Category Archives: new media

In Praise of Blogosphere

In 2004 I jumped into the world of blogging in a big way, both in the sheer amount that I read on a daily basis and my personal output in a widely-unread blog with a name only a pretentious 19-year-old could come up with. At that time, Very Serious Person that I was, I hated the term “blogosphere”. At a time when I was angrily arguing that the Mainstream Media was overrated and bloggers were the future, “blogosphere” seemed awkward and embarrassing. I tried to avoid using it, instead resorting to things like “blog ecosystem”. In the end, I relented, because it was clear that blogosphere was here to stay, and it began to feel even more awkward to be the only one not saying it.

Nine years is a long time in the cycle of media storytelling, to say nothing of technology and technological adoption. Nowadays you’ll still get the occasional scare piece to the tune of “Jesus Christ the Internet is nothing but one, big, angry mob of wide-eyed vigilantes!” but these are at least as likely to cover people’s activities on Twitter and similar social media as on blogs. For the most part, the role of the blog has been cemented and matured, within a larger (dare I say it?) ecosystem of social interactions and media platforms.

There is greater appreciation for the fact that a blog is nothing but one part of the greatly lowered barriers to entry into producing public content, and that non-professionals can and do contribute a great deal to the public conversation every day. Some of them have aspirations of becoming professional contributors to this conversation, but many do not.

As perceptions and usage of the blog have matured, there has been an increasing allergic reaction to some of the rhetoric of the early adopters. More than once I have seen friends I follow on Twitter complain about the term blogosphere and wish that its usage would cease.

I want to defend the much maligned blogosphere, and not just on the (very valuable) rule of thumb that if 19-year-old Adam Gurri believed it, there was probably something crucially wrong about it. Blogosphere was a term coined and adopted by people who were sick of the modes of conversation inherited by modern media from our mass media past. Bloggers who wrote about new media in the first half of the last decade were sick of bad fact-checking and baked in moral assumptions being hidden under the veil of a style of fake objectivity. Most of all, they were sick of people taking themselves too damned seriously.

That is why blogs writing about rather serious topics nevertheless took on silly or offensive names such as Instapundit or Sandmonkey. It’s why many posts that had ever increasing weight in the public discussion used an inordinate amount of profanity to make their points.

The equilibrium has shifted since then; now there are a greater number of professional outlets that have adapted their rhetoric to be less stilted and less objective, if still intended to be respectable. And the blogs that carry weight have, in my subjective perception, seemed to tone down the juvenile naming conventions and swearing in posts, to a certain extent.

Nevertheless, I like blogosphere because it has that overtly geeky, tongue in cheek side to it that I think is unlikely to become irrelevant in my lifetime. We could all stand to take ourselves a little less seriously.

Rereading The Long Tail

This was officially launch week for The Umlaut, a new online magazine that my friends Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado have started. There are five of us who will be regular writers for it. For my first piece, I thought it might be fun to go back and re-examine The Long Tail almost seven years after it was published.

The Long Tail had a big impact on the conversation around new media at the time, and was very personally significant. The original article was published in October of 2004, a mere month before I began blogging. Trends in new media were a fascination for me from the beginning, so I kept up with Chris Anderson’s now-defunct Long Tail blog religiously.

A 19-year-old and a tad overenthusiastic, I strongly believed that the mainstream media was going the way of the dinosaur and would be replaced by some distributed ecosystem of mostly amateur bloggers. In short, I thought the long tail was going to overthrow the head of the tail, and that would be that. Moreover, I thought that all content would eventually be offered entirely free of charge.

That was a long time ago now, and my views have evolved in some respects, and completely changed in others. I think that the head of the tail is going to become larger, not smaller, and professionals are here to stay–as I elaborate on here. However, I do think that the growth of the long tail will be very culturally significant.

When I began rereading The Long Tail, I expected to find a clear argument from Anderson that he thought the head of the tail would get smaller relative to the long tail. Instead, he was frustratingly vague on this point. Consider the following quote:

What’s truly amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Again, if you combine enough of the non-hits, you’ve actually established a market that rivals the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble superstore carries around 100,000 titles. Yet more than a quarter of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 100,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is already a third the size of the existing market—and what’s more, it’s growing quickly. If these growth trends continue, the potential book market may actually be half again as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.

Let us unpack this quote a little.

First, Anderson is offering the fact that more than 25% of Amazon’s book sales occur outside of its top 100,000 titles as evidence of the revenue potential for the long tail. But this is very flawed conceptually. At the time of the book’s publication, Amazon sold some 5 million books. If nearly all of the additional revenue beyond the top 100,000 titles was encompassed by the following 100,000 titles, then 4% of Amazon’s titles account for nearly all of its book revenues. And there is good reason to believe that that is exactly how the distribution played out, back then and now.

The fact that 200,000 is a larger number than 100,000 is indeed a significant thing; it shows the gains that a company can make from increasing their scale if they are able to bring down costs enough to do so. But to  claim that this is evidence of the commercial potential of the long tail is flat out wrong. We’re still talking about a highly skewed power law distribution–in fact, an even more skewed power law distribution, as we used to speak of 20% of books accounting for 80% of the revenue, and here we are talking about 4% of the books accounting for something on the order of 99% of the revenue.

This argument appears several times throughout the book, in several forms. At one point he talks about how the scaling up of choices makes the top 100 inherently less significant. Which is true, but it does not make the head of the tail any less significant; it just means that there are a larger quantity of works within that head.

Second, this bit about “if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.” Anderson argues, repeatedly, that mass markets and big blockbusters are an artifact of a society built on scarcity, and the long tail is a creation of the new economics of abundance. This is wrong to its core.

As I argue in my first piece at The Umlaut, we have been expanding the long tail while increasing the head of the tail since the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Scale in the upward direction fuels scale in the outward direction. Consider Kevin Kelly’s theory of 1,000 true fans, the paradigm of the long tail success.

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that.  Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

Now ask yourself: how do we get to a world where someone can make a living by having 1,000 true fans, or fewer? Or 1,000 more modest fans, or fewer?

One way we get to that world is through falling costs. If we assume a fixed amount that some group of fans is willing to pay for your stuff, then progress is achieved by lowering the cost of producing your stuff.

Another way is for everyone to get wealthier, and thus be able to be more effective patrons of niche creators. If I make twice as much this year as I did last year, then I can afford to spend a lot more above and beyond my costs of living.

Another conceivable way is sort of a combination of the first two–falling costs for the patrons. If I make as much in nominal terms as I did last year, but my costs of living fall by half, then it is effectively the same as though I had doubled my income.

Put all three of these trends together and you have perfectly described the state of material progress since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Huge breakthroughs in our productive capacities have translated into a greater ability to patronize niche phenomena.

Obviously the personal computer and the Internet have taken this trend and increased its scale by several orders of magnitude–especially in any specific area that can be digitized. But that doesn’t mean we’ve entered a new era of abundance. The economics are the same as they have always been. The frontier has just been pushed way, way further out.

Moreover, the blockbuster is not an artifact of scarcity. Quite the opposite. The wealthier and more interconnected we are, the taller the “short tail” can be. In my article, I mention the example of Harry Potter, which was a global hit on an unprecedented scale (this Atlantic piece estimates the franchise as a whole has generated something like $21 billion). Hits on that scale are rare, giving us the illusion at any given moment that they are a passing thing, a relic of a bygone era of mass markets. But the next Harry Potter will be much, much bigger than Harry Potter was, because the size of the global market has only grown and become more connected.

Consider Clay Shirky’s observation that skew is created when one person’s behavior increases the probability that someone else will engage in that behavior “by even a fractional amount”. His example involves the probability that a given blog will get a new reader, but it extends to just about every area of human life. And the effect he describes, but does not name, is the network effect–one additional user of Facebook increases the probability that they will gain yet another one, one additional purchaser of a Harry Potter book increases the probability that yet another person will purchase it.

