Of Digg “refugees” and Mixx

Like my friends Mark Evans — who has mentioned it in comments on Rob Hyndman’s post and on TechCrunch — and Tony Hung of DJI, I am puzzled by Mike Arrington’s post on Mixx and how “Digg refugees” are making it their destination of choice. Digg refugees? I must have missed a memo somewhere. I know that there are all kinds of people who regularly get mad at Digg, but I wasn’t aware that there was a mass exodus.

I know that Mike only says that those who are dissatisfied with Digg “may” be heading to Mixx, but he sure makes it sound like a done deal. Why? Who knows. Slow news day in the blogosphere maybe? Mike says that Digg users “are showing an increasing amount of frustration with the Digg community, and many are leaving.” An increasing amount of frustration? That’s news to me too. And are many of the top Diggers really leaving? Mike mentions one: Greg Davies, who is interviewed here.

The only other evidence I can find for what Mike is saying comes from this post, which I can’t help but notice comes from a blog that claims to specialize in “social media SEO.” I’m not saying — I’m just saying. And even that one says that many of the top Diggers mentioned having left Digg, and haven’t even posted anything at Mixx. They’re just “checking it out.” Meanwhile, Mike admits that Mixx’s traffic is virtually zero compared to Digg. Why bother with the post then?

New music models and old music models

(This is cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

More than a month after Radiohead allowed users to download its latest album and pay whatever amount they wanted for it, debate continues about whether the move was just a stunt — one that only an established band with a dedicated fan base could pull off — or whether it was a viable alternative to the traditional record-label model.

The band has yet to say how many people have downloaded the album or what they paid, but that hasn’t stopped others from experimenting with similar moves. Suburban Home Records, an independent label based in Colorado, recently announced that fans can download a free sampler collection of songs from all the bands represented and distributed by the label — and they can share those songs with whoever they wish.

Meanwhile, a new music site known as RCRD LBL launched this week, founded by Engadget editor Peter Rojas and Josh Deutsch of Downtown Records. The site features songs by a variety of up-and-coming artists, which are provided for free download (without any digital-rights-management restrictions), along with widgets that can be embedded in various blogs and other sites that stream RCRD LBL artists. The venture is completely ad-supported.

Another artist inspired by Radiohead (in addition to The Charlatans, another UK band who released their album for download not long after Radiohead did) was Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails, who recently dumped his record label. Reznor has made a number of comments both at public events and on the band’s website about how he was looking forward to developing a “direct relationship” with his fans, and was also instrumental in getting a record by Saul Williams — a record Reznor produced — released online as a free download.

One of the NIN frontman’s attempts to interact more directly with his fans has been stymied, however — at least for now — by the lawsuits between his former label (Universal Music) and YouTube. As Reznor describes in a recent note on the NIN website, fans have been remixing and reworking his songs for the past couple of years, creating interesting works of their own, and the artist wanted to recognize these efforts by setting up a dedicated site at NIN.com for them to upload their files. Then he got a call from Universal.

The label, which owns the rights to Reznor’s previous works, wouldn’t let him go forward with the project because they are afraid it might jeopardize their lawsuit against YouTube and MySpace. The label is arguing that the two sites don’t have protection under the “safe harbour” clause of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and according to Reznor “Universal feels that if they host our remix site, they will be opening themselves up to the accusation that they are sponsoring the same technical violation of copyright they are suing these companies for.”

Video secrets revealed! Give me a break

TechCrunch put up a post yesterday by someone named Dan Ackerman Greenberg (everyone else gets by with just two names, but for some reason Dan seems to need three) about how his company uses a variety of secret “black hat” techniques to get videos to go “viral,” and the post has caused a bit of a blogstorm on Techmeme, not to mention some strong reaction from readers in TechCrunch’s comments section.

