Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Monday, October 31, 2005

HUAR: Humans United Against Robots

That raggedy rascal ben barren got me hooked on the weekdaily podcast Keith & The Girl, and one of KATG's projects is becoming increasingly important to Tinfinger. That is their campaign to spread awareness of the coming war against the robot army that some misguided humans are unwittingly helping to assemble, even as you read this blog. This campaign exults in the name of Humans United Against Robots, or HUAR (pronounced the same way a US Marine would say "HOO-AH" in a very loud voice at any opportunity). I am a fervent believer, and if KATG ever puts out a card to display my beliefs, I would carry it proudly.

HUAR has a deep and long-standing intellectual history, dating back to at least the coining of the term "robot" in 1920, in which the robots who were created as slaves overthrow their human masters:

Domin: Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?
Helena: The best? Probably the one who-- who-- who is honest-- and dedicated.
Domin: No, it's the one that's the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs... [Young Rossum] chucked out everything not directly related to work, and [in] doing that he virtually rejected the human being and created the Robot. (41)

The tradition of educating humans for the dark days to come is continued today in books like How to Survive a Robot Uprising and even blogs like this one entitled RoboCop proved dangers of computers.

In Tinfinger's area of operation, being Web news search engines, the main culprits of Vichyite collaboration with our future enemies are Google and Topix.net. Now, the Topix boys can be excused to a certain extent because they spent many long hours under trying circumstances working to make the Open Directory Project a success with humans as editors, so they can be forgiven for falling to the sweet song of the silicon sirens. Google sold out to the machine a long time ago, the poor misled souls.

Where am I going with this? Oh yes. I don't contend that robots are not good for certain things, like building sites which index everything. I'm not sure what you call such sites, but seeing as I'm from a journalism background I'll borrow a term from newspapers and call them "sites of record". If you want the whole Web, or whatever type of Web document you choose to focus on (like news stories), then robots are going to win over armies of humans. Yahoo's human-edited directory could not keep up with the explosion of Web sites, but Google's robots could.

However, with the advent of Web 2.0 comes a different model: OPML. I think it represents a different way of looking at directory structures which places humans at the centre of the process. Instead of trying to classify and categorise all the billions of Web sites and millions of blogs on the Internet, we don't even try to be completist. Instead, we are more interested in "reading lists" compiled on a small scale - the perfect scale for humans to contribute a high quality level in the journalistic role of Editor. Memeorandum and Blogniscient are examples of this on a micro scale, with their reading lists numbering only a handful of lists each and one guy running the show as Editor. The next step is to build that concept out into a loose, user-friendly directory structure for everyone to use - and so that everyone with "domain knowledge" of a popular subject can become an Editor too.

Don't get me wrong, being an Editor in the 2.0 era is not like being an editor of one or more of the categories in Yahoo or ODP. The role changes from a top-down structure of editors being appointed from on high by managing editors, to one where anybody can be an Editor but only the ones who do their job best (by defining the most accurate, comprehensive, most-updated reading list) have any success. Yahoo and the ODP were examples of 1.0 directories, and hopefully Tinfinger and others will fulfill the role of being a 2.0 directory. I realise people will be reading this and still wondering wtf I am talking about, but hopefully it will become clear in time. I'm thinking out loud here.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Blogniscient and franchising

Blogniscient had a makeover today. I don't like the new coloured buttons denoting the sub-category of blog entries. Is every politics blog LEFT or RIGHT? How about a button for TRUTH? Or maybe OBJECTIVE? It is interesting to note that of the five channels, all of them have a source with multiple entries in the top six last time I looked. Also, they abandon the default colorisation of search results, which is blue title, black snippet text and green site name and other attribute text. I'm tossing up using additional colour coding for various data within Tinfinger's result listings, so it is a bit disingenuous for me to say this, but it seems weird to me to start off adhering to the de facto standard and then changing it to something people aren't familiar with.

Apparently the dude behind Blogniscient, Ben Ruedlinger (doesn't he play QB for the Steelers?), hired a consultant to redesign the site help find experts to redesign the site who has blogged about it. I can see why Ben might have thought his original design was too derivative of Google News - complete with Google logo! - but dammit, it's the standard people have come to expect, so why buck the system. On the new logo and tagline:

With that aim, the new tagline became The bird’s eye view of the Blogosphere. The change was the result of some brainstorming we did to properly communicate to users what they can use Blogniscient to do. The new logo although somewhat subtle ties in nicely with this message. The arch and dot connecting the two ‘i’s’ appear as a simple eye but also represents a musical term called a fermata. A fermata is often referred to as a bird’s eye.

I read the Three Fermata of Palmer Eldritch, good book that. An eye? Looks more like some other body parts I could mention. Actually, it looks most like a sunrise which is showing a very worrying sunspot, which for Star Trek fans usually results in vacating the vicinity of that star at warp speed. "Somewhat subtle" is too subtle, IMO. Personally I wouldn't trust consultants to mess with some of my most important corporate decisions, which logo and CSS definitely are for a Web business.

It's good that Blogniscient has three more channels than Memeorandum, but they are still waaaaay too broad. Someone is going to build a site which franchises out the human-moderated RSS aggregator channel concept to expand it to hundreds and thousands of mass niches. Probably not me!

Here's how I would see that working, BTW. To create your own keyword.rssaggregator.com subsite, you must:
  • Pay a formidably large upfront fee, say US$500 (to discourage tirekickers and SEO spammers)
  • Prepay a monthly fee to keep that keyword active for you
  • Forfeit your data to the aggregator owner if your payments cease
  • Enter in news sites, blogs, and any other RSS feed relevant to your keyword
  • Maintain that whitelist of feeds to ensure high quality of results

For all this, you get:
  • A sliding scale percentage of Google AdSense/YPN/Adbrite/Blogads/whatever revenue from ads on that channel (ad account controlled by the aggregator owner who takes his/her cut, but you have full access to stats)
  • An exclusive on that keyword (i.e. if you want knitting, then no other knitting channels are sold)
Of course, this would only be worthwhile for the franchisees if they pick a popular keyword and stick with it, but that's what the aggregators want. Imagine a network of Gabe Riveras, all paying Gabe (or someone else?) for the privilege of franchising his clustering code and working hard to produce channels with the same quality as Memeorandum's two existing pages. That's how I think you monetise content aggregation. Not that it has much to do with Tinfinger, I'm just saying.

