FLogging

How can blogs be aggregated into the next community model?

In October I posed the question about whether the online community model could evolve to associate blogs on a particular niche under a common umbrella. Jim Forbes and Chris Shipley (the duo who hosted the Demo conferences), had some suggestions.

The evolution of online community from USENET to hosted bulletin boards has, to some degree, stabilized over the past five years thanks to tools such as Ultimate BB, vBulletin, and a host of other fungible threaded tools that have brought some order to communities by providing their administrators and moderators with the tools that were sorely lacking in the mid-90s, when kludge systems such as HyperMail left moderators with few defenses again flame wars, etc.

My lack of familiarity with the web blog universe may work to my advantage in postulating that online publishers, or hosts of niche communities, can offer their users blogs and then, in the editorial role as a “meta blog” drive traffic to the individual blogs by aggregating the daily postings through category specific pages — obviating the need for less technically inclined users to configure a feed reader (which is still a bit of a daunting challenge for many users).

RSS lends itself not only to broadcast notification, but to the dynamic update of pages on a particular topic, if the individual bloggers can be conditioned to tick off the appropriate category.

Economically, the publisher can hard code the blog templates with the usual mercenary includes from Google AdSense to BlogAds to whatever the advertising model of the day is, and harvest the pennies. What needs to emerge is a tracking mechanism on the back end that will permit a split of those revenues with the bloggers.

The symbosis between blogger and publisher is simple — the blogger creates content which creates page views which yield impressions and click throughs. The publisher, if they are established enough, furnishes the community and traffic to light up the blogs.

Harkening to the Beatles lyric from Eleanor Rigby– “all the lonely people …” — an essential shortcoming of blogs is their one-way posting. I still fail, RSS feeds aside, to see what truly differentiates the typical personal blog from a Geocities or Anglefire page. Comment functions are a massive pain to manage due to comment spam. I receive a dozen notifications a day from Poker Palace.com or whatever scum is out there crawling my blog, to approve some heinous piece of crap. Blogs are not the next generation of a threaded bulletin board. However, a community of blogs — a set of silos under a common passion — could thrive if a couple tools were to be developed. Sure, the existing model of posting logs to friends or related blogs, is one step, but there is no real conduits — other than feed readers — to bring them together. Many blogs, to me, read like people talking to themselves. Quality will win out, and many have attracted significant audiences due to the quality of their content, the reputation of their owners, and the frequency of their postings. Somewhere there is a model to jumpstart an audience and I think that is the concept of the meta-blog.

Let’s for argument say bicyclists who like to drink beer are drawn to a particular niche site. For years they have regaled each other with bulletin board postings about riding bikes while drunk in a standard threaded BBS. They upload pictures of their bike, they post links to funny stories about other people drinking and riding bikes, and maybe the host of the BBS publishes a gallery of bike pictures, some articles about how to beat a breathlyzer test or evade police roadblocks.

Now say the publisher offers the faithful regulars the tools to manage their own blog. The publisher cracks the backend issues of how to automate the opening of a blog, figures out the legal issue of who owns the content, brands the template so his site is always hardcoded, adds some ad tags, develops a terms of service agreement so the bloggers don’t commit some heinous act of libel, and then turns it loose.

Ten drunk bicycle riders open their blogs. Name them, add links to the other nine blogs, and start posting.

The publisher then hosts a page which automatically is updated — like a newsfeed reader — with links to new postings. Those postings can be categorized — beer, bikes, bike parts, etc.

The better the tools for interconnecting the individual blogs, for publishing the “meta-blogs”, and, I think, the continued hosting of the BBS for those who are not inclined to blog (lurkers still dominate posters by a three-to-one ratio) could create the next generation of online communities.

I have such a scheme in development which will be unveiled in a month or two. A sneak peak is available here.

Niche communities are, I think, an organic phenemenon that spring up around passions. This is no different than an “enthusiast” or trade magazine, say Stereo Review or Water and Wastes Digest, where the subscribers, paid or qualified, flock to the content and the advertising out of professional or pure “pornographic” interest. Publishers or corporations that have tried to force the concept of community on their customers and subscribers, generally fail. We tried to go down the community path at Forbes.com by partnering with Raging Bull in the hope that the common community glue was ownership in a stock or mutual fund. The Forbes brand, I think, is too global and too broad, to build the passion that a weird little site like Fixed Gear Gallery engenders in its users.

There is no magic ingredient in building a community other than passion and good tools. Any hint of overcommercialism on the part of the host, any lapses in strict and transparent moderation will usually lead to rejection.

