Disruptive Innovation

‘Raining clicks’: why we need better thinking on technology, data and journalism

11 August 2017

From Medium:

I’ve spent the last eight years building the case for using audience data in newsrooms and the tools and culture required to make it a force for good. So reading Franklin Foer’s piece When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism was a deeply bizarre experience. Over the first four years of my work at the Guardian, I encountered almost every possible objection to what I was doing and I thought long and hard about each one. At that point a great deal of my job was about making sure that my instincts, processes and arguments were genuinely robust. Foer’s piece is a collection of the most ill-considered objections I saw, blended into one long, unappealing cocktail.

To be clear, there’s the odd thing here that I agree with. It’s obviously true, for example, that publishers need to be more robust in dealing with technology companies (although ironically one of the things we should be asking of them is more data). It’s also true that homogeneity can be dangerous. But the intelligent application of data can also help us spot where this is doing damage.

But most of these arguments, prejudices masquerading as arguments, childish hopes that everything can just go back to ‘normal’ and windy emotional appeals are zombies. They’re dangerous, stupid and they have no business climbing out of their grave and causing damage in 2017.

Technology isn’t an amorphous lump of stuff

The single biggest problem with the piece is the tendency to take anything that went wrong around the New Republic and the wider industry, gather it up and shove it in a big bucket labelled Silicon Valley or Technology. At various points Foer covers the use of data, data itself, platforms, algorithms, selling advertising, advertising itself, revenue, virality and search engine optimisation. Considering the experience he went through, the absolute conviction dripping from each line and his expressed commitment to good journalism, it’s surprising that he seems to have given so little thought to any of these specific issues.

. . . .

Audience data isn’t just page views…

We would resist the impulse to chase traffic, to clutter our home page with an endless stream of clicky content. Our digital pages would prize beauty and finitude; they would brashly announce the import of our project — which he described as nothing less than the preservation of long-form journalism and cultural seriousness.

Considering this stated aim, why the hell is the only metric mentioned in this epic piece page views?

. . . .

Growing audience doesn’t have to be a con trick

People clicked so quickly, they didn’t always fully understand why. These decisions were made in a semiconscious state, influenced by cognitive biases. Enticing a reader entailed a little manipulation, a little hidden persuasion.

Here’s another failure of imagination and thought (not to mention a pretty contemptuous view of the capabilities of readers in the 21st century). Buzzfeed’s viral strategy is basically inapplicable to serious journalism, as partly evidenced by Buzzfeed News’s difficulties in replicating the audience of the broader company despite great journalism. Equally, Upworthy’s aggregation and headline testing approach just doesn’t relate. In both cases the nature of the content is as important as the method of delivery. But using audience data to spot when a story you care about isn’t connecting with readers is a hugely positive thing. There’s a world of difference between writing misleading headlines and making a headline work well in a digital environment. Part of resisting that first impulse is to do with monitoring time spent on page, a metric Foer never mentions.

Link to the rest at Medium 

When PG read the initial piece referenced in The Atlantic, he dismissed it as a rant written by someone who didn’t understand modern communications technology (who was also the former editor of The New Republic who was fired from his job because he didn’t adapt well to new technology).

This Medium article does a good job (in PG’s disruptive opinion) of disassembling the original Atlantic essay to more fully demonstrate that author’s lack of understanding of modern communications technology.

PG also suggests that Big Publishing is dominated by people who don’t understand modern communications technology.

When PG wrote the preceding paragraph, he had a sudden vision of the executive offices of a major New York publisher with little orange Amazon warehouse robots scooting around the hallways.

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On eBooks Being a Dead Format

2 August 2017

From The Digital Reader:

Have you ever had one of those moments where you kinda sorta agree with someone’s conclusion and yet still disagree with many of the assumptions that lead to the conclusion?

That’s how I feel towards a piece published in The Bookseller earlier today.

Simon Rowberry argues that ebooks aren’t dead, but his arguments betray legacy industry biases. For example, he cavalierly tosses off the assumption that $10 ebook prices are unsustainable.

The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks.

What’s funny about this assumption are the many indie authors who would disagree, or the publishers like Baen Books that price all of their ebooks under $10.

Baen Books has been selling its ebooks at what Rowberry would describe as an unsustainable price for close to twenty years, and yet they have somehow managed to pull it off.

