Category Archives: new media

So…What IS It!? The Answer on the Niemanlab

The good folk at Niemanlab have been kind enough to offer a much wider platform for my musings…starting way back when I sometimes felt like all I had was musings. Now that we’re set to rollout what we’ve got and what we’ll be, it made all kinds of sense for all kinds of reasons to begin the rollout last week ovah ther at haavaad yaad…

here it is.

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Momentum v. First Impressions: Why Perfection is Not an Option

We have had a design glitch…or better, we have changed our mind on the layout of our signup page. The good news is that my partner Irene and I agree (as we tend to on most things, including design) that we have some reworking to do. But what we thought could be resolved quickly with the designer we were using, may now require a more substantial working over — and, it seems, a new designer. And that means a DELAY.

I have gradually gotten used to the fact that the calendar in my head (or even the one I stupidly declare out loud) is essentially worthless. The project has its own calendar. Still, when Irene warned me last night that the delay in question could be “weeks,” we inevitably launch into one of our by now weekly, er, lively conversations.

It is not that Irene is any less impatient than me. By nature, she is in fact probably more impatient. But there are two fundamental differences in our respective outlook on time.  The first, is that she has managed website launches before…and so the lessons I am learning about a project’s calendar, she has learned a dozen times before. She reminds me that no one has imposed any fixed deadlines, and repeats the importance of first impressions. She is right, of course.

Still….still. I have learned over the past year that a startup must also always measure up with its own limits. Of time, of costs, of people’s attention spans. I have learned this in the lonely days when this project had a lot less to show for itself (including Irene!). Perfection is not an option. The ball must keep rolling forward, even if you gotta keep kicking it up that Sisyphean hill…Momentum is everything. It is what we need to both solidify our standing and feed the imagination of potential partners, investors, consumers — and ourselves, the ones working on the damn thing every day. 

In a follow-up phone call near midnight, we are both a bit calmer. And back again on the same page. A) We can only have a layout of the signup page that truly satisfies us both. B) we need those forecasted “weeks” delay to be more like several days…Yeah, yeah: but just how many!?

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Zuckerberg’s Regret. After the Movie: On Facebook & Privacy & More

The Social Network, both the movie itself and the event of the thing, works on many different levels. The Hollywood and real-life versions of Mark Zuckerberg’s striking gold are certainly a story of our (changing) times, and the timing of the film’s release is spot on. Having taken a crack last week at FB & Privacy, ive got some quick thoughts to throw down since seeing the movie in a jam-packed theatre on the Champs-Elysees, sitting next to at least one person who is not one of the Facebook 500 million club. And she liked the movie too!?

HACKER REDUX.…the early scenes of Zuck cracking into the Harvard computer system to get photos of campus coeds makes a nice hacking/historical/cinematic/bookend with “War Games“. Hey, that was 27 friggin’ years ago…!? Since then, the image of computers/computing has gotten much more personal and much less scary *in a WWIII kind of way…and yet, clearly, the impact on our lives is immeasurably greater. Possible consequences in the future? Even scary ones? As incalculable as ever….

NOT THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL the pre-punctual rushing to the defense of Zuck, FB, the Church of the Social Web that’s been circulating around the, er, social web...is all fairly ridiculous. That a hollywood screenwriter didn’t set out to “understand” or “explain” something doesn’t mean he has misunderstood it. And in fact, it’s all mostly there: the changing nature of business, communication and relationships, and yes, privacy. And how these things also have NOT changed. Fictional Zuck trying to talk to his ex at the restaurant after he’s irreparably blown it has no computer interface involved. He is a hero of capitalism not interested in money, a social innovator who struggles with sociability. This is not about geeks v. non-geeks or revenge of the revenge of the nerds. It’s about the real-life creator of Facebook. You remember: 0 to 500 million is six years. Letting these contradictions seep out, rather than hit you over the head with it–that’s what storytelling…and filmmaking…should be about.

GENIUS MR. Z. My basic lack of knowledge about the internet is nothing compared to my total ignorance about the ins and outs of building computer hardware and software…But I’m gonna venture to say that the Facebook founder has got a bit of both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: being able to understand how to build the things that people want to use, and the underlying architecture that supports it. The social aspect of computing technology is Zuck’s great invention. If 9 out of 10 nerd/geek/hackers are identified as such in part because of their difficulty in the broader social milieu (and/or desire to stay outside of it)…it then follows that the 1 out of 10 (1 in a billion!) who manages to understand the very elemental structure of the way we interact with each other is destined to design new methods and machines for doing so.

