Beta life

Three apparently unrelated items on the shift from valuing the product to valuing the process as the product:

* Trendwatching tells the story of what it calls “foreverism” – that is, that things never end (friendships, news stories, product development) and uses as illustration not only process journalism but also beta chocolate. TCHO is a chocolate company populated with geeks and so they brought betathink to their candy, releasing it as a beta, taking feedback from customers, and iterating it 1,026 times before coming out with the 1.0 chocolate. They didn’t put out bad chocolate to start with; they did their best. But then their customers helped make it better, ever better.

* reports – translating the newspaper La Stampa – that Italians are buying goods less often and renting them more often.

But the real revolution is that renting is becoming a way of life which is changing consumption and society. Car sharing, bike sharing, i.e. quick rentals of cars and bikes, but also dress sharing, i.e. the rental of clothes and handbags. There is toy sharing: children toys, small machines, lego, and puzzles. Even tools for the disabled, wheelchairs, orthopaedic supports, computers, and whatever you might need in the gym, sports or vacation. You don’t need to buy, you can just rent.

I think this ties into the idea of process: You can always rent the latest without having to buy it. You can afford to do so because you are sharing the cost with other users. Companies can find larger customer bases who are likely to be satisfied more because they are getting the latest. We move from a consumption economy to a use economy.

* NYU student Cody Brown delivers a neat take on the discussion about process v. product journalism last week, making distinctions between batch and real-time processing of journalism (read: The New York Times as opposed to blogs). Because The Times’ brand hinges on it as a product that has been curated and edited and checked and polished – note editor Bill Keller’s language on The Daily Show about his package – it finds itself in dangerous territory trying to compete in real time with those whose brand expectations are entirely different.

Brown says that for print, the “gestalt” is “batch processing.” How should it develop its brand? “As the voice of god.” How should it publish information on a developing story? “Cautiously. It should triple check it’s information and call every source involved in the story to give them an opportunity to comment.” How should it produce its product? “Into tight neatly written comprehensive articles … meant to exist as a ‘first draft of history.’” Who should do this? “Professionals. It’s expensive. A finite number of pages means a constant question: what is newsworthy to the most number of people?”

Compare and contrast with his take on online. Gestalt: “”Real Time Processing. Information is processed on the fly.” Brand? “An open platform…. Take the values/tactics that go on behind the walls of a newsroom (’the magic journalism box’) and execute them publicly.” How to publish? “Instantly. When a page is able to be updated at any frequency, corrections can be made just as fast. Rumors and gossip can be used as leverage to get sources, who otherwise wouldn’t, to spill what they know. Publishing incomplete information is the fastest way to get users to contribute to the bigger picture. This is a tactic in effective commons-based-peer production and it is how Wikpedia grew so fast and so well. As Harvard Law Professor, Yochai Benkler, describes, it often looks like a ‘disaster area.’ This is the ’scuttlebutt’ the Times can’t wrap its head around.” How should it produce its work? “API.” Who should do it? “Everyone in the beat. When a website has unlimited pages: there is no excuse.”

Brown says it’s possible for one to produce like the other But “the challenge is in branding.”

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away. If you want a real time news website, it must be brought to the surface. This isn’t a problem for a brand like Tech Crunch, but it puts print news brands in a terribly awkward position. How does The New York Times show the mess under its articles without wrecking the omniscient aura of the brand it has worked so hard for? …

Batch is killing them. Online, it is expensive, slow, and wasteful. It’s not sustainable and it’s a problem that will only get bigger for the The New York Times. … The fundamental problem The New York Times has online is that its brand carries too much weight. The Times stamp means a piece has been packaged, and is no longer in process. If they’re interested in participating in the journalism of the 21st century, they need to shed the baggage of the last one.

They won’t.

Very neat take on the question. It’s not just the standards, tradition, and ego of the legacy press that prevents it from enjoying the benefits of beta, Brown argues, but the perception and value of its practices and reputation. That would seem to argue that it’s impossible for the legacy to update from product to process. I’m not sure I agree, but I do think that Brown put the challenge clearly through one end of the prism. The question is whether the legacy press – for the benefit of its staff even more than its audience – can issue enough caveats to enable it to work real-time. Forget blogs in this discussion. Will The New York Times ever be comfortable working on the standards and practices of 24-hour cable news? Can it afford to? Don’t they have to?

(By the way, the subject of last week’s NYT snipe, Michael Arrington, did well in an On the Media interview on his process with Bob Garfield.)