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At Google Zeitgeist: Theoretical Physics and Astronauts, Unite!

By - October 19, 2012

Earlier in the week I traveled to the annual Google Zeitgest conference, where I’ve been honored to be a moderator for the past few years. This year I was given the challenge of tacking a 90-minute block on “The World We Dream,” which featured an extraordinary set of speakers. The session included a short interview with two impressive folks: Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who has spent 180 days in space, and Lisa Randall, a celebrated theoretical physicist and author. I’ve never spent as much time prepping for a 20-minute interview as I did for this – in part because the Higgs Boson is not that easy for the laymen to grok, nor is the concept of floating around in space. If you are so inclined, enjoy:

 

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On Data

By - October 11, 2012

A glimpse of some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the impact of “data” on our culture. I am close (so damn close) to sealing myself off and into only thinking about this, for my book (OpenCoSF is my last big project till I do). But thanks to the Vibrant Data project for taking an interview I did at TED earlier this year, and making it into something that almost makes me look like I have my shit together. I attest, I do not. I hope soon, I will.


Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range

By - October 02, 2012

You want to put your sensor *where*?!!!!!

(image shutterstock) I’ve been watching the news for tidbits which illuminate a thesis I’ve been working up for my book. Today the New York Times provided a doozy: Swiss Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat. As James Gleick, author of The Information, noted in a Twitter response to me: That’s one heckuva headline.

So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”

As we survey, chart, and claim this new territory, a truth is emerging: when we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data. Information is a slippery concept – one that gives Gleick “the willies.” But data? That’s information we can manipulate.

So here’s my thesis:  We create new data wherever we can find value. Put another way: If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow. Not to everyone, of course – as with oil, control of data is power. But the world is hell-bent on finding new data resources that unleash value. We’ve got wildcatters, we’ve got Exxon/Mobiles (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, the NSA, etc.), we’ve got pipes. And we’ve got incredible stories of the things folks will do to unlock the value of data.

Which takes us back to the cows of Switzerland. As the Times’ piece explains, a Swiss research team has created a system, comprised of implanted sensors and radio beacons, that measures a cow’s movement and internal body temperature. It converts these measurements into data, runs the data through an algorithm, and when the resulting computation indicates the cows are in heat, it sends a text message to the rancher. The net result: The rancher has a better chance of getting that cow pregnant (er, that didn’t quite come out right – but you know what I mean).

Net net: a  pregnant cow is a more valuable cow. And to get a cow pregnant more reliably, one needs the data. Previously, that data was buried in a bovine’s unexplored nether regions (literally – the sensor is placed in the cow’s genitals). But given the value that data carries, these Swiss data wildcatters have tapped a new gusher. This data exploration is now happening over and over, in nearly every imaginable corner of our world. We’ve just tapped the tip of this data iceberg, of course; we’re just stepping onto the shores of the New World. We’d be wise to remember that as we move forward.

Post Apple Rant, What Have We Learned? A Visit With A “Genius” Ain’t Enough

By - September 17, 2012

I think I’ve said it before, if you want to attract attention, write about Apple. A rant which had been boiling inside me for some months finally erupted into words last Thursday, and since that post, more than 60,000 people have come to this site, leaving more that 300 comments and sharing the story’s link nearly 3000 times across four or so social networks.

That may be normal for a site like the Huffington Post, but I think it’s a record for Searchblog. Methinks I touched a nerve.

What I found most interesting was the tone of the response – I had anticipated the standard Apple defenders to come out with blades sharpened, calling me a dumb old skool punter or worse. There was some of that, but the vast majority of folks who commented, either on Twitter, Facebook or here on the site, were instead supportive of my point of view, adding their own frustrating stories, as well as helpful suggestions.

Chief among them was pointing out the iOS feature that brings you back to the top of any list by touching the clock (who knew? Not me). That solved one of the larger irritations I have with the iPhone, but not the largest – which is this yellow “other” goo that has taken over my phone’s storage. For that, I had to head to my nearby Apple store – I made the appointment online.

Saturday I drove over to the store, which was, as always, buzzing with a kind of high-household-income testosterone (regardless of gender). I met my “Apple Genius” and explained my problems. I showed him my post, and explained that while I had many issues with Apple, all I wanted was the yellow goo to go away.

My Genius was a very nice fellow, clearly aware of the storage issue. This was not the first, or even the 100th, time he’d dealt with it. He explained that it was probably corrupted software in the phone’s OS, and that a clean restore would most likely fix the problem. I told him I’d tried that already, twice, but admitted that perhaps I had done something wrong.

Funny aside: As I was showing him my post, I explained that many commentators had scolded me for not knowing about how “touching the clock” took you back to the top of contacts and initiated a search. He was dumbstruck – he had the same problem as me, and didn’t know about the feature either. So at least I don’t feel as stupid as before.

