News, media & communications

The Future of Twitter

According to Wired magazine, Twitter, the micro-blogging site, now has over 25 million users. This figure could expand to 100 million by the end of 2010. By the end of 2013 it could even have 1 billion users, which would effectively give anyone with access to Twitter a real-time pulse of global opinion. Or perhaps not. As regular readers will know I can’t stand Twitter. I would like Twitter to die and I think there’s a slight possibility it eventually might. My main argument against Twitter is that I don’t believe that anything of substance can be reduced to 140 characters or less (OK, you can send links but that's not much better). It is thus less the pulse of a planet and more the pulse of a particular psychographic (and, up to a point, a demographic). It is a giant echo chamber of popular culture and its success is emblematic of a modern paradox. We are more connected than ever before, but at the same time we are isolated like never before. Twitter is a reaction to digital isolation. It is users essentially saying to the outside world: “Hey, look over here, I exist.”

Nevertheless, Twitter is the world’s fastest growing communications medium and it’s interesting to speculate as to where it might go in the near-term. Despite my innate cynicism there are a few things that make Twitter very interesting to me. First, it is an open organization in the sense that its users have essentially defined what it is and how it works. In other words, it is users that have shaped and defined the business. Second, Twitter is open in the sense that software developers have been allowed in from the very beginning to create their own applications and services. The third thing about Twitter is simplicity. The original idea for Twitter was simply to create a way for anyone that opts in to send and receive short bursts of information. (the exact opposite of the old model where you find news – in this model news finds you). It is thus much closer to text messaging than blogging or message updates on social networking sites such as Myspace or Facebook. Keeping things simple has also meant resisting 'feature creep', a problem many technologically based products and services tend to suffer from. However, many of these sites are now starting to copy Twitter and this could very well lead to a commodification of such short bursts of information.

So what’s next? I suspect that Twitter will never make any serious money unless it’s acquired. By maybe that’s not the point. Why, after all, does it have to make any money? OK, there are investors looking for a return, but beyond that its very value lies in the fact that’s it’s free and is ‘owned’ by everyone. On this level I am a fan.

Ref: Wired (UK), 17 November 2009, ‘How will Twitter Grow up? By Steven Levey.
See also Time (US) 29 May 2009, ‘The Future of Twitter’,
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Twitter, Micro-blogging, open innovation
Trend tags: Connectivity, isolation

The New ‘Churnalism’ - Separating Fact from Fiction

Do you remember ‘Balloon boy’ - the story of a six year-old boy trapped inside a giant balloon that was drifting over the US back in October? The story was a total hoax. In fact it always looked like a hoax (how could the weight of a six-year-old boy allow such a tiny balloon to fly?). Nevertheless, the story occupied 16% of US cable news schedules on the week of 16 October and was ranked as the third biggest story of the week ahead of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is this empty balloon a metaphor for our times? It certainly seems like one. These days every view, idea or opinion is given equal weight and is able to rise to great heights regardless of logic or validity.

Attempts to hoodwink the media (and the public) are nothing new, but the emergence of the internet - and social media in particular - appears to be making things much easier for potential hoodwinkers. In the olden days (i.e. late last century) news was gathered by professional media organizations. These organisations had time and money on their side and stories were generally checked rigorously before they were published. It was a bit like science. It was all about proving things to be false. Not any more. A study by Columbia’s Journalism School claims that there was a 33% fall in US newsroom staffing levels since 1992 and this has directly affected the level of trust between readers and writers. Nowadays, media outlets (especially, but not exclusively, online channels) tend to publish first and check facts later – or they publish and let their readers filter things for them. The bias has thus shifted from getting things right to getting things first. As a result, hoaxers, and corporations with a particular point of view are having a much easier time getting biased messages across and the public are becoming increasingly confused and cynical.

