it's possible that's all it will ever find. So how do you take an unknown novel and build a fan-base that could eventually become self-sustaining? I don't know yet. And I'll have to accomplish that task before I can afford to take on the challenge of crafting a legally valid community license.
But that's where this blog post and DarbasWeb and Twitter come in. Because I don't have to answer all those questions at once, and I might not have to answer all of them myself. If this book has an audience, I have to trust that I can find it. If community licensing has a future, I have to trust that we can construct it as a community.
So I'm proceeding with a few basic assumptions. That I'll be able to use networked media to build an organic audience for my free book. That people will donate enough cash to help me fund the first print-on-demand trade-paperback edition. That early returns from my first marketing campaign (called The Hundred Books... e-mail email@example.com for details) will generate enough cash for me to cover expenses and hire an intellectual property attorney to write the community license. I'm assuming that the growth of the community would provide me a financial base from which to write the final two books in my planned trilogy (and that I'll be able to work out the legal details of those rights within the community license).
To get anywhere, you have to know where you're headed. When I imagine the success of this project, I imagine myself with a trilogy on the shelves and a happy fan-base that is enjoying (and profiting) from the fruits of its labors. I imagine donating the legal language for a community license to Creative Commons (I've contacted them and they've expressed interest). I don't know if I'll ever write other stories out of the world I've begun, but if I do, I'll do so as just another fan under a community license. And I imagine that if any portion of these things comes true, then the world will be a little bit happier for it.
But today I start small.
And if you like my book, or these ideas, please let me know. And tell your friends. Because I know I'm not enough, by myself, to make any of this happen.
"Business model! Business model! All they care about is business model. I am excited about the way the Web is transforming society and all they care is how to save their jobs! I get it - they should care. The new media ecosystem can support a much smaller number of professional journalists than the old one... I don't have an interest in that aspect of the media business at all... I am interested in the ways new media channels are changing the world, not the parochial or individual insecurities of those whose world is changing. I am an interested observer of the revolution and saving the inevitable victims is not my job."
It's a good, short post, with Bora's routinely excellent comment section once again bubbling with interesting ideas.