Archives for "Internet and Society: 2007"

Generalists in the Internet Age

Something deep in my genetic makeup compels me to be a generalist rather than a specialist; a jack-of-all-trades ... and a master of none. That latter quip used to annoy me, a stick for my inner voices to beat me with.

But what could I do about it? The process was (and is) always the same. I take an interest in acquiring a new skill -- speaking Italian, figuring out PHP, creating Flash animations, writing novels, lifting weights ... etc. At first, I take to the new skill with aplomb and gusto, astonishing myself and others at my ability to learn rapidly. I move from beginner to intermediate level in no time.

But that's as far as I get. I never get beyond intermediate level.

Like I said, my personality prevents it. When the rapid learning phase is over, I get bored. I itch for a new challenge. Persisting with the previous challenge may eventually make me an expert but with diminishing returns: on a day-to-day basis, my improvement is so minor, that I stop enjoying it. In fact, I start hating it.

For much of my life, this had been a curse. In the Internet Age, however, I believe my ever-a-generalist, never-a-specialist personality is a blessing. There are two reasons for this:
a) I'm working in a fast-changing environment, where rapid learning is the most important skill of all
b) Our networked world allows me to rapidly find and employ specialists as required, to help me complete the project at hand

It seems I am not the only person who realises that Renaissance Men are making a comeback:
On his blog, Tim Ferris lists The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades.

In the comments on this post, I learned something that put a smile on my face, about that "master of none" quip I used to beat myself up about. Here's that saying in full:

Jack of all trades, master of none, though oft times better than master of one!

The 10 Next Big Things

Read/Write Web is a great blog (or is it an online magazine?) for anyone who wants to keep up with emerging internet trends.

Last week, they published an article entitled 10 Future Web Trends, which is worth a read.

My quick comments on this are:

a) I would have called the article "10 current web trends". Everything on the list is happening already. Many future trends will not yet have been anticipated.

b) I wouldn't hold my breath on the semantic web. This has been a "next big thing" for so long it's akin to nuclear fission or the paperless office. A good idea in theory, but not practical.

c) I'd put internet TV and video nearer to the top of the list. These technologies are going get bigger, and spread everywhere, in the short to medium term.

Open Source Video

With YouTube now a household name, the use of video has become the fastest growing trend on the web.

The first wave on online video consisted mainly of clips of popular TV shows, past and present. However, we are now witnessing a new wave of video websites, populated by videos created by users. See for example videojug.com or expertvillage.com.

The technologies used to create webcast-quality (and, for that matter, broadcast quality) are increasingly accessible and affordable. An average Dell PC is capable of running video editing software such as Avid or Final Cut Pro, tools that were once the preserve of professionals.

Indeed, the line between professional and amateur video will blur as "ordinary" users become the main producers of video content on the web. While camcorders also become as advanced and affordable as the cameras used by TV companies, they may not even be necessary: users can create programmes by editing together clips created by other users, and overlaying a new audio track.

Thus, I expect to see more sites like the Internet Archive's Open Source Video, which will offer a panoply of video clips for use by others.

One final prediction: most of the videos produced by web enthusiasts will be average at best. But a small proportion will be excellent -- and will launch the careers of tomorrow's leading directors, producers, actors and editors.

Book Trailers

A friend of mine, crime fiction author Declan Burke, was telling me today about a new online trend that I immediately had to check out for myself -- book trailers.

Okay, most of the trailers I've seen so far are -- like the one above -- are cheesy at best. Still, what a great way for struggling writers to promote their latest offerings.

The publishing world is becoming more ever more competitive, so authors who make use of internet tools such as blogs, discussion groups and online video to add value to their offerings are more likely to succeed. Writing a decent book is still a pre-requisite, but it may no longer be enough to ensure success.

I'm sure that, as more authors cotton on to this clever marketing device, the quality of these trailers will improve.

Of course, you should never judge a book by its trailer (sorry -- it's been a long day at the office).

Update: I've just registered the name noveltrailers.com ;)

Web Services Will Be Free

FREE BONUS I have a bold prediction: many (if not all) of the web services that we currently pay for will soon be offered free.

