Monthly Archives: July 2005

Remix Culture British Style

As I peek at media developments around the world, many of the interesting experiments in broadening participation in media are taking place outside the United States, such as a BBC program that allows Web developers to use its content in non-commercial ways that build on the original fare.

The newsletter described the BBC initiative thus: “The BBC says it is committed to using open standards that will enable users to find and repurpose BBC content in more flexible ways. Suggested applications include: combining schedules with other web services; introducing a social element, such as rating or voting; or creating alerting systems.”
Contact the BBC Backstage program for more information.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the University of Maryland’s J-Lab has identified five noteworthy examples of media experiments that use the Web to gather citizen input or extend the usefulness of information by, for instance, posting crime reports on a publicly viewable map. They’re some good ideas and worth a look.

Finally, an an unrelated topic, in scanning Paid Content this morning, I saw a note about a new principal joining Corante, a blogging company that gets far less attention than Gawker Media or Weblogs Inc. I read the Corante announcement on the arrival of marketer Francois Gossieaux, and also read Gossieaux’s blog entry on why he made the move. “Corante is not your typical publishing company,” he wrote. “Instead of hiring writers and publishing content, we connect readers with experts. And in this day and age of scarce reader attention span and information overload that is exactly what people are looking for.:

I read all this because I don’t understand the Corante approach or business model, and still don’t. But I assume that is because their approach is too new to fit into the existing pigeonholes, and thus all the more interesting.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

The Optimist

Kevin Kelly has long been among my favorite prophets of modernity, one of that crazy gang of Northern California WELL-heads who’ve contributed so much to cyber culture. I first noticed his work in the late 1980s when he was at Whole Earth Review, and followed his words when he became a founding editor of Wired Magazine in the early 1990s. Thus I read with delight, and yet not without some dissent, his We Are The Web essay in the current Wired. It celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO as the claxon of the Web evolution, and describes the marvelous ways in which it has connected millions of people, creating the pathways for a global consciousness, “a new type of thinking — part human and part machine — found nowhere else on the planet or in history.”

Yet even as I smiled at his many trenchant observations, particularly the opening anecdote in which he described meeting that mad genius Ted Nelson, who alpha-tested hyperlink by scribbling notes on index cards which he cut-and-pasted together, I have always felt that Kelly hailed from the techno-optimistic side of the spectrum. Kelly tends to see the world and the future at a 30,000 foot flyby. And while his tech-amplified powers of observation make many of his insights keen and true, insofar as they go, I’ve always felt they glossed over the pain that I, perhaps because of the surly circumstances of my own life, see all too often in the faces of those who live with us in what the Chinese used to call interesting times.

Yet who can doubt that society stands at an inflection point. “The revolution launched by Netscape’s IPO was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge,” Kelly writes. “At its heart was a new kind of partcipation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.” Later Kelly cites some of the phenomenal, unforeseen developments, such as eBay, which we now take for granted. “We have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions every year and operates from your bedroom.” The Web has enabled an even greater and more fertile explosion of self-expression. “In fewer than 4,000 days,” he writes, “we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people.” We have created, Kelly says, “the community of collaborative interaction that futurist Alvin Toffler called prosumption.”

And that is where I begin to differ. Because while the Web has surely set us on a path to sharing, the fruits of human endeavor remain divided in a grossly unequal fashion. Whether you look at the distribution between the developed and the developing world, or the stratification within our own society, there is neither rationality nor fairness in the system — either new or old. On a global scale perhaps things are equalizing. Outsourcing may be lifting the Indian and Chinese, and if this hits our working and middle classes there may yet be some good come of it.

But is it my imagination or are the rich getting richer than even their greediest dreams? We hear that we live in an Ownernship Society, an Opportunity Society, and if my only input were Kelly’s essay, I might imagine that we were on our way to the next stage of human development. But there keep occurring these nagging events in my own life that cause me to view the world with a somewhat jaundiced eye.

Take last night for instance when unionized journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle — where I have worked since 1990s — voted overwhelmingly to ratify a five-year agreement that strikes me as less a labor contract than a surrender document. But shame on me for criticizing that in which I played little or no part. For while my colleagues were wrestling with bad and worse, I was voting with my feet, having a drink with my friend and journalist-turned-blogger Tom Foremski, talking about the crumbling business models that are today’s mass media. Yet it is from that crumbling model that I have thus far derived my pay, my health plan and all the other support structures that have not yet been architected into the sharing system that is rendering content, and so many other goods, more widely and cheaply available. I don’t know where all this ends, either for the world or for me. I do know that I’m a darn site less optimistic than Kelly. In fact, this morning I feel a deep sense of shame.

