This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me. Cross posted from Searchblog.
I have spent 30-plus years in the tech and media industries, mainly as a journalist, observer, and founder of companies that either make or support journalism and storytelling. When it comes to many of the things I am going to talk about here, I am not an expert. If I am expert at anything at all, it’s asking questions of technology, and of the media and marketing platforms created by technology. In that spirit I offer the questions I am currently pursuing, in the hope of sparking a dialog with this esteemed audience to further better answers.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
Algorithmic merchandising leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly but surely, it will erode trust for all the tech giants.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.
Platforms are simply acting the way you’d expect given the norms of financialized capitalism. That’s where reform must focus.
Every few days my browser tabs overflow, and I feel the need to summarize why I’ve kept those stories lingering in my digital consciousness. Here are stories I’ve been reading and thinking about for the past few days.
JPB was a conjurer, a convener, a cipher and an empath
Barlow died this week and since hearing of it, 24 hours ago, I’ve struggled with what to do. Then I got a note this morning from the fellow managing his “BarlowFriendz” email list, informing thousands of us of Barlow’s death. Of course, most of us already knew, but getting a missive from that listserv was like a bolt from the grave — I half expected a post-mortem manifesto from the man, and god knows our world needs one. Instead it was a sad and perfunctory announcement of his passing from the fellow JPB had entrusted to manage his email list.
But you know how you think you’ve gotten over someone, but then something reminds you of how deep that person is entangled with your own sense of self, and you fall apart? Seeing a note from BarlowFriendz was like that for me. I realized a few things: First, I hadn’t gotten a note from Barlow in a while, I knew he’d been sick, but most of the news I had heard was pretty good, all things considered (he called his situation late in life “medical incarceration.”) He had taken on the American way of death, and so far, he seemed to be winning. Till now. Second, I realized how much I loved his occasional missives, filled as they were with Cassady-like calls to action (Dancemobs! BarlowFrenzys! Bikemobs!) and lucid outbursts of pure poetry. And third, I wondered if we’d lose all that wonderful prose (we won’t, I’m assured).
We’re all tired of this endless battle. But if you make your living in any way through the Internet, you have to strap it on once more.
I’m tired. Worn down. In need of a Thanksgiving break. For more than a year the news has been relentless, and relentlessly bad. Are you worn down as well? Are you numb? Inured?
I bet you are.
But we must rouse ourselves, all over again, to have yet another fight we thought we already won. For this Thanksgiving, as most of us take a long-deserved rest to count our diminishing blessings, the FCC plans to gut net neutrality. And we simply can’t take this one lying down.
Holy moly. Elon Musk is really a human being! This in depth profile by Neil Strauss is either an incredible scoop, or a deft bit of PR by Musk himself, who certainly is a master of the public reveal. Either way, it comes off as genuine, and it paints Musk in a very soft light. Money Quote: “There is clearly something Musk wants to share, but he can’t bring himself to utter the words, at least not on the record. “It’s so terrible, you can’t believe it.” The tears run silently down his face. “I can’t remember the last time I cried.” He turns to Teller to confirm this. “You’ve never seen me cry.”
Bitcoin prices are on a tear, and so is blockchain and ICO hype. Are you as confused as I am? Let’s figure out why.
“This is the Internet in 1993!”
I heard this statement several times at an industry conference I attended earlier this month, and it had been ringing in my ears for any number of reasons well before then. It all feels so familiar, and yet this time, it also feels utterly foreign.
The internet doesn’t understand the advertising business. Then again, neither do most advertisers. A Preview of a Medium Premium series from NewCo Shift.
One of the first Medium Premium series created in conjunction with noted authors and journalists, Which Half Is Wasted, by agency vet Rick Webb, explores the role of advertising in our society and economy, with a particular focus on digital advertising, which Webb argues presumes the migration of television brand dollars to the internet (a presumption that he declares false). In this exclusive series (membership is required, but Medium does have a “metered paywall’), Webb asks if we really understand the advertising business, and explores the effects the business has on what gets built online.
The first article in the series, which you can read here, states that society has thrown out the social contract that made advertising moral, as more and more advertising money is spent on online platforms like Facebook & Google, rather than supporting news gathering and content creation. It wasn’t long ago when advertising’s upside was that it allowed media creation to flourish.