Monday 18 December 2006

Publishing 2.0

What's publishing, or journalism, when the reader is also the writer, publisher, editor and marketer. Publishing 2.0? It’s very confused… that’s for sure. When I was at college, I was taught that there were basically two directions to any communication. First the sender creates a message, and passes it to the receiver, and then the receiver becomes the sender and a new message goes back, often acknowledging receipt and comprehension of the first message. However, for mass media, those with the power are those who can disseminate messages to large numbers of people, who are not able, or permitted, to publish for themselves, either to the population, or the media provider. The history of human social communication, as far back as you can go, can be seen massive imbalance on the first one-directional message: - from the powerful media owner, the owner of the pyramid, or printing press, and recently, the traditional medium; tv, radio, newspapers - to the people, the audience, the readership. There's been little if any communication back. Well, that’s over. The imbalance is rapidly being redressed online, in a remarkably civilized anarchy.

It's what I'm calling Publishing 2.0; a logical enough name for online Web 2.0 blogging, writing, publishing etc. It is blogs, Wikis, Usenet, bulletin boards, torrents and all the rest. And that’s just in the publishing direction. Links, search engine submissions and spidering, tags n diggs, anchor text, references and quotes... That’s both the marketing and advertising, and the ‘audience-to –publication’ direction. This − ‘letting the audience speak back’, is a long way from ‘letters to the editor’. It's user generated buzz marketing. In fact, for many, this has become the whole point. You can speak to the publisher, and in doing so have your comments published, in real time, and then maybe start your own blog, linking the original publisher of the first blog, and so it continues. The blogs can be about anything, and everything. A colleague recently told me about ‘arseblog’: the blog of an arsenal fan. It is one of the most popular blogs in the UK at present. It has an impressive readership, and no doubt, an equally impressive earning from advertising on-site. Publishing 2.0 can be diverse. There can be publications with a tech nature, communicative actions spaces − calling people to make a change in government or in the world, or just vanity blogs, with pics of me and my cat who happens to look like Hitler.

The old media concepts need an upgrade, or a least a few qualifying patches. I can still hear a voice at the back whispering ‘sure that’s only online stuff. That only affects Internet users’. Well, you're right at the back, except for the tone of voice, and the word 'only'. Online news would be simple to pigeon-hole and put aside, if it weren't for the fact that it is so popular and pervasive. Online, to me, infers a connected, dynamic, multi-platform, efficiently marketable, infinetly archiveable and searchable (and findable) space. So yes..., it is online. That’s the point. That’s why you should take notice. It’s not on a CD, or Disk, or in some Library’s Opac system. It’s online. It’s free, it’s cool, it’s excellently efficient, and its here to stay.

It’s also so much more fun than the way it used to be. And, it was not in a good place. I will never forget the news of the 80s and 90s… looking at the excellent but skinny bearded face of Michael Murphy in a brown suit on RTE, who every night, so incredibly carefully mouthed and munched the words ‘And this is the news’, (my heart would sink) followed after what seemed like an immeasurably long time filled with information delivered with the same tone of importance, (a record breaking Super-Lobster and then the Falklands War), followed by ‘agus anois an Nuacht,’ and he was off again in Irish…. I despaired. And then this was followed by the news for the deaf where the words went up the screen at the wrong speed, and Maurice had to slow up noticeably while, at the same time, the sign language lady looked more and more desperate, waving frantically to catch up! (That was the best bit.) And then it was time for bed. My final hours of telly ruined by crap news programming. It was so stilted, and boring and bad, it put many of us off any news for many years. I know I was too young, but I remember thinking this was the only news, the only source of information and truth, and you got the impression that if wasn’t on the news, it hadn’t happened at all or was totally unimportant. Also, that the only news worth knowing happened in Ireland, maybe the UK and America, occassionally France or Europe, and not many other places. Maybe they were too poor to have news, or tellies, or both!

What is happening now is so much more fun and so much better. Populations are actually engaged in a new wave of information sharing, gathering and communication. It’s all very democratic, as we’re all enfranchised to have our say, to consume what news and content we like, and to filter out the irrelevant, boring and un-interesting. I really feel we all have some catching up to do, in our attitude, and our skills, if we’re to keep pace, because all media are going online in a way. All content already is, or will become digital and leave a digital path. The traditional media try to keep pace, and some, like the Guardian and the BBC have great success, and lead the way. Our own RTE is doing very well lately, and has big plans that aren’t far behind the big publishers, from bigger, richer countries with bigger budgets and populations. But these Irish publishing entities remain traditional in structure, administration and attitude..... with all the good stuff; like scale, quality, integrity and accuracy; and all the bad stuff, like gate keeping and agenda setting, government control, conservativeness and with just an inability to keep up with the ever accelerating pace of communication and social change. Often, they’re just too big.

