Monday, April 19, 2010

The Finale: The Evolution of Television and Privacy Online

This is it. This is the last (scheduled) entry for this blog. Now I could've done a post for the last two assignments, but because they're so important I decided "what the hell, I'll combine them into one post." And so here we are, the big megapost to end all posts here. It will get pretty long, but stay with me and we'll see what we can see on one last journey into cyberspace.
First up, the evolution of television. As discussed on previous posts, television is undergoing a rapid change. Do you all remember the days when there were only 3 networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and everything on TV was pretty much controlled by them? Neither do I! Now television is expanding, people in the US of A have a choice of the original 3 networks as well as other now-familiar faces like FOX, PBS, and even some foreign channels like BBC.

Let's return for a moment to the bygone era of TV. Back then the big 3 (networks) controlled what you watched and when. VCR's existed in prototypes and no one had heard of DVD's or even Laserdiscs! Your TV Guide was your best friend in these days, telling you what programs were on at what time for that particular week, so you could plan your life accordingly.
Now TV Guide has been rendered all but obsolete thanks to TiVo. TiVo hasn't been around very long, but it has become very popular with the American people
(I should know, my family has NI NE!). TiVo works similar to a VCR in that it records a program for later viewing, but instead of recording it to a magnetic tape it records it digitally to a hard drive. The latest series of TiVo DVR's (Digital Video Recorders) now allow you to "burn" recorded programs t o a writable DVD. TiVo also has a feature that is similar to TV Guide's function: it receives data from the networks about what shows are on which channels and when, also providing any special information that is necessary (e.g a guest host, an extended program and so on). The user can ask TiVo to record this one instance of the program, or get a "season pass" which will automatically record all episodes of the program that will air this season.

But with the evolution of media, TiVo now has been integrated with the internet. The latest TiVo's can now connect to a local area network, and download media from the internet. For example, the popular video site YouTube has a page that instructs you on how to watch YouTube videos on your TiVo. The page also tells you how to watch YouTube videos on other devices, like the Nintendo Wii. In previous posts we talked about how Television was expanding outwards to the internet, and now the opposite is happening here: the internet is coming to television. This makes the line that divides "television" and "the internet" very blurry, and I suspect that it will soon disappear altogether. If the current trend continues as is, I predict in about 10 years or so that TV's will be fully integrated with computers. You wouldn't need to buy separate machines anymore, you could watch your favorite show and then using your remote (and/or perhaps a QWERTY keyboard that could be plugged in via USB) you could go online to a blog, like this one, and make a post about what you just saw.

Now in a way, this is already happening. As stated above the Nintendo Wii along with Sony's Playstation 3 can now watch videos on the internet, and similar softwa re is coming soon for the Xbox 360. However there are already some TV channels that can be watched online, and vice versa.

Let me tell you a personal story about this: when I was a kid my dream was to be an Astronaut, and that desire still has not changed. So while other kids my age were watching Barney or Big Bird on PBS, or the shows on Nickelodeon (the good ones, not the drivel they have on now), I was watching the NASA channel. Yes, such a channel exists. The NASA channel is what it sounds like, it airs live coverage of space missions (usually the Space Shuttle and ISS) as well as programs pertaining to spaceflight, aerospace, engineering, and so on. I used to watch this channel every day until the evil empire Comcast removed it from it's lineup. Fortunately NASA broadcasts its channel online, where you and I and everyone can view it 24/7. They have a programming schedule as well so you know what's comin g up next. You can also watch the NASA channel on your PC's media center if you have one.

In The Television will be Revolutionized, Lotz lists something called "Th e 5 C's of the Post-Network era." Theses are: Choice, Control, Convenience, Customization, and Community. To end this part of the blog let's see how they play out in a n era of TV merging with the internet.

  • Choice: Gone are the days of network tyranny and dominance, now you are free to watch what you want, when you want. Be it from watching episodes of the hottest TV shows on YouTube or Hulu, or letting TiVo do it's thing.
  • Control: Playing into the above statement, viewers have more control over their entertainment than ever before. You have hundreds of channels to choose from, not to mention the content available on the web.
  • Convenience: DVR's let you watch TV shows that you've recorded, and you can even use the internet to tell your DVR to record a show while you're away from home. With YouTube and Hulu and iTunes you can watch your favorite shows on your iPods or laptop PC's.
  • Customization: TiVo allows you to pick which shows to watch, and even suggests shows for you based on your recording history (though this can result in hilariously awkward situations) and with the internet content available on YouTube, etc. you no longer are limited to what the networks insist on showing you.
  • Community: The best part of this who endeavor: you can connect with people from around the world who enjoy the shows that you do! ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS have web sites set up for their biggest shows (such as Survivor, V, and 24) which feature message boards for fans of the show to commune. You can also watch clips of episodes and even full episodes on those sites.
Okay, let's take a short break from this. While you're digesting all this in, have 100 quotes from Seinfeld!

Moving right along now. One of the many features (and dangers) of the internet is the lack of privacy. As this video so aptly states you can find out virtually anything about anyone online. One of my favorite things to do online is Google the screennames of my friends, and report any particularly hilarious results (try doing a Google search for heliosphoenix sometime, I dare you). Unfortunately if I can find this information about you, so can everyone else. Forget the CIA or MI5, or hell even terrorists, Joe Six Pack can now find out a lot of things about you, and should this information fall into the wrong hands...could be trouble.

Now part of this is because we all willingly post information about ourselves online. Take a look at this screenshot of my Facebook profile As you can see, I've filled out quite a bit about myself here. Some of the details have been blurred out for privacy reasons (ironically), but this gives you an example of what information can be easily accessed by anyone with a basic understanding of the internet. We are asked for our age, sex, family members, home address, even our phone number! Now we don't feel too concerned by putting all this info, I mean Facebook is supposed to be a safe site right? Well, maybe it's not. Either way, that information is out there, and it's available to everyone.

Remember Second Life? The folks at Linden Lab also require personal information about you in order for you to access some of the mature-rated areas. This is a screenshot of their age verification page.

It's not surprising that this age verification method has gotten a lot of negative reception from the Second Life community. You already need to provide a cell phone and credit card number just to join. Here they ask you for your name, address, city, state, country, and either your Social Security number, or the last 4 letters of your drivers license. The information must be true and accurate or the verification will fail. As you can imagine, not everyone is comfortable with such sensitive information being in the hands of anyone who isn't working for the government, and there has been a lot of outcry against this system. Fortunately there are ways around age verification (which I cannot go into here), but this isn't all jokes and policies. In September of 2006, Second Life's customer database server was hacked. While the pay ment info (such as credit card numbers) was encrypted, personal information (such as real names and addresses) was not. This is just one example of many of the dangers of giving out sensitive information.

Now the odds of you getting hacked aren't as high as you would think, provided you know what you are doing online (no responding to Nigerian princes!) but sometimes people can get your personal information, and this can cause problems. Enter Encyclopedia Dramatica (WARNING! NSFW!) the toxic waste dump of the internet. A wiki run by the people who are typically found on the /b/ board of 4chan, this is a site that humiliates and degenerates everyone and everything for the sake of getting a laugh. Targets include celebrities (like Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber), but most of the pages are dedicated to harassing and mocking ordinary people. Hundreds upon thousands of typical internet users like you have a page dedicated to them, hell I even have a page about me on that site! These pages as a whole m ock and deride and make fun of the person in question, as well as post info like any websites they may have, or private conversations between them and someone else, and sometimes their personal info. With these pages internet troublemakers can harass and torment you with ease. Now I haven't gotten my share of said morons, but others have, and being slandered on the internet is a devastating thing indeed.