George Orwell’s book 1984 was ahead of its time in many ways. He arguably got the date wrong, but some of his ‘predictions’ are remarkably prescient nevertheless. One of the key features of 1984 was the way that the government used constant repetition and 24/7 media to invert reality. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but ubiquitous connectivity, screens everywhere and 24/7 news channels hungry for content has, in a way, created a similarly dystopian future. In short, the traditional filters have been dismantled and anyone is free to publish whatever they want 24/7. But the result is a state of constant confusion where we no longer know whom to trust. A world where fake information is increasingly easy to create and to circulate. As Lawrence Krauss says: “The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling.” And therein lies an essential truth about journalism. Done right journalism (and media) is immensely powerful because it does not seek power. It seeks truth and aims to tell stories that uncover essential facts about the human condition.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 24 October 2009, “Hoaxes leave media struggling to separate fact from fiction’, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. See also Scientific American (US) December 2009, “War is Peace’ by Lawrence Krauss, and The Atlantic (US) October 2009, ‘The Story Behind the news’ by Mark Bowden.
See also Flat Earth News by Nick Davies
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Truth, hoaxes, media, journalism
Trend tags: Connectivity, Too Much Information, TMI

The future of music

According to music producer-turned academic Sandy Pearlman, in the future we will be able to walk around with tiny chips containing every song ever recorded. Maybe. But if that’s true explain to me the recent vinyl revival – what’s all that about? Vinyl records are supposed to be dead. Surely vinyl was fatally wounded by CDs and digital downloads have just finished it off? Wrong. Vinyl records (and record shops) are doing quite nicely thank you in many parts of the world. In the future it's quite likely that the recorded music market will be split between downloads and vinyl, with CDs being the extinct technology. How come?

The answer is that people want things they can touch. The pleasure is in the object. The more that things become digitalised and virtual, the more, I believe, people will crave the ownership of something physical. Moreover, vinyl records are more 'touchy feely' than CDs. They are also fetishistic. Vinyl is also the most authentic form of fandom because of its very inconvenience and its current lack of availability. In other words, it's about the total sensory experience, not just the music. Moreover, Pearlman’s paradise of infinite storage could prove to be something of a Faustian bargain. In a quest to compress songs to take up less memory space, sound quality is being degraded. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. But I suspect that it will.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 8/9 August 2009, ‘The vinyl countdown’ by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, See also Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 6 October 2009, ‘In a digital age, there is still romance in music stores’ by Bernard Zuel See also The Long-Player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again by Travis Elborough and Appetite for Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Music, recorded music, digitalisation
Trend tags: Digitalisation, connectivity

Predicting the death of the printed word

When the world’s first interactive CD ROM was launched way back in 1992, Peter Kindersley, the founder of Dorling Kindersely, famously quipped that “The book is dead.” He was clearly wrong. Seventeen years later, books still exist, but for how much longer?

According to some sources, Amazon has now sold close to 1 million Kindles – the e-reading device. Other sources suggest that the Kindle could generate revenues of $1.2 billion per year for Amazon by 2010. Meanwhile, according to Forrester Research, sales of e-readers will top 13 million by the year 2013 and this figure could rise considerably if college textbooks migrate to digital formats. We’ve also got Apple’s Tablet – a cross between an Apple iPhone and a small Apple laptop- in the wings. If one was in a predictive frame of mind (which I usually am) one could speculate that this device will come with e-reader functionality linked to an iBooks store built along lines similar to iTunes. A world transformed? Possibly. Attention spans are certainly declining and there is commercial pressure to create content (I hate that word) that is accessible on digital devices anytime anywhere. But let’s not also forget that the printed book is one of the greatest technological inventions of all time.

What I suspect will happen next is that there will be a flurry of new digital devices launched. Most will fail, but a few will survive and one or two will eventually dominate the market. There will then be a plethora of research studies comparing reading on screen to reading on paper. The conclusions will be inconclusive. but most people will agree that the two types of reading are different. We will get better at reading on screens (i.e. we will strike a better balance between focal and peripheral attention), but we will continue to read certain kinds of information on paper. News and business information will continue to migrate to digital formats and digital readers. So too will information related to education. The reason for this will be that these types of information (content) are either time sensitive or people are looking for very specific things. However, information that requires reflection and imagination (everything from novels to news analysis and new ideas) will largely stay on paper.

