Blog ads’ mainstream appeal

If you happen to run into a newspaper editor or publisher and they look a little dazed, or seem to be frantically checking over their shoulders, they have good reason — the interactive Web and specifically Web advertising (which grew by about 34 per cent last quarter) are creeping up on them with ever-increasing speed. If you want to rub it in, just show them an article that ran in the New York Times this week, all about a major advertising campaign that Budget Rent-A-Car ran — something that would normally have appeared in a newspaper.

And where did it appear instead? On about 177 blogs, including Gizmodo.com and Buzzmachine.com. The guy in charge of the campaign, Scott Deaver, said that what is “most valuable about nontraditional media like blogs is their ability to ‘actively engage the consumer’ compared with ‘passive TV spots’ and other traditional choices.” Plus, the Budget campaign cost about $20,000 — which wouldn’t buy you much in either a newspaper or on television. Budget chose the blogs by searching Technorati.com for blogs that got a lot of traffic and were updated regularly.

Blogs: shallow and egotistical?

Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com — the guy who wrote a critical and much-cited post earlier this year about the amorality of Web 2.0 — is up to his old skeptical tricks again in a recent post entitled “Jellybeans for breakfast.”

In it, he writes about how blogosphere proponents like to think of what they are doing as a deep, Socratic dialogue on issues — but Nick says that “experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning – skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep. It’s impressionistic, not contemplative. Fun? Sure. Invigorating? Absolutely. Socratic? I’m not convinced. Preferable to the old world? It’s nice to think so.”

He goes on to say that “for all the self-important talk about social networks, couldn’t a case be made that the blogosphere, and the internet in general, is basically an anti-social place, a fantasy of community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect? Sometimes, it seems like we’re all climbing up into our own little treehouses and eating jellybeans for breakfast.” Agree or disagree? I can see Nick’s point — and it’s true that blogging can sometimes deteriorate into a clubby exercise in mutual back-patting, about issues of interest to small group of geeks.

I would have to agree with some of the comments on his post, however (including one from Seth Finkelstein), which argue that many readers of the MSM (mainstream media) have just as shallow a relationship with what they are reading. At least blogs encourage discussion. It’s up to us to ensure that the discussion is worthwhile.

Is downloading theft?

While browsing my RSS feeds using the Ajax-y goodness of netvibes, I came across a post made by Toronto-based venture capitalist Rick Segal, who is a partner with J.L. Albright Ventures — a VC group that has investments in Q9 Networks, Nuvo Networks and FUN Technologies (which just sold control to Liberty Media for $195-million). The post was a response to one from Fred Wilson, another VC based in New York City, who was writing about peer-to-peer networks and the music industry and how the two should get together in the interest of serving customers such as himself.

Rick took Fred to task for saying that he had no problem with downloading music if he couldn’t find it somewhere legally, and said this made him a lost customer rather than a thief. Rick said this was disingenuous, however, and used this metaphor: “The clerk went in the back room, I couldn’t wait so I took the candy bar but if the guy had been at the counter I would have gladly paid for it. Extreme example? Yes, but it is to make the point. Let’s just call it what it is.” In other words: theft.

But is Rick right? I don’t think so — and the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with me. In a ruling in 1985, they specifically said that copyright infringement is not the same as theft because the “thief” does not “assume physical control over copyright, nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.” In other words, the candy-bar example — not to mention the entire concept of music “piracy” — tries to take legal concepts that pertain to physical objects and apply them to creative works that have no physical attributes, in the sense that they cannot be “taken” the way a candy bar can be taken.

In the case of someone like Fred downloading music, the only loss that can be shown (and then only theoretically) is the loss of a potential customer. Some copyright experts have even argued that downloading should fall under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, the same way listening to the radio does. In any case, I would have to disagree with Rick and argue that Fred is right to say he is more of a lost customer than a thief. A copyright infringer, perhaps, but not a thief.

Hey look — we’re winning! Honest!

There’s a story on the Associated Press wire about an agreement reached between the Motion Picture Association of America and BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen — and after reading about three sentences it becomes obvious that the primary intent of this “agreement” and the press release is to show that the MPAA is winning in its fight against on-line “piracy,” as they like to call it. All Bram has agreed to do is not let people search for copyrighted works using the search function at bittorrent.com — but that’s not how 99 per cent of people find content (copyrighted or otherwise) to download with BitTorrent anyway. This agreement either shows a complete misunderstanding of how BitTorrent works, or a desire on the part of the MPAA to make the crackdown look like it’s working, on the assumption that few people will know how it works, or care. Nice try.

