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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Three signs we're not in a bubble yet

1. No Superbowl ads by Web 2.0 companies this year, in fact only one dot com company at all.

2. There have been no IPOs for Web 2.0 companies. None. No member of the general public has been able to buy shares in Web 2.0 companies. None of these companies even looks remotely likely to reach IPO. Relax citizens, your retirement funds are safe.

3. There has not been a single funding event in the Web 2.0 space which tops Infinium Labs' latest US$5 million round for complete idiocy. Via Penny-Arcade.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Blogging is not Cluedo

One of the most annoying traits of a certain kind of A-list blogger is the habit of saying something that sounds deep and mysterious, or not saying anything at all, but leaving it to the reader to read the "clues" and solve the "puzzle" of what your point is. Usually this is a teaser to a subsequent blog post where all is revealed.

Lest I be accused of being obtuse myself, I'll name names: Dave Winer, Doc Searls, and today Om Malik are the worst culprits I can think of. Om makes the outlandish statement that the current "boom" is half over, which is attributable in his mind to a "WHY OF THIS BOOM" which he asks readers to comb through two long, boring articles to decipher.

Let me make this perfectly clear. If you don't support your statements on your blog with easily comprehensible supporting facts and evidence, you're telling your audience that you don't know what you're talking about. The inference in readers' minds is that you don't have the ability to form a coherent, plain argument, so you have to hide behind obfuscation, subterfuge and weasel words. I have not seen a single instance where the idea unveiled by the author has not been a letdown compared to the hype preceding it.

The vast majority of ideas are worth nothing. If your idea's that good, it doesn't need tarting up. Just say what you mean and let your words be judged on merit.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Tinfinger weighs up compromising morals to enter lucrative U.S. market

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA - January 29, 2005 - Australian human search engine startup Tinfinger has announced that it is considering entering the highly lucrative market in the United States of America with its innovative technology, but has expressed concerns about that country's legal environment and how it could lead to compromising the company's strong moral stance.

Paul Montgomery, Chief Executive Officer of Tinfinger, said he doubted whether so-called "engagement" with the U.S.A. to bring his company's human-centric, grass-roots approach to U.S. citizens would be tolerated by the federal government of that country.

"We're talking about an administration that clearly shows no respect for democracy, as their ascension to power came against the will of the majority of the people, and was cemented by a clearly stacked Supreme Court. I'm just not confident that the U.S. government is committed to allowing its people to govern their own affairs," Mr Montgomery said.

Mr Montgomery pointed out the continued human rights abuses by U.S. government employees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay being conducted despite United Nations criticism and in flagrant contravention of the Geneva Convention, as well as continued use of the death penalty and many new anti-terrorism laws which curtail basic human rights.

"Tinfinger is all about people, but I fear that the U.S. government is not interested in individual people or their rights, especially if those people are in marginal socio-economic groups or resemble particular racial stereotypes," he said. "I have a decision to make: should I refute all of this horrific anti-human history of the American government, or should I engage with its people in the hope that by evangelising a more inclusive approach to humanity, its citizens might learn that there is a different way?"

Internet commentators seem divided on the issue, one that has been in the news lately in reference to Google's entry into China. Here are some of the comments we received from various notables in the "blogosphere":

Steve Rubel, Micropersuasion: "I'm dropping Google AND Tinfinger. I didn't even use Tinfinger, but I'm dropping it anyway. How can I support a Web site which doesn't want to be the #1 in its field, even if you have to compromise to get there?"

John Battelle, John Battelle's Searchblog: "Where did you say you were from? Not Google? I don't want to talk to you then, goodbye. CLICK"

ben barren, rss'ing down under: "Jessica Alba thinks it's okay to engage with anybody, but I hope she gets engaged to me."

Dave Winer, Scripting News: "I told you Google was implacably evil, and I've been telling you ever since Google introduced a competitor to my main product."

Ryan King, Supr.c.ilio.us: "This is another one of those Web 2.0 things we've all heard before. Remember when Commodore started selling C64s to Cuba?"

Keith Malley, Keith & The Girl: "Those motherfuckers. Those goddamn motherfuckers. Fuck you! Fuck you all! Wait, who are we talking about?"

Other, less well-known commentators have had this to say on the Google issue:

"Hey, Google said it would DO NO EVIL? What about that?"
"How about that DO NO EVIL thing, huh?"
"DO NO EVIL? Eh? Eh?"
"lolz roofles, do no evil, kekeke la =^+^="
"I'm boycotting Google's ads but continuing to use all of their other services. Do no evil? That'll learn 'em!"

Saturday, January 28, 2006

River of GIFs

A couple of new graphics by our resident artist Penguinx, depicting the river of news:

And the river of blogs (you've got to think a bit about this one):

They are now appearing on the Tinfinger news pages. I think they look ace!