I often get clients (my company offers Internet consulting services) asking for help with their start-up. They tell me about their great idea for an online service, and how it will make money by asking people to sign-up and pay.

To which I advise: "Forget it. Make your web service free".

Why? Well, if you don't someone else will, eventually. Unlike many other types of business, it does not cost a lot of money to create a web-related venture today. (In the 1990s, start-up web companies burned through billions; today, much of the underlying technology for any web venture already exists and can be re-used at little or no cost.)

This means that barriers to entry are very low and, if you create a popular web service, it's easy for a competitor to copy your website, and offer the same service at a cheaper price.

Ultimately, in this hyper-competitive market (a true "bazaar"), one of your competitors will offer the same service for free. Instead of making their money through user subscriptions, they'll build their revenue model around advertising. True, they may not make as much profit as theirs competitors made with a subscription model, but so what? As long as they make a profit.

Across the web, I'm seeing free versions of services that, until recently, demanded a fee. And I'm not just talking about infrastructure services like web hosting and design. I'm talking about popular online activities such as dating, classified ads, etc. For example, take a look at plentyoffish.com. It's a fully-functional dating site that offers everything its competitors do. But plentyoffish.com is free, and makes its money through targetted, text-based advertising.

Now, this shift in the web's economy throws up two warnings:

1. Your website will need significant numbers of visitors before an advertising-based model becomes workable (i.e. profitable). So, while I advise clients to offer free services, I warn them to get serious about building scalable websites with high traffic volumes.

As Michael O'Leary predicted in the low cost airline game (which has emerged from similar business conditions), "there's going to be a bloodbath". Whatever web services niche you target, you've got to be "in it to win it". Every niche will be dominated by a handful of giants, while there will be many dwarves who find it difficult to make ends meet. I agree with Blogstring that some web 2.0 companies are already too dependent on advertising, without having the visitor numbers to match.

So how many visitors will you need? To break even on a shoestring budget, you will need at least 10,000 unique visitors a day. Depending on your business costs (which you should strive to keep as low as possible) you may soon need ten times this number, or more.

2. You have to build a brand, and fast. Ironically, this was one of the principles of the internet gold-rush of the late 1990s. However, the motto back then was to build a brand, fast, whatever the cost. I'm revising that last part to while keeping costs as low as humanly possible.

Why the emphasis on brand? Because brand is your only barrier to entry. Successful websites are easy to replicate. Successful brands, on the other hand, are harder to shift. People have emotional attachments to brands. Google Video arguably offered a better service than YouTube, but the latter's brand was already global when Google entered the space. In the end, Google had to buy YouTube. (If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.)

Of course, it's important to remember that we are living in an age of temporary, ephemeral brands. Brands have always come and gone, but never at today's rate. Who heard of YouTube five years ago? Who heard of Google ten years ago? Will both of these brands still be around in ten, twenty years?

Let your users get attached to your brand ... but don't get too attached to it yourself. Always read the winds of change, in web businesses, just as in all business.

Business.com Sells for Record Price ... Again

Remember the internet boom and bust of the late 90s? Remember how first there was a gold rush, then everyone became sheepish and embarrassed to talk about the web?

Well, 10 years later, business is buzzing about the internet again. Here's some proof:

  • We don't say "dot-bomb" anymore, we say "web 1.0"
  • Boo.com has been relaunched (by an Irish company, no less)
  • Business.com has become the highest ever selling domain name ... again

Back in 1999, I remember writing an article for the Vision.com website about how Business.com had been sold for $7.5 million US dollars. (Here's all that's left of the old Vision.com homepage where I posted the stories.)

A few years later, when people became embarrassed about that era of extravagant spending and wild parties, the idea of spending millions on a domain name became ludicrous.

In fact, since business.com had been bought as part of a stock deal, a later revaluation (when shares had plunged) meant that it had cost "only" $2 million dollars, according to an MSNBC interview with purchaser Jake Winebaum.

Now the domain has been sold again, for $345, says the Wall Street Journal.

Who's laughing now? But are we caught up in another cycle of hype, a.k.a. web 2.0?

