Al Jazeera Unplugged: Mohamed Nanabhay The Al Jazeera model

Some more live blogging from the Al Jazeera Unplugged conference. Previous caveats apply. I am sure that there are grammatical errors. I have tried to be true to the essence of the comments.

Mohamed Nanabhay talked about what is news. He first quoted the legendary editor CP Scott of The Guardian that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” EH Carr, the historian, said that facts do not stand on their own. They are called upon to tell a story.

How do we constitute news in this online world? When we look at news, what impact is the internet having? What is a news story? Fundamentally, it’s news because we say it’s news.

Over the last 10 years, we are seeing a shift in our industry. Now that we have the internet, everyone has a voice. We need to ask ourselves, how has this changed? Has writing news, setting the agenda changed?

In 2006, Rupert Murdoch said that the power has moved from away from the press, the media elite, the establishment. “Now, it’s the people who are taking control,” Murdoch said. Mohamed said that this was a utopian view. Murdoch bought MySpace based on this thinking. He thought that Murdoch’s view has probably changed. In November 2009, Murdoch said, “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change…” Mohamed said that the editors are taking over again.

As news organisations, we can’t do everything anymore. That’s not viable anymore, he said. Quoting Jeff Jarvis, you have to focus on what you do best and partner with your audience to do the rest. (At the conference, Al Jazeera announced an initiative to provide support such as cameras for people to do their own footage.)

He talked about Al Jazeera decision to use Creative Commons. Wikipedia, film makers, music video producers, artists, students, indy media, activists and video games makers were all using the video.

Every form of media that you can think of used this footage. It spread across the internet. It was quite powerful. People decided to use it in ways that we never thought possible.

Once you remove barriers, you see this creative expression flourish. It enhanced our distribution and reputation. It did provide financial benefits to Al Jazeera. It helped empower the community, which is quite important in the Arab world. They hope it will inspire the next generation of journalists and documentary film makers. It showed respect their audience, Mohamed said. They also wanted to challenge their competitors.

What we really do is constitute and reconstitute culture and knowledge. This is how culture diffuses, how it is created. If you look at culture in the Middle East, people travel through it. People move. People interact. There is no such thing as a stagnant culture. In this globalised world where everyone interacts with each other, the act of this spreading culture is important, he said.

Al Jazeera took this open posture. They put their content on YouTube while other broadcasters were taking their content off of YouTube. These audiences are on YouTube. Audiences (often young people) saw Al Jazeera content, many who had never seen this before. They spread our content on their blogs or Facebook. Some might become loyal readers or viewers.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Joi Ito of Creative Commons

Again, this is a live blog. I’ll try to tidy things up later. I’m trying to do as many of these speakers as possible. I might miss a few.

Joi wanted to start first to frame the discussion. New media is fundamentally different than old media. Media is about access, and the business model defines the media. Looking at newspapers and satellite TV, it costs a lot of money. The big difference with new media is that it has significantly lowered the cost to create media and to connect. It’s fundamentally different than the past. To understand how it’s different and why it’s different. The architecture of the internet is open.

Before the internet, governments, corporations and experts create specifications. They costs millions of dollars. They are robust and they sell products an services to consumers and they pay fees to services. Telecommunications companies are still big business in the Arab world, even for governments.

In the internet, you have users, venture capitalists, standard organisations and a credo “Rough consensus running code”. It evolves over time. Internet standards are lighter weight than in the past.

The internet “open stack” consists of the internet protocol. The proprietary standards for networking gave way to the internet protocol. The standards for IP are shepherded by the IETF. Anyone can participate. It’s a very open system. The World Wide Web is another standard shepherded by the IETF. W3C is the standards body. It’s an ad hoc committee without specific government standard. Governments are uncomfortable that there is no government involvement in the web standard.

Creative Commons looks at the copyright layer. The copyright system used to make sense.

We are trying to create an open stack for the legal layer.

The other section is open source software. Open source and free access to the university network. Google ran a web server, probably Apache, and they accessed Stanford’s network. A couple of students built Google thanks to open source software. It existed before the internet, but the internet allowed people to connect with each other to build this software.

He next highlighted open video. YouTube and other sites, most of them use Flash. It’s proprietary. You can’t participate in this video internet stuff without permission. In HTML5, we were working very hard on video initiatives for open video. Google acquired a company that had a video technology called VP8. This is going to be the core video technology in an open video format called WebM. This is going to be a significant change in the video structure. (It looks like VP8 is being challenged by MPEG-LA, the vide licencing body for the MPEG standard.)

