Posts about bestof

Guardian column: Facebook’s genius

My Guardian column this week tries to dissect the genius of Facebook:

At Davos this year, a powerful newspaper publisher beseeched Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder of the hugely successful social network Facebook, for advice on how he could build and own his community. The famously laconic Zuckerberg replied “You can’t.”

Zuckerberg went on to explain that communities already exist and the question these magnates should ask instead is how they can help them to do what they want to do. Zuckerberg’s prescription was “elegant organisation”. That is what he brought to Harvard’s community when he started Facebook, then to more colleges, high schools and companies (including half the BBC, which has 10,000 friends, says its director of global news Richard Sambrook). And now it is open to the rest of us.

I finally joined Facebook and have become obsessed with Zuckerberg’s creation. Until last autumn, one could join only with a university “edu” address. As a professor, I finally got that. Once inside, though, it felt terribly lonely; I had no friends. But since Facebook opened up, a flood of fellow old cronies have joined. So I spent a weekend morning inviting people I knew to be my Facebook friends – which would mean that we could see each other’s pages and follow each other’s actions in the service – and what floored me was the speed with which they replied. In a day I had 150 friends. What’s notable about that is not that I’m liked but that these 150 people were on Facebook within a weekend. They, too, were addicted.

What is Facebook’s secret sauce? I think it starts with identity. On the otherwise anonymous and pseudonymous internet, this is a place where real identity matters: I use my name and I associate with people whom I actually know. Soon after I started, I got invitations from strangers and asked my blog readers about the etiquette of responding. I was told that, in school, one accepts all invitations, because you are all in the same institution and it’s rather like an arms race; school is, after all, a popularity contest. But we newcomer adults already seem to be developing a rule (borrowed from the similar business site LinkedIn) that we should befriend only those we know; it is an endorsement. So we are the masters of of our identities and our communities, which establishes trust. I think internet users have been yearning for such control.

Next, Facebook introduced what it calls a newsfeed, filled with simple updates about what your friends have done on the service: one posted a photo, another a video, two more befriended the same person, four others started using a feature. This was controversial when introduced – mainly because users were surprised by the change – but now it is popular, even essential. Zuckerberg says it is not news as we know it, but it has news value: if four friends I respect start using a program, that’s good enough reason for me to look at it. As one blogger said, this isn’t the wisdom of crowds but the wisdom of my crowd. It is like the talk around the cracker barrel in a frontier general store: the protonews of my small society.

Finally, a few weeks ago, Facebook turned itself into a platform. That is, it enables anyone to create applications on top of the service. Already there are scores of aps hooking up users’ information with other services such as calendars, maps, chat, music, news, shopping, and much more. Every media, entertainment and web company needs to figure out how Facebook can help their communities. It is not just about widgetising content – the latest web 2.0 fad – but about people doing things together.

Zuckerberg’s ambition for Facebook -which he has so far refused to sell, even though it is said he has been offered more than $1bn – is nothing less than for it to become the social operating system of the web, the Google of people. If the service opens up yet more – if it becomes the twine to tie together my lives online in my blog, my work, my town, YouTube, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Amazon, eBay, Twitter, and more – then his ambition may be attainable. That would be elegant organisation indeed.

After the page

In my Guardian column this week (nonregistration version here), I argue that we need to explode the home page — and our notions of the page and the site, for that matter. This is about the new architecture of content and media and the internet. The column is a shorter version of the post below:

* * *

After the page

It’s time to ask what comes next in the design of online news sites: What is the next home page? What is the next page, for that matter? Do we even need either anymore?

Every online site I know puts undue effort into its home page, even though in some news sites as few as 20 percent of users ever end up there. The rest, the majority, come directly to pages deeper into these sites instead through search, links, and bookmarks. Or sometimes they don’t go to the sites at all but read their content via RSS feeds or email or hear or watch it in podcasts.

And now that ajax, Flash, et al can make pages endlessly dynamic, infinitely deep, and utterly individualized, it is time to rethink the page itself. After all, Nielsen just decreed that it will stop measuring page views — because, with ajax, the page is being made into a meaningless unit of media. Instead, Nielsen will measure audience and engagement.

