Joho the BlogSeptember 2009 - Page 2 of 5 - Joho the Blog

September 23, 2009

Ellen Degeneres should go open source

By the way, if Ellen Degeneres wants to respond in a reasonable and constructive way to the lawsuits over her use of song snippets to dance to, she could always start using Creative Commons-licensed music, with a nice plug for the open-hearted musicians making our lives more tuney.


September 22, 2009

Call-in on Web Exceptionalism

I’m going to be on a call-in webcasty thing tomorrow (Thursday) as part of the Supernova series. You can see it here or call (347) 945-6578. It starts at 1pm EDT (Boston) time.

The topic is: Is the Web really exceptional? Or is it Yet Another Communications Medium? Or something else?

I’m probably going to say that it’s exceptional – that is, unique – in some important ways:. It’s hard to find another medium that works well at virtually every scale. It’s hard to find another medium that lowers the hurdle to global communication so far (although posting something that’s accessible to the world hardly means that the world will access it). And hyperlinks are unique and important.

Of course, it’s not clear what the consequences are of those exceptional characteristics.


[berkman] Clay Shirky on the future of news

Clay Shirky is giving a lunchtime talk at the Shorenstein Center, which may be a joint event with the Berkman Center.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. Posted without re-reading. You are warned, people.

p>The commercial structure of the newspaper industry means that it’s not enough for them to run at a profit. Advertisers had been forced to overpay because there weren’t other waysto reach people for display ads or coupons. This gave the newspaper enough capital to do long-term investigation; mere profitability wouldn’t have allowed this.

The advertisers were overcharged and under-served. That is, they couldn’t influence coverage.

Neither the overpaying and the underserving is true of the current market. The new market is efficient and so the price of advertising plummets. “We may be seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history.” And if you want to sell a bike, you don’t go to the people who print news and crosswords; you go to Craigslist. As Bob Garfield says (says Clay), it turns out that people will go to sites that do nothing but post ads.

The news is now disaggregated and is re-forming itself around actual user desires. The aggregation is going from server-side to client-side. “The decision about what to bring together in a bundle” is made by the consumer, not the producer.

We should worry about echo chambers, although it turns out that people are interested in serendipity. But people are not interested in the omnibus approach. The number of people going to the NYTimes home page is going down because people go straight to the article. The bundle is put together more by other readers.

None of this will be reversed by increasing the commercial viability of printed newspapers.

“This doesn’t mean all newspapers go away. It does mean a lot of them go away.” “Newspapers will play a less significant role in accountability than they have in the past, which leaves us with a giant hole.” A big problem: Every town of 500,000 or less “sinks into endemic civic corruption” because no one is watching.

He refers to how a story in the Boston Globe went worldwide not because of the Globe but because its audience passed it around. “The public created itself.” “The penumbra of reuse around the article created an enormous amount of its value.” An article on a similar topic (priest pedophiles) in the early 1990s didn’t spread the same way, because the forward-and-recommend infrastructure didn’t exist.

If there were a pay wall around the later article, it would have forestall its effect and value. First, “We need the public good of accountability journalism.” Some newspapers are trying to get an anti-trust exemption to establish a pay wall for the sake of the public good. But that will destroy the village to save it. We should be looking at ways of balancing the cost of producing good journalism and the public good that comes from reuse.

There are three ways to create things accessible to the public. Private companies. NGOs. Social/peer production where people get together and do it. #3 had been confined to picnics, etc. Now it’s becoming a big part of the ecosystem. E.g., Pro Publica. Wikileaks. Open source. “The Internet makes all commercial models of journalism harder to sustain…and social models much, much easier to sustain.” “We’re seeing a re-balancing of the landscape” where all three of these modes of production will be operating. We want experiments across all three of these.

Also, we don’t want to replace newspapers. Newspapers have a single point of failure problem because they do 85% of accountability journalism. We don’t need a single point. We need someone who does 5% and then repeat that 15 times. “It’s a shift from one class of institutions to an ecosystem as a whole.”

Clay says he wants to distance himself from the utopians and optimists. “I think a bad thing is going to happen.” People don’t take seriously that things may get a lot worse for a while. He doesn’t think there’s any way to get out of the coming of public corruption. Between the printing press and the Treaty of Westphalia there were a long 100 years when people didn’t know what to think. “Our goal should be to minimize the depth of that trough … and hasten its end.” But there’s not simple and rapid alternative to 20th century newspapers, in part because what held papers together was “so crazily contingent.”

