One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.
Nothing is more nebulous than trying to predict the future of the media.
That has been a recurring theme in these blog posts since I began doing them about 17 months ago. Still, it is interesting to see where one concept is now, where it has been, and where it may head.
The concept is personalization.
In 1994 I wrote a book called, The Age of Multimedia and Turbonews, trying to forecast where the communication media were headed. Some of the predictions then never came true, while others that weren’t even visualized, are now reality.
Facebook, for example. Youtube, for another.
Still, there was one idea rolling around then that seems to be making a comeback. Citing from the above 17-year-old book:
“One of the products under development at the (MIT) Media Lab … is an electronic newspaper called Newspace, which could join the worlds of mass media and personal computing. Newspace would offer a broadsheet-sized electronic news presentation to the reader, complete with state-of-the-art graphics and human interaction. Much of the product would be built around individual users’ habits, interests, tastes, hobbies, and lifestyles. “
This was before the age of online newspapers obviously, and those products have underdone several evolutions trying to get to the stage that Newsok.com is now. But it’s the personalization aspect – or the so-called Daily Me aspect – that is the focus here.
Trove and Livestand
The current March/April issue of the magazine, News & Tech, features an article headlined, “Personalization making 2011 resurgence.” The article, written by editor chuck Moozakis, notes that the concept seems to have finally gotten some traction.
Moozakis focuses on Trove, a news aggregation service that will let users build their own news site from more than 10,000 news sources, and Livestand, a tablet service that funnels content to consumers based on their interests.
Trove is the brainchild of The Washington Post, which launched it in March on the Web. Livestand comes from our friends at Yahoo.
An open letter from Post CEO Donald E. Graham on Facebook explains what Trove is all about:
Reflects User Choices
“Trove harnesses smart, flexible technology that learns from the choices you make. Some have called it ‘Pandora for news,’ and the serendipity in its suggestions, pulled from around 10,000 sources, makes Trove a powerful tool for information discovery.”
Essentially, Trove users are meant to have the ability to develop their own information channels. They can then utilize those channels to follow anything, anyone, or any place that interests them. Trove uses Facebook Connect to deliver a range of possible channels to users, based on their individual interests.
A “Social Experience”
Says Graham, “Trove is … a social experience; you can share your channels with your friends, engage with fellow site users using the conversation boards featured on every channel, and interact with Trove on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.”
And, since the world is moving to mobile devices, you can take Trove with you on your Android, iPhone, or BlackBerry. An iPad app is on the near horizon.
Trove and Livestand follow, by just a couple months, the launch of Ongo. This service is backed by a consortium including The Post, USA Today, and The New York Times. It is a paid service that lets subscribers select the content they want to read on their mobile devices or computer screens.
600 Daily Stories
The content comes from more than 600 top news stories daily from the above news organizations plus the Associated Press, Reuters, and Financial Times. It costs subscribers about $7 per month.
Almost two decades past the MIT Media Lab experiment in 1994, personalized news channels started making a comeback with MediaNews in 2008. This company sent up a trial balloon then in the form of an “individuated newspaper,” called I-News, which was tested in Los Angeles and Denver before being put back on the shelf.
Will the trend toward personalized publishing continue?
How can it not? We are all tailoring the Web to our individual, personal needs everyday. The direction such personalization will go, however, is open to question.
“It’s still a moving target,” says media analyst Peter Vandevanter. He sees personalized media following two different – but parallel – paths:
- Initiatives such as Trove that depend on keywords and algorithmic searching.
- So-called crowdsourcing services, of which Facebook is a prime example. Here, users read what their friends and trusted sources recommend.
Back to the Caves
I have always found it ironic that the Web is a culture of openness where anyone can find anything they want, yet so many of us only scratch the surface by going for narrow kinds of information that interest us personally.
What could be a tool for a gigantic common pool of information is, in a way, a trail that leads each of us back to our individual caves to read the paintings on the wall.
I taught at Northeastern University in Boston in the 1980s, sandwiched between two men who would become famous there. One was crime writer Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser and Jesse Stone detective novels, who served on the English faculty at Northeastern until 1979, three years before my arrival.
The second was Shawn Fanning who was fooling around in his dorm room while a student in 1999 and came up with a little music file-sharing system called Napster. That was 12 years after my departure.
I could be bitter about not finding the fame these two did, but I have a consolation: I don’t have to worry about how to spend all that money.
Brainstorming in Boston
My thought this week is about what Fanning created: that first popular file-sharing system. I also find it ironic that a few years later — just across the Charles River — Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg would create Facebook before he and the Crimson administration would part company somewhat abruptly. I’ll leave you to see the current film, “The Social Network,” to see how and why that parting occurred.