Anyway, the Genius (I’m protecting his name and location) did an initial software scan and told me that yes, my phone had a software problem. What kind of problem, I asked? He said the scan didn’t say, just that he needed to “update the firmware.” That meant, essentially, wiping my phone back to factory settings, then restoring it from a backup. Fortunately I had brought my computer as well, so he did a backup, then proceeded to install the new firmware.

While we were waiting, I asked Mr. Genius if the “problem” was corruption in the software, or if it was a known bug that Apple had fixed in more recent firmware updates. I suspected it was a known bug, given how prevalent my yellow goo problem was (it’s all over the Apple boards). He said he wasn’t sure, but admitted it was likely a firmware bug that had been fixed later. It often had something to do with the upgrade to iOS 5 and forcing people to use the cloud, he admitted.

The phone was now ready for its backup, but when he attached it to my computer, the restore process was going to take well over an hour (I had a lot of photos, and he said that takes a lot of time to transfer.) I couldn’t sit at the store for an hour, so I told him I’d do it at home, if that was OK. He said of course, and I was on my way. At this point, the phone was clean as a whistle, but it also wasn’t “my” phone – it was back to its “pristine” state.

You can probably guess where this is going, or I’d not be wasting your time. I got home, chose the backup the Genius had made to my phone, and let it run while I did some chores around the house. When I got back I checked the iTunes storage to see if the goo was gone. Indeed it was, but so were my photos. And my apps. For whatever reason, my music was there. Nothing else.

That was odd. I called the Apple store and asked to speak to my Genius, but they aren’t really set up for that kind of follow up. After sitting on hold for ten minutes, another person came on, admitted my Genius had left for the day, apologized for my predicament, but had no solution for me other than to suggest I use an earlier version of the phone’s backup. Turns out there was one, from about a week ago. So I decided to backup from that version.

I’m about three hours of time into this by now, for those keeping count at home.

So, to review where I was: I had a iPhone with totally new, up to date firmware but without most of my original data, because the backup made at the Apple store was somehow incomplete. And I was now going to replace that backup with one made a week earlier.

Which I did. And this time the backup took a lot longer, which to me was a good sign: My photos must be transfering this time!

After about 45 minutes, the process was complete, and it was time to check the Goo-O-Meter.

Uh oh:

I had a tiny bit less goo, and I had my photos, but not my apps. I realized I could get those later by sync’ing apps in iTunes, so I punted on figuring that out (and there wasn’t room on the phone anyway). Regardless, I was on hour four, and this was NOT progress.

PhoneDisk To The Rescue

It was about this point that I decided that if I was going to solve this problem, I was going to have to do it myself. Earlier in the year I had purchased a utility called PhoneDisk, now known as iExplorer. It’s  a great piece of software that lets you mount your iPhone as if it were just another hard drive. It “roots” your phone – showing all the files that are in there, even if the opaque Apple iOS doesn’t (or won’t).

I figured it couldn’t hurt to use PhoneDisk to see if there were folders and files that looked….off.

And yep, I sure found something. Turns out I had more than 17 gigabytes of “recordings” – memos from Apple’s Voice Memo application that comes standard with every phone. Now, I’ve used that app about 30 times, and my phone showed about half that many recordings when I looked using the app itself (I’d deleted the others). But using PhoneDisk, I found more than 1200 recordings! And guess what – more than 1000 of them were duplicates, many duplicates of memos I’d deleted over the years!

I decide to delete all the duplicates using PhoneDisk. First I backed up the entire 17 gigs on a 4-terabyte drive I happen to have (handy, I’ll admit). Then I sync’d music with “Include Voice Memos” unchecked (it had been checked). I was hoping that might get rid of the dupes. No luck.

My next step was to delete some test files from the iPhone using PhoneDisk, just to see if it reduced my yellow goo factor. I identified one 42.6-megabyte file that was duplicated 97 times – I trashed 96 of them.

By the way, I’m into hour five of working on this problem, thanks Apple! But I’m sure this is what the company means when it markets itself as revolutionary and elegant and all that.

After the 96 files were moved to the trash and the trash emptied, the yellow goo did not immediately disperse, but I know enough about the Mac to know you need to restart everything to see if anything “took.” I disconnected the iPhone and reconnected it. Of course, it starts to sync (as it always does), and that sync was taking a Very Long Time.

It seemed to be hung on the “backing up” part of the sync. So I tried to kill the sync. I was too eager to see if I had cleared some of the goo. Well, when I hit the little “x” that allows you to stop a sync, I got the infamous Apple Spinning Ball of Death.

Time for my favorite app: Force quit.

I fired up iTunes again….and stopped it from synching the phone immediately.

And yes! Minor success – 5 gigabytes of yellow goo – the amount I deleted using PhoneDisk, is now gone!!! But I am not triumphant – because I sense that as soon as I sync and back up – a process which cannot be avoided, those duplicate files may return. I must be cautious. I have many miles to tread.

