News, media & communications

Bad reviews or no reviews

Reviews by everyone are an essential component of Web 2.0 and a vital mechanism to the likes of Amazon and eBay. Problems with negativity online are well documented, but it now appears that outright lying is another serious issue. Both, interestingly, are connected with online anonymity.

Bing Liu, a data-mining specialist at the University of Chicago (Illinois), says that 60% of the reviews on Amazon are 5 stars and an additional 20% are 4 stars. He also estimates that around a third of all customer-generated reviews on the internet are fake. Technically, any review involving a financial relationship must be made clear according to US Federal Trade Commission guidelines, but these guidelines are not strictly enforced.

For example, a company called, which existed from 2010-2011, commissioned online reviews, especially for self-published e-books. It published around 30,000 reviews in 2011. For US$99 the company would commission a book review or a bundle of 50 online book reviews for $499. But as the founder of the site has explained, the purpose of the review was more to highlight the existence of a book and explain its content in a positive manner than to write a critical review.

The company went out of business in 2011 because Google suspended its ad account and Amazon started taking down some of its reviews. Yet another example, perhaps, of a growing need for web-based services to provide critical and independent information about who someone is, and attempt to catalogue and index that most elusive of qualities: reputation.

Ref: New York Times (US), 25 August 2012, ‘The best book reviews that money can buy’ by D. Streitfeld.
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Search words: Trust, reviews, and anonymity
Trend tags: Trust, reputation.

Magazines get smarter

Not so long ago we were told, largely by people working in the media, that print media, especially newspapers, were dead. The trouble with this prediction was that the focus was very much on the US newspaper industry, which was labouring under high levels of debt and a host of other problems even before we turned the Internet on.

Western forecasts of doom and gloom largely ignored - and still ignore - emerging markets and magazines were somehow exempt from commentary. But now the dust has settled print media seem to be splitting into a number of different models, some more commercially viable than others.

The first category is hard news. News has, as people predicted, become constant, commoditised and increasingly cheap. It also suits a mobile model and, while it can be expensive to produce, it is very difficult to persuade people to pay for news unless you have a vast audience or a niche where news can make people money, eg, stock market movements.

Analysis of the news is somewhat different though. It still seems to be possible to make money out of filtering what’s important and what’s not and intelligently analysing what’s happening, especially when the analysis appears in paper form at weekends when people have more time on their hands to read and think. This is familiar newspaper territory, but it can also suit other formats and channels.

Magazines have always been a slightly different story. It’s interesting to note, for instance, that in the US more magazines were launched in 2011 than were closed and it was much the same in 2010. How come?

The answer is most magazines do not rely on classified advertising to fund their model. They have a much longer shelf life and have two good incomes streams: cover price/paid subscriptions and display advertising. This last stream is important because, despite the impact of tablet computers, the overall quality and impact of glossy colour ads in a magazine is still far greater than that on a screen.

People who read magazines on paper have a different mindset to screen readers too. Paper tends to be slower and more absorbing, which suits advertisers with aspirational products just fine. Thus it is still possible to build brands on paper, especially luxury brands, while digital tends to be dominated by cheap tactical activity.

Moreover, because magazines tend to target interest groups passionately interested in a particular subject, it’s relatively easy to sell them other things related to their interest. This could include travel experiences, days out, books and events to TV shows, radio channels, products or services, all of which can add up to multiple income streams.

Monocle magazine might be a good example of such thinking (print magazine, website, radio channel, shops, products). See also Landlust in Germany (1 million print-only subscribers after just 7 years) and XXI in France, which is a quarterly long form of reportage and commentary that carries no ads and is only available in bookshops.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 9 June 2012, ‘Non-news good news’
See also The Observer Review (UK) 15 April 2012, ‘It’s hard top feel a bond with an iPad’ by T. Lamont’ www.
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Search words: Newspapers, screens, print, magazines
Trend tags: Paper

Screens everywhere

The opening sequence of the movie Children of Men (2006) featured a bus covered with posters that moved. This already looked dated. The new Burberry flagship store (see retail section, this issue) features giant screens, many of which can interact with individual products. The future, it seems, is full of screens and if you think that your last TV purchase was large you probably haven’t seen anything yet.

For example, ‘Tileable’ is ‘wallpaper’ that can be used to create giant wall-sized interactive TV or computer screens in your own home or elsewhere. Furthermore, the technology allows users to build screens out to the side so peripheral vision is enlisted to create an even more lifelike experience. Add to this 3D screens, aroma-pods that pump out the smell of things such as gun smoke, gesture-based controls (think Microsoft Kinect) and perhaps haptic clothing that allows the user to ‘feel’ things that don’t really exist.

We could be on the verge of very good – or perhaps very bad – full immersion virtual realities. Interestingly, the way peripheral vision works means there isn’t a requirement to show visual detail off to each side, but if you can suggest movement then this will add to the overall lifelike thrill.