Now the new trend in business is to use sites like Facebook to judge potential employees, or even their current ones. Again, everyone can see what you put on there. Recently though the internet has been used for legal means. My favorite example is a case involving Troy Judge Michael Martone, and some Michigan State Students. The short version of the story is this: these girls were caught drinking at their High School prom, and were charged with MiP's with Martone giving the sentencing, including a direct order to stay away from alcohol. The girls then went to MSU, and during a dorm party one night (where they were served alcohol) they took pictures of themselves and posted them on a website they created, with the title "F U Martone." Martone was not amused, and the girls were sla pped with a jail sentence.

Now with all those to take in, it certainly feels like Big Brother is watching us, and indeed they are in a way. Google Maps now have "Street View" which allow users to panoramic images of streets that were taken by cars equipped with special cameras. Google's ultimate goal is to get a view of every street in the world, so it's unsurprising that a fair amount of privacy concerns have come up. The US Military and Department of Defense has asked that Google not take pictures in the vicinity of military bases, and that any existing photos of bases be removed, a request Google complied with. In the UK there were supposedly photos taken of a man leaving a sex shop, another man being arrested, and even another m an vomiting. 200 people also claimed that they could identify themselves in the images (despite Google's pledge to blur out the faces of people in photos) and the village of Broughton actually formed a human wall to stop the car from taking pictures. It's also believed that Google may not be able to take pictures in European Union countries due to privacy concerns.

So it seems that cyberspace is not as safe as we think, but this should not dissuade you from experiencing it! These blogs have examined many aspects of a world that is increasingly being integrated and fused with cyberspace, with beneficial results for all. Today people around the world can connect with each other like never before, and share ideas, thoughts, information, and media. Artists can reach a wider audience than they would in a world without the internet, and can rake in immense profits. Google is now the universal to ol for answering our questions, whatever they be, and with technology like the iPod, we can remain connected to the world even as we travel around it. This uniting of the global community is a monumental achievement, but it's still not finished yet. Sure there's some things that can be done better, and there's some dangers involved, but this really is a glorious new beginning for the people of the world, who are no longer divided by petty barriers like race or ideology.

Since these issues are becoming more and more critical to how our daliy lives work, there is a lot of ground to cover, and in fact I hope to continue this blog with postings about such issues as they evolve and change, and any new ones that may arise. For now though we shall have to content ourselves with these entries.

I hope you all enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed making it. I know these entries got pretty long, but I hope I was able to entertain, inspire, and educate you all. For anyone who wishes to discuss these issues with me or just say hi, I can be reached at my regular email: or my gmail: My Twitter account is HeliosPhoenix, and my Second Life account is Helios Eusebio.

(Note that I get a lot of messages every day, and while I can't respond to all of them, I do read all of them).

Again, I hope you all enjoyed the writing on the Wall, and I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors. I hope that as the world turns, the internet will become an even better place and our world will truly be united. And from what I have seen, I truly believe that such a day is close at hand.

For now, this is Joseph "Helios" Niemiec, signing off.


Lotz, Amanda D.. The Television will be Revolutionized. New York City: NYU Press academic, 2007.,-73.985164&cbp=11,42.04,,0,-6.66&ie=UTF8&om=1&panoid=s_TY766yv4kWDddHKN8OVQ&t=h&ll=40.75844,-73.985195&spn=0.042649,0.174923&z=13&utm_campaign=en&utm_medium=ha&utm_source=en-ha-na-us-bk-svn&utm_term={keyword}

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Journalism in the Digital age

This is usually the part where I begin with a long introduction, but instead I'll let Edward R. Murrow do the talking.

In this journal, we shall discuss how journalism is evolving with the advent of digital media, and the positive and negative effects it has on the world.

One of the great advantages of being a journalist in this country is the freedom of the press that is guaranteed by the first amendment. In fact journalists are technically not bound by law in terms of press coverage, only the ethics of journalism. At it's core journalism ethics mainly dictate that stories be presented accurately, and without any bias or "spin" for one side of the argument. Libel and Slander (the spread of false information with the intent to damage the reputation and/or credibility of someone) are also looked down upon harshly.

The reason why journalism ethics are supposed to be followed to the letter is to avoid "yellow journalism." Yellow journalism is where stories have details exaggerated and/or falsified entirely for the sake of selling newspapers. William Randolph Hearst is the most notable example, with his seemingly blatant disregard for journalism ethics (for the sake of destroying his rival Joseph Pulitzer) actually leading the United States into a war with Spain. Hearst is (not surprisingly) the basis for the character of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (Hearst was so enraged by the obvious parody of him that he actually attempted to bribe MGM into destroying the film print).

But hey, it's 2010. Hasn't journalism progressed beyond that? Well in a way, no. The newscasters on the major networks have at times held more sway over popular opinion than the government. Walter Cronkite was able to almost completely eliminate support for the Vietnam war in just a single broadcast. More people know the names of the local NBC and FOX stations than the members of the Detroit city council (the ones that haven't fucked up that is). Despite the almost constant exposure of these personalities to the general public, journalism ethics continue to be subverted. It doesn't happen much on the local stations because they're exposure is rather limited, and they give most attention to local stories, but on the 24 hour cable news networks it becomes more apparent. The most infamous example is FOX News, with it's center-right bias, and MSNBC and CNN have recently developed a left-wing bias that is equal to (if not greater than) FOX.

Why is there so much bias in journalism? It's mainly an unintended side-effect that is often exploited when a news agency is deliberately trying to broadcast a specific agenda. A friend of mine, Greg Bowman, is an anchorman for WWJ, a local radio affiliate of CBS (who's famous eye is at the right of your screen, staring into your soul). In an interview that I conducted for my journalism class in 11th grade, Bowman stressed that being truly objective was impossible, because everyone has their own history and opinions about a story. For this reason interviews done by the local stations are usually short, in order to keep some objectivity in their broadcasts.

Okay enough exposition, let's talk about journalism in the new age. The advent of the internet has now allowed the news networks to increase their audience to virtually the whole world. The major networks have YouTube channels, as well as some international agencies like the BBC, one of the most trusted broadcasting services in the world. But in addition to the growing presence of the networks, we have a new type of journalism: citizen journalism.

Citizen journalism is what it sounds like. Citizens the world over can now be journalists without the need of a network or a nice haircut. They don't have to cover world events, just something simple like a local city hall meeting, or a high school football game. They would write an article about it and post it on a blog not altogether different from this one. If covering the news isn't their thing, they can fact-check articles from other agencies, pointing out errors or evidence of bias. Sometimes people are citizen journalists without even knowing it, especially when a major event is going down. On 9/11 countless people took images of that horrible day, and those were broadcast around the globe by the networks. In 2004 when Sri Lanka was devastated by a tsunami, footage shot by the citizens of the island was also broadcast. In 2009 when Iran went into a virtual media lockdown over protests relating to it's elections, Twitter was used by many to give details about what was happening inside the country.