Howard Lindzon says the whole thing was obviously designed to suck readers in from Techmeme (which seems to have worked, if that was the intent). A comment from Mike Arrington on the post implies that he would have rather posted the info without giving Dan — a student at Stanford university — and his company a whole pile of free publicity, but then a comment farther down from TechCrunch writer Mark Hendrickson says that despite Mike’s comment, the post did “go through an editorial process,” whatever that means.

Regardless of the intention behind the post, I find it hard to believe that everyone is so shocked at this company’s “astro-turfing” and “sock puppet” approach. Use thumbnails for your video that include shots of women who are only partially clothed? Wow. Thanks for that top-secret tip, Dr. Greenberg. Setting up multiple accounts and then posting comments on them, or using a Facebook account to do the same, or emailing it to a list? Evil genius. Who would have thought of that?


My friend and marketing whiz Leigh Himel makes a good point in this post: strategies like the ones suggested on TechCrunch work really well — right up until someone finds out about them, at which point you lose any goodwill or trust that has built up. If that doesn’t matter to you or your brand, then good luck to you. You will probably need it.

Dave “Mc500hats” McClure makes a good point in his comment on the TechCrunch post (which has more than 300 comments now). He says that reading about tactics such as CoMotion uses is educational, in the sense that it opens your eyes to the kinds of things that go on all the time.

Sir Tim says social is the new black

Well, it’s official. The “social graph” is the new metaphor for what the Web is becoming. Nick Carr points to a post by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (you might have heard of him, he kind of invented the Web) in which the godfather of hypertext lays out his thoughts about “Web 3.0,” or what has been called the “semantic Web.” And it is all about the connections between people, expressed through whatever sites or services they choose to allow to collect or transmit their social information.

As described by Sir Tim (who once told me in an interview that anyone uses the Sir in front of his name has to buy a round of drinks), the original Internet revolution was the ability to connect computers through various protocols — instead of having to worry about cables and specific kinds of equipment. The second revolution, which built on the first, was the ability to connect documents and files and databases, regardless of where those documents and data existed — i.e., the Web.

Now, he says, we are moving towards a social Web, which allows us to connect with other people in a variety of ways, and to do so (theoretically) regardless of where that person is and what software tools or service they are using. Sounds a lot like Google’s OpenSocial, doesn’t it? Although Sir Tim doesn’t mention that specifically, he is clearly talking about formats that allow the free movement of personal data from place to place.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was what the father of the Web said about how each advancement has required people to give up some level of control. He saysl:

“The less inviting side of sharing is losing some control. Indeed, at each layer — Net, Web, or Graph — we have ceded some control for greater benefits. People running Internet systems had to let their computer be used for forwarding other people’s packets, and connecting new applications they had no control over.”

And now, it is social information that is being transmitted — and there are tradeoffs that go along with that, as Facebook is forcing us to realize:

“Letting your data connect to other people’s data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don’t have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications. It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.”

That Tim — he’s a pretty smart guy.

Facebook Beacon woes are overstated

Predictably enough, Facebook’s new advertising initiative known as Beacon — the one that follows you around even when you’re outside Facebook and watches what you’re buying on partner websites — has sparked a small frenzy of consternation about privacy, with Charlene Li’s post about her suddenly public shopping spree at Overstock heading the pack. I’m going to side with Justin Smith of Inside Facebook on this one. I think this is pretty much a carbon copy of what happened with the news feed.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Facebook suddenly allowed everything you did on the site to be published to your news feed so that everyone could see it, and plenty of users went completely apeshit about it being a heinous invasion of privacy, etc. Facebook was excoriated for the way it handled the announcement, and for the fact that it forced people to opt out instead of allowing them to opt in and configure who saw what, and generally it was a tsunami of negative publicity.

And what is now one of the biggest draws about Facebook, one of the things that makes it so magnetic and social and addictive? The constantly updated info about who’s doing what, who has uploaded photos, who has joined a group, who has changed their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” In other words, the much-maligned news feed.