The rankness of Google News

Interesting snippet from WebProNews, even if it is hidden inexplicably in a story about Digg getting funding (via benbarren):

Google News has garnered a following by gathering stories organized by topics, but an algorithm drives that process rather than users. In turn, Google News has been tweaked enough that only the most powerful news sources come to dominate topics, even when better stories from lesser sources may exist.

That's why a 100-word piece appearing on the Los Angeles Times web site will sit atop a topic in Google News while a lengthier and more useful 500-word report gets buried in the rankings for that topic.

If true, that would explain why GN is still in beta after three years. If you're presenting news results based on keyword searches, there are a number of criteria I can think of to produce a useful ranking, in the order I'd put them in:
  • number of times users clicked through on that story
  • presence of keyword in title
  • time since posted
  • source site
  • how early the keyword is first mentioned in article body
  • number of times keyword is mentioned in article body
  • length of article
  • number of inbound news links
  • number of inbound blog links
  • number of inbound Web links
  • how much the source site is paying me for high ranking
Oops, forget that last one. So aaaaanyway...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The untapped archive of non-RSS feeds

One of the most valid criticisms of Web 2.0 is that yes, it's a good thing in general that entry costs are much lower these days with businesses able to reach profitability with only a six-figure investment - but that means that even if you have a good idea, it's highly likely that at least 20 other spotty-faced entrepreneurs with at least as much technical nous as you have had the same idea, so you're probably screwed anyway. RSS/Atom aggregators are perhaps the prime example of this (sorry Ben, Feedtagger qualifies!).

Tinfinger (you remember, the "human search engine") is going to aggregate RSS feeds amongst other functions, so we are as much of a target of this criticism as anyone. However, the original inspiration for Tinfinger came from something which had no RSS in it at all. The site's "proof of concept" was a feature on our AFL fantasy football site FanFooty called Media Street, which indexes stories from 35 news sites.

However, unlike those two services, none of the sites indexed on Media Street have RSS feeds. You might ask why we went ahead and built an indexing service. What a pain in the arse that was! Sure, we could have waited until at least some of those sites produced RSS feeds, but I guess we'd be waiting a long time and footy fans want their news NOW. To build that service, Tai and I had to code up an indexing script that would look through each site's story archive page for new stories and then index those new pages when they appeared. And it updates every five minutes via a script running on my home PC. Craziness!

I don't have any actual figures on how many news sites have RSS feeds at the moment, but I'm guessing it's a minuscule portion of the whole, say 5% (© PNOOMA Research). What about the other 95% of sites? Are their contributions to the Internet to be cast aside? I certainly couldn't build an automated news aggregator for specialist Australian rules football content using only RSS sources, because the ratio of non-RSS publishers to RSS converts in that sector runs at exactly 35:0.

This gets me back to my starting point of how all businesses in the RSS aggregator industry are the same. Why? Because they all rely on the same feed of RSS/Atom feeds from Weblogs.com and the Feedmesh, and the vast majority of content in those two services is blogs, not news or other types of feeds. So, a business opportunity exists for companies to go out to the un-RSSified Web and find these feeds, right?

Maybe. The reason RSS is so good is that it is a far more efficient method of updating new content, so that bandwidth is only used when there is new content, rather than the old way (and the Media Street way) of scraping the index page every X minutes. Why go through all that pain in the short term when Information Age predicts 100 billion RSS feeds within six years? Because users want that content NOW. But can you make enough money to offset the increased bandwidth and hardware costs? And how to find all these lost proto-feeds? How to get non-geek users interested in entering in details of index page URLs, link identifiers, header and footer strings, site metadata, and other such technical bits and pieces?

These are the issues I'm mulling over. When Tinfinger debuts, hopefully you'll see what I'm talking about.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dot Oh: No.

Everyone's favourite 2.0-loving kiwi Richard McManus tries his best to rename the phenomenon:

I'm really hoping this 'Dot Oh' term takes off - kind of like Dot Com, ay? :-)

In a word, no. To me, that sounds like a newly introduced top-level domain for porn, to be closely followed by Dot Yes Yes Yes You Big Stud.

Lest we forget, the sad story of ex-Netscaper Jamie Zawinski on the insanity of point release politics should be required reading. Poor Jamie, he was so bitter. His blog front page is pretty though.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

IBM: Hey guys... um... guys?

So nice to see IBM getting into podcasting, as detailed in this podcast. Oh look, the boys at Podtech.net have put an ivory tower at the top of the page to set the scene, how nice. And the interviewer has to kowtow to the company's internal nomenclature before the transcript even begins, that's a good start. I could go through the transcript piece by piece pointing out how wrong wrong wrong it all is, but that would take too long. Podcasting is not something that should be controlled via press release, which is all this extended "suck job" (to use a phrase of my sister's) amounts to. Please excuse my cynicism, but I have heard this kind of thing from IBM before in relation to knowledge management, enterprise portals, intranets, and every other fad technology but that fact remains, as one of the Big Blue wonks says:

... in a large company like IBM you’ve got a lot of experts, you’ve got a lot who are among the best there is at what they do, but it’s easy to get lost in such a large company.
When the podcasting fad is over (or at least mainstreamed out of coolness), you still won't be able to just pick up the phone and find anyone in IBM, and if you do go through the intense and lasting pain of finding someone (as I and many other IT journos have done over the years), they rarely have anything new or vital to say on the record. Say what you want about Microsoft, they let Robert Scoble surface from within and then promoted him. Who is IBM's Scoble? Interesting to note the first trackback on that story is Scoble himself.

Marx on the ceiling (or The Zen of DING!)

Did you ever get the feeling that as you're participating at a site on the Web over a long period of time, you realise that your experience is training for something else? I got that feeling after my time at FUMBBL.com. I suppose you could call it the Last Starfighter Moment.