But engagement with what? Where? I’d argue that in Google’s distributed model — which makes this very page part of the Google empire, thanks to its ads here — even the site is an outmoded concept that is being kept alive artificially by the measurements that advertisers understand. That already-antiquated standard of measurement — who’s the host with the most? — forces sites to stay big — too big — under one brand and address, when I’d argue that they’d be better off breaking themselves up into a score of more viral — that is, more directly linkable — sites, brands, and addresses. That is, do you really want to have to dig into NYPost.com to find Page Six? Do you want to have to mine washingtonpost.com to find Howard Kurtz’s bloggy articles?

Finally, note that many news sites have now come to a common visual voice and grammar: Compare the recently redesigned Guardian, Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Telegraph, News.com.au; they are all graphic cousins with equal proportions of white space and blue type. They all look good and work well because they learned from each other. They have settled on a common if unspoken standard of the home page. Have we now arrived at the end of this process? Will the home page — like the newspaper page — now look essentially the same for decades to come? I hope not.

It’s time to break out of the old page and its now-common interpretations. But to what? I see a few possible models for a new architecture of the home page, the page, the site — hell, of the web itself. These models are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive.

THE VIEWER: So imagine if a site had only one page. You come to that and you can get anything you want there without ever clicking off to another page. Yes, this marks the welcome death of the click and its delays and uncertainties. Now you can get many things on this infinite page. It is a gigantic menu of media. Over here, I’ll put a video of live sports. Then I’ll replace it with a video of a news story. Up with it comes a list of related links and background. Over there, I’ll put a feed of headlines from elsewhere. Down there I’ll have discussion about what’s going on in what I’ve just pulled together. In another dimension of media, I have a separate soundtrack — perhaps my friends talking about the game, maybe music, maybe news. When something new happens in any of these, it will pop to the front and alert me; when it goes stale, it fades into the background. It can all be about one thing — every angle on a story — or it can be about many things and can morph from one view to the other. (And of course, somewhere in all this, there’ll be some new forms of advertising to support it but one hopes that is relevant to me more than my content.)

But, of course, why should all this come from just one source? Why couldn’t I get these things from any number of sources? It’s my screen, right? Who’s in charge of this page: me or the media outlet? That’s going to be a crucial question. But even if it’s the media outlet that gives me this — as it can today, on a page — it would be wise to give me the opportunity to include anything I want from anywhere in it. And that means that every media outlet must make itself ready to be included in anyone else’s page. Widgets gone wild.

FEEDS: Almost all media is a feed. Certainly news is. So’s broadcast. So’s adverting (a feed of commercials, a feed of billboards, a feed of classifieds). When I was at my last real job, as I’ve mentioned here before, I wanted to rearchitect my news sites around feeds: feeds of our headlines; outside headlines; blog headlines; prospective searches (that is, tell me when something new on a topic comes across the sources I specify); classified ads (but just the ones I want); photos; podcasts; vodcasts… and on and on. None of this is static, of course; it’s all fresh and dynamic.

Once you have everything made feed-ready, this allows a site to very easily construct new pages with any of these feeds on them. It means, for example, that a local news site can automatically construct a town page with feeds of inside and outside news and ads and more.

But then it’s a very small step to making this personalized: a page with my feeds on it. And then it’s just another small step to taking this out of the page and into a new application: a new browser — AKA, an RSS reader. This can feed any device, live or on demand. All it needs is for media to convert everything they do into feeds. (There are lots of sites I never read anymore because they don’t have feeds.) Those feeds can be raw — Dave Winer’s river of news — or they can bring smarts with them: prioritization, context, comment, ratings, rankings, freshness, expiration….

NETWORKS: But let’s not assume that media organizations own all content in the future. They don’t already. They will, I’ve been arguing until everyone around me is blue in the face, that wise news organizations must learn to work collaboratively. So coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, for example, will not be just what has been brought onto a news site but also a collection of links to witness-reporters’ own sites with their own live news, soon even live video.

But this, too, can be a two-way pipe. The witness-reporter’s content can be made into widgets and feeds and included on a news site (with branding, attribution, vetting, caveats). Or the media organization’s content can be included on the witness-reporter’s site. Or everything can be inside our user-controlled space: a new browser or aggregator or reader.