And we know, from the diffusion of innovations literature, that there comes a certain point at which one additional person increases the probability by a lot more than a fractional amount. As Everett Rogers put it:

The part of the diffusion curve from about 10 percent adoption to 20 percent adoption is the heart of the diffusion process. After that point, it is often impossible to stop the further diffusion of a new idea, even if one wished to do so.

Now, if network effects are what create skew in the first place, and we are living in the most networked age in history, how plausible does Anderson’s argument seem that the head of the tail will be of decreasing significance because of new networks?

What Does He Really Think?

Part of what’s frustrating about the book is that Anderson doesn’t really make a solid claim about how big he thinks the head of the tail is going to be relative to the tail. He provides some facts that are erroneous to answering this question, such as the Amazon statistic described above. In some places he seems like he’s saying the head will be smaller:

The theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to this: Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

The long tail is going to be “as economically attractive” as the head of the tail. That’s what he’s saying, right? If so, then he is wrong, for the reasons described above.

But maybe that isn’t what he’s saying. Consider:

This is why I’ve described the Long Tail as the death of the 80/20 Rule, even though it’s actually nothing of the sort. The real 80/20 Rule is just the acknowledgment that a Pareto distribution is at work, and some things will sell a lot better than others, which is as true in Long Tail markets as it is in traditional markets. What the Long Tail offers, however, is the encouragement to not be dominated by the Rule. Even if 20 percent of the products account for 80 percent of the revenue, that’s no reason not to carry the other 80 percent of the products. In Long Tail markets, where the carrying costs of inventory are low, the incentive is there to carry everything, regardless  of the volume of its sales. Who knows—with good search and recommendations, a bottom 80 percent product could turn into a top 20 percent product.

Here he seems to be saying that the 80/20 Rule will always remain true, but that shouldn’t stop us from realizing how important the long tail is in our lives, and how much more important it will be in the future as we get ever more diversity of choices in the relatively niche. Moreover, companies should continue to extend their long tail offers because, at any moment, one of them might suddenly jump to the head of the tail. So a Kindle book that’s only selling a handful per year may suddenly go viral and make Amazon a ton of money.

If that’s what he believes, then he is correct. But the mixture of the bad accounting of the sort in the top 100,000 books example above, statements such as the one quoted above about what “the theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to”, and this last quote about the 80/20 rule, force me to conclude that Anderson’s thinking is simply muddled on this particular point.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Finally, if there’s one thing that I think we can all agree with Anderson on, it is that the expansion of the long tail has greatly increased the quality of our lives. Whether it’s people like Scott Sigler who has managed to make a living from his fans, or the passionate community of a small subreddit, there is an ever expanding virtual ocean of choices in the long tail today.

Chris Anderson argued that the fact that something is not a hit of the blockbuster variety does not mean it is a miss. There are some things that are much more valuable to a small group of people than they are to everyone else, thereby precluding their ability to become a blockbuster. There are also some things that might be equally appealing to the same number of people as a blockbuster, but they simply were not lucky enough to be among the few that won that particular lottery.

All of us live in both the head of the tail and the long tail, and I’m glad that Anderson convinced so many of the value of the latter.

The Collision of the Personal and the Professional

BLOGS VS MAINSTREAM MEDIA…FIGHT!!

Eight years ago, when I was a pretentious, know-it-all 19-year-old, the conversation about new media was dominated by the rhetoric of bloggers and journalists, citizen and mainstream media. I had seen the blogosphere call out Dan Rather for running with forged documents as evidence. I learned of the role they played in making sure Trent Lott’s statements saw the light of day.

As far as I was concerned, newspapers and news outlets in general were old hat on their way to extinction, and blogs were the future.

What did I think this meant?

It meant that newspapers would unbundle. It meant that articles on the Iraq War or science features written by journalists with little background in the subject matter would be replaced by people living in Iraq, and actual scientists, who would have blogs. This wasn’t all in my head–such blogs existed and have only grown more numerous.

My thoughts on whether anyone would make money on this new way of things, and how, went back and forth. But I thought the future looked more like Instapundit and Sandmonkey than like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As I have witnessed the evolution of the web over the years, aged to a point beyond a number ending in -teen, and followed the conversation and research on new media, my point of view has changed–to say the least.

It’s not simply that it was wrong, but that it was far too narrow. It has not only become clear that professional media, in some form, is here to stay. It has also become clear that the old blog vs mainstream media perspective misses the big picture.

What has happened is that many activities that we conducted in our personal lives have moved online; they have become digital and they have become some approximation of public. This has big implications for other people’s professions–one tiny corner of which is the impact that personal blogs have had on professional media. But it also has an impact on our own professional lives.

In short, the personal and the professional are colliding on a number of fronts. How this collision will play out is an open question.

THE PERSONAL BECOMES PUBLIC

The vast majority of my conversations with nearly all of my friends and family occur in a digital format. It happens on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It happens in email, in text messages, and in Google Talk chat windows. A very large proportion of this is public or semi-public.

I also enjoy writing about subjects that I’m thinking about. For that reason, I’ve maintained a blog in one form or another since 2004. I have never made one red cent off of my blogging. It has always been something I’ve done out of enjoyment of the writing itself.

Before the Internet, my writing would undoubtedly have been relegated to the handful of friends I could strong-arm into looking at some copies I made for them. I certainly wouldn’t be able to ask this of them on a very regular basis, so most of my writing would have remain unread–or, discouraged, I would have written a lot less.

The thing I enjoyed about blogging from the beginning was that it provided me with a place to put my writing where people could find it, without me having to make the imposition of bringing it to them. However, translating this private analogue activity into a public and digital one has implications beyond this simple convenience.

For one thing, it makes it possible for me to connect with new people who share my interests from anywhere in the world. It can also have implications for my professional life. If I write something insulting about my coworkers, or, say, something extremely racist, odds are it could get me fired and possibly have an impact on my long-term employability.

Conversely, just as I can discover and be discovered by new friends, I can also discover and be discovered by people who might provide me with a career opportunity–and indeed this happened to me earlier this year.

When enough enthusiasts move online in this manner, it begins to have consequences for the world of professional writing in general. One lone guy blogging about a few esoteric subjects isn’t going to have much of an impact. Over 180 million people writing about everything under the sun will have some serious implications. If we take Sturgeon’s Law at face value and say that you can throw 90 percent of that in the garbage, we’re still talking about tens of million of people writing pieces of average to excellent quality.

This is a dramatic expansion in the supply of written works. This has understandably made professional producers of written words sweat more than a little. One way of looking at this is from the old blog vs mainstream media perspective. A better way to look at it is from the understanding that any professional content outlet is going to have to adapt to the new reality of personal production if they want to survive.

That process of adaptation has been messy and is still ongoing.

THE PROFESSIONAL BEGINS TO ADAPT

What my 19-year-old self did not realize is that the media business has never really sold information. It has sold stories, it has sold something for groups to rally around and identify themselves with or against. There is still money to be made by selling this product. Clay Johnson has documented some methods that he finds vile, but there are plenty of perfectly respectable ways to do it as well.

Take The Verge–a technology site that launched last year. It does not suffer from the baggage of a legacy business–it was born online and lives online. It was created by a group writers from Engadget, another professional outlet that was born on the web, who thought they could do better on their own. I have argued that their initial success was made possible in part by the fact that the individual writers had built up a community around them, through their podcast and through their personal Twitter accounts.

The Verge invests a lot in building its community. The content management tools it offers in its forums are, they claim, just as powerful as the tools they themselves use to write posts. They frequently highlight forum posts on their main page. Their writers engage with their readers there and on various social media.