Allow me to explain. FUMBBL is a site built by a Swedish guy called Christer Kaivo-Oja as a community site for Blood Bowl, a gridiron board game which was an offshoot of the Warhammer fantasy world from Games Workshop. The community was not built around the tabletop board game, but instead on an unofficial Java ripoff of the game written by SkiJunkie. I came to the site in 2003 as an old fan of Blood Bowl, but I hadn't played it since 1992 and only had a vague recollection of how it was played. It wasn't long before I was back in the swing of things though.

As a community site without any revenue streams other than donations, FUMBBL is a success by any measure, especially considering the niche appeal of Blood Bowl. At last count it had more than 22,000 users, and is close to hosting its half-millionth game. And all written in the LAMP environment by one main guy and two helpers (sound familiar, two point ohers?). One underrated aspect of the site is its healthy non-American and non-English-speaking audience, with healthy subcultures of Spaniards, Germans, Swedes, French and others.

Part of the appeal is that there are so many other players in the community, and so you can compete with them at many levels. There are many types of divisions each with their own restrictions and rules; coach rating systems; team records and individual player records; unofficial player-run tournaments and official admin-run tournaments; forum battles; the list goes on. I sampled all of these, eventually gaining enough respect within the community that I was appointed by Christer as a "monkey" (who can approve new teams), and then a "gorilla" (a full admin who can ban cheats and has ops in chat, amongst other admin powers). I ended up editing the site's newsletter, the Grotty Little Newspaper, plus being one of the main organisers of official tournaments. In addition, I was vocal on the official Blood Bowl forums where they were openly formulating the ruleset for the next version of the game, a set of provisional rules called the Vault for which I took it upon myself to edit the summary document, which caused one of the invovled parties to reward me with a limited edition miniature of an alien from the movie Alien in Blood Bowl regalia (below). I was all up and down that beeyotch, as the kiddies say. Using the language of MMOGs, I was luxuriating in the incremental existential pleasure of the DING.

Despite all this participatory fun, I had to leave the Blood Bowl community cold turkey, because there was only so far I could go. I may have been in positions to contribute a lot of value to the community, but it was all still in the position of consumer, not owner. Not to criticise Christer or the Games Workshop guys (g'day Galak, thanks for the fig!), but no matter how much I contributed, I was always only going to be an outsider looking up at the glass ceiling. Looking back now, I value the time I spent at that site as I know its lessons will be invaluable in my attempts to build Tinfinger, FanFooty et al into vibrant communities.

The reason I'm pouring out all this is that I was reminded of it while reading the cluster of blog entries about incentives for community participation, the latest of which was by Anil Dash on the Interesting Economy. Yes, users can feel benefits from social cachet, but that only goes so far. There is a point after which you have to offer them some ownership of their efforts.

When we talk about ownership, this is where I like to bring my old mucky-muck Karl in. I don't have much faith in his theories for changing the world in practice, the poor old dear, but I find it refreshing to apply a Marxist critique to identify where the real sources of power lie.

No matter how many times a user dings, even at a Web 2.0 site, he/she does not have any ownership over the "means of production". What does that last phrase mean in an online context? It means an AdSense/YPN account whose ID is in the code on the site in question. So who is going to be ballsy enough to introduce a revenue-sharing agreement with their users in exchange for a cut of the AdSense cash?

More importantly, who is going to be the first to get big enough with this new franchising model to ditch AdSense/YPN and build their own advertising network?

Orifice manoeuvres

In a particularly incisive Wired article on the Motorola ROKR by Frank Rose, the thing that stood out for me was the neologism of using the word "orifice" to describe companies which use bottlenecks in distributed networks as their business model and thus stifle any innovation which could possibly relax those orifices, with the primary example being telecommunications carriers. The piece references (but doesn't link to) a Wall Street Journal article by Walter Mossberg which explores the same theme and also attributes the orifices quote to Steve Jobs.

At last month's D: All Things Digital technology conference, which I co-produce for The Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he was wary of producing an Apple cellphone because, instead of selling it directly to the public, he would have to offer it through what he called the "four orifices" -- the four big U.S. cellphone carriers.

I can think of other examples of orifice manoeuvres (Rose's phrase, my preferred spelling). The four big Australian banks (CBA, NAB, ANZ, Westpac) come to mind, with the material passing through the orifice being access to capital. Licensed TV networks are a similar example, with the orifice being access to spectrum.

It has always bugged me that the ghetto into which technology reportage has been thrown is called IT&T, standing for information technology and telecommunications. These are two wildly divergent industries. On the one hand, you have IT which is fluid and dynamic, with small companies continually sprouting up to inject the lifeblood of innovation into its vibrant rainforest of ideas (holy mixed metaphor, Batman!). On the other hand you have the telco industry, where it's the same monolithic players that have been there forever and NOTHING ever changes. At the risk of exceeding my metaphor limit, how would you like it if a newspaper liftout about cars was dominated by articles about average road quality, internal squabbles between fluoro-jacketed roadworkers, and spooging over the latest thing in reflective lane markers? I know Michael Sainsbury does a great job at the Australian, but how many stories about Telstra can one man write? Give telcos their own ghetto and stop crowding out space which should be devoted to industries capable of innovation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Google PR is freebasing the love

Unseemly. That's the word that comes to mind when viewing Memeorandum's cluster of Google Base buzz. The blogosphere just got through castigating Google last week for allowing spam to ruin Blogspot, yet today the usual suspects are like 13-year-old kids waiting for their first download of a Paris Hilton sex AVI to finish.

The real issue right about now should be what is happening at the Zeitgeist event, and why it is so secretive. If blogging-as-citizen-journalism is so good, where's the fearless leaking in the name of freedom of speech? There are 400 attendees, surely one of them can be gotten to anonymously? Anyone?

Nope, they're all busy trying to be the first to make an "all your base" joke. Wait, make that the 17th.