Consider, too, that advertising and sponsorship will be networked as well: Google is not Google.com but every other dot com with Google on it. The web and its support becomes massively distributed.

SHOWS: Maybe I want you to make a show for me; maybe I want a more passive experience: Feed me. But I don’t want to be fed what everyone else is fed. See Dave Winer’s request to get news without the story he has tired of. See also Facebook’s news feeds, which Mark Zuckerberg says are algorithmic, giving you news the system thinks you want based on your network, your stated preferences, your use, its smarts.

Now mash all this together: In one corner of my screen, I have a show; Along the side, I have lots of feeds. On the other side, I have dynamic, constantly updated widgets. This stuff comes from anywhere and everywhere — from my own network of news sites, from friends, from friends of friends. It can be fed through any device. In fact, it may not even have a screen; what if it knows I’m in my car and can only talk to me? when the system knows my only tether to the net is a phone, it sends me just what it knows I need to know and when I get back home it catches me up on what I missed. While at home, it projects what I need to know on screens or walls, and This isn’t just beyond the home page, it’s beyond the page, the browser, the screen, the computer.

And if I haven’t blown your brain enough — I keep trying — consider that I may be adding myself into this, bookmarking, tagging, annotating, saving. And all that adds more information to the information; my friends can get feeds of what is fed to me and all our feeds together become a kind of passive Digg. My act of consumption become acts of creation. The antisocial act of watching becomes a social act of sharing.

OK, let’s get real. But this is real — today. Any news site can do any of this today. It can make feeds and widgets and shows on what we still know as pages and it can operate inside larger distributed networks. Importantly, none of this requires what we have always thought reinvention required in the past: new systems, new backends, new infrastructure, millions of dollars and lots of consultants and deadlines that never come. You can do most any of this today with a little bit of coding — html, ajax, Flash (but not too much now), RSS — on what we still archaically call web pages. Now.

Many years ago, in about 1995, when I saw the odious Pointcast — the screensaver that ate office networks and gave you news when you least needed it, when you want to the bathroom — I left the demonstration telling my boss to go nowhere near investing in or using it. I went back to my office and worked with my team to deliver every bit of Pointcast’s value using nothing more than a refreshing web page that once a minute checked on the latest from the AP wire and included it. Newsflash, we called it, was dynamic, extremely popular, and elegantly simple. Now we can do much more.

So someone needs to break out of the sameness that has become news home pages, pages, sites, and services and start the next wave of reinvention.

Who will it be?

* * *

YET MORE: See also Seth Godin lighting dynamite under the home page:

Do you really need a home page? Does the web respect it?

Human beings don’t have home pages. People make judgments about you in a thousand different ways. By what they hear from others, by the way they experience you, and on and on. Companies may have a website, but they don’t have a home page in terms of the way people experience them.

The problem with home page thinking is that it’s a crutch. There’s nothing wrong with an index, nothing wrong with a page for newbies, nothing wrong with a place that makes a first impression when you get the chance to control that encounter. But it’s not your ‘home’. It’s not what the surfer/user wants, and when it doesn’t match, they flee.

You don’t need one home page. You need a hundred or a thousand. And they’re all just as important.

: Here’s an E&P feature about three recent newspaper redesigns.

Amazing Facebook

I have spent this weekend in awe of — and devoting too many hours to — Facebook.

I joined sometime ago, as soon as I got an .edu address at CUNY, back when that was still required. But it was a lonely and pathetic existence, reminding me all too much of freshman mixers at my then-men’s college. I had no Facebook friends. It was all the worse because I wanted to explore the phenom of Facebook and couldn’t without links to people. It’s a people place. I wanted to stand on a virtual campus corner with sad and wide eyes asking whether anyone would be my friend. But that would have gotten me arrested.

Then Facebook opened up to the rest of us. And last week, it announced its platform, which seems to have caused lots of people to suddenly dive in (at least in my geek/capitalist/media circles).

So I asked appropriate people — that is, people I actually know — in my address book to be my friend, which for some reason on Facebook seems to feel less like human spam than on LinkedIn. And then as people agreed to be my friend — they like me, they really like me — I found connections to more friends. And a few people I don’t know befriended me. In a little over 24 hours, I had 187 friends.