Another way that the professional world has adapted is by treating the group of unpaid individuals producing in their space as a sort of gigantic farm system for talent and fame. This system is filled with simple enthusiasts, but also includes a lot of people consciously trying to make the leap to a career in what they’re currently doing for free. Either way, a tiny fraction of this group will become popular to varying extents. Rather than competing with this subset, many existing professional operations will simply snap these individuals up.

Take Nate Silver, the subject of much attention this election cycle. He started writing about politics in a Daily Kos diary, then launched his own blog on his own domain. Eventually, this was snapped up by The New York Times. The article on this is telling:

In a three-year licensing arrangement, the FiveThirtyEight blog will be folded into NYTimes.com. Mr. Silver, regularly called a statistical wizard for his political projections based on dissections of polling data, will retain all rights to the blog and will continue to run it himself.

In recent years, The Times and other newspapers have tapped into the original, sometimes opinionated voices on the Web by hiring bloggers and in some cases licensing their content. In a similar arrangement, The Times folded the blog Freakonomics into the opinion section of the site in 2007.

Forbes did this with Modeled Behavior; Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has done this with The Atlantic and now The Daily Beast. In publishing, Crown did this with Scott Sigler, and St. Martin’s Press did this with Amanda Hocking.

Suffice to say, these markets continue to be greatly disrupted. However, I do not think the adapted, matured versions of these markets will involve the utter extinction of professional institutions.

YOU GOT YOUR PROFESSIONAL IN MY PERSONAL

I consider my Twitter account to be extremely personal. No one is paying me to be there. With a handful of exceptions, I don’t have any professional relationships with the people I follow or am followed by there.

But there are definitely people who I feel have followed me because of some notion that it might help their career. Not because I’m some special guy who’s in the know, but because they think, say, that following everyone who seems to talk a lot about social media will somehow vaguely translate into success in a career in that industry. A lot of people who consider Twitter a place for human beings to talk to one another as private individuals have a low opinion of such people.

But I cannot deny that I have, on occasion, used Twitter to my professional advantage. And it’s not as though there’s a line in the sand for any of these services stating FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. It’s difficult for journalists of any kind to treat anything they say in public as something that can be separated from their profession. I have seen some create distinct, explicitly labeled personal Twitter accounts, with protected tweets. Of course, Jeff Jarvis would point out that they are merely creating another kind of public by doing so.

Moreover, more and more services we use in our personal lives are having implications for our employers. How many of us have had an employer ask us to “like” the company page on Facebook? Or share a link to a company press release? These services are far too new for us to have expectations set about them. Is this overstepping the boundaries of what is acceptable, or is this a legitimate professional responsibility we have to our employers?

In a world where a personal project or an answer on Stack Overflow can be added to your resume when applying for a job, the line between personal and professional is not quite as sharp as it used to be.

Take Marginal Revolution as an example. Is it a personal or a professional blog? Certainly Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok are not paid to write what they post. But they are using the blog as a venue for participating in the larger conversation of the economics profession. Of course, they also post on any number of specific subjects that catch their interest. It is both a platform to promote their books, as well as to solicit advice from their readers on what restaurants to check out when they are traveling.

Are categories like “personal” or “professional” even useful for describing things like Marginal Revolution? Is it an exceptional case, or–its particular level of popularity set aside–is it the new normal?

Fanboy Politics and Information as Rhetoric

News has to be subsidized because society’s truth-tellers can’t be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. However much the Journalism as Philanthropy crowd gives off that ‘Eat your peas’ vibe, one thing they have exactly right is that markets supply less reporting than democracies demand. Most people don’t care about the news, and most of the people who do don’t care enough to pay for it, but we need the ones who care to have it, even if they care only a little bit, only some of the time. To create more of something than people will pay for requires subsidy.

-Clay Shirky, Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic

There are few contemporary thinkers that I respect more on matters of media and the Internet than Clay Shirky, but his comment about how much reporting “democracies demand” has bothered me since he wrote it nearly a year ago now. I think the point of view implied in the quoted section above misunderstands what reporting really is, as well as how democracies actually work.

To understand the former, it helps to step away from the hallowed ground of politics and policy and focus instead on reporting in those areas considered more déclassé. The more vulgar subjects of sports, technology, and video games should suffice.

Fanboy Tribalism

One of the most entertaining things about The Verge’s review of the Lumia 900 was not anything editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky said in the review itself. No, what I enjoyed most was the tidal wave of wrath that descended upon him from the Windows Phone fanboys, who it seemed could not be satisfied by anything less than a proclamation that the phone had a dispensation from God himself to become the greatest device of our time. The post itself has over 2,400 comments at the moment I’m writing this, and for weeks after it went up any small update about Windows Phone on The Verge drew the ire of this contingent.

The fanboy phenomenon is well known among tech journalists, many of whom have been accused of fanboyism themselves. It’s a frequent complain among the Vergecast’s crew that when they give a negative review to an Android phone, they are called Apple fanboys, when they give a negative review to an Windows Phone device, they are called Android fanboys, and so on.

To the diehard brand loyalist, the only way that other people could fail to see their preferred brand exactly the same way that they see it is if those other people have had their judgment compromised by their loyalty to some other brand. So Joshua Topolsky’s failure to understand the glory that is the Lumia 900 stems from the fact that he uses a Galaxy Nexus, an Android device, and his Android fanboyism makes it impossible for him to accurately judge non-Android things.

There came a certain moment when I realized that fanboy tribalism was a symptom of something innate in human nature, and that you saw it in every subject that had news and reporting of some sort. It may have become cliché to compare partisan loyalty with loyalty to a sports team, but the analogy is a valid one. Just as there are brand fanboys, there are sports team fanboys and political party fanboys.

Back in Middle School, I got really wrapped up in this–as a Nintendo fanboy. I had a friend that was a really big Playstation fanboy, and we had the most intense arguments over it. I don’t think I’ve ever had arguments that got as ferocious as those since–not about politics, not about morality, not about anything. We would each bring up the facts we knew that each of us thought should have made it obvious which console was superior and then get infuriated that the other side didn’t immediately concede defeat. I personally always came prepared with the latest talking points from Nintendo’s very own Pravda, Nintendo Power Magazine.

Cognitive Biases and Group Dynamics

Cognitive science has a lot to say about why people act this way. A lot of progress has been made in cataloging the various biases that skew how human beings see the world. Acknowledging that people have a confirmation bias has become quite trendy in certain circles, though it hasn’t really improved the level of discourse. My favorite trope in punditry these days is when one writer talks about how a different writer, or a politician they disagree with, can’t see the obvious truth because of their confirmation biases. Ignoring the fact that the writer himself has the very same bias, as all humans do!

Most of the discussion around cognitive biases centers on how they lead us astray from a more accurate understanding of the world. The more interesting conversation focuses on what these biases emerged to accomplish in the first place, in the evolutionary history of man. The advantages to cementing group formation in hunter gatherer societies is something that has been explored by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his recent book The Righteous Mind. Arnold Kling has an excellent essay where he applies Haidt’s insights to political discourse.

The fact is that even in our modern, cosmopolitan world, we human beings remain a tribal species. Only instead of our tribes being the groups we were born among and cooperate with in order to survive, we have the tribe of Nintendo, the tribe of Apple, and the tribe of Republicans.

When the Apple faithful read technology news, they aren’t looking for information, not really. They’re getting a kind of entertainment, similar to the kind that a Yankee fan gets when reading baseball news. Neither have any decision that they are trying to inform.

Political news is exactly the same. When a registered Democrat reads The Nation, we like to think that there is something more sophisticated going on than our Apple or Yankee fan. But there is not. All of them might as well be my 13-year-old self, reading the latest copy of Nintendo Power. The Democrat was already going to vote for the Democratic candidate; it doesn’t matter what outrageous thing The Nation article claimed that Republicans were doing lately.

