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Webstock 2013 – Clay Johnson

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Clay Johnson

The man who created Obama’s election site, Clay Johnson, kicked things off at Webstock 2013 with a presentation that possibly should’ve been the grande finale.

Clay Johnson at Webstock 2013

Clay Johnson at Webstock 2013 (Image from Webstock 2013 Flickr stream)

Like a surgeon performing Bariatric procedure he carefully laid open the flabby body of media we have today – where the news we get is saccharine and designed to affirm the perceptions of the mass market consumer, rather than challenging.

“MSNBC tells the ‘Left’ what they want to hear. Fox News tells the ‘Right’ what they want to hear.”

It’s an old adage that a society gets the news it deserves and Johnson’s prescription for the consumer was to use a diet analogy and treat news like food. Opinion may taste better than fact-based news in the same way that pizza tastes better than broccoli, but opinion-based news also comes with side-effects you don’t get with green veges. So as with managing food, he advises we need to consciously consume news – rather than unthinkingly graze through the day on the content equivalent of fried potatoes or meat.

He made five recommendations:

  1. Consciously consume – write down content you consume for a week and analyse it to see when you were consuming, what it was and whether it added value.
  2. Schedule your daily social media or TV consumption ‘urges’. “Time is our true non- renewable resource. You can always get more money but not more time.”
  3. Go local with your news consumption – be aware of your local environment. You can influence more at a local level, so understand what’s going on in your backyard.
  4. Be a producer rather than consumer. Take action/react rather than just passively consume. He gave each delegate the challenge of writing 500 words before 8am every day. Johnson said he treats this as if it were gym – stretch and strengthen the mind on a daily basis. Become mentally active in a way that adds to the betterment of humanity.
  5. Enable whole news movement. Support content rather than advertising. “Every click we make is an ethical choice – we vote for more of that.”

Johnson’s presentation left me with two other thoughts that have been ringing in my ears since the conference. The first that in 10 years time people who don’t get computers will be same as people now who can’t read. And there’s a lot of people risk being left behind in this transformation.

Threat to society?

But he also talked to an even more worrisome future state where the sheep-like affirmation-centric behaviour of digital consumers clicking on the advertising links they are given by the likes of Facebook or other online behemoths, slowly transforms the rights and liberties that sustain our society.

Facebook’s business model is to mine personal data and use that for advertising  – as a publicly listed company the pressure from Wall Street to deliver on this logically means Facebook’s hunger for our personal data will only increase. Which, to some, may make them the most dangerous company on earth.

And if you follow this argument of a now global profit-driven organisation reliant on extracting ever more personal details of its members to supply ever more relevant advertising   – well, you can get to quite a dark place. It is dark because it’s about driving consumer behaviour through advertising that is based on very good data about who we are as individuals – but on a global scale.

Now one could argue that advertising has been doing this for decades, based on focus groups and quantitative data from surveys – but there’s never been a platform where one organisation can record whatever intimate details and relationships that members share with friends, in such detail and on a global scale.

We have a choice
Of course, at the end of the day, we all have a choice with our level of engagement in social media. We don’t have to put all our lives in updates and tweets for the world to consume. But Facebook has a decidedly chequered history on privacy issues – graph search is the latest to raise concerns. And the stories of young gay people being outed to their parents because of the often opaque nature of Facebook’s privacy settings calls into question how much “choice” Facebook really allows members.

But Johnson’s underlying message – and a theme that continued throughout Webstock – was that there is the potential of a  positive outcome for society as we as individuals act in a more discerning way. By not blindly consuming, by focusing our attention rather than abdicating it, on an individual basis we can ensure a brighter future – despite the commercial pressures of the internet giants of today.

“A billion people dictating how people communicate and interact is law,” said Johnson.

Our choice is whether we want a future driven by advertising clicks, or  or future driven by betterment of humanity.

Webstock and why it’s life-changing

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Has Webstock become the greatest internet conference of the century?

Webstock 2013

Webstock 2013 opening (Webstock Flickr stream)

Last week was my fourth Webstock and the fact that I describe it as an experience rather than just as a plain event (“fourth time I went to Webstock”) is an indication of the intensely powerful and inspirational feelings it leaves you with.

In fact Boing Boing described this year’s as “the most radical” tech conference ever.

What is Webstock? It’s a web technology and design conference and workshops held here in Wellington every February since 2006 and which attracts the great and good from the global internet community to present to, this year, 875 delegates.

The calibre of international speakers attracted to this New Zealand conference is high and in itself attracts many delegates who travel also from the US and Europe to listen and participate.