The distributed newsroom

Topix.net CEO Rich Skrenta has done his bit to keep the News 2.0 meme going as flavour of the week in the wake of the Bayosphere letter with a great post about citizen journalism (CJ) and related issues. He even quotes me from an AIM convo we had (he asked first, of course). In a first for the Topix blog, there is a comments section, in which Topix marketing VP Chris Tolles bobs up, as does NowPublic's Michael Tippett with a mini-essay about collaborative CJ.

For new[s] 2.0 to work all of these functions need to be in place: you need a mechanism for sorting out the good from the bad; you need the ability to write original stuff and post photos & videos; and you need the ability to seed, digg or otherwise get news into the public view. News is a team effort and that is what makes it interesting.

Once you see news as a collaborative effort that involves editors, reporters, photographers, fact checkers and others you start to see how CJ news can actually be better than the mainstream stuff.

Personally I don't think that CJ should necessarily strive to be "better", even if it sometimes is. I agree with Rich that the attraction of CJ is not its quality - in the controversial words of Nicholas Carr, "free trumps quality all the time". Proprietors of CJ ventures should be striving to fill the gaps between MSM coverage, and give voice to those who are not the MSM's primary sources of information. It should not be "model citizen" journalism where the system is engineered to identify the best writers or researchers, because that only rewards the highly educated and time-rich who are already well served by the MSM as readers. CJ should not be a stepping stone for budding content professionals looking for their big break, because then it becomes a recruitment arm of the media industrial complex and the content drifts towards mirroring MSM norms.

Where I do agree with Michael is that news is a team effort and that the various checklist items represented in the News 2.0 feature list are not just a "me too" list, but a way for sites to build necessary journalistic functions into the new media without having to hire trained journalists. Effectively, the site's newsroom is a distributed processing application running in the heads of its participants. The question remains about whether the most successful model will be to have all those functions under one roof, or whether users will want to get the different functions at different sites. Perhaps the site who will win out will aggregate the aggregators, or at least aggregate the various CJ sites.

It's great to see protagonists at these companies all exploring the issues in public with each other - Mike Davidson from Newsvine, Gabe Rivera from Memeorandum, Kevin Burton from TailRank et al. I get the feeling we're building up to something, that the end point of this conversation will be something interesting that wouldn't have been reached without the collaborative nature of the discussion. That's what News 2.0 is all about.

The nadir of 2.0

Weep for the children.

Seriously though, I might run a book on when the lead singer first gets arrested for crack possession. Just as long as they don't remake Queen as a pre-teen band. That would be too weird.

The saddest thing about Dev2.0 is that they can't do the Are We Not Men? song. Because they're not.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

... and 1.2 billion Chinese don't care

There are so many things wrong with the decision by the Blogger News Network to discontinue Google AdSense ads on their site.

  • They're hosted on Blogspot.
  • They buy ads on BlogAds already, so they're already in cahoots with a rival provider.
  • The first BlogAds ad I see on their page is for this conservative pro-military blog, which covers such vital subjects as wondering whether there are still American PoWs left in Vietnam and celebrating the fourth verse of Star-Spangled Banner. Is that more offensive than Google ads? You decide.
  • God, it's so tired to harp on about Google's "don't be evil". Apparently Google breaks that motto every time Larry or Sergey scratches their nuts these days. Oops, one of the chefs in the Google cafeteria dropped a meatball on the floor, bring in the Spanish Inquisition! Google is lawful neutral, people. Don't be so utterly predictable in your criticisms.
  • Why is it that Google catches merry hell on all these issues yet their competitors, who either do exactly the same thing (i.e. MSN) or worse (i.e. Yahoo) get so little coverage?

As for the issue of Google capitulating to China, there needs to be a reality check on this. Corporations should not be setting public policy in foreign countries, let alone their own. It is a matter for the people of China. Even if you think democracy is the one true ideology and all else should be banished in the religious zeal of the Rapture, you should have enough respect for a country's sovereignty not to demand that they change their own laws just because a company from your country wants to sell some services. Would you want oil companies selling to poorer countries to demand kickbacks to politicians in rich oil-producing countries? Wait, that happens already. It's a slippery slope, you see.


I figured out where that quote about citizen journalism Web sites being "ghost towns" I mentioned yesterday came from: the Wikipedia entry on citizen journalism, which was citing a Pressthink review of Backfence. Looking through the entry, several reasons for the failure of CJ to gain much traction make themselves clear.