Giving things away for free doesn’t seem like a great business model. However, Creative Commons give users a choice in how they want they want their work used. He quickly walked through the different types of Creative Commons licence. Free is not just about not making money. Nine Inch Nails released a CD called Ghost. They gave their music away for free. They used an attribution Non-commercial share alike licence. They created their own site instead of selling it through a company. It’s about taking more money from fewer people. They made $6m. (I need to check that figure.) UPDATE: I checked that figure after the talk, and Joi said NiN made $1.6m in a week.

Al Jazeera has released content under Creative Commons. Until last year, it didn’t use the Creative Commons licence. It used a Free Software Foundation licence for creating computer manuals.

Joi said that he’s worried about licence proliferation. He talked about different organisations creating ‘vanity licencing’ schemes. The White House now uses a Creative Commons licence.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab

This is a live blog. It might be a bit rough. I’ll add links as I can and might do it in a second pass.

Josh started by saying that the disruption in the news business that began in the US is now spreading to other parts of the world. He started off with a series of “scary charts” showing the precipitous drop in advertising revenue in the US and the newspaper circulation decline in the US. The decline in terms of newspaper circulation per 100 households has been dropping since the 1940s. He then displayed the time that average internet users spent per month on news sites, 8-12 minutes a month, versus the seven hours they spend on Facebook.

The media industry is fragmenting. The number one album on the charts in the US sold just 60,000 copies last week, but it used to be that to have a number one album you would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. TV is fragmenting with greater choice, and Josh pointed to yesterday’s announcement of Google TV.

UPDATE: For the average internet user , 70% of the content that people under 40 consume online is produced by people they know.

Josh sees this not as a threat but as a great opportunity. Newspapers in the US used to be enormously popular. In 1990, John Morton said that it is clear that newspapers will be twice as profitable int he future, but maybe not three or four times as profitable. Those profits made owners very rich, but they also paid for investigative journalism and foreign bureaux.

On the social web, even if it doesn’t look like journalism, it can be an important source of information. People might find out about an important story from their friends on Facebook or Twitter. This is not new. With movable type, new types of information were produced. The rotary press could print much more copies, more cheaply. 1900s came newspapers, 1930s radio, 1950s TV, 1980s cable TV, 1990s internet, 2000s, mobile phones.

Context in country to country is critical. Some countries are seeing gains in literacy so are seeing a dramatic increase in newspaper circulation. Media in non-English countries aren’t seeing the same pressure.

In the US, seeing media adjust. Some are trying to grow in scale. Some trying to produce so many web pages that if they make a bit of profit on each page, they will make money. Demand Media is producing 5000 pages of content a day. Associated Media, just bought by Yahoo, is producing 2000 pages a day. It’s not necessarily news content, but it’s providing a model. We are seeing the growth of niche sites, around subjects rather than geography. Some are building paywalls.

However, I believe that the number of people who will pay will be relatively small. People will have free alternatives.

And then he said something that I’ve thought for quite a while:

News is shifting from a manufacturing industry to a service industry.

Even in the past, only bout 15% of a newspaper budget went to journalism. That’s a fascinating statistic. Service industries don’t try to create demand but rather serve demand.

With an infinite number of content choices, people are now choosing things that aren’t news. How do we (as journalists) create that demand? He sees the big organisations as being OK. He sees non-profit models developing. “I generally think we’ll be OK,” he said. This technological shift will see a huge boon he says.

Event: Designing social interfaces workshop

With any luck, tomorrow will see the delivery of Christian Crumlish’s book, Designing Social Interfaces, co-written with Erin Malone. I’m really quite excited about getting my own copy and getting my teeth into the lessons it contains. For those who want a more personal learning experience, Christian is running a workshop in London on 9th June. I really wish I could go, but I’ll be in Sweden at the time.

links for 2010-05-20

Fun makes for passionate users

How much enterprise software is truly fun to use? Aarron Walter discusses the importance of fun in his article Emotional Interface Design: The Gateway to Passionate Users. It’s a very interesting read with some enlightening examples.

But to take the ball and run with it a bit, I think ‘fun’ is one reason that people who use social media can get so passionate about it. We engage much more with tasks that are fun and enjoyable, and we work better on projects where we are working with people who are fun. Just think about the tasks on your to-do list, and think about the ones that you find fun. I bet they’re the ones you actually want to do!

For me, blogging is fun. Working on a wiki is fun. Setting up a Kickstarter project is fun. Heaven forfend, but I even like playing with numbers in spreadsheets on Google Docs. (Don’t tell anyone, but I love setting up spreadsheets with formulas that suck data from one cell, transform it in some way and then spit out a number in another.)

