Andrew Baron stirs up a Twitter storm

Andrew Baron, founder of the video-blog Rocketboom, seems to have stirred up quite the hornet’s nest by putting his Twitter account up for sale on eBay — along with all of his followers. When I first saw reports of this last night (on Twitter, of course), I thought it was a harmless enough prank, something Andrew clearly came up with as a lark. But the amount of commentary it has sparked in some quarters suggests that he has poked a stick into something important. What is the real value of a community, and can a community be bought and sold?

Obviously, Andrew can’t actually sell his followers. As he notes in the auction itself, his followers could all disappear as soon as the sale is complete. So what is he selling? His Twitter ID, for one thing. Of course, you would assume that whoever bought it would change the name to something else — but what if they didn’t? Andrew might have to put up with someone using his name on Twitter and pushing messages out to followers who may think it’s him (ask Shel Israel about that).

And what about some of those 1,400 or so followers who don’t particularly care who they’re following? Maybe they’ll be just as happy to follow whoever buys the account (for which the bid was $500 last time I looked). Andrew’s offer — which I assume from some of his comments was designed more as a thought experiment than anything else, as he shifts his Twittering to @rocketboom — reminded me of the guy who is selling his whole life, including his house, his job and his friends. (There are more comments from Andrew here).

Experiment or not, some people seem outraged that Andrew would even think of such a thing — to sell a community. Others say it’s no different than a media property selling its readership to someone else. Is it just a publicity stunt? More importantly, will social-media marketing types come to certain conclusions about the value of community depending on what the sale price is? Stowe Boyd says they shouldn’t, and that a true community can’t be sold, but others say there could be some value in such a purchase.

What is art worth — and how do we pay?

Ethan Kaplan, who is the vice-president of technology at Warner Brothers Records, wrote a long and thoughtful post today about the value of art, and how we as a society need to think long and hard about how we value art — including how (or if) we are prepared to pay for it — so that artists can make a living from what they create. Mike Arrington has responded to Ethan’s post over at TechCrunch, and he isn’t having any of what he calls “this new touchy-feely approach to the music tax.”

I thought Ethan did a nice job of looking at the issue and some of the questions it raises, without trying to boil it all down to an easy solution — but Mike zeroed in on one particular part near the end, where Ethan talks about how some artists in certain countries (including Canada) are supported by government programs. Putting two and two together, Mike says this is just Ethan’s way of rationalizing the “music tax” that Warner Music has been busily lobbying for:

“Strip away all the flowery language and what you have is a music industry executive calling for the ‘pro-ignorance’ US society to value music as art no matter whether it’s the ‘worst’ or the ‘best.’ He talks about how great European artists have it with government subsidies. And he’s doing it weeks after his boss called for a music tax.”

I think Mike is being more than a little unfair. It’s true that Ethan mentioned government programs in countries like Canada, but it’s not as though he is suggesting this is the entire answer (and I certainly don’t believe it is). In fact it’s arguable, I think, whether artists “deserve” to make a living at all, in the sense that society should move heaven and earth to ensure that happens. I thought the whole point of being an artist was that you are motivated by the desire to create and (in some cases) share your art, not by the desire to make a living or become rich.

Still, Ethan’s larger point is still well taken — and as he said on Twitter, what he wrote was his own opinion, not that of Warner Brothers. I think regardless of what you think of the music “tax” idea (which I think is ridiculous, and won’t work in any case), it *is* worth thinking about how we value art, and what it means to us as a society, and how we go about making that work in terms of economics. As someone who writes for a living, that’s something I think about quite a lot.

There are no easy answers. As it happens, these are just the kinds of issues we’re going to be talking about at the mesh 2008 conference in May, where Ethan will be one of our keynote speakers.

Shyftr: Feed theft or social news reader?

I checked into Twitter this evening to find a message from Louis Gray — who seems to be everywhere in social-media these days — about Shyftr, a new community for sharing RSS feeds. Cool, I thought. Maybe it’s like a new version of Google Reader, or FriendFeed. So I went over there and the first thing I noticed was that you can’t import an OPML file, so you have to add feeds one by one manually (Dave Stanley of Shyftr says the service will be adding the OPML import option soon).

Then I noticed another Twitter post from Eric Berlin of Online Media Cultist, asking whether I would be upset to know that Shyftr was creating a community around my feed, with comments and so on. My first response was “I don’t care, as long as they’re reading” — but then I started thinking about it a bit more, and reading through some of the comments on FriendFeed (ironically enough) about the service. One commenter, Raoul Pop, said that it was “content theft,” and that if his feed showed up there, the site could “expect to get hit with a DMCA-takedown notice.”

That reaction seems more than a little extreme to me. After all, an RSS feed is designed for people to read, right? Whether they read it in Google Reader or Bloglines or on their iPhone is irrelevant, really. If you don’t want people to be able to read all your posts without coming to your blog, then you can always offer partial feeds, although many people hate them — including me. Still, the idea that is taking a full feed and posting it on their site and building a business around it, seems to cross a line (Louis thinks it is a natural extension of social media).