Georgia: a font of our times

Is Georgia the official font of Web 2.0? 1.0 was defined by Times New Roman - still the default font in Web browsers - but I'm seeing Georgia much more often these days as a body font, especially on blogs. Part of it is, I think, simply that it is not Times. Designers want something new to differentiate themselves from the old, and Georgia is pretty much the only non-Times serif alternative that ships as standard on both Macs and what used to be called IBM-compatibles (as it was part of Microsoft's Web core font project). Perhaps the reason Georgia never caught on during the original Web boom is that it doesn't look nearly as good as Times when aliased, whereas antialiasing has become the norm now so the difference is not noticeable.

If Palatino was more widespread on PCs then maybe it would have had a shot, I always liked it as a body font. Frutiger is currently making a minor bid to outseat Verdana and Helvetica/Arial, but I'm not seeing much traction beyond Blogger.com. My favourite font is Gutcruncher, which was used as the font of the board game Blood Bowl.

Google's AD&D alignment

It has gone well beyond cliché for bloggers to accuse Google of breaking their stated motto of "Don't be evil". Whatever harebrained scheme the Googlers try next, it seems everyone these days wants to convict them of hoisting themselves on their own petard.

I don't own GOOG shares (or any shares), but this strikes me as missing the point. Google is not evil, nor is it going that way. Perhaps the fault lies with the conceptualistation of that motto in the first place, since it is very hard for corporations to be evil in the true sense of the word. Sure, companies can be evil to their employees by paying them low wages or ignoring OH&S, but with so many option-rich millionaires working at Google I don't think they are anywhere near that. Google is also not evil to other companies, since that word has very little meaning in the world of corporate cut and thrust. Is it inherently evil to make a profit? Is it inherently evil to buy someone out? No and no.

If Google is worthy of criticism, it is not on the issue of evil. It is on the other axis of alignment familiar to players and DMs of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system: the law/chaos axis. On this axis, Google would undoubtedly not fall very far on either side of the good/bad axis, but would certainly be straining the upper limit of the law axis. Google is almost the apotheosis of lawful neutral. Its code of conduct does not deal with any issues of good versus evil, it is all about adherence to the law. Furthermore, Google's real corporate aim is to organise the world's information - how much more lawful can you get?

Consider this description of the fictional race of modrons from the Planescape expansion of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:
Rumor has it that they are the keepers of their mechanical plane, the maintainers of the gears and the polishers of the cogs. Modrons keep the whole place running smoothly and cleanly—without them, Mechanus would surely break down. Though the majority of modrons live in Regulus (their own city in Mechanus), they can be encountered anywhere within the planes. No modron is ever without a task to carry out, though these tasks may be no more comprehensible to other creatures than the modrons themselves are. Just what are the goals of these creatures of ultimate order? Do they want to impose total law over the rest of the cosmos? Are they simply keepers of the machinery that drives the multiverse—the repair unit of infinity? Or are they devious players on the cosmic gameboard, trying to eliminate their competition? These questions may never be answered, and a host more may never be asked. No one but a modron truly understands a modron.

Google is not good or evil, it is merely lawful. It is no surprise that rowdy bands of chaotic good adventurers would chafe at the sight of such a radically different way of looking at the world, but if we didn't have Primus Eric Schmidt and his Google modrons looking after the gears and cogs of the Web, where would we be? Over with Steve Baatezu... I mean Ballmer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dave Winer's pimpcast

The following is edited highlights of the one-hour podcast Dave Winer recorded at a dinner with lots of Web 2.0 peeps. Among the subjects covered were Dave's insatiable demands for female companionship (helped along by Sylvia Paull's recruitment drive), podcasting, John Perry Barlow, reading lists, marijuana, amorality and Dave's enmity with Tim O'Reilly.

Dave: And Mike, what are you doing in Berkeley?
Mike Arrington: The only reason I've come to Berkeley, Dave, would be to see you.
Dave: Well, there you have it.
Someone else, possibly Don Hopkins: That's sweet and gay at the same time. Amazing.

Sylvia Paull: I'm the only woman here, unless there's a tranvestite...

Dave: I was listening to Tim O'Reilly on a podcast, and he was making a fair amount of sense, surprisingly.

At this point Dave pauses the Archon, but then when it starts again he's with Kerry and Jane, two random women eating elsewhere in the restaurant whom Sylvia had recruited to talk to all these lonely single men (!) after Dave complained about the ratio of men to women.

Kerry (evidently pointing at the Archos): Shouldn't it be showing our words on the screen?
Dave: No, it doesn't understand your words.
Kerry: Oh, it doesn't?

As Dave gets further into discussion with Kerry about how lonely all these men are, he pauses the Archon again. When we resume (@12m), Dave is with Niall Kennedy from Technorati, Scott Rosenberg and Steve Gillmor.

Dave (to Scott): I think you've been hyped, basically, which is not your fault but shit happens, right?

Julia (a waitress): Anybody need sugar?
Dave: We need to get you to sign a release, because we're doing a podcast right now. Would you like to say hello to anybody, because it's actually recording?
Julia: OMG!
Dave: What's your name?
Julia: I'm Julia.
Dave: Would you like to say hi to your mother?

The assorted digerati then proceed to grill Julia (who is mostly off-mic) on her knowledge of Web 2.0 technologies. After she leaves, conversation drifts towards The West Wing and US federal politics.

Steve Gillmor: John Perry Barlow said Cheney was one of the two smartest people he ever met.
Dave: What does that say about John Perry Barlow?
Steve: Bill Gates was the other one.

We find out Niall Kennedy's little brother is serving in Iraq. Dave changes the subject, and tells a story about how he once turned down a TV interview in Nashville because he was in the middle of a podcast. Then Dave moves on to a very useful discussion of reading lists (@30m).

Dave (as Happy Birthday is being sung in the background): This is going to be the most interesting podcast if you can make out any words.

Dave: I've noticed that happens sometimes, you sell a site and all of a sudden the links don't work so good. Who am I to judge? If their check clears, never mind, shut up.
Niall: Should I mention Technorati is expanding?

Steve grills Dave about why he's living on the West Coast again (@35m), producing some worthwhile pontification.