Putting my numbergeekiness aside, the one thing those tools have in common is the presence of other people. The fun to be had in writing a blog increases the more other people engage with it. Wikis are both productive and fun when you’re working with other people on achieving a shared goal. Kickstarter is fun not just because it offers the opportunity to do cool projects, but because you’re doing that cool project with the support of other people. GoogleDocs allow me to collaborate with other people and even discuss the document in real time whilst we’re working on it.

Other people make things fun. Fun things are things we want to do, and keep on doing. The more we want to do something, the better we get at doing it. The more we enjoy a task, the better we get at doing it, the more efficient and productive we becomes.

Which begs the question: Can we make work more fun? Of course we can. And we should.

links for 2010-05-19

  • Kevin: Google, Sony, Intel and Logitech, will demonstrate technology this week enabling users to flip seamlessly among shows, YouTube videos and home videos on their sets. It's called SmartTV, and while big backers don't guarantee adoption, this is definitely a major move in the "War for the Living Room". With consumers adapting apps on their mobile phones, there is an increasing expectation that previously closed devices should use software much the same way that computers do. With consumers also watching more video content via their computers, both trends are driving adoption of apps for the television set. There is a great stat in this story. There are already 1m internet-enabled TVs, and another 10m will be sold this year. It is estimate that a quarter of all TVs sold in Europe in 2010 will have networking capability.
  • Kevin: Yahoo buys low-cost content producer Associated Content. We've now got Deman Media, Associated Media and SEED all competing in the "low-cost, crowd-sourced content". This is going to be a brutal, hyper-competitive space. I'm not entirely sure what value this adds to Yahoo. As a hedge against long-time rival AOL, it might make sense. However, I just don't see what they stand to gain by entering a market that will be all about cutting costs at any cost.
  • Kevin: A look at five new news websites by Mashable with the conclusion: "Enterprising communities, a DIY culture, mobile devices, and better ways to sort through the flood of information (like semantic web) will be essential to the new ways in which we’ll stay informed each day." Everyblock,, Wikileaks, Chicago Now and Fwix. Most of these sites aren't new, but they are trying new things in terms of news and information.

More Twitter research gives us an insight

Last week I blogged about research by Meeyoung Cha, from Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany, and her colleagues that showed on Twitter, the number of followers you have doesn’t correlate to the influence you have.

Corroborating that is research from Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon from the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. According to Shiv Singh, in this second piece of research:

The researchers also analyzed the influence of Twitter users and found that there’s a discrepancy in the relationship between the number of followers and the popularity of someone’s tweets. This basically means that the number of followers is not the only measure of someone’s value.

Singh draw out seven points of interest from the research, some of which are interesting and some of which are blindingly obvious to anyone who’s spent any time on Twitter:

  1. Twitter users have 4.12 degrees of separation on average
  2. The reTweet is powerful
  3. 75% of reTweets happen within an hour of the original Tweet
  4. Followers != influence
  5. Trending topics are mainly news headlines or ‘persistent news’
  6. Only a minority of users have reciprocal relationships, and there are a lot of observers
  7. ReTweets spread quickly

Read the whole post for the Singh’s full analysis.

It’s good to see researchers digging into the nuts and bolts of social media. As I said about Cha’s work, those of us who’ve been in this area for a while have built up through experience and observation a set of instincts about how things work. We use heuristics to get a sense of how the whole system functions, but like any assumption built from personal experience there are risks that we are wrong. So it’s very valuable to have those assumptions tested by research which can then ground us in evidence rather than gut feeling.

Making time

Amber Naslund writes a good post about how important it is to make time to experiment with social media and to explore what it can do for you. It’s very easy, she points out, to say that we don’t have the time, but “Here’s what you have to face down. You make time for what matters.”

Spot on.

The comments are just as interesting as the post, as people come up with reasons why it’s not just a matter of making time. People are overloaded, too busy, scared to step out of their comfort zone, the skill set required is hard to acquire. It’s easy to come up with excuses why some people won’t take the time to learn social media, but they are just that: excuses.

Here’s the thing: We waste loads of time simply checking our email inboxes. What about if you reduced your time in email and gave that time to social media instead? What about if you went to one less meeting each week? What if you used your phone to check up on Twitter and blogs and such, and used some of that dead time when you’re waiting for other things to happen?

It’s actually very easy to learn about social media. A quick search on Google gives an awful lot of stuff to start reading, even before one starts dipping their toes in the tools themselves. How much can someone learn just by reading round for 10 minutes a day?

“I haven’t had time” is an excuse we all use, but it’s not a reason.