EPIC (fail) 2014

Leigh Blackall’s recent post is well worth a read, but a tangential matter in it struck me. It references the 2004 video EPIC 2014. It’s a video that has been floating around for four years or so, and is still shown, I believe, at gatherings of newspaper people when they get the vapors, as a sort of smelling salt for the stenographer class.

If you haven’t seen it, well, I’m going out on a limb here, but don’t bother. It paints a dystopian future where news media fails and is replaced by a loose network of people living online under a umbrella organization called the Googlezon, replacing news with essentially citizen journalism and Digg-like ranking systems. Newspapers collapse, and we are left with a double edged sword for a gift — a system of news that has more breadtha nd depth than ever before, but one that has been severed from the wisdom of its newspaper and TV news overlords, and therefore is vulnerable to being about trivia and being manipulated by corrupt individuals.

The disappearance of the news overlords is bad, you see, because historically those overlords have done so well at keeping news relevant and uncorrupted (cf. The WaPo selling influence to lobbyists at $250,000 a pop, the Michael Jackson death cult, Pentagon analysts used as “independent commentators”, and that whole messy cheerleading us into the Iraq War thing).

As for me, I thought the Googlezon was actually a bit of an improvement. Given the choice between an news organization that believes selling itself to health care lobbyists is a creative business strategy, and one that wants to make a living putting a Viagra ad next to my blog post on Bob Dole, I’ll take the Viagra pushers every time.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about something I’ve just realized is very funny in retrospect. You see, the whole EPIC 2014 project was inspired by a speech that Martin Nisenholz, the CEO of NYT Digital, gave back in 2003. Nisenholz was the idiot behind TimesSelect’s tiered content  initiative, which fellow news lovers will remember as the “You know what? I didn’t want to read your crappy article anyway” section of NYT Online. His brainchild, heralded by the news industry of the time, including the EPIC 2014 creators, was to take the best NYT content and put it behind a pay-wall. This lasted from about 2005 to 2007.

They abandoned it in 2007, because their stats told them the lesson newspapers seem to have to learn again and again: given the choice between a free product of marginal quality and a low-cost quality alternative, people will choose free every time. As Chris Anderson points out, Free is a special price — it allows us to share, for one thing, and it frees us from the mental conflict of deciding if we should pay for something that might not be worth it.  TimesSelect’s tiered content approach led to no one linking to those sections of the NYT (non-free is a pain to share) and led to an unprecedented amount of bounces on the sign-up page (non-free is too much commitment for someone who just followed a link out of marginal interest). And it did these disastrous things without getting near the couple million subscribers that Nisenholz predicted they would get (and that they needed to offset lost ad revenue).

None of this was really thought through in 2005 by a stunning number of newspaper people, although the move was widely seen as catastrophic among bloggers.  Jay Rosen detailed the coming train wreck the most comprehensively, but Brad DeLong, Kos, Kaus, Duncan Hunter,  and countless others from the unwashed masses predicted what would happen exactly: People would stop reading the New York Times stuff behind the pay-wall, and the pay-wall itself would permanently damage the reputation of the paper. The paper wouldn’t move itself to profitability — it would simply remove itself from the public debate.

So anyway (returning from that tangent) it was Nisenholz’s speech that inspired Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson to put together EPIC 2014, in an effort to convince newpaper people to take Nisenholz’s ideas seriously.

Which brings us to the punch line, Robin Sloan talking about the film in 2005:

Asked if he truly subscribes to any of the theories presented in the film, Sloan offered a speedy denial. “I definitely don’t believe Google and Amazon are ever going to merge,” he says. “I don’t believe it would ever be called Googlezon. I don’t believe the NYT will actually go offline.”

In actuality, the 2002 Michigan State University graduate who majored in economics believes that the New York Times will be the very last organization to fold. “Some of the stuff they do online is incredibly good and incredibly smart,” he says.

As the the wise gatekeepers circle around Chris Anderson’s Free with their pitchforks,  and the newpapers form a suicide pact to lock up all thier precious content, it’s worth remembering who has been right before, and who has been absolutely and completely wrong.

New Media Impact for Future Professors

It seems really impolite to disagree with someone on the source of their own fame, and more than a little presumptuous. Probably a bit foolish as well. But the recent story in the Chronicle can’t be allowed to go unanswered. The story so far: in Chris Anderson’s Free, there is a pull–out box which says this about Professor Richard A. Muller’s OCW “Physics for Future Presidents”:

To date, one of Muller’s lectures has garnered 200,000 views. That’s three times the capacity of the football stadium at UC Berkeley. After becoming a web celeb of sorts, Muller secured a book deal to write a popular hardback version of the textbook he penned for his class. Released in the summer of 2008, Physics for Future Presidents was widely reviewed in the mainstream press. Months later, it remained atop one of Amazon’s best-seller lists. It’s easy to see how good free has been to Professor Muller.

