Who Will Be Web 2.0’s Jon Stewart?

The Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer interview is compelling television (be sure to watch all three parts).  It’s an interesting case study on media and industry relations, and should be required for anyone who invests, directly or indirectly, in the stock market.

I’m not a Cramer-hater.  I have sporadically read and watched him since the good old days when TheStreet.Com had a TV show and I had a TIVO.  He’s cost me a lot of money, but so has every other media outlet I ever listened to.  For that matter, so has Morningstar (thanks a lot for those Citigroup and Bank of America recommendations).  I think Cramer’s current show is way over the top, but I also understand his point that he’s trying to bring these topics to a younger generation.  I guess someone needed to be the Jason Ellis of the financial sector, and he took the job.

The thing that kept standing out to me during the interview, however, is the idea that there are two financial markets.  One run by the rich insiders who have all the knowledge and pull all the strings, and another funded by the 401(k)’s and investment portfolios of the rest of us.  The latter serving not to secure our future, but to support the accelerated wealth accumulation of those who control the former.  If any part of this is true, it completely sucks, and makes the fairness of the stock market suspect.

And when I saw the clips of Cramer and others allegedly manipulating the stock market, it all sounded very familiar.  It sounded just like the venture capitalists, marketers, sycophants and other hangers on who invest in and promote all these Web 2.0/social networking/whatever applications.  Think about it.  Today’s hype about Twitter and Facebook sounds a lot like yesterday’s hype about Lehman Brothers, AIG and Washington Mutual.  The stock market pundits don’t promote those stocks any longer, just like the Web 2.0 hype-machine no longer raves about those former world changing services that wound up in the Dead Pool.  Those who believe that they may make money by promoting these stocks and applications aren’t concerned about how things go for the end user.  They just want to create buzz to increase the likelihood of a payout.  Everybody’s bullshitting everybody else and, after the insiders cash (or get bailed) out, the end users get left holding the bag.

We need a Jon Stewart too.

I have tried to do my part, to the point that a lot of the hype-machine won’t have anything to do with me.  But my podium is small compared to the consolidated podium of those who want to control the message.  Until the skeptics reach critical mass, the questioning voice gets drowned out by the hyperbole.

Plus, people just don’t want to hear it.  This part troubles me the most.

When I have a thought or an idea, I want people to test and challenge it.  The guys who work for me know this.  They have learned that I will be disappointed if they don’t vigorously test my thoughts and ideas.  In fact, my ideas get more scrutiny than theirs.  And that’s just the way I like it.  If I can successfully defend my idea against a passionate lunch table attack, then I feel better about it.  If I can’t, well maybe I need to go back to the drawing board.  Additionally, I really enjoy spirited debate.  It’s fun to argue and spar over ideas, and truth is best found through that process.  Not by nodding our heads eagerly to whatever cockamamie plan someone comes up with.

But, again, lots of people don’t approach it that way.  My wife frequently tells me that her friends are put off or offended by my challenges to their statements or ideas (actually, she tells me I can come across as an asshole).  What’s fun and useful to me is viewed as rude or impolite by them.  Sometimes I try to keep my mouth shut and let bad ideas die their own slow death, but it’s hard not to help the process along.  If she read this blog, my wife would say that was an assholish statement, but I don’t mean it that way.

I think people caught up in the Web 2.0 let’s change the world and get filthy rich in the process euphoria are equally uncomfortable defending their positions.  Some of them because they genuinely don’t like conflict.  Lots of them because they are afraid it might decrease the likelihood of getting paid.

Manners and gentility aside, we need a Jon Stewart.  We need a bunch of them.

Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing

But you gotta have something if you wanna get paid.

Techdirt has a piece today about US News and World Report’s plan to charge readers $20 a year for an online subscription.  There are very few publications that have content and delivery that will warrant an online charge.  Techdirt mentions the Wall Street Journal as one example, because of its excellent content and delivery, and because most people view the Journal as a tool in their quest to make money.

I’d add Consumer Reports (I subscribe to its online content) to that very short list.  I can’t think of any others.

The problem, of course, is that everyone, especially big media, was highly confused and short sighted when the internet land rush began.  Everyone and her dog tossed up web sites, gave their product away and focused all of their effort on getting readers.  This increased costs while generating little or no revenue.  The idea was to stake out an audience and figure out how to make money later.  The trouble with that plan is that there are only two ways to monetize that audience: get bought or sell ads.  The lucky ones who got up and running first have already been bought, many of them several times and at increasingly lower prices.  The later plan was also turned on its head by the inevitable economic slowdown and the resulting implosion of online advertising.  The Web 2.0 developers made the same mistake, which is why so many Web 2.0 sites are dead or on life support.