One of the most unique examples of internet journalism is the Drudge Report, run by Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart. Drudge Report (perhaps best known for being the first to break the Monica Lewinsky scandal) is unique in the sense that it does very little reporting, and any reports it does make are based off tips from inside sources. Instead, Drudge links to news articles on other websites, which report on a variety of subjects from politics to sports to entertainment. Drudge Report has a pretty obvious right-wing bias, and it sometimes edits its headlines in a manner similar to yellow journalism, however this is done to make the headlines more noticeable, and not for the sake of misleading.

While this may or may not fit into this category, I believe that it deserves an honorable mention anyway. WikiLeaks can be described as something of an aggressive take on journalism in that it's goal is to publish leaked documents from governments while preserving the anonymity of those involved. The purpose is to allow journalists and to expose unethical and/or illegal practices used by various governments around the world. Since 2007 WikiLeaks has over 1.2 million documents that have been said to be leaked. Some of the more notable ones are the human rights violations at Gitmo, the members list of the far-right British National Party, over 600 internal UN reports, the "climategate" emails, a 32 page DoD intelligence report (which ironically was about WikiLeaks) and most recently, classified video of a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad that killed 12 people, including two members of the news staff for Reuters.

Murrow began this blog by saying our history will be what we make it. As technology continues to evolve, I predict that journalism will as well. Citizen journalism will become the new norm, which would give a new meaning to "man on the street." The future of journalism ethics is up in the air, especially if there are more networks that are owned by major corporations, like General Electric (MSNBC) and News Corp (FOX News). More sites like WikiLeaks will appear, especially in areas where the government controls the media, and therefore the news. The freedom of the press is both a benefit and a threat, in that our reporters can give us the real story about what is happening in the world, but at the same time a single broadcast can topple a government.

William Randolph Hearst once said "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war." Today anyone can provide the pictures and the war, what matters now is how we use the pictures to present the war to the world. The press can serve either the interests of the governments, the interests of the people, or the interests of itself. No matter which option it chooses though, there will be hell to pay for the losers.

Good Night, and Good Luck.


All pictures licensed through creative commons.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fusion: Digital Convergence and the coming Technological Singularity

My favorite stand-up comedian is Jerry Seinfeld, and every person with a TV set should know who he is thanks to his TV show Seinfeld which shaped pop culture of the 1990's (disturbingly my life has also started to mirror said show, but I digress). In one of his latest bits, he talks about how the usage of devices like the Blackberry has hindered personal communication. My favorite line in the little segment, which can be seen here, is when he jokes about the people who look at their phones while in a conversation, an action that he equates to picking up a magazine, holding it in front of someone's face, and reading it while they are talking.

Jokes aside, Seinfeld does have a point. Look at all the features that our cell phones have today. Aside from the ability to place calls to people, which I believe was the original purpose of these devices, we can now send text messages, check our email, browse the internet, and take pictures and videos which we can send to our friends. And let's not even talk about the "apps" for our phones, which let us find movie times, get directions to places, read books, watch TV, turn the lights on and off in our homes, the list goes on and on. The amazing thing to me, is not that our phones have the capability to do all these things, but it's that we as a society actually think we need our phones to do all this stuff.

And it's not just cell phones either. It's all around us, TV, books, movies, games, every aspect of human culture is being integrated with technology. It's a process called "Digital Convergence" which is a shorthand term for various industries being merged into one conglomerate (mainly IT, Telecom, Consumer Electronics, and Entertainment). Through Digital Convergence, our society is becoming more tech oriented, and at it's current pace our world could be a very different place in just 30 years or so, in the sense that technology will not only be an essential part of our lives, but it may quite literally run our lives as well.

In this blog, we will talk about Digital Convergence, where it is happening, how it affects our lives, and how it's propelling us towards a future that the world isn't ready to believe.

As The Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technologies says; "'Digital Convergence' refers to the profound changes in the structure of media caused by the emergence of digital technologies as the dominant method for representing, storing, and communicating information." So what does it mean? It means that thanks to advancements in technology, the way media is presented to us is changing in order to take advantage of this new tech. In my previous blog post I touched on this, saying how YouTube and Second Life were being used to promote the newest movies, and how you could watch the latest TV shows on iTunes. In a related example, most networks now put up complete episodes of their shows on their websites for viewers to watch in the event that they missed the original airing.

A good example of this is Hulu, a free online video service that operates as a joint venture of the major TV networks (NBC, FOX, ABC, etc.). It's purpose is to stream the latest episodes of TV shows, movie trailers, and even feature length films for free. It's style and presentation is similar to YouTube, but because the networks have direct control over the website, the content is restricted to only the media that is published by the networks and/or their parent companies (News Corp, GE, etc.) as well as others who have a presence on the site (such as E!, PBS, G4, etc.). Also the videos that are on the website are only available for a certain amount of time, being deleted once their time is up, so there's some corporate greed here in the sense they want you to buy their media on DVD, iTunes, or whatnot instead of watching it for free.

Here is an example of a Hulu page showing an Episode of 24. While the interface is a different style than YouTube's, it offers similar options. There's options to view the episode in a higher resolution, in a pop up window, or full screen. Also it lets you share the episode with your friends. Should you scroll down, you'll see a comments section similar to YouTube's, as well as a message board pertaining to the episode, and even some reviews.

So how is all this possible? Through ads! See the little white dashes on the progress bar at the bottom of the screen? Hulu states that for "legal reasons" they can only load the video up to that point before they go on. Conveniently ads are placed at those little sections, like the one below.
Note that it has similar viewing options, in that you can view it in a separate window or full screen. Also at the top there is a message that says "Your video will resume in seconds." As that implies, these ads cannot be fast-forwarded, they must be watched in their entirety. Also at the left side, there's buttons that say "like" and "dislike." Similar to Facebook, you can tell Hulu if you liked or disliked the ad and why.

You also can now watch Hulu on your TV. With the PlayOn software developed by MediaMall Technologies, you can use your Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii to watch videos hosted by Hulu in your livingroom. So now you can watch streamed TV shows on...well, your TV. How's that for full circle.

Now let's talk about cell phones, perhaps the most obvious example of Digital Convergence. Everyone by now knows about the iPhone, and thus because of it's exposure (and the fact that I have an extreme hat
e for Apple) I won't be discussing it here. Instead we'll talk about one of it's competitors: the Palm Pre.

The Pre went on sale last June, at first it was exclusive to Sprint, although it's now sold through Verizon. The Pre
is a smartphone designed to compete with the iPhone and similar devices in a variety of ways. This has been my personal cell phone for about the past year, and I am very happy with it, and in my opinion it's the best cell phone I've ever had. Personal feelings aside though, the Pre is a good example of a product taking advantage of Digitan Convergence. In addition to calling people and SMS, picture, and video messaging, the Pre is powered by an in-house developed software, called WebOS, which supports internet browsing and email sending and receiving. You also can sync the calendar on the phone to your Facebook and/or Google calendars online. Speaking of Google, Google Maps are included and are integrated to function with the Pre's built in GPS. There's also an app store similar to Apple's, which allows you to download various apps for WebOS, and while there's not as many apps for the Pre compared to the iPhone, there's many useful ones available. Finally, in the biggest advantage the Pre has over the iPhone, you can run multiple apps at the same time, so you can check your email, update your Facebook status, and talk on the phone all at once! (Good luck trying to physically pull that off though!)

