Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

If you get most of your news and information from the web, or create online media, this is an important video to watch.

“What we’re seeing is a passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.” — Eli Pariser

Good morning, Frankfurt

Visited Germany last week to meet with one of our new manufacturing partners. The itinerary: fly out of Boston on Sunday, arrive in Frankfurt on Monday and take care of business, fly back to Boston the next morning.

Thanks to jet lag, I was up before the sun on Tuesday, so I took a walk along the River Main with my camera.

A view of downtown Frankfurt from the Holbeinsteg pedestrian bridge:
Frankfurt skyline
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Pre-industrial Song bookmakers: a study in decentralized economics

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi, courtesy of the National Palace Museum

Found at Taipei’s National Palace Museum last month, tucked away inside an exhibition on art and culture from the Southern Song period of Chinese history, was this infocard on the economics of bookmaking:

In addition to printing, marketing also played a role in the wide circulation of books and in the transmission and fusion of culture. In the Southern Song dynasty, cultural pursuits were highly valued. Printing, by either official or private bookshops who served the role of both producer and seller, was formally encouraged. The officially issued books, which were laid out in large format, printed with quality ink and carefully collated, were modeled by private bookshops.

This got me thinking again about business models for information distribution. In the pre-industrial era of the Song dynasty, the costs of production — as well as revenue generated from sales — were decentralized across a great many independently owned operations. Decentralization, in this case, also fueled innovation: the world’s first movable type system was invented by Bi Shēng, a commoner and artisan who developed the technology between 1041 and 1048.

With the Industrial Revolution came a cost incentive for businesses to engage in centralized mass-production of goods. The decentralized and distributed economies of previous eras gave way to monopolies over the tech and tools of production.

Fast forward 200 years, and the pendulum is swinging back. The cost of digitally reproducing and transmitting information is now pennies on the dollar compared to physical copies. It is now possible for anyone* to set up shop online and act as both producer and seller, as Song bookmakers of the past once did.

*Anyone with access, that is — a topic for another day.

A thought experiment on the e-reader and tablet ecosystem

Imagine a world in which WordPress, Drupal, MovableType, Plone, Joomla and all other open-source publishing platforms never existed.

In this hypothetical world, media producers have a choice of 2-3 major proprietary platforms with which they must share either a third of their revenue or invest a significant amount of time and money to get their content onto — content which then would reside solely in a walled garden that readers must pay a premium to access.

It’s almost unthinkable now, nearly a decade after the start of the blogging revolution, but this is the world that is quickly taking shape in the emerging tablet and e-reader market.

If Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper and Richard Branson’s rival magazine are indicative of what’s to come, we’re looking at a future media landscape that hearkens back to the days of newspaper monopolies: high financial barriers to entry for independent publishers, fewer choices for readers, and a massive slow-down for innovation and creative approaches.

Tim Berners-Lee warns us of this backward-facing trend in his recent call to action:

The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.

Thankfully, community projects like Calibre and OpenInkpot are hard at work bringing open-source alternatives to the table. But they’re going to need more momentum and manpower to overtake the proprietary juggernauts currently dominating the field.

I’m curious as to what the tipping point was for projects like WordPress and Drupal to really take off in terms of exponential community growth and user adoption. (Can anyone in the know chime in here?) Today’s tablet and e-reader ecosystem is in critical need of a similar disruption.

Canon HV40 + Letus35 Mini test

Just some test shots in the sunroom and backyard yesterday morning, using a Canon VIXIA HV40 and Letus35 Mini adapter with 35mm Nikon lens. Thrown together in iMovie, exported to full-quality mov, then converted to mp4 in MPEG Streamclip.

Update (11/27/2010): Had so much fun with the first video, I couldn’t resist making a second one. Here’s the companion piece, below.

We are all spokes now

Are tech giants supplanting traditional media companies as the hubs of mass communication?

Hub to spokeConsider this: the old metaphor placed traditional media as the hub and their audience at the ends of its spokes. Information flowed in one direction, from hub to spoke. For the better part of the last two centuries, print, radio and broadcast television technology have supported this model.

(Not that the hub-to-spoke model went unchallenged. Underground presses, indie radio stations and cable-access channels evolved alongside their respective platforms, although mainstream media and the one-way flow of news, knowledge and culture predominated the public consciousness.)

Then came the Web, throwing open the gates.

Spoke to hub, spoke to spokeThe promise of new media was open communication from spoke to hub and spoke to spoke. The people formerly known as the audience could now talk back to media institutions, could broadcast their thoughts to millions of their peers with the click of a button. Web 2.0 was supposed to be all about the almighty You with a capital Y, with users generating content, deciding what’s interesting and newsworthy, and generally calling the shots.

Was that promise ever realized? Yes and no. Something happened along the way, and I think Dave Winer sums it up aptly in his recent post, Big change in the tech world:

The moral of the story of the Facebook patent and all the recent news from Apple and Google: Tech companies are no better or worse than big companies in other industries.

They are all about keeping the stock price high, growing at the expense of their competitors, and the role of users is the same as customers in other industries, you’re a source of revenue.

[T]ech companies are taking a more active interest in the content that flows over their networks, and are doing less to protect their users. Sometimes they’re the ones attacking users. Just like other industries.

We are all spokes nowAnd now, bolstered by the vulnerable state of the media industry, some tech companies have effectively strong-armed publishers and content producers into becoming glorified spokes feeding into their own massive, revenue generating hubs.