Update:

BoingBoing.net has a link to a piece in Variety that explains it well, and makes it clear that this is part of a larger potential deal with the MPAA in which movie studios would use a modified version of BitTorrent to let users download movies on demand. Darknet has some skeptical (and largely true) comments about the abilities of mainstream journalists to describe things accurately. And Xeni Jardin has a nice piece on the topic in Wired magazine. Om Malik has also weighed in, and raises the question of whether becoming legit (or trying to look as though it is) will hurt BitTorrent.

Fruits of Ray Ozzie’s labour

Ray Ozzie, the Lotus Notes founder who is now chief techno-visionary at Microsoft (and author of one of the recent “sea change” memos about the need to embrace the interactive Web) has a new blog, and in one of his first posts he talks about a new extension to the RSS newsfeed standard that allows people to share, merge and otherwise interact with lists of meetings, appointments, contacts and other info. As Ray describes it, lots of people have multiple lists of contacts, meetings and other data — personal ones, work ones, different levels of work, and so on — and this allows them to “mesh,” so that information can flow from one to the other.

Better still, Microsoft has released this new format proposal under a Creative Commons license, which means it is freely shareable — a nice move by the (formerly?) evil empire. “We brainstormed about this “meshed world” and how we might best serve it,” says Ray, and “we decided we’d never get short term network effects among products if we selected something complicated – even if it were powerful. What we really longed for was “the RSS of synchronization.”

Dave Winer, who helped create what became the RSS standard, says he enjoyed working with Ray on the new extensions (described here), and that this collaborative process and what the group came up with was “technology at its best. This is is technology working.” Mike Arrington of TechCrunch says that new businesses will be built as a result of the SSE standard, and he applauds Microsoft for using the CC license.

Update:

Niall Kennedy is already working on exporting a feed that takes advantage of the new extensions, and software VC and blogger Jeff Clavier says the speed with which Microsoft came up with the new format, and the open-source nature of it, are a novel move for Microsoft , and Mitch Ratcliffe calls it “slick.” Not everyone is impressed, however: programmer Danny Ayers says Microsoft has ignored much of the work that has gone on with Atom, a more open standard, and is “ringfencing their own territory away from everyone else, a strategy likely to end in tears for them.”

Is Web 2.0 just one big party?

Am I the only one who feels left out of the whole buzz and hum that is Web 2.0, with its launch parties and takeover parties and Flickr galleries of same? I’m joking, more or less, but sometimes Toronto — or just about anywhere that isn’t the Bay area — feels an awful long way away from where things are happening. Do you feel the same, Mark? Of course, Paul Kedrosky is lucky because he gets to travel to all the conferences and so on, so he’s like an honorary resident of Web 2.0-land.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.com only arrived a few months ago, and already his house is the place to be for Web 2.0 conference attendees and launch parties, like the recent one for facial-recognition software company Riya — the one that may or may not be about to become part of the Brin and Page family. Maybe it’s because of the giant yard and patio that Mike’s house has, which makes it easy to have 250 or so people over. Some think the focus on parties has gone a little too far.

Anyway, reading various blogs after the Riya party makes it obvious just how many people know each other and see each other regularly in this small crowd of Web 2.0 types — people like Robert Scoble of scobleizer.wordpress.com and Jeff Clavier of SoftTech, not to mention Gabe of memeorandum.com (although he wasn’t there), Fred Oliviera of webreakstuff.com and Scott Beale of Laughing Squid. It’s funny in a way how something that is based on the next-generation Internet — a distributed medium in which anyone can be anywhere and be close to whatever or whomever they want — still depends so much on face-to-face communication and who knows who.

Update: My friend and fellow tech writer Mark Evans posted something similar about Google’s Xmas party. And interestingly enough, Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web — who lives in New Zealand — just wrote something about how maybe being far away from Silicon Valley isn’t such a bad thing… he notes that Dan Grossman of A Venture Forth says companies may increasingly start to look outside the Valley when they’re hiring.

Google takes over the Internet

Robert X. Cringely has an interesting theory about why Google has been buying all that dark fibre everyone says it has been acquiring: to take over the Internet — but in a good way.

“The probable answer lies in one of Google’s underground parking garages in Mountain View,” he says. “There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn’t just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We’re talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid.”

This idea makes a lot of sense. Google’s specialty consists of taking vast amounts of data and analyzing, collating, searching, sorting and displaying it. It does all this with in excess of 60,000 or so servers running as a giant distributed computer. So why not distribute nodes to where the they can jack right into the high-speed backbone of the Internet? That makes running things such as a Google distributed Office suite — or any other feature, service or application Google feels like providing — both easier and faster. Cringley figures the company could do it for about $1-billion. Considering the company is worth about $110-billion or so at the moment, and has $7.5-billion in cash, that shouldn’t be very tough.

