Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Thu 24 Sep 2009 7:13 am   //   Posted in: Books, Stray data, Technology’s long memory

Yesterday I got one of those promotional e-mails Amazon sends out all the time….

As someone who has purchased or rated Guide to Venezuela: The Bradt Travel Guide by Hilary-Dunsterville Branch or other books in the South America > Venezuela category, you might like to know that Along the River that Flows Uphill: Between the Orinoco and the Amazon (Armchair Traveller) will be released on October 1, 2009.

So what, right? Here’s what: Amazon is making a recommendation based on a book I purchased in September 2000—Nine years ago!


Tue 22 Sep 2009 7:42 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Information Darwinism

I still remember sitting in my 9th grade science class and seeing, for the first time, a simple explanation of DNA. It blew my mind how elegant a solution it is to coding information: A zipper of matching teeth. Sometimes a mutation occurs that helps a species stay alive and reproduce. It gets copied ferociously, and we call that evolution. It’s beautiful.

In some ways, the spreading of news via the Internet these days is like natural selection. I’m going to single out Twitter here—not because Twitter is the only place information Darwinism is happening, but because it’s easiest to explain. On Twitter, people are sharing millions of facts every minute. Some of these facts get retweeted, copied. The most valuable, urgent and interesting information gets copied with great speed. Definitive, immediate news of mass interest (think: death of a celebrity) spreads the fastest and the farthest. Contrary to my prediction a few months ago, Twitter is surprisingly good at preventing the spread of bad information. Sure, a few people will copy a false rumor or a non-story (“URGENT! Earthquake reported in ___!”), but there seem to be enough influential Twitterers who know how to check facts, debunk false rumors, and consider history and context. Look at Wikipedia for evidence that, generally, crowdsourced editing works way better than you think it should.

We’re moving closer to an information ecosystem in which the fastest, best versions of important stories thrive and multiply.


Mon 3 Aug 2009 9:00 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Twitter Shame and Facebook Rage

I want to talk about two emotional reactions I felt recently as a result of social networking sites.

twitterbird1. Twitter Shame

I was at a networking event with some other journalists, and one reporter decided to get provocative. “I just don’t get Tweeter,” she said, deliberately misstating the name. “Who cares what you’re having for lunch?”

Ah, the lunch fallacy. I rushed to Twitter’s defense. “Actually, I find it quite useful,” I said, delivering my well-practiced argument in support of using Twitter for journalism.

And then, suddenly, I ran out of gas. A wave of intense embarrassment washed over me. Am I really this much of a tool? I imagined someone tape-recording the conversation, then playing it back to me later, snickering at my emotional defense of a tech start-up in which I have no stake whatsoever. I felt Twitter Shame.


Wed 15 Jul 2009 7:53 am   //   Posted in: Technology

Life without Facebook

I check Facebook several times a day to see what my friends are posting. It’s fun.

I also like it because it’s free. I’ve never spent any money on Facebook, or as a result of Facebook, and I probably never will. Which, in a theme I’ve written about here before on this blog, is a little scary. Is there a business here, or just a Web site? And would we be OK if one day it collapsed?


Mon 29 Jun 2009 8:32 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

What happened to the blog comments?

I made some small design tweaks to the History Eraser Button blog over the weekend. One change was to eliminate comments. You can still read comments on old posts, but no new comments are allowed. Why? Three reasons:


Tue 16 Jun 2009 7:16 am   //   Posted in: It's a trap!, Media, Technology

Confirmed: Twitter users like reading about Twitter

This post at work will easily be the most popular thing I write all week:
PDNPulse: Iran Protest Photos Key To Twitter Coverage

Why will it be a hit? Because it’s about Twitter. Certainly not because it’s a good story. (I mean, it’s not awful.) As soon as you write about Twitter, people on Twitter forward the story around, and you’ve instantly got a substantial audience. It’s lightning fast, instant attention. Highly rewarding, highly addictive.

There’s a strong temptation to write about Twitter every day, because readers like it, it’s easy traffic and it actually feels important. It’s a trap! The medium is not the message. As is the case in Iran, what’s important is what people are saying, not what medium they’re choosing to say it in.

Previous posts about Twitter:
Twitter kills Patrick Swayze. Will it kill again?
URGENT! Don’t ask why, just panic!

Sat 6 Jun 2009 4:25 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Two opinions on Twitter

Time magazine Twitter cover

Metro newspaper Twitter cover

Fri 29 May 2009 8:24 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part II)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. Read Part I.

Google killed the gatekeepers, now it is the gatekeeper. Its influence on culture and business is downright scary. Online, its supremacy is unquestioned. Publishers kiss its feet and digital developers torture their creations to accommodate the whims of the Google search algorithm.