The next hour or so is spent deleting files from the iPhone and insuring commensurate reduction in my phone’s goo. Finally, I restart everything, connect the phone, let it sync (that took half and hour) and….SUCCESS!

Yes, six hours later, my phone is (mostly) yellow goo free, and I’ve identified the culprit, some kind of duplications bug in the Voice Memo app.

Will it come back? Who knows. Is my experience typical? I bet not. But let’s just be clear about one thing: This. Ain’t. Easy. 

And Apple’s Geniuses? Not so much.   

Am I An Outlier, Or Are Apple Products No Longer Easy To Use?

By - September 13, 2012

I’ve been a Mac guy for almost my entire adult life. I wrote my first college papers on a typewriter, but by the end of my freshman year – almost 30 years ago – I was on an IBM PC. Then, in 1984, I found the Mac, and I never looked back.

Till now.

I’m not saying I’m switching, but I sure am open to a better solution. Because the past year or so has been dominated by the kind of computing nightmares that used to be the defining experience of my Windows-PC-wielding friends and colleagues. And it’s not limited to the Mac – the iPhone is also a massive fail in what was once the exclusive province of Apple: Ease of use.

I’ll caveat this post with the fact that I may be something of an outlier – I have thousands of contacts in my Apple contact database, and my iCal app is burdened with having to integrate with a multi-platform universe at work. And perhaps the fact that I love to take photographs, and have amassed more than 10,000 digital images, means that iPhoto has become mostly useless to me for anything other than as a storage vault. And that, apparently, is all my fault.

But my wife isn’t an outlier. She has about 250 contacts. She tries to use iCal, but can’t make it work. Her email breaks early and often. And she’s spent the past two months in IT hell, trying to salvage her digital life from the clutches of Apple’s self-centered, walled-garden update called the Lion operating system, which wiped out nearly all her previous settings and useful applications. Watching her struggles, and trying to help (and realizing I couldn’t without bringing in expensive professionals) made me wonder – whatever happened to ease of use?

I am certain this post will elicit all manner of Apple fanboys who claim I’m a moron, that I’ve brought upon my own demise through stupid decisions.  Well, let’s review a few, and you can judge for yourself.

Honestly, where to start. How about with the iPhone itself? I have an iPhone 4, it’s about a year or so old. The contract is for two years, and I don’t feel like paying $400 to get a new phone. I figured this one must be good enough, right? Wrong.

The phone is pretty much useless now, because all of its storage is taken up. With what, you might ask? Well, it’s a mysterious yellow substance – found, in a masterstroke of intuitive design, in iTunes – called “other.” I was alerted to this issue when I couldn’t take a photo because my storage was full. Oh, and I was also told my storage was too full to download any more mail. And I’m an inbox zero kind of guy!

WTF is all this “other” shit, I wondered to myself. Well, that’s what Apple’s self-hosted forums are good for (I’ve been there a lot lately, for any number of issues, only a few of which I’ll detail in this post). So off to Google I headed – “what is the other in iphone storage” yielded this post, among a lot of others:

 

 OK, so…should I restore the device from backup? How do you even do that? And if that doesn’t work, then what? I have to “restore as new”?

Sounds dangerous, like I might lose all my settings and apps and such. There had to be a better fix. I spent a half hour or so reading various forums, blog posts, and the like about the problem, which seems quite prevalent. Many of the suggestions are summarized in this post,  and included deleting your browser cache (that was pretty easy, I did it, no luck), deleting your entire email account and recreating it (a pretty drastic thing to do, but funnily enough, I’ve done it about ten times in the past year due to problems with our connection to work mail, and since I’d done it recently, I figured that couldn’t be it), and my favorite:

Go to /var/mobile/Media/ApplicationArchives using SSH (requires jailbroken iPhone) or DiskAid and delete everything. This folder contains partially downloaded apps which never completed nor removed and were probably interrupted at some point in the middle of downloading.

Are you frickin’ kidding me? I have to jailbreak my phone to fix this problem?

Oh wait, that blog post suggested one last thing I could do: If the above steps fail, do a full system restore :(.

Again, very drastic. But I was getting impatient. I wanted my storage space back. I found another site, one that looked pretty official, that said this:

Unfortunately, scouring available information sources and speaking with Apple hasn’t led to any type of easy resolution.

If you’re experiencing this issue under any version of iTunes, you’ll need to restore your iPhone to reclaim the space occupied by Other. That is the only known solution at this time.

Well shit. I spent a few more fruitless hours trying to find another solution on the web. There wasn’t one that didn’t require pretty significant technical know-how (such as installing a utility, running it to reveal all files on the iPhone, then deleting each file one by one, even if you weren’t sure what the file did). The only option that was relatively straightforward and seemed to work, according to many forums, was to restore the phone.

Which I did. And I lost all my apps save the ones that come preinstalled on the iPhone in the first place. And guess what? It didn’t fix the problem. 