Information as Rhetoric

I think that the fear that there might not be enough truth-seekers out there fighting to get voters the salient facts about the rich and power is misplaced for a few reasons. For one thing, in this day and age, it is much easier to make information public than it is to keep it secret. For another, it is rarely truth-seekers that leak such information–it is people who have an ax to grind.

The person that leaked the emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia wasn’t some sort of heroic investigative journalist type with an idealistic notion of transparency. They were undoubtedly someone who didn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, and wanted to dig up something to discredit those who did. He was a skeptic fanboy, if you like, and he wanted to discredit the climate fanboys.

The people that get information of this sort out to the public are almost always pursuing their own agendas, and attempting to block someone else’s. It’s never about truth-seeking. That doesn’t invalidate what they do, but it does shed a rather different light on getting as much information as “democracies demand”. Democracies don’t demand anything–people have demands, and their demands are often to make the people they disagree with look like idiots and keep them from having any power to act on their beliefs.

To satisfy either their own demands or that of an audience, some people will pursue information to use as a tool of rhetoric.

How Democracies Behave

Let us think of this mathematically for a moment. If information is the input, and democracy is the function, then what is the output?

I’m not going to pretend to have a real answer to that. There’s an entire field, public choice, with scholars dedicating a lot of research and thought to understanding how democracies and public institutions in general behave and why. My father has spent a lot of time thinking about what impact information in particular has on political and social outcomes. I am no expert on any of these subjects, and will not pretend to be.

I will tentatively suggest, however, that people do not vote based on some objective truth about what benefits and harms us as a society. I think people vote based on their interests. That is, narrow material interest–such as whether a particular law is likely to put you out of work of funnel more money your way. But also their ideological or tribal interest–whether it advances a cause you believe in, or a group you consider yourself a part of.

So I don’t really see a reason to insist on subsidizing journalism. All that will accomplish is bending those outlets towards the interests of the ones doing the subsidizing.

Publicness and the Modern Career

This week, I accepted a new job. It will be a big change for me–among other things, I will be leaving the DC area and moving to New York. I may talk about that in more detail some other time. For now, I’d like to focus on how a blog post I wrote three years ago and a recent connection on LinkedIn made it possible for me to get this job in the first place.

Writing

I love to write, and I always have. It is one of the few true constants across my entire life. These days, anyone with a love for writing should be putting their work online. If you are already going to be investing the time and energy to write something, you might as well put it where people might conceivably find it. At minimum, it makes it easier to share with friends and family who are geographically scattered. At best, you open yourself up for a lucky break.

I have been blogging since November of 2004, when I was 19 and my interests were primarily politics and philosophy. I had been writing online in one form or another for years before that, but it mostly involved arguing about religion or video games or whatever I happened to feel strongly about at the time in various forums. Blogging was different; it became my method of choice for thinking out ideas through writing.

The early stuff I wrote was variably juvenile or pretentious, or both, but the mere act of doing it helped me to get better over time. The more I did it, the more I found I enjoyed it, and the easier it came to me.

In late 2008 I started a new blog specifically for longer analytical pieces on technology and new media. I wanted a blog that I could point potential employers to without the risk that while they were there they might stumble into some dumbass thing I had written when I was 19. They would have to go to the extra effort of googling me to do that!

Medialets

Back in 2009, an app analytics company called Pinch Media released a slideshare presentation based on data they had on iPhone app usage. It went viral, briefly becoming the talk of the tech blogosphere, and even getting a nod from the Onion. I took issue with the way the angle tech blogosphere coverage was approaching it from, and also with how some of the data was presented in the slideshare itself.

So I wrote a critique on my blog, fully expecting that it would only be seen by the handful of friends and family who usually read my posts. Shortly after posting it, the analyst for Pinch Media jumped in with some salient remarks in the comments section, which was a fun surprise.

Then I was contacted by someone from a company called Medialets, which at the time was one of Pinch Media’s competitors in the mobile analytics space. Rana, one of their cofounders, asked if I would be open to talking on the phone.

We talked, and she floated the idea of maybe having me work with them on a project by project basis. It was definitely more interesting than the job I had at the time. But I did have a job, and grad school, and a girlfriend in DC, and family and friends in northern Virginia. I spent a lot of hours driving between all of them, with very little free time left afterwards. So I was interested, but I didn’t follow up, and they didn’t either. I followed Rana and Eric Litman, Medialets’ CEO, on Twitter. After a while, I noticed that Rana had left the company for other ventures, so I assumed I was unlikely to have any dealings with them in the future.

Then, a little over a month ago, Google’s Bradley Horowitz connected to me on LinkedIn for reasons that remain a mystery to me. But I figured he was probably connected to some interesting people, so I looked. I saw Eric, and remembered him from my previous encounter with his company, and thought–why not? So I connected with him.

In the time since my last interaction with Medialets, I had added an MA in economics and a job in online ad operations to my resume. It just so happened that they were looking for someone to work in ad operations, so Eric reached out to me about a job.

Living in Public

New media is not a panacea; it still takes experience and education to qualify for a job, and that isn’t going to change. But your ability to do a job is far from the only thing that determines whether or not you get it. To start with, your potential employer has to know you exist.

Jeff Jarvis has recently championed the benefits of living in public, and one of those benefits is definitely that it creates the opportunity to be discovered. If the kind of work you want to do involves skills that can be demonstrated online, you should be demonstrating them.

But there is more to what a person would be like as an employee than what skills they have. One of the benefits of the various social networks we’re on is that people can get a feel for our personalities over time. While this may not be a perfect indication of what we would be like to work with, I think it’s fair to assume that everyone prefers to work with people they like rather than people they don’t. If you have a blog that puts your skills and personality on display then you are creating the possibility that someone will grow to like you, someone who either has a job you are qualified for or knows someone that does.

Take Eli for example. His blog just oozes social science smarts. If you are looking for a young, brilliant economist, reading his blog should be enough to convince you that he’s your guy. Moreover, you really get a sense of what his interests are, as well as of his sense of humor. I had a class with him years ago, but I really came to know his personality afterwards, by talking to him on Twitter and reading his posts.

Jeff Jarvis thinks that we are in the midst of a moral panic about privacy concerns, and I tend to agree. The privacy conversation is an important one, and we need to have it, but we should be very careful not to undervalue what each of us can get from moving more of ourselves into the public.

My First Year With the Kindle

I am not a music person. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy listening to music. But my taste in music has never been an important part of my identity, and listening to music has never really been something I devoted a whole lot of time to. For that reason, the iTunes revolution didn’t impact my life quite as dramatically as it did for some people I know, for whom music is a very crucial part of their lives.

What do matter to me are books. I read a lot of books, and always have. However, the digital revolution in books lagged way behind the one in music. We can’t know the reason for this, but there’s one story that intuitively makes sense to me. By the time the web was born, CDs were already the primary way we were getting our music, and CDs were a digital format. It was trivially easy to rip songs from those CDs to our computers, which made piracy just as trivially easy once people started going online in large numbers. This created pressure to create legitimate, low-cost alternatives to Napster. In the publishing industry, however, we were still working with essentially the same “analog” product that humanity has known since Gutenberg; a physical, printed book. It takes a big time commitment to scan books page by page to turn them into something digital.

Amazon had built its empire on book sales, and despite the fact that they had started selling just about everything else under the sun, they weren’t about the rest on their laurels. Jeff Bezos knew the digital disruption would be coming to books eventually, and he wanted to own it rather than have Apple or someone else come in and dominate the future of a category that had been Amazon’s bread and butter. Learning the lesson of the iPod, he would offer a device with a tightly integrated content ecosystem. In 2007 he announced the Kindle, which was just such a device.

