“I blogged the news today, oh boy…”

In the week when eyewitness photos posted on social media helped to break the story of an Indonesian aeroplane that landed in the sea off Bali, we cannot ignore the potency of Netizen journalism  to create the news (even if we have concerns about accuracy and quality). And in the same week when “The Voice” returns to our TV screens for a 3-month season, we cannot ignore the potency of audience voting via SMS and social media to create new pop stars (even if we have concerns about accuracy and quality….).

As The Beatles might have sung, “I blogged the news today, oh boy…”

News and music are now confirmed as the key social network content for attracting audiences, if recent market activity is any indication of where the competition for eyeballs and eardrums is being played out.

  • Google’s decision to close down its popular Reader service simply drove customers into the arms of the competition. Unless Google rethinks the service closure, or has another product in development for Google+, Readers will be switching to alternative solutions. The community backlash has been significant, which suggests the audience for news aggregation is large, passionate and willing to be loyal to services that meet their needs. (For reviews on a range of Reader substitutes, see the links below.)*
  • Just a few days ago, LinkedIn announced it has acquired Pulse, a news-aggregation app, as part of a strategy to enhance its news content and build on LinkedIn Today’s curated news feed. Pulse is promoting itself heavily as a Reader replacement, so I am curious as to when LinkedIn settled the purchase price for Pulse – was it before or after Google’s March 13 announcement about the closure of Reader?
  • At the same time, Twitter has followed up its recent announcement to introduce better contextualization for trending news stories with the curious (but not surprising) decision to acquire We Are Hunted, a service that helps users discover new music, based on internet-sourced analysis of what other people are listening to. Expect to see millions of Justin Bieber fans tweeting his #music as a way to influence what Twitter pushes to its audience… and then wait for the feedback
  • Meanwhile, the other Justin has been working on the relaunch of Myspace as a “free” streaming music library (because no-one actually buys this stuff anymore, do they….?) Based on personal attempts to explore the new Myspace and upload my own music to this platform, it would be fair to say this relaunch is an “extended beta” version
  • Oh, and in case you missed the story, Yahoo! bought Summly, another news aggregation app, developed by someone younger than Justin Bieber…

* Here is a non-exhaustive and random selection of blogs offering reviews of Reader substitutes:

Life Hacker: Five Best Google Reader Alternatives

Extreme Tech: Google Reader Replacements

Edudemic: Google Reader Alternatives

Digital Trends: Best Google Reader Alternatives

CNET TV: Alternatives to Google Reader


“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen…”

I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.

Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?

It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.

In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.

But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.

Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.

Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.

Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.

But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.

Social Networks – All the News You Can Eat

The New York Times‘ motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was modified to “All the News That’s Fit to Click” when the newspaper went on-line. But based on the heated competition for on-line readership, as we move from dedicated news platforms to internet  megastores, and as news content pricing and business models are savaged by social media, the rallying cry is more like “All the News You Can Eat”.

It’s clear that social network sites are stepping up their efforts to attract more readers for on-line news content, if recent events are anything to go by:

1. Google rethinks its strategy for the Reader application, which will no doubt resurface in a new form within Google+.

2. Facebook announces changes to its news feed as it aims to create a highly personalized newspaper experience.

3. Twitter plans to introduce better contextual analysis around trending stories.

4. Yahoo! makes a splash with its purchase of Summly – a news aggregation app which has now been shut down prior to integration within the Yahoo! platform.

5. Even LinkedIn has been getting in on the act with its LinkedIn Today content aggregation tool.

Defining what constitutes news is no longer determined by the traditional business models for print and broadcast media. “Old-school” factual reporting (the “who, what, where, when and how”) combined with informed opinion and analysis (the “why”) is now something of a dying format. In its voracious appetite for content, social media is willing to slap the label “news” on anything that moves. So, one person’s news is another person’s gossip, trivia, PR, party political spin, advertorial or propaganda. All very post-modern and structuralist – the news is whatever you make it.

In response, established newspaper media are building pay walls around their on-line product, to offset the decline in print sales and classified advertising, even though most social media sites are offering “news” for free. This point is significant, because not only does this make it harder for newspapers to charge for content, the proliferation of free metro newspapers in many cities means that paying for a newspaper is something of an anathema to most people. Why on earth would they pay for on-line news content?

