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Media & Culture | Anti-Social Musings

Media & Culture

Nov 10

Data Portability Wars – Facebook vs Google

A war is on to control your personal data. Cookies all over the net are learning as much about you as possible – for better and for worse -  but an even bigger war is looming as companies like Facebook place strict limitations on your ability to control what you do with your own personal data. Facebook claims that this is for your protection; however, is this claim disingenuous, merely allowing them to continue to have sole proprietorship on your personal data?

So it’s not surprise that Google and Facebook are taking this war public in a major way.

When I was at Viacom, one of the major sticking points in negotiating a deal with Facebook was over this very issue. A major problem for any business is (or at least should be) how effective they can be with CRM. And whether you’re looking to improve recommendations, incorporate behavioral targeting, or simply learn more about your visitors to make your site better and more relevant, once a user decides that they want to be a part of your community, they are making an explicit statement of interest. At that point, there should be no reason why the site, with the permission of the user, shouldn’t be able to develop and store their own user profile without forcing the user to re-input all their data, especially in a case when a third-party system is working in concert with a first-party system, as is the case with most implementations of Facebook Connect. It’s as simple as asking the user, “do you give us permission to import your data from Facebook?”

Facebook objects to this, while at the same time declaring that they’re on the side of the user. But, if the user owns their own data, should it be their choice to determine whether or not they can export data from Facebook into any site of their choosing? Google made this mistake when they shut down Orkut and have now down a total about-face on the subject.

I’m a believer in data portability. I think we, as businesses, will have plenty of opportunities and ways to convince consumers to provide us with personal data so we can improve their experience, make offers more relevant, and generally remove the clutter. The burden is on us to keep giving them great reasons to come back. I’m convinced that as long as we – as content owners, creators, programmers, product developers, and business owners – continue creating great experiences, users will continue to share their personal info with us, and no single company should have the ability to take ownership of your identity without your choice.

I hope someday we’ll see that “export your data” function in Facebook.

Jul 10

How Twitter and The Music Industry are the Same

It was reported today that according to a study by the USC Center for the Digital Future that zero – yes zero – people would pay to use Twitter.  Jeffrey Cole, the director of the Center for the Digital Future, says, “Such an extreme finding that produced a zero response underscores the difficulty of getting Internet users to pay for anything that they already receive for free.”

This is a refrain I’ve certainly heard before. After spending a decade working in the music industry, prior to the last handful of years in broadcast media, the constant topic of conversation was how to get people to pay for something we’d previously given them for free. For the music industry, the answer was fairly simple in principle (and much harder in practice). The answer was to focus on service and quality, and basically get the entire industry to completely re-think everything they previously thought a record label was. Though it’s taken a long time, some progress has been made. Most notably the changing relationship between labels and artists so that it is simultaneously more equitable while giving the record labels better incentives to focus their energy on an artist. For most artists, and I was once of them, too, the problem is always one of mindshare. The label will only push a handful of acts, and how do you become one of those handful? It used to be mostly luck and who you knew (as if it wasn’t hard enough just to get a record contract, you also had to make sure you had the political alignment in the company in your favor). The new approach is to provide more equitable financial relationship between artists and labels, which would be a fantastic approach if labels could be trusted. But that’s another conversation for another time…

For Twitter, the solution is far less clear. The problem with Twitter is not that it’s free or that it’s programmed user behavior. In actuality, people already DO pay for the things Twitter give you for free. It’s called text messaging and you pay your mobile carrier for it every month. The problem is that Twitter as a service is not what I like to call a “purpose driven” service. It’s been driven by marketers and leveraged to excellent effect by celebrities, but for the average user, there is very little purpose or need for them to use Twitter. What would happen if suddenly they couldn’t “follow” Britney’s exploits on Twitter? Well, they’d simply get them from their favorite gossip blog who’ll happily repost, or a zillion other sources. And you already have a great way to send short messages to your friends…those aforementioned carrier provided text messages.