Fanning’s Napster was, of course, the online music peer-to-peer file sharing service that operated successfully for, albeit a short two years before the courts shut it down in July 2001, calling it copyright infringement on the music industry. Napster’s technology allowed users to share their MP3 files with other users, passing right by the long-established music and film distribution system. The band Metallica sued, then A&M Records sued, and the race was on to the courtroom.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Although the original Napster was closed down, Fanning’s creation pioneered the idea of decentralized peer-to-peer file distribution programs. And these have been much tougher to shut down or even control. Even the name Napster is still around, after the brand and logo were bought and the service turned into a pay music download service.
It is interesting to note the connection between music file-sharing and information file-sharing which, of course, is done all the time on the Web. A journalism professor at Ball State University, Brad King, wrote this month in MediaPost Magazines that the newspaper industry can learn a lot from the Napster story.
King writes that, after Napster was shut down, more than a dozen music-selling Web sites secured rights from the record companies and seemed poised to take us into a new digital entertainment era.
“But looks can be deceiving,” King writes. “With Napster no longer a threat, the labels scaled back their licensing initiatives and within a year most of those 12 sites weren’t around. Instead, the labels pushed forward with MusicNet and PressPlay, digital retail stores they wholly owned, creating a walled garden where consumers needed to subscribe to both … If someone wanted to purchase a song, that ran another $2.50 per track.”
King continues, “The move showed an incomprehsible misunderstanding about the reason for Napster’s success. Predictably, the two digital stores faded into obscurity while file-sharing networks continued tothrive. And herein lies the fundamental problem facing nearly all traditional media companies as they move into the digital age: identifying the problem customers have already solved.”
And the problem was …
According to King, the music industry was just flat wrong when they didn’t think people would be willing to pay to download songs. The problem was they just didn’t have an easy way to pay for them, let alone find the music in the first place.
“The Web showed them they could access information quickly, yet when they tried to find music online in 2001, it was nearly impossible, because the record labels steadfastly held music back. but the customers didn’t, ripping their CDs into digital files, which Napster made searchable.”
“The fact that Napster was free was incidental. The fact that Napster was easy, wasn’t.”
Under this thinking, the music industry went wrong when it tried to protect its franchise, by putting up walls between content and consumer, rather than adopting a customer-friendly solution. In the end, instead of protecting its business model with MusicNet and PressPlay, they damaged it severely.
So what can the news industry learn from this?
King asserts that the news industry confronts a similar scenario where file sharing has been replaced by user-created content on blogs and Twitter as well as social networks.
“The story of Napster … gives modern media executives an interesting roadmap for successfully building communities and tapping into the user-generated involvement that can open up new growth and revenue opportunities if they understand one simple idea: User-generated content isn’t the problem. It’s the solution ot the problem the traditional media didn’t know it had.”
Slashdot solves a problem
King cites Metafilter, Boing Boing, and Slashdot as successful examples of user-generated content information sites. And Shashdot has even taken a good stab at solving the credibility problem that many user-generated sites have. Shashdot is one of the key Web sites of choice for those interested in techno geek culture. Users post information from around the world, and that data is a mix of information from traditional sources, blogs, and personal experience. There, however, King notes Shashdot diverges from similar sites like Boing Boing.
“Once a user submits a story, the Shashdot crowd helps determine which ones are ‘greenlit’ … a story is pushed to the front page by voting the story up or down, by giving a particular story an up or down rating. That ranking helps the Shashdot section editors determine which stories are promoted to the main Slashdot pages. It’s a rather ingenious scheme … to create a trustworthiness scale … That scale is even more important considering the site has 5.5 million readers each moth, each of whom can submit stories.”
To make this site even more amazing is to note that, if Slashdot were a newspaper, it would rank as the second largest news organization online, according to to the Newspaper Association of America.
“Yet with millions of readers submitting content, Shashdot retains strong editorial oversight with the help of its ‘karma’ system,” King says.
The BSU professor concludes, “The traditional news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, are facing a similar decline (as the music industry). Like the music industry nearly a decade ago, executives have a choice. Do they follow the music industry, erecting walled gardens around their content, fighting consumers and forcing them to segment themselves? Or do they embrace what their readers, who are also their paying customers are doing?”
In our spotlight-crazy age, it’s hard to imagine an individual relatively unknown to that spotlight engaging an audience as much as a celebrity. But that’s what happened Friday night on the Indiana campus of Ball State University.
The relative unknown was Biz Stone, not exactly a household name but who nonetheless is co-founder and creative director of a Web 2.0 enterprise with a name you may have heard of: Twitter.
The celebrity was David Letterman.
An intimate chat
Ball State’s most famous alum and the boyish-looking Stone were on campus to have an intimate conversation (with some 3,500 students, faculty, and staff listening in) about the impact that the three-year-old Twitter and the rest of the social media are having on all of us. The event was part of the Late Night entertainer-funded program called the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series.
