Category Archives: technology

An (old) essay on new media

I wrote an essay on “new media” for an entrepreneur friend in February 2004. (My friend launched a new air sports league and .tv channel, hence the emphasis on sports near the end.) I decided to take my own advice and relinquish control. Here it is, with minor re-touches marked and links added. Most of the points remain applicable in 2009. If anything, I’m a little disappointed that, five years later, we haven’t made more progress toward “everything over IP, everywhere”. Sure, Hulu is nice but I still pay obscene amounts to send text messages and watch The Terminator over proprietary pipes.

‘Digital’ means everything and nothing at once. And that’s the point. Music is digital. Movies are digital. Books, news, commentary, communication, ideas, and sexuality are all digital. Even money is digital. Characterizing something as digital conveys no information precisely because most anything can and will be digital. From television to telecom, from Hollywood to Madison Avenue, the transition to digital will take down giants and crown new kings.

Why does digital matter to media? There are three reasons: convergence, copying, and control.

Convergence. Because all content and communication are digital, the delivery mechanism no longer matters. You don’t need a TV to watch television programs. You don’t need a phone to talk to a friend. You don’t need a fax to get faxes or a CD player to hear CDs. All you need is a machine that understands digital and a communications system that carries digital. Today’s best devices for understanding and communicating digital are, respectively, the computer and the Internet. That’s all you need. Tomorrow’s TVs may look and feel and act much like today’s TVs, but rest assured they will be computers in disguise, and they will be connected to the Internet. There’s no inherent reason why Friends should be watched on Thursdays at 8pm on NBC interspersed with commercials. It can, should, and will be watched at the viewer’s leisure, uninterrupted. There is no reason that the biggest “television” phenomenon of 2008 won’t be seen on Yahoo!, for example. [In hindsight, this example was wildly optimistic — and YouTube/2020 now seems more likely — though in 2008 viewers flocked to Yahoo! for the Olympics, the election, and short-form video.] Notions of channels and schedules will be virtually meaningless. We already see this happening with DVRs like TiVo, and the blurring will continue with computer/TVs providing access to movies, music, your photo album, weather, news, and the Web. Cable, phone, and satellite companies are providing Internet access. Internet portals and Internet providers are delivering phone calls, movies, TV shows, [radio,] and email all over the same wires [and wavelengths].

There is now, and will continue to be, fierce opposition to convergence from established players. Cable companies objected vehemently to allowing local stations onto satellite TV. Broadcast networks fear TiVo. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is in a state of panic panicked, suing everyone in sight, including their own customers. Lobbying and lawmaking will slow convergence, but the changes are all but inevitable. While the RIAA and groups like it scramble to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, opportunists are busy building entirely new ships.

Copying and Control. Once a piece of media content—whether it is a song, a movie, or an article in a scientific journal—is converted into digital ones and zeros, it can be copied (perfectly) and distributed at almost zero cost. Given the decentralized nature of the Internet and the vagaries of international law, once a piece of content escapes there is almost no reining it in. Current media business models rely on tight controls. Control of scheduling. Control of delivery and distribution. Control of store shelves. Control of artists and content creators. Control of consumers’ attention. But digital content resists nearly all attempts at control. Software and hardware copy-protection schemes are hacked or circumvented. High-quality analog copies of digital content are simply impossible to stop. Artists can self-publish their work and distribute it worldwide. Consumers can suddenly find content that’s not broadcast at primetime or placed at eye level in the store.

Note that digital does not mean the end of marketing, influence, and celebrity. Capturing the public’s interest and attention are still necessary. A self-published song does not magically attract listeners. Talent, personality, advertising, branding, and social forces will still play large roles in driving media success in the digital era. But convergence means that any number of players can provide the marketing and distribution needed, breaking current oligopolies, and almost certainly benefiting artists and consumers alike. Successful business models for the next generation of media companies must address the loss of control on all three fronts: content, artists, and consumers. Content will be copied. Artists will self-publish and shop for marketing services. Consumers will view what they want when they want to.

The New Business of New Media

Media is certainly not dead. Certain aspects will probably never change. People yearn for good stories, for entertainment, for escapism, for information. People flock to charisma and celebrity. People communicate insatiably. From a business perspective, there is undeniable value in having and holding the attention of a number of people.