But there is even a further leveller between the big and small publishers online, and its a big one. Is the content read? Online, you can quickly tell it has been read, by the number and quality of the comments, by links, references, and many other measures of buzz. You can also track what advertising has been viewed, clicked on, and what clickers did afterwards. Offline, well, its nothing like that. With TV, there's on-going measurement from the TAM ratings panel, which is effective, but you can't click on TV; not yet anyway. For papers, and press news... Well, its not possible to gather even these measures. You can report the print run per publication, but not the readers per publication. With big publications, advertisers know quickly enough that the advertising is working, that they are getting a return on their investment, (they should do anyway). But, for small offline publications, often business to business or industry publications, its even worse. These will have smaller numbers printed, and fewer readers. These publications are accepted as containers for infomercials and corporate pieces ('Ronseal now does even more than exactly what it says on the tin!). Online, you can have independent measures of the readership of each business to business article, not merely the issue or title. You can independently track exactly how popular and effective that specific article has been. You wouldn't do it most of the time, but you could, - if there was a business case behind it. There are independent mechanics for believing the popularity stats of the publisher. We encounter this all the time at NB, and we hone advertising plans and executions based on the effectiveness of each site, each site page, and each format over time. This stuff is well worth thinking about too, if you are a journalist or editor. Sometime around the corner, the value of all writings will be measured in this way. 'Value', I said, not 'quality'. This will be a brutal space, where excellent quality writing may not be as popular as poorly constructed populist trash. If the story doesn't burn the impressions, the editor will pay less. I think, in the end of the day, the cream will float to the top, and that the readership is more sophisticated than some gutter press have given them credit for, but that's not my business really. I'm not a publisher. Measurement by stories read will happen though. As an online audience researcher, and advertiser, that is my business.

So how do NB see ourselves in this new space? Well, our job is to observe, reflect, describe and then engage consumers with ad messages on behalf our advertisers and their agencies. We need to engage Irish eyeballs wherever they may be (dance, dance) with a view on the quality of the content, its popularity and the community and loyalty that surrounds these messages. As interactive media changes everything, we aim to understand these changes, and change with them. The Internet is an experiential medium, so we have to be part of it, if we’re to fully comprehend what’s happening. Naturally, we’re partisan, in that we’re interested in Irish content on Irish sites, but also democratic, in that, it won’t be just the big sites, or government driven content we’ll recommend. Well, actually, we will of course do exactly that most of the time, i.e., recommend advertising on bigger, better sites; sites that produce multi-media content typically of a higher quality, but we’ll also watch closely what’s happening with the little guys… and recommend these when its good, and when it works.

So, there are some thoughts on publishing. These thoughts aren’t meant to upset anyone, but I do hope they stimulate some sort of debate, or reflection, and that they are informative to some degree to the digitally in-initiated. If not? Grand. Enjoy the next blog.

Monday 4 December 2006

Web 2.0

So much has been written lately about this new concept. It’s a buzz term, true, but also a description of fundamental changes happening in ICT. Europe is far behind the Far East and America in terms of our Internet usage, and Ireland is at the bottom of the European scale of things… So, I’d like to discuss some of the philosophy and thinking surrounding the concept. I’m just going to chat about some bits now, as there is an on-going, endless and somewhat tedious debate going on about ‘What Web 2.0 Means?'. These are the bits of what it means that I think are most relevant and interesting. Hopefully they’re relevant to you too. Tell me what you think

Many people, from the head of Microsoft and Apple, to futurologists, have pointed out what should have been obvious, but wasn’t too many. Once the software and hardware is in place to a sufficient degree, people start to do business online. Once they’re doing that, the business winners will be the service companies. It’s a clear set of stages which can be explained by analogy with the train industry.

The first companies to do well out of the age of the train are the track builders, Cisco in terms of ICT. Then the engine builders, Microsoft and Intel etc, and then the various train companies. After that, the train companies that get the trains running on time, and quickest, post the best timetables and get you to the stations efficiently, these are the next wave of companies. On the Internet thats true too, and we’re on the third wave of new communication technology development. Service! The funky software and sites that set appointments and schedules, the widgets that help you manage chats, conversations and photos. The software that gets you communicating, gets you sending your data from A to B the in the most efficient manner, and reminds you when to send it. These companies are distinct from the utilities; those who build the machines, and the pipes that channel your information around the world.