Bringing blogs into the equation — if the host publisher plays the role of aggregator, encourager, technical supporter, and ultimately, commercial partner — could, I think, mark the next big era in online communities.

Whoa. Thanks to my Google ad a link to “CheBlogs: A Left-Leaning Community With Room for Everybody” popped up. This is sort of what I am talking about. Woikers of the World Unite.

Cinemania Launches

Cinemania, film criticism blog launches

After nagging my son Eliot to start writing down his insights on film, I realized that the last thing an 18 year-old wants to do is keep a journal or fill Word documents, but get online.

So, in a few minutes I was able to initiate a WordPress Blog for him, customize the Kubrick template with some suitably noir black and white pictures of our mutual hero Sterling Hayden and Edward G. Robinson, and set him loose.

The results are here: Cinemania

Eliot will be attending New York University next fall, having been admitted to the Tisch School’s Cinema Studies program. He interned on the Beijing set of Kill Bill 2 over the summer of 2003 and is a walking encyclopedia on the topic of film. I’ve been hounding him to post his essay on Carl Dryer, the Danish director of

    Ordet

, one of Eliot and my top five films. It is an amazing piece of film criticism.

Ice Station Cotuit

The Blizzard of 2005 Strikes Cape Cod

Here we go.

Dr. Zhivago Don't Live Here No Mo

Three feet of snow yesterday and now the fun of digging out begins. At least we didn’t lose electricity or Internet so all is not lost. This will probably be the biggest blizzard I see in my lifetime.

Now to figure out how to get to New York for a meeting on Wednesday morning. I think life on Cape Cod has been put on hold for at least three days. Even the local newspaper, the Cape Cod Times, suspended print publishing today and will only be putting out an online edition.

Full gallery of shots taken during the storm can be found here.

Major praise for Google’s Picasa photo application. One of the best I’ve seen, particularly for batch processing lots of images and putting them into web formats. I was able to shoot 20 shots yesterday and have them posted for far-flung family in China and Florida within ten minutes of shaking the snow off my boots.

Tsunamis

I spent the holidays on the island of Kauai, the “Garden Island” of Hawaii. Feeling the need to ride a bicycle, I found the phonebook and started looking through the Yellow Pages for a shop that rented mountain bikes. At the front of the phonebook, where there is the usual emergency contact numbers, there was a prominent section on surviving tsunamis. Fascinated by maritime disasters – hurricanes, waterspouts, shipwrecks, etc. – I read that Hawaii has a network of sirens mounted on telephone poles. In the event of a tsunami these horns would blow once, indicating one should return to one’s home and turn on the television or radio for further instructions. Should the horns blow a second time, one was instructed to haul ass to higher ground. A series of detailed maps of the coastline showed where the safe and unsafe areas were and pointed out roads that ran inland up the ravines where the high ground could be found.

I noted this information, recalling dimly a disaster that hit Hilo over 50 years ago when an Aleutian earthquake sent a tidal wave into the town, killing a large number of people.

All of this coincidentally occurred on Christmas, the day before the killer tsunami of December 26 tore across the Indian Ocean.

Being a holiday, I was not watching television, listening to the radio, or buying newspapers. It wasn’t until Monday when I was standing in line at a grocery store in Hanalei that I saw the headlines.

On Tuesday, while walking on the beach, I heard the tsunami sirens go off. Nothing like an air raid siren to get your pulse up. I looked out at the Pacific. A big swell was breaking on the reef. It was rough.

I turned around and returned to the house. Women and children were in a state of panic. None had read the phonebook. None knew what to do.

“Turn on the television,” I said. “Await further instructions.”

On went the Weather Channel, the text crawl said “Testing the Hawaiian Civil Defense Network”

It was only a test. I pulled out the phone book and showed everyone the instructions, the evacuation map. My ten-year old was happy when I told him I had biked up the road to the power house where there was safe refuge. I assured him it was far, far, above the water.

“But what about back home on Cape Cod?” he asked. “We don’t have sirens there. Couldn’t we have a tsunami too?”

So, having returned home, I did a quick Google on Atlantic tsunamis. Yes, there have been occasions where earthquake driven waves have killed people. Portugal has been hit hard in the past. Puerto Rico has been hit. Even Canada had an incident in 1929.

But the real threat is something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer flick. The island of La Palma, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, is home to an active volcano, Cumbre Vieja.
According to British scientists, if Cumbre Vieja blows, a significant chunk of La Palma could slide into the Atlantic. Eight hours later, a tsunami as high as 100 meters could hit the eastern United States.

Congress has extended 2004 tax credits for people wishing to donate money to help the victims of the Asian tsunamis until the end of January 2005. Having spent time in one village hit hard by the disaster – Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu – and knowing the nice people who lived there, I plan on donating what I can today.