I seem to remember a couple of other cases like this — including one rather notorious one involving Top Ten Sources, which was (ironically again) started in part by copyright expert stalwart John Palfrey. The site pulled feeds in holus bolus, and while it didn’t have comments at the time it sold advertising based around the content, and there were howls of outrage. The site eventually changed its focus and began asking bloggers for permission before reposting their full feeds. I think that’s probably the best way for Shyftr to handle it as well, as does Eric.


My friend Tony Hung has a longish and typically thoughtful post on the topic. The Scobleizer says bloggers essentially have no control over their content any more and should get used to it. Eric Berlin’s thoughts are here. And Frederic from The Last Podcast says he’s cool with the fact that his content can be used anywhere, and that pushing out an RSS feed implicitly gives such sites permission to use your feed.

I’m not sure that’s the case, however. I think RSS gives people the right to read your content — but not to build a business around it. If they want to do that, I agree with Tony that the least they could do is ask permission. As my friend and fellow mesh organizer Mark Evans notes, part of this is about page views, but part of it is also about common courtesy. Ross Dawson has some thoughts on it as well. I’ve got an email in to Dave Stanley of Shyftr and I’ll update this when I hear from him.

Video interlude: The designer/coder rap

Via a Twitter link from my friend and colleague Greg MacGregor, I came across this excellent instructional video for all Web designers and Web programmers. Feel free to sing along at home:


And once you’re done laughing (or taking notes), if you’re a Web designer, programmer, UI specialist or just about anyone else who deals with the Web and how it works — from Ajax and Ruby to agile programming and open source — you should be coming to meshU, the one-day workshop program that’s happening May 20th at MaRS in Toronto. The ticket window is now open, and there’s more info at the meshU site on the killer lineup, including Digg’s creative director Daniel Burka, as well as Ryan Carson of Carsonified, Pownce founder Leah Culver and more.

PR industry: Still grasping for a clue

Mark Glaser has a post up at the PBS Media Shift blog about the “social media press release” and how it is still a work in progress. He has a good recap of how it started a couple of years ago, how some forward-thinking PR practitioners and agencies came up with the idea of an SMPR — and he also describes how some firms still either don’t use them or consider a single HTML link to be the equivalent of a social-media press release. And I thought the traditional media business was slow to change.

Let’s forget all the blather about “social media,” shall we? If you are in any way trying to reach an online audience of journalists and/or customers and your press release has no links in it, then you = FAIL. If you have a single link to your PR agency’s website, or a single link to the company’s website, then you = FAIL. Links are the lifeblood of the Web — if you do not have them, and lots of them, then your press release is dead on arrival. At best, you force the person reading it to cut and paste terms into search engines and wander around looking for things. If you want some more reasons why your press releases fail, there are some good ones here.

This is not rocket surgery. Put links to relevant information in there; add multimedia content if you have it, with either embedded images or links to them. Better still, create a blog post that has all of these things in it and is tagged properly, and people will find it. Whether you follow the structure here or not is up to you (some people believe starting with the facts and not the spin or “hook” is the wrong way to go, but that’s debatable). Just put some damn links in there, and quit hoping that a boatload of overused adjectives will somehow sell the thing for you.

Why I deleted my GapingVoid account

So Hugh Macleod has made a splash in the blogosphere — and the Twitter-sphere, I suppose — by deleting his Twitter account. Hugh is the cartoonist/wine merchant (how many times do you see those words together?) who pens the Gaping Void cartoons, and is reportedly also working on a book. Why did he delete his Twitter account? He says it was too easy, and that it got in the way of doing other important things.

Hugh is entitled to his opinion, obviously. And there’s no question that Twitter can be awfully distracting, like a conversation at a party that is just out of earshot, where you can overhear bits and pieces of what’s going on. Hard to concentrate. But why did he have to make such a big deal out of it? I’m with Rex Hammock; you don’t have to cancel your account — just don’t go there as much. I haven’t deleted my Gaping Void bookmark, I just don’t go there quite as often. And sometimes Twitter posts produce ideas, as my friend Tony Hung notes.

Sure, take some time off and do other things — think deeply and blog about it, as Ted Rheingold suggests. There’s no question that there are flaws with Twitter, and Misha from Three Minds does a pretty good job of enumerating a few (hat tip to Changing Way). But why does it have to be all or nothing? Some things deserve a book, some things deserve a magazine article, some things deserve a blog post, and some are perfectly designed for a Twitter message. There’s room for all of them.


In other news, Ethan Kaplan of blackrimglasses would like everyone to know that he is *not* deleting his Twitter account.

Yahoo: Will merge for food

What’s that old saying about history repeating itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? (I think it was Karl Marx). I couldn’t help thinking of that when I saw the news (via Twitter, of course, my current news delivery mechanism of choice) that Yahoo and AOL are supposedly in talks on a combination that would foil Microbeast’s takeover ambitions. AOL and Time Warner was the tragedy (about $100-billion worth) and this current plan is most certainly the farce.

