Just Lemming Alone!

Our lives are ruled by numbers. Unemployment rates, interest rates, the pop chart, the best-seller list and the whole yaddy yaddy ya. Computers can count anything and anything counted assumes a greater significance. In that spirit let me draw your attention to an index that promises to track the browsing patterns on 100 Internet news sites in real-time — putting a finger on the pulse of public attention.

Paid Content pointed me to the Boston Globe article that introduced this news-tracking index created by Akamai Technologies. Think of Akamai as the place where publishers outsource the delivery of content. Akamai deploys the servers and storage caches and creates a network that is supposed to handle a huge surge of traffic without crashing. In the industry jargon, Akamai is a “content delivery network” (I gave a quick overview of the CDN space and its players in a previous posting entitled “Digital Teamsters.”).

I can only guess that someone at Akamai realized that, since the company was already tracking the traffic flows of big sites like CNN, MSNBC, Reuters and the BBC, it merely had to aggregate and publish the data to create a lovely graph that would show peak interest news events such as the London terror bombings and the Michael Jackson verdict.

The Globe article offered this quote from Akamai president and chief executive Paul Sagan, a former broadcast journalist and media executive: “It’s not commercial. It’s purely because we think it’s interesting… One of the things you’ll be able to see is what kinds of events drive people to turn on their browser to news.” Elsewhere in the article, Globe writer Robert Weisman paraphrases industry experts as suggesting that “Editors and programmers potentially could focus content on topics of consistent interest … while advertisers could target their messages in parts of the world, and at times of the day, where news-related Internet traffic was highest.”

And Akamai will naturally get a mention, or an elevated profile relative to its CDN competitors. Bravo!

Having now saluted the idea, I can’t help but recall an anecdote that I heard while I was attending journalism school at Columbia University back around 1991. The school had arranged for one its alums, Michael Rosenblum, to come in and talk to the class about the emerging field of solo video journalism enabled by the rapid price drop and performance boost of hand-held vidcams.

If memory serves me well, Rosenblum told us how he had gone into the office of a TV network executive, ready to preach the gospel of go-anywhere-on-the-cheap video journalism, when suddenly the exec shushed him and took out a stopwatch. Only then did Rosenblum notice the three TV sets on the wall opposite the execs’ desk — each set tuned to a different network. A few heartbeats later the exec shouted, “Six seconds!” and clicked the stopwatch — then bid Rosenblum to begin his pitch.

I think Rosenblum told that story to illustrate the old media worship of the scoop. Being first, however briefly, is the hallmark of success. Being first and forcing the competition to chase your story — well, it doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

But that was old media nonsense. This is new media, and the Akamai index shows us how we’ve outgrown that silly fixation with firstness. Nowadays attention matters. We can track it, count it, use it to shape future decisions on which stories to play. No need for us to exercise judgment, to push a story because we think it demands attention. That would be a “hidden agenda.” That, we wouldn’t want. Better to stay smack dab in the middle of the herd, where it’s safe.

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