Dan Dodge points to Cringley’s take as well, as does Michael Parekh.

The new kid vs. the veteran

One of the things causing a lot of buzz in the blogosphere lately — apart from the rumours spreading like wildfire that facial-recognition startup Riya, profiled recently by TechCrunch, may be acquired by Google for as much as $60-million — is the debate over the incredible growth of Digg.com, which according to Alexa is getting close to passing the venerable Slashdot.org in terms of Internet traffic.

However you feel about that, the rise of Digg has been pretty incredible, considering it was started just a little over a year ago by Kevin Rose, one of the former hosts of TechTV. People have already started to complain about their websites crashing after a link was posted on Digg, similar to the way people used to talk about getting “slashdotted.” In fact, for part of the day today Wired.com seemed to be having problems, perhaps because a story on the company was the number one link on Digg.

As several people have commented on Slashdot — effectively providing support for their own argument — the main benefit of Digg seems to be speed in finding new links and stories (although this ranking site seems to disagree), and the main weakness seems to be the moronic level of commentary. By contrast, while Slashdot has its share of idiots (not to mention pedants) the main strength of Slashdot is the comments, which often add a huge amount of depth. As one person put it, Digg doesn’t have a “soul.”

In other words, they aren’t really competing with each other. Each is useful in different ways. I must admit I look at both, and often find myself getting more out of Slashdot’s comments than I do from Digg’s quick hits.

Don’t buy blogs — partner with them

It hasn’t been that long since America Online bought Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. stable for a reported $25-million (U.S.) — and now comes another deal that is the polar opposite. From whom? None other than Jason’s old nemesis and polar opposite himself, Nick Denton of Gawker.com and Gizmodo.com and so many other great blogs. When Jason sold his company and became part of AOL, Mr. Denton made it clear that he thought that was a mistake, and many seemed to agree — and so instead of selling, Nick has partnered with Yahoo to distribute his blog postings from a number of blogs through various Yahoo hubs (the news comes via buzzmachine.com and before that via paidcontent.org).

As the ever-astute Jeff Jarvis of buzzmachine.com points out in a post on the topic, Nick’s choice seems to be the smarter of the two. Yes, the Weblogs Inc. team cashed in for a big payout, but for a blog network it seems to make much more sense to piggy-back on the distribution and marketing of a giant such as Yahoo or AOL, not get swallowed up by it. As Scott Moore of Yahoo tells Rafat Ali at paidcontent.org, the move is part of a strategy to become “more blog aware and blogcentric,” and it is not an exclusive deal, meaning Gawker Media can do similar deals with others. For what it’s worth, I would vote with Nick on this one. Susan Mernit seems to like it too.

Update: Jason Calacanis has posted his thoughts on the Gawker/Yahoo deal, and he says it’s great news for the medium. He also notes that his deal with AOL allows him to do distribution deals with whoever he wants — which may be true, but ownership is still different than partnering.

This debate is almost Audible

The audio service known as Audible.com, which has been around for a number of years and — to be fair — was way out in front of the downloadable audio game, set off a bit of a firestorm when it announced a service that would allow podcasters to distribute their content in its proprietary .aa format, which would make it easier for them to track it and insert ads into the audio stream. Dave Winer of scripting.com, who helped pioneer podcasting along with former MTV video jockey Adam Curry, jumped on the company for using a proprietary format, and said that they were “trying to make podcasting into a replay of previous media.” Om Malik of gigaom.com said that Audible was trying to “hijack a popular trend.”

So far, so good — fair comment and all that. And both men have a point: Audible’s service may have useful features that MP3s do not, such as tracking, but it’s still a proprietary format controlled by one company. Convincing others to use such a proprietary format instead of an open standard is something Microsoft has caught flack for, and quite rightly. In any case, Mitch Ratcliffe — who helped Audible develop the service — waded into the fray and the debate quickly got personal. He responded that Om and Winer were either missing the point or being deliberately unfair to Audible, and then he called Winer a thief for downloading audio without paying for it, and said that he could have sold his weblogs.com service for more than the $2.3-million he got if he had only invested more in it along the way.

Both Om and Dave responded quite reasonably to these unfair jabs, but Ratcliffe has refused to back down. Meanwhile, Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com has taken a refreshingly middle-of-the-road stance on the whole affair. Why do such debates — which are theoretically about the technology — often descend into ad hominem attacks? That’s one for the psychologists to answer.