Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Breaking News vs. Breaking Press vs. Editorial Content

or, Blogging from your toilet 101: A Rant

As I make my way through my soon-to-be-deceased Google Reader list, I find myself especially annoyed this morning by how many repeat blog posts I'm seeing.

There are far too many blogs falling back on the, in-case-you-don't-look-out-your-window-or-watch-cnn-or-read-drudge-or-the-times-or-deadline-here's-some-breaking-news paradigm.

And they leave it at that.

These stories often don't get further opinion or insight on their way down the food chain.

They just tumble on down.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I've been guilty of this in the past. It used to make sense when everything was traditional media and certainly someone had to migrate it to the web. (I remember when we used to actually scan pieces of paper for text and images.) But that's all changed.

In my opinion, the big changes started when the "official press release" marketing machine got thrown out of whack by the Internet.

Once upon a time, we used to rely on daily trade publications to read placements masquerading as breaking news. You gotta give Nikki Finke credit for this one. She took a game that, in the entertainment world, was OWNED by daily publications Variety and THR and proved she could scoop their printed breaks on a blog, hours if not days earlier.

Her success, in my mind, defined the news-breaking paradigm that blogs can serve. They're not CNN. They're not KCAL 9. Meaning, blogs will never bring you live transcription of supreme court hearings or a helicopter shot of a police chase. But they can successfully sift the noisy deal-making, publicity and marketing machines of an industry, and find news there before official press releases break.

This is a massively powerful function. It subverted the way corporations communicated. And it now drives an entire derivatives market of lesser bloggers repeating high value content, like scooped press.

This is actually one of the many reasons the death of Reader breaks my heart. The ability to consolidate news sources and consume them in chronological order sheds a huge a mount of light on who broke a story and who's regurgitating it. Furthermore, who's regurgitating it in a timely manner and who might be adding valuable insight.

In a world were my time is valuable and I need to consume information as efficiently as possible, Reader helps me identify low-value content and either skip it or remove it from my list.

So, breaking news like Bank-Robber-on-PCP-Speeds-Down-405 breaking news doesn't seem to be a good plan for your average friendly neighborhood blogger.

Scooping official announcements seems to be a surgical craft, owned by digital operations who have emerged from or replaced legacy print operations. And merely repeating this information can drive traffic, but  you're not generating valuable content.

This leaves editorial.

Editorial is the space in content that you get to fill with personality that separates you from other blogs and other bloggers. This is the space where you can make your content valuable by making it uniquely yours.

If you want to successfully blog from your toilet or a Starbucks or a Starbucks toilet, please stop creating low-value content.

If I've seen it already, it has no value.

I don't care if you're a movie blog and the information is movie-related, so you want to share it.

If I've already seen it, it doesn't make me think you publish a lot.

It makes me think you publish too much and you're not contributing value to the conversation.

I guarantee you, if you're blogging in a niche, there is demand for amazing original content. This sounds pretty basic, but if you look at my Reader list, doing this well is still the realm of a small handful of key players in any given niche.

For instance, io9 and Geekologie are some of my favorite nerd reads. The two blogs cannot possibly be more different. io9 provides a well edited magazine-type experience. As much science as sci-fi. Extremely well written and detailed, original content that appeals to my interests and always sheds new light on a topic, even if it's about something familiar.

On the other hand, Geekologie is quick. Snappy. Image-driven. But GW's commentary is funny. It's brief, but it shines and it's distinctly him.

In my mind, both these blogs are premium offerings within the nerd niche and are equally important components in my reading list.

My interest in them is not story breaking ability, but quality and presentation. Valuable editorial content. From them, I know it's a good read. I know I want to read their next articles. I know I want to share their stories with friends.

There's a real value proposition going on with both these blogs.

Regurgitating breaking news in a large field like entertainment seems like a better recipe for traffic, but that's not how you're going to keep an audience over time. It's not a feasible business model to push from your toilet.

Making it onto my Reader list is half the battle.

You also have to keep me on.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The End Of Google Reader Is Better than A Financing Round For Feedly

Google broke my heart three days ago, announcing the end of Google Reader. The service will go offline July 1st. Almost immediately, articles suggesting alternative news readers started sweeping the blogosphere. One particular service, Feedly has come up a lot, for having form and function very similar to the Google Reader experience. It turns out, this is the best possible news for Feedly. Their blog states that "more than 500,000 Google Reader users have joined the feedly community over the last 48 hours." Google shutting down Reader has literally put Feedly on the map.

So here's my question: Why would Google shut down Reader in the first place?

Google cites a loyal following, but it has declined. But the Feedly story seems to suggest differently. And Google does keep a fair amount of legacy offerings up and running. A "loyal following" seems like all an app like Reader would need to remain a legacy product.

I can't help but think this is about something else. And I suspect that something might be advertising.

