A Tale of Two Monopolies

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I originally thought of titling this post “Will new media kill the old?” but realized that it would be hard to add value to a debate which prominent bloggers such as Jeff Jarvis, Dan Conover and Nick Carr have already committed their braincells and bytes to.

So I thought instead to share the true story of how two traditional media monopolies in one medium-sized city entered the Internet age.  (The firms referred to are real, but pseudonyms are used so that I can take some liberty with the details).

With few exceptions, the first firm – let’s call it A – monopolizes the newspaper and magazine industry. The second firm – B – was the only free-to-air television broadcaster and also occupies most of the radio spectrum.

Now, while journalism is a core function of both firms, the differences between print and broadcast media meant that there was largely no real competition between them except perhaps when it came to hiring reporters.  [This said, A and B have dabbled in each others yard; in the 1990s, A started two television channels while B began publishing a free news tabloid.  A’s broadcast experiment failed but B continues to publish its daily newspaper.]

As the city’s population flocked online, each firm set up news websites to attract online audiences.

Firm A was first to market in 1995.  It had a natural advantage in that print news could be easily transferred to the web; as such, providing content for the website did not require significant additional resources.  But there was also concern that publishing news online for free would cannibalize sales of its newspapers; on the other hand, given that alternative online content was mostly free, there would be relatively few individuals who would pay for online news.

Firm B’s website, which started in 1999, used an advertising-funded model, which was consistent with its heritage as a broadcaster.  Its news was updated several times a day, but usually in short snippets, and often a simply transcript of what had been read out on air.  Its other advantage was that they had ready video content; broadband penetration had rapidly increased and most local viewers could stream news videos quite smoothly.  Today, B has the city’s top rated news site, drawing about 280,000 unique visits each day, and a Google Pagerank of 7.

Firm A has a different story.  For ten years, it offered the daily news (along with a three-day archive) to its registered users online for free.  In 2005, however, it announced that it would charge readers because it was “not a tenable business model to charge for the print edition of the newspaper and not for its online edition.”  Firm A still hosts a free news sites, but this one offers mainly brief news snippets, with links to the full articles on the paid site.  Still, this free site attracts 240,000 unique visitors a day and its Google Pagerank is 6.

Blogs and aggregator sites do provide an alternative source of information, but it seems that many of this city’s residents still rely on traditional mainstream media – whether online or off – for the news.  Notably, issues typically gain traction in the blogosphere only after they have first been reported in the mainstream media.

The lesson from this (true) tale is that the Internet need not spell death for old media monopolies for this city.  I think Jeff Jarvis said it best:

From a business perspective, we need to stop whining about readers moving online. If that’s what they want to do, then go with them, damnit! The biggest challenge is to train advertisers that online is more valuable than print because more people are there and they are more engaged in getting what they want, and so advertising there is more efficient and should be worth more.

Digital Diplomacy and the American Advantge

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Heartiest congrats to Nicco & family on their new baby🙂

While Nicco was attending to his paternal duties, we had the opportunity to hear from Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department.

Wikipedia describes Ross as Secretary Clinton’s tech guru who is “leading the State Department’s efforts to find practical technology solutions for some of the globe’s most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflict.”  (That, admittedly, is a fuzzy job description, but this NYT article by Jesse Lichtenstein titled Digital Diplomacy sheds a lot more  light on what Ross does).

Ross shared a cogent description of the world as he saw it.  Changing demographics – viz. the youth bulge and growing Diaspora – and the end of the Cold War signaled the need to shift from closed – economies, societies and governments – to open ones.  He shared some examples of his work with State (many already mentioned in Lichtenstein’s article) as well as an interesting anecdote  also how a app-development contest in Africa revealed needs that State department officials would never come up with on their own.  (The winner was an application that enabled farmers to track menstruation cycles of their cows for breeding purposes).

But what is digital diplomacy, really?  Diplomacy is defined as the conduct by government officials of negotiations and other relations between nations.  Is digital diplomacy just the same thing but using Nintendo Wii instead of golf clubs?

Apparently not.  Examples of what Secretary Clinton calls “21st century statecraft” include: the State Department’s role in helping to raise more than $40 million for the Red Cross via a text messaging drive in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Secretary Clinton’s Jan 2010 speech on Internet Freedom following Google’s brouhaha in China.

Most notable, and perhaps controversial, was the email from Jared Cohen (then working with Ross in the State Department) to Twitter’s co-founder/chairman Jack Dorsey asking the latter to postpone the site’s scheduled maintenance during post-election protests in Iran in June 2009 (later dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”).