OK, I’m going to stop on this example. Because the point isn’t to try to fix the problem (I know I’m going to have to go to an Apple store, and get a “Genius” to deal with this. And I know this “Genius” is going to tell me that my phone is old, and that I need a new one with more storage, and by the way, I should really get an iCloud account, because if I had one then I wouldn’t have a problem at all. In other words, Apple has architechted the iPhone in such a way as to insure that I spend much more money with Apple, and am committed to their cloud solution long term with my data. But that’s another rant). Oh, and the fact that Apple doesn’t respond in its forums about this (or any) issue? Ridonkulous.

My point is simply this: This. Ain’t. Easy. 

Another example: iPhoto. May I just say, and I won’t be the first, that iPhoto is A Piece of Sh*t, in particular given how image-driven the company is in its own marketing. iPhoto is about as dumb as an application can be. Just launching the things often takes up my Mac’s entire CPU,  crushing performance on anything else I have open (and no, my Macbook Pro isn’t old, it’s one of the newer models). Photos are organized by date, and there’s no easy way to change that. Album creation is utterly non-intuitive (again, I’m sure this is all my fault, Mr. Fanboy), and the “Faces” feature, which seemingly would fix a lot of these issues, is just plain useless.

Now, you Apple fanboys will scream at me: Hey Battelle, you wuss, don’t you know about Some Expert Photo Editing and Organizing Photo App That You Can Buy For Hundreds of Dollars. Or Some Bitchin’ Utility Written By A 19-Year-Old That Will Never Be Supported By Apple. Or something. Well I do, because I’ve searched high and low for help with iPhoto. Again, there are no easy solutions. I could take a class, yep. Or spend a few days manually tagging my photos. But wasn’t the point of the Mac that you SHOULDN’T HAVE TO DO THAT?!!

Another example: Nearly all of Apple’s built in “productivity” applications are terrible – email, contacts, calendaring, for starters. All of them are not ready for prime time. iCal is laughable as a shared calendar across platforms and the web – perhaps my IT department is filled with punters, but in five years, we’ve never been able to make iCal work seamlessly across pure Mac networks, not to mention with other solutions like Outlook or Google Calendar. And when we call Apple for support, it’s as if Apple really doesn’t care. Alas, we can’t seem to find anything better, so we limp along…apologizing when things “fall off the calendar” or, worse, when appointments stay on my iPhone calendar long after they’ve been moved from my main iCal on the Mac.

And dont’ get me started on Apple’s “Address Book.” As I said before, I have thousands of contacts. Is that so uncommon? Apparently it is. After months of trying to get my contacts to sync properly across my Mac, my assistant’s Mac, and both of our iPhones, my IT department finally got someone at Apple to admit that, well, the Address Book just doesn’t really work very well once you have more than about 1000 contacts. Seriously. Just – sorry, we don’t have a solution for that. We have found a fix – we use Plaxo – but now we’re dependent on Apple supporting Plaxo, which I’m not certain is a long term bet. Oh, and every time Plaxo syncs with Apple’s contacts, about one in ten of the contacts are duplicated. Why? No one knows. Is there a fix? Nope.

(And what if you want to sync to – gasp – an Android phone?! Well only way to do that is through a total hack involving Gmail. Seriously.)

Let me repeat my refrain: This. Ain’t. Easy.

Without going into detail, my little rant about Calendar, iPhoto, Address Book, et al goes for iTunes as well. I even bought a piece of software to try to fix iTunes myriad issues (Rinse). I can’t figure out whether or not Rinse has fixed anything, to be honest, and so far, all it’s managed to do is marry the wrong album art to about 100 or so songs which previously didn’t have any imagery. Which is kind of funny, but a tad annoying. And just the fact that there’s a market for something like Rinse kind of makes my point.

Oh, and then there’s the vaunted Apple Super Magical User Interface. You know, the Insanely Great Revolutionary Change the World User Experience that everyone fawns over as if it were a fact.

Are you kidding me? If Apple’s UI is magical, then I’ve got a Unicorn to sell you. Let’s start with Mac Lion. There are so many Fails in this OS, it’s hard to know where to start. You need a four-hour class just to understand all the contortions Apple seems to be doing in its attempt to make its desktop interface work the way the iPhone does. You know, pinch and swipe and app stores and mission controls and magic corners and all that. I’ve spent at least an hour figuring out how to turn most of that shit off. It just doesn’t work.

It’s really funny to watch my wife deal with all this, given she’s not exactly one to dig deep into system settings (you know, the very consumer Apple initial designed for). When she got Lion, the way her mouse, her iChat (now “iMessage” or someshit), and of course all her applications worked changed in very dramatic ways. For instance, she could no longer IM me – all of a sudden, she was on “me.com” and her IMs came to my cell phone as texts. (In other words, Apple defaulted to its own iCloud services, and wiped out her AIM-based identity). I’m sure this is all her fault, naturally.