We all have myths about ourselves, and a central element of the Tom Abate myth began on the streets of Brooklyn some 40 years ago, when one of the new kids in the Catholic grammar school that I attended, a fellow Italian-American, was set upon by some of the Irish boys who predominated in our neighborhood. It was not deadly stuff, just playground bullying, but I saw this walking by and, without much thought, because I could not let a paisan go down, I ran across the street and launched myself into the air sideways against the pack, who scattered, as surprised as I was by the tactic.

Ever since, I don’t know that I’ve ever backed down from a fight. To the contrary, I have sometimes been more belligerent than would have been wise or necessary in any given circumstance. But last night I let my paisan go down without so much as the benefit of my company. I refused to make the decision that was foredained. And this morning, I feel as mini as I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and my eyes fill with tears.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

Tubes, Tunes & Tears

I woke up today to read a kickass column by’s Diane Mermigas, who says TV networks can reinvigorate their revenues by repackaging content and delivering it to daytime audiences via desktop and mobile means. Her advice for mass media moguls applies in spades to mini media startups.

Thanks to MediaPost for steering me to Mermigas’s column, which is chockablock with revenue estimates and a valuable read for startups that have to live and die by these new, emerging markets. For anyone in or near that space (I’m thinking about folks like Bay Area media maven Mary Hodder, Mermigas’s insights won’t be news — tomorrow’s video successes will be the firms that find ways “to be paid for providing their most popular content to all digital broadband venues — from cell phones and video game consoles to streaming media on any Internet-connected device.”

But Mermigas makes good points as to why soaps or sports delivered to mobiles or at-work computers should be worth more because the content reaches a better demographic than daytime stay-homes. (Although I shudder to think of the productivity hit and wonder how long before corporate sysops learn to screen out the interruption). But forget that curmudgeonly comment, and focus on what Mermigas writes: “upward of 850,000 (major league baseball) subscribers watch baseball games on their computers even though many of the games occur during work hours. Telemundo had about 600,000 unique users watching its soap operas online in March.”

I have blogged along similar lines myself, though my concern is whether small producers are allowed into the distribution channels and get a fair deal.

On that note let me switch to tunes. I read a hopeful bit that goes like this — Apple Computer used to pay independent music producers less for iTunes downloads but that appears to have changed and now they get equal treatment. So writes Good Morning Silicon Valley columnist John Paczkowski, who cites a blog posting by Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby the online music store. Tune-makers who want to learn more about Sivers should read the LA Weekly profile that was also pointed to in the column. I just started reading Paczkowski’s posts. They seem concise and informative.

Now let me weep for the staff of, which has been riffed according to a CNet report. I have (or had?) friends there. Time to reach out and see if I can help. Of course I’m in a tenuous position myself. It may be a great age for users to content, but for content creators every day seems to bring a new kick in the teeth.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

The Last Word

I am infatuated with new media but my first love is print. I was delighted when the current issue of Paid Content p ointed me to an EContent Magazine article that surveyed tools print publishers can use to distribute content over the Web.

This posting is a brief syopsis a piece by EContent writer Ron Miller, so if the print-to-web shift interests you, do read the original. That article, by the way, is now a year old so some of the information is a bit dated (there are, for instance, references to MacroMedia’s FlashPaper development that don’t take into account its acquisition by Adobe).

Adobe and its ubiquitous PDF format are central to the article. Miller notes that since Acrobat debuted in 1993, Adobe has distributed “more than a half billion” copies of its free Acrobat Reader, which allows document receipt and display with the art and layout intact. The article notes that Adobe’s thrust, with regard to the publisher’s version of Acrobat, is to put “PDF on a Java-based platform and provides a way to build in business logic and XML hooks into a PDF document, making it possible to move information from a PDF into a workflow or to distribute data to databases.” As for the reader, Adobe wants to build in “digital rights management (DRM)” to give publishers greater control over what uses can be made of the content after delivery. (Since the piece is a year old, some of this may already have occurred.)

The EContent piece notes some of the alternatives (again this piece was written before Microsoft made rumblings about challenging Adobe). Miller writes: “most publishers want to use the power of the Web, while preserving some of the look and feel of traditional media. This has resulted in a number of approaches from vendors such as Zinio and NewsStand, which use a reader to download and view publications, or NXTbook, which incorporates the look and feel of a traditional page-turning publication delivered via a Web browser.”

