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Category Archives: Media News

The flood of activity surrounding the turmoil in Iran on Twitter the past few days has got me thinking about ways to make the platform more useful when big news events occur. Much has been said about how this episode is demonstrating the failure of traditional media, as real-time media has now become the main source of breaking information in Iran. There is no doubt that Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and the like are now a very important resource, but I think it’s important to recognize what we might lose if we completely throw the CNN model overboard. Important services that traditional TV news outlets provide include: intelligent filtering of the raw data stream, and a format that makes commentary accessible. TV news coverage does these things well, in that there are news directors who prioritize information, and a presentation format that weaves background information and editorial content together in a digestible package. These piece have been notably absent from the ‘coverage’ provided by #IranElection.

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Here is an idea that occurred to me, for a specialized blogging platform that would allow anyone with sufficient passion or knowledge of an event to produce their own live news coverage of a story, broadcast it to the web, and take advantage of all these amazing real-time media tools. Imagine a website, let’s call it Anckr.com, that you could go to when a story breaks. If you wanted to provide real-time  news and analysis of the story, you could log in via Oauth with your Twitter credentials.  You would then be presented with an administrative interface where you could set variables like: The Headline of the story, a friendly looking URL and a hashtag for your news coverage.

You would then have the opportunity to tweet directly from this interface with commentary on the event. In addition to your regular Twitter feed, your tweets would show up on the public facing news page that you’ve generated (pictured below in section ‘A’). In this respect, you would be serving as a news anchor for the story. As anchor you would have the opportunity to populate your news page with real-time content from many different sources. For example, any relevant photos or videos could be embedded into section ‘E’. You could also display relevant news feeds from traditional news outlets there (if they are bothering to provide coverage at all). This section could also provide space to display a feed of viewer beedback, that could be populated by tweets from viewers who have tagged their posts with the hashtag for your coverage.

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If you wanted to provide more compelling updates, there could be a section of the page that allows you to display a live video or audio stream of yourself (section ‘D’) providing commentary. Relevant hashtags could be displayed easily (section ‘B’), providing links to more conversations about the event.

Most importantly, there would be a section where you could provided a moderated feed of miro-blogging content (section ‘C’). The Anckr interface would allow you to follow individual tweeple who you believe are valuable sources. For example, you could have a feed for ‘witnesses’ of the event, people tweeting from the scene. Or, you could have a feed comprised of knowledgeable commentators.

Now, I could imagine traditional news organizations using a branded version of this sort of interface. Alternatively, anyone who chose to start a page, could become their own ‘reporter’. Since no one can provide 24 hour analysis by themselves, it would be cool if there was a mechanism that allowed you as the anchor, to hand off control to someone else of your choosing, kind of like how BNO news does now on Twitter.

All of the tools for creating such a website exist. I’ve listed some of the resources above, including: Twitter, FriendFeed, UStream, YouTube, Flickr, TweetCloud and Paratweet. Thesea re just some examples, but I’m sure there are many others.

The closest thing that I’ve found is almost.at, which is very cool, but more of an automated filtering service. If you are aware of anything like what I’ve described above, please let me know. If I had any free time, I might build this myself. Since I don’t, I hope someone gives it a try.

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Topics include: Ashton v. CNN, Twitter adopts new open 3rd party authentication mechanism called ‘Sign In with Twitter’, Tweetie for Mac launches

ThotCast ep 6: The Authentic Episode

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Topics include: Twitter helps a revolution in Moldova? Spam virus outbreak. Twitter browser war escalation between Twhirl and Tweetdeck, but I like Nambu.

ThotCast ep 5: The War Episode

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TV is in trouble. DVRs like TiVo neuter the efficacy of advertisements on broadcast outlets and the internet is threatening the subscription model that supports cable. Marketplaces like iTunes and Apple TV are becoming increasingly attractive to consumers who question the value of paying for access to hundreds of channels that they don’t watch. And, despite experimenting with streaming services like Hulu, content providers are getting cold feet now that technology has migrated from the computer screen to the TV itself.

Cable stalwarts like Mark Cuban argue that internet-based al a cart services, like those provided by iTunes, Hulu and Boxee will not be able to compete with cable in terms of price. Cuban believes that the current prices that are charged to purchase commercial-free TV shows are artificially low because the business model is subsidized by revenue from cable subscriptions. Take away the cable TV business, he says, and suddenly the internet becomes a lot more expensive and less attractive to consumers.