Oh, and every time she clicks her mouse to try to move a window around, a message about “Icons and Text” appears. WTF? Little irritations like this happen all over the place, piling one upon the other until it crescendos with a long, wailing lament – WHAT AM I USING HERE – WINDOWS?!

But we all know the future is mobile, right? And the iPhone and iPad are Perfect Expressions of Beauty, Ideal Combinations of Form and Function. Except they’re Not.

 

Have you ever done a search in your iPhone contacts? You need the fingers of a poorly fed six-year-old to activate that search function. No, really, I must waste four or five minutes a day trying to make that damn thing work.

Seriously, how can an adult finger ever touch that little search icon without either hitting the “A” or the “+”????

And then there the precious internationalization feature of the keyboard (see image at right). I must turn my texts and emails into Kanji ten times a day. And this is a feature??!

There are countless other examples of irritating UI features on the iPhone. Inconsistent navigation is a primary one, but …OK. I’m going to really stop now. Because I know, learning how to use the tools of computing is MY job, and I’m clearly falling down on it. I know there are ton of tips and tricks that would make my life easier, if only I took the time to learn them. If only I spent hours a week on the Mac tips websites and such. If only I wasn’t busy…writing rants like this one.

And I know that Andriod and Windows are hard to use too. And no, I’m certainly not going to install Linux.

My point is simply this: This stuff is too complicated. There has to be a better way. And while it used to be that Apple was the brand which uncomplicated computing, for me, anyway, that’s simply no longer true. Does anyone out there have similar experiences, or am I really an outlier?

The Future Is Cloudy

By - August 29, 2012

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about data recently. It’s not just reading books like The Information or Mirror Worlds (or Super Sad True Love Story, a science fiction novel that is both compelling and scary), it’s my day to day work, both at FM (where we deal with literally 25 billion ad calls and associated data a month), and in reporting the book (I’ve been to MIT, Yale, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and many other places, and the one big theme everyone is talking about is data…).

We are, as a society and as individuals, in the process of becoming data, of describing and detailing and burnishing our dataselves. And yet, we haven’t really joined the conversation about what this all means, in the main because it’s so damn abstract. We talk about privacy and fear of big brother, or big corporations. We talk about Facebook and whether we’re sharing too much. But we aren’t really talking – in any scaled, framed way – about what this means to being humans connected in a shared society, to be in relationships, to be citizens and consumers and lovers and haters….

There are so many wonderful micro conversations going on about this topic, spread out all over the place. I’m hoping that when my book appears, it might be a small step in joining some of these conversations into a larger framework. That’s the dream anyway.

Meanwhile, this report caught my eye (hat tip to the ever interesting newsletter guru Dave Pell and his NextDraft): Can’t Define “The Cloud”? Who Cares? It quotes a study that found:

….most people have no idea what the cloud is, have pretended to know what it means on first dates, and yet effectively all respondents are active cloud computing users.

It continues:

And that’s the way this stuff should work.

I get the point, but in a sense, I utterly disagree. If we as as society do not understand “the cloud,” in all its aspects – what data it holds, how it works, what the bargains are we make as we engage with it, we’ll all be the poorer for it, I believe. (For one aspect of this see my post on the Cloud Commit Conundrum). More on this as the Fall approaches, and I settle into a regular habit of writing out loud for the book.

 

A Show Of Hands Please…

By - August 28, 2012

…from those of you in the marketing business out there. How many of you would love to promote your product on the home page of Google, in this fashion?

It’s arguably the web’s most valuable ad placement, it’s not for sale, and no one knows how much traffic or conversion it drives save Google itself.

Just one more sign that the Internet Big Five are girding for a massive fight to be the platform for your life. And if you’re shocked, don’t be. Remember when Amazon launched Kindle? The first thing you saw when you went to amazon.com was….what again? But then again, the Kindle was just another product Amazon was selling, right? At least, it seemed that way.

Now, when Facebook does a home page takeover with its own hardware device, then the battle will truly be engaged. Though I’m not convinced the young company has that move in it….Regardless, here we go….

Musings On “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

By - August 17, 2012

I’ve run into a number of folks these past few days who read my piece last week: The State of Digital Media: Passion, Goat Rodeos, and Unicorn Exits…. Some of you have asked me to explain a bit more on the economic issues regarding media startups. I didn’t really go too deep into them, but as I was answering one fellow in email, I realized I didn’t really explain how complicated they really are, particularly if you want to make new forms of publications. I’ll get into that in the second part of this post, but first, I wanted to address a few articles that have touched on a portion of the issue, in particular The Pretty New Web and the Future of “Native” Advertising (by Choire Sicha) and What happens to advertising in a world of streams? (by Matthew Ingram).

