Russell Smith: Web-bashing 101

I don’t like to pick on a colleague from the Globe and Mail, but in Russell Smith’s case I’m willing to make an exception. I like Russell, and I know he enjoys playing the curmudgeon — in fact, I think he would make a pretty good blogger. But in his latest column I think he goes for the facile, blog-bashing argument because, well… it’s easy. In the piece, which is entitled “Way more news sites, way less news,” he looks at the recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which looked at the state of the news media in the U.S. and compared the number of unique news stories both in print and online in various forms, including blogs. One of the comments from the study is:

“News consumers may have had more choices than ever for where to find news in 2007, but that does not mean they had more news to choose from. The news agenda for the year was, in fact, quite narrow, dominated by a few major general topic areas.”

Russell uses this as a stick with which to beat the Web and particularly the blogosphere, saying blogs and websites focus on only a few stories and blow them out of proportion, and also that sites such as Digg (which the report barely mentions) accelerate this process. He says the report showed that “more than a quarter of the news stories on television and online last year in the United States were about the Iraq war and the presidential campaign” and says that

“this kind of concentration of attention runs against what was expected of the kind of information universe the Web would provide. What we expected, 10 years ago, was a wild diversity, a babble of voices bringing light to the stories that the supposedly stodgy, politics-and-economics-obsessed newspaper newsrooms were not connected to.”

I’m not sure who expected that (other than maybe Russell). In any case, is he saying that TV and news websites shouldn’t have focused on the Iraq war and the presidential campaign? Surely those were a couple of pretty important topics. Russell goes on to say that instead of the wonderful diversity that we expected from the Web, “what we’ve ended up with is a million sources reporting the same story.”

Two things about that: 1) Lots of the blogs and websites writing about those topics aren’t reporting them at all, they’re analyzing and commenting on them (people might take issue with that, but it’s a separate argument from the one Russell is advancing; and 2) What do plenty of newspapers do? Run the same set of a dozen or so newswire stories or press releases to fill out their pages — and often get them wrong, as Tim Burden notes in his post. How is that any different? Most of the report’s criticisms seem to extend primarily to cable television, rather than online, but Russell has his axe and he’s apparently determined to grind it.

“If the news is important, it will find me”

Brian Stelter has a great piece in the New York Times that I urge anyone interested in the media business to go and read right now — I’ll wait — and that includes reporters, editors and (most of all) managers, and probably IT departments and designers as well. The context of the piece is political reporting and political news, but I think the points Brian is making are relevant to the entire industry as a whole.

It’s not that there is anything earth-shatteringly new in the piece, mind you. But I think it does a great job of describing how digital “word of mouth” — in other words, social networking of all kinds including Twitter, IM, Facebook and so on — has become a dominant means of news delivery for young people in a way that I’m not sure old geezers like myself quite grasp, no matter how often people describe it (and Stelter knows whereof he speaks, since he was still in university when the NYT hired him away from TV Newser). As Brian describes it in the story:

In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one.

And then Stelter mentions Jane Buckingham of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, and says that during a focus group, one of the subjects — a college student — said to her:

“If the news is that important, it will find me.”

Think about that for a second — or longer, if necessary. I think that sums up, in ten simple words, what has happened to the way that many people (and not just young people, but those who use RSS readers and blogs and social networks as well) consume the news (Mark Cuban seems to think so too). Not only is there just so much of it out there that it’s virtually impossible to consume it all, but the very fact that someone you know — or trust — has passed on or blogged or Twittered or posted a link makes it more likely that you will read it.

Are most websites designed with this kind of principle in mind? Not really. Most of them are still designed as though people read the news the same way they do in the paper — starting at the front and moving page by page towards the back (of course, many people don’t read the newspaper this way either, but that’s another story). In reality, people come from every conceivable angle, dropping into stories and then disappearing, finding them through links and posts and Digg and elsewhere.

If the news is that important, it will find me.

Crack deal on Google Streetview?

It has yet to make its way to Canada (although the cars have been spotted, and there has already been controversy over privacy laws) but in many U.S. cities, Google’s “Streetview” service provides high-resolution photos of the street when you select a location on Google Maps. A whole subculture has emerged on the Web since the service went live, of people trading and commenting on photos of people sunbathing nude, words carved into cornfields and so on.

This week, a series of photographs showed up on several sites that appeared to show two men engaging in a drug deal on the streets of Chicago. Although the photos have since been removed from Google’s database, there are still plenty of versions of them available on the Web. But do they actually show a drug deal? There’s a black man in a baseball cap, large white T-shirt and baggy jeans bending over into the window of a car, with what appears to be cash or a small package in his hand — but does that mean it’s a drug deal?