Dave: If you haven't noticed, I bounce across the country, I hit a coast and I either stop there or I bounce off of it.
Everyone: Like a game of Pong?
Dave: Yeah, like Pong.

Kevin Burton (@42m): You remember those cracking machines, for DES? I came up with a name for that: Deep Crack. No no no no, it's not what you think, it's not what you think, no no! There's Deep Blue, the chess machine, and Deep Six, and a Deep Crack in the government's encryption policy.

Some guy comes up and drunkenly asks Dave is he's going to strip (!). Dave recounts his faded memories of Beavis & Butthead, and moves onto discussing marijuana.

Dave: We used to smoke a lot of dope, Steve. A lot of dope.

Some guy called Enric talks about toking it up with Harriet Miers (@49m). Someone else mentions Nicholas Carr's blog entry about the amorality of Web 2.0 (@52m).

Dave: I read Nicholas Carr's thing, and for once I agreed with Tim O'Reilly. It's like: "Fuck you Nicholas Carr, who the fuck are you?" I even posted as much in his comments. I thought bloggers, we were going to at least try not to turn into the whores of the mainstream media. Present company excluded, of course.
Someone: We're in the grey zone.
Dave (laughing): I say that with all due respect.
Someone: And love!

Conversation quickly turns to podcasting.

Dave: I actually listened to Tim O'Reilly on NerdTV, and he was great. Tim O'Reilly should not write, okay, he's really not a very good writer. I swear to God, when he writes his blog posts they come off as whiny, like a really bad undergrad term paper type stuff. But he can string together a set of sentences when he's talking and he makes a lot of sense.

Back in Blog: the Web 2.0 comeback album

** BONG **

** BONG **

** BONG **

** BONG **

Oh HELL'S BLODGETT, it's Dave Winer (centre) in schoolboy knickerbockers to lay down the killer riff YOU DISRUPTED ME ALL NIGHT LONG, Dave, rock on! We've got Michael Arrington on the mic (far right) and he's gonna FLIP TO THRILL. Om Malik (second from right) is on the drums, he's gonna SHAKE A LONG TAIL but he wants to know WHAT DO YOU DO FOR P/E RATIO. Gabe Rivera (far left) is on bass guitar. Gabe wants you to HAVE AN RSS ON ME, but after that he'll say "LET ME PUT MY OPML INTO YOU". Robert Scoble (second from left) is also on guitar, and you just know he'll be GIVING THE DOG A BUYOUT.

Hey there all you media men
Throw away your fancy ties
And while you're out there sittin' on a hedge fund
So get off your 1.0 payout and come down here
'Cause two point oh ain't no riddle man
To me it makes good Google AdSense
Google AdSense! Ow! Oooh yeah!

Hundreds of podcasts are playing on my iPod
We got valuations coming up from the floor
We're just browsing to the Flock that's giving too much noise
Are you deaf, GEMAYA will buy us all

We're just bloggin' about the future
Forget about one point oh
Blodgett'll always be with us
Meeker's never gonna die, never gonna die

Two point oh ain't Web pollution
Two point oh ain't gonna die
Two point oh ain't Web pollution
Two point oh it will be flipped

Yes it will, sh*t sh*t sh*t

I took a look inside your bedroom door
You looked so good tagging on de.licio.us
Well, I asked you if you wanted any rhythm and love
You said you wanna MySpace instead

We're just bloggin' about the future
Forget about one point oh
Beta'll always be with us
AJAX's never gonna die, never gonna die

Two point oh ain't Web pollution
Two point oh ain't gonna die
Two point oh ain't Web pollution
Two point oh is just made of people

Monday, October 24, 2005

White Guy In A Suit 2.0

I always loved that Letterman bit they did every four years when US presidential elections came around, and Paul Schaffer did a review of the candidates which consisted of everyone being a "white guy in a suit". I did a year of Economics at the University of Melbourne back in 1991, where there was a strict dress code for certain student cliques: every economics student had to wear a piece of Country Road clothing on their body at all times. One day one of the clique members was discovered in a bus with what looked like top to toe non-CR attire. He was wrestled down and stripped, but he earned a reprieve from eternal social damnation when it was discovered he had remembered his Country Road underpants (true story!).

Looking at pics of Arrington/Winer at the TechCrunch Party with similarly attired crackas and the four guys at the bottom of this blog entry, I can't help but think that a similar bit could be fashioned for Web 2.0 disciples. White Guy In A Tieless Single-Button-Unbuttoned Business Shirt?

Journalists are people too

There seems to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how 1.0 Old Media is, and how journalists should wake up about their roles changing to something that doesn't involve old school objective journalism. Mark Pincus even floated the idea of making most journalists part time, or something.

i would also transform my papers to more of an about.com model where most of my editorial/writing staff are part timers and a lot of my content is coming from other sources - ie. drastically lower my cost of content creation while increasing community involvement.

I'm not a huge believer in citizen journalism as a replacement for real journalists, especially in a regional context with small audiences. OJR did a piece on this that is relevant.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that citizen journalism isn't worthwhile - I would argue that it's not a replacement, it's merely an adjunct to the primary, irreplaceable work of trained journos. Mark's vision of regional newspaper journalists being fired en masse and rehired (maybe) as casual workers to edit amateurs' unpaid contributions is an economic rationalist's wet dream, but would be a disaster in practice. Regional papers work on the unspoken contract between the paper and the community that the paper spends money on reporting local news, the community spends money to buy ads. If the paper stops spending money on reporting local news and hopes (in vain) that the community will do that work for them just as well, the community will not see any reward for their continued advertising support of the paper.

Now, having said that, there is another possible replacement for journalists which does not involve the cult of the amateur. That is the cult of the machine. Google is the king of the algorithm, but it is Topix.net which is more openly trying to replace journalists with machines that think like journalists, as the OJR subeditor recognises by entitling Mark Glaser's story Low-key Topix.net tries to recreate a journalist's brain with computers.
You would expect Topix to get under the skin of grizzled news veterans. There are no trained editors, and no advertising sales force. When I visited the Topix.net office, I asked co-founder and CEO Rich Skrenta, 38, about this problem, and he pointed at a journalism textbook on the table.