The problem can be summed up like this: The internet doesn’t seem to be as profitable as traditional TV, but traditional TV is starting to wither. This is a lot like the problem newspapers face, it’s just earlier in the process. What to do?

In earlier posts, I’ve argued that the answer lies in getting creative. Thinking about this tonight, I was trying to imagine the ideal TV setup for me as a consumer. Trying to imagine how it would all work, not just for me, but for the advertisers as well. The following is just part of the system I imagined, and I’ve not heard this proposed before. So, in the spirit of creativity, I offer the following idea to the industry:

The Consumer Directed Content Pricing Model

Here’s how it works. I have a set-top box, let’s say an Apple TV. With this devise I can do all the stuff I can currently do with my Apple TV: purchase or rent TV episodes and movies, download podcasts etc. But, when watching a program, I have options about how to pay. As shown in the following mock-up, the interface provides me a slider that lets me set the price I’m going to pay to purchase the program.

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I could choose to pay the full price of $12.99 to download and keep the program comercial free as a can on the current Apple TV. Or, I could opt to pay nothing, and get the program with a full complement of commercial breaks. The viewing experience would be much like watching the show on broadcast television in this case, except I can time shift it and watch it as many times as I want (as with a DVR). Unlike a DVR, I would be forced to let the commercials run in their entirety, much the way HULU requires on their website. Alternatively I could move the slider to some mid-point between the two extremes. This would allow me to pay a modest price in exhange for fewer commercials. 

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The more I’m willing to pay, the fewer commercials I’ll get and the shorter the running time will be. 

Now, to make this practical, the ads should not be part of the video download. Just meta-data that marks the insert points for them in the timeline of the program. When a commercial break occurs, the ads are streamed in from the web. That way, advertisers can insert timely ads into a viewing, even if the consumer purchased the program some time ago.

As a consumer, I like this, because it gives me flexibility and control to watch what I want, whenever I want, and pay whatever I think is fair. As an advertiser, I like this because I get all the benefits of the traditional broadcast ad model, avoid the pitfalls of DVRs, and can target my ads to viewers based on the psychographic profile generated by my viewing habits. 

The only folks this model cuts out is the broadcast network. They’re screwed. I’m sure cable providers will hate it to, since they’re determined to be involved in my content decisions. But, hopefully, they will embrace the inevitability of their utility status, and focus on providing us consumers the most excellent dumb pipe screaming fast internet connectivity possible. 

Does this model solve the problem? I’m sure it’s not that simple, but this is the sort of creative thinking that I’m not seeing from most of the players in the industry. One notable exception is Boxee, a company which at the moment seems more interested in improving the Apple TV device than Apple does.

There are other things that I want from TV as a consumer, but I’ll save those ideas for future posts.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I found this post that describes a similar idea. Cool.

 

Topics include: Twitter and Google, sittin’ in a tree (t-a-l-k-i-n-g), search functionality on Twitter, technical problems on twitter and backing up your twitter data, Demi saves a life?, Italian earthquake debuts on twitter.

ThotCast ep 4: The Trouble Episode

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Topics include: New twitter growth and usage statistics, People like to Twitter at work, but they should be more careful, Mark Cuban fined for using Twitter, Celebrities have a new Twitter friend. Find links mentioned in the show on the Thotcast twitter feed @thotcast

ThotCast Episode 3: The Work Episode

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One of the lines I like to use when discussing how media is changing these days is, “The internet is punishing inefficiency.” I’ve forgotten who I lifted that line from, but I now add the following chaser: “The economic downturn is accelerating that process.” There is no doubt that the ways in which people are consuming information are changing rapidly. Newspapers are reeling, the recording industry has succumbed to the inevitable, and TV providers are getting nervous. Likewise, the industries that rely on gaming consumer attention, namely Advertising and PR, are scrambling to understand what their jobs are anymore. Part of the problem they face is that they are chasing a moving target, and no one is sure where it is headed. 