Dorsey obliged, sparking debate as to whether Cohen’s move to keep Twitter running contradicted the US stated policy of nonintervention in the Iranian election.  In her article, Lichtenstein quotes Ross as saying “There’s no casework. There’s no legal statecraft precedent for such things.”

Perhaps not.  But broadly speaking, the sine qua non of diplomacy is to secure ones national interests. (For some countries, the specific goal of diplomacy is the avoidance of war, but this probably does not apply to the US today).

In the context of digital diplomacy, the fact is that US State Department — with its growing fraternal links to Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter — enjoys a significant advantage.  In 2009, Twitter was asked to reschedule its maintenance, hoping to facilitate a revolution in Iran.  Could Google be similarly persuaded to modify its search engine optimization algorithms, or Yahoo! convinced to reveal emails sent by a diplomat in a developing country?

In her Internet Freedom speech, Secretary Clinton recognizes that it will not be easy for the State Department to realign its policies and priorities.  But this will have to be done … and quickly.  Because such attempts to leverage on its digital advantage will almost certainly be viewed as selling out on the values — of freedom, equality, human rights — which the US  espouses.

The Big Bad (Filter) Bubble. Really?

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Had the opportunity to listen to Eli Pariser speak at the Shorenstein Center this week, where he gave an updated/small room version of this talk he presented at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum on the “Filter Bubble.”  (Pariser is a charismatic speaker who does really nifty Powerpoint slides, but if you don’t have 15 minutes to listen to the whole talk, Ethan Zuckerman has written an excellent summary).

Pariser is a political activist who rose to prominence when an online petition that he launched, calling for a nonmilitary response to the 9/11 attacks, attracted half-a-million signatures in less than a month.  As former Executive Director – and now Board President – of MoveOn.org, Pariser knows a thing or two about mobilizing people and (perhaps more importantly) raising money over the Internet.

Beware the Bubble

In a nutshell (in case you have not read Zuckerman’s summary either!) Pariser’s concept of the filter bubble is about how each Internet user is now presented with customized content.  If two individuals used the same search term, Google would give different results.  Facebook apparently gives you newsfeeds from friends who share your views.  (It seems to me that I get all my friends in my Facebook newsfeed, which probably means that I don’t have enough friends for the algorithm to kick in!)

Pariser’s concern is that customization is bad for citizenship, because public conversation would end if each of us only sees data that conforms to what or who we are.  He admits that filters are needed, because the information created since the beginning of human history through to 2003 (five Exabyte’s worth, apparently) is now produced every 3 days.  Media professionals have traditionally served as gatekeepers, deciding what the public sees.  While they may have had biases, they were expected to behave ethically.

Pariser shared that engineers at Google had not considered the issue of ethics, because they are convinced that their algorithms are “neutral.”  He argues, however, that code is not neutral but is inherently political.

Code can be neutral

I am with the Google engineers on this one.  For two reasons:

First, filters have always existed.  Our parents decide what to feed us and teach us.  Our friends may decide to withhold bad news.  Our governments have a whole bunch of secrets we will never know about.  (Like who really killed JFK?).  IMHO, one key filter is language.  Simply put, if a message not in Chinese and Spanish, you would have alienated the world’s two largest audiences.  Google’s translation software has in fact done more than most to break down this filter.

[And just to make my point, here is this same line in Chinese and Spanish, courtesy of Google Translate:

谷歌的翻译软件已经做了,实际上比大多数人更要打破这种过滤器。

el software de traducción de Google, de hecho, hecho más que la mayoría de romper este filtro.]

Second, if we define neutrality as the absence of bias, we can probably agree  (assuming no deliberate shenanigans at Google and Facebook) that code is neutral.  After all, it points some people one way, and others another way.  The code simply tries to help you prioritize – out of the 5 Exabytes – the pieces of data you may wish to see (first).

The real issue

Which brings me to what I think is Pariser’s core point – that balanced views are needed for good citizenship.  Pariser himself is trying to seek out people who have different views from his own.  While that is admirable, one could also argue that it stems from his professional interest as a political activist.  I think, however, that there are many, many more of us who would prefer to remain in our comfort zones.

To use an analogy, a record producer would listen to various genres and different acts.  He/she might personally prefer jazz, but would listen to Britney Spears and Lady Gaga because of the need to keep up with the trends in the business.  The individual jazz listener, however, may have never listened to Lady Gaga (nor wish to).

Ultimately, it is not a bad citizen who does not seek out divergent views; it is a typical citizen.

Pariser suggests that Facebook could add a slider to let us see stuff that’s more (or less) homogenous.  I think that’s fine.  Facebook has lots of stuff I don’t use anyway.