“I believe that newspapers are irreplaceable in their production of accountability journalism.” Some think we should therefore spend whatever we have to in order to replace them. Others say we should be “transferring our concern to the production of lots and lots of overlapping models of accountability journalism.” “The next step needs to be vast and varied experimentation.”

Q: Alex Jones: I don’t agree that newspapers are ready to be abandoned. In the priest pedophile story you cite, the Catholic Church was brought to heel by the viral information but also by the institutional power of the Globe. As you imagine this future, do you see in this array of smaller entity an institutional power that can bring institutions of power to heel?
A: Not in any simple way. That is the great weakness of the experimental trough: No one news org has that sort of power. Hard news is cross-subsidized by people who buy the paper for the coupons. But the front page has institutional power. The media has lost its force in almost all cases. The question is: Can news gather a public the way newspapers have done? The optimistic face is: We don’t know yet, but it’s there. The pessimistic: The ability of media to bring institutions is fading with the mass audience. I don’t know enough about the economics of converting newspapers to nonprofits.

Q: How about magazines?
A: They’re essentially non-profits. The New Yorker has operated at a lost throughout most of its history. The amount of journalism done by non-NPR radio is very small. Magazines are subsidized by billionaires. “The way to get around the problem with the media model is to have lots of models.”

Q: The revenue base is shrinking but it’s also much easier to acquire information.
A: That’s why we need lots of overlapping 5% reporting. The last time we had a big push for transparency — Watergate — it created K Street: You now knew how people voted, so lobbyists could get paid for effects. “It’s not enough to make the data available. We also have to make the public able to assemble and act on the data.”

Q: What’s the model for something like Pro Publica, which is not reaching the ordinary joe?
A: In the past, city hall news generally wasn’t front page. We think readers of newspapers read the whole thing. But it was cross-subsidized. It’s never been that all citizens care about all news. Pro Publica is reaching elites, and the question is whether it’s giving them what they need. “The real danger is that our political life is organized around geography, but the Web not so much.” The midpoint between nation and neighborhood is hard to do on the Web. Web stories are either hyperlocal or spill across all borders. Pro Publica isn’t well suited to regional reporting. The media markets and the political markets overlapped, but not any more. The trough will be worst at state and county levels.

Q: How does The Economist fit? They’re growing.
A: The one big exception is to the sharing model is financial news. A pay wall damages general news and benefits financial news, because people want to act on that news before they share. The Financial Times’ online audience is 1% of the Times. I don’t believe the Economist, FT and WSJ model is applicable to the general news.

Q [bill mitchell]: As you describe your three models — commercial, public, social — what in each of them really holds value for the public at large. What might they pay for, whether in donations, contributing their own journalism, etc.?
A: The core of the value is the set of the values accuracy and timeliness, but also shareability. General news has more value the more people know about it. People contribute unexpectedly. E.g., SETI. People donate not just because they wanted to help but because they got a cool screensaver. NPR tote bags say “I’m paying for your radio.” The power of that type of mockerhood is under-estimated. 6-8% of NPR listeners contribute, which might be enough to keep a newspaper alive, doing something (but not all of what it used to do).

Q: The story on Randy Cunningham required figuring out how to take the database of info and turn it into a story. Who’s going to do this?
A: Richard Hackman [sp?] says that groups are no good at writing. E.g., Wikipedia’s writing isn’t its strong point. Amanda Michel at OffTheBus found out that most people can’t be David Broder. Instead, she had hundreds of people crowd-sourcing data, and then gave it to a writer. She had a professional-amateur fusion. “No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need lots of experimentation.”

Q: The NYT says it has 800K readers who have been with them for 2 yrs, and they pay $700/year. Is that sustainable?
A: No. Someone suggested that newspaper rename their obit column as “Reader countdown.” Many newspapers pursuing a pay wall are only trying to stave off the Web.


Wrong on Net neutrality

Dylan Tweney has published a piece in Wired, where he’s an editor, warning that the FCC’s proposed Net neutrality rule may spell the end of the “unlimited Internet.”

I think he’s quite wrong. And whoever wrote the headline, really botched it. Dylan’s argument is that bandwidth isn’t unlimited, so the access providers need to manage traffic. If the premise of the piece is that bandwidth isn’t unlimited, then there isn’t any “unlimited Internet” to end. And if he means that the era of getting as much Internet as you can eat is over, well, it never existed. I pay my access provider for an always-on connection with a cap on how many bits per second that is far lower than what I could actually eat if allowed.