"We might be lay people, but we can study the field," Skrenta said. "That's what programmers do. The people who program systems at Blue Cross are not experts in HIPPA compliance. They have to learn all this to implement the thing. We're so far away from some of the thorny issues of journalism, we're not the ones going to jail for not revealing our sources. We're down at the level of the person taking the press release. If we do that right, then maybe we can move to the next level up."

I think of Topix.net as being like one of those 50s-style room-size computers where Rich Skrenta (CEO) and Chris Tolles (marketing VP) and the boys throw in journalism textbooks and newspapers and boxes of press releases in a funnel at one end and out the other rolls an assembly-line assortment of topics. If only I was writing this for Suck back in the day and I had Terry Colon to illustrate that mental image. Oh well, I guess every hardcore blogger wishes that.

Quite apart from bile from scared journalists, this reliance on algorithms instead of tagging or folksonomies at Topix has drawn criticism from Web 2.0 adherents, with even the usually 100% gushingly positive Michael Arrington from TechCrunch allowing a bit of snigger to slip through in his coverage of a conference panel:

In our opinion the seating of the panelists was symbolic when thinking about their companies from a web 2.0 perspective. Left to right, you had Chris Tolles (Topix.net), Jim Pitkow (moreover), Scott Rafer (feedster), Tantek Celik (technorati), and Om Malik.

Nice attempted save later on Mike, but that was rather mean of you all the same. It's interesting to note that the two most 1.0-ish companies have "flipped" for valuations of US$64 million and US$30 million respectively, while Technorati is undergoing a backlash of its own.

Topix.net does with robot algorithms on a huge scale what Gabe Rivera does at Memeorandum on a tiny but human scale. There's no question that Memeorandum has better quality, but it runs to only two pages while Topix boasts of 300,000 topic pages. There has to be a balance struck between the two, IMO. I don't subscribe to the Google theory that algorithms can solve everything. There is still a place for the human as "gatekeeper", one of the core functions of journalism. The question is how much of modern journalists' professionalism has to be sacrificed to fit this new kind of gatekeeper role.


On neologism watch, the title of this piece was amusing ("The 800-pound Google"), which got me thinking.

I want to be a Googilla when I grow up.

Dave Winer as metaphor

A review of the latest TechCrunch barbeque (one wonders how many people wanted to help cook, Aussie-style) included a snippet about how Dave Winer is perceived amongst the "Web 2.0" crowd:
I got the feeling he serves as a rudder in this almost overwhelming wave of creativity swelling in the young and talented of Silicon Valley. They want direction, and he's giving it to them, ever so gently.

Hmm, a rudder, I don't know. Here's a list of more apposite analogies I could think of:
Dave Winer"Web 2.0" crowd
Mr MiyagiThe Karate Kid
Barry the Time Sprout   Elvis Presley (plus Barry's other hosts in the Robert Rankin books)
Obi Wan KenobiLuke Skywalker (Anakin is so 1.0)
TripitakaMonkey, Sandy and Pigsy
John the BaptistThe new Jesus

Someone's an idiot

Another fawning, obsequious puff piece in a News Corp. paper about News Corp. today. That's not so remarkable, and Fairfax does it a lot too, as well as any other Old Media company who is desperately trying to remain globally relevant. What is remarkable is what those two companies charge advertisers to put ads on their Australian networks: Fairfax Digital rate card and News Interactive rate card (in A$ - conversion is about A$1 = US$0.75).

I read complaints over on WebmasterWorld's AdWords forum all the time about how terrible an impost US$0.10 cost-per-click is as a price in Google's advertising network. Fairfax charges a minimum A$11 CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions). For the same price that will get you a clickthrough from an interested potential buyer on Google's ads (with unlimited CPM until that happens), Fairfax sells you 12 impressions from people who most likely ignored your ad entirely. And that's Fairfax's minimum price! They charge as high as A$126.50 CPM for placements in Fairfax Business Media - meaning afr.com and their various niche business magazines like BRW, CFO, MIS etc. Then we come to News, whose minimum CPC on their media sites is A$33 (five impressions equivalent to a Google clickthrough) to a maximum of A$88.

A caveat should be stated to go along with these figures. Rate cards are rarely adhered to in actual sales negotiations, except with government departments, so the average prices that end up being agreed to are probably significantly less.

Nevertheless: someone's an idiot. I'm prepared to accept that multiple candidates for idiocy exist. Who's more of an idiot? Is it Google, whose humungous Q3 financials have beaten the most bullish Wall Street forecasts, or Fairfax who is allegedly facing A$100 million in cost cuts? Is the media buyers for paying over the odds? Is it Time/Warner for buying AOL but now fending off vultures, including News Corp., whose owner is wringing his hands about which New Media company to buy to keep himself youthfully brunette (but trying not to pull a Time/Warner)?

All I know is, I wonder how much Fairfax and News Corp. do actually end up charging on average.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

How FanFooty led to Tinfinger

As I said in an earlier post, the idea for Tinfinger came out of FanFooty, the AFL fantasy football site Tai and I launched earlier this year.

Looking through the site logs, as you do for a new site, I was interested to look at the search terms which users had typed into the various search engines to reach us, primarily to help with search engine optimisation (SEO) so that we could rank highly on key search terms. I tried to make certain pages rank highly for what I thought were the most important keyword phrases, like "fantasy football", "afl dream team", "free afl fantasy" and similar - after all, that was what the SEO gurus all said was the best strategy. After a couple of months of operation, I went back and looked at the logs, and they looked much like the example on the right. Okay, so the top search term was the name of the site, that was to be expected I guess, and the site's URL was also there lower down. But Brett Deledio as #2? Travis Cloke as #3?
These were names of footballers who had just started playing senior AFL games this year, so they were not well known. Of the footballer's names in that list, maybe four were stars. Drew Petrie is by no means a household name, and Steven Salopek had hardly played at all. Where were the big superstar names? And where were the hot keywords I had planned my content around?