BUSINESS IS BUSINESS They say the real genius of Gates and Jobs is in how they built their companies. The Social Network gives a hint of Zuck’s prowess as a coming corporate titan. It’s a mix of tenacity, decisiveness, finding good people to work with. Much is made out of the fact that he doesn’t care about money. (Hey, there’s time!) But it’s not so strange that someone isn’t in business to get rich…there’s much else to be had: power, fame, revolution…and there’s a bit of all those in Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg.

PRIVACY, WHERE ART THOU? It’s ever more clear that this is much more than a side issue for Facebook, and the social revolution it is leading. In a certain sense the word ‘privacy‘ is the flipside/opposite of social. The more we share, the less privacy we hold on to, the more social the internet becomes — and the more of our lives we live on the internet — the more the very meaning of privacy is being transformed. That is Zuck’s revolution…and his business model. But it’s not a done deal. Facebook is still new, and habits can change. Platforms can shift. FB is still NOT Microsoft. Returning to my Friday night movie companion, who I will remind you, is not on Facebook. And neither are there any pictures of her…or our kids…on my FB page. I don’t know whether I agree with her diktat, but we’ll err on the side of privacy. She/we are the exception….for now. And the only thing the real life Zuckerberg has felt he had to apologize for is not any perceived invasion of privacy of 500 million, but stupid stuff he wrote on a blog when he was an anonymous 19-year-old student at Harvard.

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Why Facebook is in Bad Faith on Privacy: And Why They Will (and Should) Forge Ahead

This is my second attempt at becoming a real blogger. Keep it brief, dammit! Kick the urge to say too much, too cleanly. That’s not blogging: it’s two parts rambling, one part journalism. No good. From here on, as often as possible, i will try to just bang out these posts as single-topic hits, with a 300-600 word target length. Snapshots from my travels; Screen grabs from my brain… Ommm….ommm…channeling Dave Winer.

I begin in this new off-the-cuff & targeted format with one big topic: Facebook and Privacy. The latest instalment features the 500mln strong social network rejiggering the way FB Groups work, notably the blatantly Orwellian feature that someone ELSE can join you in these groups. I don’t think that’s even proper English, which is a sign that something is amiss. Jason Calacanis coined the phrase “force-join” for the occasion. Anyway you slice it, where I come from this is NOT cool. To say you can opt out of a group you’d been opted into requires a “when-did-u-stop-beating-your-wife” click of your keyboard. In fact it is not a GROUP, in the way the word is presented. Language matters. It’s like the pernicious inverse of the famous Groucho Marx line about clubs and members…??

This is not, as was suggested to me, like tagging photos. If you are in a photo, it’s because you were in fact in that photo. You may wish you hadn’t been, but you were. Even so, the first time it happened to me I was creeped out…and a bit pissed off…a shot of 16yrold ME holding my crotch in faux b-boy pose popped up in public circulation…via my Facebook page…via the Facebook page of a friend from high school who i havent seen since…er….high school. Yoda Zuckerberg would say: Ah, but look at you now… you are voluntarily offering it up here, in the public square SQUARED. And he is right, of course, as the pure force of his vision and his business move the goal posts on what it means to share, and to be private.

Revolutions in social norms — not to mention billion dollar businesses generated by a company of 20-somethings — don’t happen by playing by the rules. FB’s goal is not to win the internet, it is to BE the internet. Their internet is indeed a “social” one that requires people to be connected to each other in vast new ways..if they want to stay in touch, if they want to do business. Vanishing privacy is collateral damage.

I just saw a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. She was coming through Paris with her husband on a trip planned just as she and I connected on Facebook. It was nice to see her, and we have Zuck to thank, I guess…We talked a bit about FB…I said I was on it mostly for professional reasons…and every once in a while I check people’s photos. “Yeah, me too,” she said. “I just snoop.”

