Ad blocking and the end of the columnist, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Who will write in the 21st century?

So, if we’re pushing to a new paradigm where the platform is the publisher, who’s doing the writing?

We are. The Crowd.

Seriously, it’s already happening. CNN and ABC already incorporate users’ news feeds into their websites. CNN even enlisted the public to find Flight 370. When things happen faster than the big organizations can get a team on site, they appeal to the Crowd to supply coverage. When tough jobs defy computers, Amazon and others turn to the crowds to solve them. (Amazon cheekily calls their Mechanical Turk ‘artificial artificial intelligence’). So, we’ve already started down the road to using the Crowd to do a lot of jobs. With so many writers on the internet (seriously, check Twitter lately? everyone is writing a novel) writing is an obvious choice for crowdsourcing.

How far will we go? Since about the 8th century (Han dynasty), people have been hired to go out and find the news, write about it, and either governments or publishers paid for their time and expenses. They hired editors to curate the focus of the publication and develop the writers’ ideas.  It was (and still is) a huge business and makes money. Hence, multiple entrants. Result? Multiple publishers will carry the same story. They’re in competition. Competition is supposed to deliver a better product — but does it? I’d argue the products of the major news organs are homogenous. Apart from partisan sites and politics, for ‘general interest’ news stories we get a remarkably consistent product across major news organizations.

Major news sites require large constituencies to make revenue enough to sustain them. They must target the herd, so as the herd goes, so goes the coverage. You can probably think of a few subjects that are covered very differently (and consistently so) now than say 15 years ago — gay marriage, for example, or the Miss America pageant.

As the conventional wisdom changes and the crowd decides a subject is stylish, passe or noxious, the major news organs will trot alongside, reflecting the majority’s opinion — not leading it. Advertising-driven revenue models reinforce this result even more than subscription-driven schemes: sponsors do not want their products associated with unpopular coverage. Why? ads have to target the broadest demographic to be effective across the nation. In a large country like ours, targeting the majority results in a tyranny of the majority. Rousseau, Madison, Adams and others predicted this in the political sphere, it extends into the cultural as well.

The Tyranny of Mediocrity

Result of the advertising model: a lot of blah product. The forces that gave us ‘free’ news, supported by advertising, has resulted in a lot of product few are willing to pay for, because it aims a the lowest common denominator across a huge and diverse population. The cheap stuff and clickbait drives the quality content behind paywalls.

In the Internet world, mediocrity extends into execution. The low cost of entry means anyone can be a reviewer. I won’t start on spelling and grammar, suffice to say, not enough editors and proofreaders are being employed, the internet sites ca barely pay their writers. Resources are scarcer than in the print publishing world and lead times are far shorter: reviewers who have a gizmo for just a few days don’t bother walking ten feet to get some data on a wearable. Others will ‘test’ cell coverage by hanging around their office and taking a subway ride. No controls, no measurements, half-assed technique. The larger, better-funded sites will do the occasional ‘used-over-time’ review, but we have a problem reviewers cannot solve: I need to know if a gizmo will work with my lifestyle, but some hip young New Yorker who never drives always tests this stuff.

N.B., there are outliers like DC Rainmaker, a one-man public service for fitness folks, while Anandtech do comprehensive measurements of gear and Notebookcheck has the skinny on the innards…but no real-world usage info.

Enter The Crowd

Typically, to answer tough questions about how gear works for day-to-day use, I get the answers not from reviewers, but from the Crowd. Here’s an example: I need an electronic notebook. I travel for business and meet a lot of clients and in these meetings, so I take notes and make diagrams. (I do not use a laptop as clients assume you’re doing emails, not taking notes.) Days later, I translate my wretched handwriting to OneNote so everything important is trackable and searchable. Result? I end up writing my notes twice, which is maddening. I know OneNote allows me to scribble right in the app and convert to text later, and a stylus-equipped tablet would dramatically streamline my work. But which small tablet is best? None of the reviewers of stylus-equipped tablets covered note-taking in detail. No tests of convert-to-text, or how the tablet handled taking multiple pages of notes. Typically, they scribble a bit and lamely say they aren’t an artist.

But from the product forums I saw demos of note-taking with the tablet I ended up buying and I could see it would do the job. A win for the crowd.

Okay, you counter, the Crowd doesn’t have any better methodology than reviewers. Au contraire — the crowd is methodology.

The Crowd as Methodology

In a recent podcast, the folks at Planet Money life ran a much-replicated experiment after one run at a fair in England where the crowd bested experts in guessing the weight of a cow (more here on the original). The crowd can be smarter than a trained CIA analyst. New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki has the subject covered in his book. If the mean answer of a lot of people is the right answer, and more reliable than any one arbitrary ‘expert,’ then we don’t need experts. We just need a way for the crowd’s knowledge to be known. The internet is perfect for that.

Here’s another example. For my next work phone, I had to choose between the  the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, the S5 or S6. The S5 is a proven piece of gear, but the S6 is the sexy phone, delivering a build quality which had been lacking from previous Samsung products. The reviews have been heavily positive, apart from the uncharacteristic lack of a removable battery or SD card. It’s sexy, but is it the best phone?

Maybe. Most of  the reviews focused on the same issues (beautiful build, no SD card, no removable battery). It had a pretty screen, which is important to me, and a great camera, which is not important for my work phone.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of posts on forums (see Android Central, XDAVodaphone, Sprint, AT&T, Telestra) about below-average call quality. Frankly, I need to make calls with my phone. Yet there was not a thing from any of the review sites about reception. Instead, these sites (BGR, the Verge, ) raved about the appearance of the hardware and the interface, with nothing about call quality. CNET did a cursory job. At the end of his review, the Verge’s Deiter Bohn pretty much sums up how these new-age reviewers approach cell phones, as objects of visually fetishistic obsession:

“Sometime in the past year, the bar for what makes a good smartphone got raised. It has to look good, it has to have a great screen, it has to last all day, it has to have elegant software, and most of all it has to have a really good camera.”

But…it’s a phone. Calls are important, and so is cellular data. But testing reception quality is notoriously difficult. To get data that can be extrapolated to a variety of locales, you need a lab, and the only folks in the review universe I’ve heard of with a proper lab is Consumer Reports.

Where we go next: microtransactions

Ms. Johnston’s article which started my whole train of thought shows a lot of anxiety about the sustainability of publications in the new millennium. Maybe publishing is just something that will go away, or serve well-defined niches. Good writing exists today, and you can still find it for free on the internet (the Awl, for example; Salon, The Guardian, others) but if Johnston is right, not for much longer. Better writing is migrating behind paywalls (New York Times, the Economist, Wall Street Journal, etc.). For the small publishers of eclecticism like the Awl, The Toast, etc., we need a new model. I’d like to see micro-transactions support content. I just stopped my subscription to Autosport as I only follow Formula 1, and at $9 a month, it was overkill. But I’d pay for articles that sound interesting, or an F1-only version. I’d pay for the odd article on the Economist, The New Yorker or WSJ as well, but I don’t have time to do those whole publications justice on a monthly basis.

The pay-as-you snack approach prevents that inevitable monthly drain on your paycheck that subscriptions impose on us (not to mention the fact that stopping subscriptions is always more painful than initiating them). And this gets us out of dealing with horrid ads we’d rather block anyway. It’s a win-win.

I think this approach might save the columnist. I’d read Babbage monthly, and the odd Gary Anderson column. But reviewers? If I were a tech reviewer, I’d be watching my back. The only advantage they have on us crowdsters is the early access to product. If they lose that, their value prop is gone, as well as their revenue model.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
This entry was posted in Economics, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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