What’s significant about that is not that I’m so popular but that Facebook is. This demonstrates clearly that those 187 people are as addicted to the service as I’ve quickly become. They were online using it on a holiday weekend and responded instantly. I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, there’s nothing new in this; people have been amazed at Facebook since it started. It’s just that I finally get to join the in crowd.

What is new is the platform and its is quickly proving to be remarkable as well. As I said yesterday, my son, Jake, has created a few applications and the response has been impressive: As of lunchtime Monday, 6,500 people were using his Last.fm ap and because it’s not yet on the approved list, that means it grew strictly from being on TechCrunch — no small promotion — and then virally. Interesting to watch the reaction of the two companies he apped. LastFM users were impatient that they didn’t have an ap so they started using Jake’s, gratefully. Then along came LastFM the company and they were nice but asked him to take off their logo. Meebo, on the other hand, was nicer; they said they’d promote his ap. Which one passes the 2.0 test? Meebo, I’d say. The more your users use you — the more you are an API — the better. Then a few other companies and even two VCs contacted him to ask for help or just to compliment him, which is all very cool. (/dad bragging)

And no wonder there’s such interest: Facebook becomes a platform for viral distribution of actions. I can think of a dozen companies that out there that out to be doing three dozen things here, and I’ve emailed a few of them. Keep in mind that this isn’t just about putting some damned widget on a page, it’s about interacting with the content and the person behind it in more than one way: You can put content on my page for me and my friends, but that’s just the starting point. Or you can use what I’ve said about myself on my page to serve me better. Or you can interact with other applications in smarter ways. Or you can expose the action around my page to say more about the people here. If your ap’s any good, thousands will use it. If not, no one will.

As impressed as I am with the platform, I still wish it were more open. I want to combine my presence on Facebook with my presences on my blog, del.icio.us, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, iTunes, Daylife, Amazon, eBay, and lots of other places — that is beginning on the platform — but I also want them to interact with each other and with my friends’ presences in those places to see what surprises result. Maybe I start to see that my friends are buying the same books. Or I put together a Twitter group for an event. Or I find that my blog readers who are in my same group are going to the same event.

It’s said that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for his service to become the social operating system of the web, the Google of people. Mark talks about bringing communities elegant organization. I say the internet already is a community of communities and there’s a winning strategy in bringing it elegant organization. But that’s different from making everyone come to you and join your service behind your closed walls. Granted, those closed walls have an advantage when it comes to people: I’m not friends with the world, only those I say are my friends (and only if they agree). But I need to be in charge of my identity and my relationships. Facebook started down that road. But it hasn’t yet arrived. At Davos, I heard Zuckerberg tell a big-time newspaper publisher that he couldn’t build a community; he had to serve a community that is already there and bring it, again, elegant organization. One more time: The internet is that community.

This also has big implications for publishers, portals, governments, and companies that interact directly with customers. This is about more than “widgetizing” your content in hopes people will publish it on their pages — though that’s a smart strategy as far as it goes. I’m writing about this in my Guardian column this week, which I’ll put up soon. It’s also about going to people instead of expecting them to come to you. And it’s about thinking beyond content to functionality: How can you turn yourself into an API? Shouldn’t news be something we use in new ways?

I’ve only begun to get my head around the possibilities of the Facebook platform — and I think that Facebook has only begun to open it up. This points to a new architecture to the web, an architecture built around people instead of content, the public instead of the companies. It’ll be exciting to watch and I’m glad I’m finally on the inside to watch it.

: LATER: Mediapost reports on Washington Post and Slate’s political applications on the Facebook platform. (I just tried to add one of them but high use overloaded the Post’s servers.)

A pro’s advice for the candidates

I asked Fred Graver — who makes real TV at VH1′s Best Week Ever and Acceptable.TV — what advice he has for the candidates and their online video and got a smarter answer to that question than I’ve gotten yet. And funnier. Because Fred knows funny. Enjoy:

(Crossposted from PrezVid)

Ombudsing

I’m on my way to Cambridge to be part of a panel at the international confab of ombudsmen. The topic: Is There a Shared Watchdog Role for the Public, the Blogs & Ombudsmen? As is my practice, I’ll share with you my notes, hoping for some of your wisdom on the topic:

* We need to see the news story as more of a process and less of a product. And once we do that, we open the door for collaboration with the public. So that relationship need no longer be solely about complaint and fault. It can be about cooperative effort, asking for each others’ help, networked journalism. So now, before the story is done, we can ask the public what they know that we don’t; we can ask them what they want to know; they can ask us to find facts. This profoundly changes the relationship between news organizations and their publics.