And that’s not the only data that Rowberry  didn’t include. A little earlier in the piece he cites stats from the UK PA and then vaguely hand waves at reasons why the data is incomplete:

But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “how ebooks lost their shine.”

The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.

Yeah, the data is only obscured if you refuse to go looking for it.

I am referring of course the Author Earnings Report and the pseudonymous Data Guy (who does answer press queries about the latest data).

We know exactly the limits of the stats from the PA (it misses 38% of the UK ebook market), and that is the point that Rowberry should have made.

. . . .

He actually think the legacy industry could kill off ebooks:

For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely.

While an industry can refuse to supply the market with what the market wants, that industry cannot kill that want.

And in the case of digital goods, it cannot prevent consumers from adopting the digital goods – they’ll just turn to someone else to supply the content.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader 

For a thought experiment, consider an alternative history in which printed books did not exist and ebooks are the only way books have been distributed/sold/read. As with today’s conditions, tablets, ereaders and computers are in wide use.

In that history, if someone invented the printed book and was promoting it as an alternative to ebooks, what would the reaction of the publishing industry be?

Printed books are far too expensive to produce, distribute and sell. Readers will never accept the size and weight of a printed book compared to their ereading devices.

Where will printed books be stored? Thousands of ebooks take up a bit of disk space while the same number of printed books will consume vast physical spaces that could otherwise be used for far more productive purposes.

And the forests! Think of the devastating impact on thousands of acres of beautiful trees!

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How Much Internet Data is Generated Every Minute?

27 July 2017

From Domo:

Link to the rest at Domo and here’s a link to a .png file that you can click to enlarge the infographic to a larger size.

PG was impressed by this in that many of the activities shown describe communications that individuals create themselves, at least in part.

On the other hand, 103,447,520 spam emails sent every minute.

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Next Leap for Robots: Picking Out and Boxing Your Online Order

25 July 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Robot developers say they are close to a breakthrough—getting a machine to pick up a toy and put it in a box.

It is a simple task for a child, but for retailers it has been a big hurdle to automating one of the most labor-intensive aspects of e-commerce: grabbing items off shelves and packing them for shipping.

Several companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson’s BayCo. and Chinese online-retail giant JD.com Inc. have recently begun testing robotic “pickers” in their distribution centers. Some robotics companies say their machines can move gadgets, toys and consumer products 50% faster than human workers.

Retailers and logistics companies are counting on the new advances to help them keep pace with explosive growth in online sales and pressure to ship faster. U.S. e-commerce revenues hit $390 billion last year, nearly twice as much as in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales are rising even faster in China, India and other developing countries.

That is propelling a global hiring spree to find people to process those orders. U.S. warehouses added 262,000 jobs over the past five years, with nearly 950,000 people working in the sector, according to the Labor Department. Labor shortages are becoming more common, particularly during the holiday rush, and wages are climbing.

. . . .

Picking is the biggest labor cost in most e-commerce distribution centers, and among the least automated. Swapping in robots could cut the labor cost of fulfilling online orders by a fifth, said Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWPVL International Inc.

“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of units, those numbers can be very significant,” he said. “It’s going to be a significant edge for whoever gets there first.”

. . . .

In RightHand Robotics’ Somerville, Mass., test facility, mechanical arms hunt around the clock through bins containing packages of baby wipes, jars of peanut butter and other products. Each attempt—successful or not—feeds into a database. The bigger that data set, the faster and more reliably the machines can pick, said Yaro Tenzer, the startup’s co-founder.

Hudson’s Bay is testing RightHand’s robots in a distribution center in Scarborough, Ontario.

“This thing could run 24 hours a day,” said Erik Caldwell, the retailer’s senior vice president of supply chain and digital operations, at a conference in May. “They don’t get sick; they don’t smoke.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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In a world of peak attention, how can books survive?

20 July 2017

From the Bookseller:

What happens when we run out of time?

This might sound like a philosophical question, but with the explosion in content and entertainment offerings such as social media and freemium games, we are rapidly approaching a state of peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment where the competition for our attention reaches a saturated point – when there is no more time to spare and something else must miss out.

As the old saying goes; time is the ultimate finite resource. Increasingly, ours is being spent online.

