Tony Ageh on the Digital Public Space

If you read one thing this week, read Tony Ageh’s superlative take on the Digital Public Space (his coinage) and what it means for the BBC. This paragraph leapt out at me:

We need to take a stand. A substantial change in thinking and policy is required if we are to prevent a collapse in the social capital brought about by the hard-won guarantee that every citizen has the right to know about and contribute to democratic debate and to the political sphere. Some form of guarantee of access is also crucial ? absolutely crucial ? for the development of education, culture and enterprise in this digital era.

Yes! Indeed yes!

Infinite supply, finite demand

Michael Wolff has posted something fairly apocalyptic on Facebook and its absence of a hard-nosed business model. Facebook, he points out, is just another advertising platform. And we’ve already got way too many of those:

In its Herculean efforts to maintain its overall growth, Facebook will continue to lower its per-user revenues, which, given its vast inventory, will force the rest of the ad-driven Web to lower its costs. The low-level panic the owners of every mass-traffic website feel about the ever-downward movement of the cost of a thousand ad impressions (or CPM) is turning to dread, as some big sites observed as much as a 25 percent decrease in the last quarter, following Facebook’s own attempt to book more revenue.

It’s a problem every media owner on the Web recognises. When advertising inventory was scarce and easily gradable – when a slot on ITV was worth more than a colour page in Esquire was worth more than a classified in the paper – it was possible to maintain some kind of control over your ratecard. The cost and difficulty in creating new content, and new content platforms, mapped fairly well onto the demand for new content (and thus advertising inventory) among the public.

Digital technology changed all that. Content is now instantly and infinitely replicable. New content is cheap to produce and in some cases effectively free. In fact, even by existing?on the Web we create more content through Facebook likes, retweets, searches, emails. It’s like we breathe in oxygen and breathe out ad inventory. No wonder that inventory goes down and down and down in value.

Thing is, that doesn’t just apply to ad inventory. It’s beginning to apply to culture. We talk a lot about piracy and DRM when it comes to digitally distributed culture. We don’t talk enough about plenitude. There is more music being produced now than ever before in history. There are more books being published than ever before. There is more and more video being created.

Take YouTube as an example. 60 hours of video is being uploaded every minute. That’s over three million?hours of video every year. I’ve seen no figures for the amount of new music being added to Spotify or iTunes every year, but I bet it’s huge. And, with the growth in self-publishing, more and more books are being published all the time.

It’s not paywalls and DRM that are the issues; it’s the complete imbalance between supply and demand. Just like advertisers only need a certain number of slots, humans only need a certain amount of stimulation. We only have a certain number of hours in our day, and a certain number of years in our lives. Are we at the point where every single new song, book or movie lowers the potential demand for every other song, book or movie? What does that mean for our cultural economy?

A second post about the old days when everything was great

I posted yesterday, in a trademark rambling fashion, on how digital networks are changing the way we consume culture, and how I felt this to be an occasionally bad thing. Or at least, how I felt we were losing something in the process. There were some responses to that, and I read some other things too, so I thought I’d do another post, but this time it’s more linky.

First of all, Pete Townshend. I hadn’t actually read his John Peel lecture, but he said quite a lot of things which, on the face of it, were pretty similar to what I’d been saying. He certainly seems to say that the cataclysm which has ripped through the recorded music industry – or, more specifically, the record companies – has weakened the industry’s ability to launch new acts. He suggests that networked services, including iTunes, can perform the old record company functions, but I’m really not sure. Neither, it’s worth saying, is David Hepworth, who thinks long and intelligently about these things:

When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn’t gone in there to get.

All that’s gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can’t afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.

Another long post I read this morning, which linked to mine but was in no way inspired by it (I’m not that?cocky) was by Matt Locke, a former colleague from Channel 4 who is far, far smarter than me when it comes to media theory. Matt was actually responding to Townshend, and says his nostalgia for the past (which I’m not really sure is fair to Townshend – he seems quite positive about the future) is based on a misplaced view of how culture is consumed now:

The ways in which audiences attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we?re starting to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.

Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences? attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.

