A Hyper-polar Internet

Recently, lots of folks have asked me what I think the future of this Web 2.0 thing will hold. I give my token answers — users expressing themselves, creating their own content, mass customization of web experiences, online conversations, attention economy, multitasking, widgets, bonsai kittens, Muppet porn, State of the Union remixes, and so on. Most people eat that answer up.

But that answer never satisfies me. While most folks are caught up in updating their MySpace profile or watching narcoleptic pets on YouTube, a deeper transformation is happening right in front of us. In this hyper-polar Internet, large sites still draw the most attention and revenue while an ever-growing number of smaller sites increasingly disrupt the Internet landscape and invade our everyday lives.

I take no credit for inventing the term “hyper-polar”. That honor goes to Moises Naim, who I saw on Fareed Zakaria‘s excellent PBS news show on international issues, Foreign Exchange. Rather than mis-translate the concept, I’ll let Naim explain it in his own words from a Financial Times article:

What is coming – and in some important ways is already here – is a hyper-polar world where many large, powerful actors coexist with myriad smaller powers (not all of which are nation-states) that greatly limit the dominance of any single nation or institution.

Naim continues, saying that these micro-powers have great new opportunities in the world, but these opportunities come with a loss of stability — stability that was once enforced by the major powers. This is similar to the concept of a “nonpolar” world; the importance is that we’re not in a unipolar (U.S. dominated) or bipolar (U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.) world as in the past. A hyper-polar world is the world of terrorist groups, religious zealots, criminals and smugglers, and mega-corporations and the power they hold over governments and worldwide political, environmental, economic, and social events.

Not as obvious, this is also the story of every Web 2.0 company ever made, bloggers, podcasters, video bloggers, every other individual and group creating new content online, the Creative Commons, Second Life, micro news operations, content aggregators, web site remixes, and so on. Even though the Internet is becoming a part of our daily lives, it still has the power to disrupt and change other events in our lives.

Let me offer some examples of this from the hyper-polar Internet. The first national news story that I can remember where a blog was involved was the incident with the forged GWB National Guard papers, as reported by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes where GWB supposedly skipped out on his duties. A day after that story aired, Power Line Blog posted the story on their site. Within a few hours, they received enough evidence to conclusively prove that the document was a forgery — news which slowly percolated back up the news chain until the major news networks got a hold of it and forced Dan Rather off high and mighty CBS and on to fledgling cable channel HDNet.

Here are some more examples of smaller actors disrupting bigger powers. Facebook received backlash from over 100,000 of its users when they added a privacy-breaching feature. 100,000 individual users probably wouldn’t make a difference, but their united effort was enough to make national headlines in several periodicals. A left-wing site ambushed Google News and took the top spot with amusing results. Online video has accelerated the spread of stories like the Saddam execution video, the tasering of a student at UCLA, and lonelygirl15. Howard Dean made an unprescedented presidental run driven largely from communications and donations made via the Internet. And the best examples of this are yet to come.

To be clear, the bigger powers (whoever they are) in this hyper-polar era aren’t about to implode or go away. Instead they will have to face greater uncertainty about their and their competitors’ futures. For example, Fox is not going away (sadly). 24 is ridiculously popular, and Fox will keep making that show until Keifer is rolling around in a wheelchair, holding the gun in his mouth, pulling the trigger with his tongue, and sleeping while drooling for 18 of the 24 hours. But it takes a Fox to produce 24 because of the time, money, and other resources required to create shows like that. If you don’t like Fox or 24, just replace it with the TV show and channel of your choice. (Don’t watch TV? Then how do you live?)

Fox will be affected though. There are hundreds of other network and cable channels competing against Fox for your TV attention. The good news is that there’s enough eyes watching TVs to keep those hundreds of stations on the air, even if some of them are seen by only a handful of peopole. The bad news is that every channel now has hundreds of channels of “competition” (because The Souffle Network is hardly competition for Fox). And you never know which of those channels will launch the next big addictive television program, especially since there’s hundreds of places where that new program can come from (like The Souffle Network’s new hit “Souffle On You”). Yes this is related to the long tail of television, and I’ll write more about that in the future.

For its great explanatory power, hyper-polar is not predictive about how what new forces will form or how they will disrupt. This is a metaphor for understanding the phenomenon, not a crystal ball for showing us how things will pan out. But just to satisfy your craving (and I’ll admit it — to stroke my ego), here’s a prediction about what’s coming next as seen through a hyper-polar lens.

The Internet, for better or worse, is built on advertising. (For proof, look at the beating Yahoo! took when they announced a delay of their new advertising platform, or check where Google’s profits came from the last quarter.) And advertising is built on attention — flashing banners, fifteen second commercials before videos, full page ads you have to watch before getting a link to click through, etc. You need a huge site like Google or MySpace to draw an audience big enough to make significant profits from advertising.