Some commenters at Gawker and elsewhere argued that to assume it was a drug deal was an overtly racist response. Others, however — including some Chicago residents — were more than happy to chime in that the area was a well-known drug neighbourhood, and in one case a commenter said that she had bought drugs at that exact location before. Another said that he was “robbed at gunpoint while trying to buy pot” at the same spot. And Gawker editor Nick Denton pointed to a local site with crime statistics for the area that seemed to back up the drug-deal explanation.

Just one troubling point, as more than one commenter noted: the Google Streetview photos are taken by a car — in most cases a Volkswagen Beetle — with a 360-degree camera mounted on a tripod on the roof. If the other men near the car were (as some argued) keeping an eye out for cops, how could they not notice a Beetle driving by with a gigantic camera strapped to its roof? Whoever the dealer is, he needs some new lookouts.

CBC follows Norway’s BitTorrent lead

My friend Steve O’Hear alerted me to a post on the Last100 blog (part of the excellent Read/Write Web network) written by Guinevere Orvis, an interactive producer with the CBC — that’s Canada’s national broadcaster, for any of my non-Canadian readers — about how the network came to distribute one of its shows using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network. Guinevere says that the idea started with a post on BoingBoing about Norway’s state broadcaster doing the same thing with a show.

While it might have been nice to hear that the CBC got the idea from reading about it on my Globe blog (sorry, I couldn’t resist), it’s still nice to know that our national broadcaster is open to new ideas. And from the sounds of Norway’s experience, it should be one that they consider repeating. According to Eirik Solheim, who works for the Norwegian broadcaster, the show has been downloaded more than 90,000 times and the network has been “saving huge on bandwidth cost.”

That last part is important to note: BitTorrent may be known for piracy, but it is fundamentally a distribution method, plain and simple (ISPs argue that it is cheap because it piggybacks on their networks and sticks them with the bill, but that’s a topic for another day). Here’s hoping that the CBC decides to continue this experiment, and congratulations to Guinevere for helping them come to grips with the issues involved and spurring them on. Her full post on all the details is well worth a read.

Further reading:

Michael Geist has written about the CBC’s move, and so has TorrentFreak, and CNET. Mike Masnick at Techdirt has taken note of it as well.

mesh 2008: more details on meshU

As my fellow mesh 2008 organizer Mark Evans notes in his blog post on the topic, one of the things that we got asked to do after the last mesh conference was to come up with ways of providing more in-depth content for developers, programmers, designers and other hard-core Web and product types. We thought about trying to build more of that kind of content into the main mesh conference, but it felt as though it needed its own thing: hence, the creation of meshU.

meshU — which takes place on May 20th, the day before the main mesh conference — is designed to be a one-day, intensive series of workshops and discussions about issues that developers, designers and even managers (yes, even managers) need to know about, whether it’s using Amazon’s S3 distributed servers system or interface design or AJAX tools. And we’ve got some megawatt speakers to lead some of those discussions, including Dabble DB co-founder Avi Bryant, Pownce co-founder Leah Culver, John Resig of jQuery and Carsonified’s Ryan Carson.

We also want to hear from you what kind of workshops you’re interested in, or if you think you’re the one to present something or lead a tutorial or discussion. Just fill out this form and let us know a bit more about what you have in mind. You can read more about meshU here, and if you want to book a ticket you can do that for just $239.

Why is it different because it’s Craigslist?

So another ad on Craigslist has resulted in a man’s house being ransacked and many of his belongings — including his horse and his porch swing — being stolen. Robert Salisbury of Jacksonville, Oregon apparently came home to find people rummaging through his home, after an ad on Craigslist said that he was giving away his possessions. The ad, of course, was a hoax — just like the one that ran about a year ago that resulted in a woman’s house being vandalized. In that case, they even took the woman’s refrigerator, the kitchen sink and the front door.

As Mike Arrington notes in his post at TechCrunch, this shouldn’t be that surprising really. Craigslist is simply a mirror that reflects human behaviour at its best and possibly at its worst. Why does that have anything to do with the site itself? If someone arranges for a hitman to take out their spouse, and the medium of communication happens to be a newspaper ad, should the newspaper be liable? Hardly. If I call someone and arrange a bank robbery, is the phone company to blame for that?

Craigslist is simply an instrument. Obviously, if it publishes an ad that it knows to be fake or illegal — like the listings on eBay for human kidneys and so on — then it is potentially at fault. But it has no way of knowing whether Robert Salisbury of Jacksonville actually wants to give away all of his possessions, nor should it be expected to.

mesh 2008 ticket window is now open

Despite a distinct lack of spring weather in Toronto, there’s definitely something in the air — and it’s the warmth of an approaching mesh conference! A lot of people have been emailing and Facebook messaging and Twittering and so on in recent weeks, asking us when we were going to start selling mesh 2008 tickets, and the answer is: Right now.