However, we’ve gone beyond this stage too. The software providers now place value on their software not by what it can individually do, but by the fact that everyone else is using the same software, or that this software speaks will all the others types of software, regardless of who’s using it. So, the individual piece of software might be totally cool, but it’s better if it merely works well, and everyone else uses it too. Also, it’s better if the software is online, and free. This is a whole new model for software companies and a very risky strategy for the software company investor. If the software catches on, happy days, as long as you can get sufficient donations, and/or advertising, or its used by so many people it will be bought by Google, or Yahoo! or someone. (Unlikely to be Yahoo! at the moment.)

So, the loop has reached the stage where the service itself is more important than the software. For example, consider Plaxo, and the millions of other free site soft wares out there, doing everything from your household accounts, to setting up a free shop.

Data That Grows with Use and Users
This comes out of the previous point. As more people use these free/cheap online services, the better they get. More people tag on, the better it gets; more people use YouTube, or Bebo, it comes alive; the more people use friendsreunited, dating sites or geneology sites, the more opportunity they have to function.

Trusting users as co-developers

This is where the net development goes all commy. It always was in a way. The language of the net, with surfing, waves and nets. Its all symbolic of the watery, fishing land of the west coast. The America lingo, is there because that's where it all started. That’s where Silicon Valley is, and the people with that surf dude mind-set, the bright ones, made their millions. However, they made their millions out of IP. Shares, futures, and intellectual property… all that stuff.

Open source is a term for a movement where the developers of a peice of software invite users to develope that software. Most web and other software these days is open source, is seems to be in a stage of perpetual beta test. Indeed new free versions of the software seem to come out daily, rather than once every few years in the past. With open source and software stuck in beta test stage really taking on, BitTorrent is an example, software development and use comes together, software and sites become more popular, and the users more loyal.

The Power of the Collective

Remember the Borg? Well, Web 2.0 is a Borg concept, or vice versa. The power of Wikipedia is the users of Wikipedia, the power of is the members of There was a time in the very recent past, where the database, and the time that had gone into its construction, and the data it contained was the valuable entity. Now databases are populated by the users of the databases, and their true value is in their popularity. The use of the database is free, and everything else follows.

The Long Tail
A great concept with a silly name. Think of a line on a graph. Starting big, and then petering out. The big companies are at the high part of the line, but on the internet, there are thousands upon thousands of smaller businesses. The tail of the graph is very long. 5 years ago, companies used to service the head of the graph, and not the tail… Now, the big business is being done servicing the needs of the long tail. Double click is a good example. Big expensive software which had to be bought by large publishers who wanted ad revenue from a few standardized formats on their site. Google arrives along with a whole new mechanic for buying ads, and anyone can ad a small bit of code to their site, and the ads are served. A completely different format, everything's changed, and it works. Google services tiny companies, and individuals with blogs. Google services the long tail.

The Irish Internet space has changed immesurably and irreversibly in the last few years and we have to understand it if we are to satisfy the needs of advertisers, advertising being the life blood of many of the sites and services discussed above. Net Behaviour is an advertising company that tasks itself with understanding the Internet the way it is today, and tracking the changes in Internet usage as they happen, to best facilitate advertising for our clients. This is an ongoing job. We've found in the last year that sites with user generated content are working better and better for our advertisers. We've also started working with clients on strategies that involve the new social movements and usages of Irish Internet users. In the past the Internet had the potential to be a two directional medium but content was coming much more from traditional content providers... the newspapers, TV stations and radio. In the last year the flow of content has come much more the audience. User generated content sites and services have also developed more audience than tradition Internet news and information providers. This will be more or less true as fashions change, but I'm of the opinion that the graph is only going one way on this, towards UGC, though these will progressively be owned by International conglomerates.

I understand of course that there are different types of content. If there's a war with Syria, traditional news providers will get the audience. But I feel there is a new segment of audience that will always like UGC, the get a buzz out of providing for it, and getting their friends and colleagues to view what they've provided, ,or sending funny stuff around the a gag group. Also, there will always be those who enjoy the un-constrained fun that can come from hidden video, jokes and pranks and studenty type films. Twink fell foul of this set. Does it matter who owns these sites, or where they are? No. Irish eyeballs are watching the web all over the world, and watching extremely local and international content, regardless of where the server resides, or who owns to company. NB will facilitate advertisers to reach this audiece, wherever it may be.

OK... Thats it. Those are some of the bits of Web 2.0 that interest me. I hope thei interest you too.