John McCann

Archive for 2007|Yearly archive page

Internet … a centrifugal force

In Internet, Newspapers, Television, Video on March 26, 2007 at 12:39 pm

An article in Wired describes Joost, a new Internet-based TV application, and discusses its implications for the television industry. At the end of the article, the author describes how the Internet has impacted the traditional media model of keeping everything central and bundling shows into schedules, stories into magazines, etc.

“The Net in particular is brutally centrifugal, fragmenting newspapers into articles, movies into clips, and CDs into songs, all dispersed to servers across the earth. It has never been kind to enterprises that try to gather everything under one roof. Google’s $140 billion value derives not from some comprehensive offering but from simply showing people where the fragments can be found.”

This fragmentation seems very natural to me. When I read a newspaper, I do not read all the articles but focus on topics that are of interest to me. And I only skim some of the articles that I do read, looking for the key points that let me understand the essence of the article. When I talk with a friend about an article or a movie, I rarely tell the whole story but simply relate the point of the article.

Students do the same thing when taking notes in a class. Our photographs are fragments of what we have seen.

Blogs such as this one are fragment based. I usually insert a fragment from something I have read, as I did with the quote at the top of this post, and then write about the content of that fragment.

It is common today to read that many newspapers are suffering because of this fragmentation. Just today I read in Tim O’Reilly’s blog (a blog, no less) that a major city newspaper is in trouble.

“I’m hearing rumors that the San Francisco Chronicle is in big trouble. Apparently, Phil Bronstein, the editor-in-chief, told staff in a recent ’emergency meeting’ that the news business ‘is broken, and no one knows how to fix it.'”

The really interesting part of this blog is a comment by Michael Schrage, who has a long association with the Media Lab and other organizations at MIT.

“i love print; i love [good] journalism; and i love healthy, vibrant and innovative marketplaces…alas, the real reasons so many newspapers are suffering is that they are not very good as reporting media, journalistic media and advertising media…competition of the web has made them – on average -worse, not better…they’ve done an even worse job than detroit in rising to meet the competition…but why should we be surprised? the big three were an oligopoly for decades and most newspapers have been de facto monopolies in their smsas…they don’t know how to compete; they don’t know how to innovate…the decline in their quality is obvious; their economic decline is deserved. “

I have seen this problem in my own teaching in executive education programs. Managers in firms that had a monopoly (or near monopoly) simply have a very hard time learning how to compete on a daily basis when their firm loses its market dominance. They try everything possible to hang onto the old structures and strategies, and when it becomes obvious that they must change, it is too late and/or they do not have the skills and mental models that are necessary in a competitive world.

I read newspapers every day, subscribing to my local paper and USA Today. While the latter seems to remain vibrant, my local paper is shrinking and I fear for its future. If you are interested in a discussion of how to save newspapers, as I am, read Doc Searls’ recent blog post.


Participation Architecture

In Architecture, Internet, Technology on March 19, 2007 at 1:25 pm

An article in the RosenblumTV blog gave a very succinct description of the problem established industries have when presented with a new technology. It is the mismatch between a technology and the appropriate architecture for deploying that technology.

“That is, a specific technology demands a specific architecture. Not the architecture of a building, but rather the architecture for the implementation of that technology. As lazy humans, however, we get the technology first; the architecture takes us time.”

When I first read the article, I was reminded of a story I read 50 years ago about how a very primitive tribe reacted to the arrival of a Coke bottle, which was a new “technology” to the tribe. A plane crashed in the jungle and the natives found coke bottles among the wreckage. Having never seen such an object, they wondered what to do with it. One person put a bottle onto a stick and created a club that could be used for hunting and battle, which were the very activities that consumed the time of the men in the tribe. They were hunters and warriors and they used their hunting and war architecture to implement the new technology of the Coke bottle.

Back to the blog entry. Rosenblum, a participant in the videojournalist revolution, tells the story of how AT&T bought the patents to the first wireless radio technology because the company thought that radio would compete with its wired telephony business. AT&T did not implement the radio technology and used the patents to prevent others from doing so. They only allowed Marconi to use the technology for communicating with and between ships. But then a strange thing happened: the Titanic sank while sending hours of messages from its wireless transmitter. Sixteen year old David Sarnoff heard those messages while working for Marconi and communicated to a crowd outside his building by yelling out a window.