“We had a vision of a flock of birds grouped around a bird in flight,” Stone, 36, said of his start-up venture Twitter. If you’ve wondered why the Twitter logo is a bird, that’s the reason. It’s an image that mirrors the human essence of that interactive service.
Boredom pays off
“I was working on a different startup at Google,” Stone explained. “I was getting a little bored and we took two weeks off to work on something else.”
That was in 2006, and that something-else evolved into Twitter and grew out of Stone’s focus interest in combining texting into an interactive Web service. Stone, together with friends Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, worked on the prototype for nine months and realized they were having a lot of fun doing it, so they must be on the right track.
Today Twitter has some 160 million users around the world, and its owners turned down a purchase offer of $500 million for it last year. Stone himself was named one of Vanity Fair’s 10 most influential people and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential.
A site about nothing?
Not bad for the co-founder of a service that many discount as meaningless and who are confounded about its popularity. Even Stone acknowledges that.
“Twitter has been called the Seinfeld of the Internet,” Stone said, referring to the immensely popular TV series of the 90s with little plot structure but great characterizations. “It’s about nothing. Right on!”
About nothing? Really? If so, then how do you explain Stone’s assertion about how helpful it has been to people around the world?
Not about technology
“Twitter is not about a triumph of technology,” Stone said. “It’s a triumph of humanity.” He told Letterman, “In Silicon Valley there is this thinking that technology is a solution to all our problems. But it’s not. It really has to do with what people are going to do with technology.”
Stone added meat to that appetizer by noting that, “People have used Twitter in ways we never anticipated.” For example:
• In the earthquake that rocked Haiti, the only communication many people had with victims in that country, and vice versa, was through Twitter. It helped greatly in getting news in and out of the island nation about who was alive, who was missing, who was dead, and what was needed.
• People from around the world were tweeting messages like, “Keep hope alive,” to the victims in the devastated areas.
• The same has been true with the more recent flooding of Pakistan.
• Last fall, when the world was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans established a “Twitter Wall” where people from around the world could post tweets about other walls of oppression that still need to fall. Many Chinese were the first to post such Tweets, before the Chinese government blocked access by their people to that site.
• Some of the 2008 presidential debates incorporated real-time tweets from the public in a crawl along the bottom of the screen, showing what America was thinking about the give-and-take of the candidates.
When Twitter is used to aid disaster victims, it may be showing its most valuable feature, Stone believes.
“We get in touch with our empathy … and think of ourselves as global citizens who care about others,” he said.
Nevertheless, the amount of time people spend on Twitter on a day-to-day basis causes many critics to wonder if all the short blurbs about who is doing what when, is really necessary or just a waste of time.
In his on-stage conversation with Stone, Letterman admitted he does not tweet, nor is he sure he understands why he should.
“I would be tweeting but I feel I don’t have anything to say,” Letterman said. “Moreover, why should I care that Justin Bieber is at the 7-Eleven right now?”
Find your own interest
Stone replied that people don’t need to tweet to get value out of Twitter. He suggested using it to get the information that is relevant to you. If you’re interested in baseball or, more specifically, the Red Sox, dig out those tweets to see what people have to say about your team.
“Twitter is not a social network,” Stone said. “It’s an information network.”
Stone also surprised the audience by noting that 90 percent of all tweets are accessible by the public and that all tweets are archived by the Library of Congress. Other stats he revealed are that 78 percent of all Twitter usage is through Twitter.com, while the other 22 percent come through mobile phone usage. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why Twitter messages are kept to 140 characters, it is to keep it within the 160-character maximum length of cell phone text messages, allowing for the adding of a username.
Although Letterman couldn’t resist being Dave – he once noted he was wearing socks he had borrowed from the husband of BSU President Jo Ann Gora and took them off on-stage at the end of the program – he did turn serious in displaying his interest over Twitter.
Damage to language?
One of his more serious questions to Stone was asking whether such heavy usage of Twitter would affect people’s use of the English language and subtract for their ability to write well.
Stone responded, “When you’re given less to work with, you often have to be more creative.” He noted that Twitter forces users to come to the point and be concise in their writing. He also noted that many people provide links in their tweets to longer-form messages.
No boredom here
As interesting as the on-stage conversation was, however, it was just as fascinating to watch how the audience of young people responded. It is rare that a speaker event on campus doesn’t result in scattered groups of students talking among themselves and seeing several of them get bored and leave before the end.
But few did that on Friday night, and the silence during the program and standing ovation welcoming Stone and Letterman to the stage showed the degree of interest college students have in the social media phenomenon.
“The social media is the biggest change in society since the industrial revolution,” proclaims an eye-popping video posted recently on YouTube.
