February 2014

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We decided this year to zero-base all our subscriptions to print publications. The reasoning: since most pubs give the best deals to new or slow-to-return readers, wait to see how far down they push the price, and in the meantime see if we actually miss them. So far we’ve re-subscribed to Consumer Reports. That’s it.  We’ll see how the rest go.

Meanwhile, the subject of newspaper business models has come up in a lot of conversations lately. (Hat tips in particular go to Dave WinerJeff JarvisMarc Andreessen, Jim Griffin, Dan GillmorJay Rosen and Clay Shirky.) Since most of the ideas being batted around don’t address the complicated pricing schemes the papers have today, I thought now might be a good time to re-suggest what I’ve recommended for many years: make online pricing the same kind as the print one. In other words, charge for the news and give away the olds.

Most papers already have paywalls, and most of those are annoying, confusing or worse. Just move them around so they align with the well-understood print world.

For example, I’d have the NYTimes pitch it like this:

We now charge for the same way for our digital and print editions. You can pay for today’s digital edition like you would at a newsstand, or you can subscribe. Everything older than a day is free. That includes unlimited access to all our archives. And, because it’s cheaper for us to produce our digital edition, it’s cheaper for you too: Our cover price for today’s paper is $1.50. Our subscription price is $4 per week for delivery to your phone, tablet or computer.

On phones and tablets, the paper’s app would require a one-time easy-pay setup enabling both á la carte and subscription purchases. For those who choose not to subscribe, the welcome page would have just two buttons: Buy today’s paper, and Subscribe. That’s it. If they subscribe, no welcome page. Once on the app (or on the paper’s page in a browser), non-subscribers will see a headline and maybe a little more. That’s it. But spare people the complicated pop-overs with the wordy pitches (like the Boston Globe‘s here — that “99¢  for four weeks” line demands a “wtf is the real price after that?” response from intelligent readers).

Of course, the circulation people at the paper will hate it, since they’ve been making subscribing complicated for the duration, and they love to rationalize gaming customers. (Same goes for all papers, by the way.) But it’s a matter of time before the rest of the world gets to the place where my wife and I are today: being much more selective about which pub’s confusing subscription games we’re willing to play, and saying no to the rest of the mess in the meantime.

A word to papers about the archives: they are fish-wrap with huge positive externalities, including accessibility to search engines and visiting scholars doing research. Quit charging for access to them. You’re making peanuts on them anyway.

A hat tip here also goes to Matter, a new startup accelerator in San Francisco. I went to a presentation of work by Matter-based media startups in New York a couple days ago and got excited about their approach, which is exactly in line with what I’m suggesting with this post: fail forward.

Over on the ProjectVRM blog I make a long-form case for why Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion dollars in cash and stock is a Good Thing for VRM. Here I’ll make the case for why it should uncork a fresh wave of investment in start-ups and innovation at already-ups.

  1. Payments are headed to mobile, for real. WhatsApp has already expanded from text to photography, video and more. Payments are a tall order, but they’re on the table in a much bigger way now, and not just for WhatsFace.
  2. Meet space and meat space are now one. This should be good for all the brick-and-mortar businesses in the world. But they’ll need to be ready to work with the new systems coming to market, and not just lamenting scan & scram. And, speaking of new systems…
  3. Intentcasting will become the norm. Right now we live, at least online, in an attention economy, where surfing on the Web requires swimming upstream against a torrent of unwanted messages, nearly all of which are annoying, useless, ill-mannered or all three. Replacing it will be an intention economy in which we do the advertising, and not just the sellers of the world.
  4. Free customers will prove they are more valuable than captive ones. Because they can. They will operate more and more outside the feudal empires companies have been operating throughout the history of mass marketing. And, because of this…
  5. Economic signaling will become much more loud and clear. Both ways. Demand will have many more, and better, ways of informing Supply. And vice versa. For example…
  6. Everything we buy and own can have a cloud of its own. And that cloud can be the platform for relationship between customer and company. VRM and CRM can finally connect and constantly improve what customers and companies do for each other. And we’ll get along better because relationships will be based on truly agreeable terms.
  7. Every one of us will have our own clouds too. These will be our own secure personal spaces in the connected world. Each will have its own open source operating systems (e.g. CloudOS), programming languages (e.g. KRL), privacy canon (e.g. the Respect Trust Framework) and protocols (e.g. XDI).
  8. Market based marketing. Once free customers prove more valuable than captive ones, marketers will find that actually talking to people will have a lot more leverage than trying to herd them like cattle.
  9. Mobile advertising is proving to have some negative value. Stop right now and read Four Numbers That Explain Why Facebook Acquired WhatsApp, a post by Sequoia Capital, WhatsApp’s main VC. In it they show a note on WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum’s desk, from his partner and co-founder, Brian Acton. Explains Sequoia, “Jan and Brian ignored conventional wisdom. Rather than target users with ads — an approach they had grown to dislike during their time at Yahoo — they chose the opposite tack and charged a dollar for a product that is based on knowing as little about you as possible. WhatsApp does not collect personal information like your name, gender, address, or age. Registration is authenticated using a phone number, a significant innovation that eliminates the frustration of remembering a username and password. Once delivered, messages are deleted from WhatsApp’s servers.” Then look at what Fred Wilson says about online advertising as a source of pollution. (He starts 23 minutes in. More here.)
  10. The pendulum is swinging away from centralization. The Net’s founding protocols described and supported a fully distributed architecture, in which every node on the network is a functional distance of zero from every other node. This is what made each of us far more powerful on the Net than we ever were in the world of mainframes, or in the worlds of private networks controlled by companies or governments. There are still plenty of centralities working on the open Net, but they also have vulnerabilities, as we’re finding in post-Snowden time. It’s also significant that Whatsapp uses a customized version of XMPP (originally called Jabber), the open protocol created by Jeremie Miller and the team now working on Telehash, described as “a secure wire protocol powering a decentralized overlay network for apps and devices.”