Alas, broadcasting was invented. More broadly, the “architecture of radio” was invented. AT&T saw the world through the telephony architecture and thus totally missed the role that radio would play in the broader communication ecosystem. It took a kid to recognize the potential, and that kid went on to be a pioneer of the broadcast industry.

Rosenblum applies this story to today’s world.

“All too often, we also take new technologies and plug them into an architecture that we already understand. All too often we take the Internet and see it as an alternative platform for broadcasting. Take a look at What do you see? A newspaper. A newspaper put on the web. That is because that is what newspapers understand. That is the architecture they understand. As video comes to the web, broadcasters will also see it as a way to do what they do now – one signal to many people, but on-line. This will be a classic mistake.”

This is so true in all walks of life. Librarians see the world through their library architecture and thus see the Internet as a massive, global library. Educators use an education architecture when approaching the Internet. Microsoft seems to have seen it through the desktop computing architecture.

As was the case with wireless technology, it is people who operate outside traditional architectures who see the possibilities of a new technology and thus invent new architectures. Perhaps we should think of the Internet and associated technologies as forming an Architecture of Participation.

Is information worth anything?

In Mediamorphosis on March 12, 2007 at 5:11 pm

An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribute features an interview with Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s newly-formed College of Design. His opening comment struck me as very pertinent to the Participation Age.

“The information economy is still with us. But the paradoxical effect of the Internet is that it has made information so widely available that it holds no real economic value. Everybody can get incredible amounts of information, so there’s no competitive advantage of having it.”

If you look at my recent posts, you will see that I have been writing about how newspapers and other types of traditional media are attempting to change so they can meet the demands of today’s Internet user. Fisher’s comment points to a reality that it may not be easy, or even possible for some. Traditionally, a newspaper succeeded because it published and distributed information that was hard, or even impossible, for people to obtain otherwise. That day has long disappeared.

I find that when I encounter a newspaper article that is information-intensive, I soon stop reading it. More often than not, I have already read that information on the Internet. Even if I have not seen the information, it may not garner my limited attention because I am more interested in understanding why things happen than what happened. It is only the analysis-intensive articles that appeal to me. And good analysis may be beyond the ability of most journalist when writing about subjects with which they are not experts. Editors assign them to cover events and topics that may be relatively new to them.

Perhaps deep analysis has value in the Participation Age but not information. That means that if you want to make money, you have to know a lot about what you are writing.

I wrote the above material on Monday (March 5). The next morning, USA Today had an article about advocacy journalism that described one way that the media is changing, perhaps in response to the glut of information-intensive stories. The article features stories by Bob Woodruff, as well as a Washington Post team, about how injured soldiers are not receiving proper care, and a university professor puts this type of journalism into perspective:

“In a journalistic sense, Woodruff and the Post ‘own’ these stories, which cut through a crowded media marketplace because ‘people are hungry to be surprised by the content,’ says Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor. ‘The key is to get people addicted to your content. If you can’t surprise them, you can’t get them addicted.'”

It is increasingly hard to surprise people because of the participation in news gathering by so many amateurs. But it is clearly possible to get them addicted by in-depth reporting and great writing. Then your information is worth something.

Newspaper as social network

In Citizen Journalism, Newspapers, social network on March 8, 2007 at 9:04 pm

I read several related articles and blog posts in the last few days that pertain to the changing nature of newspaper to become, as blogger Steve Rubel notes, a social network. He was referring to changes at, which are presented in an editorial in USA Today. These changes allow people to do the following:

•” See how readers are reacting to stories;
• Recommend stories and comments to other readers;
• Comment directly on stories;
• Participate in discussion forums;
• Write reviews (of movies, music and more);
• Contribute photos;”

These features seem to be a first-step in a transformation that Mark Glaser called for in a blog post on his Mediashift blog. Glaser asks his readers to imagine how newspapers can enter the new age, and then presents several future scenarios that contrasts today’s practices with what he believes they should start doing. Here are a couple of examples:

“The way it is: Editors assign stories to reporters.
The way it will be: The community helps with story generation through special online forums, blogs and other interactive mechanisms.

The way it is: Editors choose which letters to print in the Letters to the Editor section.
The way it will be: An online forum allows all letters to be posted in full.”

There are 19 such pairs in his blog post. A careful reading reveals that Glaser seems to have provided a script that is following. When I read his piece, I think of it as a guide for newspapers to enter the Participation Age.