So will any social networks be able to charge customers? Probably not, unless they’re purpose driven. LinkedIn can charge users who have the goal of using LinkedIn to either find candidates for open positions, or those who are job hunting and want to leverage LinkedIn’s tools. And let’s not forget that dating sites are really not quite different from social networks, especially with the functionality that’s evolved to match sites like Facebook. So the problem comes when you build products that have no clear underlying “purpose” other than that of communicating with your friends. Good luck getting end users to pay. Pandora has certainly learning this lesson, with some counts putting their paid subscriber base at less than 1% of their users.

Mar 10

Viacom Pulls Colbert & Stewart from Hulu – Bad Move?

The stories are flowing about Viacom’s decision to pull Colbert & Stewart from Hulu, and as you’d expect the response has been pretty polarizing. Comments and responses to posts about the decision reflect the type of consumer reaction you’d imagine – anger, frustration, dismay, etc. – while business press has been more forgiving and focused on the challenges likely to be present to negotiators. I can understand people’s feelings – when you’re used to doing something, no one likes change.

As a consumer I’m a big lover of Hulu. But as a former senior exec at MTV Networks, I was never happy about Colbert & Stewart on Hulu. Daily Show and Colbert Report immediately became the most popular content on Hulu, which helped build and strengthen Hulu’s brand far more than Daily Show or Colbert’s. Some have talked about Colbert and Stewart’s “halo effect” on Hulu overall, but while having their programming on Hulu helped grow Hulu’s brand, it damaged the respective shows’ ability to build a stronger community around their programming directly on their own sites, nameely ColbertNation.com and TheDailyShow.com. Furthermore, a conflict was created between the two companies’ ad sales groups as both attempted to best monetize the content. Not to say that I think more networks should pull their content from Hulu. I believe that Colbert & Stewart are a particular exception because of the volume of content and the popularity compared with other content on Hulu.

On the other hand, I also was not happy with the user experience on either site – as is obviously the case for many other people, too – finding them too difficult and confusing for the average visitor, and the full-episode player, which usually works fairly well, doesn’t have the same stability, polish and cleanliness as Hulu’s.

So in the end, was it the right move to pull the content? Many people, like user ‘Joe. F’ on PaidContent, are saying things such as, “Why do people keep saying that they should change to a subscription model? Doesn’t everyone realize it will kill the website? Hulu has attracted many illegal downloaders of their weekly shows, me being one of them. If they go to a pay model I will simply go back to pirating the shows, as would many people.” On the other hand, user ‘NJ’ on NY Times wrote, “Eh. This is hardly a shake-up. If Viacom were to take Colbert and Daily Show offline entirely, that would be something. But avid watchers of both shows can pretty easily access them on comedycentral.com.”

Ultimately, it’s all about a balance between ad dollars and viewers. It may seem counter-intuitive that removing content from Hulu could increase revenue, but let us assume for a minute (and this is just hypothetical – I’m not saying this is actually true) that Viacom is able to sell ads at a rate 30% higher than Hulu is for the same content. And also assume that some percentage of people who watch the shows on Hulu will migrate to watching them on Viacom sites. Obviously not 100% of people will migrate, but then again, not 100% need to migrate for it to be a net win. Furthermore, not having the content on Hulu actually protects Viacom’s ability to sell that space for the 30% premium.

So in the we’ll see if Hulu or Viacom or both are hurt by this. In the end, people who are big fans of the show will find an alternate way to view it, and will happily just visit their respective sites. Especially since the shows will still appear in search results on Hulu, so it’s hard to say that the move will damage Comedy Central very much.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t personally involved in the original negotiations with Hulu, and I have no special knowledge about the current negotiations between the two companies. This post represents only my own thoughts on the matter.

Jan 10

Non-linear and Multilinear Stories – Demon’s Souls Taking The Next Step?

There’s no mistaking the fact that the most interesting experiments in non-linear or multilinear storytelling are happening in video games. As story and character become an increasingly important element of the gaming experience, with top notch writing and acting starting to become commonplace, it’s interesting to see the ways that these new techniques will filter back into traditional storytelling.