A Wiki on Whacking

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Wikipedia is perhaps the grandest and most ambitious example of intellectual collaboration – online or off – to date.  Our assignment this week is to become part of this revolution by editing a wiki.

I have previously made minor edits on Wikipedia anonymously, but as of last week, I am officially a Wikipedian! My username is AyamGoreng!

The wiki I plan to edit is [Caning in Singapore].  While the current article is fairly comprehensive, I think that the summary and section on judicial caning could be improved to provide a clearer, more objective and detailed picture of the topic.

The issue of judicial caning is one of those subjects that border on the “clash of civilizations” debate i.e. Asian values (the good of the general community) vs Western liberalism (the rights of the individual) i.e. the tyranny of the majority (of law-abiding citizens) over the individual (criminal who is being caned).  There are online articles denouncing caning as archaic and barbaric; many consider this practice as a human rights violation and call for its abolition.

[Note: My personal view is that judicial caning as practiced in Singapore is not an issue of human rights.  It is done in the presence of a doctor, whose role is to ensure there are no permanent injuries.  The question is simply whether it serves as an effective means of rehabilitation and deterrence.  But I will save this debate for a later post.]

At the same time, there is clearly some support for judicial caning.  When 18-year-old American Michael Fay was sentenced to jail and caning in Singapore following his conviction on vandalism charges in 1993, there were polls in the US that actually showed a majority of Americans supporting Fay’s punishment.

The Caning in Singapore wiki is largely factual and objective, but it could benefit from references to the Singapore Parliamentary debates, as well as press releases from Singapore’s Home Affairs ministry (which oversees law and order issues).  It is possible that earlier contributors have chosen to dismiss/avoid these official sources as national propaganda, but it should be noted that several other sources cited – like Amnesty International and the UN High Commission on Human Rights – likewise have their own agenda.

The fact is that while the government may have its bias (e.g. to downplay accusations of human rights violations), it cannot afford to publish untruths as its credibility would be at stake.  As such, parliamentary debates and government press releases/speeches provide a rich trove of data that should not be summarily excluded.  I would use the following publicly-accessible sources to add to the wiki:

http://www.parliament.gov.sg/parlweb/hansard_search_latest.jsp

http://www.mha.gov.sg/archives.aspx

Separately, while the article generally adheres to Wikipedia’s MOS, I also have some ideas on how readability could be improved.  I think the Wiki could also do with a few pictures.  I found a picture titled “Judicial caning in Singapore” here but am not certain if it is indeed a bona fide picture or if there are copyright issues involved.

I propose to rewrite the summary as follows:

Original (as of 12 Oct 2010):

Caning is a widely used form of legal corporal punishment in Singapore. It can be sub-divided into several contexts – domestic/private, school, reform school, military and judicial.

Of these, judicial caning, for which Singapore is best known, is the most severe. It is reserved for male criminals aged under 50, for at least 30 different offences under the Criminal Procedure Code. Caning is a legal form of punishment for delinquent male members of the military (Singapore Armed Forces — SAF) and this is administered in the SAF Detention Barracks. Caning is also an official punishment in reform schools and as a prison disciplinary measure. In a milder form, caning is used to punish male youths in many Singaporean schools for serious misbehaviour.

A much smaller cane or other implement is also used by some parents as punishment for their children of either sex. This is not outlawed in Singapore.

Proposed:

In the context of Singapore’s law and order, caning usually refers to the strokes of a rotan whip that male criminals between 18 and 50 may receive in addition to prison sentences.  Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the courts may impose caning for at least 30 different offenses; in fact, for several offences – including murder, rape, robbery and drug trafficking – caning is a mandatory part of the punishment.  Younger offenders (between 16 and 18) would receive a milder version of the punishment.

Variations of corporal punishment also used as a punishment for serious misbehavior or delinquency in the prisons and military, as well as a disciplinary measure in schools and other schools.  In private, some parents use a much lighter cane to discipline their young children; this is not illegal in Singapore.

The Cathedral, the Bazaar and the new Web

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Read two interesting essays recently.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond is a philosophical essay where technical jargon – like the moats surrounding a medieval castle – deter non-nerds from daring to enter.  Which is a huge pity, because its observations apply not only to software development, but are also salient in fields such as business management and public policy, (where, presumably, non-nerds are abundant).

The title of the essay is in itself an instructive metaphor.  “Cathedrals” are built according to a strict blueprint that only an elite few have access to; “Bazaars” on the other hand, grow organically, as each new merchant opens a stall to sell his wares.