EContent points readers to “Frank Gilbane, publisher of the Gilbane Report, a publication that focuses on content trends” who cited the emergence of RSS as a distribution format but said it was only just being noticed by users. Gilbane told EContent, “Most people don’t even know what it is, and those that do often don’t appreciate the potential.” That statement was made a year ago, and much has happened since then to raise the stature of RSS, but in a funny way and with mild calibration, I think that statement still rings true.

I will return to print-via-web as I notice other developments. I am particularly interested in production methods to pull down stuff out of archives to print customized books or magazines, and will be particularly alert for developments in that realm.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


My relaxations include listening to books on tape while taking long walks. Over the weekend I was enjoying a fabulous rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Listening to this rich and beautiful tale made me think about the differences between oral storytelling and the linear print tradition that supplanted it. Now we have hypertext (a concept that turned 60 years old this month). Does hypertext unify the oral and linear traditions? And how does all this affect our thinking?

Perhaps you’ve read Tolkien and, even if not, you’d have to have been buried in a hole (not a hobbit hole, obviously), to have missed at least the movie version of this tale of good and evil, heroism and treachery. So I can bypass the review and get to the difference between oral and print traditions, print being easiest to understand because you are caught in its spell of one-word-after-the-other-leading-to-some-point.

Print — or rather mass printing and literacy — are the 500-year-old legacy of Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg, storytelling was a performance art, a non-technological peer-to-peer phenomenon to use a modern reference. The oral tradition was not only P2P, it was custom-made. The words were not always exactly the same. As National Geographic noted in an article about the oral antecedents of Tolkien’s trilogy, the story was not a manufactured commodity. It had a variability that reflected the abilities of the story-teller and that person’s interactions with the audience.

Print changed that. Words weren’t exactly carved in stone. But they were impressed on paper and thus on minds in a very specific way. The diffusion of knowledge made possible by the spread of books had many, many consequences, the most positive of which was that long period of scientific and social advance called The Enlightenment.

So let’s fast forward to hypertext, a word coined in the 1960s, but presaged in a July 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the man who was quite arguably also the godfather of the military-industrial complex. But let me not digress.

We live hypertext. We can link anything. I’ve written previously about the power of writing in hypertext. But my own thinking is too linear. I can’t help myself. I used to be a bookworm. Now I’m a writer. But walking around this weekend with Tolkien’s blend of print and oral story echoing in my ears, I wondered how thinking will change when the young people, growing up with the option of ingesting information in a linear or eclectic way, start taking over the world.

This global Internet, and its many forms of communication and community, represent a historic inflection point. Looking back I know that much grief followed Gutenberg as well, specifically, the long wars over religion that were tied to translations of the Bible. Now we see beheadings publicized on the Internet and read reports of terror attacks and learn about groups claiming credit on Web pages and I wonder if this social upheaval is déjà vu all over. A glimpse into the mirror of Galadriel would provide some hints, but my understanding is that the elves have lost their magic. Oh, darn. We’ll have to muddle through as best we can.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

Should I puke until my stomach aches, or put on my Italian silk suit and go money-hunting? Those are the only ways I know how to react to the news, which came our earlier this week, that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation will become the new owner of teen hotspot, assuming that Intermix Media, which is MySpace’s parent firm, accepts Murdoch’s $580 million buyout offer.

I could say that I withheld commenting on the deal until now while I carefully considered my words. But the truth is I only read about the news yesterday. And my own words put the lie to the careful consideration bit. About the best I can offer in the face of a deal this monumentally pathetic is this compromise — how about if instead of vomiting I merely vent?

But before my bile gets the better of me, I should at least point you to one of the news reports on the deal, or the insider interview that Paid Content got with Ross Levinsohn. He is president of newly-formed Fox Interactive Media, the News Corp. division that will oversee MySpace if the deal is consummated. That laudatory write-up includes this observation: “when the deal closes in about three months, Fox (Interactive Media) will nearly double its (Internet) traffic by adding 27 million-plus unique users for roughly $21.48 a piece.”

Details like that confirm that if you’re a well-behaved new media startup, you should be shopping yourself around because the Fat Checkbooks are open. Of course there have been earlier such deals, of old media buying new media. And Rupert insinuated that he was looking to buy some cool stuff in a speech he delivered in April before the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

That is cool, I have no doubt. A few weeks ago I was working with a couple of dozen young people, from age 15 through the mid-30s. All they talked about was MySpace. We were supposed to be putting out a student newspaper together, but very often when I peeked over a shoulder to see what was being done, the kids were diddling around with their MySpace accounts.