Speakers from the past include software luminaries such as Ben Goodger (Firefox/Google); Nat Torkington (Perl); Michael Lopp (Apple/Palantir); Thomas Fuchs (Ruby); Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users); Technologists such as Tom Coates; Scott Hanselman; writers like Bruce Sterling and Lauren Beukes; designers like Jared Spool and John Gruber; entrepreneurs such as Sam Morgan; Eric Ries; Jim Coudal; Derek Handley and Tony Hsieh; musicians and artists like Jason Webley; Amanda Fucking Palmer; Scott McCloud and The Oatmeal and even a Hollywood big hitter like Michael B Johnson.

Despite the variety of the 24 or so speakers across the conference, individual Webstocks seem to coalesce into a theme over the two days of presentations.There is always a huge amount of pure design; UX and technology inspiration but each year the carefully crafted programme appears to want to leave you with a deeper. more soul-searching message.

I remember 2010 feeling particularly entrepreneurial in nature, with the likes of lean start-up guru Eric Ries and Digg founder Kevin Rose. 2011 felt like we’d learnt how to create a cool internet business and were now making the product look beautiful and inspiring; 2012 felt like a mid-life realisation that it wasn’t all about the money and we need to be doing greater things for humanity to live with ourselves; and this year it felt like the what-the-hell-have-we-let-happen-to-our-internet? moment.

Like other attendees I spoke to I left Webstock with my brain overflowing with an ever-expanding mixture of inspiration, insight and philosophical questions. Last year I kept the pages of notes I took on my desk and used them for an injection of the above when the metaphorical skies were grey and drive to do good in my work waned. In terms of getting me back into a creative, dynamic space it beat the coffee or the snack machine every time.

This year I want to use this blog to expand on my notes and pull out some of the speakers and thoughts that I think are worth sharing.

My first piece looks at the thoughts of Clay Johnson.

NB: For other notes on Webstock 2013 the shining light is Mike Riversdale’s (@MiramarMike) shared note taking on Google docs. While one may not agree with all his opinions, Mike has become a Webstock recorder of note and an invaluable repository of goodness from the week. Scoop also has a briefer file notes overview on Webstock 2013.

Pandora

February 17, 2013 2 comments

In a New York Times article in 2002 David Bowie famously predicted the end to copyright and that “music itself will become like running water or electricity”. I find that to be a truly futuristic and exciting vision for what the early days of the internet promised in terms democratisation and freedom of access.

And the fact that it came from a musician – albeit an already very wealthy one – but one who could see that greater openess for content still supported a business model.

The internet music radio services like Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, TunedIn, Sirius, are creating an absolute incarnation of Bowie’s vision while also showing how the internet can continue evolve into a semantic web Berners Lee envisioned.

I love Pandora for the reasons that everyone else does – it opens up the entirety of human music and curates it to your tastes. To quote Wikipedia: The service plays musical selections of a certain genre based on the user’s artist selection. The user then provides positive or negative feedback for songs chosen by the service, which are taken into account when Pandora selects future songs.

While the service has been offered in the US for 12 years it only reached Australia and New Zealand late last year. But it’s the same deal as US users get – free with ads or US$3.99 (NZ$4.85) per month without ads.

Pandora is accessed via web, 20+ car models and radios or smartphone – and it’s the latter that may be a real challenge to Pandora’s existence despite the fact it has  65 million active users.

The company’s business model is based primarily on ad revenue and its biggest cost is royalty payments. Each time Pandora streams a song, it pays a royalty fee to SoundExchange, a Washington-based trade group that collects royalties and distributes them to recording artists and music publishers. According to BusinessWeek the online music service paid 0.11¢ per song in 2012; that will rise to 0.14¢ in 2015. The royalty board has yet to reset rates for 2016 and beyond.

When Pandora launched it was consumed via desktop or laptop browsers but as in all other digital industries the mobile revolution has turned this on its head with millions of downloads of the Pandora app on iOS or Android. And for Pandora mobile revenues are much less than web. And with an increasing cost line, well you can see the issue. It’s a sobering position to be in as a business when the more customers you get (on mobile) the tighter your margin becomes and you can see where this may head for Pandora.

But there’s no shortage of competition for internet radio dollars. Spotify has 20 million active users

Slacker Radio has just relaunched in the US promising more music choice than Pandora. Slacker is more like traditional radio with human-curated stations, although you can establish your own as well and its revenues are based on advertising or subscriptions. It has 4 million active users with 500,000 being paid subscribers.

And don’t forget Apple, the great change agent in modern musical history. They are also eyeing this space.

And as with iTunes, which gave us easy and cheap access to our favourite music but also generated fair revenue for the artist – this is all great news for music lovers and musicians too. The impact on traditional radio is yet to be understood.