Now let's be honest, do we really need the Pre to do all that for us? No. After all it is a phone, it's only obligation is to allow for you to make calls. But we live in an increasingly tech-dependent world, and being able to do several things at once on just one gadget is much more convenient than being able to do only one thing at a time on several gadgets. This is why phones like the Pre must be able to do a billion things at once in order for them to sell well. Our parents might have been okay with a phone that just lets you make calls, and maybe one that lets you send text messages, but not us. No, we want our phones to be able to do those things, as well as
help us edit our report for the boss, forecast the weather, and give us the highlights from the NCAA tournament. Digital Convergence at it's finest.

Books might as well be the last safe haven. I mean we have all this information in these giant textbooks, and we'll be carrying them around with us forever. Right? Right? WRONG! Now even books are being digitized, and with the advent of electronic readers, like the Kindle from Amazon, literature is now faster and easier to access and transport. Even entire libraries are going online, with projects like the ambitious Michigan Digitization Project, a joint venture between U of M and Google, which aims to digitize the entire collection of the University Library. Now students won't even have to go to the library to check out a book, they can just hop on their computers and download it.

It's really no surprise that readers have come along. One of the inconveniences of academic life is that we have to carry around so many books that it's a workout just taking our backpacks from one class to another. When I was in Junior High even, I would nearly throw out my back (which is already suffering from scoliosis) due to the sheer weight of books I had to carry. Readers, like the Kindle, could have made all that unnecessary, in the sense that if there were digital copies of them, I could just download them to my Kindle, and I could carry that around with me instead of 10 books. Take a look at this picture (taken by my Palm Pre); on the left is one of the books for this class, on the right is my personal Kindle with the same book loaded, and other books for this class and others stored in its memory banks. Which one do you think I'll carry around?

Okay, so it's 2010,
and we live in a technologically advanced world. However some would say that it's not advanced enough. The late, great, Sir Arthur C. Clarke seemed to think that by this time, we would actually be way beyond what we are at now. Clarke is known best perhaps for the Space Odyssey series of books, of which the first, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is perhaps the best known. The sequel for 2001, titled 2010: Odyssey Two, takes place in the year 2010. One of the hallmarks of the Space Odyssey series is the predictions in technological evolution. Indeed some predictions made by Clarke (and Stanley Kubrick who directed the film adaptation of 2001) have come true. We do have flat-screen TV's, credit cards, glass cockpits for airplanes, and computers that have some basic artificial intelligence, as well as being able to synthesize voice. However we do not yet have bases on the Moon, or giant spaceships that can travel to other planets, or sinister computers that try to kill you (thankfully!).

But at the rate technology is evolving, it's likely that all the predictions made in 2001, 2010, and in the other stories of the series will be realized. In fact in just 30 years our world could be changed drastically, as by 2045 the evolution of our tech is expected to reach an exciting and terrifying climax: the Technological Singularity.

The Technological Singularity is a hypothesis which states that because technology is evolving so fast, it is impossible to accurately predict the future as it will be radically different from today. More specifically it refers to the theory that while development of new tech has only been determined by the intelligence of the human brain, in the near future it
is very possible (almost inevitable) that an AI will be developed that is superior to human intelligence, and thus the AI will develop a better AI and so on. In other words, technology will literally take over our lives.

A key piece of evidence for the Singularity hypothesis is "Moore's law", a diagram of which is shown on the left. Moore's law, developed by Gordon E. Moore the co-founder of Intel, states that the processing power of computers doubles about every 2 years. This is a trend that is responsible for the usage of digital tech in all aspects of society, as well as Digital Convergence. The trend, which is expected to continue until at least 2015, is used by those who support the Singularity hypothesis as an example of tech evolving at an exponential rate, to the extent that technology will inevitably surpass humans.

One of those who support the Singularity hypothesis is Raymond Kurzweil, who wrote a book entitled The Singularity is Near which gives his predictions for the future. I agree with most of the predictions he lists, and I'll summarize them here, as they help shape my vision of the world we will come to know in our lifetime.

By the end of this year, Kurzweil predicts that we will have computers with the raw power of the human brain, but an AI of that level will still be a way off. Computers will start to "disappear" in the sense that they will become more integrated with everyday objects (like clothing), and full-immersion AV virtual reality will exist. As we proceed through the decade cell phones will also become more integrated, possibly being built into clothing. High-speed internet will be available everywhere, and household cleaning robots (possibly descendants of the Roomba) will be commonplace. One of the more promising inventions would be VR glasses that could beam images directly onto the retina, and contain earbuds to project sound. This could be used as a new medium of advertising, as well as acting as a personal assistant with many useful functions (like language translation). By 2018 10 Terabits of PC memory (about the equivalent of the brain) will be avalible for $1,000. And by 2020, computers will have the raw processing power of the brain, but still lack a "strong" AI.

Throughout the 2020's and 2030's, nanomachines will be introduced for medical uses.
They will be able to provide accurate brain scans, as well as enter the bloodstream and "feed" cells. This will eliminate the need for normal food consumption (eating and drinking) and essentially make humans "cyborgs." When nanotech manufacturing comes into play, products will be produced for a fraction of the costs it would take to produce them traditionally, which will radically alter the economy. Also with the proper advancements in nanotech, the threat posed by biological diseases will be all but eliminated.

Most importantly, by 2029 a computer will pass the Turing Test, making it the first "strong AI" even though it would only be as intelligent as, say, a child. Also virtual reality will be so advanced that it would be impossible to distinguish it from reality (sound familiar?).

With a developing neural-nanomachine interface, it will be possible to create a virtual reality without the need of external equipment. Also in addition to telepathic communication, people could share experiences in real time, and "upload" their memories and even their entire mind. By 2040 humans will be so integrated with cybernetics that the human body will no longer have a corporeal state, people will spend most of their time in their own personal virtual reality (akin to The Matrix), and society will drift apart. By 2045 computers will be a billion times more powerful than the human brain, and Artificially Intelligent machines will become the dominant "life forms" on the Earth, thinking and communicating so fast that humans cannot even begin to perceive what is happening. Evolution of technology will now be run by machines, with each generation more powerful than the last, as machines literally dominate the world. This is the Singularity.

The Singularity will be disruptive and world-altering, but don't despair. Despite the fact that machines will literally rule over humans, a violent extermination of man is extremely unlikely, mostly due to the fact that thanks to nanotech developments, there will no longer be any distinction between man and machine. The disruption comes from the knowledge that this "new order" will be resisted by renegade factions of mankind, but their overall impact on the evolution of technology will be little to no effect, as it is likely that machines will have countermeasures enacted against their methods before long.

