Posts from February 2008

Pity the big, bad wolf

A post written for Comment is Free on the Microsoft fine; crossposted here. Interesting comments already underway over there.)

I have a theory about the regulation of companies that get too big and too powerful: by the time government notices they really are so powerful, they are usually already in decline, having grown too big.

The EU today levied a record €899m (£680m) fine – adding up to a total of €1.7bn in the past four years – against Microsoft for charging “unreasonable” prices for access to its code.

The EU competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, wanted to pile on even more: another €600m for good measure. Take that, big, bad Microsoft!

Except, in my mind, Microsoft is turning into a bit of a laughing stock these days for trying to buy Yahoo, which itself is a company in rapid decline.

The reason Microsoft is desperate to do this is that, even after all these years, it still does not have a successful internet strategy. So it is trying to buy one.

But I say it is buying the wrong one, a strategy based on an old-media worldview in which we are all masses that can be bought and sold. Microsoft – like too many advertisers and media companies – thinks we think of the internet as just another TV. It believes it can own content and technology when, in truth, we own it now.

Microsoft just yesterday released some of its code under a new “open source interoperability initiative” that offers open interfaces, support for standards, data portability and cooperation with third parties.

Of course, a cynic might say that doing this only a day before its record fine was Microsoft’s way to suck up to the teacher and avoid punishment; the cynic would have a fair point.

But it’s also true that Microsoft needs to open up to play in the internet or it will continue to be left behind by the open and free movements that are taking over operating systems, browsers and – with Google’s goosing – office software.

One could also see the move as a mark of desperation. Poor Microsoft.

In the US, regulators and activists continue to rail at media companies that they say have grown too big. But these media conglomerates, too, are pathetic shells of their former powerful selves, shrinking in audience and advertising at ever faster rates. The internet is killing their mass models, and they don’t know what to do about it.

Their response, like Microsoft’s, has been to buy up competitors, to grow bigger. But that strategy is not working: witness the collapse of the radio giant Clear Channel into a private company and the tragic gobbling up of the newspaper chain Knight Ridder and the cross-media synergy giant Tribune Company.

It might make more sense for the conglomerates to invest, like Microsoft, in new companies, or even in their own innovation. But they have lost the touch. Poor conglomerates.

Looking back, I could even argue that the breaking up of telecoms companies that grew too big only presaged the inevitable opening up of communications that led to the decline of the split-up telcos and their desire now to reconsolidate.

This should be a children’s story, in which, at the end, we discover that the big, bad, scary monster is actually a pussycat inside, and a sad and lonely one at that. Paint these giants as dinosaurs with tears in their eyes.

And their regulatory conquerors? Are they knights in shining armour or are they the real bullies?

Either way, I’m not scared of Microsoft any more.

Google U

I wonder what the distributed university will look like. For that matter, I wonder what the distributed education will look like. It’s not an idle curiosity. Like media and every industry and institution before it, the academe is waiting to be exploded by the internet.

Start here: Why should my son or daughter have to pick a single college and with it only the teachers and courses offered there? Online, they should be able to take most any course anywhere. Indeed, schools from MIT to Stanford are now offering their curricula the internet. Of course, these come without the benefit of the instructors’ attention — and without tuition — but it’s easy to add that interaction; there are lots of online courses taught by live faculty.

Similarly, why should a professor pick just from the students accepted at his or her school? Online, the best can pick from the best, cutting out the middleman of university admissions.

Now the next step: students teaching each other. My daughter and I have been playing with Livemocha, a language-learning social network that enables my exercises to be critiqued by native speakers in the language I’m learning; I do the same favor for people trying to learn English. It’s a great expression of the gift economy. (One complaint I have with them is that it was hard to shut off constant email alerts and there is no way to shut off invitations to chat I really wish my daughter did not get. I suggested they give more controls of this to users — and especially parents — and got back a snippy response from a customer-service rep who should have worked at Dell pre-hell. In any case, it’s a fascinating effort in collaborative education.)

Once you put all this together, students can self-organize with teachers and fellow students to learn what they want how and where they want. My hope is that this could finally lead to the lifelong education we keep nattering about but do little to actually support. And why don’t we? Because it doesn’t fit into the degree structure. And because self-organizing classes and education could cut academic institutions out of the their exclusive role in education.