Matt calls this kind of consumption Spiky. He says something like punk – a sudden breakthrough of a new cultural experience into the mainstream – will never happen again, but instead “there are a hundred punk moments happening every day.”

The thing is, I think that’s basically what I was saying. Matt doesn’t place a value judgement on that, but I suspect that, knowing him as I do, he is incredibly excited about a world where “a hundred punk moments happen every day.” But my point yesterday was that, indeed, this is happening; but it is, by definition, a more fractured experience. A hundred punk moments may only each be a hundredth as exciting as the One Big Punk Moment which happened in the 1970s.

And yet, and yet: a former colleague said this on Twitter:

Which I really love a great deal. There are more loci of intensity. The great, probably unanswerable, question is whether the intensity is of the same nature as it used to be. Phil (who tweeted that) also pointed out, jokingly, that I am a good deal older than him. I pointed out, joking but with an edge creeping into my voice, that a great many people are older than him.

Finally, my friend Tim Wright asked me if I’d read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I hadn’t, and he pointed me to the YouTube versions of his famous 1970s television version of that book. In it, Berger essentially says the great cultural artefacts of the past have been fundamentally altered by the development of first photography and then film; that we see them differently now, because our viewing of them is so often mediated by lenses and technology. In other words, technology changes culture. Here’s a clip:

Any more thoughts? Jump in the comments below.



A post about the old days when everything was great

We shall not see his like again

It’s a generational fact that all my most important cultural experiences were, in one way or another, non-digital. I saw my favourite film (Alien) in a cinema. I read my favourite book (Portrait of a Lady) as a, er, book. My first favourite album, Out Of The Blue by E.L.O, and my second favourite, Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M (what’s with the acronymal band names, Lloyd? No idea, sorry) were both bought and consumed, richly, on vinyl. And concerts – either Iron Maiden at the Hammersmith Odeon or Blur at the Brixton Academy, since you’re asking – were the most analogue, unrepeatable experiences of them all.

As I get older and those days recede and incipient nostalgia overwhelms I’m increasingly convinced that the very analogue unrepeatability?of those experiences is what made them so profound, and is what served to hardwire them into my brain. And I wonder if the singularity of those experiences is itself unrepeatable. Is it even possible to have unrepeatable experiences anymore? In a world of infinite choice, massive accessibility and ubiquitous playout devices, is every cultural experience doomed to be less meaningul, more ephemeral – thinner?

I’m a bit haunted by this question, I must admit. I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half working in digital media, and I’ve been a crashingly dull and and consistent advocate for the enormous human benefits which come cross-border networks and digitised content have wrought. Wikipedia, email, Twitter, real-time news, YouTube, distance learning, online banking and shopping – the list of things which I believe have made the world smaller and more interconnected and more free?is extraordinary.

And yes, iTunes is wonderful, as is the Kindle, as is the iPod/iPhone. They bring massive convenience to the purchasing and consumption of culture. Being able to download War and Peace instantly to a device the size of a DVD packet is a miracle, and it is, I strongly believe, a good thing for book publishing as an industry.

And yet, and yet….

Read this, by Anthony Lane, on the growth of video-on-demand:

There?s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn?t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice?preferably an exhaustive menu of it?pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.

I think his point about compulsion is interesting, but not quite right. I think it’s more to do with the amount of effort we make to do something, the amount of attention we invest in it and, crucially, the unrepeatability of the experience which gives culture its resonance. Being part of a crowd makes an experience unrepeatable. Being given a piece of culture as a gift does likewise; we have really lost the art of giving music to each other in the shift to digital – unwrapping an album-shaped gift used to be one of the most unspeakably exciting things in the world. Getting an iTunes code to be redeemed by a piece of software is by no means comparable. And don’t get me started on the lost romance of mixtapes…

When culture is instantly accessible and available, it loses lustre as it gains democracy. Part of this is due to a degradation in its quality; we trade high-and-low-end frequencies for the convenience of MP3. But I think this is a red herring. I don’t believe men of my age (and it is almost always men) are increasingly obsessing about vinyl and lossless encoding because of sound quality. I believe they’re hunting for an unrepeatable experience. I think they want culture to be more difficult, more inconvenient, because that way its consumption becomes more of an event. It seems to mean more.