3.5 billion participants

In Technology on March 6, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Kevin Maney’s USA Today column tells us about efforts to develop low cost laptop computers such as the $100 laptop being developed by the One Laptop per Child project. Intel has entered the fray with its Classmate laptop

“The Classmate features a 7-inch color screen, Wi-Fi and a full keyboard. It runs Windows XP, has four hours of battery life and uses solid-state flash drives of 1 gigabyte to 2 gigabytes, instead of your typical hard drive.”

The cost of the Classmate is expected to drop to $200 by the end of the year.

And these are only two of several other projects aimed at dramtically expanding the market for networked computers.

“It’s all part of a trend. A swarm of tech companies is moving to sell lower-cost products to people in developing nations. AMD has a program called 50×15 — an attempt to spur development of products that would help get 50% of the world on the Net by 2015.”

According to an article in Wikipedia, the world’s population in 2015 is expected to be around 7 billion, up from 6.6 billion this year. If 50% of those folks are on the net, then we will have about 3.5 billion potential participants.

The dawn will be over by then and the Participation Age will be in full bloom.


In Mediamorphosis on February 28, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Ten years ago, Roger Fidler wrote Mediamorphosis: Understanding the New Media, (Pine Forge Press, 1997) and I started using it in my lectures about the upcoming media changes in the 21st century. Early in the book, he offers a definition of mediamorphosis:

“Mediamorphosis is a unified way of thinking about the technological evolution of communication media. By studying the communications system as a whole, we will see that new media do not arise spontaneously and independently — they emerge gradually from the metamorphosis

Wikipedia defines metamorphosis as a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching.

I thought of the mediamorphosis concept as I was writing my previous post about traditional media entering the Participation Age. I will explain this concept in this post.

Fidler derives his metamorphosis principle from three concepts: coevolution, convergence and complexity.

“All forms of communication are tightly woven into the fabric of the human communication system and cannot exist independently from one another in our culture. As each new form emerges and develops, it influences, over time and to varying degrees, the development of every other existing form. Coevolution and coexistence, rather than sequential evolution and replacement, have been the norm.”

Existing forms of media evolve when a new form enters, and each form is operating in an ecosystem where its evolution is dependent on the evolution of those around it. History indicates that the old and the new will coexist, rather than the old one dying. For example, AM radio coevolved with television in the post World War II era, and then again when FM came onto the scene to take most of the music audience.

“Convergence: a crossing of paths or marriage, which results in the transformation of each converging entity, as well as the creation of new entities. The forms of media that exist today are the result of innumerable small-scale convergences that have occurred frequently throughout time.”

I think of media convergence as one format borrowing what works from another media format. It was natural for a television station to develop a website that contained some of its video segments. We are seeing convergence today in this area as newspapers offer their own video segments on their websites.

“When external pressures are applied and new innovations are introduced, each form of communication is affected by an intrinsic self-organizing process that spontaneously occurs within the system. Just as species evolve for better survival in a changing environment, so do forms of communication and established media.

According to Fidler, this process is the essence of mediamorphosis.

Notice that he is talking about the interplay between forms of communication and media enterprises. Ten years ago or so, the Internet introduced emailing a new form of communication. I can go to one of my local newspapers website and arrange for it to automatically send stories I am interested in to my email address.

Instant messaging (IM) and short messaging (SM) is a new form for most of the population and we are seeing traditional media companies using them to distribute their information, e.g., ESPN sending sports scores to cell phones. This is the convergence of a form of person-to-person communication with a mass medium. From a mass media firm’s perspective, the emergence of IM and SM were a change in its environment and it had to evolve.

Traditional media enter the Participation Age

In Long Tail, Television on February 26, 2007 at 5:16 pm

It is now clear that the traditional media have joined the Participation Age by adopting the same tools originally deployed by amateurs: blogs, podcast, vidcasts, social networks, etc. This participation was highlighted by a headline in the Wall Street Journal on February 13: “MTV to Lay Off 250 in Digital Shift.”

“Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks plans to lay off 250 employees this week, in an effort to realign its work force away from its traditional television business in favor of higher-growth digital media.”

I read this article shortly after examining the Top Podcasts list in the iTunes Store: almost all of the top 20 podcasts come from the traditional media such as ESPN, NPR and the other television networks. This means that podcasts from the traditional media are in the fat part of the long tail distribution, which is to be expected for branded material produced by professionals.