The Kindle basically created the market for ebooks, and has dominated that market as a result. Barnes and Noble’s Nook is in a distant second, and Apple’s iBook store has less than half of Barnes and Noble’s market share (source).

The Kindle and Me

Despite my love of reading, I waited for years before I took the plunge. In 2009, after Amazon deleted people’s copies of Orwell’s 1984, I thought I might never trust them enough to buy into their ecosystem. However, after the PR firestorm that rained down on them after that, I’m confident they wouldn’t pull it again–as the big fish in the ebook pond they are being scrutinized very closely, so they’re unlikely to be able to accomplish it by stealth, either.

2009 was the first year where I was really tempted, too, as I moved out of my parents’ place and into an apartment, which meant moving my books. I left behind the majority of my books, but the ones I took still amounted to a ton of boxes. Knowing that this was not going to be my last move, I started wondering whether physical books were worth the hassle.

I wasn’t really pushed over the edge until last year. I can pinpoint a single event that did it–the publication of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation. It wasn’t just that a brilliant economist at the school I got my MA from was publishing a purely digital book. It was also that just about everyone in the economics blogosphere was talking about it. It was a $4 digital book that kicked off a fascinating debate and, really, set many of the parameters of the discussion around our current economic predicament. After watching this unfold, I couldn’t help myself–I really, really wanted a Kindle.

I asked for it for my birthday, which was three months later. Now, almost a year later, I currently have 62 items on my Kindle. I have read a ton, to put it mildly.

To put it plainly, I love my Kindle, and I love the Amazon ecosystem. The device itself is much lighter to hold than a book is. You don’t have to worry about holding it open or turning pages, so you can hold it with one hand. The fact that it isn’t a fully-featured computing device is definitely a plus in terms of avoiding distractions. I can also read my books on just about any computer–from my iPhone to my laptop. If I forget my Kindle at home, I can still continue whatever book I was reading by logging into my Amazon account and reading it in the browser.

2011 turned out to be a year where a lot of Great Stagnation-style, straight to digital short, cheap books came out. The other one that drew a similar amount of attention was Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine, but there were also Ryan Avent’s The Gated City and Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance. I read blogs by all of these people, and when they announced their books, it was just too easy to follow the Amazon link and click “Buy now with 1-Click”. As my friend James Long eloquently put it, “any interesting Kindle book which costs less than $5 feels free to me because of a floating point error in my internal processor.”

Similarly, when bloggers or people on Facebook or Twitter that I trust recommend a book that is less than $2, it is hard to resist snapping it up. Authors and publishers are clearly learning to take advantage of this–I recently read Child of Fire, a fantasy novel that goes for $0.99. The price of the next book in the series jumps up to $5.99, and the third one goes up to $7.99.

To legacy publishers, ebooks may seem like a mixed bag as they threaten their margins. To authors who haven’t been able to make it big in the old system, however, there are new opportunities. Take Tim Pratt, whose Marla Mason series was cancelled before it was finished due to lack of sales. So he serialized the book on the open web and sold the complete version directly through the Kindle store. He was among the first to call my attention to the growth that indie authors with a strong fan following were seeing for the Kindle titles when he tweeted the following:

Wow. Kindle sales for me have grown from beer money to grocery money to preschool tuition, and is now approaching rent money amounts.
@timpratt
Tim Pratt

I’ve talked about how Scott Sigler has taken advantage of the ebook scene–I actually just finished reading Nocturnal on my Kindle before I started writing this post (though that one came out through his publisher). And Amanda Hocking captured everyone’s imaginations last year when it became clear that she was making some serious money off of her Kindle sales.

One thing I don’t like about Kindle books, compared to print books or just open, non-proprietary digital standards, is that my friends can’t borrow my books. With a print book, if I love it and have a friend I think would too, I can just hand it to them. While a subset of Kindle books have “lending” enabled, where you can let one other Kindle user read it through their account, most Kindle books do not.

However, Kindles keep getting cheaper and cheaper. The cheapest one right now is $79, and I will bet good money that we’ll eventually see a $20 one. In a world with $20 Kindles, having a secondary one that you lend to your friends seems a lot more plausible.

And one thing I love about Amazon as a company is how relentlessly they push down prices. One of the books on my Kindle right now is an item from their Lending Library. If you have Prime membership and a Kindle device, you can get one book a month for free from a subset of their catalog that are part of the program. I just read the entire Hunger Games series this way, without paying a penny.

In short, I have really enjoyed my first year in the Kindle ecosystem. It’s really a very exciting time for anyone who loves to read.

Information, Food, and Democracy

I am a skeptic on the subject of food diets but have been a true believer in the information diet for a long time. I am pretty sure that Clay Johnson had the opposite sort of reader in mind when he wrote The Information Diet.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of things I wanted to respond to and aspects I wanted to explore. But in the spirit of restraint which the book embodies, I will hold myself to just two posts – an overview of my own information diet, and this broader response.

Information Mania

Back in 2004 I was extremely into the political blogging scene and thought that all mainstream news was utter crap. My reasoning was pretty straightforward – bloggers actually linked to things in order to provide context. They didn’t pretend to be objective; they wore their ideologies and biases on their sleeves. The distorting news cycle that mainstream media operated on, and the narrow perspective they approached everything from, drove me crazy. I excluded it from my information diet as much as possible.

I had family members and friends who I could see develop a kind of mania as they followed more traditional news outlets. They didn’t want to talk about anything but politics. They made blunt statements that were insulting to anyone who disagreed with them, under the assumption that no one did, and were genuinely surprised when it turned out this assumption was wrong.

The section of Johnson’s book where he talks about his relationship with his Uncle Warren, a Fox News faithful conservative, really touched a chord with me.

The conversation, viewed from the outside, couldn’t have been considered coherent. It was just an explosion of nonsense—two grown men shouting at each other about taxes, gun control, and healthcare, with some perfectly good turkey between us. That Thanksgiving, Uncle Warren left early, and things haven’t been the same between us since.

I myself came right to the brink of such a fallout on several occasions. Of course I realize now what Johnson has also realized; that my own behavior and my own information diet were part of the problem. I fell into an “us versus them” mentality and I selected for blogs that fed into that. Despite adamantly refusing to affiliate myself with either political party, I was still drawing a line in the sand; my people against everyone else.

It was extremely bad for me. It made me unhappy and dissatisfied, and every so often I would become downright unpleasant company.

I was right about mainstream news, but was unwilling to recognize that the problem was not the medium but the type of content. Since I considered myself a part of the new media crowd, I didn’t give new media as critical an eye as I did traditional media. The only exception was the critical eye I turned to those blogs of a different point of view.

I’m still a techno-optimist and I still think that most news is crap, but I have come to realize that there is a lot more crap on the Internet than off of it. This is because there is a lot more of everything on the Internet, good and bad. The digital age gives the producers of crap some new, powerful tools that they didn’t have before, as Johnson describes:

Even more than television, Fox routinely tweaks the news on the Web to make the news more palatable to its audience. Even when it takes content from other sources like the Associated Press and puts it on its website, the organization tweaks the headlines to make them more attractive to its conservative audience. The AP’s story “Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” turned into “Obama Has a Big Problem with White Women.” “Obama to Talk Economy, Not Politics, in Iowa” turned into “White House Insists Obama’s Iowa Stop for Economy, Not 2012.” And “Malaysia Police Slammed for Cattle-Branding Women” turned into “Malaysian Muslims Cattle-Brand Prostitutes.”

Fox isn’t about advancing a conservative agenda. For its parent, News Corporation, it’s about the dollars. Fox changes these headlines on the Web not because it has an agenda, but because people click on them more, meaning that more advertisements can be shown, and more money can be made.