Raymond likens traditional software companies to Cathedrals, where access to the source code is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; the bazaar is analogous to open-source software, where the source code is developed in public view.

The essay basically outlines 19 guidelines for creating good open source software, and this is where some truths which transcend technology serendipitously appears.  Number 11 is my favorite: “The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.”  Just replace “users” with customers/stakeholders/public where applicable.

To social science and liberal arts majors, Tim O’Reilly’s What is Web 2.0 provides a seminal reading into how the Internet has developed in the past 15 years, and what it means.  O’Reilly lists Wikipedia, blogging, open source software, peer-to-peer file-sharing (Napster) as the signposts which herald Web 2.0. This was written in 2005 – which is probably the Internet equivalent of the Middle Ages; written today, he would most certainly have mentioned social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Much ado about “Web 2.0”

According to Wikipedia, the term was coined by Darcy DiNucci, a consultant on information architecture, in her 1999 article “Fragmented Future”; the term rose in popularity in 2004, when O’Reilly Media and MediaLive hosted the first Web 2.0 conference, where Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle outlined their definition of the “Web as Platform.” World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, however, has apparently called the term a “piece of jargon,” noting that the Web in his vision was all along intended as a collaborative medium.

Notwithstanding, O’Reilly continues to evangelize “Web 2.0”; his essay is available online in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish (as well as English).

A Theory of Evolution

There is no question that the web is rapidly evolving, and that it is doing so in a fashion which is probably better described as being bazaar-like.  At the same time, corporate behemoths like Microsoft and (now) Google, which are more like Cathedrals, continue to dominate the scene at any time.

At first glance, the two seem to be in conflict.  For example, would the success of open source software mean the end for Microsoft?

In reality, however, I think that Cathedrals and Bazaars actually complement each other.  Once, at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, I noticed that many stall holders would shutter their stalls during prayer times and head for the grand Hagia Sofia which sits down the road.  Likewise, programmers at large software companies may in their spare time, help build Linux in open source collaboration; at the same time, those who dabble in open source development are getting the know-how they need to land that lucrative job at Microsoft.  It may thus well be there the new Web will accommodate both Cathedrals and Bazaars.

Gobbled by Google

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Required reading this week was Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

Auletta wants us to believe that Google succeeded in moving from a garage start-up to a $20 billion company because of passion, focus and vision (amongst other things). From a management perspective, perhaps, Googled sieves out the key lessons well, although midway through, one gets the feeling that Auletta is more Google apologist than objective business writer/commentator.

“Focus”, for example, is the explanation for why Larry Page did not look up from his PDA during a meeting with with Barry Diller. IMHO, this is bad manners, not focus, and Google succeeded in spite of it.

In fact, I think that it takes something more than passion, focus and vision (and all those other things) for a technology to company to move from zero to google.

In the dot com boom era, there were no shortage of companies with these “prerequisites”. Admittedly, a good many were founded on suspect business models, but there were also those which failed because they had ideas ahead of their time.

In 2001, for example, I interviewed with a company that was building mapping software.

The company (and I can’t even recall its name anymore) had a young and passionate staff, who were pretty much focused only on the mapping application, and had a vision of an application similar to Google Maps, several years before the latter existed. They even had government support in terms co-funding and subsidized premises in a technology park that probably had the fastest Internet access Singapore had to offer.

But it closed about a year later when seed funding dried up … along with dozens other start-ups with similar attributes.

I don’t think that this company had a bad idea per se because of the concepts they had in mind then can be found in GPS and other mapping applications today.

I do not discount Auletta’s observations of (and praise for) Google’s management practices, but fundamentally, I believe that it succeeded because — like other successful ventures — it was in the right place at the right time with the right product.

Google was not the first search engine by a long stretch — inter alia, there was Yahoo!, Lycos and Alta Vista — but it came into the picture at about the time when the world was on the brink of the Internet revolution. Search-term advertising was still quite new; Internet advertising then comprised largely of banner ads which were sold mainly by eyeballs and click-thrus. The dominant online advertising company in the late 1990s was DoubleClick (which was acquired by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion).

As a search engine, Google is at the cross-junction of the Internet, well placed to tap on a massive share of Internet advertising revenues.

What struck me when I first used Google (probably in the early 2000s) was unlike the other search engines, there was no advertising on the initial webpage. What made me continue using it, however, was probably the fact that it gave quick and good search results. Google’s acquisitions broadened its product line to include killer apps like email, maps (Google Earth and Streetview), photo-hosting and now, social networking. It is probably safe to assume that almost every netizen is familiar with the brand.