That seems innocent enough. But we know new communication platforms have the power to change the very way we see ourselves. TV is still changing us. Check out this disturbing story in Italy where the mother of a missing girl was giving a live TV interview, and found out during the interview that her daughter was in fact killed.

What will the Facebook/Internet version of such a scenario be? Will the benefits outweigh the costs? Mark Zuckerberg, subject of an invasive biopic that is currently No. 1 box office movie, is not spending his time/energy making these calculations. Nor should he. He’s building his business, making his revolution. The boundaries are for the rest of us to set.

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Latest Nieman Lab post…Launch approaching!?

We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab

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Meet, Greet, Talk and Tinker: 10 Tips For Your Ever Evolving Pitch…and Project

“You like that new triangle thing?,” I asked Irene with a little chuckle. We were standing on a corner in the 2nd arrondissement in the heart of Paris, having just finished one in a continuing series of sit-downs, skypes and phone calls with potential partners, funders and anyone else who wants to know more about (and maybe help) our fledgling baby. That same morning, at another pow-wow across town, I had ad-libbed a little riff about the three elements at the core of our product, which I described on the fly as the aforementioned “triangle.” And so when I repeated my new favorite metaphor in the later meeting, Irene Toporkoff, my ever patient business partner, gave it a nod of sort-of-approval. It may, or may not, make an appearance in the next meeting tomorrow evening.

As we plough on toward launch, and focus in on fundraising, the pace of meetings has picked up. I count at least 15 face-to-face meetings we’ve had since September 1, which means we are basically introducing our project once a day to someone who knows nothing or next-to-nothing about what we aim to build — and may be key in getting it built. It’s high stakes, and never boring.  If anything, we are perhaps a bit loose in the way we approach it, typically with little time to prepare, tinkering with the presentation. What we lack in polish, we make up for in both passion and agility. And ears. The questions that are posed by people who may actually end up having a stake in the thing tend are bound to be among the best (read: hardest) you’ll get…and will require you to adjust not only the pitch, but the project itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, the experience of being a professional reporter offers some good tools for us would-be startupers. Whatever skills and experience we have in conducting interviews and unpacking information can be helpful in these meetings that are the building block for your would-be news enterprise. But of course, there are also some fundamental differences.

With our recent flurry of meetings, I’ve put together a quick list (with journo types in mind) of what to know about pitching your project. One that I’ll keep off the list, though it applies very well to me: Accept That Sometimes You’ll Suck.

Work in Progress: As emphasized above, the pitch is never a fixed object. Let what you learned from the last meeting inform this one, and be willing to test and refine your product and business rationales. And again, often the best thing that comes out of a meeting is neither funding nor a partnership…but an idea.

Be Yourself: As a reporter, I would rarely prepare specific questions before an interview, usually just jotting down the six or seven topics I wanted to cover just before going in. Other colleagues work better with a more structured approach. In either case, the objective is to both get the most substance out of the encounter and to be as comfortable as possible. Indeed, those two usually go together.

Follow Their Lead: Some will just want to hear you go on and on, others will interrupt you with questions before you even sit down. Ultimately it’s your pitch, but their show. Indeed, it’s more like the interview you had for your first newspaper job than the big interview you landed with some VIP.

Adjust the Dial: No two meetings and pitches are alike, but there are certain categories of people you’ll be meeting: funder, networker, partner, expert. Think before going in what you would ideally like to get from the person, and what are the essentials they need to know about what you’re doing. It’s not disingenuous, but a question of emphasis, especially because time will always be limited.

Getting In Isn’t Good Enough: Sometimes for a reporter, just getting in is 80 percent of the battle. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant Q&A, as long as you were there to get subject X to answer some of your questions. You may have had it no easier getting to the person you’re pitching to, but here you gain no points just for face time.

Start Strong: This is one I’ve always needed help on. On big interviews I was always slow out of the box, and would often try to think of something specific to say for an intro….though that sometimes made it even worse!? There are no second takes when you’re pitching, but at least if you can wow them later in the meeting, they may forgot that your opening line was…Uummm.

Props, People Here too, there are different approaches. Irene has convinced me that the best way is to bring a printed copy of our biz plan along, but to try to go as long as possible without pulling it out. Indeed, we sometimes mention it only at the end of the meeting, and send afterwards via email. Others may prefer pitching — or being pitched — with slides from the get-go. In either case, you are there  to make an impression, a human one.