And access providers can manage traffic without doing so on the basis of the content of the bits. In fact, they already do manage traffic by selling different tiers of service; Net neutrality has no problem with that.

The comments on the piece get at the problems with it. (And, btw, despite what some of the commenters allege, I’ve known Dylan for years and he’s personally honest and very smart. We just disagree.)

(Pardon my plugging again my piece at My editor insists.)


September 21, 2009

Net neutrality, One Web Day, and a moment for joy

[MINUTES LATER: just posted a different piece of mine about Net neutrality. It says that we wouldn’t need a NN rule if we got our infrastructure right.]

I know there are lots of arguments about Net neutrality. I understand that there’s vagueness to the term, that there are times when we may want access providers to discriminate among bits, that it’s possible there will be unintended consequences. But, I want to say two basic things.

First, beyond its practical effects, there’s a symbolic importance to Net neutrality. A Net neutrality principle states firmly that the Internet is ours. It does not belong to, and should not be controlled by, those who provide access to it. Now, that doesn’t mean access providers have no rights. But they should be gatekeepers only in the sense that they keep the gates open as wide as possible. There may be technical issues that require some discrimination but the fundamental and guiding principle enunciated by Net neutrality is, as Tim Bray says: Fat pipe, always on, out of our way.

Second, a bunch of my co-religionists (so to speak) track the Obama administration’s actions on broadband and the Internet, and are seemingly in a state of constant agitation. The administration is not going far enough, is still too beholden, have hired some people from the other camp, is in bed with this lobbyist or that. I sincerely am very happy that these watchdogs are doggedly watching the Obamists. Thank you! But, on the eve of One Web Day, and on the day that the chair of the FCC has enunciated a Net neutrality principle, I want to say to them: Rejoice! Hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire, but roast a marshmallow or two as well. You’ve earned it.

So, thank you, my friends, for your tirelessness. Thank you for saving the Internet. But also delight in having an administration that has brought in some amazing people, has opened up the processes in ways unthinkable just a few months ago, and is fundamentally with us and of us on these issues.


The Book: Terms of service

Matthew Battles has written a proposed Terms of Service for books. It highlights the strengths of printed books, but Matthew is careful to avoid any reference to print vs. digital. In an email he writes: “Whether in print or pixels, the terms of the public sphere should be taken into consideration.”



Gmail now crashing two browsers

Wow. I’m impressed. For the past few days, Gmail has been hanging when I try to attach a file. It doesn’t matter what type of file it is or how big it is. More times than not, it hangs. The hang happens as soon as Gmail shows the bar that displays the percent loaded. I have to force-quit. This is with the latest version of FF and of Snow Leopard. (I use Gmail as part of Google Accounts, and I have https turned on.)

I assumed this was a Firefox problem. I created a new profile and slowly added my add-ons back in. Eventually, the problem returned. Removing the add-ons I’d added did not take care of the problem.

So, I switched to Opera. Nice browser. But I just had exactly the same problem. No add-ons. No Firefox. Same problem. Yes, I have run Disk Utility to repair permissions.

Further, Safari so far has always been able to attach the very same files using Gmail. In fact, when FF or Opera have failed, they leave a draft of the message. I’ve opened up that very same draft in Gmail on Safari and have successfully attached the very same attachment.

I am, shall we say, puzzled.


September 20, 2009

Some videos

Art Kleiner on how to create cultural change in large corporations:

Nadia El-Imam talks about whether the Web is changing who we are, starting with Couchsurfing as an example.

Robin Chase, a founder of ZipCar, explains why she thinks mesh networks will connect people, cars, and the “smart grid.” [article here]:


September 19, 2009

Stoopid anti-piracy sites, separated at birth?

Wow. This condescending site from the RIAA looks surprisingly like the parody site that I and some friends did in 2004. Amusing.

(I just reposted that second site at, rather than at its original site.)

1 Comment »

Order of Magnitude Puzzle: Bees per gallon

You win an Order of Magnitude puzzle if your answer is within an order of magnitude of the right answer. On the other hand, you don’t actually win anything. So, here goes:

How many bees do you think are in a pound? (And isn’t the answer none if they’re all flying?)

How many bees per gallon?

The answer is in the comments. (Note: This is not a computation WolframAlpha can help you with.)


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