* Consider our ethic of the link. I’ve been arguing that news organizations should do what they do best and link to the rest. That is part of looking at news as a process: newspapers should link to others’ reporting and others’ criticism (and they are beginning to). This says that they are not the be-all-and-end-all and that the less they put themselves on a pedestal, the less that criticism and correction are seen as extraordinary events.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman inside the paper. Every reporter and editor has the responsibility to interact with the public over matters of fact and misunderstanding. I actually don’t suggest that every reporter respond to every letter. I remember a columnist who’d said something ridiculous — arguing, as I remember, that bicycle racing is not a sport — and he got scores of angry letters, of course; his editor bragged that he’d personally answered each one. I thought that was rather a waste of time; a blog or forum conversation would have kept the discussion going much more efficiently and openly.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman outside the paper. Is there a shared watchdog role for the public? Of course, there is. There always has been. Only now those watchdogs have a voice via blogs.

* Why should ombudsmen necessarily come from within the community of journalists? Yes, they may be able to understand the ins-and-outs of newspapers, all the better to dig into the organization and to explain it. But wouldn’t it also be better to have members of the public in the role? I argue that of the reasons Dan Okrent was such a good ombudsman at the Times — besides intelligence and orneriness — was that he came from outside newspapers (though not far outside).

* Stipulated: There are asses in the world. But we should not judge communities by their worst. That is cultural redlining. Yet that is what I hear news organizations do when they dip into blogs, forums, and comments: They obsess on the asses. But we all know who the asses are. It would be a much more valuable service to concentrate instead on finding the smart things smart people say, encouraging them to say more.

* And, by the way, when you confront the asses, they will generally back down like the bullies they are. If they don’t, then they are trolls in need of meds and it’s best to ignore them. But also remember that people dislike walls and especially dislike shouting at them. So don’t be shocked if they get mad speaking with no response.

* I think the best ombudsmanship comes not just from criticizing or justifying the actions within one organization but instead from reviewing and commenting on the broader context: Why shouldn’t the ombudsman talk about the habits of journalism in a broader sense, as practiced by competitors and by community members? When the ombudsman acts more as a critic than as a spokesman for either the community or the institution, the conversation is more compelling.

WWGD: What has Google done?

Today’s announcement that Google is changing its search to integrate video, photos, text, and news with results that used to list just text on web pages is, I think, more significant than it at first seems.

This promotes other media to the exalted rank of text. And it tells publishers that they’d damned well better do the same. This is the mark of true agnosticism coming to media: You should be using whatever media best communicates information in the form the user wants.

Oh, publishers are trying. That was one of the rationales behind the Guardian’s home-page redesign last week: They want to serve video. And those publishers are scrambling to make it. But I think we’re still putting too high a wall around each medium. One thing I’m starting to learn doing the PrezVid blog is that one can use different media strung together to tell a story: text, then an embedded video, then an original video, with links all about. It’s not having text here and video over there and audio up there. It’s about using all the tools appropriately at all times.

So once again, even as we make our own articles, we should be following Google’s example and asking WWGD.

Next, this announcement throws a heavy monkey wrench into many a publisher’s SEO strategy. Until now, you structured your pages and metadata in certain magical ways and — if you were hip — got yourself linked a lot by linking out a lot and — voila — you rose into Google heaven. Now you have to figure out how to put some Google helium into your videos and photos and news headlines — all of which can now appear on the blessed search-result page.

And you also have to figure out what people get when they click on those things: where are your brand, your ads, your links? If you distribute your stuff onto more sites out there — if your video becomes a hit on YouTube and on bloggers’ embeds — does that get it higher on Google? What does this do to destination and portal strategies?

Big media people should be reaching for the gin tonight.