Get the Next Number: Irene always reminds me that every meeting should lead to another meeting. Or two or three. Ask for contacts, make connections, get the numbers/emails before you actually walk out the door.

Finish Strong: As things are winding down — after whatever detours into the details or the state of digital media — look for an opening to bring the discussion back to your core product, and the reason it is needed now.

Follow Up: Thank you, thank you, just one more thing I’d like to ask, thank you again…

…and good night.

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Jay Rosen in Paris, J-Schools in America, and a Global Struggle for the Next Press

Yes, these are the best of times…” With a dash of sheepishness and a tablespoon or two of self-satisfaction, NYU J-school prof Jay Rosen confirmed the recent skyrocketing status of American journalism education that I had just described to Irene Toporkoff, the French co-founder of our soon-to-be world news startup. We were in the Latin quarter after Rosen’s inaugural lecture of the academic year Thursday at Paris’ prestigious Science Po University… his invitation itself a confirmation from abroad of the realignment of the US media biz star system in the internet age.

Of course in France, the entire humanities academy is already firmly planted both on a pedestal and within the chatter of daily life (and the daily press) in a way that some US profs would only dream of. As for the specific case of the métier of journalism, universities have long been the accepted training ground and certification process for a healthy tranche of the profession, paving the way for the status of card-carrying members of Europe’s intellectual class.

In the US instead, where we don’t like the ‘i’ word, journo types have tended to revel in our hackdom, boasting of bar stools and pounded pavements and gumshoe labors. At our most highfalutin’, we’ll describe our work as a craft or justify the obsessive nature of the job as a calling. But the ideal still remains the smart and resourceful small-town kid who rises from news clerk to beat reporter to foreign correspondent and bigtime editor, without ever becoming too, er, fancy. In this context, journalism education (both undergrad majors and master’s programs) has long been viewed within the news industry as a bit silver-spoonish and generally superfluous.

I for one went to J-school in 1992-93, and it gave me some real practical training and the tools to think critically about the profession I was stepping into. But it was also true that I learned more about being a reporter in the first few weeks on the cops beat at the local paper where I started than I’d learned that whole year in my branded grad program (though such a contrast is probably applicable to many kinds of career training, no?) Still, the point is that I would never advertise my master’s degree to colleagues (or sources) over the years, and would find myself justifying the choice as just about “helping me get that first job…”

In addition to veteran reporters and editors who could teach me the ropes, I had professors with more academic backgrounds like Rosen’s, who some grizzled colleagues would hold up as the best proof that j-school was worth neither the time nor money. Rosen describes himself this way: “I’m not really a member of the press…I’m more an anthropologist of the press tribe.” But by the time he was featured in Paris last week, he — like the journalism academy as a whole — had conquered a standing well beyond just detached researcher-scholar. In the full throes of the digital information revolution, and resulting economic/existential crisis in the news business, the most valued resource is R&D. And with neither media companies nor the government inclined to lead the way on such innovation, the laboratories of academia not only allow for foresight about the changes underway, but can provide active, practicable solutions. J-schools are no longer just churning out journalists, they are reinventing journalism.

Still, for his much anticipated lecture Thursday, the new media guru chose not to offer API crash courses or theories on the semantic web. It was in some ways, very much a traditional American academic lecture, rooted in a historical narrative (and geographical context) and some of the latest thinking from his field of study, from the French Revolution to the Paris Peace treaty of 1919 to a post-Internet reading of the “mad as hell” scene in Network….which led to his urging the would-be young French journalists that “the way you imagine the users of journalism will determine how useful a journalist you are..”

Of course, both his history lessons and survival tips for the digital media jungle are also useful for we veterans, both in trying to move the big ship of MSM companies (where Rosen and other profs are now busy consulting), and providing intellectual oxygen to those of us creating new journalistic experiments of our own. For Irene and me, and our global news project, one of the most relevant thoughts he shared was at the beginning, as he noted that Thursday was also the beginning of the academic year back home at NYU journalism school…a reminder that: “the struggle for the next press is an international thing…” Oui!! When history is unfolding, hearing about the past can only help imagine the future. And when you’re flat in the middle of a revolution, it will always be the best and worst of times.

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