Although the face of tomorrow’s media is impossible to predict, certain sectors are poised to benefit enormously from the emergence of digital, or are at least less susceptible to its problems.

Here are some winning strategies:

Embrace convergence. Convergence offers almost limitless flexibility in delivering and customizing content. Sports fans can watch an event from any camera, watch real-time animated renderings allowing absolute viewer control, interact with video games with parallel story lines, or chat with other fans. News broadcasts can allow viewers to examine any topic to any depth. Toys can react to signals embedded in Saturday morning cartoons. Consumers can create customized “channels” delivering content tailored to their needs and whims. Companies that capture the voicexyz-over-Internet market will be big winners in the new-media world.

Embrace copying. There is no doubt that a large part of the business value of media lies in its ability to influence (usually via advertising), which in turn benefits most from widespread adoption. For a business built on influence, free and unfettered copying should be encouraged rather than litigated. Not everything has to be free. In some cases, people will pay to get content faster. Live events are the most obvious situation where copies are less valuable than originals. People may pay for live feeds of sporting events, for example. In many cases, people will pay for higher-quality content, for example higher-resolution movies or better-sounding music. For example, with a good digital rights management system, pristine digital copies might be sold for a small premium, even while slightly tarnished analog copies (which are essentially unstoppable) proliferate. People may pay a premium for convenience, anonymity, quality assurance, or to obtain versions stripped of commercial messages. Clearly delineated commercials are a problem in a world where time shifting and copying are prevalent: people will simply skip commercials. So commercial messages must be embedded directly in the content, using product placement or endorsements.

Real-time gambling offers a natural source of revenue for sporting events and other live events. Real-time gambling is spreading quickly throughout the UK and Europe, where it is well regulated and taxed. Real-time gambling offers a situation where live feeds are essential, and copies less damaging. In fact, wide dissemination of copies could be valuable as a marketing device to drive interest in the live events and concurrent gambling services.

Data-driven Dukie

“The No-Stats All-Star” is an entertaining, fascinating, and — warning — extremely long article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine on Shane Battier, a National Basketball Association player and Duke alumni whose intellectual and data-driven play fits perfectly into the Houston Rockets’s new emphasis on statistical modeling.

For Battier, every action is a numbers game, an attempt to maximize the probability of a good outcome. Any single outcome, good or bad, cannot be judged in isolation, as much as human nature desires it. Actions and outcomes have to be evaluated in aggregate.

Michael Lewis is a fantastic writer. Battier is an impressive player and an impressive person. Houston is not the first and certainly not the last sports team to turn to data as the arbiter of truth. This approach is destined to spread throughout industry and life, mostly because it’s right. (Yes, even for choosing shades of blue.)

Jamesburg, New Jersey: Per-capita bank branch capital of the world

By 2007, Jamesburg, New Jersey, a town of 6,000, had four walk-in bank branches — Bank of America, Constitution, PNC, and Sovereign — complete with bricks, mortar, tellers, and aura of trust along its quaint “Main Street” downtown corridor.

Apparently that wasn’t enough.

In 2008, Chase Bank and TD Bank broke ground. Thousands of motorists now pass them every weekday morning on their way to the New Jersey Turnpike and again every evening on their way home. If I had a hand in it, I might insert a drive-thru restaurant, of which there are currently none, into the path of commuters. But I don’t and the Invisible Hand chose otherwise: to erect two more banks for a total of six banks within one square mile, or one for every 1000 residents. (To be fair, the surrounding township has 30,000 people, but probably a dozen more banks.)

Six walk-in bank branches within one square mile in Jamesburg, NJ USA

We live in an era of electronic banking when ATMs dispensing paper money seems horribly analog. Walking through a door under a roof of a building representing the shelter for my money to talk to a person is, I’ll admit, occasionally reassuring, and even less occasionally useful. But everyone must admit that this is an activity growing rarer by the day.

So why are bank branches staging a last stand in this small New Jersey town?

Probably because the surrounding community, Monroe Township, is home to several retirement communities whose residents select banks based on the accessibility of branches. (They also buy newspapers and watch ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson at 6:30 and hence commercials for prescription drugs.)

Several new shopping centers have gone up in the area and each seems to have the same collection of stores, anchored by a drug store and a bank.

The data may say that these are profitable investments, but for how long?