While it is understandable that newspapers want to charge for their content, they would be seriously misguided if they continue to see the content alone as the product. Of course, a reliable news service is expensive to produce, but the cost to the consumer should also be about quality, access and convenience. What we are paying for is the newspaper’s role as author, editor, curator, archivist, publisher, aggregator and distributor. In some cases, newspapers are recognized as a document of record – but we are probably some way off granting social media sites the same status.

What are the likely outcomes from this competition for news readership?

Initially, the traditional news media will continue to suffer declining print circulation, and will be challenged to make pay walls work. Stronger news brands with even deeper pockets will probably survive, but  they will need to think about upgrading their content syndication business models to remain relevant within an on-line and social media environment. There will be more apps and tools for personalized news aggregation, but only if these platforms can access or license enough content to be viable, and only if they can monetize the offering to be financially sustainable.

The great irony is that few of us want to rely on a single news source, but we want the convenience of getting all our news in one place.

My guess is that the we’ll see social media sites emerge as “news supermarkets”. They will source content from various suppliers, with whom they will engage in trading terms akin to practices commonly seen in the grocery industry: charging for shelf space and product placement, seeking bulk discounts, and adopting strict supply chain agreements. There will even be “own brand” and “house brand” content, plus a range of specialist and localized products to cater for individual tastes.

Alternatively, “news department stores” might emerge, hosted by a few of the major news brands, where they provide a marketplace for third-party content they have carefully selected and curated, along with a core range of content produced by their talented pool of in-house writers and journalists. Or, like IKEA and some up-scale department stores, the products will be store-branded, but designed by and commissioned from their business partners.

In both cases, these news department stores and news supermarkets could be the anchor tenants in large online news malls, where specialist and independent content providers (including bloggers) can set up shop to attract passing readers.

On a final note, the recent media legislation in the United Kingdom, and the attempted media reforms in Australia, have renewed debate around news regulation: who is to be regulated, what is to be regulated (especially on-line), and by whom will they be regulated? While much of this debate is concerned with news media standards and supervision, as well as issues of ownership and control, there is also a need to consider the impact that internet technology and on-line business models are having on the development, dissemination and consumption of news.

Why we need a “Steam Internet”

1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal(Photo by Jef Poskanzer - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)

1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal
(Photo by Jef Poskanzer – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)

The Internet is passing through a period of consolidation, as befits an industry that has reached maturity:

1. A small number of mega-players dominate the market: Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, PayPal, YouTube and Wikipedia.

2. Product lines are being rationalized, as companies trim their offerings to focus on core business – the latest victim being Google’s Reader tool for RSS feeds.

3. The distinctions between hardware, software, content and apps are blurred because of overlapping services, increased inter-connectivity via mobile platforms, and cloud-based solutions.

4. The business model for Internet access and Web usage is primarily based on data consumption and/or underwritten by 3rd party advertising. Social Media and search services are often not counted as part of the usage, thus confusing our understanding of what content actually costs.

5. Since our concept of what constitutes “news” is rapidly being redefined by Social Media, and readers increasingly rely on Social Media channels to access news, it is harder for content providers to charge a premium for value-added  information services such as quality journalism and objective news reporting.

I would argue that to rediscover a key purpose of the Net (as a means to send/receive meaningful news and information), we need to reflect on how radio broadcasting repositioned itself when television came along – hence “Steam Internet”.

“Steam Radio” was a term used in 1950’s Britain to differentiate sound broadcasting (radio) from audio-visual broadcasts (television). Although somewhat self-deprecating (suggesting something slow, and obsolete – echoing the demise of steam railways following the introduction of electric and diesel locomotives), it actually helped to embed specific values and purpose around the role of radio as a simple but effective medium to inform, educate and entertain, despite its apparent limitations.

My interest in radio means that I continue to use it as a primary source of daily news and current affairs, and as a convenient means to access international content. The discipline of radio means that content is generally well structured, the format’s limitations emphasise quality over quantity, and when done well there is both an immediacy and an intimate atmosphere that can really only be achieved by the audio format.