My friend Paul Kedrosky said that it was like tying two rocks together to see if they could fly better than one, to which I responded that to compare AOL with a rock was unfair to rocks. But another friend — Stuart MacDonald of — probably said it most succinctly: Yahoo + AOL = FAIL. I realize that Jerry Yang and the board of directors have to “pursue all available alternatives,” or whatever it says in the fiduciary duty documents, but this is ridiculous. The next thing we’ll hear is that Yahoo is talking with my Aunt Edna’s bridge club about a counter-offer.

Does Time Warner want to somehow get rid of AOL, preferably without losing an even bigger pantload of money than it has already flushed away? Sure it does. And on the surface, merging with Yahoo probably seems like a super idea for TW. But what exactly does it buy Yahoo? Some cash to do a share buyback, apparently, according to the Wall Street Journal. Whoop-de-doo. If shareholders of Yahoo vote for a shotgun marriage like that, they deserve whatever they get.

Can OpenX compete with Google?

Interesting news from Kara Swisher at the BoomTown blog, that former Yahoo executive Tim Cadogan is taking the top spot at OpenX — the open-source ad server company that used to be called OpenAds (and before that was phpads). As Kara notes, Cadogan was involved in the launch of Yahoo’s much-ballyhooed Panama ad search product, and before that he was at His inaugural blog post is here.

OpenX is an interesting story. It is clearly going after medium-sized to large-scale Web publishers (including and TechCrunch) that are looking for an alternative to the behemoth that is Google/Doubleclick, and the fact that OpenX is open source makes it appealing as well (the company also recently launched a private beta for a new hosted version). Google has its own similar ad serving software, called Google Ad Manager, but that’s hardly much of an alternative.

I think there are probably lots of publishers out there who are leery of entrusting everything to the Great Google, no matter how un-evil it might be, and are looking for easy (and cheap) alternatives to joining this or that ad network. If OpenX can be the friendly alternative, it could go a long way towards making a business for itself — and it doesn’t have to kill Google to do it, it just has to chip away a little bit of market here and there. Being a strong second or third is perfectly acceptable.

Google: Afraid of looking like a bully?

So after much hullabaloo and rejoicing over the launch of its Amazon-style “cloud computing” service, Google decided to take down the first app build to run on that service, a collaborative workspace called Huddlechat. Why? Apparently some people thought it was a ripoff of Campfire, a collaborative chat-workspace thing from “software as a service” superstars 37signals. Jason Fried of 37signals told Read/Write Web that he was flattered, but said he wondered why Google “stooped so low” as to “basically copy it feature for feature, layout for layout.”

I have to say I’m with Ethank Kaplan of blackrimglasses on this one: He calls the “lynch mobbing” over a few similarities “retarded” (although I think he means “developmentally delayed”). Did Huddlechat look like 37signals’ Campfire? I guess so, from the screenshots. I mean, there’s a group IM chat window on the left, with some navigational stuff on the right. Is that somehow exclusive to 37signals? Seems to me Google Groups looks a lot like that too, and Yahoo Groups for that matter.

It seems obvious that Google took the app down because it didn’t want the bad PR of looking like a bully, like a big, bad company ripping off someone else’s app to promote its new App Engine (especially since the App Engine has been criticized for taking a “lock-in” style approach). But the whole thing seems a little ridiculous to me.

Google Engine: Competitor or knock-off?

Call it a clash of competing clouds. It seems that Google is launching an application-hosting service that appears to be going head-to-head with Amazon’s trio of distributed computing services — the EC2 computing network, the S3 storage service and the SimpleDB database offering, all of which provide a kind of back-end in a box for companies that want to scale quickly. So is Google’s “App Engine,” which the company described at one of its invitation-only campfire events on Monday night, a real competitor for Amazon, or just a me-too knock-off?

Aaron Brazell of Technosailor — former technology guru for b5media — says the Google announcement is “much to do about nothing.” Among other things, Aaron says that Python, the only programming language that Google’s service currently supports, is not trivial to learn or to implement (several commenters on the TechCrunch post also seemed to think that restricting it to Python was a big negative as well). Aaron’s other beef with Google’s initiative is that it seems like an “Amazon S3 me-too” kind of product. “There is no innovation here,” he says.

To be fair, however, at least some of what Aaron is skeptical about — including privacy concerns, and the wisdom of hosting applications on remote systems run by some other company — arguably apply to both Amazon’s and Google’s suite of services. To me, the bigger question is whether companies will be drawn to Google as a host for their distributed services over someone like Amazon. I think they might. And if the Python limitation is only temporary (as Google suggested it is) then that could open up the doors even further for developers. Brady Forrest of O’Reilly says that he likes the approach Google is taking.

So now we’ve got the Google File System going up against S3, and BigTable going up against SimpleDB, and EC2 going up against Google’s server stack (no cool name for that, apparently). Is this the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight of the tech world? Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy? Or is it Paris Hilton vs. Nicole Ritchie? Update: SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill (whose service uses Amazon S3 a lot) has a take on Google’s App Engine — he sees it as interesting, but not much of a competitor — and he’s also worried about lock-in.