News, media & communications

A Flight to Quality

In serious times individuals have two options. The first option is to bury one’s head in the sand and go somewhere else (everything from escapist movies and virtual worlds to Zoo magazine). The second route to find out what’s going on. Serious newspapers and magazines such as the Financial Times and The Economist are seeing increases in circulation (eg, the Economist is up 6% in the UK and now has a global readership in excess of 1.3 million). Other serious news and analysis titles such as The Spectator, Prospect, The Weekly Standard, Harper’s, The Atlantic and The Monthly, are also doing well. This trend is primarily evident within newspapers and magazines but the same affect can be seen with non-fiction books. On the other side of the coin, frivolous titles are losing circulation. In the UK Zoo magazine was down 13.6% in the last round of ABC figures, Nuts magazine fell by 9.8%, FHM magazine was down by 10%, Heat magazine fell by almost 16% and Closer magazine dropped by 7.5%.

None of this is to suggest that celebrities or the vacuous end of publishing are in irreversible decline but it may indicate that when times get tough people don’t spend money on silly things or that people develop a thirst for serious commentary.
What it also proves, I suspect, is that while there is undoubtedly a large market for information and entertainment that is dumbed down and served in small bite-sized chunks, there is also a large market for the analysis of complex issues and ideas.

This interest in serious material doesn’t just mean newspapers, books and magazines either. This market also comprises public lectures, theatre and documentaries. Another crucial point is that media owners used to think in terms of bifurcation between low and high culture, but these days an increasing number of people seem to be happy flipping from one to the other and then back again. However, the key point remains that the reason for this shift to quality and seriousness is that the world has changed. There are a number of very big issues out there, ranging from climate change to globalisation, and the world is a much more confusing and uncertain place. This fact alone should drive sales of serious media for a long time to come.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 22 September 2008, ‘The new seriousness’, J. Harris.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Media, quality, seriousness
Trend tags: Meaning

Ambient Intimacy (Part 1)

Back in 2006, Mark Zuckerberg decided to change the way that Facebook functioned. He added a feature called News Feed that broadcast any changes to a user’s page to the network of that person’s friends. The result was a revolt, either because people wanted to keep certain things private or because they didn’t want banal daily updates on the minutiae of other people’s lives. However, on reflection Zuckerberg was onto something. As he put it: ‘A lot of this is just social norms catching up with technology’. Once experienced, omnipresent information can be come strangely fascinating, at least to anyone over the age of 30. Why? Scientists have called this phenomenon ‘ambient awareness’ or ‘ambient intimacy’. This is similar to how a person can pick up a person’s mood and feelings by being close to them and decoding small signs. Twitter, the micro-blogging site, is doing much the same thing.

Some people can’t stand Twitter. It seems to be narcissism taken to a whole new level aided and abetted by technology. Personally, I simply don’t want to know where everyone is or what everyone is doing or thinking all of the time. But then I’m older than 30 and value isolation and privacy above almost everything else. However, it is apparent that this constant flow of information does allow people to get a sense of other peoples’ lives. These small bits of information, mundane and senseless on their own, eventually build into a kind of narrative. The prominent Japanese sociologist Mizuko Ito once noticed something similar with mobile phones. Lovers separated by distance were sending text updates of what they were doing and the resultant picture was quite intimate. They are both aggregate phenomena. Social observers have long argued that the Internet is an isolating technology but perhaps it will turn out to be the very opposite. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are a reaction to social isolation.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 7 September 2008, ‘Brave new world of digital intimacy’, C. Thompson.
See also Technology Review (US), July/August 2008, ‘Curating yourself online’,
E. Dyson, Boston Globe (US), 5 May 2008, ‘Identity crisis’, C. Johnson. New York Times (US), 30 November 2008, ‘You’re leaving a digital trail. What about privacy?’, J. Markoff,
Source integrity: Various
Search words:Intimacy, connectivity
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Ambient Intimacy (Part 2)

Another interesting facet of sites like Twitter is that they are perfectly in tune with our digital age. They are skimmable and people can upload or download the content of such sites while doing something else. However, the development of online personas leads to a number of intriguing questions: For example, what kind of relationships are these and what does it mean to have 300+ ‘friends’?

What is happening here is that technology is enabling people to maintain contact with ‘weak ties’. This is a positive development because these weak networks can help you to solve problems. For instance, if you tell six close friends that you are looking for a job they might not be able to help you. But if you expand the question to your larger social network chances are that someone can. But there are downsides. If people spend too much time collecting digital friends this must surely mean that they have less time available to visit them in person. In other words, many of these relationships are tissue fragile.

Another issue is curating your identity online. Traditionally, individuals could experiment with an identity but nowadays people are constantly checking up on people. Moreover, if you make a mistake or do something silly it’s now very difficult to erase. Furthermore, even if you choose to drop out of these networks this doesn’t mean that you disappear. People will still be posting images and comments about you, which is precisely why most people choose to stay and manage what’s going on.
As one person says: ‘If you don’t dive in, other people will define you.’