I was amazed by Dead Space’s ability to maintain the mise en scene by making sure that menus didn’t pause the game and were completely diagetic – you never left the story and terror could really be around any corner. In my mind, it was a breakthrough that people haven’t fully realized yet. But Demon’s Souls takes the next step in a million tiny ways. Most importantly, they’ve redefined traditional online play into a collaborative, multilinear experience.

As you move through the world, you see ghostly figures that are actually other players who happen to be in the same place in the world map as you are. You don’t actually play with them, but you can see their movements through your area, helping you see if there are enemies up ahead. And each player is encouraged to leave notes for each other about what may be in store for them ahead.

These two simple elements have completely changed the way the story unfolds. Unlike traditional online game play that is often totally distinct from the single-player campaign, Demon’s Souls completely merges those experiences.

Sacrificed here is story, though. I’m excited to see how this type of non-linear multi-user approach could be applied where story and character play a larger role. Even more so, how could this approach be applied to traditional storytelling?

Nov 09

Another Post About The Death of Cable and the Future of “TV Everywhere”

Many people have written about the death of the cable biz and what will be in store for its future, so I’m certainly not the first to muse. But I find the lack of focus on obvious parallels in related businesses interesting, many of which would be highly instructive historical references to those in power, particularly at the MSOs who are fighting to consider their future.

Once upon a time there was the big bad AT&T, which was later broken up into the RBOCs, otherwise known as the regional Bell operating companies. Each of these RBOCs had the luxury of a near monopoly in the various regions they represented for many years, and during that time delighted in pillaging the coffers of their customers with ever increasing prices, poor service, and the like. Doesn’t this sound familiar so far? Replace RBOC with your local Cable Operator – for me that’s Time Warner Cable.

Over the last ten years there has been a monumental shift, however. As wireless technology improved and moved into the mainstream, customers found wireless to be an excellent alternative to the good ‘ole landline. Then things became even more interesting as VOIP changed the landscape for voice services even further. Suddenly, the RBOCs were faced with competition on three fronts – wireless carriers, cable MSOs who could offer VOIP over their traditionally video networks, and upstart companies like Vonage that had no limitations of competing in markets dominated by the RBOCs.

How does this compare to that traditional cable video industry? Well, it wasn’t long ago that you had only one choice in receiving service, your local MSO. Then the satellite business came along and offered a viable alternative to most customers in the form of DirectTV and Dish Network. Not to mention a couple of upstart MSOs that began trying to compete, with middling success, against the established players, like RCN. So, just like the RBOCs sat comfortably and didn’t evolve their business only to be “caught off-guard” by the massive landscape change (even though it took a decade to play out), the same thing will happen to the cable biz.

Already there are alternatives that are satisfying the early adopters, and as the worlds of Hulu and Sezmi begin to evolve, and as new wireless technologies like WiMax allow the wireless carriers to compete with video delivery services effectively (not to mention MediaFlo and the like), consumers will soon have many more choices and options with how they receive video content.

So what does this mean? Think about it in terms of the wireless biz… Since the service itself has been turned into commodity, they now can only compete mainly on price, features, and hardware. You can jump from one wireless carrier to another simply because you like the phone they carry better than the one offered by your current carrier. So imagine a cable biz that looks similar, where cable companies are forced to innovate on their technology as a core driver to customer acquisition. Where it’s not enough to have that same old cable box you always had, but you want the fancy new “smartbox” – making the parallel between so-called feature phones and smartphones… If the cable companies were smart, they would already be developing these new smartboxes, but to date they are still focused on the wrong things. Perhaps some get it, like EchoStar bringing Sling functionality into their suite of offers, but others are instead still focused on how to keep their captive audience even more captive by leveraging their negotiating powers with the content providers to lock out upstart companies.

On the surface TV Everywhere sounds like a good idea, but in the long run it just opens the floodgates to the cable biz morphing into an industry that will look exactly like the wireless biz of today.

I, for one, look forward to that day.