At the same time, Internet audiences are fickle. MySpace and other sites surrounding it are soaking up more and more of peoples’ Internet time, where years (or months?) ago they might have been browsing eBay for hours on end. One site is absorbing attention, so another site is losing viewer time. What can those losing sites do to fix it?

There’s no way eBay can compete with MySpace for a viewer’s time. Instead, eBay needs to find a footing in the MySpace world. How do they do that? Widgets. Let users put an eBay list in their profile featuring their favorite items, auctions they’re watching, or items they’re selling. This way eBay is getting viewer time even though the viewer is really on MySpace. And the best part about widgets is that they can go from site to site, outlasting MySpace and wherever the fickle audiences migrate to after that.

This also shows you how sites like PhotoBucket and Slide have nudged their way up the Internet hierarchy into prominence. You don’t need to compete with MySpace; instead fashion yourself into a compliment of the site. Widgets aren’t the only solution to this problem, but they’re the solution du jour and will be until the next big thing comes along. And before I forget — MySpace disrupted the old guard of the Internet and made itself a staple of today’s Internet. Slide and PhotoBucket came from out of nowhere and are now staple sites because of MySpace.

Unfortunately, this spells doom for some fledgling social network sites (SNS). Since advertising is the business model most have chosen, SNS sites that can’t get the numbers will fall out of existence. MySpace is on the short list of sites that will stick around. Bebo and Hi5 are probably around for the long run too. Niche sites like Tagged or TeamSugar may have a place in this ecosystem as well. But volatility is a trademark of a hyper-polar world, and nobody can predict when these sites will pass into memory or which sites will succeed.

This should be enough to show you that the Internet is really a hyper-polar playground for new sites, ideas, and interactions. I find it a useful metaphor for framing my other observations and opinions about the state of the Internet, and I’ll happily expand on those in ramblings to come.

24 mad libs

What the fuck is the problem with 24? Can’t they go one season without killing a major character, murdering thousands of people, or finding conflicts at exactly the end of every hour of the day? How many TV Americans have to die for my entertainment? More and more are dying each day. Act now to stop it! Only you can prevent fictionalized death.

It’s like the Rolling Stones and their hit songs; 24 found a perfect formula for a TV crack. But thanks to themeat.org’s research labs, we’ve cracked their formula. Now anybody can make their own season of 24. This bit of text should cover your first four or five episodes.

A terrorist group from ___________ has obtained a place __________ ___________ ___________ that they will a number adjective plural noun use to terrorize the American ___________. The plural noun only _________ who can ________ everyone from this noun verb is ______________ Bauer. ___________ has years of a first name same name training as a _________ and can use ___________ with noun plural noun lethal accuracy. Only after the government ___________ adjective unit foils the ________ do they learn the enemy really noun has __________ ___________ ___________ and that their a number adjective plural noun real plan is to _________ ___________ _____________. verb adjective plural noun President ________ is in for a long __________ hours. a name a number

Who wants an iPod video?

I wrote this over a year ago and never published it to the site until now. Thankfully all human events are cyclic, so the time to post it has come again. Since I wrote this, both Virgin Digital US and AOL Music have turned their users over to Napster, Apple launched their video store with only Disney movies and has been unable to get other big studios to come on board, a slew of music/cell phone hybrids have appeared including Apple’s new iPhone along with music stores to buy songs for your music capable cell phone, and Apple debuted their Intel powered iTV device for playing your iTunes library on your TV (and the remote control has six “buttons“).

For the record, I have not edited this since I first wrote it on September 21, 2005. (That’s right — 2005.)

Video iPod… you know, for kids!

Let’s think about how people use iPods today. Many people wear them walking to and from work, plug them into cars or stereos for listening to music, or wear them jogging and exercising. Sometimes using public transportation or on airplanes, people sit and listen to music.

Video is a visually intensive medium, absorbing the attention of the user almost exclusively from other activities. McLuhan pontificated on the differences between radio and TV as hot (low participation) and cool (high participation) mediums. (I think TV is just dumber.)

So how can you watch a high participation medium like video while driving your car without meeting new people (by rear-ending their cars)? I’m sure there are some really rich people out there who do watch videos in their car despite the impact on their driving, but then again people also drive and talk on their cell phones. I can only hope that someday I believe in karma so that it can catch up to those people and bite them in the ass.