Now there's no guarantee that this will all happen in the way that me and Kurzweil are predicting it will, as I've said before there's no way to accurately predict the future. But based on the development of technology, I'd say that the Singularity is inevitable. Even today we are already starting on the path towards it through Digital Convergence. Now sure we're not plugged into The Matrix (we think), but based on our VR research, that will eventually come to pass as well. Hopefully it will be by choice, and not because the machines are using us as batteries! Either way the evidence is clear that thanks to the evolution of tech and Digital Convergence, we are becoming a more "technocratic" society, and very soon technology will not only be a convenience, but an essential part of our lives.

And when the Singularity does come, it will either be a glorious new age for man and machine, or it will be a hellish dystopia. Depending on your point of view.

Sites used for Reference: (Picture licensed through Creative Commons) (Picture licensed through Creative Commons)

All pictures are licensed through creative commons

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Social Network Marketing

You wanna hear something funny? I have this thing outside my house, and it's called a mail box. How it works is that it stands out there, like some sort of odd lawn ornament, and every day at a pre-determined time a man comes by in a giant truck. He fills the box with letters that are, get this, written by hand with pens or maybe even typed. And when he's done I go to the box, pick them up, and take them back home with me!

Yeah we all remember the days when we used good ol' "snail mail" to communicate with our friends, and we had to write down addresses and buy stamps and go to the Post Office and so on. Back then this was how businesses advertised their products, and this was the replacement for the door-to-door salespeople. Sears and Toys R' Us and so on would make these catalogs, and we'd get them in our mailboxes. We'd read them, find a couple of nifty items, and order them through mail.

Such days are long gone, today we just need to type a few keys to send an electronic signal consisting of a letter to a friend halfway around the world and it takes a fraction of a second to accomplish, which is a million times faster than ordinary mail. Corporations took advantage of this, obtaining our emails through various ways and sending us offers for various products, which is why "spam" is now a derogatory term.

Then came the social networks; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Now the various companies, news agencies, and so on are joining the millions of ordinary people who are spreading their message to others around the world. But instead of talking about what they did Saturday night, they're advertising their products.

This is a new world. The rules are changing. In the past businesses and organizations used word of mouth and traditional advertising on print, TV, and radio to sell products. Today they have a new tool; Web 2.0.

One of the best examples is Facebook. The social network monster that has come to virtually dominate our lives, its presence is growing faster than Google, the "Big Brother" of the internet. Facebook allows users to upload photos and videos of themselves, hyperlink web sites, and according to this article from FOX News a location-based service will be launched in April, which will now allow people to see where their friends are when they update their status.

A man by the name of Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his college dorm at Harvard back in 2004. The original intent was to take his mind off a girl who he had completely blown it with, as well as to compare the physical appearance of the students at Harvard (this was done by hacking the network and uploading the photos). What was originally an ivy-league exclusive social network soon went public, and its popularity soared, overtaking the infamous MySpace (which was purchased by News Corp in 2005). Despite offers to buy Facebook from several prominent companies (Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google) it remained independent, and in 2009 its cash flow turned positive and revenues could be as high as $2 billion. Just look at that snazzy HQ!

The "face" of Facebook is the news feed, this is the wall of text that you get when you log on. Here the status updates from all your friends are displayed so you can see what they're up to. Because this is a very "in-your-face" experience, companies use this to promote various products, or even just announce their brand names. One way to do this is by placing ads, sponsored by the organization, on the side of the news feed. Take a look below for an example of this, in this case an ad for the Marines.

The ad is small and seen off to the side of the page, so while it's noticeable it's not intrusive like the infamous Pop-up ads seen across the web. Its presence is designed to appear natural among the feed, and noticeable at the same time. Note that the ad doesn't ask for you to send any information in, or order anything, or sign off to anything. It only asks that you become a "fan" of the USMC's Facebook page. It also shows which friends (mine have had their names censored for privacy) are fans of the page. Also note the small "x" in the upper corner, clicking this will close the ad as well as trigger a pop up box asking why you didn't like the ad, with the feedback being sent to the agency.

When you click on the "become a fan" button, you receive status updates from the pages. Below is an example of posts from two pages I am a fan of; Repo Men, and Glee.With status updates, companies can now throw advertisements literally in your face. Often though they are not blatant "BUY ME" messages, but instead news relating to the products or media in question. For example the Repo Men post has some production photos that users can look at, while Glee talks about an interview with one of the cast.

Status updates make Facebook, and let's face it, it's all we go on for. What is needed is a social networking site that strips Facebook down to merely the status updates. Enter Twitter.

Called the "SMS of the internet", Twitter functions by having users upload posts containing up to 140 characters, and it can be done via Cell Phone as easily as it is done on the computer. Hundreds of thousands of "tweets" are made every day, and while most of them are conversations with others or just babble about nothing, a handful of them are used to promote products. In fact in August 2009 a study was done by Pear Analytics out of San Antonio of the content of "tweets" that are sent out. For 10 days, they studied tweets made between the hours of 11:00 am and 5:00 pm Monday-Friday. Out of the 2,000 tweets in total, 117 (5.85%) were classified as "Self Promotion" which were defined as "typical corporate tweets about products, services, or “Twitter only” promos." The study also states that this could be good news for some "as there appears to be a flurry of companies and businesses joining Twitter to promote products and services."

This is an example of a small business using Twitter to advertise, the business in question is Heather Highlands Golf Club, a golf course owned by my father in Holly, MI.

The tweets are a tad hard to see, but they advertise deals such as "Leagues and Outings book next week and lock in 2009 rates. Hurry this offer can't last. Call Chris today - 248-634-6800" and "Save 10 % on any Wedding that is booked in January." Also the bio says "We will be offering special "Twitter" promotions here ALL season. Follow us for a great value in golf. Who else lets you play free ?" Not only does this work by reaching new target audiences (the survey mentioned above points out that 43% of Twitter users are between the ages 18-25, and 55% are female) but it gives out promotions that are exclusive to Twitter. It's like the business is rewarding people for being addicted to Twitter, how's that for an incentive?

Then there's YouTube, the multimedia giant that has revolutionized how we share videos and whatnot.

YouTube is the embodiment of everything that is Web 2.0. Everyone from around the world can upload videos, ranging from simple clips from games to professional short films. Here's an example of both: a gameplay clip from Team Fortress 2, and the Half-Life 2 fan film "Escape from City 17"

Even though it's now considered a subsidiary of Google, YouTube has done a lot in revolutionizing the media of videos. This also affects the Long Tail that we talked about in previous entries. On YouTube, users can upload movies, TV shows, etc. that have long since been lost and forgotten, as well as letting you watch parts of the newest TV shows for free (provided that the videos haven't been removed by the evil Viacom or it's affiliates). Sure you can go on iTunes and download the latest episodes of LOST and 24 and so on, but you can log onto YouTube and find specific clips of those shows. Maybe you want to see Katie's flashback of the crash in LOST or maybe a mash up of Jack Bauer's kills on 24. Sure some of the videos you find are of poor quality, and might be plain old mashups like the second video here, but you can watch them for FREE! That sure beats paying whatever the price is on iTunes to download an episode that you only need a 30 second clip from.