The Email Paradigm Reversal

Email – Becoming the Unnecessary Evil

Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0, in the November issue, has a great chart provided by Meng Wong on the flip in the “paradigm shift” of email – the great killer app of the Internet. The topic of the issue is the “accountable net,” but the Meng Wong graphic (on page 29 of the issue), essentially boils down the shift in attitudes about email from 20th Century Email to 21st Century Email into ten tenets.

Meng Wong's Reversal of the Paradigm Shift

Tenet number one holds that in the last century, “The average message is good. Spam is the exception.” In this century “The average message is spam. Ham is the exception.”

Tenet two: in the 20th century, “By default, accept a message unless we have a good reason to reject it.” In this century: “By default, reject a message unless we have a good reason to accept it.”

Which I tie together to the report this morning that Doubleclick is reporting a steep decline in “marketing mail” efficacy as reported on MediaPost

That report leads with:
“Revenue per e-mail delivered dropped by 19.2 percent year-over-year in the third quarter, even as the proportion of customers who made purchases after clicking through to the sites included in messages grew to 4.2 percent from 3.4 percent, according to DoubleClick’s most recent e-mail trend report, released Monday. The decrease in revenue per e-mail appears to stem from falls in both the percentage of consumers opening e-mail and those clicking on the links contained in messages, as well as from smaller median order sizes.”

Email newsletters were the hot property in the late nineties. Advertisers saw greater response rates when they sponsored and embedded their links into an old-fashioned ASCII email newletter than any banner or skyscraper unit on a page. While Doubleclick’s report doesn’t assail email newsletters, the syllogism can be made that a commercial link embedded in an email newsletter is losing its appeal.

I wrote a piece on the state of direct marketing one year after the passage of the Do Not Call Registry. With no where to go, the intrusive marketing crowd was expected to pile onto email, begging the question if a Do Not Mail registry was viable.

Apparently not, sayeth the experts. Too hard to manage and Sisyphean in the face of offshore spam.

Anyway, given the torrent of misguided bullshit that lands in the typical inbox everyday, email has lost for the time being. When you see good people like Sheldon Brown, the guru of all things related to bicycles suffer under the barrage of 4,000 pieces of Spam today, you come to the realization that the noise has thoroughly overwhelmed the signal.

Ave Atque Vale IBM PCs

In 1987, IBM’s chairman, John Akers, made the strange comment at an industry conference in San Francisco that IBM would not participate in any “commodity” businesses.” I was the news editor at PC Week at the time and we took the statement as an indication that Big Blue was getting tired of the PC business. Trying to get Akers to clarify his statement was difficult as relations with PC Week and IBM were pretty strained – all of the time – and we were in their doghouse for reporting their decision to scrap the clone-killing “MicroChannel” bus to return to the industry standard preferred by corporate customers with big investments in third-party expansion cards.

The news this morning on the front page of the New York Times that IBM is seeking a buyer of its PC and laptop business is an interesting coda to the most significant three decades in the history of technology. The company’s decision to create an “open-architecture” machine in its rush to enter the market for PCs in the early 80s let the genie out of the bottle forever, creating an immense gold rush of cloners, independent software publishers, and add-on makers that transformed the world as we know it. Watching poor IBM try to stuff that genie back into the model through FUD, architecture shifts, and occasional stabs at litigation was a great spectator sport from the vantage point of PC Week.

My colleague at the time, Jim Forbes, who went on to host DemoMobile, and is now fishing away his retirement in San Diego, made the prescient comment that PCs were turning into toasters, and it was time to find another line of work than writing about them. “PC Week is going to turn into ToasterWeek,” he said.

Well, PC Week turned into E-Week and IBM is throwing in the towel. I can’t help but feel old and nostalgic. Gone are the days when the world got truly excited about new machines coming out of IBM’s labs. It’s impossible to convey the excitement that was stirred up when IBM released the 16-bit AT, the 32-bit 386, and the drama that followed as Compaq and Dell tried to match the state of the art with their own clones.

Now the machines are indeed toasters. The moral of the story is buried somewhere in the strategy of standards. The Mac is still a closed standard, and while the cuddly machines may deliver better margins to Apple, they are still fringe boxes, as fringe as they were twenty years ago. Compaq is gone. Gateway is moribund, and only the manufacturing geniuses at Dell are significant players. IBM, in making the decision through the late Don Estridge to “open the box”, to use a non-IBM microprocessor (Intel), a non-IBM OS (DOS), and to permit the great big world to develop applications and hardware with no royalties or penalties was one that transformed the world forever.