I was already thinking about such matters when I read this, earlier today. It’s from Michael Pollan’s incomparable book?The Botany of Desire. He’s talking about cannabis and what it does to music:

All those who write about cannabis’s effect on consciousness speak of the changes in perception they experience, and specifically of an intensification of all the senses. Common foods taste better, familiar music is suddenly sublime, sexual touch revelatory. Scientists who’ve studied the phenomenon can find no quantifiable change in the visual, auditory, or tactile acuity of subjects high on marijuana, yet these people invariably report seeing, and hearing, and tasting things with a new keenness, as if with fresh eyes and ears and taste buds.

You know how it goes, this italicization of experience, this seemingly virginal noticing?of the sensate world. You’ve heard that song a thousand times before, but now you suddenly hear?it in all its soul-piercing beauty, the sweet bottomless poignancy of the guitar line like a revelation, and for the first time you can understand, really?understand, just what Jerry Garcia meant by every note, his unhurried cheerful-baleful improvisation piping something very near the meaning of life directly into your?mind.

I love that phrase the italicization of experience, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about here. Digital culture has, I’d contend, removed a lot of the italicization (though not, it would appear, from this post). Experiences have become ubiquitous but endlessly repeatable, just like a sound file has become endlessly repeatable. Spotify makes a world of music available to you, at the cost of sound quality (of course) but also at the cost of memorable discovery and deep, memorable noticing. I’ve tried listening to an album on Spotify. I just haven’t been able to. Whenever I use Spotify, I feel the sort of strung-out dissatisfaction I feel after a microwaved ready meal.

It happens at an industrial level, too. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone recently wrote that there will never be another Bruce Springsteen, not because his talent will never be replicated, but because Bruce is as much our shared experience of Bruce as he is an individual artist. The flipside of the cliff-like barriers to entry of the pre-digital music industry was that those who broke through to an audience by necessity became massive, because our appetite for music was enormous while the supply was deliberately constrained. Bruce was heroin and diamonds, precious and rare and addictive, but the intensity of that experience is gone forever. We traded it for something else.

(This isn’t to say there wasn’t something a bit disgusting about the majestic hugeness?of those pre-digital bands. They became rich after all by indulging their hobby. But there was?something majestic in being part of a community which worshipped them. There just was.?And it didn’t matter how big that community was, either. There’s no-one more dedicated than a fan of The Fall).

So, what did we trade all this stuff for, and was it worth it? We got convenience. We got choice. We got it for less (but are we spending less on entertainment and culture? I’d argue almost certainly not. More, if anything). In some cases and for some people, we gained the ability to adapt and remix the culture to create something new. For people who are creating culture, the tools of creation became ubiquitous, and those cliff-like barriers to entry tumbled into the sea.

All of those things are worth something. What they are worth to you will be different to what they are worth to me. Some people believe (with almost religious fervour) that the ability of more people to create content and to remix other people’s content is actually the dawn of a new era of human culture, an era in which we all become creators and through our combined efforts generate something sublime.

Perhaps that is true – although it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a beautiful vision but also, as of now, one which requires a great leap of faith – particularly for those of the pre-digital generation who made a career out of creating at a time when demand exceeded supply. But I also think we should pay some attention to how we might secure at least part of what made the pre-digital culture so exciting.

You can start to see people doing this. It’s my impression (though I have no data for it) that book groups are more popular than ever, as people seek to replicate a more communal sense of reading just as more and more titles are becoming available – reintroducing scarcity, as it were. A friend of mine organises a monthly record group, in which each attendee chooses a selection of tracks and plays them to the others, and they drink wine and discuss the music and generally have a rare old time. People go to literary festivals, pay huge amounts for concert tickets, and watch more and more culture and review shows.

Also, I think it’s interesting how young people consume music even today. Both my children (now teenagers) do exactly the same thing. They find music quickly and efficiently, often through the lens of radio and friends (no great cultural revolution there). They make playlists. And then they listen to those playlists again and again and again. The playcounts on my iTunes show how my daughter might listen to the same song 10 times or more in an evening. So they’re still investigating music deeply. They’re just doing it on a device with less sound quality, and (crucially) they’re doing other things at the same time. Chatting online, mostly.