So then I go looking for those names in the various search engines, and find to my astonishment that without me doing much at all in the SEO field for FanFooty's player profile pages, they managed to get very highly ranked for some player names-as-keywords, some as high as #1. Why was this? FanFooty had a player profile for each player on an AFL team's list, even before they have played a senior game, but there just wasn't that much information about low-profile players anywhere else on the Web. Sure, if you wanted to find pages about the big stars like Shane Crawford or Barry Hall then there are thousands of those, but how many about some kid from the country who got drafted at pick #75? I had a page for that kid, but not many other sites did.

If you want to get all "Web 2.0" about it, I had just discovered the Long Tail of people. That was the germ of the idea that will become Tinfinger.

I call bullhockey on Cringely

Crusty old fart (not part of the OFGN though, AFAIK) Robert X. Cringely throws some numbers up in the air and tries to argue that storage is a big problem for the Web. Let's look at the start of his equation.

Let's imagine some typical numbers. In the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen/Netratings, we have approximately 202 million Internet users, each of whom is eligible for a free Gmail account with two gigabytes of storage. Since my mother uses less than two gigs and I use more, let's do our rule-of-thumb estimate with that number, making the potential Gmail storage obligation 404 million gigabytes or about 400 petabytes. That's 400 times the current capacity of the Internet Archive, but it is also probably a tenth or less the total capacity of our PC and DVR hard drives today, so I think it is a very fair number to play with.

Dude, you said that not every one of those 202 million users would require 2 gigabytes, but then you just multiplied 202 million by 2 gigabytes to get 404 million gigabytes! What kind of rule of thumb is that? Your assumptions are screwed. Contact someone at Google or Yahoo or 30Gigs.com to ask them how much of their allowance users actually use. THEN you make with the fancy equations.

Speaking of journalism, I wasn't at all happy about Cringely's interviewing technique in his NerdTV interview with Dave Winer (MP3). There's a period in the middle of that interview just after Cringely asks Winer "Now how were you introduced to the world of commercial software?" to where he finally moves on to the topic of RSS, where Dave speaks 5000+ words without Cringely asking a meaningful question. I Ctrl-C-Ctrl-Ved that passage into MS Word and it said 5,573, but I suppose I shouldn't count all the times Robert says "Yeah" - three times at a row at one point, followed by a "No, I'm not sure we'll see it" and an "Uh-huh". Don't get me wrong, Dave is fascinating to listen to and I believe in letting the interviewee speak without the journalist cutting in all the time, but this goes too far the other way. You have all that time with Winer to yourself just as blogs are hitting the mainstream with Winer as John the Baptist and blogs as the New Jesus, and all you do is let him ramble on about musty history? Ask the man some questions, damn you! Set an agenda! Get Dave to react to something, not just poke about in the depths of his hazy memory. If we wanted a Dave Winer monologue, we'd read his blog (and I do).

Most. Frustrating. Podcast. Ever.

Shout outs

I guess this non-paying version of Blogspot doesn't have a blogroll, so here's a list of links to various blogs.

ben barren - An ex-ninemsn dude who's apparently in a Melbourne-based startup. He lives on the other side of Port Phillip Bay. Loves his Hunter S. a tad too much for parseability's sake, but always good for a laugh (and a perv at the Flickr babes). I also love how he inserts random colour, font and size changes to his text, though I would never do it myself.

UAC - It started out as a Webcomic done by four guys with multiple blogs attached each time a new comic was published. After several months and various shenanigans, it has been reduced to a single blog by Shadarr (a.k.a. Deacon) illustrated by fans. The blog is far better than the art.

Peeps I know from PlanetCrap:
Penguinx, Jibble, Max, morn, Caryn.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A critique of Memeorandum

I've posted some less than complimentary things about Memeorandum on other blogs, so now that I have one of my own I guess I should put my thoughts into a cohesive whole, all the better for others to snipe at. Who am I to criticise? Well, Tinfinger is aimed somewhat at Memeorandum's area so I have been thinking about these issues a lot, but more on that later.

First, the basic concept of Memeorandum is undeniably attractive, even if the design is, as many have said, ugly. I don't think it's that ugly anyway. At least it keeps the black/blue/purple/green standard of coloring, which many prettier sites eschew to their detriment. The most "important" stories are at the top and are grouped by topic and ordered by relevance, which is an innovative approach for an automated system and must have been a bitch to code (and probably continues to be as Gabe Rivera, the one man band behind the site, continues to refine). The fact that it is updated every five minutes is not to be underestimated as a selling point. The treatment of blogs as at least equivalent if not more important than traditional news sources is revolutionary in a search engine, something even Yahoo hasn't quite got yet.

I also like Gabe's stated raison d'etre for the site, particulary the "Web as editor" meme. I would liken what he's trying to do to Google's PageRank algorithms, particularly Google's concept of "neighbourhoods". Gabe has defined two "good neighbourhoods".

Now, to my criticisms. First, the site includes only two pages: Politics and Tech. So much for the Long Tail of Internet content. Furthermore, the stories and blogs which show up on those two pages reflect a very narrow vision of politics and technology. It is rare to get a non-American story showing up on the Politics page, and equally rare among those American stories to get anything other than a federal story. The Tech page is far too dominated by Web 2.0, and American-focused sources in general. Ivan Pope said it better than I in the comments at TechCrunch:
Well, sorry. I have problems with Memeorandum. If you want AMERICAN politics, maybe it’s great. If you want Tech news, maybe.
It just seems so opaque and so fixed. I went looking for the settings so I could tweak it towards my interests.
But no, I can have US national politics (Coburn anti-pork measure anyone in Europe?) or 2.0 West Coast Tech, but anything else aint on the radar.
It’s not that it’s a bad tool, but it’s like only having a hammer in your toolbox - not much use for most jobs.
Gabe needs to introduce more channels, that much is clear. I don't know what he's doing with his time (apart from attending every possible Web 2.0 hallway convo, drinkies, BBQ, etc), but I fear he may be engaging in what my friend Cameron has termed "turd polishing" - when you spend too long trying to perfect your previous creations, when your time would be far more productively spent on making something new and/or better. Apologies if you find that insulting Gabe, it's meant in the NPW.