Google has indeed changed the world as we know it. Its success can be attributed to the passion, focus and vision of its founders and staffers. There was also a great deal of creativity, innovation and risk-taking, that might be more difficult to come by.

And a good dose of serendipity never hurt anyone.

Further thoughts:

This article where Google CEO Eric Schmidt discusses their relationship with Apple brings to mind another issue.

Google is a big business, and big businesses are oftentimes associated with evil, if only because scale breeds monopolies.  For example, what if Google uses its dominant position in Search to disadvantage its competitors … and could anyone prove it?

Is everyone else now a small fish, waiting to be gobbled by Google?

Singapore Politics in the Digital Age

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Noticed that Here Comes Everybody includes a brief mention of Singapore in pgs 209/210.

“Many countries place restrictions on the media in the run-up to elections, but this raises the question of who “the media”is today and what controls should be put on them. Different countries are coming up with different answers — Singapore banned blogging during the last few weeks before a 2005 election but couldn’t control Singaporeans blogging overseas …”

First, a couple of clarifications.  The said events actually took place in April 2006, and the ban was actually against podcasting of political content.

Singapore has Election Advertising Regulations which allow only political parties, candidates and election agents to advertise. The prohibition announcement was the government’s (somewhat less than adroit) attempt to ensure that netizens conform to this regulation.

Blogging on politics per se was not prohibited, although the government did announce that individual bloggers “have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.”  The government’s view was that individuals should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet to manipulate public opinion.  Such a move, of course, led to vociferous responses from the local blogging community.

And from my own observations, Singaporeans bloggers, at home and abroad (who knows, really?), continued to post regularly on the campaigning. (For more details, see the news article appended below)

Clarifications notwithstanding, I agree with Shirky on how the freedoms which the digital age brings can damage current social bargains (described as the second kind of loss under Solving Social Dilemmas). For Singapore politics, this is a particularly relevant point.

You see, the press in Singapore is not seen as a watchdog, but more as a nation building tool. The dominant media companies are government-linked corporations, and consequently, local journalists observe out-of-bound markers in their reporting.

All fine and good, but as Shirky points out, the Internet (and blogosphere in particular) has blurred the definition of what a journalist is.

The government believes that citizens are entitled to their views, but must be prepared to defend them.  On the other hand, local netizens are aware that government leaders have taken some opposition politicians and (foreign) journalists to court for libel/slander, and some remain behind the cloak of anonymity that the medium allows.

The next general election in Singapore will have to be held in the next 18 months. What will be rules of engagement be this time? I am not sure. The one thing that is clear is that with new media like Facebook and Twitter, the rules may have to be updated with every election.

Afternote:
Just listened to Ariana Huffington (of the Huffington Post) at the Shorenstein Center today (14Sep). She highlighted the importance of trust in new media and shared how the Huffington Post had pre-moderated all its comments despite having meagre resources in its early days so as to ensure civil discourse.

The issue of trust is in fact central to online political debate in Singapore.  The government believes that political commentary should not be anonymous, but some bloggers continue to hide behind pseudonyms.  This said, there are many Singapore bloggers who put their names (and faces) behind their words, and in fact, there are already contenders for Singapore’s version of the Post, such as The Online Citizen.

The issue, it seems, is whether trust can exist alongside anonymity in the political blogosphere.

______

Podcasting is not allowed during elections
By Hasnita A Majid, Channel NewsAsia
03 April 2006 1806hrs (GMT +8hrs)

Podcasting will not be allowed during elections as it does not fall under the “positive list” which states what is allowed under election advertising.

Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan added that streaming of videos during campaigning would also be prohibited.

He was addressing a question in Parliament on Monday about the use of new technologies on the internet during hustings.

Pictures of candidates, party histories and manifestos are on the “positive list” and are allowed to be used as election advertising on the internet.

Newer internet tools like podcasting do not fall within this “positive list”.

Dr Balaji said: “There are also some well-known local blogs run by private individuals who have ventured into podcasting. The content of some of these podcasts can be quite entertaining. However, the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations. A similar prohibition would apply to the videocasting or video streaming of explicitly political content.”

The Parliamentary Election Act was amended in 2001 to allow political parties to advertise on the internet.

This was to ensure responsible use of the internet during campaigning as the free-for all environment of the internet is open to abuse.

Dr Balaji added that individual bloggers can discuss politics, but have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.

When registered, they’re then not allowed to advertise during elections – something only political parties, candidates and election agents are allowed to do only.

Despite new internet technology, there’re no plans to change the law on campaigning on line during an election.

The government’s view is that people can have diverse views, but should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet, to manipulate public opinion.

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