For us refugees from the pre-digital dark ages, it’s like we’re reaching back for something. Back for a time when there were more shared cultural moments, when tens of millions of Britons watched a single broadcast of Morecambe and Wise, when there was nothing on television on a Sunday afternoon and we were forced, actually forced, to listen to Out of the Blue?time after time after time because there was nothing else to do. And as a result, we knew every chord change, every bass note, every swelling of the strings, as well as we knew the colour of our own front doors.

Open data and effective use

A while ago I wrote a bit of a rant about Schooloscope, and how its over-simplification of school data made us feel perhaps smarter than we really are. Mike Gurstein, who is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training (Vancouver BC and Cape Town, South Africa), has written another angle on a parallel issue. He argues that open data is, of course, a good thing, but that without proper training in its use it just empowers those with the social capital – Internet access, education, time – who can then, in the time-honoured fashion, suck resources away from the less-empowered.

An interesting example of how open data, with appropriate attention being given to some of these pre-conditions, in fact can provide a basis for effective use can be seen in how the UCLA Centre for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) has been put to use by Community Advocates in Solano County.

The CHPR conducts a bi-annual California Health Interview Survey  in conjunction with the California Department of Health “to provide a snapshot of the health and healthcare of Californians”.

The survey is used by a range of political authorities but most interestingly they provide free and widely accessible training on how to use the information “to develop appropriate and targeted policy responses” and overall “to learn how to use and apply the data to improve health and health care”.

That is, the information is not only made accessible but attention is paid and resources are provided to ensure that the data is usable by those who might make effective use of it.

In this instance, the Solana County Community Advocates were trained so as to be able to take the data provided by the CHIS, and plot incidences of asthma by local electoral district. They were then able to create a map showing an extremely high frequency of asthma among residents in a particular local area. The Community Advocates successfully argued against developing another truck stop along I-80 in the county based on CHIS 2001 data estimates that showed Solano County to have the state’s highest rate of asthma symptom  prevalence overall and one of the highest rates for children.

It’s a really interesting article (his Bangalore example is also great, but I don’t want to leach away his content). Go and read.

Find a blog on any topic, courtesy of Google

Google Launches Blog Finder for Any Topic:

Google has quietly launched a new feature: search for blogs on any topic. The company announced the new type of search in a weekly round-up of search updates last week, and respected SEO blogger Bill Slawski argues that the launch may be related to a new Google patent.

This has the potential to be a wildly useful service. How many of you have had professional or personal reasons to seek a list of the top blogs on a new topic? I know I, and many people I talk to, find themselves in such need frequently.

Been looking for something like this for literally years

Seth Godin seeks a new way to publish

New York Times Bestseller Seth Godin to No Longer Publish Books Traditionally – GalleyCat:

In my interview with him today for an upcoming Mediabistro feature, Godin says, “I’ve decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 12 for 12 and I’m done. I like the people, but I can’t abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread … I really don’t think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it’s not ‘better’, but it’s different. So while I’m not sure what format my writing will take, I’m not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.”

South London Post: July 2010 update

So, back from a week’s holiday and now’s the time to do the monthly update on the South London Post, my “meta-local” publishing project which I blogged about at length last month.

First of all, the realities of micro-publishing. Taking a week’s holiday means your site shuts down, and I can’t tell you how profoundly dissatisfied I’ve been about that. Doesn’t sit right at all. Perhaps I can do something about that some day.

Which leads to the second point. As I said in my original post, this has been deliberately and aggressively a part-time project. I only do about an hour a day of posting, and I am beginning to realise how inadequate this is. I still haven’t covered a council meeting, nor do I have time to read all the council docs I should be reading from the three boroughs I’m covering. Of which more in a bit.

So how did the site do in July? Well, here’s the numbers:


Which means (drum roll please) I’ve doubled page views on the June number, and broken through the thousand visits in a month barrier. I now only need to increase my page views by a factor of 500 to reach my target of a million pages in a month. And AdSense revenue has exploded by a factor of over 150 to reach…. $1.88. I’m going to go and buy myself a Diet Coke.