I tweeted a few weeks ago, that I thought the challenge of deriving value form Twitter was largely a problem of managing the ‘Signal to Noise Ratio’. There’s a lot of useful content out there, but if it isn’t parsed from the firehose for you, it’s of little value. This of course is why we have a media in the first place. The role of writers and broadcasters has always been to parse the wide world of ideas and bring us the nuggets that we value for their news or entertainment value.

In the beginning, ideas were spread sideways. That is to say we communicated almost entirely by word-of-mouth, and memes reproduced via a cascade of parallel paths. The trouble with this method was that it was slow and prone to errror.

Next, technology made a top down model practical. As it became economically feasible for small groups to communicate with large groups using things like print and broadcasts. This was the birth of ‘media’ and it dealt with the speed and error problems and was tremendously useful. The problem with this model, however was that the masses were all largely subjected to the same set of information, regardless of individual need. This system also made public attention vulnerable to manipulation, a loophole that the marketing industries exploited for centuries. 

Then another technological advancement made it practical for anyone to communicate with everyone. This made it much easier customize sets of data and package them for small audiences. The problem became that firehose I mentioned a bit ago. Suddenly we were back to the beginning of this cycle again. At first there was a sideways model online whereby users relied on tools like email to move the stuff around. Then a top down model arose as publishers and broadcasters attempted to apply their skillset to the web.

Then, for the first time, the web started to try something new. Taking advantage of the technology, models for parsing information were attempted that allowed the masses to self-regulate the firehose. For the first time we tried allowing our peers to do the parsing, leaning on our collective wisdom, services like Digg and Reddit emerged to help tailor content to individual need. The shortcomings of these so-called ‘democratized content forums’ was that they created a disadvantage for individual’s whose content needs stray far from the average. 

About two years ago I speculated about what the next model would be. At the time I became enamored with the idea that so-called ‘prediction markets‘ might just be that next model (see also ‘Infotopia‘ for a good discussion of this). It turns out (current economic crises notwithstanding) that stock market mechanisms are extremely efficient tools for extracting wisdom from groups. This fascination of mine resulted in an experiment called ThotMarket.com which was my attempt to apply the model to news and information. I now beleive I miss-read the trends. The actual next model is that which is being popularized by Twitter.

The innovation that this micro-blogging model provides is that content is parsed by the collective wisdom of the group, much like the voting forums, but it is a group of my choosing. As a Twitter user, I manage my own mini-mob, and that mini-mob manages my content for me. 

Now, managing the mob is not an easy thing to do. At the moment the tools available to accomplish this on Twitter are crude and cumbersome. But, these will improve as Twitter improves itself, or someone comes along to build a better micro-blogging platorm. Much of the attention of Twitter appliction developers so far has been focussed on creating new tools to parse out content directly from Twitter. There are an ever-growing library of live-streaming, filtering, and searching interfaces for Twitter. These are welcome and valuable additions to the service, but I think they miss the mark a bit in terms of taking full advantage of this new form of media. By foccussing on the content of the tweets themselves, most do not directly factor in the parsing ability of individual people. I’m waiting for more sophisticated tools that will allow me to find new tweeple, based on expertise, interests and quality. I want these tools to also help me prune the herd of tweeps that aren’t holding their own. In essence, I want tools that will help me make my mob better than your mob. 

There are some tools like this now. Mr Tweet comes to mind, as does Kevin Rose’s new pet WeFollow. These are good starts but leave a lot to be desired. For example, WeFollow is very comprehensive, but relies solely on the number of followers a Twitter user has to rank the list in each category. I think that this metric is a terrible measure of the quality of users for two reasons. Firstly, it’s too easy to game the system and run up that number without regard for merit. Secondly, it confuses quality with popularity skewing attention toward the center. That’s the same problem that Digg has, as I’ve already described. What is needed, is a more useful metric to measure, compare and match users up with each other. What does that look like? Well, I have at least one idea and will be posting much more about that in the future. 

So where does this all leave marketers? In many respects they are having the rug pulled out from beneath their feet. The top-down loopholes are becoming less and less effective. In many ways, they are being treated like the uninvited intruder in the new media party, trying to butt into the conversation and unable to do anything but annoy the consumer partygoers. Is all hope lost? Hardly. I think that with creative thinking, a firm understanding about what is actually happening, and a healthy respect for what consumers actually want, that industry will improve right along with the media. Speaking as a consumer, I don’t mind if marketers participate in the conversation I’m crafting for myself online as long as their actions provide value to me. If they don’t my mob will take care of it.