Funky Business and Karaoke Capitalism

I recently re-read Karaoke Capitalism by Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom. The book is a follow-up to -- and really just a remixed, remastered version of -- their better known Funky Business.

It's hard to categorize these books. You will probably find them in the business/economics sections of the bookstore, but they touch on many other aspects of popular culture, biology, psychology, philosophy, etc.

I like the eccentric, eclectic style of writing/thinking in these books. Moreover, I gained insights from the arguments of the authors -- a pair of Swedish economists. I am sure I will read Karaoke Capitalism again in the future. You learn different things from the same book as your own life experience evolves and your perspective changes.

Here is my take on some of the book's key insights:
  • It's not just a cliche; the world is changing rapidly. Places across the globe that were once culturally diverse are now much more similar.
  • Companies and organisations across the world are able to copy each other. It's hard to get a competitive edge.
  • In fact, the only way to get a competitive edge is with knowledge. Brainpower is becoming the most important element in contemporary organisations.
  • But brainpower is a liability, not an asset. You don't own your employees, and you certainly don't own their brains.
  • Thus, employees with the most brainpower (the most talented, the most innovative, the ones who make things happen) will demand far higher rewards than other mere mortals.
  • In many businesses, we're going to trends that we currently see in Premiership football -- where an elite set of exceptionally talented individuals (or primadonnas, depending on your view) get to demand an awful lot more than everyone else.
  • The demands of talented individuals may not be (solely) monetary. Like pop stars who will only bathe in Evian water (from bottles), talented individuals will make decisions on who to work for/with based on who best meets their peculiar needs.
  • All of this, of course, will impact on the bottom line. Profits will also be squeezed by consumers who, because of our flatter world, ever-cheaper technology and ever-increasing competition, have greater choice.

The authors' messages are not all negative. Where there's change, they argue, there are opportunities. But you will have to uncover those opportunities yourself.

Video eLearning

I'm a great believer in life-long learning. The ability to learn fast is one of the greatest assets an individual -- or company -- can have these days.

Recently, I've been taking an online video course in PHP. It's not an interactive class; nor is it Scorm-compliant (an eLearning standard) or anything so fancy.

It's just a CD-sized bundle of files (though I purchased the course electronically), with a series of desktop videos. I hear the lecturer speaking without seeing him, and I watch his cursor move across the screen as he clicks on his Dreamweaver application. So, as eLearning technology goes, this is pretty low-grade.

But it works -- mainly because the lectures are quite good, and well structured. There are no exercises but the package comes with accompanying PHP code samples.

I had learned the basics of programming in C from a book some years ago, and I also have a grasp of the rudiments of PHP, so that's all helping me follow along with these lectures. If you were an absolute beginner, I'd say it might be too tricky. But that's a criticism of the quality of the lectures rather than the quality of the medium.

Overall though, it's a great feeling to be learning "virtually". Yes, I've seen and even worked on many more sophisticated eLearning products (we did a lot of work for examsupport.ie last year, for example). But becoming a student again has made me realise that e-learning works. My understanding of PHP has already improved significantly, and I'm only one-third of the way through.

Buzz Sites and Web Payola

I'd never encountered the term payola before today, when I encountered it in a Wall Street Journal article.

Entitled The Wizards of Buzz, the article discusses the emergence of an influential kind of super-user on social bookmarking type websites such as Digg:

Items that receive enough votes rise in the rankings and appear on the front page, which can be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. When an item is submitted by a popular or influential member -- one whose postings are closely followed by fellow members -- it can have a much better shot at making the front page.

These influencers are what Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) would call "mavens".

Indeed, the influence that a small "cabal" of 30 or so Digg users have over what appears on the site's homepage has often been noted by annoyed bloggers, with some even claiming that Digg's rigged (which reminds me of that silly but cool line in Pulp Fiction: Ed's Dead baby, Ed's Dead [which in turn ripped off an obscure but great Pixies song]).

This led to Digg changing the algorithm that determines how articles make it to the front page, although this only fuelled more speculation among SEO practioners about how to crack that algorithm.