Standards always win, closed architectures don’t. Walking the tightrope between open but profitable is, at the end, the secret to success in technology.

Municipal Wi-Fi

Today’s WSJ reports efforts by the telcos to block municipal plans to offer Wi-Fi to their citizens in Pennsylvania. Verizon lobbied the legislature to block attempts by cities to offer free Wi-Fi.

My thinking on telco stupidity and avarice was formed by Charles Ferguson’s excellent polemic, “The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma “.

Ferguson, former CEO of Vermeer, the company that developed Frontpage, a WYSIWIG HTML editor acquired by Microsoft, is a research fellow at the Brookings Institute. I highly recommend the book.

While the role of municipal governments in granting utility monopolies to cable companies was hashed out in the 1980s — essentially awarding a town or city to a single provider to cut down on infrastructure disruption — Wi-Fi doesn’t involve ComCast trucks hanging devices off of utility poles, provides broadband to the masses in the spirit of POTS for all, and if anything, will goad the lazy Verizons of the world to get off their dark-fiber asses and start eating their profitable T-1 businesses.

I’m all in favor of broadband at all costs, especially in rural areas where broadband is every bit as much of an economic development incentive as roads without potholes. While I rather see the private marketplace do its economic magic, the cozy relationship between the Telcos and public utility commissions insures we’ll never see true free market capitalism at work.

Halo 2 Ships, Teen Productivity to Plummet

There was some after-school drama around the Churbuck household yesterday afternoon, the official ship date of Halo 2, the second version of the first-person X-Box shooter which has dominated the minds of my two sons for the past two years.

Having pre-ordered via Amazon the long delayed second version of the game for the two over a year ago, I have been receiving shipment updates, not from Amazon or the game’s developer – Bungie – but from my ten year-old who has been anticipating the game with the impatient anxiety that used to be reserved for Christmas. His reaction yesterday, the first official day the game was available, when he learned the game had not arrived in the daily mail was on the order of magnitude one would expect from the accidental amputation of a limb or the death of the hamster.

The eldest has already declared that he intends to shut the blinds and eschew college applications and all school work until he dominates the game and explores all of its dark corners. The two natter on at the dinner table about rumored new weapons, aliens, battle tactics and plots like CIA analysts going over satellite photographs.

The USPS package tracking site has been refreshed with the invoice number about a thousand times over the past 12 hours. The news that the disc has left Springfield, Massachusetts and is somewhere on the Massachusetts Turnpike, on its way to Cape Cod, was the cause of more teeth grinding this morning, with demands that if it does not appear in the Cotuit post office by the end of the school day that I will drive to the local game merchant and part with another $50 to get a copy into their sweaty palms by nightfall, before the commencement of tomorrow’s school holiday (Veteran’s Day).

I can find no historical parallels of anticipation and anxiety in my own adolescence. No movie, book, comic, or other entertainment event ever worked me into as much of a lather as this single game has foamed up my sons.

Anyone who has questions about the future of media and entertainment needs to understand the joys of walking around in a virtual world with a rocket launcher and blasting the stuffing out of a virtual sibling while screaming smack-talk.

Spam Ruminations

The conviction of two North Carolina brothers for spamming AOL users with a fraudulent “FedEx Return Processing” work-at-home scheme is welcome news. The sentence, which includes jail time, was decried by the spammer’s attorney as cruel and unusual, but may serve as the head on a pike for other would be e-morons.

The legal process is serving up a few prosecutions but according to Techweb, Can-Spam isn’t doing the job, citing data by MX Logic that compliance in July fell to less than one percent. Unlike the Do Not Call registry — which is turning into a more accurate representation of Americans than the Census — Can-Spam and various state initiatives to put the lid on spam are fighting the Sisyphean reality that most spam has, or will, move offshore.

The Russian lonely-hearts scam described in Tuesday’s New York Times is a classic.

For the past year I’ve subscribed to a spam filtering service called MessageFire which acts as a POP3 go-between. The service is remarkably good at nailing most spam, but is now commercially unavailable to new consumer subscribers following an acquisition that positions the product as a corporate solution. Still, it can’t filter image-spam – which for the most part is HTML-formatted GIFs of people bumping uglies.

The point of all this is that the arm of the law and the arms race of technology are never going to have an impact on spam. What will turn the tide in favor of the consumer is their rejection – as resoundingly ratified by the embrace of the Do Not Call Registry – of intrusive marketing tactics. Marketers who continue to view pop-ups, pop-unders, telemarketing, junk mail, and spam as statistical shotguns are doomed. Publishers who host such crap, who underestimate the intelligence of their audience, are condemned to irrelevance.