RSS was never mainstream. It's a geek tool. It's barebones. It's down and dirty. It's great for collecting the sources you trust to one place, moving through information fast, focusing on what you care about, and ignoring what you don't.

Ironically, I just described Facebook and Twitter.

And maybe that's the issue. Google Reader takes content, (I mean real content. Articles, studies, white papers, not single sentences and photos of your nephew.) dislodges it from its advertising and hey-stay-a-little-longer filled home, and presents it as-is.

In today's world, that seems like an awful lot of great content and hard work to give away for free with very minimal, easy to skip, advertising.

My guess is there's a solution in the works that keeps aggrogated content married to advertising in a more effective way than Reader.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Google Glass: Why the Stop-The-Cyborgs Fuss is Too-Little-Too-Late

Google Glass

Pop Quiz:

How many surveillance devices are within three feet of you right now?

Here's my answer:

-One web-connected camera pointing directly at my face.
-Four additional web-connected cameras, two on my phone, two on my tablet.
-Three web-connected microphones.
-Two GPS devices.
-Two cellular triangulation trackers.
-Three often static IP addresses.
-One web browser that can be identified as completely unique from anyone else, using Java.
-Two web browsers that deliver and have been delivering endless behavior to Google since 2008.

Shall we expand the scope of the question to within fifteen feet?

-An additional six web connected devices, all tansfering data through the same static IP address, but with unique MAC addresses.
-A relatively sophisticated bit of spycraft consumers refer to as the Microsoft X-Box Kinect.
-An electrical grid smart meter that delivers real-time energy usage, not only the utility company but also to me, or anyone with my credentials, over the web.

And if we were to reel the scope of this question to only within inches one's body, there's RFID in our wallets and on our keychains.

And if we were to expand the scope of the question to outisde of fifty feet, there's neighbors with their own prized collection of corporate spytech. There's traffic cameras, parking enforcement vehicles equipt with license plate readers, and on, and on...

I think I've made my point.

Today, we are surrounded by endless instruments for individually identifying, gathering and storing information. These tools are accessible to hackers, jealous lovers, private investagators, concerned parents, major corporations and, of course, the government.


Just coming around to stopping the cyborgs?

After decades of technology capable of compromising privacy, the Stop The Cyborgs movement was finally created earlier this month.

Recent headlines linked to with sensational panic by Drudge.

This is all a result of hivemind logic deciding that Google Glass is somehow more insidious than anything we've seen thus far.

What a fabulous destraction from the spytech already all around us.

Let's focus on the one device that one wears on their face. The one device that is overt, obvious and public. The very intention of the device is to collect and augment information from the world around us, and hopefully do something with that information to make our days a little easier.

Let's completely ignore all the covert and insideous devices that hide within the gadgets we've welcomed into our lives over the past several decades.

Courtesy of Stop The Cyborgs, the following exchange with a Google spokesperson:

A Google spokesperson responds: 
“It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.” 
Stop the cyborgs reply:
"We couldn’t agree more. These early days are our opportunity to proactively shape the social norms and technological development through public debate, politics and individual action rather than passively accepting and adapting to new technology."
Anyone pretending that we are somehow in the "early days" of the surveillance security discussion has zero grip on the last three decades of computer technology and takes for granted the technology that is already within three feet of us.

You know what's great about Google Glass?

You know when you're staring right at it!

It practically screams, "Hi, I'm a camera! Behave like you're in front of a camera!"

My smartphone's design offers nothing of the sort. Just ask my girlfriend.

So, does it need a blinking light?

Well, that depends. If the freedom to ignorantly assume a camera is not recording, in spite its obvious presence, is a basic human right, then I guess it needs a blinking light.

But in this world, that's staggeringly shortsighted logic to rely on.

It's right up there with not looking both ways when you cross the street, since, duh, pedestrians have the right-of-way. If a car hits you, it's their fault! So they should look, not you! It's a totally weak argument if you end up dead, and it's a totally week argument for assuming a right to privacy.

In 2009, Eric Schmidt, in an interview with Maria Bartiromo, famously said the following:

"If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Most people find this notion abhorrent. A violation of a basic human right to privacy.

Believe what you want, but your beliefs do not change the reality of the statement. This has been the reality of our world for quite sometime. It is not a new reality forged by Google Glass. And it is not a reality that will be going away anytime soon.

You can fight it all you want. You can lead debates, make bumperstickers and fight for initiatives to unwind it. You can even become a cybernetic bigot if it floats your boat.

But what I would not suggest is allowing yourself to be consumed by the distraction of wearable devices like Google Glass while ignoring the reality and capability of what's already in our pockets, on our desks and staring at us in our living rooms.

Because that position is too little too late.

That position is like arguing with the driver over right-of-way as you lie bleeding in the intersection.

These are real:

They have been for quite some time. 

Who knows, they could have kindly walked you back to your dorm room. The rest of the details are fuzzy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Veronica Mars Goes Over-The-Top: Today, the studio is crowds. Tomorrow, it's brands.