So I have, for some time now, agreed with the general proposition that the information we consume has an effect on us on our emotional and intellectual state of mind. This is an idea that is old and familiar to me, and it is a crucial part of the story told in The Information Diet.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Food Morality

Something else that is common among certain members of my family and friends is the propensity to moralize on the subject of food.

A lot of the time, this centers on the “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic”; something that is apparently a very important public health issue. An uncle of mine once assured me that it was only a matter of time before national life expectancy began to fall as a result of this problem.

The food moralist’s story is a key piece of the story that Johnson wants to tell in The Information Diet. Consider the following:

Today, 13.5 million people die each year of heart disease and stroke, and 4 million from diabetes-related complications–far more than die in automobile accidents. heart disease is now our number one killer, and it takes more people to the grave in the United States in five years than all our war-related deaths combined. Instead of dying from the cold of winter, we find death in cholesterol.

The way this story is framed is at odds with my understanding of the material progress that has been made in developed nations over the last two hundred years. But I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand, so I went to see if the known facts were what I had thought that they were.

The following are the facts, as I understand them, with links to primary sources.

First, my uncle’s comment aside, life expectancy has been rising consistently for centuries. It’s been rising more slowly in the last few decades than it was, say, right after the discovery of penicillin. Nevertheless, it has continued to increase. I understand that the past is not prophecy; it could start to decline. But it hasn’t so far.

But what about the specific risk factors of being obese? What about heart disease and stroke? After all, as Johnson points out, “heart disease is now our number one killer.”

Just because something is the biggest relative cause of death does not mean that it is a bigger problem than it used to be.

According to the CDC, “Overall, death rates for heart disease and stroke have decreased in the United States in recent decades.” They hasten to add that “rates for incidence and death continue to be high”, and to talk about how it is higher among some socioeconomic groups than others. But they don’t include a breakdown of whether those higher rates have increased or declined – a number I would be very interested in seeing.

According to the American Heart Association, “From 1997 to 2007, the death rate from [cardiovascular disease] declined 27.8%” and “the stroke death rate fell 44.8%, and the actual number of stroke deaths declined 14.7%.” Not only is the stroke death rate down, the actual number of deaths is down despite the larger population. This is not the rate at which people who contracted these diseases died from it – this is the number of people that died of these diseases per 100,000 people in the overall population.

This 1997-2007 period is squarely in the middle of the 1990-2010 period that Johnson cites as one of enormous growth in the obesity rate. People were getting fatter but the things that they are at higher risk for was killing them less often. This is hardly finding “death in cholesterol”.

Now, these are just the death rates–it could be that the incidence rate of heart disease and strokes has increased, but medical science has advanced so far that it’s actually overcompensated and the number of people per 100,000 in the population that actually died of them decreased. And I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to be overweight, or that you can eat nothing but chocolate for three meals a day, seven days a week. Obviously dietary choices have health consequences; a friend of mine knew someone in college who ate nothing but ramen for a month and actually ended up getting scurvy.

I just don’t see the smoking gun here. This is no existential threat, no “crisis”; this is a lot of people eating in a less healthy manner than a physician would probably recommend. But they are still, on average, living longer. In particular, the things that overweight people are at risk for are killing them less often.

I believe that what we eat is a personal and quality of life issue, not a moral one. Some people may have less energy and feel bad about themselves because of the kind of food they eat regularly. On the other hand, some people may be happy eating food that they enjoy but being overweight to some degree. There are trade-offs to be made, and everyone must weight those trade-offs for themselves.

This disagreement over whether food is a moral issue or a personal one is paralleled in the conversation about information.

Saving Democracy

Johnson does not just want you to fix your information diet for the sake of self-improvement. He wants you to do it because he thinks it will be good for democracy.

The role that information plays in influencing politics is complicated and difficult to measure. It’s something that my father thinks long and hard about over at The Fifth Wave.

Johnson appears to hold to what I would describe as the traditional progressive hypothesis: the more informed the governed, the better the quality the governance in a democracy will be.

once you lose the fluff and start really seeing what’s going on, new priorities arise that require new tactics to accomplish.

He recognizes that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between the amount of information available and policy outcomes. For instance, he spends a whole section taking down the notion that mere “transparency” is actually effective at holding policymakers accountable.

Like the calorie counts from food, transparency is ineffective at arming the masses unless there’s a strong will in the public to arm itself with the knowledge of how this information affects us, and how to effectively read the metaphorical labels. People will be no less obese—and no less ignorant—unless they have the will to consume less of the stuff that’s bad for them, and more of the stuff that’s good for them. While transparency can help the problem, it alone cannot fix it.

Admitting that mere transparency isn’t enough to achieve mass enlightenment does not mean that Johnson thinks such enlightenment is impossible, however.

He then offers a laundry list of how you can make a difference, ranging from the kinds of problems you should focus on:

My plea to you is to start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction.

Nudges such as:

If you’re worried about federal spending and the budget, don’t concern yourself over the debt-ceiling debate. Work to change procurement laws so that government can get access to the same things the private sector has without paying an arm and a leg. We spend so much time figuring out what programs to spend money on, comparing their priorities to one another, and blanket cutting them when they’re deemed too luxurious. It’s the equivalent of trying to lose weight by cutting off your legs. Optimizing how government spends its money is at least as important as figuring out what our money gets spent on, and there are real, pragmatic solutions to getting there.

There are also tools available to us, and tools yet to be made, that can help us do the job.

We can also improve our government without waiting on government to act. Organizations like PopVox.com, for instance, make it easier for people to translate what they want their representative to do into the language our representatives speak. There’s a whole world of technology out there waiting to be used to help members listen to their constituents, and it’s likely—now that much of our discussions about politics are public—that we don’t need government to act: we can build tools that listen to what people are already saying, make that information public, and question our elected officials when they’re voting against their constituencies.

I’m not denying the value in what he’s saying, I just really wonder how much exhortations like these are going to make a difference.

I don’t pretend to any special knowledge on the relationship between information and politics, but it seems to me that when you write a book encouraging people to have a nice, balanced, reasonable information diet, it encourages people to be nice, balanced, and reasonable. In my admittedly limited experience, it is rarely the nice, balanced, and reasonable people that move history.

I keep going back to the circumstances where policy or norms moved in a direction that I, personally, consider to be good. For instance, when the web rose up against SOPA and PIPA and managed to get those bills tabled. In my opinion, it wasn’t the well informed, reasonable people that made that happen. It was Wikipedia and other major websites going dark and essentially sending the message “STOP SOPA OR NO MORE WIKIPEDIA/LOLCATS FOR YOU”, lighting a fire under the typical web user to get pissed off in their representatives’ direction.

Or a much more important example, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the student activists of the 1960’s were not just nice and reasonable people, they were extremely shrewd about the media of their day and the rhetoric that they used. They picked their battles very carefully to have the maximum emotional impact.

That is what I thought of when I read the following line in The Information Diet:

As much as I’d like to use the political skills I’ve learned in the past 10 years to drive a traditional campaign, doing so would go against the principles of the book.

Call me cynical, but I tend to think that if the problems that Johnson thinks are solvable do get solved, it will be because some very effective propagandists and rhetoriticians get behind it. It won’t be because people are suddenly more reasonable and informed, and decide en masse to get behind the solving of practical problems.

That’s just my instinct. It doesn’t help that I went to a grad school that distinguished itself in the field of Public Choice theory, which tends to make you skeptical of the notion that a more informed populace translates into better policy outcomes.

I should also say that I’m skeptical of the hypothesis that things are so much worse and so much more polarized than they were in the past. I think the fact that we all share this big information space called the Internet means we’re exposed to the loud and angry among us much more than we used to be. I also think that technological change and an increased overall wealth now allows us to support the Fox News’ and MSNBC’s–the Krispy Kreme donuts of information intake–rather than the bland mass products of old like CBS News. But I don’t really think those bland mass products were any better for us.