Obviously, the Beacon info is in a different category in a lot of ways. It involves things like shopping for coffee tables at Overstock, for example. So what? So Charlene didn’t notice the alert that asked he if she wanted that info to be broadcast or not. Maybe other people will not notice as well, or will get upset like Moveon.org has about how it’s opt out instead of opt in.

As Justin notes, 100 times as many people got upset about the news feed as joined the Moveon protest, and that one blew over eventually. Maybe Facebook will tweak things so it’s more obvious, or give you the blanket opt-out ability — or maybe not. I think it’s mountain and molehill territory myself. Will I have to ignore news feed items about people like Charlene buying coffee tables? Sure. Just the same way I ignore people telling me they just added the Zombie application. Big deal. (My friend Leigh Himel has a different view).

Can Hollywood be like Silicon Valley?

I didn’t get a chance to write about Marc Andreessen’s recent post related to the writers’ strike, in which he argued that Hollywood needs to become more like Silicon Valley — i.e., more entrepreneurial — but it certainly got me thinking. And now I get to write about it anyway, because an article in the Los Angeles Times effectively reproduces Marc’s argument, comparing the small, entrepreneur-driven approach of the Valley to the indie filmmaker or writer-director whose movie makes it big at the box office.

Patrick Goldstein of the Times makes a persuasive case for how some of the best movies come from independent filmmakers or writers, who are consumed by a dream and find any way they can to make it happen, and how some of those people go on to become Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. And then just when I was feeling all rosy about the whole thing, Steve Bryant of Reel Pop comes along and dashes some cold water on Goldstein’s argument, saying the odds of that happening to a struggling filmmaker or writer are astronomical.

Steve’s point is that marketing your great idea is the one thing that stands in the way of an entrepreneurial would-be filmmaker and glory, and that simply uploading a clip of your film to YouTube isn’t going to be enough to stand out from the mass of dreck that gets spewed out of Hollywood on the average day. And he is probably right.

I would still like to hope (and I think Steve would too) that sheer grit and determination can get you a long way — and there’s no question that the Web has lowered the barriers to being discovered or finding support. But it hasn’t removed them entirely. In other words, being lucky is probably still the best tool you can have in your arsenal.

Guitar Hero is playing our song

One of the most popular video games this year is Guitar Hero, in which players flail away, Van-Halen-style, at a guitar-shaped controller and try to replicate the moves of the guitarist playing a popular song. Think of it as guitar karaoke. The original came out in 2005, and there is now a Guitar Hero II and a Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, as well as a Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (a new game called Rock Band adds drums and a microphone to the mix).

Harmonix and RedOctane, the companies that developed and marketed the original Guitar Hero game for the Sony PlayStation2, reportedly had some difficulty getting the rights to certain songs that it wanted to use (most of which are performed by “soundalike” musicians). But they may not have as much trouble in the future.

According to a story at the tech blog Ars Technica, sales numbers from Soundscan — an industry tracking firm — show a fairly strong correlation between the music included in Guitar Hero III and sales of that same song through retailers and other outlets.

As an example, sales of the song “Reptilia” by The Strokes climbed by 127 per cent in the week the game was released, compared with the week before. A track by the band Slipknot saw a similar type of increase after being included in the game, with sales up more than 70 per cent in the first week after the game’s release, and up by triple digits the week after that.

The connection between Guitar Hero and higher sales is hardly black and white, of course. Some songs that were included didn’t see much of an increase. In some cases, the increase seen in album or CD sales could have been a result of conventional marketing campaigns or other influences that Soundscan and Ars Technica didn’t take into account. Nevertheless, there appears to be a fairly strong relationship between the game and sales.

At least one band seems to see the value of having their music included in Guitar Hero, to the point where they would like an increase in compensation for it: The Romantics, a 1980s band whose hits included “What I Like About You“, is suing Activision — which distributes the game — claiming that the soundalikes who recorded their song are too similar to the original band, and therefore they should get extra compensation.