This implosion will be good for the internet in the long run, but those speculators and developers caught in the middle find themselves in a tough spot.

Billy Preston was right.  You have to have something somebody wants or needs to get paid for providing it.  But the cat’s out of the bag and, once you go free, it’s really hard to go back.  Especially in a bad economy.

You have to admire the effort.  But unless we can travel back in time and keep the free cat securely in his bag, it’s not going to work.

The Giants of San Francisco

So I went on my first photo-walk the other night.  As I mentioned earlier, it was fun.  Now that I’m back on my computer where I can actually get Live Writer to work (and thus avoid having to write posts via the Blogger interface), here are a few more impressions.  As mentioned, everyone was nice and very willing to give me photography advice, which, having seen some of the photos taken by other participants, I clearly need.

Dave Sifry is a cool guy, much as I would have expected.  I enjoyed hanging out with him.  He’s also a heck of a photographer.  I was right beside him when he took this photo.  Suffice it to say that the ones I took don’t look anything like that.

I don’t think Thomas Hawk had the slightest idea who I was, even though I thought we knew each other a little from cross blogging, etc.  I thought I might get a little run for coming all the way from Texas and all.  He did give me some good night photography tips, and he did a great job of leading us to interesting shooting opportunities and to a good dinner.  His wife is very nice, and I enjoyed talking with her at dinner.

Robert Scoble was also cool, and did remember me from last year’s Web 2.0 deal, blogging, etc.  His producer, Rocky, was probably the most interesting guy in attendance.  I really enjoyed talking with him.  He told me some great stories, but he left out that he is a guitar player.

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Fresh from my photo-walk, I went down to Mountain View Tuesday night to see Guy Kawasaki interview Dan Lyons, the fake Steve Jobs.  Dan comes across as a humble, thoughtful and funny guy.  I didn’t read his blog previously, but I have subscribed now.  I briefly met Guy, who didn’t seem to know who I was either, even though he has sparred with me on this blog a few times.  He didn’t seem too interested in chatting, so I just shook his hand and moved on.

Brad Stone, who outed Dan as the man behind the fake Steve Jobs blog, was also in attendance and described the process that led him to conclude Dan was the fake Steve Jobs.  All in all, it was an interesting conversation.

They took questions, both good and bad, from the audience and answered a few that were submitted via email.  Some of the questions were interesting.  Some of them painful.  Most were somewhere in between.

It is a very expensive cab ride from downtown San Francisco to Mountain View, so I don’t know if I’d make the trip again.  I did get to meet a few blogging pals in person, so that was an added bonus.

It was sheer coincidence that I was speaking at a conference in San Francisco on the day in between these two events.  I’m glad I took the time to attend them both.

Even if I’m not certain I’d do it again.

Even Newspapers Get the Comments

It’s been six months, hasn’t it?
In some circles that is half a year.
The Countess – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

The topic cycle in the blogosphere has spun back around to comments, and whether you ought to have them, not have them, moderate them yourselves, let users self-moderate, splice a blog and a message board together, or hire Scoble as your personal Vanna White.

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The process begins when one egghead or another either gets too much comment spam or intellectual pushback (depending on the egghead’s frame of mind) and declares that comments are either a pain in the ass or unnecessary.  Then some other eggheads (me in this case) mount a nerdy defense of comments.  After a day or so a third group of eggheads start saying some other ridiculous stuff and the nerd herd moves on.

Nerdily, I say unto thee…

Anyone who knows the first thing about blogging knows that to be successful a blog needs to create and nurture a sense of community.  Comments are by far the best way to do that.  Even those who naively view their blogs as a path to riches need comments because advertisers covet stickiness- the ability to keep readers onsite. Again, interactivity is the best way to achieve that.

This is why even newspapers have comments.

Recently when David Ritcheson tragically leapt to his death from a cruise ship, it was a commenter who first identified him (the victim of an earlier horrific attack that had been in the news), at the bottom of an early report that a then unidentified person had jumped or fallen off a cruise ship.  Take a look at the online edition of your newspaper, I bet you’ll see an effort to develop a community of commenters.  Newspapers know how to sell ads, and they know the goal is to have a crowd of people interacting at your site.  Why do some bloggers ignore the need for interactivity by either not having or not nurturing comments?

I can think of four reasons, only the first of which is makes any sense.