A Book Worth Reading

So I don’t really think a good information diet is going to save democracy, but I do think that there are big benefits to be had by taking the time to scrutinize your information diet. Johnson made me think not just about the content I consume, but the amount of time I spent obsessively checking for updates.

The Information Diet is, for me personally, exactly the kind of meal I need to have more often in my own information diet. It challenged my perspective on a number of margins but was reasonable and inoffensive while doing so. More than anything, it made me think. It also introduced me to interesting tools like EveryBlock.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s only 160 pages long and very well written. I got more out of reading it than I have from books three times its length.

Once you’ve read it, I recommend Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics as a good companion piece. It’s even shorter than The Information Diet and is an excellent guide to sorting the sense from the nonsense.

Scott Sigler’s 1,000 True Fans

Four years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote a post describing how creators could achieve success in a small niche. He called it the 1,000 true fans strategy.

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

The point is not that you specifically need 1,000 of them, but that a small number of these true fans can be enough to let an artist make a living. Seeking to cultivate such fans is a far more reasonable goal than trying to ride a blockbuster to the head of the tail.

Some information recently released by writer Scott Sigler reminded me of Kelly’s post.

Few people have invested in building up their fan base the way that Sigler has. He pioneered the podcast novel years ago, giving away his book in weekly audio installments. He has a website which fans can register on in order to comment on specific posts and episodes, interact with one another on the forums, and even update a wiki about his science fiction universe. Whenever someone signs up on his site, he gives them a shout out in that week’s podcast. If you post a lot on his site, he will include you as a character in one of his books–usually a character that meets with a grizzly end, which his fans eat right up. He also has a very active presence on all the major social media, and responds to the fans who engage him there.

He has reaped the benefits of investing so thoroughly in his fans. First, he got a book deal with the small publisher Dragon Moon Press. That book managed to rocket up the Amazon rankings on the strength of his fans’ promotional efforts alone, which then secured him a book deal with major publisher Crown.

However, Sigler has continued to publish his Galactic Football League series independently, without any backing from Crown. He and his business partner, A Kovacs, started Dark Overlord Media for the sole purpose of publishing the first book in the series, The Rookie. They published a high-end book with a lot of extra goodies and charged a steep price–more than $30.

They pulled it off, and have continued to publish the successive books, iterating their approach each time. They’re now on their fourth book and have hit on a formula–determine the number of physical books to be printed based on pre-orders, and after the last physical book has been delivered, only offer digital versions. This minimizes the financial risk to them–they only print as many as there’s demand for–but you have to have pretty devoted fans to pull this off, since they have to pay the money well before the product even exists.

The post that made me think of Kelly’s 1,000 true fans was this one by A Kovacs:

It took us fifteen hours to sell 1,000 copies of THE MVP. Fifteen is not a lot of hours:

  • In 2009 it took us 13 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE ROOKIE.
  • In 2010 it took us 6 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE STARTER.
  • In 2011 it took us 3 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE ALL-PRO.

Do they ever say “the fourth time’s the charm?” If not, I might start saying that myself; try and make it a thing. Scott and I have been very happy with our year-over-year performance, but I won’t lie: it is some kind of wonderful to be able to move 1,000 copies of a premium-priced, plushed-out hardcover in less than one day.

The books cost $34.95, so Dark Overlord Media just basically made $35,000 in fifteen hours. Certainly, you will have to subtract the cost of printing from that, and certainly, since Sigler has a partner it won’t all go to him. But you can bet that they continued to sell more books after those first fifteen hours, and that this isn’t the only source of revenue they have going in.

2011 was clearly a turning point for Dark Øverlord media. We're running a genuine small biz, not just selling "a book" anymore.
@scottsigler
Scott Sigler

One of the crucial changes they made this time around was to include a free digital copy of the book for anyone who purchased the hardcover. In fact, 2011 saw a big shift in Sigler’s digital strategy in general; he started offering more small purchases in the Kindle store, like this short story collection which started off at a promotional price of $0.99 in order to get him more exposure on the Amazon rankings.

I was curious how much of a difference ebook sales have really made to his bottom line, so I asked.

@ Curious--how much would you say that eBook sales played a part in that?
@adamgurri
Adam Gurri

His answer surprised me.

@ About 65/35 in favor of eBooks. eBook make running a small-biz publishing house a real possibility.
@scottsigler
Scott Sigler

I expected that ebooks were a big part of his success in 2011, I did not expect that they were already the majority of his company’s revenue.

I think this is in large part because it helped what true fans he had to promote him to more marginal fans. As Kelly explains:

This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans.

Every so often, for instance, Sigler’s big publisher Crown would discount the digital version of one of his books they had published, often without even letting him know. When he noticed, he would announce it to all his fans across social networks and his own site. This was a call not just to pick up the cheaper copy for themselves but to let others know about the discount; people who might not otherwise have made the plunge to buy the book are much more likely to do so when it’s going for a dollar or two. This in turn helps him build up his fan base yet further.

All in all, Sigler should serve as inspiration for creators who are trying to find their place in the new digital landscape. You don’t even have to make it as big as he is in order to make a decent living. And then you’re living the dream of making a living off of your creations; what more could you ask for?

 

Homesteading the Open Web

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them.

-Doc Searls, Beyond Social Media

Unlike Searls, Zittrain, and many others, I am not greatly bothered by the fact that a huge amount of our social interactions are taking place on privately owned platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and an increasing amount of stuff we used to use the web for is being done on privately owned platforms like iOS. From an economic point of view, I think it’s good for someone to have a vested interest in investing in these platforms.

It cannot be denied, however, that a user of Twitter is much more a tenant than a landlord; they can be kicked off without any reason whatsoever, if the company desires it. Moreover, the consolidation of such a large and distributed platform under one company gives it many of the characteristics of a technology of control. This is obscured by the fact that it has already been the tool of resistance in several countries; and certainly it isn’t straightforwardly one or the other. But Twitter is a single company that hundreds of millions of people are using as a communications platform; it therefore is one big target for regulators and tyrants the world over.

Consider: they recently announced that they created a way to censor tweets in specific countries without removing them globally. They knew that in order to enter certain markets, they would be forced to comply with some less than thrilling local regulations on freedom of expression. As a company, the decision was either to stay out of those markets or comply with the regulations. So they came up with an approach that wouldn’t allow local censorship to extend its reach globally, and they announced it before anyone asked them to use it in an attempt to preempt the bad PR this would inevitably bring.

That will never happen on a blog like mine.

I pay for server space and a domain name, and I use WordPress’s software. If the hosting company tried to mess with me, it is trivial to move to another one. If WordPress makes changes I dislike, or somehow builds tools for censorship into its code, I can swap it for Moveable Type or any number of alternatives. I regularly backup my data, so if someone seized the servers it was on I would not lose it.

In short, I have carved out a small piece of real estate in the open web.

Now, the advantages to platforms like Twitter are undeniable. No one is going to Twitter in order to see what the latest thing I have to say or share is; they go there because everyone they might be interested in hearing from is there. Most of the time this blog sees very little traffic, while I have conversations on Twitter and Facebook basically every day of the week.

Again, unlike Searl, I do not see the rise of these walled garden platforms as onerous. But I do think everyone should consider homesteading the open web; setting up something that is truly theirs that they can invest in over time.

That is part of the reason why, after seven years on Blogger, I decided to jump ship and start this site.

If you’re interested in this but aren’t sure how to proceed, my friend Lauren is offering to help people for free, if you sign up for a Bluehost account through her site. Many hosts have easy, one-click options for installing WordPress after you’ve paid for space, so you probably won’t even have to worry about the technical aspects of installation.