Another bugbear is the closed, ivory tower nature of the process. Why doesn't Gabe publish the list of sites he indexes through an OPML file? Why doesn't he make more of a big deal about accepting email submissions for new sites (apparently he does)? More importantly, if/when he has the algorithms and other code down pat, why doesn't he open the site up so users can define their own pages with their own neighborhoods of sources?

One related thing that bugs me about the site is its insularity. You see the same sources over and over again, particularly on the Tech page. I see some good reviews from bloggers, but who are the people saying how the site changes their lives? Scoble, Winer and Arrington: the very people who are mentioned most often on it. Of course it's revolutionary to them, it's like an automated ego stroking machine to them. What about the readers? Anyone remember them? How does it revolutionise their lives? Again, I should stress that this is a negative that could quite easily be turned into a positive - if the content focus was widened so that everyone had their very own sub-memeorandum where they were the stars of the page, even if it means giving the top headline to pictures of their cat.

There are other complaints, major and minor. Where is the revenue stream? Why no ads? Why no facilities at all for user-generated content? Why no link directly to the source story on the right "new item" bar? Why no metadata on mouseover of a news/blog site name (like author or site slogan or time since posted)?

This all leads me to my main criticism of Memeorandum: it looks like a proof-of-concept site which has not progressed to maturity. This may not be fair purely because it is accurate, I don't know - if it is accurate, then it would be unkind to criticise before Gabe is finished. Nonetheless Gabe, being only one guy who evidently has a busy life now, looks likely to have his lunch eaten by others who build on his proof of concept and make a much better site using his pioneering concepts.

As a disclosure: some of the questions above will be answered by Tinfinger, hopefully. I don't know that we want to eat Gabe's lunch... we have bigger fish to fry.

A little about me

Oh, I suppose I should introduce myself. G'day, my name's Paul. Some know me as m0nty.

I am a journalist by trade, having gone through the RMIT Journalism course finishing in 1995, and then spending a year co-editing the RMIT student newspaper Catalyst (the Web site used to be a lot more grotty in my day when I was its first Webmaster, but also filled with content which I coded and put up singlehandedly: Catalyst circa 1996). Before that I had an ill-advised year at the University of Melbourne doing Economics & Commerce, but after a year of arguing with lecturers about how stupid economics was, there was a parting of ways which benefited both sides.

After finishing with university, I was lucky enough to get the second job I applied for: journalist at a weekly technology newsmagazine which was then called Computer Week, later PC Week Australia (since folded). There I worked under the inestimable Bill Dawes (now of DMW), and alongside Byron Connolly (now of CRN) and Anna Raciti (now of PC User), among others. I then moved on to Knapp Communications to work under the inspirational Gerard Knapp on Internet World Australia (since folded) and IDM, bimonthly magazines on business Internet issues and information management respectively. I wasn't really cut out for the news grind, with my style more suited to the expansive feature where I got a chance to explore issues in depth and run really long quotes.

At the height of the dot com boom, I decided that I needed to try my hand at the business before everything went pear-shaped. I joined a business set up by medium-sized Australian Internet service providers to promote a peering network called AusBONE, acting as CEO. Unfortunately, partly due to my own inexperience and partly due to industry movements, it didn't work out. It was a valuable experience nonetheless. After that, I moved back to Melbourne to take up a job editing corporate newsletters with Delphi Consulting, which promptly went belly up less than a year later for reasons completely unrelated to anything I had done (anyone see a pattern here?).

I am now in Geelong, having spent a good amount of time in the interim working in sales for Neighbourhood Cable which, apart from keeping me fit hoofing it around the backblocks of Geelong, gave me a direct insight into what broadband users are thinking. Or so I tell myself.

After Tai (who is my housemate) asked me to tell him if I had any ideas about businesses we could start together, I went away and thought about it, and came back with the idea of fantasy football, which is why we started FanFooty. Tinfinger is, believe it or not, an extension of fantasy football... but the explanation of that is for another post.

A little dip into Tinfinger

For those of you wondering about Tinfinger, it consists of the same team behind FanFooty, namely myself and Tai Tran. It is a human search engine. Make of that what you will. Our logo is instructive, at least.

The little robot's name is Ned. He, and the rest of the logo, is the product of the fevered mind of PenguinX, a backwoods hillbilly who owns his own print shop and will some day make his own Intarweb millions due solely to the force of his considerable charisma. Px drew Ned with no knowledge of the works of Sidney Nolan, but I couldn't help but see the analogies, and Ned Kelly's persona is somewhat fitting for Tinfinger's aims.

Why call it Tinfinger? The name comes from the Vietnamese word for news - "tin" - combined with the English word finger, which among other meanings was used as a Unix command to find out information about a person. Of course, tin also has other meanings, especially when used as a prefix to denote falseness or luckiness. But I've said too much already.

Is it Web 2.0, you ask sniggeringly? As Francis Urquart was wont to say in House of Cards: "You might well think that, Mattie. I couldn't possibly comment."

Send in the newsclowns

Vin Crosbie criticises mainstream media's attempts to deal with the online world.
Simply reporting who, what, when, why, and how; quoting both sides' statements; and expecting the public to decide the issues from such factoids is no longer effectively satisfying the unambiguous needs of viewers, readers, and listeners.
So what is journalism supposed to do Vin, abandon objectivity altogether? That way lies Fox News. I don't see an alternative to objectivity being postulated in your piece. Philip K. Dick was writing about "newsclowns" as far back as the 60s, and so far objective journalism has not died. O'Reilly and Stewart fit the definition of newsclowns, but they only exist as parasites on the backs of actual journalists - without objective journalism to feed off, they would have no material. If anything, the old journalism practicioners are in the best position to produce newsclowns to parasite off their own material - imagine thousands of Rooneyites who learn to blog about the news (pointing to their employers' stories only) to provide a more palatable entry point for different demographics. All it takes is one outlet to cotton on and the rest will follow.

Hello World!

This is a test for my new blog. Big bucks, no spammies!