There is a good argument to suggest screens will be relatively cheap, although whether the world will have enough power to operate them is another matter (Answer: probably OK). Unlike most current TV display screens Organic Light Emitting Diode displays (OLEDs) bleed right up to the edge of each panel whereas existing panels require side lighting. This means screens can join together seamlessly and, in theory, you can have screens any size you want as long as there is something to attach them to.

A prototype panel using OLED has been made measuring 3.6 metres by 1.4 metres and, when the panels are not operating, they can display ambient images, like wallpaper or a brick wall, to hide themselves away. Of course, critical to the success of this and other screen technologies is how much immersion viewers actually want. If a family is watching a movie then more screen size and effects might be best, but with a Skype call, less might still be more.

Re: New Scientist (UK), 19 May 2012, ‘The small screen is about to grow up’ by P. Marks.
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Search words: Screens, TV
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Are books back?

Back in August 2010, British publishers and booksellers were worried. Amazon had just launched the Kindle in the UK and people assumed the physical book and traditional publishing model, were on the way out. Books, it seemed at the time, would go the same way as music and photography. The data soon confirmed what most people in the industry feared, with e-book sales soaring 366% in 2011 alone. So what happened to sales of e-readers in the 10 months to October 2012? The answer is a rise of just 16%. In the week before Christmas 2012, sales of printed books went up, reaching a volume last seen in 2009.

It’s a similar story in the US, which is usually seen as a year or so ahead of the UK in terms of e-book uptake. In December 2012 30% of PEW survey respondents said they had read an e-book in the last 12 months compared to 89% who had read a book on paper. Of Americans using an e-reader, 90% still read physical books.

Final figures for the end of 2012 still aren’t in, but e-reader sales in the US will probably show a decline of 36% for the full year, while sales in the UK will be flat. Meanwhile, a study conducted by Bowker Market Research found that 59% of Americans had no interest whatsoever in buying an e-reader.

What on earth is going on here? It’s still too early to say. Some people say people are getting frustrated, especially with the fact that e-readers break. Yes, you can take them on holiday, but they don’t mix well with sea and sand. They don’t mix so well with friends either, as they’re reasonably expensive and you might not get them back if you lend them out. They don’t age well or smell nice either. Screen reading, it seems, also suits low-value, disposable information and light entertainment. In other words, the kind of words found in paperbacks sold in supermarkets or airports.

This all makes sense, but many of the early adopters of e-readers are now bored and migrating to the iPad, Kindle Fire and other more interactive mobile devices. Sales of e-readers are, in a sense, irrelevant. There are still clearly usability issues too, such as the fact that most e-readers can only be read in one direction (yes, there are bookmarks, but they don't work that well). This may change, but a bigger issue is perhaps what you remember.

Recent research by Kate Garland, a psychologist at the University of Leicester, says people are more likely to remember things if they read them on paper than on a screen. If this proves true, it would undoubtedly be a bigger issue in the longer term (alongside psychological issues perhaps) than any technical matters, which can be solved eventually.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 13 January 2013, Chapter 2: The book bounces back’ by R. Collins.
See also Wall Street Journal (US) 5-6 January 2013, ‘Don’t burn your books, print is here to stay’ by N. Carr.
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Search words: Books, e-readers, ebooks
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Are books dead?

Here’s an alternative view to the one above. According to an article in the FT, e-reading is a rapidly expanding hot topic. Since Amazon launched its Kindle in the US in 2007, millions of units have been sold. Some buyers have wanted to save weight and bulk while others prefer the instantaneous delight of hearing about a particular book one minute and downloading it minutes later. And some people, of course, just like the added choice of reading a number of e-books, often self-published, that are unavailable in any other format.

Whatever the reason, the pace of change has been giddy to date. According to PWC, e-book sales will grow by 42% to $2.5 billion in the US in 2012 - 11% of the US consumer books market. In Europe, which generally lags behind the US in e-reader adoption, PWC estimates growth at 113% in 2012, but this will be less than 2% of the total book market.

If this isn’t enough turmoil, Microsoft last year jumped into bed with Barnes & Noble in the US to develop the Nook e-reader that squarely sets Microsoft against Amazon, along with Apple with its ever expanding range of iPads. So what are we to make of all this?

First, there seems to be a wide discrepancy in figures and especially in what constitutes an e-reader. Second, it does look reasonably certain that the book as we used to know it is far from dead. Clearly Amazon, which has control over every aspect of publishing from the author to the reader, is still a headache for physical bookstores, but possibly only for the big chains and retailers of new and popular books.

Small bookstores, which know and serve a local demographic well and secondhand bookstores that celebrate stumbling across the unexpected (people and books) should continue to do well.

Interestingly, according to PEW in the US, users of e-readers consume an average of 24 books a year compared to 15 titles for readers of physical books. This could be because screens breed an appetite for information and ideas or it could be that readers of e-books can’t remember what they’re read. What do you think?

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 5-6 May 2012, ‘The bookworm turns’ by B. Jopson and A. Edgecliff-Johnson.
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Search words: Books, bookshops, e-readers, publishing
Trend tags: Digitalisation