Herbert Simon first coined the term ‘attention economy’ way back in 1971. His simple conclusion was that an explosion of information must lead to a scarcity of what it consumes, our attention. From his office, it’s like he foresaw the entire rise of social media with its endless content feeds. We now collectively spend more than 10bn hours a week on the main social platforms, and it is rising fast. The total attention equation is different still. Between online and offline media platforms, the average American spends one more hour per day than they did just two years ago – almost 11 hours a day in total.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015, the average amount of time Americans spent reading for personal interest on weekend days and holidays fell by six minutes to 21 minutes per day and 17 minutes on normal work days – a 22% decrease in a decade.

. . . .

I believe the advent of the data feedback loop from users, now a reality with all digital media, will prove the game changer. Software can now learn on its own, powered by unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour. Imagine a book that gets better and better suited to its audience every time it is read, gradually personalising to fit each person’s preferred narrative direction.

These new self-learning systems will inevitably get very good at hooking us in – and keeping us there.

. . . .

Rather than simply living side by side in harmony, there is a compounding effect on the competition for attention across all the media we consume. Every new entertainment offering and attention-consuming activity essentially raises the bar for all the incumbent things people used to spend time on. We have entered a state of hyper-competition. If everyone increasingly fights for the same attention pool, something must inevitably lose out. And that’s going to be books, if Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix keep winning.

The true structural issue here is that all services and products compete for the same 24 hours.

Link to the rest at the Bookseller

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A Case for Multimedia Storytelling

25 June 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Interactive multimedia storytelling is probably older than recorded human history itself. The famous cave paintings of Lascaux, for example, date from about 17,000 years ago. While we do not know their exact purpose, one can easily imagine a narrator or shaman using them to describe a successful hunt or enact a ritual. Holding a torch, the narrator walks along the walls, recounting a sequence of events, in a kind of early form of cinema.

. . . .

Today, we have interactive digital narratives, also known as video games. This relatively new form of interactive media has evolved into a mature form for the presentation of narrative, and may well represent a possible future for storytelling.

Why should this be interesting or relevant to book publishers? Because it is worth knowing what readers are into these days. According to a 2015 Pew internet study, about half of all American adults play video games: 50% of men and 48% of women play them, and about 10% consider themselves to be gamers. Mary Meeker’s highly regarded “Internet Trends 2017” report describes video games as more engaging than popular forms of social media such as Facebook and Instagram, driving an increase in deep engagement in “an era of perceived disengagement.”

. . . .

The first thing to know is that digital interactive storytelling has matured in recent years. The depth and quality of the writing and emotional experience in some games rivals the best literary narratives—and some are even drawn from them. The international hit Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for example, is based on a series of novels by Polish novelist Adrzej Sapkowski, adapted for the game medium by developer CD Projekt Red’s Jakub Szamalek.

Second, despite book publishers’ fears that mobile apps are a form of digital distraction, taking readers away from books, interactive digital media can actually drive readers toward text-based storytelling. Twine, for example, bridges the gap between interactive fiction and gaming; it’s an open-source software tool that allows users without programming expertise to create and publish interactive stories. Twine has become so popular that it has begun to be noticed by book publishers. In many ways, it is the digital offspring of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure book series.

Because Twine is free and does not require coding skills, it has become a platform for writers who want to try their hands at interactive fiction. Many Twine games are composed entirely of text. Some are also visual, but in many cases, a branching narrative composed of text is the final published product. As this shows, gamers are open to and interested in text stories.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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Spotify’s Plan To Win Over Anxious Artists–And Win The Streaming War

8 June 2017
Comments Off on Spotify’s Plan To Win Over Anxious Artists–And Win The Streaming War

From Fast Company:

Like a lot of musicians now, Scott Hansen was pretty skeptical of Spotify. To Hansen, the mastermind of chilled-out electronic music outfit Tycho, the streaming service and the new era it seemed to herald posed troubling questions: Am I getting paid enough to support myself? Is my craft doomed? Is this whole streaming model even sustainable to begin with?

Anxious questions like these remain unresolved for many artists as the music industry reshapes itself and streaming becomes its biggest source of income. Thanks to streaming, record labels are finally seeing their revenue grow after years of decline, but the gains don’t always trickle down to musicians and songwriters. Spotify recently settled a $43 million class action lawsuit over royalty payments that went unpaid to certain artists, likely due to a metadata error. In other cases, the royalties flow, but not always in large sums. One of Spotify’s own executives recently conceded publicly that streaming doesn’t pay artists “enough.”