So why the page view increase? Well, mainly, it’s just profile, but two things are definitely occurring. As I said last month, I was going to tweet every new blog post this month, and I’ve done so. was responsible for 13% of all referrals, while a third of all referrals were “direct”, which is always a frustratingly opaque measure but I assume includes a fair number of non-browser clients such as Twitter apps.

Secondly, Google really kicked in as a referrer this month, as more people started to link to the site and more indexing took place. There are now 64 incoming links to the site, although a lot of these are on Twitter. There still aren’t many links with Google currency coming in. Are you listening, BBC News? Guardian? Anyone?

August is likely to be pretty quiet, not least because I’ve been off for a week, but I’ll round this stuff up again at the end of the month. As I said last month, I’m trying to do one operational thing a month to drive traffic to try and gauge its impact. July was about Twitter. In August I’ll systematise that a bit, probably using a plugin such as Twitter Tools. I’m also going to begin a two-month experiment with SEM, to see if I can drive traffic and at what cost.

And finally, as promised, a word about the time spent on the site. I’m only using up about an hour a day at present. And it really isn’t enough. That allows me to read through all my feeds (which, including Twitter updates, probably about to about 600 new items a day), check interesting stories, write maybe four or five posts and read the occasional council document.

I still haven’t attended a single council meeting, phoned a single councillor or press officer, or chased down a single story. It’s very much using the “web as a wire feed”, rewriting for style and maintenance of narrative threads, finding a picture, and go. I believe that adds some value, but it isn’t enough.

Now, quite a few bloggers and newshounds already attend council meetings in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, so what value can I add there? Well, maybe a more systematic, Hansard-like approach to covering proceedings, although I have to say that judging by the coverage so far public council meetings (including cabinet meetings) seem more like platforms for grandstanding than arena for debate. But in any case a Hansard-like approach is going to be time-consuming. I’m talking to some people about a way of approaching that.

I think thereal value can be added by examining documents: minutes for meetings, supporting documents, discussion files, stuff like that. This has already yielded some good stuff on the site: a post about crime in Lambeth with some juicy stats, and the very revealing discussion document about Lewisham cuts. I’m using Google Docs to store public versions of these documents, and over time that could be a useful resource. I think that’s where I’m going to focus my journalistic efforts – such as they are – in the coming couple of months.

So, enough prognosticating. Time to go and find some stuff out. See you back here in a month.

Books, discs, user-driven media and taken stuff seriously

Kudos to Snarkmarket for pulling out the two choice quotes from this great Bob Stein interview:

An oral history of the future of the book:

Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talks about working for Alan Kay, starting the Criterion Collection and Voyager on laserdisc, Hypercard e-books, and interactive CD-ROMs — essentially, the whole prehistory of where we are now with just about all digital media:

The book was always fundamental to me. One of the things I really liked was that the original logo for Criterion, which we designed in 1984, was a book turning into a disc. It was central. When I was writing the paper for Britannica, I felt like I had to relate the idea of interactive media to books, and I was really wrestling with the question ‘What is a book?’ What’s essential about a book? What happens when you move that essence into some other medium? And I just woke up one day and realized that if I thought about a book not in terms of its physical properties—ink on paper—but in terms of the way it’s used, that a book was the one medium where the user was in control of the sequence and the pace at which they accessed the material. I started calling books ‘user-driven media,’ in contrast to movies, television, and radio, which were producer-driven. You were in control of a book, but with these other media you weren’t; you just sat in a chair and they happened to you. I realized that once microprocessors got into the mix, what we considered producer-driven was going to be transformed into something user-driven. And that, of course, is what you have today, whether it’s TiVo or the DVD.

And how did DVDs get commentary tracks? Let Bob tell you:

You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, ‘Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?’ He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track…

We had people driving to our home, where our offices were, by the second day, and begging for copies. It was Los Angeles, it was the film industry—and finally someone had done something serious with film. Film was suddenly being treated in a published form, like literature. But this still wasn’t mainstream. Citizen Kane was three discs and cost $125. It cost us $40 to manufacture. The most LaserDiscs we ever sold was about twenty thousand copies of Blade Runner.

I don’t usually squee with delight, but: Squeee!

(Via Snarkmarket.)