Online ads up — just not enough

Yet another in a long (and I mean long — we’re talking a decade or so) line of depressing declines in newspaper advertising levels, as detailed in a release by the Newspaper Association of America and in this Reuters story. And just to add insult to injury, Alan Mutter of Newsosaur notes both on his own blog and at Silicon Alley Insider that it’s even worse when you take inflation into account. I bet Alan is a lot of fun at parties.

As the Reuters story notes, there is some good news — while regular print advertising fell by 10 per cent in the third quarter, online ads rose by about 21 per cent. That’s good, right? Sure. Except for the fact that online advertising only amounted to about $770-million, and traditional newspaper ads accounted for more than 10 times that amount or about $10-billion. That’s a pretty dramatic gap, as Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has pointed out before — something he calls the “10-per-cent problem.”

UGC: BusinessWeek misses the point

BusinessWeek magazine has a piece about user-generated content and how it’s old and busted now — people really want professional content, apparently. As proof that “one after another,” video sites are turning their backs on UGC and going steady with the pros instead, BusinessWeek gives us one example: Mania.tv, which recently refocused and got rid of the user-generated part of its model, which apparently never really drew that many viewers.

Of course, it’s possible that Mania either didn’t approach that part of its business properly, or didn’t bother looking for the diamonds in the UGC rough — or maybe people were too busy uploading their stuff to YouTube and DailyMotion and Metacafe. It’s tough being third or fourth to the party, as a number of commenters have pointed out on Lost Remote.

The thing that really bugs me about the BusinessWeek article is that there’s this false dichotomy between high-quality professional content and low-quality UGC crap. It’s not that binary, I would argue. It’s more like a spectrum, with professional content on one end, and as you move down the scale you get lower quality, until there’s your brother-in-law singing karaoke.

Is there a lot of UGC crap that only someone’s mother would watch? Sure there is. But there’s a lot of garbage produced by “professionals” that gets foisted on people through traditional media too, whether they want it or not. I’d take some half-decent UGC over that any day.

Jaron Lanier and the “pay me” gang

Nick Carr points to a piece by Jaron Lanier in the New York Times, wherein the virtual-reality guru with the wacky dreads talks about how he has changed his mind about the whole “information wants to be free” thing and would just really like to get paid, thank you very much. Maybe the virtual-reality guru and experimental musician/filmmaker business isn’t paying off any more and Jaron needs the rent money.

In any case, (as Nick himself points out), what Jaron suggests is virtually impossible. In fact, his rant might as well be entitled “I Want To Put the Genie Back in the Bottle Please.” Information of all kinds has breached the wall and is hurtling in all directions, unable to be contained — or not for long anyway — or metered or subjected to a toll approach. That’s a fact. One hopes that Jaron hasn’t been advising the music industry (and he clearly hasn’t been talking with Rupert Murdoch).

On a related note, author Harlan Ellison has a similar rant about getting paid, which you can watch on YouTube. It seems that Warner Brothers wanted him to contribute to some kind of DVD — for nothing! Can you imagine the gall?

I think Harlan Ellison has written some amazing science fiction, and I am a huge fan, but after listening to his rant on YouTube, I get the impression that if he were a musician, he would charge you for singing Happy Birthday at your kid’s party. In fact, if you happened to pass by his apartment on your way somewhere and heard him singing in the shower, he would probably want to charge you for that too.

It’s ironic that Ellison’s rant is on YouTube, where it is free — and where I saw it and got at least a little value out of it. If it had been on a DVD somewhere, I would never have seen it. Does Harlan get any value from me seeing it on YouTube? He might someday, theoretically. But Harlan wants cash in his pockets right now. He doesn’t want to build a relationship with me as a reader, or any of that New Age crapola.

Tell you what, Harlan. I’ll keep my money to myself, and you keep your rants to yourself. And that goes for you too, Jaron.