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I spent a half hour this weekend standing in line at the Comcast office in Pinole California, waiting to return the HD DVR box that my cable TV provider had issued me a couple of years ago. I had stopped using it more than six months ago, but was only getting around to returning it now that Comcast had finally seen fit to bill be $400 for the missing hardware. I’m amused by the coincidence of this event which occurred the same weekend that a fascinating argument broke out online between Mark Cuban and the founder of Boxee, Avner Ronen. Turns out that billing isn’t the only thing the cable people are slow about. The position that Cuban takes about the role that the internet will play in the future consumption of TV content demonstrates a surprising lack of foresight for someone who has a so much history invested in internet content distribution.

I really recommend reading through the exchange that is now reprinted on the Boxee blog, as well as the associated comments. I’ll not reiterate all the points or give deep background on the players here, but suffice it to say: Boxee is a software/service that provides consumers access to streaming video content in different formats, including making it possible to watch that content on your living room TV. Cuban owns a cable TV network and takes the position that Cable providers are better suited to provide consumer access to content than the internet for a myriad of business and technical reasons. 

This would probably have been written off as just a high-level academic discussion about technology and business trends, except for the events surrounding Boxee just a month ago when Hulu was forced by content providers to remove access from the Boxee interface. That incident demonstrates that the TV industry is facing a crisis not unlike that which has overtaken newspapers recently. As with newspapers’ inability to transfer their ad-based business models to the online world, TV is getting a glimpse at a world where consumers, in their desire for more control over their programming, have less need for ‘channels’ to act as a middleman. 

The Hulu/Boxee incident indicates that content providers like NBC and FOX, despite getting their toe wet in the internet waters, have no intention of allowing their traditional distribution model (affiliates, broadcast and cable) to be replaced by an internet-based one that cuts out the middleman and lets consumers pick their own programs. Presumably they don’t think they can make as much money online as they do on the air. Cuban latches on to this very point in his weekend rant when he claims that current internet TV programming is subsidized by broadcast and cable revenue, and that consumers will never pay the actual price it would cost for this programming if the cable money-stream evaporated. 

This argument makes no sense to me whatsoever, and Hulu is a perfect example of it. They show commercials on Hulu programming. Why is my attention less valuable to an advertiser if I’m watching their ad on my TV screen via an internet stream versus a cable line? In many respects it should be more valuable to them since software like Hulu and Boxee make it cumbersome to skip past the commercials which is one of the main services provided by TiVo and other DVRs that companies like Comcast now sell directly. In a grotesque twist of logic, Cuban even leans on the proliferation of DVRs as supporting evidence of the superiority of cable-based distribution.

One of the frustrating stances that Cuban takes, is that consumers don’t want to be exposed to a raw stream of content, and need to rely on the wisdom of cable and network providers to weed the wheat from the chaff. 

“The concept of “users always want choice” really really sounds nice. It makes for a great panel argument. But the reality is that its not true. Ultimate choice requires work. Consumers like to think they have choice, but their consumption habits say they prefer easy.”

I don’t doubt that it’s true that users want ease of use, but he’s using behavior within the current distribution model as a justification for that model. I think the newspaper debacle indicates that users want more control over the content they consume. The fact that he cannot imagine a way that this could be made ‘easy’ just demonstrates a lack of creativity. The internet has shown a unique talent for crafting all kinds of weeding mechaisms for the firehose of content that is out there (hello Digg, Twitter). Furthermore, I seem to remember that the music industry made this same argument ten years ago. How’d that work out for them? I don’t know about you, but I’m consuming a wider range of better music now than when I was dependant on FM radio for exposure.

One of the main gripes that many have about the current system is that Cable service sucks because I have to pay to subsidize 400 channels of crap I don’t watch, just to get the 5 I do. This is the very reason I dumped Cable TV six months ago in favor of an over the air HD antenna and Apple TV. In response to this position, Cuban offers perhaps his least compelling argument. It goes something like this: As consumers, we would never stand for al a cart internet service, so we would likewise never stand for al a cart TV service. 