So what if the degree structure is outmoded? What does a bachelor’s of arts really say you’re ready to do? Once you get a medical degree, if you practice, you’re required to take refreshers as the science changes. Shouldn’t we be offering journalists updates as new tools and opportunities emerge in their craft? (Short answer: yes.) And while on the example of journalists, what if it were easy for them to take a course in, say, accounting when they get assigned to the business section, or science when given the environmental beat? So rather than signing on for a one-time degree, what if I subscribe to education for life? Or what if the culture simply expects me to bone up because it’s so damned easy to (and I don’t have to go through tests and admissions and all that)?

The real problem with this for society is that it cuts out the core business of the university, which also produces research and scholarship. Professors don’t work as hard as, say, high-school teachers because they are expected to do that thinking and work that society needs. If education ends up handled by the Phoenix Universities of the web, then what happens to scholarship? The problem here is that the internet is unforgiving of needs to preserve old models and methods. It disaggregates ruthlessly.

So I think that education has a rude shocking coming unless it gets ahead of this change and figures out how to become less of an institution and more of a platform. I hear a lot of universities talking proudly these days about their going interdisciplinary within their own institutions — that is, enabling two departments to finally start working together offering courses. But that’s not nearly far enough; that’s like a media company talking about synergy. What they need to do instead is start thinking past their ivied walls to work with other universities and with networks of teachers and students, not to mention alumni who leave with knowledge and gain more knowledge they could and should share.

So what does the distributed university look like?

The Times will change

So now the hedge funds pushing New York Times Company management own about as much as the Sulzberger family. I don’t know whether they’ll win their effort to elect directors to the board, but I do think this has reached a critical mass and that the family and management will be forced to make strategic changes. So I’m curious: what would you change? The hedge funds are urging the company to divest some assets and concentrate on the Times, investing in digital. What do you suggest? (And please refrain from the obvious Times-bashing. There’s plenty of opportunity for that in the post below about the McCain scandal. This is about the business of news and media.)

Twitter

My Guardian column this week is a tribute to Twitter. Since I haven’t written about that much in the blog, here’s the full text:

When I first used the microblogging platform Twitter – which enables users to publish 140-character-long messages via the web and mobile phones – I thought it was silly. Or rather, the uses to which it was being put were silly: people announcing that they’d just woken up or what they’d had for breakfast. I couldn’t have cared less. But then I should confess that when I first used blogs and podcasts, I didn’t fully comprehend their impact either. So, when my son and webmaster told me I should take another stab at Twitter, I did. And I now see it is an important evolutionary step in the rise of blogging.

I just Twittered this: “I’m writing a column about Twitter and Twittering that.” Not everybody on Twitter saw that update on my life, only those people who care to follow me on the site. That is a critical characteristic of Twitter: it’s selective, in that users choose whether to follow me. And it’s social, in that I choose whom to follow. So we’re not publishing to the big, wide world. We’re talking with our friends and acquaintances.

But at the same time, I can choose to automatically feed my tweet – as an individual Twitter message is called – on to my Facebook profile and also on to my blog page, where more friends can see what I’m up to. That’s another key attribute of the service: it creates feeds. I believe we will be seeing more and more news and other content presented as feeds rather than as packaged products.

I read feeds of my friends’ updates on twitter.com or on my phone via SMS (that is what sets the 140-character limit on messages). I also read feeds of news headlines from the Guardian and individual reporters. Jim Long, a network news photographer, Twitters from White House trips. Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette blogger and queen of the snarky political post, has been using Twitter to cover the US primaries for Time.com. I blogged about that, saying she has found the perfect medium for her bon mots and snipes. She responded that Twitter is the perfect medium for covering a campaign. The format gives us a glimpse into what’s happening right now, and cuts to the bone. It’s a hack’s haiku.

Some samples from Cox: “Spin room has already started. Can hear the gentle murmur of BS already sloshing about in the hall … McCain donor just announced he was footing the bar bill for the night. You can start calling him ‘ambassador’ now … Ron Paul compresses coal into diamonds in his mouth … Mitt has so many things ‘in my bloodstream’ (cars, Michigan, business) you could make a v powerful vaccine out of him … First washing-of-underwear-in-sink of presidential cycle 2008!… Enjoying immensely that the pundits got it all, all globally wrong. In most professions, you’d lose your job.”