Bridging the Stream

Both these posts tackle the emerging world of “stream”-driven content, painting them as opposite to the format we’ve pretty much used for the past 20 years – “page”-based content (like this page, for example). An established, at-scale business model exists for page-driven content, and it’s called display advertising. And anyone who’s been reading this site knows that display advertising is under pressure from two sides: first, the rise of massive platforms that harvest web pages and monetize them in ways that don’t pay the creators (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and secondly, the dramatic growth of programmatic buying platforms that do pay creators, but the payment amounts are too low to support great content (second generation ad networks called DSPs, backed by agencies and their marketing clients).

Sicha and Ingram note that “stream”-based models – the latest to get attention is Medium, from Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams – eschew display advertising. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are focused on stream-based advertising (Facebook got to its initial billions in display, but is pivoting to Sponsored Stories, Twitter has always been about its Promoted Products). Everyone expects similar in-stream products from Pinterest and Tumblr. Stream-based advertising products are “native” in nature – which is to say, advertising that acts much like the content it supports.

But as I’ve advised in the past, those platforms simply don’t work as home bases for people who want to make a living from creating great publications. Nor, to my mind, are they particularly good media experiences – the way a great site or a great print publication can be. For now, the good old-fashioned page-driven web is where folks like The Awl and GigaOm execute their product and collect their money. Display is their model, and that model is under pressure. What to do? This is a question that matters, a lot, because there are literally millions of sites that currently run on the display model, like it or not.

Well, I don’t think it’s as hard as it might seem. While folks are pretty freaked out about the decline of display, I’m a bit more patient. We’re in the middle of a shift, and it’s not as radical as some might think. We need “native advertising” for the independent web – and it turns out, we’ve already got it in the form of new, integrated content units that fit into the flow of the page-driven web (see image of FMP’s “native conversationalist suite,” above), and, of course, content and conversational marketing, which we’ve been doing since 2006. The issue we now have to tackle is scale (the ability to buy native ads across the web efficiently and in large numbers) and data (the ability to buy these ads with excellent targeting, performance metrics, and application of first- and third-party data). That’s going to take time, but it’s already underway. The technology and efficiencies of programmatic buying will, over time, marry with “native” ads, driving higher value for great content.  (More on this in another post).

And by the way, “traditional” display isn’t going to go away. It’s just going to get far more efficient and valuable as the data gets better and better, programmatic begins to climb up the value curve, and the units evolve to better complement new approaches to content presentation across all instances of the web (including apps and big platforms).

So far, I’ve been talking only about publishing on the “traditional web,” for lack of a better phrase. Nearly all web publications are driven by the display model, which is in turn driven by page views. But we all know the web is shifting, thanks to mobile devices and the walled gardens they erect. The new landscape of the web is far more complicated, and new products must emerge. To wit….

It’s A Tough Time To Launch A Magazine, Which Is Why It’s A Great Time…

Quick: Name me a digital-only publication that’s blown you away, the way the paper-based Wired did in 1992 (well, at least for some of you), or maybe Boing Boing did when you first found it online. I don’t mean a cool new website (there’s been a ton of those), but a magazine in sense of a branded package of curated, unique content, one that really speaks to you, one that is an event each time it comes out.*

As much as I love scores of wonderful sites across the web, most of them are driven by the daily grind of the display/pageview hamster wheel. They create 20, 30, 40 “content snacks” a day, and I miss far more than I consume.  My media habits when it comes to these sites are rather like a hummingbird. I can’t think of a single “publication” in the digital space that resonates the way magazines used to for me – where I stop time for a while, and really soak in the essence of the publication’s experience. (For purely selfish reasons, if you can think of one, please note it in the comments!)

I think there’s a reason there’s a paucity of digital magazines, and it has a lot to do with the current, fractured state of digital publishing. In short, if you want to create such a product, the curent ecosystem makes it nearly impossible to do so. I think this is changing, but so far, not fast enough.

Just for kicks, let’s say you want to start the equivalent of a “new publication” in the Internet space. Let’s further state that you want it to be relatively cutting edge, IE, you want it to be available everywhere your customer might be, and take advantage of the digital environment where it lives. That means  editions in the Apple iTunes store, Amazon’s Kindle/Android newsstand, and Google’s Play (Android) store, for all those Android smartphones and tablets storming the market. And of course, you want to exist on the web (with spiffy HTML5, natch). Oh, and it’d be nice if you could also have a great version of it exist on Facebook, no?

Naturally, you want to be able to give the consumer of your publication a consistent, platform-agnostic experience across all those environments. If your reader starts engaging with your publication on, say, an iPad, but moves to her work PC later in the day, your publication should be aware of what she’s been doing, the environment she’s now in, and then serves up the right content, ads, and such based on that data. Kind of the way NetFlix works (hey, they solved it for movies!), or Amazon’s Kindle readers (books!) across various platforms.**

Ready to get to work making this happen?!

OK. Well, let’s use the “old” model of magazine publishing as a starting point to model your costs.

In that model, you spent about 35% of your operating costs in “audience development” – paying for circulation and newsstand costs, as well as the costs of selling your product to advertisers (assuming you are going to both charge a sub fee, and include ads, which most “traditional” publications do).

