defining what you are for (just like porn)

All sorts of institutions are in big trouble because of the internet, and they’re scared as hell. Newspapers can’t figure out how they’ll keep making money; the music business is terrified that its business model is evaporating. Britannica has faded to irrelevance for anyone with an internet connection. I think that’s the tip of things, and anyone who has anything to do with information (schools, governments, book publishers, television, public broadcasters, among others) are all going to see their apple carts upset with fruit rolling all over the place in the next decade.

I’ve been thinking about this particularly in my role as President of the Board of Directors of the Atwater Library, where we are struggling (as many libraries do) to try to articulate why we are important, why we should get funding.

The big problem, I think, is that institutions tend to be wrong about what they are actually for.

That is, they have defined their existence by various functions they perform within a given ecosystem. In the context here, these institutions grew up in an ecosystem where information was scarce, and information distribution limited. The ecosystem has changed (info distribution & access is abundant), and institutions are having a hard time adapting. So: music labels think they sell CDs to people; newspapers think they get writers to make news articles, and get people to read them; libraries think they give people access to books and computers; universities think they provide a place for people to learn and do research; governments think they try to improve society by implementing policies wanted by the people … etc. But I think they are all wrong.

All those kinds of definitions get you tied up in the functional stuff you do, and they don’t really get to the core of what’s important, what the real thing is that you are doing. I don’t have answers, but any business/institution that thinks like this is going to get creamed in the next ten years, unless they take a look at what they are really for.

It seems to me the porn business, one of the most profitable businesses in the Universe, gets this in a way no one else does. Because the porn biz understands exactly what it is for:

Pornographers don’t sell pornography; they provide orgasms.

Looking at it that way, they don’t seem to care much about how they do it – they’ll just find ways to give people the orgasms however people want them given. Dirty postcards, magazines, prono theatres, VHS and Betamax, phone sex, online photos, online videos, chat lines, webcams, cybersex and God knows what else. You don’t hear the porn business whingeing about Intellectual Property and illegal downloads, and consumers as thieves, because they don’t have time: they’re too busy trying to give the world what it seems to want, more orgasms.

So, stepping out of the peepshow and back to the respectable world, why are newspapers, for instance, having such a hard time? I think it’s because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what they do.

The value of a newspaper is not that it gives me information; the value of a newspaper is how it selects information – what it puts in and what it leaves out.

So: Newspapers are not for providing information; newspapers are for selecting what information I should get. (And maybe: for helping me make decisions? – not sure about that one).

And the problem is that newspapers, for the most part, are in a tizzy because they ask: how can we compete as information providers in a world where there is unlimited information available on the web? And the answer, I think, is that they should stop competing as information providers, and start focusing on their real skills and usefulness, which is information selection. Note, by the way, that this does not mean that newspapers should stop providing information, but rather that that task might necessary in order to do a good job of selecting information.

I keep coming back again and again to something I heard Joi Ito say a couple of years ago on some podcast or other:

mp3s are just metadata associated with a musician.

That’s pretty big, pretty heavy. I don’t think I quite have it fixed in my brain yet, but the idea is that a thing’s value is defined by how well people know it, and how highly they consider it. Mp3s are meta data that allow people to “find” an artist, and allow them to determine how much they value that artist. (What that means for the music biz I’m not sure, but we’ll find out in the next ten years).

For newspapers, you might say the same thing: news articles and columns are just metadata associated with the newspaper. But the real value a newspaper performs is not giving me good articles, it’s putting it all together. The mere provision of information is worthless now, because anyone can do it (even me).

This is why blogs – at least in the techno-intelligencia – win. Blogs are excellent selectors of information, while newspapers are pretty clunky at it – because for the past 300 years they existed in an ecosystem where information was scarce. Now information (and access to it) is abundant. So a site like BoingBoing becomes one of the most popular on the net: their craft is not providing information, it’s selecting it. And they’re good at it.

And given the huge overabundance of information on the web, we need all the help we can get in selecting. So newspapers need to work harder at providing that service, bringing that core skill (which they have always had – the Editor is the God of the newspaper) to bear on the web. Have a flip thru the Gazette, or, God help you, visit their web site, and is it any wonder they’re having a hard time? Half of it is the same generic wire-service information that’s in any other paper or news site on the web. That’s not giving me much value. It’s lazy selection and boring, and lazy and boring are a dime a dozen these days. So work harder at finding and selecting interesting content (from the web, there’s tons of it), take down you stupid registration system down, put up a decent navigable web site designed by someone who understands the Internet, and get on with things and stop whingeing.

This was the idea behind earideas: that what’s missing is not good audio out there, but a really good way to find and hear the good audio. (I hope we’re succeeding … anyone have any comments on earideas? Have you checked it out yet? Do you like it?).

There is lots of work to do, and I guess you and I and many other people will be busy for the next few years figuring this all out.

Oh, and any ideas about what a library is truly for? Some help would be much appreciated in deciding that – I’ve got some suggestions, but it hasn’t quite crystalized in the old brain yet.

UPDATE: Interesting proposition about wordpress and learning, that suggests a way education might start changing. [via blogsavvy; via bentrem twitter]

UPDATE II: Stemming from a debate about the value of political groups on Facebook, Mat’s started thinking about political platforms on the web.

public broadcasting & podcasting

I’ve been listening to tons of great public broadcasting on

And here’s a different view about why “good” public broadcasting is important: with the web, and podcasts, the CBC becomes a calling card for Canada. Ditto Deutsche-Welle for Germany and ARN for Australia etc. The broadcaster becomes a marketing tool and a builder of prestige. This is becoming more important in the networked world, where – for many of my peers, for instance – we can be anywhere in the world to do the work we do. Ditto businesses, scientists, writers and other “elites.” We want them here, in Canada, in Montreal, because really smart people make a country more vibrant and innovative.