The first is that CJ as it is framed by that entry is far too much about the journalists, with little reference to the audience, as I said yesterday. The second is that hyperlocal journalism is never going to succeed at any scale beyond that of a local newspaper. Local journalism is some of the most underpaid, underappreciated and just plain soul-destroying work that a journo can be asked to do. Why do you think every local journalist wants that big break to work on the majors? It's because local journalism is a dead end. So why would anyone with the requisite skills want to devote their precious time to a hyperlocal CJ site? It's all very well half a dozen people arguing with the local mayor over a fight outside a nightclub, but that's not scalable. The problem with hyperlocal citizen journalism is that the contributors find out very quickly how goddamn boring and poorly recognised it is to work as a local news reporter, and if you're not even getting paid a journo's shitty wage, only the mentally disturbed will stick at it for long.

The third point, related to the second, is that there is a huge untapped market for issues-based citizen journalism. The most egregious omission in that Wikipedia piece, and for that matter all discussion of CJ, is what should be the movement's golden child, its only real success story: FuckedCompany.com. Why is it shunned by CJ proponents? FuckedCompany has all the hallmarks of a great CJ site: original reporting that you won't see anywhere else, empowerment of those who are marginalised by mainstream media to contribute their own perspective, and a vibrant and LARGE community based around its content. Founder Phillip Kaplan, who also founded AdBrite, identified a potential audience of disaffected dot com employees who had nothing much to do at their doomed jobs other than posting gossip on message boards with funny headlines like "Ruckus soon to become fuckus". Back during the first Internet boom the health of the various fly-by-nighter companies mattered to a lot of people, so what otherwise might have been a small potatoes board took on a defining role for the forgotten people of the bust. FatBabies served a similar purpose for the computer games industry.

Now, what should CJ take from the FC experience? That you can build a successful community around a group of disaffected people who can use the anonymity of the Internet to blow whistles and rake muck where it is needed. Forget the genteel upper-middle-class wankings of dot org dilettantes who really should be stowed away safely in a Fellowship at an irrelevant journalism school and kept away from regular society. Open up your CJ site to those "amateurs" who want to tear down the golden calves without fear of identity-based reprisal, because that's the only way you'll get to hear the truth. You'll hear a lot of bullshit too, but it will be worth it for the chance to see truths that would have appeared nowhere else.

Another lesson CJ sites can learn is about branding. FatBabies contributors were each given their own pseudonym, all of which were prefixed with the word "Fat" - an old-fashioned but powerful way to brand. Of course, the site's name and its front page graphics put readers in mind of their inner vision of their bosses as being immature and lazy (especially in comparison to the reader). Far from shrinking away from the potential for lawsuits, FuckedCompany calls it forums the Happy Fun Slander Corner, giving readers a sense of participating in something naughty and possibly illegal, if the site's name hadn't given that away already. I don't get a sense from the names or site designs of any of the current crop of CJ sites that they're doing anything at all subversive. NowPublic (before they went back to alpha) claimed to be what AP and Reuters should be. Don't be afraid to be bolshie, comrades! You're supposed to be creating something new, not fiddling with a tired old formula.

Of course, you have to choose your target carefully. I could think of a number of issues which would be ideal subjects of CJ sites:
  • Class actions - everyone makes jokes about mesothelioma ads, but thar's gold in them thar ills
  • Real estate fraud, used car fraud, travel fraud... in fact any kind of fraud, especially with big-ticket items
  • Police brutality and/or corruption - think of the ads for personal security products, not to mention Rage Against the Machine CDs...
  • Misleading job ads - kind of a pre-emptive FC, warning people off going to work for companies
  • Bad bosses - connected to the previous one, more dealing with harassment and bastardisation... this would be particularly lucrative if you can get that teenager demographic who work at fast food joints and the like, who want to know which major chain to avoid in their local area
  • Customer service and call centre tricks - an arms race of sorts, where you can go to this site and learn how to deal with the call centres of the various major companies based on experiences of others who have gone through the same painful process

So, are any of these citizen journalism heavyweights going to acknowledge that FuckedCompany.com was the real innovator and that they should abandon their love affair with old media to fully embrace the new? I see a lot of articles asking the question, but no one seems to know it has been answered already.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

2.0 News or not 2.0 News

As I suspected, the feature matrix for News 2.0 post got a lot of responses, not least from the proprietors of the named sites looking to pad out their listings (which I was happy to do, and am not finished doing). Pete Cashmore kicked off the linkgasm, followed by Steve Rubel and Om Malik, although Om never linked to me, just to Pete. Carl Howe put his two cents in as well. The pretty colours and the non-language-specific nature of the matrix seemed to attract non-English bloggers, as I was linked in Korean, German, French and Japanese.

So what can be learned from a reading of the matrix? Om didn't like the term News 2.0, and I could certainly see why that would be given the widespread disaffection with Web 2.0 as a general catch-all phrase. Looking back over the list of sites, I can see three distinct approaches which might be useful as a technique for sub-classification.

News aggregators
Hallmark features: Algorithm, taxonomy, widget, recommending.

Social news
Hallmark features: Voting, bookmarking, personalisation, tagging, ratings.