Hopefully you have the dates (May 21st and 22nd) blocked out in your calendar already, and now is your chance to lock up those tickets. The sales window is open, and tickets are $469 each, which we at mesh humbly believe is pretty competitive for a two-day Web conference. We’ve also expanded the number of student tickets to 30 this year.

Right now, we can tell you about several keynotes:

  • author Matt Mason, whose new book The Pirate’s Dilemma looks at the implications of digital piracy.
  • Club Penguin co-founder Lane Merrifield, a Canadian who helped build a virtual world for children that was bought by Disney for $350-million.
  • and Ethan Kaplan, the head of technology at Warner Brothers Records, who is intimately involved in the evolution of the modern music industry.

We also have some great panelists and speakers lined up, including:

and a host of others to come. We’ll be adding more as we get closer to the conference, so be sure to keep checking the site for new names and photos.

As mentioned before, we’ve also added a new feature to mesh this year called meshU, a full day of hands-on workshops and panels for startups, web designers and developers of all kinds. It’s on May 20th, the day before mesh. We’ve got some great speakers and workshop leaders lined up for meshU as well — including Avi Bryant of DabbleDB, Pownce founder Leah Culver, Ryan Carson and John Resig. For more details and a link to where you can buy tickets, check out the meshU site.

Mesh on!

FriendFeed now flows both ways

As Frederic at The Last Podcast was one of the first to notice, the up-and-coming “lifestream” aggregation engine FriendFeed now allows users to post responses back to Twitter from the Web service — responding to one of the main criticisms that have come from some reviewers. Until now, you could read Twitter messages and comment on them, but those comments remained on the FriendFeed site and therefore weren’t visible to the person who posted unless they came to the site.

More than one person said that this made FriendFeed into another destination social site, rather than purely an aggregator of services, something I wrote about in a previous post. As I mentioned in that post, I can see the appeal of a group of friends having their own discussions, removed from the hurly-burly of the broader Web — which co-founder Paul Buchheit described as one of the benefits of FriendFeed — but I also think a tool like Twitter is designed for back-and-forth, and the more there is of it the better. The new feature posts a comment to FriendFeed and also posts it as a response directly to Twitter if the user wants.

That’s an elegant solution, and it only took a matter of days for the team at FriendFeed to implement it — along with several other cool features, including the ability to track your Disqus comments through the service, something Fred Wilson and others had suggested would be an appealing addition. Nice work by the FriendFeed team.

Ad networks: Inventory vs. the brand

There’s been lots of talk recently about the value of ad networks, including a recent piece in MediaWeek about how ESPN has decided to opt out of the ad network game. The central question seems to be: Are ad networks a great way to package up unsold Web inventory and monetize it, or do they take traffic away from a brand and potentially interfere with that brand’s ability to market effectively to its audience? It may not help, but I would say the answer is probably yes to both of those questions.

Aggregating space on blogs and other sites that could have value to advertisers makes sense, and that’s presumably why Forbes is setting up a blog network, and why Federated Media is also in that business — which John Battelle talks about in a Q&A here, and why large-scale blog networks like b5media exist as well (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am part of the new Forbes blog network). At the same time, however, it’s not at all clear whether such networks can ever really compete with algorithm-based and search-targeted advertising.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better for a brand — such as ESPN — to focus on building a better relationship with its core audience, rather than running ads from some ad network that may or may not be relevant, and could take eyeballs elsewhere, all in return for a crappy CPM rate? That’s obviously the conclusion that ESPN has come to, and others have as well. To some, chasing the low returns of ad network banners isn’t worth the investment. Others, however, will see it as better than nothing — particularly if it involves inventory that’s going to go stale anyway.

Maybe it’s just the spillover from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, but in some cases packaging remnant inventory and selling it through an ad network reminds me of the Wall Street practice of bundling underperforming or questionable mortgages together, and “securitizing” them in order to unload them onto outside investors. That kind of strategy works really well — right up until it doesn’t.

Video: My new favourite robot

My most recent favourite robot was the so-called “Big Dog” robot from Boston Dynamics, which has an amazing ability to remain standing, even when walking on ice and being shoved by the foot of its human master — but the Yellow Drum Machine is my new favourite, I think. Its sole purpose in life is to seek out flat surfaces and then tap on them, and simultaneously record itself doing so. Then it plays the sound back and plays along, before seeking out a new surface. Like its creator, I love how the speaker sticks straight up like a smokestack on an old steam locomotive.