First, if your blog is largely a vehicle used to market some larger product.  In my opinion, Seth Godin is an example of this.  Seth is, among other things, an author, speaker and a marketing guy.  His blog is a way to showcase his expertise in a way that gives the reader value while marketing his books and speaking services.  Seth believes that having comments changes his blog (and more importantly his writing) in a way that detracts from his vision and purpose for his blog.  I don’t really agree with his approach, but it works for him.  Not coincidentially, Seth has a very high profile both in and out of the blogosphere.  Don’t get me wrong, Seth seems like a cool guy and the fact that I, who am all about conversation, read his blog every day tells you all you need to know about my opinion of his value and writing skills.  But what works for Seth won’t work for most bloggers.

comments Second, if you’re not willing to spend the time to manage, nurture and moderate your comments.  Comments are mini-message boards and having developed a number of very popular message board sites, I can tell you that unchecked interaction performed in a remote and semi-anonymous way will descend into chaos 100% of the time.  Comments have a shorter half-life than message board threads, so the chaos takes longer to develop.  But between the spammers and the disrupters, chaos will eventually reign in comments left unchecked.  There are lots of ways to address the comment problem: pre-approval of commenters (too restrictive for me), holding comments for approval (not real time enough for me), using a captcha (my current approach), manually deleting spam and disruptive comments (my original approach, abandoned long ago in the midst of a spam flood), etc.  It takes a little work, but if you’re trying to grow a blog without comments, you are making your job much harder than it has to be.  For 95% of the bloggers out there, I would say if you aren’t willing to have comments, why are you blogging?  It would be much better to write 50% less posts and devote half your blogging time to moderating and participating in your comments threads.  Don’t forget the participating part.  Lots of bloggers do.

Third, you start believing your own BS and forget that it takes luck and timing in addition to brains and hard work to be hugely successful- regardless of how success is measured.  These folks aren’t interested in community building because to them they are the community.  And, of course, in our celebrity-driven culture, a number of tourists will eagerly line up at the door, hoping for a glimpse.  The tourists may get a souvenir or two, but that’s a by-product of the greater purpose: for the celebrity-cum-blogger to remain in the anaconda-like grip of the self-congratulatory hug.  Some of these folks actually have comments, but they are generally intended for tributes as opposed to conversation and discussion.  I don’t put any of the participants I have read in this latest discussion in that group, but there are a lot of them out there.

Fourth, of course, is to generate a response and get people talking.  Sort of like I’m doing now, which reminds me of a quote from Spaceballs (that under-appreciated classic).

The Ring! I can’t believe you fell for the oldest trick in the book! What a fool, what’s with you man, c’mon?

In addition to the predictability of the blogosphere, there are a couple of other points to be made here.

As Mathew Ingram points out, there are a few people who read blogs who, um, don’t have a blog (I think the number is small, but existent).  And then there’s the fact that the very large majority of the people who think they don’t need comments would rather drive an American made car than respond to cross-blog conversation from some blogger outside their circle.

Comments are integral to the blogging experience.  Sure, they take some work.

But for almost all of us, they are worth it.

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Why Backfence Tells Us Nothing About the Viability of Citizen Journalism

Rafat Ali reports that Backfence, once the poster child for aggregated citizen journalism, is shuttering all 13 of its local-news based web sites.

citizenjournalismYou remember Backfence.  It is/was, to quote the American Journalism Review, “a series of hyperlocal, news-oriented web sites whose tone and content – news, commentary, blogs, photos, calendar listings – would be supplied primarily by the people who knew each community best, its residents.”  It was one of 6 citizen journalism ventures that were mentioned in a December 9, 2004 article in the Washington Post that said:

Several notable ventures have launched or raised money this year to create local news sites online in which readers contribute all or most of the news. The big idea is that citizen-generated content lowers costs and creates more loyal audiences.

Of the 6 notable ventures mentioned in that article, here’s how they fared in the ensuing two and a half years:

Three of them: iBrattleboro.com, NorthwestVoice and Wikinews are still in business.  The first two have overcome My-Space-like design problems and are still accepting submissions.  Wikinews doesn’t seem all that local to me, unless North America is local, but is still going strong.

Advance Internet seems to have evolved into merely a directory of NJ-related blogs.  I can’t tell if there is a more formal relationship between the blogs, thanks to a most unhelpful About page.

GoSkokie seems to have joined Backfence in the deadpool.

Which translates to a 50% survival rate.  That’s probably better than the survival rates for a lot of other businesses over the same two and a half year period.  And, unlike Backfence, many of those businesses didn’t have $3M in venture capital funding to work with.  That fact being the epitome of both a blessing and a curse.

More significantly, I don’t believe the failure of Backfence or the survival of iBrattleboro.com and NorthwestVoice says anything one way or the other about the future or viability of citizen journalism- at least not the way I view true citizen journalism.  All of those web sites, as well as more than a few others that have attached themselves to the citizen media movement, have the very distinct look and feel of old media- old media that is still not entirely comfortable with the whole online thing.  Sure, accepting submissions for publication is a neat idea (and no doubt helps lower expenses), but lots of old media offline publications do that.  True citizen journalism the way I view it is journalism by citizens, for citizens, published by citizens and controlled by citizens.