One of the teenaged boys gave me a tour. His screen was filled with flirty messages from girls hailing. As I checked out the screen, I recall seeing a box that could be checked for “wife-swapping.” That, in combination with the age-segmentation feature, struck me as a rather interesting utility. The graphic artist in our group, a musician in his 20s, said he used his MySpace account to post some of his original music, and it helped him land performance gigs. In that regard he’s dead center of what seems to be the deal’s most attractive feature to Murdoch. As put it, “The tunes … are what drew the attention of the News Corp. chairman and chief executive. According to a New York Times report, a slew of bands, including R.E.M. and the Black Eyed Peas launched new releases via MySpace.”

So why am I so worked up about this deal? I guess it’s because the trend seems to be that popular new media will simply be absorbed by old media, which does nothing to solve the problem of concentrated ownership. Even without this sort of acquisition, Web media are stratifying into the Big Few and the millions that don’t matter, as I have lamented earlier. So a deal like this is not surprising. It simply makes me sad. There. At least I got it out of my system. Now I feel better. See you Monday.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

Patents & Ads & Time, Oh My!

A trio of items caught my eye today, beginning with a CNet article on the perennial debate over whether patents aid or inhibit innovation, particularly in the realm of technology. Patent debates are a recurring theme in American business history, but the issue has sharpened in recent years as these 20-year-legal monopolies have been applied to software, Internet and biotech developments.

In “Staking a Claim,” CNet’s Michael Kanellos brings this debate current in what struck me as an interesting and thorough examination of whether patents are allowing little guys to protect ideas and gain funding for startups, or whether they are being misused by large companies and patent mill firms.

This is a subject I’ve covered in the past, and two things strike me as important. First, the trend seems to be toward extending patents to new areas. I was among the reporters who covered the 1993 fracas over the Compton’s Multimedia Patent. It was eventually reversed but while the anti-patent forces won that battle, they seem to be losing the war. Part of the reason, I think, is that the federal courts were reorganized in 1982 so as to create a special circuit that hears appeals on patent trials. This special circuit has generally strengthened and extended patents, allowing, for instance, the patenting of human genes. Arguments could be and have been made that patents in some areas are counterproductive, particularly as regards software and Internet processes, where ideas can spread with viral rapidity and where IP laws may be anachronistic. But the federal courts seem so far persuaded that patents continue to perform their function, as spelled out in Article One, Section Eight, of the U.S. Constitution, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

Moving quickly to advertising, the mother’s milk of media, a New York Times article highlighted a debate among the ad buyers who indirectly underwrite most content — does their spending produce results, or is it money wasted and how do they discern the difference? This angst is being worked out in a forum called the 2005 Marketing Accountability forum, and while we may despair of hearing a definitive answer, the Times articles suggests that old media have more to fear from this debate than new media, which allow greater measurement of click-thru and the like. However, as I’ve written in the past, I’m not so sure click-thru rates tell the complete story online. I think advertising in any medium is likely to have a subtle and accretive effect rather than a directly measurable stimulus-response loop. But it’s difficult these days to argue with numbers, and new media have numbers coming out the wazoo.

Lastly and most puzzlingly is a finding by the Online Publishers Association, which tracks how much time Internet users spend each month pursuing activities in four various online categories: e-commerce, content, communication, and search. The association was pleased to report that browsers spent more time perusing content in June than in previous months, and less time engaging in e-commerce or search. Communication, though, still accounts for the largest single block of time spent online (41.3 percent for commo versus 36.9 percent for content, followed by e-commerce at just under 18 percent).

But when I checked out the association’s index, which listed the raw figures, I was puzzled. Search accounted for just 4.3 percent of online activity in June as measured in time, yet I have seen elsewhere that search firms are getting something on the order of half of all the advertising dollars being pumped into cyberspace. Now I have always heard that “time is money.” But in this instance it’s obviously not. Perhaps not all time is created equal. Or it may be that too much in advertising is being lavished on search, click thru numbers notwithstanding. But I wouldn’t worry. There’s probably a patented algorithm in the pipeline that will straighten all this out.

(Note: Paid Content pointed me to the patent and ad items; MediaPost alerted me to the Online Publisher announcement.)

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media