But for an increasing number of artists, including Tycho’s Hansen, the advantages of the streaming era are beginning to come into sharper focus.

“I definitely think we’re in a better place than we were three years ago, that’s for sure,” says Hansen, by phone from somewhere outside Cologne, a stop on the group’s recent European tour. The tour’s been a big success, he says, something he attributes, in part, to an experimental marketing project at Spotify. (The group’s recent Grammy nomination likely didn’t hurt either.) By aiming email and web ads at listeners who seemed likely to care the most about their music, the program helped the group sell about 1,600 tickets in Europe, Hansen says, and a total of more than 4,000 tickets this year. “I see it getting better as more people adopt that way of consuming music,” says Hansen.

. . . .

As Spotify seeks to build better relationships with record companies and music publishers—and as artists seek new sources of cash—the company’s executives and artists say the efforts are already helping, providing precise data to help artists make smarter career decisions, and leading to bigger ticket and merchandise sales. Collectively, the company says, the relatively young effort has generated millions in additional revenue for musicians–results that, after years of industry upheaval, are hard to ignore.

. . . .

Of course, not every artist can realistically expect this kind of free marketing push from Spotify. In an attempt to build stronger personal ties to the recording industry, promote and develop artists on Spotify, and bolster the company’s artist-facing tools, Spotify hired investor and former Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter last year as its global head of creator services. Carter’s job, interfacing with artists, managers, and labels, is about being “better partners,” he says “whether it’s helping you co-market a product on our platform, helping you understand how the international market works, or how our playlisting works.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company

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A guide to developing bot personalities

7 June 2017

From Prototypr.io:

Conversational interfaces have reduced user experience down to a few lines of text. With bots, UX becomes conversational, products talk back, and personas now go both ways. Every bot has a voice — which means every bot needs a personality.

If conversational computing means personality is the new user experience, how do we approach the design of these nuanced digital entities?

. . . .

Chatbots and voice assistants are for humans. Conversational interfaces exist for better interactions between humans and computers. So then, how can we personalise these conversations to be more life-like, intimate, and representative of human interaction? Through personality. Building a rich and detailed personality makes your chatbot more relatable, believable, and relevant to your users.

Investing in personality informs every touch point of a chatbot. Personality creates a deeper understanding of the bot’s end goal, and how it will communicate through choice of language, mood, tone, and style. Seeing a bot as a lifeless piece of technology is a mistake. People project human traits onto everything — but now these objects talk back. Whether you like it or not, your users will still assign a personality to your bot if one hasn’t been explicitly designed.

Link to the rest at Prototypr.io

PG says Alexa definitely has a personality. However, he’s not certain whether she has moods or not.

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Japan e-book distributor Media Do to build ‘AI translator’

6 June 2017

From Nikkei Asian Review:

Japanese electronic book distributor Media Do will develop an artificial intelligence-based automatic translation system to make its e-books available for English-speaking readers.

The company hopes to reach a broader market and promote digitization at a time when Japan’s book market is shrinking.

Media Do has teamed up with two Tokyo-based AI startups for the project — Internet Research Institute and A.I. Squared. Media Do will invest about 1.1 billion yen ($9.82 million) to acquire about 20% of each company through a third-party share allotment at the end of this month.

Both startups have developed unique technology for summarizing and translating text. The summarization technology analyzes the relationships between words and sentences in a given piece of text and extracts key sentences to create a summary.

The translation technology “learns” set phrases in both Japanese and English — on top of vocabulary and grammar — to enhance the quality of its translations, a process known as deep learning.

Link to the rest at Nikkei Asian Review

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Newspaper circulation at 77-year low

2 June 2017

From The Washington Examiner:

Circulation of daily newspapers has dropped to a 77-year low, signaling an end to print and a shift to all-digital delivery, according to a new industry review.

The Pew Research Center said that circulation has reached a new low of 34.6 million, six million less than papers sold in 1940.

. . . .

The estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2016 was 35 million for weekday and 38 million for Sunday, both of which fell 8% over the previous year. Declines were highest in print circulation: Weekday print circulation decreased 10% and Sunday circulation decreased 9%.

Link to the rest at The Washington Examiner

But readers will always prefer their books on paper.

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