But what are the ultimate consequences of a world where everyone is constantly connected? What happens if you never lose touch with the people you went to school with when you were five? However, perhaps privacy is only an historical anomaly. In ancient times people lived in villages and everyone knew everything about everyone. There were no secrets. Perhaps we have simply moved back to this village. Anyway, what’s wrong with asking yourself ‘What am I doing?’ all of the time? Maybe people will benefit from examining their lives more closely. ‘Know they self’– as they used to say in ancient Greece.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 7 September 2008, ‘Brave new world of digital intimacy’, C. Thompson.
See also Technology Review (US) July/August 2008, ‘Curating yourself online’,
E. Dyson, Boston Globe (US), 5 May 2008 Identity crisis’, C. Johnson, New York Times (US), 30 November 2008, ‘You’re leaving a digital trail. What about privacy?’, J. Markoff
Source integrity: Various
Search words:Intimacy, connectivity
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Delivering the Newspapers of the Future

According to Lord Northcliffe, the 20th century English newspaper pioneer, ‘News is what somebody, somewhere, wants suppressed. All the rest is advertising’. Unfortunately for the newspaper industry there isn’t that much ‘news’ left in most newspapers these days and the advertising is drying up too. The problem, of course, is the Internet. The cost of moving content from one place to another is now almost zero: news has become homogenised and people expect it to be (mostly) free. Moreover, the industry has experienced a once in a lifetime ‘perfect storm’ because newspapers have simultaneously lost touch with their audiences and failed to innovate. Newspapers have become overly focused on lifestyle and celebrity ‘news’ (much of it PR driven) and even journalists themselves have become obsessed with being famous (just look at the trend for headshots as by-lines). The result is a general shift away from the consumption of hard news and a variety of business models that are outdated because they rely too heavily on classified and display advertising (the former has disappeared and the latter is potentially compromised by the fact that newspapers shy away from biting the hand that feeds it, or from potentially litigious stories).

Another alarming development is that accuracy and precision about sources is going out of the window. In the golden days newspapers would (usually) check a serious story before it went to print. These days it’s the other way around. Online it’s the audience that is increasingly expected to filter information and verify authenticity. This is a very worrying development for an industry that used to rely on being a trusted intermediary that would bring wrong-doers in high places to account.

Moreover, citizen journalism is failing to deliver in the larger sense. Yes bloggers can react to individual events but, with the exception of a handful of papers like OhMyNews in Korea, nobody has come close to turning citizen journalism into a
day-to-day practice. So where does this leave the industry and who is going to deliver tomorrow’s papers?

The answer is probably that newspapers will become less reliant on breaking news. Traditionally newspapers have seen themselves as providing a timeline of events but the speed of the Internet makes this ambition redundant. Surely a better idea would be to focus on informed commentary and to provide information and analysis that cannot be found anywhere else? The result, I suspect, will be twofold. First, physical newspapers will focus on niche audiences (either local of global) and will cover their costs through a mixture of increased cover prices and philanthropy. The second route will be a kind of hybrid between the real and the virtual. Online coverage of the latest news during the week using mobile formats and video and a physical format at weekends when people have more time.
Ref: Various including: Financial Times (UK), 11 October 2008, ‘Why journalism wins my vote’, L. Barber. Financial Times (UK), 15-15 15-16? November 2008, We can be heroes …’, J. Lloyd. The Australian (Aus), 15 December 2008, ‘News must adapt in hard times’, P. Meakin. The Australian (Aus), 11 September 2008, ‘Sackings could kill papers, expert warns’, S. Elks. See also Supermedia by Charlie Beckett, Can You Trust The Media by Adrian Monck and UK Confidential edited by Charlie Edwards and Catherine Fieschi (Demos).
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Newspapers, journalism, internet
Trend tags: -

The Future of the Web

Buried deep inside a dull article about why social networking is not a business – but it might be soon – I found a Q&A session on the future of the web conducted by a handful of technology innovators and luminaries. Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the web) foresees more people accessing the web via small, fixed and mobile devices. He also predicts more voice-activated technology for use in hands-busy scenarios such as driving and a mash-up fest feasting on the wealth of semantic web data.

Vint Cerf (VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google) sees higher-speed access by fibre and wireless media and expects 70% of all mobiles to be Internet-enabled within a decade. He also sees many more products and appliances (both at home and on a person) to be online and says that devices will discover each other locally and will interact in a peer-to-peer fashion.

On a more downbeat note, Richard Stallman (the main developer of GNU/Linux and the founder of the free software movement) foresees a world where personal data and web activity is sucked up by corporations before being passed on to governments, presumably for ‘security’ reasons. Finally, Bjarne Stroust-Rup (Professor at Texas A&M University and the designer of C++) predicts the total end of privacy.
Ref: Technology Review (US), July/August 2008, ‘The Future of Web 2.0: Q&A, The Future of the Web’.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Internet
Trend tags: -