* * *

Make that a double:

For Google’s pages also include maps. They’re local. Very local. Like the ads. Search on Mexican restaurants in Hoboken and you get web pages and the map with listings and much more: details the business can update, reviews, links. As of now, you won’t find an ad for Baja Mexican — but that won’t be long in coming. Look at Google’s FAQ for its local business ads. Here’s how to target to regions and cities.

So if you’re a local newspaper, you ask WWGD and what’s the answer? I’m not sure. But I think you need to have better distributed as widely as possible — across a large network of very local trusted brands (read: neighbors’ blogs) with better advertising performance and service. The more local you are, the better. The better known and trusted you are, the better. The more complete you are, the better. The more searchable you make your world, the better. The more addictive you are, the better. And then you’d better do everything you can to have your ads be found via Google whether they are on your site or others’ because not everybody’s going to come to you just because they used to. (See the smartest media quote of the year.)

* * *

Bartender, another please.

But, of course, this isn’t just about traffic and retail and directory ads. It’s about classifieds. Remember them? See today’s announcement that Boston.com and its former mortal enemy and now partner, Monster.com, are coming out with their joint job channel in June. Says PaidContent: “The move also reflects the increased competition for revenue from online classifieds, as typified by the dozen entities involved in the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium, which began as co-branding with Yahoo’s HotJobs, and rival CareerBuilder, owned by Gannett, the Tribune Company, McClatchy and Microsoft, which purchased a minority stake in it earlier this month.”

What it really represents, I say, is not just the further collapse of newspapers’ hold on classifieds but the crumbling of classifieds as a form of advertising itself. The monsters are huddling together for warmth. With better search, we’ll be able to find each other, buyer and seller, without having to go to a centralized marketplace.

It won’t be long before we see classifieds coming up in Google searches. In some ways, we do now. Search for new homes in Tampa and you’ll see ads next to that map.

So WWGD? Well, I think the best opportunity is to target not words but people. If you know that lawyers in New Jersey read this New Jersey law blog, then you have a better chance of reaching people who work in the field. You have a relationship — or rather, that blogger does and you want a relationship with him. If you know that neighbors in Montclair read this blog — and they do — then you have a place to put house and restaurant ads you sell, if you’re in a network with that blogger (who can also sell ads on your pages, by the way). But can you afford to start blogs for every town and job description in your state? Of course, not — especially not now. But it’s in your interest for them to exist. So you need to support them. How? Well, for starters, sell ads for them and promote them and figure out what else you can do for them. That’s what Google would do. Hell, that’s what Google is doing.

: LATER: Matt Law, a veteran of About.com who knows whereof he SEOs, adds in the comments that I rushed past one important impact of this:

It’s not just an issue of getting more of their “multi”media stuff to show up in the listings. They now have to worry about how all this new stuff pushes their regular web page rankings further down the page.

Your advice: Should I debate?

Andrew Keen and his publisher have asked me to debate him about his book, The Cult of the Amateur, in New York in June. I’m asking your advice because I’m torn.

The problem is that Keen’s book is the worst of link bait. It’s link whoring. Or should I say talk-show prostitution? It’s frilly lace tempting those who want so much to dismiss this change. He tries to push every internet button he can. Like others, Keen wants to be the contrarian’s contrarian. But that only makes him a double negative. It makes him a curmudgeon, a conservative trying to hold onto the past, a mastadon growling against the warm wind of change. Now I’d be fine having an debate about what the change means and what’s good and bad about it, but Keen makes it all bad with sloppy generalities and blanket insults — like the very worst blog. It’s simply not a good book or a compelling argument.

Do we give this attention? Do we play wack-a-mole with these tiresome arguments? Or do we just ignore it with the sure knowledge that it will go away in an act of self-extinction?

To give you a few examples from the start of the book (which I’ve not quite finished):

Keen summons up the T.H. Huxley infinite monkey theorem*, of course casting the internet — us — in that role: “Except in our Web 2.0 world, the typewriters aren’t quite typewriters, but rather networked personal computers, and the monkeys aren’t quite monkeys, but rather Internet users.” Just by using this new tool, we are ruining the world. How? “But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. This is no laughing matter.” Oh, yes, he’s serious about this. No sense of fine British irony here. He pounds his typewriter with a sledgehammer.