Jamesburg would seem to have great potential as a consumer destination: a walkable urban strip in the center of a relatively affluent suburban township, on the bank of a gorgeous lake adjacent to a 675 acre park. Yet it has a few mom and pop shops, one Subway, one Dunkin’ Donuts, and one gas station. And six banks. Go figure.

A world without roads and wires

Take the Earth and subtract just two things: roads and wires. How much more pleasant a place would it be? No asphalt arteries carving a dense grid throughout the world’s grass and trees devouring tax dollars. No endless rows of poles and towers draped with miles and miles of wires coming between our eyes and our skies. Imagine the makeover the space around and under your desk would receive!

Actually, the vision may not be as far fetched as it seems: we just need personal flying vehicles and wireless power & communications.

The social advertising puzzle

There’s no doubt that social ties have tremendous value: people find love and work largely through the people they know and the people the people they know know.

And there’s no doubt that digital representations of social ties add value. Facebook does improve people’s lives.1

The puzzle, and one of the key challenges facing companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo!., is how social media can make money. So far the evidence is most users won’t pay directly, which leaves ideas like virtual goods, community marketplaces, app stores, and, of course, advertising. Unfortunately, although we know great ways to advertise to people searching, and decent ways to advertise to people viewing content, it’s less clear how to advertise to people communicating.

P&G’s Ted McConnell puts it bluntly:

What in heaven’s name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with their girlfriend?

Riffing off of this quote, Wired asks the $15 billion question: Is social advertising an oxymoron?:

So, what if social media and advertising just don’t mix?, a social advertising startup, begs to differ (hat tip to Cong Yu), reacting to the same provocative McConnell quote. Their answer:

Advertisers only pay when users volunteer to say something about the brand to their friends.

Indeed, this sort of paid version of Bem+Wom (“BEtter Mousetrap + Word Of Mouth”) — more on this in the next post — is one of the first things people think of when pondering how to monetize a social network. But can it work well and if so, how?

Three disjoint friends like Rooster Sauce. Who knew?

1For example, I never would have guessed that three completely disjoint friends of mine are all fans of Sriracha Rooster Sauce. Who knew?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The first semi-serious answer I remember giving to the title question was “either a writer or a magician” (circa third grade, more about age 8-9).

Given this quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. –Arthur C. Clarke

and the fact that likely the most tangible record of my career are my publications, one might say that I did indeed become both a writer and a magician.

The Last Analogs

DictionaryThe Last Analogs were born after commercial color TV (1953) and graduated high school before Mosaic (1993), roughly spanning from Steve Jobs to Larry Page.

Last Analogs like me grew up with VHS players, walkmans, card catalogs, newspapers, bunny ears, and film. We then watched as, inexorably, every last one of them winked from A to D. By 1993, the dawn of the digital age was ending, giving way to a blazing midday sun. Little did we know how thoroughly the Internet would shift the revolution into hyperlink drive.

Recently, a holiday card I sent to a friend was returned undelivered. He had moved and I had sent it to his old address.

It turns out I actually had the correct address filed away in an email folder — he had kindly sent it to me months earlier — and I had even tagged the email as “contact info”. Yet my address book failed to reflect it, mostly because my address book doesn’t read or process email, but rather expects me to do it.

This is an inherently Last Analog problem.

The new address books — the Facebooks and Plaxos of the world — solve the problem gracefully. On Facebook, I don’t keep my own separate copy my friend’s address; instead I keep a pointer to my friend and all his data and let him do the updating. My friend doesn’t need to email me and I don’t have to transcribe anything (or, in the early days, call and write), and repeat the same for all his friends. He updates his own information and everything else happens automatically.1

There are a ton of inherently Last Analog problems, including not knowing how much money you’ve spent in a month, how many calories you’ve burned or eaten, where your car or key or friend is, or where you are. A Last Analog could be living and working near an old college buddy and not even know it.

But perhaps the most unfortunate Last Analog problem is our impaired collective memory. Last Analogs grew up without the benefit of all the little digital trails that people now leave automatically as they go about their lives: the emails, twitters, geo-tagged photos, walls, groups, friendlists, and blogs that form a searchable, hyperlinked diary.2

For Last Analogs to catch up still requires considerable effort: for example, digging out old boxes of print photos and scanning and geo-tagging them by hand. Presumably even this process will become cheaper and easier, but in the meantime the online map view of my post-college European tour is fifteen years in waiting and counting, memories of metadata fading, and the slide show at my 20th high school reunion this spring will be only as complete as busy schedules allow.