Another 20-40% (depending on how much you care about your product) are spent on actually creating your content. You know, paying editors, designers, writers, videographers, etc.

Add in 25% of your cost to make and ship the physical product, and the remainder is “G&A” – paying for management staff.

As you can see, the variable cost here is in “creating your content,” and if you’re a passionate creator of media, you want to spend every dollar you can creating a great product, naturally.

The problem is, if you’re making digital media these days, the costs of packaging that content have skyrocketed. Imagine making a magazine that has to be natively integrated into half a dozen or more different newsstand formats. Instead of one consistent, beautiful page layout, you have to make six of them – one for each device and distributor, each native to the environment. You don’t have to pay six times over for the content, but you do have to pay a lot more for your design, production, tech, and distribution resources.  You want your content to shine everywhere it might be consumed, right?! Blam, your fixed costs of making the product just went uneconomic!

The same problem applies to marketers – they have to make not one ad, but up to six, if they want their ad to travel everywhere the publisher’s content goes, and work in ways that take advantage of each platform. Trust me, they don’t want to deal with that. No to mention, not many advertisers want to buy ads inside “digital magazines” these days. It’s an unproven medium, so far. (However, as I argued in my 2006-7 series on Conversational Media, the best magazine ads are in fact truly native.)

Which begs the other side of the ledger: Revenues. As I said before, traditional publications have two sources of revenues, in the main: subscriptions (paid circulation) and advertising.

As we all know, the industry has historically punted on getting anyone to pay for content on the Internet, but that’s changing – people pay for Netflix, the Wall St. Journal, Spotify, various apps, etc. I think folks will pay for quality content if it’s truly valuable, so let’s pretend for the purposes of this example that your new publication plans to be in the “valuable” category.

If you want to sell your publication on the Big Guys’ platforms, you have to play by their rules, which means you turn over 30% of your circulation revenues. That’s a hefty chunk of revenue to lose before you even begin to pay for other costs! You can keep all the revenues from folks who buy your publication on the web,  but if they want to enjoy it on their iPad or Kindle via a native application, well, you have to deal with Apple and Amazon. Google’s Play store takes a smaller cut, but it takes a cut nonetheless.

Just for arguments’ sake, let’s say that you cancel out that 30% tax with what you used to call “audience development costs” for traditional publications. You’re pretty much even, right? Nope. You now have cross-platform inconsistencies to work out, and those are going to cost you money to manage. What if your customer has more than one device, or wants to engage with your app on Facebook? Sorry, you’re kind of screwed. There’s no easy way to rationalize your customer experience across all those platforms and devices in a way that makes business sense. So many gatekeepers, so many business rules, so many tech platforms….

You’ll have to account for the costs of managing a data platform that keeps track of all your customers (including your advertisers) and insures they have a consistent experience across platforms. And you’ll have to build that yourself, sorry. The only folks who’ve figured that out are Very Big (Amazon, NetFlix etc), and they’re not sharing how they do it. It’s doable, but it’s gonna be expensive if you want to roll it yourself. I’ve heard that some new publishing startups are trying to do just that, and I wish them godspeed.

To cope with this particular mess, some publishers, like The Daily, have decided to go with just one platform (Apple), and cross their fingers and hope it works out. Others, like the Times, have pushed themselves across several, and expended heroic resources trying to tie it all together (without totally succeeding, in the main). But remember, we’re talking about a new publishing startup here, not the New York Times or Newscorp. If those guys are struggling to make it work, well, what’s the chances a startup media company is going to succeed?

Then there’s the revenues associated with selling advertising. As I pointed out earlier, the traditional web display model is under transitionary pressure, and anyway, you want your content to work everywhere, not just the web. If you want your advertisers to be everywhere your content is, you’ll have to figure out a way to get their ads natively into all those half dozen or so platforms (oh, and you’ll need to report performance metrics too, sorry). So far, that’s also an unsolved problem (and one your advertisers won’t pay you to solve). That’s going to limit your ability to sell ads, and increase your costs of serving them.

OK, I’m going to stop, because if you’re an aspiring publisher, I may have given you a fit of the blues.

But cheer up. Because I really do believe these issues will be solved. So far, we’ve written off magazines as dying, because we can’t figure out how to replicate their core value proposition in the digital world. But I’ve got a strong sense this is changing. Crazy publishing entrepreneurs, and even the big players in media, will sooner rather than later drive solutions that resolve our current dilemma. We’ll develop ads that travel with content, content management systems that allow us to automatically and natively drive our creations into the big platforms, and sensible business rules with the Big Guys that allow independent, groundbreaking publications to flourish again.

It’s going to take time, patience, innovation, and pressure, but we’ll get there. In fact, getting there is going to be a great journey, one we’re already well into. So tell me – what’s your favorite digital “publication” and why? Do you read “traditional magazines” on your tablet or online? And what companies do you think are innovating in this area?