Case in point: Comcast’s acquisition of NBC, which transfers ownership of a network that reaches 98% of American television households into the hands of the largest cable provider in the country. Or Apple’s plans for the iPad, which will be game-changing all right, but probably not in the way traditional media have been dreaming of, as Frédéric Filloux of Monday Note pointed out earlier this month:

In Steve Jobs’ mind, the iPad is meant to become the ultimate personal computer, replacing most of the devices that we currently use to get music and entertainment. And news. And knowledge. For the publishing community, the choice is therefore:
a) go for it with a flurry of applications — and thus contribute to erecting a tightly controlled gated content community; the more publishers will join the fray the better the iPad will fly;
b) put some eggs in other’s baskets (Amazon’s, PlasticLogic’s for instance), which are neither neutral nor philanthropic. In addition, each of them has its own standard.

These examples are indicative of an accelerating trend that will ultimately bestow huge amounts of control over our society’s information, knowledge and culture (both public and private) to a small number of technology and telecom corporations.

That’s not to say tech companies are to blame, or that we shouldn’t put our trust in hubs. What we should be doing, though, is taking a good hard look at what we’re committing our intellectual property to before leaping. The ideal hub in a post-Web 2.0 world is neutral, open, decentralized, and part of a grounded, resilient network. Such infrastructure on a mass communication scale may not exist yet, but we can already see pieces of its tool-set starting to emerge.

Take Prophet, for instance:

a semirelational, peer to peer replicated, disconnected, versioned, property database with self-healing conflict resolution

And the Open Media project:

an open-source development effort creating web solutions for the workflow needs of public access stations and community technology centers

And Miro, the Participatory Culture Foundation‘s shot across the bow of proprietary video and podcast clients:

Our free and open-source desktop video player, built on open standards and designed to encourage decentralization of video hosting.

The movement is afoot, and it is one in which hackers, journalists and community media centers would all benefit from uniting.

Anatomy of a community media non-profit

A few months ago, I mentioned a couple of media-related projects in the pipeline. At least one of them is now underway: the Western Massachusetts Community Press.

WMACP is a non-profit organization newly formed to support journalism education and local news initiatives in the Pioneer Valley. This project has been over three years in the making, beginning in 2006 with a program of UMass Professor Nick McBride’s that sent journalism students into Springfield to cover underreported community issues.

It’s exciting to see how much things will evolve in the coming months. Check out the visual representation below of the organization’s mission and reach.


Regie Gibson and Todd Brunel, on “Letter and Spirit”

Two Sundays ago, on assignment for LexMedia, I helped cover Lexington’s 17th Annual CommUNITY Commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and had the opportunity to sit down with two of the performing artists afterward.

Here’s the piece I put together, featuring interviews with Regie O’Hare Gibson and Todd Brunel intercut with excerpts from their work, “Letter and Spirit: A Musical and Poetic Presentation of the Words and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

What’s in a song? Lessons in value for the news industry

As a follow-up to my previous post in which I alluded to a new form of journalism, let’s explore the ways in which genuine value can be added to commodity news.

Consider this: Why are so many people willing to buy music online for 99 cents a song, even when it’s possible to get the same music for free? Here are a few possible reasons that might drive someone to open his or her wallet:

It’s portable and on-demand.
Nowadays, there are tons of ways to listen to streaming music on the Internet without paying a cent. But sometimes you’ll like a song so much, you want the ability to take it with you wherever you go and play it whenever fancy strikes. Paying to download an mp3 lets you move music to places without broadband or wireless connectivity.

It’s convenient.
A majority of consumers have decided that they would rather pay 99 cents than go through all the effort of other (and sometimes legally dubious) means. Apple’s iTunes store gives people a streamlined delivery mechanism from browsing, to purchasing, to deployment across various playback devices.

It’s (relatively) cheap.
With the Internet came the great unbundling of many products, the music industry serving as a prominent example. Gone are the days of having no choice other than paying $15 for a complete album, even if you only liked one or two of the songs on its track list. Compared to previous alternatives, the current price point for a song doesn’t seem all that bad.

It’s a shareable experience.
We love sharing music with our friends, whether its burning mix CDs as gifts, loading up a party playlist, or rocking out to tunes while on a roadtrip. When we discover an awesome new album or band, we want to spread the joy. Shared music is a form of social currency.

It’s meaningful.
There are songs that make you laugh, songs that make you cry, songs that make you want to get up and dance. It’s the ones that speak to you the most that end up in your permanent collection. Think about the songs you currently own. Why do you like them? How many of them describe the world, relationships, and everyday experiences in ways you can strongly relate to? If something adds meaning to your life, chances are you’ll want to keep it around.

So, what’s the takeaway for the news industry?
By the end of this little thought experiment, the ideal pay model for online news is remarkably clear and simple. This is it, in just three sentences:

Create content that showcases compelling and brilliant storytelling, adds meaning to people’s lives, facilitates socially enjoyable experiences, and/or provides useful information that solves a problem. Offer it in its entirety for free on the web. Charge reasonable prices for convenient delivery to multiple platforms and portable devices.

You’ll notice that in this model, people aren’t paying for content. They’re paying for the delivery — just like the way it was with newspapers. Ultimately, the quality of the content, and by extension its replay value, will determine whether or not someone thinks the delivery costs are justified.

Using this as our roadmap for taking journalism to the next level, we can start to brainstorm and experiment with forms beyond the mere news article. Here are just a few examples:

And that’s just the beginning. Can you think of more? Comment with your thoughts.