Far from becoming an obsolete medium in the Internet age, the growth of digital stations (as well as Internet radio and mobile-streaming) means that radio is undergoing a renaissance as it increasingly provides very specific choices in content, and offers ease of access without a lot of the “noise” of many news and information websites, with their pop-up ads, unstable video and data-hungry graphics.

Over the past decade, the major growth in Internet traffic in general, and World-wide Web usage in particular, has been driven by Social Media. However, neither the Net nor the Web was originally designed to be a mass-media platform, but the success of a highly interactive, deeply personalized and far-reaching network threatens the viability of the Internet as a means to effective communication.

As Web content and functionality has become more complex, so it actually becomes harder and more frustrating to find exactly what we want, because:

  • search and retrieval is advertising-driven and based on popularity, frequency and connectivity (rather than on context, relevance and quality);
  • content searches reduce everything to a common level of “hits” and “results”; and
  • there is little or no hierarchy as to how information and search results are structured (maybe we need a Dewey Decimal system for organising Web content?). This is one reason why Twitter is enhancing its search function by using human intervention (i.e., contextual interpretation) to make more sense of trending news themes.

I’d like to offer a short historical perspective to provide further context for the need for “Steam Internet” services:

Along with bankers and brokers, lawyers were among the first to recognize the importance of dedicated Internet services for transacting data and information. The first on-line information service I ever used was Lexis-Nexis (a research tool for lawyers) when I was a paralegal in the 1980’s. Lexis-Nexis is a database that enables users to search summaries, transcripts and reports of relevant court decisions regarding specific points of law. It is a very structured and hierarchical content source. Back then, it was a dial-up service, requiring the user to place the handset of a fixed-line telephone into an external modem that was connected to the computer terminal from which the search was conducted. The reason I can remember it so vividly is because the first time I used it, I forgot to specify sufficiently narrow search terms, which meant pages and pages of text being churned out – and probably a bill of over $200, as the service was charged according to the number of results returned and pages printed.

In the mid-1990’s, when I was setting up my Internet access, the ISP was owned and run by a university, which made sense when we think that the Net grew out of the academic world. But even though I had an ISP account, I still had to download, install and configure a graphical browser (Mosaic) to access the Web – or alternatively, I could subscribe to a dedicated dial-up service such as AOL, that offered a limited number of dedicated information services. Otherwise, my Internet access really only supported e-mail via DOS-based applications, and the exchange of files. (This was pre-Explorer and pre-Netscape, and the browser wars of the 1990’s and early-2000’s – which continue to this day with Microsoft copping another EU fine just this month.)

As the Web became more interactive, but also more dependant on “push”-content driven by advertising-based search, user experience was enhanced by RSS readers – to get to the information we really needed, and to personalize what content would be pushed to our desktops. When I was demonstrating financial market information services to new clients the built-in RSS reader was a useful talking-point, because I had configured it to display scores from the English Premier League as well as general news and industry headlines. (There is an urban myth that some of the most popular news screens on Bloomberg are the sports results…)

Just a few years ago, pre-Social Media, there were discussions about building a dedicated, faster, more robust and more secure business-oriented Internet platform, because the popular and public demands placed on the Web were putting an inordinate strain on the whole system. Businesses felt the need to create a separate platform – not just VPN’s, but a new “Internet 2” for government, universities and businesses to communicate and interact.  In the end, all that has happened is an expansion of the Top-Level Domains (.biz, .mobi), with a continued programme of generic TLD’s in the works, but this is simply creating more real-estate on the Web, not building a dedicated data and information-led Internet for business.

At this point, it’s worth reflecting that only last year, France’s Minitel videotex service and the UK’s Ceefax teletext service were both finally decommissioned, each having been in operation for over 30 years. In their prime, these were innovative precursors to the Web, even though neither of them was considered to be part of the Internet. Their relevance as dedicated information services should not be overlooked just because technology has overtaken them; that’s like saying the news media are redundant because their print circulation is in decline.

In conclusion, I’m therefore very attracted to the idea of a Steam Internet which mainly carries news and information services as a way to bring focus and structure to this content.    


Declaration of interest: from time-to-time the author is a presenter on Community Radio, but does not currently derive an income from this activity, so no commercial or financial bias should be implied by his personal enthusiasm for this broadcast medium.