I believe that a strong public broadcaster with excellent, thought-provoking content, helps build Canada’s image in the world.

While this isn’t all a public broadcaster should do, this is a new kind of rationale, I believe, brought on by the web; and one that might be more compelling to the business-only decision-making that runs our governments these days.

Note, this applies as well to universities: all universities should put a chunk of their marketing budget towards producing a weekly, high-quality podcast that interviews professors doing exciting research (whether in arts, humanities, or sciences and professional disciplines). I’m thinking of a weekly podcast with content as varied and wonderful as the TEDTalks. That is the gold standard for thought-provoking web content … and should be emulated by anyone who wants to build an image as a place of exciting innovation.

I was just talking with Mitch and Julien about this at lunch the other day; and commented on Mat’s blog to this effect.

Categories: art, buisness

david byrne on why CDs aren’t music

David Byrne talks about music and business in a great article in Wired.

What is music?
First, a definition of terms. What is it we’re talking about here? What exactly is being bought and sold? In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.

Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music, but our human instincts remained intact. I spend plenty of time with buds in my ears listening to recorded music, but I still get out to stand in a crowd with an audience. I sing to myself, and, yes, I play an instrument (not always well).

We’ll always want to use music as part of our social fabric: to congregate at concerts and in bars, even if the sound sucks; to pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; to build temples where only “our kind of people” can hear music (opera houses and symphony halls); to want to know more about our favorite bards — their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs. This betrays an eternal urge to have a larger context beyond a piece of plastic. One might say this urge is part of our genetic makeup.

All this is what we talk about when we talk about music.


Categories: buisness, web

an advertising role reversal

I’m just fiddling with Amazon ads for another web project soon to be launched (stay tuned). If you scroll down on the left-hand sidebar (on my homepage, here), you’ll see some ads on this blog (they won’t last long). Here’s one too:

As I’ve been playing around, it occurs to me that a revolution in how we approach advertising is about to happen … maybe it’s already happened, I don’t know.

Traditionally, publishers (eg TV stations and Newspapers) courted advertisers to get their business. This meant that content producers worked for the advertisers – with all sorts of implications for what kind of content was allowed.

Now, it seems to me – on parts of the web at least – that advertisers will increasingly have to do the courting, and it’s the content-makers and publishers who will decide what sorts of things they want their content (writing, music, movies) to help sell.

Looking at the ads I just put up here, I have a list of 12 items – 2 gadgets (the sexy itouch I’m dreaming of, and a the mic set that helped me get LibriVox rolling), and 10 books, 3 of which were written by friends of mine (Umm, Regret the Error, and Abandon). The other 7 books are books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, and I would recommend them to anyone.

It costs me nothing to put these ads up. And I am happy to help sell these things which I believe in (though as mentioned, I will soon take the ads down – I don’t want to have a commercial relationship with you here; though I have a couple of explicitly commercial projects where I am/will be putting ads).

In effect, here I am really just recommending to you some books that I really loved this year, and that I think you ought to read, and giving you a mechanism to buy them – and support the authors. While Amazon gets their cut, I don’t care about Amazon, but I do think that these writers should be supported and rewarded so that they will write more wonderful books. Few people read this blog, but if I had a big readership and wanted to put ads up here, I would have to work to put ads here for products that will really sell to my audience. That is, ads for things I think my audience will want.

Now it turns out the only things I can think of to tell you to buy at the moment are books, and a couple of gadgets. If I put my mind to it I could come up with any number of things I think you should spend your money on (maybe some good Scotch, for instance). But I would refuse to sell you things I don’t believe in – things I don’t think you want or need.

In the old model: a publisher (say, NBC TV) tries to convince the advertiser (say, Kraft Dinner) that his audience will buy the product, so that the advertiser will give him money to show Kraft ads on NBC TV.

In the new model: the publisher (me) has to try to figure out what kind of products the audience (you) actually wants, and then advertise them.

Further: the old model was pretty inexact, I convince you to give me money to advertise your product, and no on knows really what the effect is.

New model: I decide what I sell, and I see if it’s selling well or not – which I can tell by clickthrus etc. If it is, I keep advertising it; if it’s not, I’ll start advertising something else.

That’s a pretty significant difference.

Now it so happens that Amazon is the de facto commercial mall these days – but they are just the middle man, and I think their stranglehold on this space might be … well … getting commodified. The value of Amazon as online seller will decrease in coming years, I think, even if their volume increases. In part, maybe for the reasons above: if I am going to sell things, I’d like to sell things I like, and Amazon *has* to carry them if they want my business… because otherwise there is a good business figuring out how to help me sell those things. A business that is overdue I think.

We are in the netherland right now, between states. We haven’t got to the kind of advertising market I’m thinking of. Now, more or less, the Google model says: we’ll read your stuff, and serve ads I think are relevant. Which they almost never are. (For instance, I have Amazon on one of my test sites, and it keeps trying to sell an mp3 download of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & the Waves … wtf?)

Adbrite and similar services say: tell me what your site is, and we’ll try to find advertisers who want to advertise there.

But as publisher, what I want is a good advertising clearinghouse so that *I* can find the ads *I* want to have near the stuff *I* am publishing, ads I think *my* audience will respond to. And all I ask in return is a cut of the sales you make from people I send your way.

Again, I think there is a big business opportunity here to make such a clearinghouse. Or maybe someone is doing this already.