The WSJ article claims that marketers are teaming up to offer web payola:
Payola schemes depend on the voting system these sites employ. Some marketing companies promise clients they can get a client front-page exposure on Digg or one of the other social-bookmarking sites in exchange for a fee, according to marketers. To deliver on that promise, the company then recruits members at the site, offering to pay them for thumbs-up votes on the posting that links to the client.

In the "early" days of SEO (more than three years ago), the only site (or algorithm) marketers cared about was Google's. Now, it seems, there are more and more sites to reverse engineer . Getting to the homepage of Youtube or MySpace can break a garage band. Could it break a garage brand?

Social Web 2.0: Semantically Tagged Hypertext

In case you're wondering, I wrote the title of this entry with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.

Enjoy:




Interview with Mick Fealty

As part of the "Internet and Society" section of this blog, we will be conducting a series of interviews with people whose lives have become intertwined with the internet in some way.

To kick-start this series, what follows is an interview with Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole fame. As the Wikipedia article on Slugger O'Toole puts it:

[The blog is] focused primarily on news and comment about Northern Ireland. From the beginning it has drawn its readership from a wide spectrum of opinion both inside and outside Northern Ireland.

Mediajunk:What is your own background?

Mick Fealty: I trained as a Youth Community Worker in Belfast , then worked in Community Arts in England for about 10 years. I got used to exploring problems through open-ended participation. My work took me around Europe to a lot of schools and colleges.

I then ended up working for a knowledge consulting company based in Dorset. We were working with NGOs and government agencies such as the British Council.

Mediajunk:Were those skills to prove useful in facilitating dialogue on Slugger?

Mick Fealty: Yes. One of my roles when working as a consultant was to moderate a series of e-debates between ethicists and scientists; people in NGOs and people and commercial research, who lived in different parts of the world, and logged on at different times.

I learned that when people get passionate, particularly online, they often get very personal. Routinely, I found myself stripping out the first paragraph of whatever anyone contributed to a debate, to remove the personal remarks.

And, even though the respondents didn't know that I had stripped out the first paragraph, I would have to do the same with their replies! Nevertheless, I realised that if you can sidestep people's passions, some genuine debate is possible. Some of the basic rules on Slugger arose from that.

Mediajunk: So how did Slugger O'Toole come about?

Mick Fealty: The company I'd worked for downsized in 2002. I continued to work with them as a freelancer, but it gave me time to think about what I wanted to do. While I'd previously worked in Community Arts in Northern Ireland, I'd never really made a political "intervention".

I looked at the political situation. My analysis was that the Peace Process had the potential to deliver historical outcomes. But we had two partners: one was very confident, another was reluctant and looking over its shoulder.

I decided that I would deliver some intellectual capital into the unionist community, because I felt they needed it most. The idea was to write a paper, based on interviews and other research.

Blogging was taking off and it seemed to me that blogging was the perfect research tool for capturing the narrative up to when the paper would be published.

So, on June 5th 2002, I started Slugger on blogspot.com.

I had no idea that my research tool would turn into a dialogue tool, nor that I'd have to use some of the moderating skills I'd learned before.

Mediajunk: What is the significance of the name?

Mick Fealty: Before the redesign, the blog was called 'Letter to Slugger o'Toole' [a reference to the Irish Rover ballad, where Slugger O'Toole is 'drunk, as a rule'] because trying to explain NI is like trying to talk to a drunk man. You have to be prepared to repeat yourself over and over again, and to talk in small chunks.

Mediajunk: How long did it take for Slugger to take off?

Mick Fealty: I was new to blogging and it had the site up and running three weeks before I figured out how to read the visitor logs. I discovered there the blog was getting around 90 visitors a day, yet I hadn't told anyone about my it, apart from three work colleagues.

So I bought the sluggerotoole.com domain. By the following February we had got some funding and a writing team in place. My company helped redesigned the blog, and moved it from Blogger to Movable Type, which had better commenting features. The design that we created then is pretty much the design that's there today.

Mediajunk: Comments -- and visitor participation -- have become a very important part of Slugger. Was it always that way?

Mick Fealty: At first, none of the visitors published comments. They started when we published the transcripts of interviews and focus group reports, mostly with the unionist community, which we were doing as part of the initial research effort. Normally you wouldn't publish your research until it was all completed but we thought it was the right thing to do in the context of this evolving, emergent communication channel.

