Thursday, July 20, 2006

PBS | I, Cringely . July 20, 2006 - They Wrap Fish, Don't They?

"The Internet is, in fact, the idiot savant of journalism -- supremely good at a thing or two and not at all good at anything else."

This is the best one sentence summary of the situation I've come across. Unlike some assessments that regularly confuse the message with the technology used to produce it. Is a blog a blog if it isn't built with software such as Typepad or Wordpress? I was "blogging" before the term was coined by regularly editing an HTML file on a server. If an employee can be fired for a "blog" (however we decide to define it) then can they be fired for having a diary? What if they share their diary with a friend? Two friends? What if they distribute it with a mailing list? Should all employers mandate that their employees keep their affiliation with the company a total secret? That would sure solve a lot of problems. Maybe anonymity IS the solution.

Let us stop and catch our breath and stop confusing the issue of free speech with the Internet and how it allows speech to be disseminated. This muddled thinking is has been the genesis of too much mischief already, such as Apple suing a blogger to try and discover which of its employees leaked product information. The courts fortunately in this situation ignored the technology and considered the blogger as much a journalist as anyone working for the New York Times. When it comes to laws, specific technology should be of NO CONSEQUENCE. Do we really want Congress, with their bad Tube/Truck analogies debating the legality of RSS feeds? To be sure, a lot of these systems are miserably misused, in some cases downright broken, but I don't want congress people, journalists or "evangelists" trying to fix them.

Predictably Cringley's article veers off course by comparing print journalism to that on the Internet, reminding me of how accurate in many ways that spooky "Googlezon" sci-fi Flash meme from a couple of years back was. Yes, in the end, our dumbed-down society may well pick the wrong technology mix, in fact, for the most part they already have (they use Windows don't they?) But part of the problem is that "thought leaders" who should know better keep pointing people in the wrong direction using arguments that don't hold water, or walnuts for that matter.

Cringely veers back into the truth though when he says of the Microsoft Yahoo IM alliance:

"They want to be your phone company. And between them their IM operations touch a third of the Internet homes in both the United States and the world. That's an important statistic, because it means that through this simple (in a business, if not a technical sense) interconnection they have the prospect of carrying a substantial percentage of world phone traffic at almost zero cost."

Well, yeah. The running joke on Slashdot, which can be found in almost every thread goes like:

1. blah blah blah
2. blah blah blah
3. Profit!

and the joke is, essentially, almost everyone thinks there is some scheme out there by which they can do practically nothing, or at least nothing that costs them anything but by taking advantage of the stupidity of their fellow man they will get rich off of it. Nothing new about this. Various pyramid schemes have been tried and failed (and some even succeeded) for many years. The Internet has merely accelerated the process of dishonest people trying to rip the rest of us off.

Yes indeedy, I'll sign up for free phone service. Where is it? Does Microsoft or Yahoo throw in an actual phone number and a copper wire coming into my house? Better yet I'd like a free fiber optic line while they are at it. Last time I tried something that was "free" from Yahoo it ended up costing me $300.

I don't want anything that is "free" from anybody until I know how they are going to monetize (i.e. fund) it. As long as Google is turning out quarterly reports like todays, I don't have to worry about my "free" e-mail account going away or being reduced in features (as my yahoo account once was). I'm still a little fuzzy on how this will work with voice messaging. Will ads be inserted randomly in my phone conversations? No? Maybe that's why Google isn't all that interested yet. Microsoft and Yahoo are letting their desperation show. More power to them, and to their users that can take advantage of these "free" services, just don't become dependent on them. Don't invest in any specialized hardware that will be valueless in a year.

As to the future of newspapers and magazines, their fate is entirely in their own hands. As we all know, there is, or can be, tremendous value in original, on the spot reporting, true investigative journalism and so on. But how those products are delivered is a NON ISSUE, or maybe a "Red Herring" is a better phrase, because the subterfuge that is being spread daily is that somehow the Washington Post, New York Times, and many magazines and local publications cannot stay in business without print-edition subscribers. Last time I checked (about two hours ago) Google is not operating as a charity. Nor is their future business dependent on lock-in with hardware vendors as is Microsoft's (and in a more and more similar way Apple's). I PAY for a Wall Street Journal subscription online as I have no interest in having stacks of newsprint piling up for the weekly recycling pick-up that never occurs.

And while I'm stepping on those toes, I follow at least as many ad links from online version of Ziff Davis and other such publications these days as I glance at full page ads in their print publications of the past. So why can't they convince their advertisers of this? Are they so accustomed to lying about their own circulation numbers that they can't conceive of making an honest living out of it?

1. Lie to advertisers about effectiveness of ads
2. Pump up circulation numbers
3. Profit!

I'd suggest to many companies these days that it is time to find a new scam, or better yet, go straight. Unbundle those operating systems, word processors, VOIP boxes, and investigative journalists and stop muddling it up with "free" services, discounted under-cost computers and let consumers find value where it actually exists and avoid buying things they don't need to get, for "free" or otherwise, things that they do.

The conversation is not (or should not be) about technology, but rather value.


  1. Very astute. Actually I have seen people get fired for conversations they've had with only a handful of other people. Blogs just have a bigger audience so the liklihood you'll get fired is higher!

    Good stuff!

  2. Thanks.

    I sort of replied to this on your blog comments section, but I'll say here too... I've seen people get fired (or threatened) over really stupid stuff and in TWO cases have quit in protest over such things.

    I don't want or anticipate new laws that tell companies who they can and can't fire (I even think current laws in that area go to far). But I think public disclosure (hey they can only fire you once) will eventually make such actions something that companies will have to ponder long and hard. A really efficient rumor mill can be as deadly to a company as viral marketing can be beneficial.

    If we had the proliferation of individual commentary in the 70s that we do now I'm fairly sure a different groups of people would have gotten pink slips and quite possibly some of us would have gotten awards for outing them.