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Why social networks are like early television

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Newton MinowThe new limiting factor is time, right?

Using a social network isn’t rewarding until we invest time in it. More time, more reward.

What if social networks were TV channels circa 1948? The appearance of ABC doesn’t make me enjoy CBS or NBC less. But broadcast TV is capital intensive, so all 3 channels made money by delivering identical goods to a mass audience. Homogeny: road map to a vast wasteland.

Online social networks are built on a different type of capital — the aggregated time investments of their users. Google+, Twitter and Facebook are all trying to maximize that investment by offering identical functions to a general audience. User time investment has replaced airwave frequencies as the source of scarcity. The effect is homogeny.

“More time, more reward,” the cardinal rule of these early social media giants, is a broadcast mentality, even though the delivery system is digital.

This new ABC looks fine to me. But the next social networks that really matter — the ones that disrupt CBS and NBC rather than competing with them — will be the ones that figure out how to offer different sorts of rewards while demanding less capital from users: TNT, AMC, ESPN.

People are looking for people

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

It’s an obvious rule of thumb: Journalists should be creating information that’s scarce. Some information is scarce because it just popped into existence.

That information is called news. It’s quite scarce and it’s very useful.

But news isn’t the only kind of scarce, useful information. Ever since the local wiki I manage started pulling in search traffic, I’ve noticed something pretty interesting: about 30 percent of our search traffic comes from people’s names.

We’re not talking about Britney Spears here. We’re talking about Patricia McCaig, a political aide to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and Ted Buehler, a bicycle safety activist. They aren’t boring; they’re just not at all famous. They’re the most interesting hand you shook at the church picnic. They’re people who make it happen (whatever it is) without talking to the press or keeping a website of their own.

They’re people people are looking for.

Check out this chart of the 110 most popular Google searches leading to in the last 60 days:

Thirty-seven of those, or 34 percent (marked in red), were searches for people’s names. (For visibility’s sake, the vertical axis is a log scale.) If you don’t count Portland Afoot’s #1 search phrase, which is just the name of the site, people’s names accounted for 30 percent of Google-driven visits, too.

It turns out that people are looking for people quite a lot.

And – especially on the local level, I suspect – people are scarce.

(Extremely clever photo by an unknown photographer.)

Talk is cheap, so be useful

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Second in a series.

Here’s one of four core principles for today’s media market: these days, talk is cheap.

It’s a simple idea. Take a lesson from Uncle Buffett and his acolytes at Morningstar: your castle is only as good as its moat. If others can easily invade your market, it’s a bad business.

Expressing an interesting opinion is relatively easy. It requires intelligence and skill, but not a lot of work or time. Yesterday, therefore, it was doled out as a reward to people who had already put in lots of work and time.

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The four kinds of non-catastrophic breaking news, and why social media aren’t changing them

Monday, July 27th, 2009

floodI’m a city boy. I love crowds. I believe in crowds.

But let’s get serious about the usefulness of crowdsourced hard-news reporting at the local level.

Every example of how Twitter, etc., is theoretically changing journalism seems to rely on extremely unusual tragedies, disasters or sensations.

I don’t know about your hometown paper, but in the one I work for, almost all of what you’d call “breaking news” (aside from the sports and arts coverage) falls into one of four areas:

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Two kinds of products that rely on people's flaws

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Here’s a distinction worth understanding:

a) Products that rely on the idea that people will simply be too dumb to figure out an alternative. These products rely only on informational barriers: once you know the better way to do things, it’s no trouble to do things the better way.

Like a car mechanic who preys on ignorance in order to sell more air filters, these products breed resentment.


b) Products that rely on the idea that people don’t have the time or effort to pursue an alternative. These products rely on procedural barriers: even if you spent the time to figure out an alternative, you’d need to alter your behavior to take advantage of it.

Like a car mechanic who pokes around in earnest for possible mechanical problems you haven’t yet noticed, these products breed loyalty.