Back to the Long Tail, in YouTube's immensely massive servers there are lots of old clips from TV shows past. Looking for the first episode of the first season of Pokemon? Or how about that episode of the Muppet Show where the cast of Star Wars crashed the theater? Chances are there's a couple of users on YouTube who have those clips and have uploaded them for the viewing pleasure of you and all the internet. Now are they available on DVD or whatnot? Yeah sure, but where DVD's can be lost or destroyed these clips arn't going anywhere barring some sort of internet self-destruction, and again you can watch them for free!

Some TV shows have tapped into the Long Tail concept itself. For example the famous "Sesame Street" has a YouTube page that is full of not only the latest clips from the show, like David Beckham explaining "persistent" to Elmo, but also contains "classic" clips for those of us who watched Sesame Street when we were young, but have grown up. My personal favorites are these classic clips, like Bert and Ernie having the appliance war to end all wars and Grover serving his hapless blue-headed customer the "BIG Hamburger." Now these clips were obviously made with the preschool audience in mind, but a lot of Web 2.0 users who are in their adolescence probably grew up with these characters, and so these clips remain funny to us. There is a large market for vintage videos like these, in fact the Sesame Street channel alone has over 2,000,000 channel views, and the individual views for it's uploads total at over 65,000,000. It can be argued that without YouTube, these clips could have been lost forever!

And what the heck, here's another clip of Grover at a fast food restaurant.

With so many users on YouTube, this is a gold mine for companies looking to expand their markets outward. When you open up the main page, you are confronted with a large ad that takes up half the screen, as seen on the right. Note that the ad is paid for by Sony. With Google's purchasing of YouTube, there's now much more space for advertising, and the most viewed videos have ads that play before the movie actually starts, in a format similar to a regular commercial on TV. Sony also has it's own YouTube page, where it has videos promoting new technologies being developed as well as products it is selling like the (in) famous PlayStation 3. Sony's multimedia branch, Sony Pictures Entertainment, also has a page where it posts trailers for the latest movies from Sony Pictures, like the Karate Kid, and The Bounty Hunter.

YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are efficient and fun ways to promote products and they have a good success rate, but there's one other avenue of Web 2.0 that often flies under the radar: Second Life. Second Life is a "virtual world" developed by Linden Lab, and the name is fitting in the respect that it operates and functions a lot like the real world. You have your own avatar (not to be confused with the ones from the movie, though there are some like them) that is completely customizable, in that you get to pick a name, gender, and even species to play as. In Second Life, there are no "winners" or "losers" (though Jim Halpert begs to differ) and what you do in Second Life is similar to what you would do in your real, or "First", life. You can go to school, go to work, get a car, play games, go dancing, you name it. Second Life also has it's own economy thanks to it's in-world cash system which has an exchange rate in tune with the value of real world currency, like the US Dollar. Second Life is virtually the same as the real world, with the exception of a few details (like you can fly).

Because Second Life is overlooked for the most part as a medium of advertising, not a lot of companies sell official products. However users in Second Life can create their own content, clothing, vehicles, equipment, anything they need. To that end a lot of real-world products or brands are emulated in-world. The photo on the left is an in-game screenshot taken by me of me and a friend on a motor boat (I'm the one in the back thank you). It's hard to make out, but the texture on the propeller mount says "Sea Wolf" a nod to the "Sea Doo" brand of watercraft. While Sea Doo does not specialize in boats, the one modeled here is based off of real-world boats, and the Sea Wolf logo is again a reference to Sea Doo, and a clever way to avoid copyright infringement. Another example is this online advertisement of a sports car inspired by the Dodge Viper GT, note that the ad is careful to state that the car was "inspired" by the Viper, in order to avoid confusion that this is in fact a licensed product developed by Dodge.

Second Life has attracted the attention of corporations however. 20th Century Fox held a premiere for X-Men 3 in world. Computer manufacturer Dell has set up their own island to sell PC's from. Adidas and Toyota have also established a presence there, offering licensed products from shoes to a Scion XB (the car I drive in the real world). Now you can't use these products outside of Second Life, but the odds are that if you buy them there, you will be inclined to buy from those brands in the real world.

Second Life's freedom with user-created content has resulted in users attracting even government agencies. The International Spaceflight Museum (pics taken by me at right) started off as a small, non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of Space. It soon attracted the attention of real-world Space agencies, like NASA and JPL, as well as companies with investment into spaceflight, like the Sea Launch venture which held a talk last month in Second Life about how their company operates in respect to launching satellites into orbit. NASA, JPL, and other government agencies like NOAA began setting up official areas surrounding the spaceport, and today the once small island has grown into a vast region dedicated to spaceflight, called SciLands, which you can visit.

NASA and JPL also hold in world events, usually they are talks with people from the organization (sometimes Astronauts!), or in-world broadcasts of Shuttle Launches, or even astronomical events like the 2008 Solar Eclipse. My personal favorite was in August of 2007, when JPL was getting set to launch the Phoenix space probe to Mars, and they had an in-world event to watch the countdown, complete with a virtual rocket launch! My avatar, Helios Eusebio, is an anthropomorphic bird (in case you haven't figured that out by now) and to be specific; a Phoenix. I was wandering around the event site a day before the launch, and the JPL rep was on hand and noticed my avatar. He asked if I wanted to be the unofficial mascot for the mission, and I was more than happy to oblige! There was a great turnout for the liftoff, and I got my picture taken by lots of folks. When the spacecraft landed in May of 2008, they held a landing event and I reprised my mascot role, taking a perch on the model of the Phoenix. I was even featured in an article! (I apologize for the pictures not being available. The one I included here should hopefully convey the scene).

We've covered a lot of ground here, from the ever popular Facebook to the underrated Second Life. But what does all this mean? How can Web 2.0 help businesses get their word out the same way it helps people around the world express themselves?

With the new
means of communication via the web, new methods of advertisement are opened up, and they're so natural that their presence is almost completely expected. We all remember the infamous pop-up ads that polluted the web in it's early years, and while they're still around (and have given rise to the annoying flash ads where women with unnaturally high voices offer you a Nintendo Wii), they are slowly but surely becoming obsolete. Part of this is because of the presence of pop-up blockers on internet browsers, but also because of ads like the ones you saw on Facebook and YouTube, that are integrated into the site and don't demand that you give out personal information just that you subscribe to their web pages. These ads are noticeable, but at the same time they are not intrusive, surprising, and unsettling in the way pop-up ads are.

Then there's other areas like Second Life and Twitter, where you can take your business literally into the next dimension. By having exclusive offers on Twitter, or re-creating your products to be sold and used in a virtual world, you are providing a reward for those who throw away their lives to sit around in front of the computer all day, and at the same time selling your products to a target market that otherwise might not be exposed to your goods or services. And with virtual talks, concerts, etc. in Second Life you can bring people together like never before. Now people from around the world can attend the premiere of the hottest movie without ever leaving their living room.

The integration of business with the social networks of Web 2.0 is increasing, and I predict that in 5 years, a page on Facebook or Twitter will be necessary for small businesses to survive. Competition will soon be heating up for dominance of the internet, it's already happening on Second Life where in-world corporations compete against each other to sell products ranging from clothing to complete avatars. It's only a matter of time before this all spills over into the rest of the internet, and when that does we will enter a brave new world of marketing, where just by logging into your Facebook you will attract the eye of businesses that are ready and willing to sell you their products.