Ref: New York Times (US), 14 October 2009, ‘Does the brain like e-books?’ by Mario Tama. See also Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 7-8 November 2009, ‘Short and sweet’ by Gerard Wright, (US) ‘Going Digital: The Future of College Textbooks’, The Economist (UK) 5 September 2009, ‘Tome Raider’, and The Australian (Aus) 2 November 2009, ‘Visionary got it wrong on books’, by Damon Hurst
Source integrity: Various
Search words: e-books, Kindle, amazon, reading, screens
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Rupert Murdoch and the Future of News

The biggest story for newspapers during 209 was possibly the ongoing cynicism surrounding the future of the industry, especially in the US. But this story neglects one simple fact, which is that some newspapers are doing very nicely thank you.

Sales of the FT are up from 426,000 in 2005 to 450,000 today and now has 6.6 million users (up from 4.4m in 2006). Meanwhile, the Economist (OK, not exactly a newspaper) has seen its circulation rise by 6% globally to 1.41 million copies per week. The Wall Street Journal is also up, as is The Australian to name but a few. All these rises could be explained by a thirst for serious news and analysis during the financial crisis but I think that’s only part of it. Metro isn’t a particularly serious newspaper but it is now the world’s largest. It is read by over 17 million people most days. Admittedly, these people don’t pay a cent for the paper but I hardly think this matters. It’s just a different business model. It’s just a modern re-framing of where newspapers came from in the first place.

The latest instalment of the future of newspaper debate is free versus paid. Will people pay money for something they’ve been getting for free for a while? More specifically, will a generation of ‘digital natives’ ever be persuaded to pay for something that has been free for as long as they can remember? The answer, I think, depends. One million plus subscribers already pay for access to the Wall Street Journal online, so there are clearly people out there that will pay for information if it has value and cannot be easily obtained elsewhere. Whether this principle extends to hyper-local information is currently uncertain, but the more I think about this issue the more I am convinced that the internet isn’t really the key issue. For me the issue is corporate strategy followed by content (i.e. editorial strategy) news curation and trust. Most media companies lack a cohesive vision of what they are or what they wish to become. They spread their strategy and investment over every conceivable opportunity with the result that they are focussed on next to nothing.

An article by Jonathan Knee and others in a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine makes this point better than I am able. In the article, Knee et al put forward the idea that what the internet has done to newspapers ignores the fact that the sector’s dismal commercial performance (in the US at least) pre-dates the digital era. For example, since the year 2000, the biggest media companies have collectively written off in excess of US$200 billion in assets, largely because of overpriced and misjudged acquisitions. For instance, in May of this year Time Warner said that it planned to spin off its AOL division that it acquired in 2000. Time Warner paid USD $175 billion for AOL nine years ago and its value is now barely 1% of that. An obsession with growth and global expansion looks like one major mistake in a world where people are increasingly interested in local content.

Another big mistake could be content in the sense that most of the value from unique content flows to the creator. Personally I’d disagree with this, but I would accept that it is not the content per se that matters but the way in which content is integrated and delivered. It is probably no accident that one of the most valuable media companies in the world today (Google) is a content aggregator rather than a content creator.

One final thought. The internet is an issue to newspapers in the sense that it removes barriers of entry. However, there could be a silver lining here too. As content becomes infinite there is a growing need for trusted sources. In what is, for practical purposes, an infinite information universe, the most valuable thing to readers is news curation – someone deciding, on their behalf, what’s important and what’s not. To some extent this can be done automatically by search technology, RSS feeds, Google alerts and user filtering but until there’s a step change in how these things work in practice it is trusted brands and editors that do this best.

Ref: The Australian (Aus) 26 October 2009, ‘New ad revenues brace ‘old’ media’ by Jane Shulze and The Atlantic (US) October 2009, ‘The Moguls’ New Clothes’ by Jonathan Knee, Bruce Greenwald and Ava Seave.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Newspapers, news, editing, curation, trust, internet
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