News, media & communications

Social networks and the end of life as we know it.

A new book by Andrew Keen called ‘The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy’ accuses bloggers of ‘digital narcissism’ and raises a number of questions about the desirability of so-called ‘citizen journalists’ and other online communities such as MySpace and Wikipedia. Keen’s argument is that these communities gather to confirm their own prejudices and that bloggers rarely write about anything other than themselves or blogging – doing little or nothing to further knowledge. In fact, they may be damaging society because the sheer number of sources now makes it next to impossible to gain a clear picture of what’s going on. ‘Facts’ and ‘expertise’ become confused and mainstream news sources are driven to the wall because parasitic bloggers constantly steal their content. There are now 70 million + blogs but in reality both ‘talent’ and readers are taken from a very small pool. Blogging is a self-referential activity where the only people reading most blogs are the people writing them.Moreover, large sites such as YouTube, which position themselves as showcases of amateur talent, are often nothing of the sort. Corporate interests are invading – dressing up advertising to look like user-generated content. Furthermore, quantity is not any indication of quality. The most meaningful communities have always been small in size and take time and effort to create and maintain. is a good example of an online community. It is also potentially evidence of the shift to a visual culture where nobody has any time and everyone wants to be constantly connected. But it’s not necessarily progress. The most popular terms used on Twitter for instance, are ‘Twitter’, ‘Going’ and ‘Lunch’. Keen goes on to argue that the historical distinction between creator and audience was good because it ensured a certain level of quality. Another example of this infinite cacophony is Wikipedia, which is making it impossible to discern the quality of information. The absence of professional editors means that quality control is wholly at the mercy of the wisdom of crowds, which can means that Pamela Anderson can appear to be more important that Emily Pankhurst. This isn’t to say that social networks, blogging or Wikipedia are all bad – far from it – but we should retain a modicum of perspective and not make the mistake of equating what some people are doing now with what all of us will be doing in the future.
Ref: The Observer (UK) 29 April 2007, ‘Enough: The Briton who is challenging the web’s “endless cacophony”’, D. Smith. ,The Guardian Weekly (UK) 22 June 2006, ‘My Space or my place? There’s no contest’, Z. Williams., Financial Times (Asia) 10 April 2007, ‘Internet trends: Micro-bloggers of the world keep it short’, C. Nutall.
Search words: social networks, wisdom of crowds, web 2.0, Internet, blogging.
Source integrity: various.

Data aggregation and the true worth of information

You might have heard of Google – the search site that can also find out where you are and what you’re interested in and then aggregate and sell this information to advertisers (sorry, I’m in that kind of mood). As we all know one of the great things about the Internet is its ability to connect people. This is a very good thing. It’s also not a bad thing that companies can make money out of knowing where we are or what we want. However, there is an argument that says that this information is very valuable and ultimately belongs to ‘us’ not ‘them’. Moreover, it is our decision whether or not such information is sold or otherwise traded. This is essentially the argument put forward by Seth Goldstein (as opposed to Seth Godin) who says that we should capture our own click trails and online profiles and then store them in secure online vaults where Google and other corporations should be forced to pay if they want to see them.Such behaviour would allow groups with similar interests to organise themselves and make money from people who want to communicate with them. Goldstein has recently set up a venture called the Attention Trust to do just this and a host of other start-ups have started to do the same. Gesture Bank is a US-based firm that allows users to pool their behavioural data and then take a cut of any revenue that is subsequently generated from this information. So what’s next? One scenario is that advertisers will be charged for sending promotional messages such as ads or emails and recipients will take a slice of the revenue. For example, the sending of promotional emails could be priced, thus reducing the amount of Spam sent and simultaneously allowing advertisers to communicate only with those who have decided to opt into a conversation with them.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 10 March 2007, ‘Working the crowd’,
Search words: Google, information, Spam, advertising, data, privacy.
Source integrity: *****
Links: Longtails

Paris Hilton and the end of privacy

The term ‘generational congestion’ has been coined to describe the fact that parents and children are increasingly wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music and doing the same things. Indeed, it’s been at least a quarter of a century (punk circa 1976) or half a century (rock ‘n’ roll circa 1950s) since there was anything remotely resembling a genuine generation gap or cultural clash. But this could be changing.In the olden days (sometime last century) the joke was that parents knew exactly where their kids were and didn’t like it one little bit. But nowadays parents haven’t even got the slightest idea where their kids are or what they’re doing. For example, how many parents really know what goes on in Cyworld or Second Life? Today’s younger generations (Generation Y possibly and Generation i certainly) are different from previous generations on a number of levels. First, they have grown up with technology that’s fast and changes all the time, so they have zero attention spans. They flit from one thing to another and live an increasing proportion of their lives on screen and online. However, the real shift surrounds attitudes and behaviours relating to privacy, which perhaps dates from 2004 when Paris Hilton blurred the historical distinction of exposing herself and being exposed. In other words, the emerging generation has a profoundly different opinion about privacy and is happy to share virtually everything online. This has made some observers throw their hands up in horror and cry that the young people these days have no sense of shame. However, this argument possibly misses the point. All our lives are now online whether we like it or not. We already have street cameras capturing our journeys to work and credit card payments recording what we buy or where we’ve been. So, yes, the Internet is a gigantic social experiment and we have no idea where it will all end up, but perhaps younger people are simply the first to realise that, technologically-speaking, privacy is dead already.
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 24-25 March 2007, ‘Kids, The Internet and the End of Privacy’, F. Nussbaum.
Search words: Internet, privacy, data, generation gap
Source integrity: ***

Anarchy 2.0?