Because Twitter opened itself up with an API – a programming interface that enables developers to create new services on top of it – all sorts of new inventions are springing up. CommuterFeed is a Twitter service that lets fellow travellers share alerts about problems on their routes to work. Whenever you broadcast a live mobile video on Qik.com, it enables you to send a post to Twitter to alert all your friends to watch. PR people are searching Twitter to find hot topics. I used Twitter to create a tool for collaborative criticism (imagine seeing your friends’ snide remarks as you all watch Pop Idol at the same time, each from your own couches). News sites are using Twitter to get witnesses to share updates on major news events, like earthquakes.

Says political blogger Patrick Ruffini: “Traditional news operated on a 24-hour cycle. Blogs shortened this to minutes and hours. Twitter shortens it further to seconds. It’s not right for every piece of information. But when it comes to instantly assembling raw data from several sources that then go into fully baked news stories, nothing beats it.”

All this springs from a deceptively simple idea and tool. And that is what never ceases to amaze me about the internet: create a platform, make it open, and people will do things with it that you never could have imagined. Considering that Twitter was cofounded by Evan Williams, who also cofounded the company that created Blogger and popularised personal publishing, I should have seen it coming. I just forgot that, on the web, big things often come in small packages.

What is the Times thinking?

The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I’m not sure whether he’s isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.

I was gobsmacked reading the story when it came out. I didn’t blog on it because Jay Rosen did a great job succinctly dissecting its issues and implications and so I linked to him.

But I was even more astounded reading later that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is surprised at the reaction to the story. In the paper’s effort to respond to its many, many critics, Keller says they “expected the reaction to be intense” and he tries to dismiss and discredit that reaction as “a time-honored tactic for dealing with potentially damaging news stories” rather as than righteous denial. But then he goes on:

Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing….

How could he possibly be surprised at the reaction to the Times all but accusing John McCain of having an affair with a lobbyist? How could he credibly be amazed at the reaction to the Times doing this without evidence except for the views of anonymous and admittedly disgruntled former aides saying they were convinced — convinced is the word the Times used — of an affair without them giving evidence? Can the editor of the Times possibly be this blind to the implications of what the paper did?

But Keller tries to tell us that we’re concentrating on the wrong thing here, that we don’t see what the real story is. He says it’s a narrative about McCain’s life. Keller’s deputy, Jill Abramson, also lectures us about missing their point:

Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship. It was about a senator who had been embroiled in scandal, then rebuilt his career as a reformer and concern among his aides that his relationship with Ms. Iseman was putting that career at risk.

Do they have no news judgment? The lede in this story was obvious to everyone but the Times:

Paper of record hints that Republican presidential candidate has affair with lobbyist with no evidence other than statements attributed to anonymous sources, who the papers admits are disgruntled former associates of the candidate.

That is the lede. That is the story. That the editors of the Times don’t see that is incredible — that is to say, not credible. They can’t be that clueless, can they? They can’t be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story — the sort of thing these high-fallutin’ journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids — is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can’t thing we’re that dumb. Surely, they’re not that dumb.

That’s what throws me about this story. I can’t figure out what these Timesmen are thinking.

In any case, there can be no doubt that the Times doesn’t just cover the story, it is part of the story. Its coverage of not only McCain but also of Clinton (whom the editorial page and publisher may have endorsed but whom the newsroom clearly can’t abide) is material to the story itself. So we deserve to know more about how the Times is covering the campaign. We need to know what they’re thinking.

: LATER: In Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s appraisal of the metascandal, Keller once again tries to tell us what the story is when what he really has done is tell us what the story isn’t. Keller:

If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members. But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.

Hoyt:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap….

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

The real elephant in the room: This was bad journalism.

: LATER: JigSaw sees some silver in the cloud over the Times (I’m rush, so please follow the link for more links):

I think some the impact of the Siegal Reports can be clearly seen here.

* When, in the history of the NYT, has it been held publicly accountable by thousands of readers using its own publishing tool (web site)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, has its editors and journalists engaged their readers in near-real-time two-way conversation?

* When, in the history of the NYT, could any interested reader engage its editors and journalists authoritatively using the NYT’s own publicly available Reader’s Guide, Confidential News Sources Policy, internal memos (Assuring Our Credibility) and accounts of their internal debates (More Flexibility and Reality in Explaining Anonymity)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, was there a NYT insider who would publicly tell its readers that the Executive Editor got it wrong?

The NYT should be embarrassed by the McCain story, but take pride in their public engagement.