Too bad the wayback machine doesn’t go that way back.

I guess its time to get over my First Digital envy and get to work scanning uphill both ways in the snow.

1Eventually, I shouldn’t have to bother with street names and zip codes either: I’ll just address the card to my friend’s unique identifier and the post office will take it to the right place. That’s assuming by then that I’m still sinfully sending cards through the postal mail.
2Even today, people delete too many gems. I encourage you to follow Randy Pausch’s advice and archive everything.

Yahoo! Key Scientific Challenges student seed program

Yahoo! Research just published its list of key scientific challenges facing the Internet industry.

It’s a great resource for students to learn about the area and find meaty research problems. There’s also a chance for graduate students to earn $5000 in seed funding, work with Yahoo! Research scientists and data, and attend a summit of like-minded students and scientists.

The challenges cover search, machine learning, data management, information extraction, economics, social science, statistics, multimedia, and computational advertising.

Here’s the list of challenges from the algorithmic economics group, my group. We hope it provides a clear picture of the goals of our group and the areas where progress is most needed.

We look forward to supporting students who love a challenge and would like to join us in building the next-generation Internet.

Yahoo! Key Scientific Challenges Program 2009

Pipes dream

If you haven’t played around with Yahoo! Pipes, I highly recommend it. It’s a usable and useful service that brings web mashups to the masses, making this favorite hacker pastime as easy as dragging objects around on the screen.

For example, it took me probably about ten minutes as a first-time user to create a map mashup showing Barack Obama’s upcoming campaign stops. I “piped” the output of Washington Post’s RSS feed to a location-extractor module that identifies and geo-codes place names and renders them on a map. Here’s a screenshot of the output:

Screen shot of Yahoo! Pipe: Barack Obama 2008 US Presidential Election Campaign Travel Map

The easiest way to get started is to find an existing Pipe, clone it, and modify it as your own. Using this feature, I cloned my Obama map and in about one minute had a McCain map too.

Pipes uses a visual programming interface. The idea of “programming by picture” (I recall playing with one in the 1980s) never took hold as a mainstream tool. However, as a metaphor for mashups, where to goal is to chain together a number of sources and services, the visual approach seems exactly right. The implementation in a browser is a feat of ajaxian magic that I still find remarkable, even as Yahoo! and others are commoditizing the art. I imagine that even non-programmers should have little trouble constructing their own Pipes. Here is a screenshot of the source “code” for my Obama map:

Source code of Yahoo! Pipe: Barack Obama 2008 US Presidential Election Campaign Travel Map

Pipes has dozens of useful modules, including user input, Yahoo! Search, Flickr, and regular expressions.

You can embed the Pipe on your own website with a single line of javascript. I did this with my Obama and McCain campaign travel maps here. Or you can grab the output as an XML feed to use however you wish.

Pipes allows you to create human-readable URLs (e.g.,, a nice touch.

The icing on the cake for me is how Pipes — unlike so many other web sites, including some on Yahoo! — treats me and my Opera browser like adults:

Yahoo! Pipes treats me and my Opera browser like adults

(BTW, Pipes seems to work fine on Opera).

Unfortunately, Daniel Raffel, one of the key founders of Yahoo! Pipes, left Yahoo!. However, the team seems to be strong and continues to innovate, so I’m hopeful this fantastic service will continue to improve and thrive.

Quantcast, Scribd, and the two-minute web service signup

I joined the quantcast audience measurement service. It took about two minutes to sign up and initiate tracking. I’m impressed with the ease of use, the utility, and the inroads the company has made in the year or so since former Yahoo Mike Speiser first showed it to me.

Looks like I’m getting about 1000 visitors a month, roughly 3/4 that of Chris, 1/6 of Robin, 1/10 of Lance, 0.00079% of my employer, and 0.00073% of my employer’s frenemy.

I also joined the scribd document hosting service (“Youtube for documents”) and used it to embed a PDF in my previous post. Again, from signup to service took a matter of minutes. (I think scribd could be great for hosting my publications which are in need of both a content and interface update.)

Probably there’s some sort of business axiom here, probably already blogged and book-ed: the two minute rule of successful web services.