This is where the Chronicle comes in. In their classic fight-picking style, they play Muller off of Anderson, asking Muller, a physicist, how he believes the success of his book came about:

“I have been personally contacted by about 1,000 people who saw my Webcasts,”
said the professor. “When the book came out, I arranged to e-mail all of them (using Norton’s account) to let them know that a book was now available. I then watched the sales very carefully. (I actually have a computer that downloads the ranking every hour from Google.) Although I had seen huge jumps in my sales when I was interviewed on NPR (3 times) or had a book review in The Boston Globe, and a few other things, the massive e-mailing to my Web fans produced no discernible increase in sales. My conclusion: Web viewers don’t buy many hardcover books.”

This represents a relatively naive view of how new media impact works.  Here’s a couple questions I would have asked about his best-selling book, which has been widely reviewed in the mainstream press, and the subject of no less than three NPR interviews.

1. How many of his previous books were widely reviewed in the mainstream press?

This is hard to answer. But doing basic media mention searches over at newslibrary.com I can see the following:

  • Richard Muller “Nemesis: The Death Star”: 1 brief, incidental mention.
  • Richard Muller “The Three Big Bangs”: 5 mentions (incl reviews in Rocky Mountain News, Tampa Tribune, and SF Chronicle)
  • Richard Muller “Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes”: 2 mentions, mainly incidental mentions by global warming skeptics attempting to use his book as backing for their beliefs.
  • Richard Muller “The Sins of Jesus”: No mentions.
  • Richard Muller “Physics for Future Presidents”: 80 mentions, although it’s hard to disaggregate mentions of the course from the book. One notable fact is that there are a number of AP stories covering his book in the mix. Since a lot of AP content is not archived under the newspapers that run it, the likely reach of that story is far greater. There are also reviews in nationally distributed papers

(I should note that because electronic archives are a bit spotty through the eighties and early nineties, the first book’s impact may be off by a bit).

Correllation is not causation. Absolutely. But citing the four books Muller had published before as an indication that the OCW had nothing to do with Muller’s popularity (b/c he was already an established author) appears to be even less substantial, at least based on a preliminary check of mainstream media mentions.

2. How much of the favorable press coverage came as a result of the course being open?

Dealing with that press coverage, let’s look at the titles of the early coverage of the course:

  • World listens in online when Cal professor teaches physics (San Francisco Chronicle (CA) – November 6, 2006)
  • UC Berkeley expands events and academic content streamed online in new YouTube agreement (Associated Press Archive – October 3, 2007)
  • CLICKS: Berkeley puts up full courses on YouTube channel (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA) – October 7, 2007)
  • HOW TO TAKE A COURSE AT MIT FREE — AT HOME: (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) – November 18, 2007)
  • Professors find new audience of students through iTunes (Wenatchee World, The (WA) – December 4, 2007)

There’s also this TV News segment from ABC-7 News in San Franscisco. Aired in May of 2007, the title is Top Universities Offer Free Lectures Online, and the lead interview is with Dr. Muller about his course.

This is really just the early coverage, but you get the point. The early coverage produces later coverage. The people booking the NPR shows that spiked up book sales did what bookers always do — they looked for something that had already been vetted by the press as a significant story.  They kept their eye out for news in the local and national press that might make a good segment. Was Muller’s book newsworthy? Was it of interest to people generally? Well, yes, looking at the wide variety of citations in the media, from every corner of the country, it was.

And those initial citations are, as far as I can tell, a direct result of the OCW.

Could they see whether this person would be an engaging speaker?

Yep, it’s right there on YouTube.

As an analogy, I could point out that I served as an analyst once on NYC’s WCBS radio. They wanted someone to parse what the Iowa caucus results meant for New Hampshire. Had I had a book to sell that day, I probably could have sold quite a few.

But how did I come to be booked on that show? Two reasons. First, my free political writing on my blog had recieved national coverage, which would have been seen by the people booking guests in NYC. Second, for the person interested in booking me there existed an easy archive of material they could scan quickly (both to weed out kooks and dullards).

Had I had a book to pitch, my sales would have jumped from that WCBS show more than from anything done with my blog. But it would be ridiculous to say that the blog wasn’t primarily responsible for those sales. That is what Anderson means by the indirect nature of this. Each situation is different in how one comes to make a living from free, but the forces are the same.

I really want to stress that this is in no way an attack on Muller — it’s more an attack on the simplicity of this model the Chronicle presents where people watching the videos run out and buy the book, each and every one, directly and immediately. That’s not what Anderson is proposing, and the Chronicle shouldn’t be engaged in such straw man theatrics.  And Muller’s response to that may be as much a product of the false frame presented to him as anything else.

