You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Advertisers Have Entirely the Wrong Idea (Yet Again)

Publishers of websites are considering more intrusive advertising, such as video ads you can’t just click through. The thought is to make the internet more like TV: “It’s a similar type of user-interruption experience as a commercial in the middle of a TV show,” says one brilliant ad exec. This won’t work, however, because the internet is NOT TV–and that’s what’s so great about it. The interactivity, the potential for feedback: people go online to engage, they go to TV to veg out. Ads that can’t be avoided online will annoy users; I, personally, might consciously choose not to buy a product that messes up my internet experience with intrusive ads.

The only reason publishers are freaking out about online advertising is that the internet has finally given them the technology to actually know what their ads accomplish. The answer? Very little. It’s impossible to measure how many people see a billboard or print ad. (It’s possible to estimate how many people travel a highway or read a paper, but it’s difficult to say how many of those notice or care about ads. Even Google’s new billboards are somewhat odd: how can you click a link on a billboard?) But when you have metrics for your website, it’s painfully easy to see how few people click through. And not only can we not look at ads online, we can also block them altogether in many cases. There’s a reason that browsers have pop-up blockers and Firefox has adblock: people don’t want to see ads.

When will corporations learn this? When will the time-honored “advertising budgets” be spent in better ways, perhaps by providing special deals to loyal customers, referral fees for people who bring their friends over, and other innovative techniques? Maybe a site’s biggest commenter gets a 5% discount (hello, massive commentary!). Maybe someone who wins a contest based on site content gets a prize. But the ad execs’ thought process is just wrong. “If you want to move share over from TV, which is still the biggest ad marketplace, you better look like TV more than a newspaper,” another exec commented. I don’t mean to say that advertising can’t ever work. But I do think it’s dangerous to think about the web as TV OR a newspaper. It’s an entirely different medium and needs to be treated as such by advertisers, content creators, and users alike. Otherwise it will never realize its great potential.

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Filed under: Business Models, Content

Deleting Books: How What You Buy Can Not Be Yours

In a very “publishing” moment (mostly because it makes so little sense), Amazon allowed some vendors to sell copies of ebooks it (the vendor, not Amazon) didn’t have the rights to. When the lack of copyright was discovered, Amazon deleted the books from a number of user accounts. The company also credited those accounts, fortunately, but the Kindle users deprived of their content (irony of ironies, two Orwell books: 1984 and Animal Farm). Setting aside the Orwellian nature of Amazon’s actions here, this opens up a number of questions about online publishing and accompanying commentary. First, this situation proves that publishers–not users/readers, creators, or commenters–still have all the clout, because they have all the legal rights (i.e., copyright). Orwell is no longer with us, but he does seem like the type who’d support having as many folks as possible appreciate his books, copyright be damned–particularly after the books have been earning money for more than sixty years.

Times commenters voice a variety of opinions on the event from “Already purchased ebooks residing on consumers’ Kindles should have been left alone” to I would love to see a class action lawsuit against Amazon and the Publishers to put a stop to this practice immediately. They can’t pull this stunt with a physical book so why should they be able to pull it with a digital book.”

Kindle-owning commenters report that Amazon did not detail the issue with the titles, calling it only “a problem”–total doublespeak, huh? Anger aside, the fact remains that, for now, the publishers hold the power, not the people. That’s not the way it should be. And, ironically enough, the content in question is already on Google Books for the reading. So why do the original publisher and Amazon have so much power here? What kind of access, exactly, are they attempting to block? It’s clear that the publisher has nothing to offer but content (which we’ve established is already available elsewhere), and Amazon has nothing to offer but the Kindle. Can online commentary reverse the curse of media hegemony and come up with an open source system for reading–and maybe even adding/commenting? It remains to be seen, but I hope so. The bigwigs certainly aren’t handling their power very well.

[via Consumerist and NYT. This apparently happened, briefly, with Harry Potter as well.]

Filed under: Content

More Notes on Zero Comments: Community Power

What I found most interesting and troubling about Geert Lovink’s Zero Comments was probably its near-complete lack of emphasis on actual commentary (guess the “zero” in the title should have tipped me off?). The book talks a lot about the concept of online communities and the capabilities of blogs, but often stops short of analyzing specific commentary. Still, the work contains valuable observations about the power of online communities and the potential for their future applications.