But empires fall, and the forces that gave Google its power could also destroy it. Google is a great business and no serious person expects it to fail any time soon. But conceptually, Google is a contradiction.

Most people think of Google as a search engine and a set of free Internet services, but it’s actually an advertising business. Google is a public company with essentially one way to make money: text-based search ads. (Last year 97 percent of the company’s $21.7 billion in revenue was from advertising, and most of that came from AdWords.)

Google can make so much money in advertising because it sits at the biggest point of friction in the Internet. Google is the middleman between billions of people and the information they want to find.

In some respects, we’re lucky this is so. Google’s services are good and free.

But the more trust society places in Google, the greater the risk that something could go wrong. An unlikely scenario would be Google turning to the dark side: Levying some kind of Internet tax, using its gate-keeping powers to shut down smaller voices that can’t pay. A more likely scenario would be the collapse of the AdWords business. If AdWords fails, Google will have to find some other way to underwrite its search engine, G-Mail, YouTube, Google Maps, and so on. Any distruption could have serious consequences for commerce, free expression, and even wayfinding. (How many people do you know who would be lost without the map on their iPhones?)

Is AdWords in any real danger? I think so. The problem is AdWords depends on friction (advertisers lack a good way to identify potential customers), secrecy (ads are sold in a blind auction) and the authority of a single entity (Google’s search engine). Conceptually, these are obstacles that the Internet has proven adept at getting around. It’s inevitable that some replacement for Google AdWords will appear. And based on the history of the Internet, it will be cheaper, better and not controlled by Google.

For now, Google is thriving on the money that used to go to telephone directories and classified ads. Creative destruction took care of those businesses. How long until it dispatches Google too? And when it does, who will be the next gatekeeper?

Wed 27 May 2009 8:44 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part I)

This is the first part of a two-part blog post. Read Part II.

I recently heard somebody refer to magazine editors as “gatekeepers,” a term that would boost my ego were it still true.

In the old world (up to, say, 2000), the media were controlled by powerful gatekeepers. That’s because there were many points of friction, where power concentrates. In the analog world, physics imposed severe limits on communication. Books, newspapers and magazines need ink and paper. The broadcast spectrum is limited. The expense of film and tape restricted the sharing of recorded information among consumers. People wanted to share way more information than was physically possible.

As a result, for any communication to take place, someone first had to allocate resources for it. That could be as simple as somebody writing a letter and affixing a stamp to an envelope. Or it could be as complex as a national TV network deciding what to air in prime time. Enter the gatekeepers. Not inherently good or evil, gatekeepers decide what should be seen and heard, and what shouldn’t. Media company owners hire managers, who hire editors, producers and ad sales forces. Each of these people has some gatekeeper function. To take newspapers as an example, editors are assigned to ensure only stories of interest to readers get published, and salespeople ensure only people with money get to advertise.

Then along came the Internet, which had the effect of an oil can applying lubricant to all those areas of friction. The result? Gatekeepers have less power and influence, while individuals have more. The trend is for there to be more gatekeepers, each with less influence. Soon, there may be no gatekeepers at all. Billions of people will each have a tiny amount of influence over communication. Editorial selections will be based on democratic rule, advertising will be sold at auction. Everything that reaches a large audience will do so with math backing it up. Stories will become popular because they are popular. This coming era of mob rule will open a whole new box of problems, but it is the inevitable end of this trend line.

This post is about media, but you can look at many other fields to see how computer networks have caused a disruptive reduction in friction: travel agencies, retail, financial services, academic research. The disruptive changes caused by computer networks are just getting started. Having torn apart media, information technology is poised to do the same for high-friction industries like real estate, health care, cars, you name it.

We need to watch where the new concentrations of power are forming. The Internet might destroy the old gatekeepers, but does the Internet have its own gatekeepers?

It does. They keep changing. The Internet itself might go away and be replaced with a whole other information system. But right now, in 2009, there is only one gatekeeper that matters: Google.

Read Part II.

Tue 19 May 2009 9:11 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Twitter kills Patrick Swayze. Will it kill again?

At 11:24 a.m. today, this Twitter message went out on an account with over 410,000 followers:

Image of Twitter post about Patrick Swayze

Patrick Swayze was alive, but the false report of his death was “retweeted” by thousands of users until, 50 minutes later, @BreakingNews knocked down its own report:

“JUST IN — A representative for Patrick Swayze tells People Magazine that the actor is still alive.”

This mistake was as predictable as it is unacceptable. As I wrote last month in a post about swine flu: “There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter.” And I singled out @BreakingNews as the “worst offender.” I hope they learn from this debacle and get better at simple reporting.

The death of an actor isn’t something that could cause a panic, but this was a 100% false news report of significance, and it spread very fast. Watch for more of this!