Just as there are benefits to having privately owned platforms, there are definite benefits to having something that you own from end to end.

 

A Tale of Two Audiences

Disclaimer: the following is simply a hypothesis, a story if you will. I submit it to you with no pretension of either originality or authority.

When content companies look at their incoming traffic, they divide them into two general categories–referral traffic and direct traffic.

They’re both fairly self-explanatory. Referral traffic comes from people who found you from somewhere else. The biggest category of this in general is search traffic, but links from Facebook or Twitter, or someone’s blog are also typical sources.

Direct traffic, as the name implies, is made up of people who go directly to the site. Often this means that they are loyal followers of your content.

A loyal user is much more valuable than someone who finds an article of yours from Google, gives it a look, and then never comes back again. They’re more valuable in the quantifiable sense that they see your ads a lot more than that drive-by search user, but they’re more valuable in less obvious ways as well.

The vast majority of the traffic to the big content sites is referral traffic. While the individual user may be less valuable than the individual in direct traffic, the total amount of revenue from referral traffic is much larger. This is the reason that the internet is rife with SEO spam and headlines that are more likely to get clicked if tweeted. Search traffic alone is a gigantic pie, and empires have been built on it alone, with practically zero direct traffic.

However, having a loyal user base that comes to your site regularly is extra valuable precisely because it is likely to get you more referral traffic. Consider: loyal users are more likely to share a link to content on your site from Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Redditt, or a good old-fashioned blog. This is exactly the kind of behavior that generated referral traffic–both directly from people clicking those links, indirectly from those people possibly sharing the links themselves, and yet more indirectly if they link from their blogs and thus improve your Google ranking.

Of course, even within your loyal base there is variation in how valuable a particular user is. Guy who has read the Washington Post for forty years and has just moved online is less valuable to the Post than someone like Mark Frauenfelder, who might link to one of their articles on Boing Boing, improving their Google ranking further and sending some of his traffic their way. But it’s still useful to think broadly about direct traffic vs. referral traffic.

The Porous Wall

Back in March, the New York Times launched something like a paywall. There are numerous particulars and exceptions, but the long and short of it is that someone like me, who only ever visits the Times when someone I know links to it, faces no wall of any sort. Meanwhile, someone who has loyally visited the Times every day for years will have to pay if they want to see more than 20 articles a month.

At the time, Seamus McCauley of Virtual Economics pointed out the perverse incentives this created: the Times were literally punishing loyalty without doing anything to lure in anyone else. Basic economic intuition dictates that this should mostly result in reducing the amount of direct traffic that they receive.

The Times did spend a reported $40 million researching this plan, and while I’ll never be the first person to claim business acumen on the part of the Times, you have to think they did something with all that money. As usual, Eli had a theory.

@ Intentionally leaky. Price discrimination. I wouldn't be surprised if they spent $40 million figuring out optimal leakiness.
@elidourado
Eli Dourado

Imagine, for a moment, that all of the Times’ direct traffic was composed of individuals who were perfectly price inelastic in their consumption of articles on nytimes.com. That is, they would pay any price to be able to keep doing it. Assume, also, that all of the Times’ referral traffic was perfectly price elastic–if you raised the price by just one cent, they would abandon the site entirely. The most profitable path for the Times in this scenario would be, if possible, to charge direct traffic an infinite amount to view the site, while simultaneously charging the referral traffic nothing so they keep making the site money by viewing ads.

The reality is a less extreme dichotomy–though I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant fraction of the Times’ referral traffic did vanish if they tried to charge them a penny. Still, the direct traffic, while undoubtedly less elastic than the referral traffic, is unlikely to be perfectly inelastic.

Getting a good idea of just how inelastic would be a very valuable piece of information for the Times to have, and I think Eli is right that that is exactly what they spent the $40 million on–that, and devising the right strategy for effectively price discriminating between the two groups.

It’s too soon to tell if the strategy will work for the Times, or if it’s a viable strategy for any content company to pursue.

Come One, Come All

2011 also saw the birth of a new technology website, The Verge.

The Verge began after a group of editors from Engadget left, in the spirit of the traitorous eight, because they believed they could do it better than AOL would allow them to. During their time at Engadget, they had developed a following through the listeners of their podcasts and their presence on social media–Twitter in particular. They also were fairly active in the comment sections of their own posts.

In order to bridge the gap between the launch of the new site and the departure from the old one, they set up a makeshift, interim blog called This Is My Next, and continued their weekly podcast. This kept them connected with the community they had built around them and allowed them to keep building it while they were also working on launching The Verge.

There are a lot of things that I really like about The Verge. First, they bundled forums into the site and gave people posting in them practically the same tools that they use for the posts on the main site. The writers themselves participate in the forums, and any user’s post that they find particularly exceptional they will highlight on the main site and in The Verge’s various social network presences.

Second, they do a lot of long-form, image and video rich, niche pieces that may take time to get through but which just have a kind of polish which is rare among web-native publications.

When I told a friend of mine about how much I loved these pieces, he very astutely asked “but it costs like eleven times as much to make as a cookie-cutter blog post, and do you really think it generates eleven times more revenue?”

This question bothered me, because in a straightforward sense he seems to be right. Say that Paul Miller could have written eleven shorter posts instead of this enormous culture piece on StarCraft. There is no way that The Verge made eleven times as much in ad revenue from that post as they would from the eleven shorter posts he could have written.

But posts like that one attract a certain kind of audience. I may not read every long feature piece that The Verge does, but I like that they are there and I read many of them. The fact that they do those pieces is part of the reason that I made them my regular tech news read rather than Engadget or Gizmodo.

In short, the clear strategy being pursued by The Verge is to reward their most loyal audience, even if it doesn’t directly result in more revenue than trying to game search engines. There isn’t always tension between the two strategies–one of the sites features is called story streams, pages like this which make it easy to see how a particular story has unfolded so far. It also is one more page that could potentially show up in Google search results.

Still, having followed the group very closely at Engadget first, and now at the Verge, it seems clear to me that the core mission is to build up the loyal visitors. If a feature piece costs eleven times as much as a shorter one, but makes a loyal reader out of someone who indirectly brings 100 visitors to the site over time by sharing links on Twitter and Facebook, was the feature piece profitable?

The Verge is even younger than the Times’ paywall, so time has yet to tell if their approach is sustainable.

Farming Referral Traffic

At the onset of 2011, a big rumble was building in the tech community about Google’s search quality. Many claimed that it had become filled with spam. Google was not deaf to these criticisms, and argued that spam was actually at an all time low. The problem wasn’t spam, they argued, but “thin content”–and what have come to be called content farms.

The logic of the content farm is that with enough volume, enough of your pages will make it high enough in search results to get you enough referral traffic to make a pretty penny. In short, a content farm focuses its efforts on acquiring referral traffic and foregoes any real effort to build up direct traffic.

This in itself isn’t a problem, of course. If you have 500,000 of the greatest articles ever written by mankind, then you, Google, and search users are all better off if you rank highly in relevant search results. And many companies that took a beating when Google began targeting thin and low quality content for downranking have cried that they were unfairly lumped in with the rest just for having a lot of pages.

The content farm controversy aside, there is a clear and obvious place for a site that has an audience made up almost entirely of referral traffic–reference sites. Wikipedia, for instance, at one point received somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of its visits from referral traffic. Though it is probably the biggest receiver of search traffic, it is not unusual in this regard–there is a whole industry of people whose livelihoods are made or broken by the various tweaks of Google’s algorithm.

The Path Forward

As I said, much remains uncertain. Five or ten years from now we’ll look back and be able to say which experiments proved to be the models for striking the balance between these audiences. For my part, I can only hope that it looks more like what The Verge is doing than what the New York Times is trying.