My previous post touched on the power of blogging to poke holes in the existing media hegemony. At the same time, though, Lovink proposes that blogging is a deeply cynical endeavor, perhaps because of its strange dual status as a revolutionary force and a representative of the (online) establishment. In Lovink’s words, “blogging and social networks have become the hegemonic modes of internet use.” From the perspective of anyone entrenched in an online community, blogging is no longer revolutionary. Businesses are blogging, government agencies are blogging–heck, your mom might be on Facebook. Compared to the entrenched print media, online media is still new, but compared to the speed of technology, blogging is old. It’s the establishment.

So, Lovink says, with this dual identity comes a form of cynicism bordering on nihilism. We’ve come to take our online freedom for granted, and as such use it in too-trivial ways. “Blogs are primarily used as a tool to manage the self,” Lovink asserts, and in so doing perhaps they separate the self from the community of larger ideas that are present–indeed, enabled–by online publishing and interaction.

What’s the next step, then? I’d venture it’s the use of commentary and online interaction to remove blogs from the shackles of selfdom and place them in a larger context. Lovink quotes Axel Bruns as saying, “I blog, therefore I watch.” Perhaps, now, we need people to say “I comment, therefore I create change.” There’s already so much content online that we don’t need to create more, we need to make better use of what we have, to connect people with the information they seek and, more importantly, with other people seeking–or even producing–that information. Commentary and community are the tools to do this, and to undermine the individualized cynicism of the lurker online.

Filed under: Commentary, Content

It’s the (e)Content, Stupid

“I’m not in the business of selling books. I sell writing,” Irvine Welsh told the Times online, adding, “The screen might not even be with us in 20 years’ time–but writing will.” Welsh’s comment gets at the heart of a common conundrum–“what will become of books?”–and reveals its irrelevance. Books were never the point; they were just the most convenient vehicle for content for a long, long time. Perhaps they still are. But technology has created infinitely more platforms for content, for customizable ways to display writing (not books) on screens, phones, and other devices that didn’t exist just a few years ago. We don’t need books, necessarily—we don’t even need writing, if you get right down to it. Just so happens that we do need information, and the written word has traditionally been one of the most efficient ways to communicate it.

The decreased need for books, or at least the greater feasibility of alternatives to books, has sent the publishing industry into a panic. What will be the next book? How can we make money from ebooks? Latching on to the notion of books, even ebooks, may be a mistake, as it allows publishers to attempt to translate a traditional book publishing business model to online content.

I recently ran across a random post on a random blog that makes an interesting argument about music, one I think that may translate to books (italic emphasis original; bold emphasis added):

…there is no new business model for music. It doesn’t matter whether you fight the new technology or embrace it or try to appease it; there’s no new business model for music because there was never really an old business model for music, either. There was a business model for record companies once, maybe, and there are new ones for celebrity persona-management and soundtrack-placement or something, but these are not business models for music. They are not models for how any particular person who makes music can afford to not hold other employment, and they are not models for how any particular person who loves music can express that love as effective economic catalyst or responsive reward. There is no economic system for maximizing expressive opportunity or artistic greatness. There are not even really business systems for expressive subsistence or artistic sufficiency. Mostly we have music because we are human, and one of the things humans do is sing. Periodically we hold lotteries you enter by singing, like we sometimes hold lotteries you enter by playing basketball or by lying to people en masse. But these are not businesses. Or, more accurately, they are precisely businesses, but businesses for selling dreams, and for selling tools for dreaming, and for selling memorabilia from having once dreamed.

Likewise, I think, it can be argued that there is no business model for content: there many be business models for different types of content, in different situations, but none that works for all types of content, in all cases. Perhaps this means publishers should specialize in business content, or sports content, or literary content; this type of specialization is often the case, anyway. But publishers can no longer just focus on turning existing books into ebooks, or signing up authors and turning their work into PDFs. It’s now a requirement to consider the best format for presenting information: a traditional book? An ebook? A YouTube video? Not every topic calls for 250 pages of print, even if that’s what best fits signature requirements.

But it’s not only the content, e or otherwise. It’s also our responses to it, which technology has also opened up many more forums for: emails, blog comments, YouTube video responses, replies on Twitter. Publishers must consider not only how best they can best utilize content, but also how they can best open it up for discussion.

Filed under: Business Models, Content

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