In 1993 the New Yorker published a cartoon featuring two dogs, one of which was sitting at a computer talking to another dog that was lying on the floor. The caption read: ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’. This, according to Jonathan Freeland, is the danger lurking behind Web 2.0. Web 1.0 is dead. Web 1.0 was the land of dial-up access and overnight business plans, most of which made Pamela Anderson sound smart. Now there’s Web 2.0, which is supposed to be really smart because it’s based on user interactivity, co-operation and co-created content. According to some commentators, Web 2.0 sites like YouTube and MySpace are dangerous because they create illusory truths and dangerously high levels of self-esteem among their teenage adherents. However, the real problem, according to Freeland, is that people can conceal their identity on these sites. In the case of sites like Wikipedia this gives individuals power without responsibility and we should all be very worried indeed about where this may end up. The upside of Web 2.0 is that institutions like media and government are becoming democratised. What used to be the domain of the few is now the domain of the many, but this libertarian argument is meaningless. The fact is that we need wise experts and wise need rulers and simplistic populism gets us nowhere.Or, as the commentator Bryan Appleyard more eloquently puts it, ‘cultural continuity depends on arbitrary authority … there is no absolute justification for teaching children Shakespeare’. The idea that anonymous crowds have wisdom is one thing. Given a million guesses a crowd can accurately estimate the weight of an ox or the number of jellybeans in a jar. However, the crowd cannot make the ox weigh a certain amount and nor can it invent a measuring system or scales to weigh it. Furthermore, as any psychologist will tell you, anonymity is dangerous for other reasons too. The more disconnected people are from other people are the more they will lack empathy. If you live in a small village you will tend not to be rude or harm other villagers, either because you know them or fear that you may be found out. But in a global village this fear subsides. Moreover, western knowledge and wisdom tends to be based on identity and location – you know who is behind an idea and where they are coming from so to speak.So if identity is removed, ideas cannot be properly tested and truth and judgement are suspended indefinitely.
Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 4 June 2007, ‘As the Internet evolves, the backlash begins’.
B. Appleyard.
Search words: web 2.0, identity, knowledge, anonymity, wisdom of crowds.
Source integrity: *****

The Future of Music

First the bad news. In 1999 total music sales in the US were US$14.6 billion (GBP 7.3 billion/Euro 10.7 billion). Last year they were $11.5 billion. Worldwide, CD sales have dropped 23% (by value) since 2002 and the music industry’s assets, distribution channels and talent-spotting model (R&D if you like) are all in freefall. Now the good news. Apple has sold over 2 billion music tracks since it opened its iTunes music store, digital music sales rose by 100% to $2 billion in 2006, music singles enjoyed their best ever year in the UK last year and in the US the classical music genre grew by 26%. In other words, if you think things are bad they are only going to get worse, but if you see the future as a place of endless opportunity things are looking very promising indeed with 25% of all music sales globally predicted to be digital by 2010. The problem, in a nutshell, is that many people in the music industry are still clinging to an outdated business model where control of physical objects is the name of the game. However, if you define music more broadly then whole new industries open up. For example, there’s the ringtones market, the ringbacktones market (currently 3% of all digital music sales), video game soundtracks, IPTV and the plethora of tickets, fashion and other merchandising opportunities that surround bands. In contrast to CDs, digital music can be sold across multiple platforms and social networks like also allow music companies to precisely target products to particular groups of individuals. Ad-supported music models like Qtrax are also gaining traction and a plethora of new music distribution channels like coffee shops are opening up. For example, Starbucks has now created it’s own music label and has signed Paul McCartney as it’s first artist. Of course, whether Starbucks 45 million customers (who were forced to listen to the new album in store in its first week of release) consider this a good idea or not remains to be seen, but the future certainly belongs to those embracing new channels and formats.
Ref: The Business (UK) 28 April 2007, ‘The Future of Music: You say you want a revolution’, J. Ashworth.
Search words: music, Internet, music industry, digital
Source integrity: ***

A paradox of digital media

It’s a weird and wonderful wired world out there. You’d think, for instance, that the chances of a physical magazine about craft being successfully launched in the US would be slightly lower than the chance of Lindsay Lohan becoming a shy retiring housewife in Alaska. But anything is possible these days. Make magazine is a ‘how to’ magazine and website that was launched in 2005. The publication is devoted to making things with your hands. It is also about how to hack technology and combine low-tech and no-tech with high-tech. Early stories included a feature on knitting while the last issue featured an item on recycling plastic bags into fabric and another on DIY coffee roasting. So why is it successful and what on earth is going on? The answer, in my opinion, is twofold. First, the Internet has allowed people with weird and wonderful interests to find each other. Hence hobbies which everyone thought had died out years ago are now enjoying something of a renaissance as individuals and small groups all over the world find it easier to not only talk to each other but also to buy and sell to each other too. Second, as life becomes faster, more disconnected and more virtual, people are longing for the old ways. People want to engage in physical activity and create something useful and meaningful, especially if the rest of their lives are dominated by the insubstantial, the intangible, the insurmountable and the impermanent.
Ref: The Times (UK) 28 April 2007, ‘Microtrends: Making stuff’, T. Whitwell.
Search words: magazines, craft, Make magazine
Source integrity: *****