Not so much people writing and submitting articles to the online editions of a dying newspaper industry.  Or to web sites that look more like a newspaper than a blog.  Everybody always blows right past this point, but the citizens who create the journalism should demand the right to serve and control that content from their own platform and for their own benefit.  Not from some online quasi-paper, not behind the walls of some ad-happy social network and not for the pecuniary benefit of third parties.  A story submission button and a comments section does not equate to citizen journalism.

It’s the combination of content creation and aggregation that mucks everything up.  Just like musicians don’t need the record labels any more, journalists don’t need the newspaper platform- or a semi-collaborative photocopy of one.  The aggregation of content is better left to the Diggs, Techmemes and blog comments.  Or even better, to feed lists tailored to the interest of the reader.

Let me say it again.  If you are are a citizen (as opposed to a member of traditional media) working your tail off to create content to then turn around and give that content to others who control its distribution and/or make all or most of the money off of it, you are neither citizen nor journalist.  You are at best an employee and, more likely, an indentured scribe.  You are an ant in another’s farm.  Why do people not get this?  Someone queue that Apple commercial.

Rather, the true citizen journalism is occurring simultaneously on distributed blogs of thousands of learned bloggers out there.  Bloggers like Scott Karp, Phil Sim, the guys and gals at Mashable, Nick CarrDonna Bogatin, Mathew Ingram,  TDavid, Tony Hung, Twangville, Don Dodge, J.P. Rangaswami, Jeff Pulver, Stereogum, Rex Hammock and Rafat’s PaidContent.Org.  And those are just a few that I noticed when glancing at my feeds list.  There are easily a hundred more on that list.  Maybe two hundred.

The future of citizen journalism is in the hands of people writing the blogs about the events that are happening around them.  The path of citizen journalism will be mapped starting from the citizen/blogger side of the phrase, not from the journalism/old media side.  At its core, citizen journalism is about learning how to distribute reliable information without being chained to a platform or gateway.  It’s equal access reporting where the readership picks the winners.

Maybe Backfence was a pioneer and, as the AJR article says, destined to be the one with arrows in their backs. And maybe Backfence led the way for a segment of the trip.  But the journey has just begun and citizen journalism as it looks today is merely a working sketch of what citizen journalism will become.

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It's About Choices and Accountability

Nobody ever won an argument by simply saying “I’m mad at you” over and over.  If someone is already being critical of your words or actions, they probably don’t care if you’re mad at them.  They’re probably mad at you too.  Jumping up and down might make you feel better, but it doesn’t get you any closer to understanding and reconciliation.

Yet here comes Mike Arrington, once again, telling us that he’s “pissed off at every single person involved” in the Federated Media/Microsoft cacophony.  I would use John Battelle‘s favorite word “conversation,” but as Mathew Ingram points out, John’s definition of conversation is a little different than most.

The fact of the matter is this:

1) Some people are claiming this is a disclosure issue.  It’s not.  It’s a credibility issue.  I can see why Mike and others would react strongly to implications that there was something truly covert going on.  Maybe it wasn’t in flashing neon lights, but neither was it hidden.  Anyone who thought that Federated Media page was anything more than a collaborative billboard wasn’t paying attention.  For some reason, Mike chooses to go straight to attack mode, rather than present his argument rationally.  I guess when you own TechCrunch, that’s your prerogative, but it’s not likely to sway many fence sitters to your side.

2) Other people, mostly those who feel like they might have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, are saying the ad campaign is a non-event.  That the whole business was dreamed up by Valleywag as a way to agitate in the name of traffic.  This mess wasn’t dreamed up by Valleywag- it was dreamed up by Microsoft and Federated Media.  In the name of making money.  While there is a distinction between the journalists and the prospectors, to claim that the prospectors have a license to shill is ludicrous on its face.  Credibility transcends all motivations, and a blogger who sells his or her services for blogomercials should realize that without it being plastered all over Techmeme.  As Jeff Jarvis puts it, if the prospectors want to type away without regard for journalistic standards, then we need to read away with that in mind.

It’s not an ethical transgression, it’s simply a bad choice.  There’s nothing evil about making a bad choice, and there’s nothing wicked about holding people accountable for bad choices.

I thought John did a reasonably good job of responding to this mess, without sounding combative or defensive.  On one hand, I can see why Mike says John threw them under the bus.  On the other hand, can you imagine the uproar if John had taken Mike’s “go pound sand” approach?  He had to walk a very fine line to minimize the lingering damage.  I don’t agree with his “conversation” spin, but all in all, he took the first important step in addressing this issue.

It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out.  There are certainly two camps.  But the journalists and the prospectors are mining for the same gold.  Gold in the form of readers who get to decide who they trust, and who they don’t.

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