As the MTV’s of the world have shifted part of their efforts to the domains that were originally the province of the amateurs, it appears that those amateurs are going to be in the long tail. But it could be a “fat” long tail, as indicated by a recent press release from Verizon:

“PRESS RELEASE — NEW YORK, Feb. 22 /PRNewswire/ — Verizon FiOS TV and consumer broadband customers will soon have easy access to premium user-generated video content from Revver (, the first marketplace for viral videos. Revver content will launch on Verizon’s Surround broadband entertainment portal by the end of the first quarter and on FiOS TV later this year, and it will be free to Verizon FiOS TV and broadband subscribers.”

Verizon is a big company but is not thought of as a traditional media company. As Verizon grows its broadband TV system, it provides a venue for talented amateurs to gain distribution that could move them closer to the fat part of the long tail.

A similar venue is being offered by the New York Times, perhaps the epitome of traditional media:

“PRESS RELEASE — announced today that couples who submit announcements to the Weddings/Celebrations pages of The New York Times will be able to submit their own How We Met homemade videos to Never before has featured user-generated content in a video format.”

It is clear that the New York Times has joined the Participation Age, as has the Associated Press:

“PRESS RELEASE — NEW YORK — The Associated Press and announced Friday that they have agreed to an innovative initiative designed to bring citizen content into AP newsgathering, and to explore ways to involve NowPublic’s on-the-ground network of news contributors in AP’s breaking news coverage., based in Vancouver, is the world’s largest participatory news network with more than 60,000 contributors from 140 countries.”

Participatory news networks are likely to become a bigger part of our future, either as readers or news gatherers.

I write it; you own it; that’s not right

In Content business on February 23, 2007 at 1:33 pm

A recent post by Terry Heaton delves into the issues behind the attempts by Google to convince the TV networks, and other copyright holders, to put their content on YouTube. According to Heaton, this situation is part of a bigger cultural and legal issue.

“There is more at stake in this battle than meets the eye, for the very nature of contemporary copyright law is what’s being challenged. It’s a touchpoint between the controlled distribution of modernism and the shared distribution of postmodernism, and I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s all heading.

I do know that the whole concept of copyright needs to be reexamined by lawmakers, because the public interest is not served by current law. Content creators aren’t served by it either, only the copyright holders — the elite and tightly-controlled world of music, film, video, print and artistic publishers — is benefited, and this artificial government only has itself to blame for its current conundrum.”

The concept of “shared distribution of postmoderism” refers to the distribution of content by multiple parties, not just the party who owns the content’s copyright. On one level, shared distribution does not seem to be the correct process unless the copyright holder agrees. That is clearly the way it has worked in most countries for a long time. As the record companies often say, without controlled distribution the artists will not get paid.

Heaton’s second point deals with this position; the content authors (the artists, writers, etc.) do not own the copyrights and thus may not benefit from distribution controlled by the copyright holder.

I am very supportive of this position because of my previous experiences. I wrote my first academic article while I was a PhD student at Purdue University and was elated when the article was accepted for publication by the leading journal in my field. My elation was reduced when I read the form that I had to sign; it required me to assign the article’s copyright to the journal. I had to give up all rights to the article, and even had to get the journal’s permission to hand out copies of the article to my students. This infuriated me because I had worked for over a year on the article and the journal had done nothing, absolutely nothing, to create the content.

I was told by my colleagues that I had no option. If I wanted to succeed in the academic world, I had to publish articles in leading journals, all of which required me to give up the copyright. I learned that it was even worse in some academic fields in which it was common practice for the author of the paper to pay the journal to publish it. Every time that I published an article or a book, I cringed when the dreaded copyright form arrived.

IMHO … no, make that IMAO (In My Angry Opinion), the content business is broken and needs fixing. So I applaud attempts by Google and others to design and implement a better model.

Father of Participant TV

In Television on February 22, 2007 at 3:16 pm

An AP story by Frazier Moore documents efforts by the broadcast networks to offer their content on the Web.

“But, even with all the new content, viewers weren’t content to just sit and watch. This year marked the coming-of-age for participant TV. Or, expressed another way, the YouTube Age.”

In yesterday’s lecture, I talked about the evolution of viewers from passive to active. At one point, we talked about the days prior to the invention of the remote control, which was a time when changing channels was only done with some thought because it required someone to get up and turn the dial on the TV set. The first form of participation came with the remote control … simply changing channels at will is clearly a form of participation.

Just this week, Robert Adler, the inventor of the remote control, passed away. CNet’s headline tells it all: “‘Father of the clicker’ dies at 93.” I prefer to think of him as the “father of participant TV.”