Citizen journalism
Hallmark features: User-generated content, reputation, revenue sharing, localisation.

Of course I'm not telling anyone anything new by defining those categories, but I think what the News 2.0 matrix shows is that there is significant crossover with many new sites aiming at a broad cross-section of features, as Pete identified. One of the questions for players in this general space: should a company try to "tick all the boxes" to hit two or three subcategories all at once or, as Gabe Rivera of Memeorandum has been hinting at in the comments of more than one of the stories around this meme lately, should you stick to a small feature set?

Personally, I'm with Gabe on this one, with a caveat. Tinfinger's main strength will be as a social news site. While the first thing many of our users will see will be our news aggregation pages, our strategy is to try to commoditise that as a lead-in to the more important part of our business, which is the people profile pages. I think this sort of thing will become more common as time goes on: even those sites which are trying to cover all the bases will find that parts of their business are more lucrative than others, and will concentrate on them while keeping the other bits as traffic generators. My guess is that the news aggregation part of the puzzle is the most likely to get commoditised, especially because of the presence of several GEMAYA players but also because Topix is doing a reasonable job of killing that particular category without doing much as yet to move into the other two.

The real nub of both the social news and citizen journalism sites is building communities. It is easy to see that as being true for the social news sites, because they don't have anything else by the way of content except their community. For operators of CJ sites such as the luckless Dan Gillmor of Bayosphere, the lesson has been much more painful. In short: it's not about the journalism, it's about the citizens. I read somewhere the other day (forget where... I should be bookmarking this stuff!) about how many of these CJ sites feel like old Wild West ghost towns which consist of a bunch of pegs in the ground with string tied around them, delineating zones for housing for people who never came. I played a lot of the City Building series back in the day so I know how frustrating it is for those settler families to be barely trickling through. If only Web traffic generation was as simple as tweaking a few variables in your tax settings.

As Keith & The Girl would say, "what's my point?" My point is that all three subcategories have the same audience, which is "people interested in the news", which is as good a reason as any to lump them all together under one single industry tag. News aggregators may be the ones getting the majority of the traffic now, but social news sites led by Digg are fast gaining ground, while operators of CJ sites are yet to hit on a successful plan which gives enough of a nod to the community aspect. Is there going to be a MySpace-type latecomer who will solve all the various problems and blow everyone else away? I don't think so, but you can never rule it out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Penguinx's cat gets Boing Boinged

Penguinx - farmer, print shop proprietor, Webcomic illustrator plus creator of the Tinfinger logo and Ned the Tinfinger mascot - just got Boing Boinged for posting the cat. Specifically, posting his cat wearing the latest in martial accessorisation: the FPES 0.0.

For his next trick, he has promised to do a similar job for dogs using a grapefruit. Seeing as I'm a dog man myself, I would think it dangerously negligent to leave the Canine Coalition out of this cut-throat arms race. But where will it lead? This is how that whole Middle East thing started too, y'know.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Feature lists for News 2.0

Since that last post on "News 2.0" sites got a fair amount of feedback, perhaps people would be interested in a quick survey of features of the competitive environment for the 20 or so companies in the general area. I'd be doing this anyway as part of touching up our business plan, so I might as well share it. Part of the inspiration for this comes from a graph illustrating a story on Publish.com about Gather.com and its competitors.

Associated Content
Google News
MSN Newsbot
Pegasus News

I'll amend this as people suggest omissions or mistakes. Note that the entries for Tinfinger are for what we have planned at launch - I'm cheating a bit, but it's my blog so I make up the rules!

U-G content
MSM content
Blog content
Visual content
Citizen J'lism
Rev. sharing 
Ad revenue
E-C revenue
VC funded

A few notes on the categories:

  • U-G content - user-generated content
  • MSM content - mainstream media content
  • Visual content - this refers specifically to original pictures and video, so pictures from MSM feeds do not count
  • Citizen J'lism - citizen journalism, meaning that the user conducts original reporting instead of parroting MSM content
  • Ratings - this specifically means non-binary numeric ratings given by users, so there is no crossover with voting
  • Reputation - this refers to an explicit (probably numeric) representation of users' reputation on the site, not just a list of their actions and probably influenced by other users' ratings
  • Algorithm - what I mean by that is that stories are ranked by an equation whose variables you can't all see, so ranking by votes/comments and time doesn't count
  • Widget - this refers to a script (usually Javascript) which allows anyone to put a small amount of the site's content on an external site
  • Bookmarking - this means submitting external URLs to the site which can then be retrieved later, organised by user
  • Recommending - this refers to an algorithmic technique of including personalised links to content that is similar to other content that each user has either uploaded or bookmarked or clicked on
  • Rev. sharing - revenue sharing, meaning that some of the site's revenue is shared with its users
  • E-C revenue - electronic commerce revenue
  • VC funded - funded with venture capital