—-

*Some have argued that the era of a branded publication created by a dedicated team of content creators is over. I utterly disagree, but that’s another post. 

**The fact that these two “old media” formats have mostly solved their digital distribution issues, whilst magazines have not, is vexing. A movie is a movie, a book is a book – you can read it or watch it online in nearly the same way that you can offline.  Movies, TV shows, and books can easily flow, with very little new formatting, into any digital space. But a magazine clearly is a different beast. We don’t want to just flip through a PDF of our favorite magazine (or do we? Do you?). Something seems off, doesn’t it? We want more…clearly, the magazine holds some magic that so far, we’ve not unlocked. What a wonderful problem to think about….

Here We Go Again: The Gray Market in Twitter and Facebook

By - August 07, 2012

So, casually reading through this Fast Company story about sexy female Twitter bots, I come across this astounding, unsubstantiated claim:

My goal was to draw a straight line from a Twitter bot to the real, live person whose face the bot had stolen. In the daily bot wars–the one Twitter fights every day, causing constant fluctuations in follower counts even as brands’ followers remain up to 48% bot–these women are the most visible and yet least acknowledged victims…

There it was, tossed in casually, almost as if it was a simple cost of doing business – nearly half of the followers of major brands could well be “bots.”

The article focuses on finding a pretty woman whose image had been hijacked, sure, but what I found most interesting (but sadly unsurprising) was how it pointed to a site that promises to a thousand  followers to anyone who pays…wait for it…about $17. Yes, the site is real. And no, you shouldn’t be surprised, in the least, that such services exist.

It has always been so.

Back when I was reporting for The Search, I explored the gray market that had sprung up around Google (and still flourishes, despite Google’s disputed attempts to beat it back). Fact is, wherever there is money to be made, and ignorance or desperation exists in some measure, shysters will flourish. And a further fact is this: Marketers, faced with CMO-level directives to “increase my follower/friend counts,” will turn to the gray market. Just as they did back in the early 2000s, when the directive was “make me rank higher in search.”

Earlier this week I got an email from a fellow who has been using Facebook to market his products. He was utterly convinced that nearly all the clicks he’s received on his ad were fake – bots, he thought, that were programmed to make his campaigns look as if they were performing well. He was further convinced that Facebook was running a scam – running bot networks to drive performance metrics. I reminded him that Facebook was a public company run by people I believed were well intentioned, intelligent people who knew that such behavior, if discovered, would ruin both their reputation as well as that of the company.

Instead, I suggested, he might look to third parties he might be working with – or, hell, he might just be the victim of a drive-by shooting – poorly coded bots that just click on ad campaigns, regardless of whose they might be.

In short, I very much doubt Facebook (or Twitter) are actively driving fraudulent behavior on their networks. In fact, they have legions of folks devoted to foiling such efforts.Yet there is absolutely no doubt that an entire, vibrant ecosystem is very much engaged in gaming these services. And just like Google had at the dawn of search marketing, Twitter and Facebook have a very – er – complicated relationship with these fraudsters. On the one hand, the gray hats are undermining the true value of these social networks. But on the other, well, they seem to help important customers hit their Key Performance Indicators, driving very real money into company coffers, either directly or indirectly.

I distinctly recall a conversation with a top Google official in 2005, who – off the record – defended AdSense-splattered domain-squatters as “providing a service to folks who typed the wrong thing into the address bar.” Uh huh.

As long as marketers are obsessed with hollow metrics like follower counts, Likes, and unengaged “plays,” this ecosystem will thrive.

What truly matters, of course, is engagement that can be measured beyond the actions of bots. It is coming. But not before millions of dollars are siphoned off by the opportunists who have always lived on the Internet’s gray edge.

The Power of Being There

By - August 06, 2012

It’s been building for weeks – Friday marks the first day of the fifth annual Outside Lands festival here in San Francisco. Despite the demands of work and family, I try to get to as many festivals as I can – so far, I’ve managed to see Bonnaroo a few times, Coachella once (I’ll be back!), Austin City Limits, and a few others. Outside Lands is local to San Francisco and therefore much easier to attend – this will be my third. Compared to your average festival goer (who tends to be single and about half my age) I’m a punter, but I’ll take it.

Why do I go? In two words, serendipity and joy. When you gather with tens of thousands of like minded, smiling people, unexpected connections are made, and bouts of pure happiness break out all over the place. Who wouldn’t want to soak in some of that?

I bring this all up because I’ve noticed a trend, highlighted by this story: YouTube streaming Lollapalooza music festival for free this weekend. Outside Lands was one of the first festivals to stream for free (back in 2009, if I recall), and many others have followed apace.

Why?

Well, I think the truth is obvious, but worth restating: it’s one thing to be there, and quite another to watch everyone else being there. The value of gathering together only increases as the virtual channel becomes ubiquitous. And that is a good sign for humanity, to my mind.