“I only go to maybe 10 sites regularly. I get RSS feeds for another 50. Why should I have to pay for the resources required to provide access to the other 10zillion sites that consume resources ? Why shouldn’t I only pay for the 10 I go to ?”

“If al a Carte is the way of the future, then it should apply to the internet as well, right ?No one wants to pay the cost of the websites they don’t use, or the bandwidth they dont consume, right ?”

The reason this makes no sense also exposes the bias of his thinking. He is comparing ‘internet service’ with ‘tv service’. I have no doubt that cable guys think the product they are selling is ‘tv service’. But the fact is, consumers are not buying ‘tv service’. They are buying ‘tv shows’. And it makes no sense to compare the sale of finite products to a service. Consumers never talk about ‘movie services’ or ‘news services’. They buy ‘movies’ and buy ‘news’. This shows that Cuban is concerned about what is good for his business, not consumers. 

In his follow-up post on the matter, Cuban sort of makes this point himself and in doing I find I must regretfully agree. I think what he is saying is that internet people tend to be blinded by the idealized future that their technology promises and forget that there are many additional factors that will shape how things ultimately play out. I posted this response on his blog:

“We should never underestimate the ability of business to suppress technological advancement or deny consumers what they want in the name of protecting their own entrenched revenue models.”

Today, I see that others are weighing in. Notably this guy comes to Cuban’s defense by basically saying that ads can’t work in an al a cart system because advertisers rely on random spill over attention from lazy  channel surfers. If that is the backbone of the industry, then they are just as doomed as the newspapers are. Advertisers have to get much smarter about what they do because if the internet excels at anything it’s punishing inefficiency.

I think this quote from one of Ronen’s responses sums it up well:

“i would love for my Cable/Telco providers to focus on being great network providers rather than try to decide what content i should or should not have access to, what application i should or should not run, invent new standards for Interactive TV, Enhanced TV, whatever TV. all with the goal of trying to maintain control, so they don’t lose a grip of their lucrative business model.”

I’ll go one further. I think the newspapers are suffering from a lack of foresight and creativity very similar to what we are starting to see from the cable industry. I wish some entrepreneur would start a new telco called ‘Dumb Pipe, Inc’ focus on great service, and get out of the content business all together. That’s the kind of business I might wait in line for.

I’ve seen a bit of talk lately about the proliferation of Micro-blogging and how it will fit into the emerging media landscape. It’s the same sort of breathless speculation that I used to read about what we must now reffer to as traditional long-form ‘blogging’. I think its fair to say that there is something of a consensus that blogging has peaked, and microblogging is the heir apparent. Why is this?

I think the answer is simple. Blogging, at least blogging well, is hard. It’s a lot of work to produce the volume of original content required to sustain a successful blog. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, is easy. Much less thought and planning is required to spit out 140 character pearls of wisdom then craft even a short blog entry. As important, micro-blogging satisfies the same innate desire to be heard and feel influential that I believe drives bloggers. 

If this is the case, what is the fate of long form blogging? Will it wither at the feet of its more spontaneous offspring? Will the army of amateur loud mouths be replaced entirely by a small core of professional loud mouths now that they’ve lost their newspaper gigs? No. I suspect that the sheer number of bloggers will retreat to some smaller, but more stable level as many of the amateurs tire of toiling away in obscurity and flee to Twitter (as podcasters are also doing). I suspect that blogging and micro-blogging settle into a symbiotic realtionship where the two organisms support each other. Blogging will feed micro interesting content to link to, and micro will drive traffic to blogs. 

Most interestingly, however, I think that micro might help create a new class of blogger. These loud mouths will have been seduced into the ego-stroking attention market by the ease of micro-blogging, but will find themselves periodically unable to express themselves in that short format. They will be driven to give the long-form a try. 

This post is a demonstration of this principle in action. I’ve been enamored by Twitter for some months now, and as versed as I have become at parsing out my memes into 140 character bites, there are a few that I just can’t convey properly in that format. I’m going to try to repurpose this blog as the release valve for those ideas. Until now, ThotBlog was largely a discussion area for the production of Thotmarket, my own personal take on the idea of democratized content forums (like Digg). Until traffic and activity on that site pick up and warrant continued production, I will continue to post here on a wide range of subjects that interest me.