Posts about big

Small is the new big, continued

Trendwatching, a newsletter, isn’t exactly ahead of the trends — blogs I read get there first — but they do excel at making up cutesy new names for trends and at gathering the evidence behind them. To the small-is-the-new-big phenom enabled by the internet, Trendwatching attaches the label “minipreneur: a vast army of consumers turning entrepreneurs; including small and micro businesses, freelancers, side-businesses, weekend entrepreneurs, web-driven entrepreneurs, part-timers, free agents, cottage businesses, seniorpreneurs, co-creators, mompreneurs, pro-ams, solopreneurs, eBay traders, advertising-sponsored bloggers and so on.”

Misery loves company – OR – Safety in numbers

If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you’d likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.

But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time — if you are one among a big number — then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.

Is that fair? No, logically, it isn’t. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics. This is in a sense an extreme example of the inequality of power law Clay Shirky writes about: The people at the top of any number curve get the attention.

If life, government, and media were fair — if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity — then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region’s infrastructure — its roads, schools, utilities, services — were also disrupted or destroyed.

So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss — and who will argue with that? — then, it has been asked, why don’t the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

But this isn’t about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media’s, first and foremost. Part of the reason behind that is obvious: In a world of scarce paper and airtime, only the big news gets big attention and big numbers mean big stories. Part of this is our fault: We watch the big story because of the big numbers. So big numbers make business sense: Big begets big.

Then the politicians exploit the numbers, too, of course. Especially after messing up the rescue and relief on the Gulf Coast, Bush and Congress ran to throw big money at the big numbers of victims: $200 billion is the latest figure we’ve heard. But we haven’t yet heard a substantial debate about how best to use such money: Is it to rebuild New Orleans? Or reimagine New Orleans? To support the building of housing there, as has been proposed? To support the creation of jobs there? To support mortgages and jobs and schools elsewhere in the country, where these people are going?

Whenever numbers grow big, you can count on a big backlash. The other day, I took Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman to task for scolding media because they reported predictions of death tolls that — thank God — apparently turned out to be too dire. And then an AP reporter called following a similar angle. I told him that it is a nonissue. What were reporters to do: Not report what officials said? Question their numbers with no basis in fact to do so? Follow what the officials said with some blanket caveat — “but they could be wrong” — as if we’re all an idiot and didn’t know that already? And what if — God forbid — the numbers turned out to be even worse than predicted? Then how would the reporters look? If the number were smaller or greater, is the story and the tragedy and the need any different? Or is it just the numerical perception, the headline value and political value that changes? And as a practical matter, if the government would not jump fast enough in a disaster where 10,000 were believed to have died, then you could argue that the local officials should have predicted 100,000 to get faster action. Because everybody responds to a bigger number.

This is all a product of mass think from mass media and plaint-by-numbers politics. But to quote Raymond Williams as quoted often by Jay Rosen: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

We see — and use — the victims and even the dead as masses. But, of course, they are a mass of individual stories and today, on the internet, each of those individuals can tell his story. We are coming into the age of the empowered individual: as consumers, as publishers, as businesspeople, as citizens. We have to learn that when we hypervalue the mass, we undervalue each of us. Whether part of a tragedy of huge numbers or a tragedy of one, each of us is the same, just one person with the our own pain and the our own needs. That is the ethic of the individual over the ethic of the mass.

: LATER: David Carr wrote in The Times today about other kinds of exaggeration that came into Katrina aftermath coverage — just as happens with other too-big stories: the reports of rapes and murders in the Convention Center, for example, which came from major media and which I linked to. Fears and stories get overblown. That may not excuse the journalists who reported without verification. But even here, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the neglect, and that is the real story.

It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city’s SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.

If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not, if one person died becuase of this or five or 10, the story of neglect is still the same.

Behind the lines

CBS’ new blog bravely, transparently, and wisely invited Jay Rosen to write a guest post and he didn’t waste the opportunity to speak directly to the people of CBS News about Rathergate, a year later.

It’s a pity that the people of CBS News do not speak back.

I fear they’ll fear doing that — and also that they’ll look at the post and see that, unfortunately, trolls have moved into the comments and the discussion there is not deep. That is not helped by CBS’ inexplicable decision to put a 500-character limit on comments (this isn’t TV, folks: bits are not scarce) as well as its decision to shut off comments after 24 hours (time’s no longer scarce, either, guys). The discussion over at Jay’s blog, under the same essay, is much better: more substance, more intelligence, more relevance, more to chew on.

And that says a lot: Jay has built a community of conversation — around what we used to think of as a reputation, or even as a brand — and CBS has not yet done that on its blog (though it is a bit soon for that). But isn’t that interesting: The giant and allegedly venerated institution of professionalism has a tougher time getting a good conversation going than the lone prof with no tangible media assets.