Keen says the internet is used to “publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.” But nothing else? No reporting? No fact-checking? No new talent making new video? No thoughtful reviews? No new independent music? No new tools for education? This is the most troubling aspect of his book: He acknowledges nothing good about the internet and we who inhabit it. That’s either blind or intellectually dishonest. Of course, there is good and bad here. I acknowledge the bad on the internet — the unbearable blogs, the flaming fart jokes, and worse, the people who use the medium as their outlet for hate — just as I remind its opponents of the bad books, movies, songs, and, yes, newspapers produced by the old media world. But in either case, does the bad negate all the good? Of course, not. I argue that media old farts and the curmudgeons who feed them pay too much attention to the bad and miss the good, and that is a waste. That is playing deaf.

But to Keen, we are the ruination of everything and we’re too stupid to realize it. “If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture.” Hearing your neighbor talk is now corrupting and confusing and Keen knows the difference but we do not. This is his unbearable snobbishness.

He predictably goes after Wikipedia and its articles, “none of them edited or vetted for accuracy.” That’s innaccurate. They are vetted by thousands — as newspapers now can be. He says that Wikipedia is “a more trusted source for news than the CNN or BBC websites” but provides no citation to back up that generality. Introduce me to the people who say that. I’ve never heard it. The book is filled with such as that — like, oh, the worst Wikipedia article. Oh, but Keen might have done well to have looked up a few facts on Wikipedia himself. A few pages later, he makes the cliched reference to cults and Kool-Aid when Wikipedia would correct him: Jim Jones’ poison was mixed with Flavor-Aid. Grape, to be exact. I know because I covered the story. I was on rewrite taking the first stories from Guyana. I’ll vet that. It’s in Wikipedia. Go look it up.

It’s also no surprise that Keen goes after social sites. “It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements have resulted in social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.” And a lot of happy marriages. The priesthood is also infested with its share of anonymous predators and pedophiles, but I don’t hear Keen railing against them. This is the worst of tabloid generalization: If one thing is bad, it is all bad. Paint the entire world with the same dark brush. That is the essence of the book’s intellectual dishonesty. There’s more that I may choose to annotate in later blog posts.

Ah, but here’s his real point, is essential conservatism: “But our cultural standards and moral values are not all that are at stake. Gravest of all, the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows and our movies are under assault as well.” Keen is trying to pass the full-employment act for old institutions — even, at one point in his book, including ad agencies! Now, of course, the old institutions do and still will contribute incredible value. But now we have the means to contribute more, to find more talent, to check their work, to hear more voices. I celebrate that. Keen dreads it: “The monkeys take over. Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.”

Keen is not just an elitist, he is authoritarian to the point of Stalinism. At the end: “Can we really trust society to behave properly in the Wild West culture of the Web 2.0 revolution? I would argue that we are easily seduced, corrupted, and led astray. In other words, we need rules and regulations to help control our behavior online, just as we need traffic laws to regulate how we drive in order to protect everyone from accidents.” Of course, we already have those laws and they govern life online. That’s a red herring. It’s the gatekeepers he wants, the experts anointed by institutions not by us ignorant masses, the authorities.

If you can’t trust society, then you don’t truly believe in democracy, free markets, reformed religion, art, education, or journalism. Why bother with us if we’re such a bunch of ignorant monkeys?

And why bother arguing with that? So I’ll do just what Keen would apparently abhor: I’ll ask you, the vast zoo of amateurs, whether you think I should take this on in an evening. I’m not handing over my authority; I’ll decide what to do. But I do value your opinion. So tell me what you think about the cult of contrarians.

* CORRECTION: Within an hour after I posted this, I got this email from Sam Huxley:

While my great-great grandfather is highly regarded for many things, unfortunately the infinite-monkey theorem isn’t one of them. In fact if you scroll down the Wikipedia entry you linked to it refers to the TH attribution as a common misattribution- I checked it out as it is the first I’d heard of it. Also, I would pass on the debate as I fail to see how magnifying such an outlandish opinion does anyone but him good.

I thanked Sam and asked him whether I could quote his email. Here is what the Wikipedia entry says:

In his 1931 book The Mysterious Universe, Eddington’s rival James Jeans attributed the monkey parable to a “Huxley”, presumably meaning Thomas Henry Huxley. This attribution is incorrect. Today, it is sometimes further reported that Huxley applied the example in a now-legendary debate over Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, held at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in June 30, 1860. This story suffers not only from a lack of evidence, but the fact that in 1860 the typewriter itself had yet to emerge.