I’m sure there are plenty more, but that should provide enough for investors to chew on. Start-ups too. A lot of doors opened up yesterday. I didn’t hear any close.

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

Photography

Humans vs. Nature

Tech

The Regulatorium

Politics

Surveillance vs. Privacy

I grew up on Woodland Avenue in Maywood, New Jersey, a few miles west of where I am now in New York City. Flexible flyerThe street was unremarkable, except when it snowed. Then the town would often block it off, so kids could sled on it. It wasn’t a big hill — just an ideal one for sledding: steep at the top, with a long glide path. With a good start you could ride your Flexible Flyer down past Garden, Cole and Elm Streets, all the way to Cole’s Brook. On the other side of that was Borg’s Woods, which was then owned by the Borg Family. They had a steep back yard behind their house on Summit Avenue in Hackensack, and kindly encouraged neighborhood kids to sled there.

So snow was a big deal for us, and still is for me. I love it. Alas, too often Winter forecasts in New York went like this: “Snow, changing to rain.”

Well, that’s what happened today in New York. We had a beautiful snowy day before it turned into rain and worse. For the last hour or so we’ve also had lightning, thunder and hail. The result is thick white slop, atop the frozen and half-thawed mess left over from the last storm. Here is how it looks right now at Weather.com:

I am sure there are kids in Maywood (and all over the East Coast) who wish the snow didn’t turn to slush today. My inner kid knows how they feel. (I’m also hoping my grandkids in Baltimore fared better. They got a bunch of snow today too — I think with less rain.

(By the way, our original Flexible Flyer looked just like the one above, only a bit longer. It could seat three or four kids. And nobody ever wore helmets.)

— is happening this weekend in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Read all about it here, here and here.

I’ll be there to help start things off, at 10am tomorrow. (Registration starts at 9am.) My job on the opening panel is to make a 2-3 minute statement of what I’d like to see in the form of legal hackery. Here goes:

  1. Restore freedom of contract and obsolete contracts of adhesion by creating standardized terms individuals can assert. I have two chapters in The Intention Economy devoted to this. (The Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center is also working on these — and corresponding terms on the business side — for Customer Commons. What gets hacked this weekend can feed into that work.)
  2. Create better means for expressing personal policies and preferences (such as Do Not Track) than are currently available — and putting these in the individual’s own tool box, rather than appearing only as choices presented by others, such as browser makers.
  3. Create graphical elements (e.g. the r-button) for both the above.

On the panel I will advocate for individuals as independent entities with full agency, rather than merely “users” of others’ systems, or victims of privacy abuse awaiting policy relief. This means I will argue for thinking and hacking toward building and filing the individual’s own tool box, rather than just tweaking the broken technical and legal systems we already have. (Though doing that is good too. Others will be there to advocate and hack on that.)

It is essential that we think outside the browser for this. While the browser began as something like your car on the information superhighway, it has since become a shopping cart that gets re-skinned with every commercial site you visit, and infested at each with tracking beacons so you can be a subject of constant surveillance. This is even true of Firefox, which I love (and within which I am writing this), and which (through Mozilla) is providing space for the San Francisco hackathon.

Let me go a little deeper on this. An example of what’s right and wrong in the browser space right now can be found Christian Heilmann‘s post, Why “Just Use Adblock” Should Never Be a Professional Answer. In it he says many good things that I agree with, enthusiastically. But he also gets one big thing wrong:

Whether we like it or not, ads are what makes the current internet work. They are what ensures the “free” we crave and benefit from, and if you dig deep enough you will find that nobody working in web development or design is not in one way or another paid by income stemming from ad sales on the web.

Saying ads are what make the Internet work is like like saying cities are what make geology work. Yes, the Internet supports commercial activity, but it is not reducible to it. For each of us to enjoy full agency on the Web, this distinction needs to be clear from the start.

Browser makers are stuck right now between many rocks (their users) and a hard place (advertising-supported websites). On the one hand they want to do right for users, and on the other they want to do right for what the ad industry now calls “publishers”. Since surveillance-fed “personalization” is big with those publishers, and lots of users don’t like it (AdBlock Plus is the top browser extention, by far), the browser makers are caught in the middle. You can see the trouble they have with this conflict in A User Personalization Proposal for Firefox, which was floated by Justin Fox of Mozilla last July. In it he writes,

We want to see even more personalization across the Web from large and small sites, but in a transparent way that retains user control. The team at Mozilla Labs is focused on exploring ways to move the Web forward, and has thought a lot about how the browser could play a role in making useful content personalization a reality.

The blowback in the comments was harsh and huge. One sample:

The last thing the internet needs is more “personalization” (read: “invasion of my privacy”). All your marketing jargon does nothing to hide the fact that this is just another tool to allow advertisers, website owners, the NSA, and others to track users online habits and, despite any good intentions you might have, it’s rife with the potential for abuse.

I’m not bringing this up to give Mozilla or the other browser makers a hard time, but to suggest that the solutions we need start outside the browser. (And seeing them that way may also be good for the browser folks.)

Simply put, what we need most are tools for ourselves, that help in our dealings with all other parties. Not just protections from bad actors, or ways to make bad practices less bad.

See ya there.

Linkies

Funny:

Audio +/vs. Video

Privacy vs. Surveillance

The Internet

Business