But I am reminded of a story Muller opens one of his NPR interviews with. He mentions a student told him about a dinner party where a physicist had scoffed at solar energy, saying you’d have to cover the entire state of California with cells to supply enough power for the state. The former student of his, who had no background in physics sans his course, did have one fact she was armed with– she replied that there’s a gigawatt of power in a square kilometer of sunlight, and that’s not that much bigger an area than a nuclear power plant takes up. The physicist, to his credit, thought about that, and replied he’d have to go back to the numbers and maybe rethink some of his assumptions.

As the paid-media lynch mob out to sink Free continues their crusade, I hope Dr. Muller will rethink some of his own assumptions, far outside the frame that the Chronicle provides.

Judge Bans Catcher in the Rye Sequel

Via NYT, last week:

Mr. Colting’s lawyers argued, among other things, that the new novel, titled “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” did not violate copyright laws because it amounted to a critical parody that had the effect of transforming the original work.

Judge Batts rejected that argument, writing:

To the extent Defendants contend that 60 Years and the character of Mr. C direct parodic comment or criticism at Catcher or Holden Caulfield, as opposed to Salinger himself, the Court finds such contentions to be post-hoc rationalizations employed through vague generalizations about the alleged naivety of the original, rather than reasonably perceivable parody.

The judge’s ruling weighed literary arguments made by both sides in the dispute. “To the extent Colting claims to augment the purported portrait of Caulfield as a ‘free-thinking, authentic and untainted youth,’ and ‘impeccable judge of the people around him’ displayed in Catcher by ’show[ing] the effects of Holden’s uncompromising world view,’” Judge Batts wrote, citing a memo submitted by Mr. Colting, “those effects were already thoroughly depicted and apparent in Salinger’s own narrative about Caulfield.”

I don’t know if the judge could have ruled differently — I haven’t read the work, and I understand the constraints of current precedent.

But I always come back to the Copyright clause in the Constitution:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Whether or not this particular work was any good, the decision actually chills “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by dissuading anyone from attempting something better that plays off the original.

It’s been 57 years since the publication of CITR, and the only thing copyright law is doing right now is protecting Salinger’s ego. Given that he hasn’t written a word in about a half-century, I’m not sure that that is really contributing to the “progress of the arts”.

Self-expression and Participation

I came across Nina Simon’s Self-Expression is Overrated: Better Constraints Make Better Participatory Experiences via @jonmott, and I have to say it is one of the better meditations on teaching in a participatory culture that I’ve read.

The main premise of the post is that we design our so-called 2.0 experiences around creators, and this is wrong. The majority of people faced with an exhibit (or a class) don’t want to create, but are happy to participate, or critique, or fill a half dozen other roles. Structure a participatory exercise that devalues roles other than CREATOR, and your exercise is bound to fail. One has to set well thought-out constraints to participation so that people can participate meaningfully:

Why aren’t more museums designing highly constrained participatory platforms in which visitors contribute to collaborative projects? The misguided answer is that we think it’s more respectful to allow visitors to do their own thing, that their ultimate learning experience will come from unfettered self-expression. But that’s mostly born from laziness and a misunderstanding of what motivates participation. It’s easy for museums to assign a corner and a kiosk to visitors and say, “we’ll put their stories over there.” It’s harder to design an experience that leverages many visitors’ expression and puts their contributions to meaningful use. It’s like cooking. If you have a bunch of novice friends, it can be maddening to find appropriate “sous chef” roles for them to fill. Many cooks prefer just to get those clumsy hands out of the kitchen. It takes a special kind of cook, artist, or scientist to want to support the contributions of novices. It takes people who want to be educators, not just executors.

There’s a lot here that reminds me of the Curatorial Teaching idea that that George Siemens put forth a couple years back, and more particularly of some conversations with Jon Udell, who told me one day that he’d imagined this world where everybody was blogging locally, until he realized that most people hate writing. Of any sort. Public writing is right up there with public speaking for a lot of people, and an endeavor based on everybody writing publicly may be bound to fail.

And so a truly participatory culture will find other ways for people to participate. For Jon, the answer was trying to get people to share their calendars so that they could participate in a public calendaring project. Facebook, which knows a thing or two about participation, puts a “like” button on comments now, for the writing-shy. YouTube viewers have long been able to rate things up. Delicious bookmarkers can show what they think is interesting while remaining mum. Crowdsourcing projects like the Guardian’s give people very directed tasks to accomplish — look at some pages, and just categorize these things. Professional astronomers work with amateur astronomers in supernova search networks, by dividing up the sky.

These experiences aren’t necessarily creative — but they are meaningful to those involved. And what’s more, they are often meaningful precisely because everyone is working together to achieve what is ultimately someone else’s vision rather than being presented that blank canvas Nina talks about. It’s a hard thing sometimes for us creative sorts to remember that not everybody wants to be Cezanne — but it is worth remembering.