To paraphrase Louis Armstrong; I see pixalted trees, Twitter feeds too. Facebook pages, and Muppets on YouTube.

And I think to myself...

What a wonderful world!

References: (licensed under Creative Commons)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Free at last?

You are a criminal.

You are guilty of petty theft. You are a common thief. There's a pretty hefty fine for that, and maybe some time in the slammer if you did it enough.

Are you shocked? Are you saying you never stole anything? Stop lying, of course you did! We all did! We all downloaded music over Limewire, or pirated movies, or burned CD's for people. It's those damn copyright laws, and their fascist approach to media. You use something that's protected by copyright without the consent of the creator, for anything, and it's your ass.

There's gotta be another way, right? Well at long last, there is.

Enter Creative Commons, the brainchild of the Copyleft movement. The Copyleft (as opposed to Copyright) seeks to expand upon the all important public domain of media. It mainly wants to provide an alternative to "All rights reserved" aptly named "Some rights reserved."

There are 6 Main licenses with Creative Commons that people can use to distribute their work:

  1. Attribution
  2. Attribution Share Alike
  3. Attribution No Derivatives
  4. Attribution Non-Commercial
  5. Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
  6. Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives.

The above licenses are combination of the 4 "baseline" rights:

  • Attribution: The work may be copied, distributed, performed, displayed, or have works made that are based on it, but only if credit is given to the creator. This usually applies to mainstream media outlets, such as television, movies, and music. This is also why sports telecasts have a disclaimer that states that you can't rebroadcast the game without the express written consent of the agency.
  • Non-Commercial: The same as above, the difference is that the media is restricted to Non-Commercial use only.
  • No Derivatives: You can redistribute the work, but you cannot make any work derived from it.
  • Share Alike: This is a unique baseline license. It means that any work that is derived from the original can be distributed, but only under a license that is identical to the one that governs the original material.
Further explanation on licensing can be found at CC's website here:

There's also a neat lil video that explains it:

What does this mean? It means that now creators can choose how they want their work to be distributed on the internet. The public domain will increase in size now thanks to these licenses, and all of it is legal, more or less.

There are some issues with Creative Commons, one of course being that it doesn't go to the extremes of copyright. Some people who push for an actual revision of copyright laws just state that CC is merely a cop-out, and puts the talent of artists in jeopardy, who's works could conceivably be legally edited or distributed by anyone without their consent.

A good example of CC licensing in action is DeviantArt, a website that I've been a member of for the past several years. A cross between Facebook and Photobucket, DeviantArt allows you to submit your works, be they poetry or pictures, and people can comment on them, fave them, and so on.

When you submit your photos, you are asked if you want to use a Creative Commons license. If you say yes, you can pick which one(s) you would like, to ensure your work is distributed the way you want. Now one of the recurring problems of DeviantArt is something called "Art Theft" where people post art that does not belong to them, and they do not give the original artist credit. If this happens, and the artist who had their work stolen has a CC license on the picture, the artist can legally sue the thief. To my knowledge this has not yet happened, and such situations are typically resolved with the offender being banned.

DeviantArt DOES have the right to delete any art they may find inappropriate or offensive, as well as use your art in various forms of media. This is all put in their ToS and AuP (Acceptable Upload Policy), both documents are the size of the Declaration of Independence and thus not many people read them. But these are rights that the site has, and Creative Commons protects the work, though this can cause problems. In a somewhat unrelated example, Virgin Mobile found itself under fire in 2007, when they used a photograph as part of an advertising campaign, and the person in the picture had not given their permission for use of the photo. The case was thrown out of court.

It'll be interesting to see where Creative Commons takes us. This could be what the people have been waiting for, or it could make the complex copyright laws that much more so, not to mention the threat of people having their work stolen and edited with or without their permission. CC is barley a decade old and it's too soon to see how it has impacted the internet, but more developments will come in the next few years.

So will this be a Go to Jail or Get Out of Jail Free card? Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Big Brother is Watching You

"We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it."

You know that you're in the 21st Century when an internet corporation declares war on a country.

When Google made the announcement that it would shut down it's Chinese search engine due to government censorship, the world was shocked by the news. While China's disregard for human rights had been made very apparent over the last few years, this was by far the largest reaction towards that rational yet: Google was actually shutting down it's search engine there as a protest against China's oppressive society.

The reason the Chinese government censors it's web is the same reason for it's state run media: the government of China since the communist takeover spearheaded by Mao Zedong has been very oppressive for the sake of destroying all possible resistance or threats to power. In a way, China's government somewhat resembles INGSOC from 1984, in that they seek to control their populace mostly for the sake of keeping the communists in power. There have been many small rebellions by the people, but they have not ended well. We all remember what happened in Tienanmen Square in the 1908's.

China is especially censoring of media that comes from out of state. Only 2 or 3 foreign films are allowed to be shown per year in the country. With the internet connection people around the world China has upped the ante, with the government creating filters that censor websites. Some of the most prominent examples were the censoring of Google, and the outright blocking of YouTube.

Despite the outrageous polices of China in terms of the internet, some have actually praised those methods as an alternative for fighting piracy. As discussed before, the advent of the internet allows the Long Tail to be exploited, and there are many materials to be offered, sometimes through piracy. Some have said that imposing a firewall similar to China would possibly help curtail piracy.

In reality it would be counter-effective. China's firewall is very easy to pass via a proxy server or other workaround, and while a US firewall may be more technologically competent there would inevitably be workarounds and backdoors. Also the firewall has been received negatively by the Chinese, and as Americans can be more vocal in protests, an American firewall would just cause more problems in meatspace and cyberspace than solve.

But Google is not the only example of technology being used to protest government. In 2009, there was a massive outcry in Iran against the election results, and students took to the streets expressing their anger. While Iran's government is oppressive for religious reasons as opposed to political, it remains similar to China. Protesters conducted Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against government websites, and exchanged methods for this via social networking sites like Facebook. In response, Iran shut off internet access completely.

The protesters didn't stop there though. They used the Twitter messaging service to co-ordinate protests and DDoS attacks, as well as receruit hackers. The Iranian government's response was twofold: first they looked for Twitter accounts to see who had their location set to the capital city, Tehran, so they could track the user of that phone and arrest them. Word of the protests had spread though, and before long many people around the world set their location to Tehran to fool the Iranian government. Iran eventually blocked the usage of cell phones all together.

1984 never discussed how something akin to the internet could be used to bring down a government, although novels of the "cyberpunk" genre often employ that as a plot device. The world we live in though is rapidly turning into a technologically oriented society, and the internet is now a much more powerful weapon in terms of dictating the rule of government. The internet can express the opinions of all in a free, democratic society like ours, and at the same time it can threaten to topple oppressive ones like China and Iran. This is the reason for the censorship in those nations, and now with Google declaring open dissatisfaction with China, this could be a signal that yet another uprising is about to begin.


مرگ بر برادر بزرگ!


Interesting links: article on the use of Twitter in the Iranian protests. NYT article on the protests.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The astonishing tale of the Long Tail

There is one false aspect of marketing that refuses to go away: the idea that marketing is a popularity contest.