After reading the support for this claim, I am inclined to agree. And, like a lot of you, I’m wondering where these changes will lead us in the future.
We’re talking about media rituals here, or any lifestyle habit we succumb to that is created and/or influenced by the media.
Turn the radio on
For example, radio altered the lives of most Americans when it began offering nightly entertainment and news programming. Families who had previously spent the evenings talking or reading, came to spend them clustered around the big furniture cabinet spewing out the comedy of Fibber McGee and Molly or the daring adventures of The Shadow.
Television did the same thing, as did the Internet, and the social media of Facebook, twitter, flickr, YouTube, Myspace, et al, are doing the same thing now.
Marshalling a thought
The late media guru Marshall McLuhan would be telling us from the Other Side, “I told you so! The medium is the message!”
And that brings me back to this YouTube video produced by a futurist named Erik Qualman who has written a book called “Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business.” It’s found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8&feature=related
Qualman is a 38-year-old Michigan native who graduated in business from Michigan State University, where he played basketball, and then got an MBA from the University of Texas. He is now global vice president of Digital Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland, and is a professor of digital marketing for Hult International Business School.
As a columnist and blogger for Search Engine Watch and ClickZ Magazine, he spends a lot of time doing essentially what I do with this blog, only he gets paid more for it. Amazing what an MBA will do for you.
Fasten your seatbelt
Here are a few boldface observations Mr. Qualman makes about our world and the way social media are changing our lives. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve added a comment to each of his insights. If you’re not sitting down, perhaps now would be a good time to do so.
• Over 50 percent of the world’s population is under 30. For those of us toward the other end of the life cycle, this is depressing news enough.
• 96 percent of Millennials have joined a social network. And, BTW, a lot of their parents and grandparents have done the same thing.
• If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest. I’m still searching for a word to express my amazement at this. “Wow!” just doesn’t quite cut it.
• Facebook tops Google for weekly Web traffic in the U.S. This isn’t bad for a media site that had to have Leslie Stahl explain its basic workings to America just two years ago. It’s also not a bad startup venture for a guy named Mark Zuckerberg who is now all of 26.
• Social media have overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the Web. If this is true, then it shows that not all new media rituals are bad for us.
• 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met via the social media. Like several of Mr. Qualman’s observations, I don’t know how this one was established or what it’s based on. But I do know one thing: This is how I met my wife 10 years ago.
• Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users; TV 13 years. The Internet took only 4 years, and the iPod did it in 3. We are becoming fast learners, no?
• Facebook added more than 200 million users in less than a year. I wonder if Mr. Zuckerberg has bought him a real bed yet with all the money he’s raking in. Two years ago he told Leslie Stahl he has only a mattress on the floor.
• The U.S. Department of Education revealed in a 2009 study that online students outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction. OK, now this is a study I would really like to see for myself. I find it just a tad hard to believe, as well as being overgeneralized.
• 1 out of 6 higher education students are enrolled in online courses. This I do believe, and I teach some of them.
• The fastest growing segment of users on Facebook is females age 55 to 65. I learned long ago not to make pronouncements about the lifestyle habits – and motivations behind them — of women. This is pretty startling, though.
• Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears have more Facebook followers than the entire populations of Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, Ireland, Panama, and Norway. Well, these two celebrity icons are easier on the eye than parts of Belfast or the Gaza Strip.
• Generation Y and Z consider e-mail passe’. And this news comes at a time when my public library is just starting a new class for seniors on how to log on to your e-mail accounts.
• What happens in Vegas says on Facebook, twitter, flickr, and YouTube. Vegas aside, I think I wrote a couple posts a few months ago on what the social media are doing to our private lives.
• 100+ hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every 4.5 minutes. And the YouTube monitors take down an equal amount, some of which are movies I was hoping to see before they were deemed to have copyright problems.
• If you were paid $1 for every article posted on Wikipedia, you would earn $1,712.32 per hour. Interesting, but tell me again how the owners of Wiki are making any money at all?
• There are over 200 million blogs. Which, of course, is why no one is reading mine.
• 78 percent of consumers trust peer reviews of products and services; 14 percent trust advertisements. This is another way of saying we have all become advertising execs, without the pay or other perks of the Mad Men.
• Kindle eBooks outsold paper books last Christmas. Again, I would like to see the source of this assertion. Just too hard to believe.
• Successful companies in social media act more like Dale Carnegie and less like Mad Men: listening first, selling second. If so, this is a change that is long overdue.
And the final observation is one that any journalist or media executive should turn into a screensaver for his or her laptop. As for trying to divine what the implications are, good luck. It goes like this:
• We no longer search for the news. The news finds us. And we no longer search for products and services. They will find us. And they will find us on the social media.