So Wikipedia is right and a helluva lot more detailed at that.

And note how this correction came: thanks to the internet and its openness. Who would have known that Sam Huxley would read a blog post and point me to correct information — at Wikipedia? And isn’t it wonderful that the technology allowed me to correct that mistake within an hour of publication. I’m going to bet that Keen’s book may already be published and even if not, trying to fix it in an old print book will be difficult and expensive. All that only demonstrates the superiority of this new medium. But that’s another discussion.

Guardian column: News via links

Here’s my Guardian column this week, on the new architecture of news via links:

The fundamental architecture of news has shifted – again. We’ve already seen that news organisations’ exclusive hold on distribution and content creation has dissolved. But now it appears that their pre-eminence as news gatherers is also challenged, especially during breaking news events. So during big news stories, what is the role of the journalist now? To link, it seems.

There has been no better illustration of this shift than the Virginia Tech shootings, in which witness-reporters on campus used their available tools – blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, mobile phones, wi-fi – to tell their stories as they occurred.

In most cases, the students’ intended audience was not the world but instead their families and friends, who did not come to them with journalistic expectations of completeness, verification, and identity. Their audiences knew them, and the news they sought was simply, “I’m OK, Dad.” Yet because the media had not yet sent their flocks of news vultures to Virginia, they depended on these witness-reporters to give us their accounts and their colour. As was discussed in last week’s MediaGuardian, the students resisted the crush of reporters coming to vet their tales and claim exclusive bits of life and death. Their stories were already there for all to see, with little need for journalists. What was big media to do, then? Link.

But the students were not the only ones who were media-savvy. So was the murderer. Many decried NBC’s decision to air his “multimedia manifesto,” as the network’s anchor called it. But I disagree. NBC should have revealed the worst of his rants to inform a needed debate about America’s laws on insanity, privacy and guns, laws that allowed this deranged man to be at large. It is not journalism’s job to be safe and popular but instead to tell us uncomfortable truths. Besides, the murderer’s videos could just as easily have been posted to YouTube or his blog; NBC was their gatekeeper only by chance. The next time, a network won’t be there to protect us from ugliness, to sanitise the world for our protection. And is that journalism’s job, anyway, when reality is only a link away?

I am also struck by the inevitability that, come the next major event, the news we see from witness-reporters will be delivered from the scene, live. The technology exists today. You can broadcast live on the internet via UStream.com. It’s even possible to broadcast live from a mobile phone. So what happens when a dozen witnesses stream reports over the internet as the news occurs? What does big media do when there is no time to vet and verify? They’ll have to issue caveats. And link.

In the midst of the Virginia Tech story, I was at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas, where two talented video bloggers – Zadi Diaz, of JetSet, and Amanda Congdon, ex of Rocketboom – both refused the title “journalist” because of the baggage it brings, the expectations and demands. They don’t want to be on that side of the gate. They insisted – not unlike the Virginia Tech witness-reporters – that they are merely doing their own thing. They just want to be linked.

Now let me turn to one of the best examples of original reporting in the US recently: the Washington Post’s exposé of the mistreatment of Iraq veterans at an Army hospital in Washington. The New York Times was criticised for not matching that story sooner, but at another conference, I argued – to nodding heads from people at both papers – that on the web, the Times was better off linking to the Post and saving its reporting resources to uncover its own critical stories. The Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, to journalism at its source. I’ve similarly argued that newspapers should stop wasting resources covering what everybody else covers just to feed their institutional ego under their own bylines. They should stand out not by sending the 100th correspondent to a news event that witnesses are covering anyway but by doing what journalists should do best: reporting. This led me to issue a new rule for journalism: do what you do best. Link to the rest.

And that is how journalism will surely expand into new areas of coverage – hyperlocal, niches, specialities: News organisations can no longer afford to own, employ, and control – to vet, verify, and sanitise – everything that happens. The only way they can expand is to work cooperatively with witness-reporters, community members, experts, people who publish on their own, finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them. How? Via the link.