Let's face it, there is a load of electronic media that is released every month, but out of all that, only the best of the best we notice. The top selling songs on iTunes, the blockbusters, the critically acclaimed and/or controversial video games, all of these seem to encompass all of the media, and its because these get the most exposure due to their success. This is especially true in Hollywood, I mean if you looked at the Box Office totals as of this post, you'd think that James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar was the only movie playing!

But what about everything else? What happens to all of the movies, music, books, or games that don't break records for weekend grosses or number of copies sold on launch? I'm not just talking about those that may interest some but are seen as spectacular failures, I'm referring to those products, and those who manage to get moderate success but fades into obscruity, hidden in the shadow of the enormous moneymaking machines like Avatar or Modern Warfare 2 or Harry Potter or Twilight.

We are taught to follow the 80-20 rule, which in it's basic form states that out of everything sold, on 20% will sell well, and be classified as "hits." The other 80%, or "misses" are found in an untapped gold mine called the "Long Tail."

The Long Tail is basically a personification of the 80-20 rule: it's a concept describing the niche strategy of selling unique items in small quantities, in other words selling content that is more mainstream or obscure than content that gets a lot of promotion and/or exposure due to it's success.This image here is a visual illustration of the Long Tail in terms of popularity ranking. As you can see, on the left, in the green, you have your best selling products that dominate your store shelves. These are your Halo's, your Barbie's, your GI Joe's, your Tickle-Me-Elmo's and so on. The yellow on the right are the less popular products that don't sell as well as the dominant ones, and thus aren't as likely to receive store space. These are your "Bollywood" films, your Documentaries, your "Indie" albums and so on.

One of the reasons why the Long Tail exists is due to physical space in retail stores. Stores like Wal-Mart, Meijer, and Target can only carry so many products in their inventory, and it's in the store's interest if the products they sell are guaranteed to bring them profit. To that end many retailers have various "rules" that determine which products can be sold on their shelves, for example: a CD must sell "x" amount of copies in "x" months to keep it's spot, the same applies for video games or movies or books.

Have you heard of a guy named Joel Rohweder? How about a rock band named Anvil? If you answered "no" to either, then you're not alone. Joel is a friend of mine, he's about to finish High School, and he's an aspiring musician. Anvil is a heavy metal band that made a big impact when they debuted in the 80's, and influenced many bands such as Metallica and Guns and Roses, but they were forgotten as time went on due to bad record deals. Both Joel and Anvil produce some great music, but if Kmart had to pick between them and say Led Zeppelin, they would pick Led Zeppelin because they are much more successful and have a wider audience.

It's not just music either, movies are another good example of physical scarcity and the long tail effect. This past summer, I had a chance to watch a movie called "Roadside Romeo" a Bollywood animated feature akin to a Disney Pixar movie, and it features the best of the best of Bollywood, with names like Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, and Yash Chopra. The movie, telling about a Dog who tries to make it on the streets of Mumbai, is actually quite enjoyable, and it was received very well in India. In the US of A however, despite a distribution by Disney, the movie was only shown on 40 screens, and has not been released on DVD. The target market was simply too small, the Hindi language confusing (even though it is subtitled in English), and the "famous" stars of Bollywood are nobody to us.

However in the 1990's, something amazing happened: the internet. Now that the world was united, people began to see the potential of using this new tool to buy and sell products from stores that would have infinite space, like Amazon or eBay, or iTunes. The Long Tail was finally being brought into the spotlight.

This graph shows the emergence of the Long Tail with the advent of digital distribution. Traditional retailers in the real world (aka "meatspace") are shown in blue, and they get more sales by sticking to products that are known and sell well, as seen on the left. Stores in cyberspace are shown in the red, and while they may not sell as well as their real-world counterparts, their sales increase as they go down the Long Tail and offer products that are obscure, but have a market. In cyberspace it doesn't matter how much of a market share a product can have, because it's not taking up any physical space, it's sitting harmlessly on a server in cyberspace. As long as there is someone willing to download it, then it's worth something.

The reason why it's taken time for online distribution to really take off is simple: piracy. Piracy was a one of the reasons why DVD's had outrageously high prices when first introduced, as the studios were concerned that illegal copies would be made and distributed. P2P networks like Morpheus, Kazza, Limewire, BearShare, eMule, BitTorrent, and so on are still in use today, but when downloading something illegally, there is a price. You may be getting it for free, but it will probably take longer to download as you will not have a dedicated server to get your file from. The quality of the media is also questionable, and of course there's the risk of contracting one of those annoying viruses, which would spoil your day fast.

Anyone who works for Apple cannot deny that the company's greatest (and in my opinion only) success's were the iPod and iTunes. The iPod has the advantage of a stable OS and being the best Music player out there in terms of functionality and reliability. But the iPod is nothing without content, and with it's impossibly large disk space, people were able to listen to pretty much all of their downloaded music.

iTunes took it a step further by selling songs at the price of 99 cents. Aside from the psychological effect of selling a product for less than a dollar, even if it's just one cent, Apple fixed the price at 99 cents so that it took the price factor out of the hands of the record labels. Now literally billions of songs are available to everyone and at a reasonable price. Not only that, but all profits go directly to the artist. Remember Joel? He's sold 5 songs now on iTunes, and all profits gained from them go to him. How about Anvil? Their new album is now available there, and like Joel, they take all the spoils, not the labels.

Netflix took iTunes' example and applied it to movies. One of the reasons video rentals even came into existence was due to the convenience, and cheapness, of renting compared to actually buying. Movies however still suffered the same restrictions as CD's, and if it didn't sell well, or was too obscure, it wouldn't be on the shelves. Netflix however has a wide variety of movies, and makes good use of the Long Tail. Documentaries for example don't have a big an audience as action movies, but there are people that still want to watch them. Now they can go on Netflix, find a documentary, and have it delivered to their home, or streamed to their PC.

In 1998, Valve Corporation released Half Life, a First Person Shooter that went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed and best selling games of the decade. In 2004, with the launch of Half Life 2 on the horizon, Valve realized they needed an alternative to retail. To that end, they created Steam, a content delivery service that allows you to purchase and download games to your PC directly. Steam has revolutionized digital distribution, because not only can you download games, but you can have a copy of those games on every PC you own, you can download games before they're released, and if there's a patch to fix some bugs in the game, Steam will automatically download the files and install them. Since 2004 all of my PC game purchases have been via Steam, and while it's not exactly an example of using the Long Tail, it's certainly a benchmark in digital distribution.

The Kindle from Amazon has done for Books what iTunes has done for music, Netflix for movies, and Steam for games. With the advent of ebooks, electronic readers are coming into play. The Kindle lets you download books from, as well as Newspapers and Magazines, and you can carry them on your Kindle wherever you go. This saves phyiscal space on both store shelves, and your own. Several of my books for this semester are on Kindle, and it's a relief that I don't have to carry as many books around as I used too!

Digital distribution is obviously the future of media as we know it, and with it the Long Tail is finally being tapped. Obscure artists are being given a chance to be known, and we are no longer subjected to physical shelf limitations or outrageous store prices. Now sure this means that in a few years there will be considerably smaller Wal Marts, and the record labels are essentially dinosaurs now, but sometimes change can be good, and with the Long Tail and digital distribution opening up new doors for us all, I'm certain that this is, as someone once said in a different context, "change we can believe in."