Jay’s post is good but just as with Rathergate itself, the aftermath that’s just as interesting.

Commerce is conversation

Having read through the eBay-Skype PowerPoint justification, I guess I should be ashamed of myself that I didn’t get the deal before. It’s the Cluetrain, baby: If markets are conversations, then enabling the conversation enables the market and eBay is the new market. And if trust is king, then being able to talk to the person who’s trying to sell you something enhances trust and increases value. So I finally get the theory. The practice is another matter….

Recovery 2.0: The swarm ethic

Out of all the good efforts to use the internet to help Katrina’s victims, I’ve been thinking about the ethic of the swarm.

One thing the internet does well is bring people together around shared interests, needs, functions, and lines of communication. We swarm around standards and make them standard. We swarm around tags on Flickr or Del.icio.us so we can find each other’s stuff. We swarm around applications — BitTorrent, IMs of various flavors, and so on — so we can all use them together. We swarm around news and decide what matters.

And when people don’t respect the swarm, others will bring them in line: If you go into a support forum and ask a question that’s in the FAQ, you’ll quickly be directed there because other people had the same question and we all shasre the answer.

The swarm is useful. It’s efficient. It’s good citizenship.

So I wonder whether we should discuss the swarm ethic in relation to recovery 2.0 efforts. Try this:

If you see a need, first look to see whether someone else is already trying to meet that need and doing it well. Then you have a three choices:
1. You can decide that incumbent efforts are lacking in some way that you can fix and you do so.
2. Or you can decide to throw your support — your work, your promotion, your links — behind that effort.
3. Or you can decide to work separately but around shared standards to allow you to work together.
And in any case, it would be a courtesy to communicate with the incumbent.

In the case of the missing boards after Katrina, it was quickly obvious that people could miss connections because there were so many separate repositories of names. One option is to swarm around just one, but I’m not saying that’s what should happen; that’s the 1.0 way to work, it’s antithetical to the distributed nature of the internet and to people’s inclination to gather around their own communities (some people will look for each other around their churches, for example).

That’s why we have efforts to compile the names in one place (the Katrina peoplefinder project), to search the names across where they are (see Yahoo’s search), and to create standards for tagging the names (the people finder interchange format).

These are efforts to help us swarm. Swarming is the way we capture not just the wisdom but also the work of the crowd.

This is one of the things I hope we discuss at the Recovery 2.0 meeting in San Francisco. I think all we really want to accomplish is to provide ways — wikis, email, blogs, you tell me — for people to more readily communicate their needs and solutions. We need help swarming.

Losing control to gain control

In a guest post at GigaOm, Robert Young reacts to this post and draws out a convincing argument for why corporate executives have to lose control to consumers — who aren’t customers but are the boss — so they can, in the end, gain control. Hard to summarize: Just go read.

It’s the relationship

If the uselessness of presses and broadcast towers in New Orleans is a demonstration that distribution is no longer king, here‘s a case in the argument that content is no longer king; relationships are: The Times wrote a feature about Cooking Light magazine holding supper parties, inspired by a reader who started this on her own (a la Meetups).

The gatherings, where readers cook meals using recipes from the magazine, then dine together, began in 1999 when Amy Fong, a reader in Alameda, Calif., organized the initial meetings on her own, without the magazine taking part.

Since 2000, when Cooking Light ran an article about the supper clubs, thousands of readers have formed hundreds of clubs, finding one another informally or using the message boards on the magazine’s Web site (cookinglight.com) to connect. In addition to the ad hoc supper clubs, Cooking Light now plays host to more than a dozen formal events each year around the country, some of them sponsored with McCormick & Company, the maker of spices and seasonings, and all of them involving more than two dozen advertisers from A (Alaska seafood) to Z (the Zone Perfect diet plan).

The relationship the magazine has with readers — and, more important, that readers have with readers — is at least as valuable as the magazine’s content. That’s a lesson.

Caveat conglomerate

Beware the big company that tries to venture into this, the small world owned by its individuals, without proper respect and perspective. Consider:

* Flickr natives are planning a revolt against Yahoo for consolidating identities.

* Look at the comments under my interview with CBS blogger Vaughn Ververs. I tried to warn CBS that objective blogging wouldn’t work and, sure enough, bloggers threw tomatoes.

* MySpace folks fretted at the purchase of their world by News Corp.

* Though hardly a major media conglomerate — yet — Weblogs Inc. found itself the target of a few snowballs over its contract. A company’s a company, a contract’s a contract, money’s money, that’s life, and I’m not sure there’s a thing they should have done differently. But even this is illustration that this is a newly delicate dance.

The issue is that we, the people, believe we own this space — not just blogs, not just online, but anyplace where we put our effort and trust and money. And isn’t it modern corporate nirvana to be a “we company” instead of a “they company”? But you have to mean it.