So lots of comments started coming in, even from people who had participated in the focus groups.

Mediajunk: Did you ever publish your final research paper?

Mick Fealty: Yes, it is called, "A long peace: the future of unionism in NI" and is available for download as a PDF on Slugger.

Mediajunk: Your original objective for the blog was as a research tool. Once you'd published your research, what was the new objective?

Mick Fealty: Blogs are emergent technologies. Blogging as content is the similar to blogging as technology -- both of them grow and build. As you iterate the material, you get a better sense of how the blog as a whole will expand.

Originally, we were perceived as a unionist mouthpiece. When David Trimble lost the election, the focus shifted to nationalism, because the crisis of confidence moved to the nationalist side -- although it is not as deep as the crisis unionists had.

So, the blog is continually evolving. For example, I believe that the way we use Flickr is unique. About two years ago, a colleague of mine set up a Northern Ireland photo group on Flickr and made me the moderator. That group now has an umbilical relationship with Slugger -- you'll notice that there's a NI-related photo on the top of each page.

This is a visual interpretation of Northern Ireland through the eyes of its citizens. Sometimes the picture is of a flower in a back garden; sometimes it's a cityscape; sometimes a political mural; sometimes graffiti, sometimes a shipyard, a Georgian building. People get together and talk about these pictures, and about Northern Ireland, in their own sub-groups on Flickr.

This is an example of something emergent, something we never anticipated.

Incidentally, we are doing our first ever Slugger audio broadcast. It's something we're going to run with through the election campaign.

Mediajunk: Best of luck with that Mick, and thanks for your time.

You can participate in the live broadcast on Sluggerotoole.com at around 9pm tonight, or you can listen to the archived version after that.

Top Irish Websites on Alexa

I've just been looking at the 100 most popular websites with Irish internet users, according to Alexa.

Alexa measures the popularity of websites by analysing the information that come from users who have installed the Alexa toolbar. As the Alexa entry on Wikipedia states:

There is some controversy over how representative Alexa's user base is of typical internet behavior.

I would go further and say that people who install the Alexa toolbar are probably unrepresentative of internet users as a group. As a member of Webmasterworld puts it:

It takes a special type of person to install a toolbar. You would need to be on a high speed connection to put up with the extra downloads involved each time you look at a page. You need to have some internet savvy, and be particularly interested in getting detailed "credibility" data for web sites you visit. I believe that this represents a bias away from the casual mainstream user.

Thus, Ryanair.com is not in the top 10 on Alexa's list (it comes in at a lowly 40), which I find hard to believe. Nevertheless, there are some other surprises that prove insightful:

Bebo

Bebo.com, the social networking site, is at number 4. The Sunday Times claimed last year that Bebo had half a million Irish users -- not bad, in a country of 4 million people -- and said it gets 6,000 new Irish users a day. (Google says that "bebo" was the most popular emerging search term of 2006.)

Foreign Sites

Alexa has proof, if proof were needed, of the rapidly-emerging Polish and Chinese communities in Ireland: 6Spark.com, a site for Chinese ex-pats is at number 12, while Onet.pl, Poland's leading portal, is at number 19.

Indeed, 10 Polish sites appear in the Irish top 100, which also features websites from Malaysia, Latvia, Russia and Lithuania.

Homes

The Celtic Tiger generation's obsession with property is reflected in the Alexa listings too, with MyHome.ie appearing at 49 and Daft.ie at 15 -- though the latter is more popular with renters.

Dating

I expected to see dating sites in the Irish top 100. I didn't expect, however, that the only dating site I'd find would be adultfriendfinder.com -- where consenting adults are looking to find other consenting adults for ... adult "friendship", of course. Catholic Ireland, eh?

Travel and Tourism

A surprising number of Irish people look at travel websites such as Ireland.ie and Choose Ireland, which both feature in the top 100.

How to Put Together Your Own Holiday Package Online

My girlfriend and I regularly go on short city breaks. Once or twice a year, we'll go on a longer holiday. For both of these, we use the web (of course).