Still, would you watch videos walking around or jogging? Today it’s socially acceptable to tune out and listen to the radio or an mp3 player in public. More and more people are walking and text messaging at the same time. But video? You can buy a TV right now that is small enough to carry with you as you walk, but people aren’t walking around with TVs all the time. And on buses and subways (and even walking around), I think people would be wary of holding an iPod in your hand to watch the video for fear of having it stolen right from your grip. (Watching for thieves while watching a video is hard.) Without a transformation in iPod culture, the only places where people will use these is on airplanes and in automobiles as passengers and that’s about it. Can that change take place?

The content Apple is going to sell also tells you something about the target audience of the iPod video — teenagers, because I’ll be damned if I ever buy a music video. They’re the ones who buy ring tones, who watch MTV, who obsess over pop culture, who text message while walking and chewing gum, who spend time riding on school buses. I don’t know many adults, if any at all, who watch music videos. I feel bad for all the parents who will have to shell out for the new iPods and iTunes accounts for their kids. Maybe Apple can start selling iPod family packs… There’s even an iPod mini for baby — it comes in pink and blue.

I think Apple is expecting success similar to that of ring tones — that having videos on your iPod will become cool and wildly popular, passed on between friends, a kind of identifying mark like a ring tone. Maybe something like this is one of the features they’ll announce September 7th (more at the end).

But my doubts linger… Other video players on the market right now already play a variety of video formats, but what will Apple do? Will their video iPod only play video files with digital rights management or some form of encryption? Will the iPod video have an output for display on TVs? We’ll find that out soon, and then we can decide for ourselves whether or not they were pressured to do so by the RIAA or MPAA or their moms.

This is not the end of Apple’s video migration. Apple is not stupid, and I can’t imagine they’re going to start selling video and not develop a version of their operating system specifically for TVs. Think of an Apple PVR or media center, because what good is it if you can’t play all your paid for music videos on your TV? Complete with the $100 Apple remote control which will have only one button. (Yeah, that’s a mouse joke.) I bet this is what Intel had in mind when they signed a deal with Apple to supply CPUs and such, especially with Intel’s new Viiv marketing — an Intel hardware based, Apple software powered media center. If I’m right, you heard it here first. If I’m not, then I’ll deny I ever wrote this.

Maybe I’m just hoping that the iPod video will be a failure out of my disdain for Apple and their shiny, overpriced, technologically inferior media products. But the question that I have which I think there is no real answer for is this: Who the hell would buy the video and the mp3 of a single song separately? Nobody. Apple better have the best pricing and bundling strategy ever for this or it’s already destined for failure.

On a random note… Apple currently controls about 3/4 of the MP3 player market, followed by Creative and then by other random companies. Most of Apple’s competition (if you can call it that) are in a race to the bottom — the lowest price. Creative is really feeling the pinch, missing their sales marks lately and struggling with their Zen line of players. (Editor’s note: I own several Creative products.)

The MP3 player market is being fueled by younger people with lots of disposable income. You know them… They’re the kind that own computers. Yes, I’m saying that poorer people aren’t buying MP3 players with their scant extra money. I think these companies at the bottom of the MP3 player ladder are hoping the rest (also at the bottom of the ladder) will go out of business. Some will, but MP3 players are not commodities like televisions. This market is entirely fueled by rich people and has no appearance of shifting downward — at least not until Dell bundles one of their (rebranded Creative) MP3 players with a computer for under $400. Maybe the rising tide of digital music growth on the net can save Creative and their like from the juggernaut of Apple, but that doesn’t appear to be the care right now.

The same is true of digital music services. A recent survey said something like 41% of people would not pay more than $10 a month for a digital music subscription. Most people overlooked the 34% who said they would never get such a service (and probably download the songs for free instead). The time for these services to sink or swim is coming quickly. I think most of them are limping along, dumping cash into these services in hopes of catching the expected wave when lots of people start using these subscription services in the coming years. Real is just pushing into profits now, mostly from their 2 million new Rhapsody subscribers. Napster is losing money but growing fast. Even with this growth, prices for these services will not drop because of pressure from the RIAA and big labels. If anything, expect it to become more expensive but still have trouble penetrating all demographics.

Apple announces their new iPod innovations September 7th and maybe more during their expo around the 20th. It will almost certainly be the mobile iTunes stuff because Napster just announced their own mobile service. An important part of cell phone culture is sharing ring tones, photos, and more. Mobile iTunes and Napster better support this somehow. Maybe the ring tone market will evolve into the next platform for these digital music services? I’ve told others for years now that the cell phone was going to be the device of digital convergence. The MP3 player market is about to face new competition in the form of digital music enabled cell phones.

But that’s all business analysis crud. I can’t wait for this headline and how many groups it will piss off simultaneously: "Teen driver causes pileup while watching iPod rap video." That story will make news despite people who had car accidents while talking on cell phones or watching videos while driving. Damn sensationalist media…