Saturday, November 26, 2005

Filling the Media Vacuum

We in UXland like to think that the effects of technology are liberating and benevolent. Sometimes, though, we see unintended effects on our intellectual resources.

The pressure on the newspaper industry is growing far more quickly than these institutions can adjust. In the NYT this week, David Carr notes that "Google Base reverses the polarity" on the newspaper business model.
Instead of simply sending automated crawlers out across the Web in search of relevant answers to search queries, Google has invited its huge constituency of users to send and tag information that will be organized and displayed in relevant categories, all of which sounds like a large toe into the water of the classified advertising business, estimated to be worth about $100 billion a year.

This could be a fine thing for consumers, but for newspapers, which owe about a third of their revenues to classified advertising, it could be more a spike to the heart than just another nail in the coffin.
New York Times, November 21, 2005

One could ask "Why that is a big deal?" or merely conclude that the media is a bad business model. Still, we need to be aware that there will be unfortunate consequences when whole fundamental industries are uprooted.

Journalism has been long considered the "Fourth Estate" of government, a profession meant to keep watch on the public good. What will happen if writers can no longer find organizations willing to pay them for the work they do?
But if you consider newspapers to be a social and civic good, then some things are at risk. Google gives consumers e-mail, maps and, in some locations, wireless service for free. But for Google's news aggregator to function, somebody has to do the reporting, to make the calls, to ensure that what we call news is more than a press release hung on the Web.

News robots can't meet with a secret source in an underground garage or pull back the blankets on a third-rate burglary to reveal a conspiracy at the highest reaches of government. Tactical and ethical blunders aside, actual journalists come in handy on occasion.
New York Times, November 21, 2005

Carr's concern is very valid here, though he really should be saying that "professional journalism" rather than "newspapers." How will we find relevant, quality information? How will we trust that information? Who will doggedly pursue truth while we are doing our day jobs? Yes, newspaper reliance on classified ads as their main source of revenue is flawed and fast crumbling. But let's help the journalists find a business model that works. Maybe we need journalists, just not the media companies.

In Good Night and Good Luck, a major plot line revolved around the news and it's lack of contribution to the media company's bottom line. Edward R. Murrow had to do entertainment interviews in addition to his serious news pieces. To fund his attack on McCarthy, Murrow and his producer even personally bought advertising space.

Murrow's contribution helped hasten McCarthy's downfall. Who else besides the professional media were in the position to put a spotlight on the Senator and do the legwork to counteract the Senator's own investigative resources? Daily Kos even goes so far as to say that the media companies are even more cautious than they were back in the 50s.

If the UX community is serious about helping lead us bravely into a new world of citizen involvement by technology, we need to also be there to help business and government be inventive on the organizational side as well. Isn't organizing what we do?

Sometimes when we give up control, we might not like what fills the vacuum. Let's help fill it.

Thanks to Gawker for the reference.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Reality, Gorgeous Reality!

Thanks, John Battelle.

None other than that bastion of media gravity, the New York Times, is helping us get out the word (registration req'd) that there is not reason to fear the new Web buzz. We're not going back to the bad, old bubble days. My co-worker handed me a printout (egad!) of the article and said, "hey, this basically lays out all that you've been talking about for months."

Legitimacy in the larger context is nice, but I'm happy to keep pushing the envelope of how people can use technology in an empowering way. Discovering new opportunities to simplify our day-to-day tasks while giving us more insight into our lives (both inside work and out) entertains me to no end.

Don't get me wrong, I'd not complain if our innovations were less of a struggle and people at my company were flocking to talk with me about how we could do great things together.

I find that over time many co-workers learn to trust my "way of thinking" and approach me to help them work through problems. Though not always right, I'm not afraid to try something new and see if it works. This mindset draws some people to me and pushes others away.

Oh, the "selling" still goes on for the latter group. Stay "on message." Morph the terms over time. Tease their context out of them and redefine the terms. Learn more about their problems and figure out what issue is really behind the decisions.

All-in-all, IA serves us right whether you apply it to the Web, to a document, or to a conversation. It's all about setting the context, kid.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

More Than Philanthropy

Alex Steffen has a great quote from his talk with Bruce Sterling at SXSW '05 on what he calls "attention philanthropy."
"Not all of us have money to give to good causes, but all of us have attention to give to good ideas." SXSW, Mar 15, 2005, from Odeo

Amen!! He was discussing this in the context of being more responsible in our consumption by rethinking the things we buy (clothes, furniture, etc.) that contain toxic chemicals or have grave impacts on environment and natural resources.

When he said that, however, my brain immediately took off in it's own direction and tried to apply this idea to user experience and technology. I'm not even convinced that this is really "philanthropy."

Many of the darlings of the tech world right now were not the first movers in their industry. For example, both Google and Flickr both arose within industries that were considered crowded and (somewhat) mature. Little did they know that by rethinking the approach of the user experience and coming at the problems from a different direction a whole new opportunity would open up.

Now that I'm thinking more about these concepts, Peter Morville's concept of ambient findability applies directly here.
How do we make decisions in the information age? How do we know enough to ask the right questions? How do we find the best product, the right person, the data that makes a difference? Business Week, Nov. 9, 2005

The companies we find most exciting right now, whether they be upstarts like Flickr and 37Signals or innovative behemoths like the BBC, are gaining a competitive advantage by loosening their controls on the interface, find new opportunities and success by:
  • creating simple functionality
  • examining how their customers use it
  • finding ways to extend/evolve it
  • updating the business strategy around those opportunities
In some ways, this is ambient product development. With this approach to building technology, we're talking about the how to enable iterative business strategy to create a competitive advantage. This indicates a co-existence of business strategy and design that all of us really want to see across the board as user experience practitioners and technologists.

Further than that, imagine if every interaction we have as consumers whatever the channel were as useful as doing a Google search. Maybe, just maybe, it's possible.

Talk About Time-shifting

During a special presentation of the SD Forum in August, John Markoff discussed his book about the 60's counterculture and it's effects on technology today. As I reveled in my morning commute, made much more interesting with this kind of content, I came to realize that the counterculture just needed to go silent to gain some experience.

Having lost much of it's utopian trappings, the counterculture matured through the 70's and resurfaced slowly with the PC and the Internet. As Markoff discusses and "Web 2.0" embodies, technology is infused with attitudes less about command and control, more about connection, context, and sharing.

Letting go of some control actually provides benefits - less "whacking a mole" or putting out fires, and more putting something out there and finding opportunity. The concept of the next "boom" as the rise of co-creation makes a lot of sense and reconciles well with open source development, user-generated content, and better information-finding tools.

The current attitudes towards control and innovation seem to represent the intersection of the counterculture and Generation X. Many representations of this younger generation paint a picture of disaffection and laziness. However, I believe we just wanted interesting problems to solve and the opportunity to do work that has some meaning.

Subsequent generations will be even more demanding in this regard. They will have never known a time without PC's, and soon, without the Web.

Good times.