We've done this so often that we now have a tried-and-tested method for creating our own package holidays online, which I'd like to share with you:

Finding and Booking Cheap Flights

For US or international travel, meta-search sites like kayak.com or mobissimo.com are useful. In Europe, however, you'll rarely find better prices than Ryanair's.

Tip: use Ryanair's find lowest fares option if you want to book a dirt-cheap flight to a destination and you're really flexible with dates (i.e. you don't care when you go, if you can get a return flight for less than 80 euros!).

Finding and Booking Great Accommodation at the Best Price

I never stay in any hotel without checking it out on Tripadvisor.com first. In fact, here's the way I normally use Tripadvisor to find a hotel in any given city:

1. Look up the top 10 hotels in the city (or the top 20, if it's a big city).

2. For each of these hotels, identify those within your price range.

3. Starting with the top-rated hotel in your budget, read the reviews and look at the candid photos (pictures taken by visitors who have actually stayed in the hotel). If you feel you need more information about the hotel, try Venere.com -- which also has the best hotel location maps.

4. If you like a hotel, find its own official website. DON'T book directly through Tripadvisor. Avoid generic hotel booking sites such as hotels.com, expedia.com, hotels-in-city-x-generic-website.com, etc.

These days, hotels tend to have the best prices on their own websites, and they may also have special offers. Its also useful to email the hotel directly (sometimes this is the only option anyway, as they won't have a booking engine) as they may offer you a better price than the ones advertised, particularly if you're staying more than two nights, or if you're booking for a group of six or more people.

Tip: A hotel's own website usually has a quirky home-made look-and-feel, and it won't offer bookings at any other hotels. You may have to go to page 2 on Google or beyond to find it.

If the room rates on the official hotel website are much higher than the average price for that hotel as displayed on Tripadvisor, THEN try Venere.com, expedia.com or hotels.com (usually in that order) to find a better price. Remember, however, that generic booking sites are all taking a commission, so chances are they won't have the lowest rates, despite their claims.

Okay, so this process takes several hours, but effectively you are acting as your own travel agent. In our experience, you'll make huge savings this way, and get great accommodation.

The Internet Changed My Life

Warning: never use the phrase "the internet changed my life" as a chat-up line at a cocktail party, its veracity notwithstanding.

The BBC recently asked its website visitors to tell them what difference the world wide web had made to their lives. The many contributions make you realise how revolutionary this new medium has been. As one commenter says:

I check online to find the meanings of words, available services, bus times, prices of things and anything you could think of about a hundred times a day! How did we survive without it!?

High Definition Movie Torrents

Since it first exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1990s, the internet has challenged traditional forms of media production, ownership and distribution.

Online versions of newspapers were one of the earliest examples of this shift.

Then came the battle between the "big six" music companies and Joe Internet User, which came to a head in the infamous legal action against Napster. Big Business won that battle - but may have lost the war. The geeks got cleverer (of course) and brought out new ways of downloading that didn't depend on a central server. They invented the bittorrent.

While Apple showed the music industry how it could capitalise on the internet as a major distribution channel, the front-line of the internet community showed smart users how to get music for free. Few cared that copyrights were being breached. Indeed, the left-leaning, front-line internet community generally believes that copyright law is immoral, favouring only greedy publishers and distributors -- not artists, as it was originally intended (see for example this interview with Lawrence Lessig, evangelist of the Creative Commons initiative).

So, the media industry won the first battle -- but it may be losing the war. This time people are downloading movies, not just music. Pirate copies of movies (usually filmed off a screen) become available for free download in torrent form as soon as they are released in theatres. When the first DVD appears, a high-quality torrent will find its way online.

Indeed, torrent creators typically use better compression technology (MPEG-4) when copying DVDs, so the torrent version of a movie may fit onto a CD, with no perceivable loss in quality.

Little wonder then that the entertainment industry are urging us to upgrade to High Definition (HD) DVDs and TV. But, wouldn't you know it, those cheeky internet chappies have managed to make torrents out of HD movies too...

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Mediajunk was Michael Heraghty's blog from 2002 to 2010, with articles on usability, UX, SEO, web design, online marketing, etc. More »

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