Netflix showed us with HOUSE OF CARDS that if you trust the talent and give them enough money, they can create premium content anywhere. We no longer live in a world where must-see-TV can only be produced, and more importantly, distributed by studios and networks. Moving forward, we'll continue to see premium content emerging from distribution-driven models, but replicating quality and reach is only half the equation. I don't mean this in a bad way. I think it's extremely important that Netflix is putting their money where their mouth is, effectively saying, hey we tap talent like you, we spend like you, we get to "jog" with you. Anything short of that would have given them excuses to make in the face of a potential failure. But we only had Canadian actors, for instance. (For example, see Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.)

The Veronica Mars movie funded on Kickstarter, will hopefully reveal the second half, in my opinion the more important half, of the equation. I'll pose it as a question. What is the real cost of ninety minutes of content created by premium talent using premium technology, but working for ownership in the negative instead of upfront fees? Based on this campaign, as well as financial models and budgets I deal with on my day-to-day, the answer is somewhere right around here: $2,000,000. The campaign does state that obviously all proceeds over $2million will go into the budget, which I'm sure they'll be happy to have. Again, I know for a fact that this number is feasible providing you leverage the correct talent. (I'll probably write more about that in the future.) To be fair, Warner Bros. does own the underlying IP and they're hard pressed to give up ownership. Sources tell me they may pony up production funds (in addition to a domestic limited theatrical release, no doubt to leverage oversea sales (and likely canabilize a digital window)), which would no doubt contribute to fees, but the model can work just the same with ownership pooled for talent.

Now, it's speculated that HOUSE OF CARDS came in at around $3.8million per episode, on the cheap end. And going forward, the same speculation suggests Netflix will continue pushing budgets around $4million per episode for future shows.

So, the implication here is that it's quite easy to spend a 100% premium between fees and production costs if given the opportunity.

But what happens if you're not given the opportunity?

Tighter budgets and back-end compensation seem to suggest an emerging model for digital content that might just allow creators and consumers to have their cake and eat it too: Greater numbers of niche shows/films/experiences of premium quality created on smaller budgets, reaching pre-engaged audiences on different-sized screens.

Engaged, niche audiences. Low production costs. Premium IP.

Which brings us to our... third half...

Brands want in.

They don't all know it yet, but some are coming around.

Edelman nabs a Machinima content programmer.

Conglams are leveraging their brands across networks. Conde Nast launches a digital network programmed by its biggest brands.

The brand play makes perfect sense. We're talking marketing budgets in the billions, especially in automotive and consumer electronics. Why just spend it on commercials? They're expensive. They air a few times. Sometimes they're cool, but with time, they always become invisible. Here's an opportunity to build content libraries. Products unto themselves. Consumable. Re-consumable. They garner empathy and fans. Serialized or episodic, you can track engagement.

So simple, right?

Here's (some) of the reluctance: But what about GRPs? 

I have this conversation all the time. Brands love their GRPs.

I'm always talking to engineers on the analytics side. I usually like to scream at them. It goes something like this:

What the fuck? Your network has upwards of 500 user touch-points. Why is your latest, greatest product a GRP solution? It doesn't make sense! Why don't brands use these touch points? If the brand is the content instead of just the interstitial, they'll understand, won't they? Who gives a shit about GRP? It's a Furry Convention Time Travel show, not a fucking billboard on the way home from work! And that 250k buy from The Tampon Company that's rendering 75% on ustream? Those views are in front of a drunk college girl showing her tits to stoners, you don't need GRP to know you're completely missing! Please tell me why you do this!

I always get the same answer. It's a version of this:

You are absolutely right. But you're going to have to wait for some very stubborn people in some very important positions to either retire or die. It's just the way the world works.

I don't want to wait for people to die! It's 2013, we just cured HIV! That could take forever!

I want brands, no more precisely, I want agencies that represent brands to get their heads out of their asses and start taking risks on content and metrics in a meaningful way so that I never have to see a tampon commercial ever again and my wife never needs to see a sportscar commerical ever again.

Okay, go support Veronica Mars on Kickstarter. Seriously. It was like the best show ever.


About six or seven years ago, I saw philosopher/futurist/warrior Richard Thieme speak at defCON. I discussed how a generation had emerged that identified more strongly with its online presence than its real life presence. At the time, I found this insight incredibly profound. It was an evocative message, which in my mind, best communicated the notion that sitting in front of a computer screen, for some people, results in more cozy interactions than say, sharing a lunch table. 

Presently, FAKE GRIMLOCK reminds me, fuck, that defCON talk was a long time ago. Not only has the line completely blurred, not for a fringe but for most people. And furthermore, it might only be that agency we find on the internet that will ever give us the psychic tools to tolerate individuality, failure and success, the fringe and the every day, in real life.