Top 10 Media Trends of the Year

  1. Recycle Journalism – This was the year that recycle journalism came to the fore. It’s been a trend for a long time, already when I was writing for the magazine Space in the 90’s, I was experimenting with it, and Sweden’s Nojesguiden had a fun tradition of creating interviews using questions from other magazines’ interviews, but this year, it was everywhere. New media outlets such as Buzzfeed, Business Insider and Gawker are in large parts based on recycling and reshuffling material, but this year even more traditional magazines such as Bloomberg Businessweek had pieces which were made up of lists of articles from other outlets, such as their year-end jealousy list. Slate capped the year by doing a list of (social) media outrages for each day of the year. This trend is perhaps inevitable given the vast and increasing amount of content creation, which means that not all of it can be original content (as with this article itself!). Perhaps it can even be useful given the impossibility of keeping up with everything (unless you’re Jason Hirschhorn of Media Redef who seems to have 25 hours in his day!)
  2. Snowdenification – One of the outcomes from the NSA leaks has been the rise of apps that promise anonymity or not storing data. Two of the most talked about apps of the year were Secret and Whisper, which lets users share sentiments anonymously. Snapchat, with its self-destructing photos, continued to gain in popularity, and recently, we saw the launch of Confide, which lets users send self-destructing text messages.
  3. Long tail in analog – The creation of digital content was supposed to enable the long tail, i.e. with a distribution cost of zero, we could all enjoy whatever niche content we wanted. That ended up not being the case, with mainstream music/films/videos still dominating digital. Instead, it’s in the analog space that we are seeing extremely niche products, with the success of magazines like Brot (a German magazine dedicated only to bread!) and Modern Farmer (which I can only imagine is, as its name suggests, for modern farmers). Likewise, we saw Serial blow up and reach mass audiences that podcasts earlier could only dream of.
  4. Fights for digital distribution and pricing rights – Taylor Swift picked a fight with Spotify, and Hachette picked a fight with Amazon, and all over, music labels, artists and film studios were worrying about how to price their products for digital distribution and how to maintain control.
  5. Algorithms beats curation – Another highly visible fight this year took place between Spotify, the reigning master in the algorithm corner, and Beats Music, the newcomer in the curation corner. We’ll have to see how much focus is given to curation when Beats is relaunched by Apple next year, but for now Spotify has the lead, with steadily improving algorithms.
  6. Corporate Content – Benetton has long had its own magazine, Colors, which received praise this year for its World Cup issue, but this year, corporate content has become one of the main trends. One aspect of this is native advertising, which has become the buzzword du jour in digital advertising. Other advertisers took it even further and launched their own magazines with quite limited branding, such as GE.
  7. Data journalism – Big data is making its mark on all industries, and the news industry is no exception. The launch of Nate Silver’s 538 heralded an onslaught of data journalism, and there were suddenly infographics wherever you looked. The belief in data as the ultimate objective source was quickly questioned, however, and it turned out that data journalism has biases just like regular journalism, it just has more graphs to back it up with. That’s not to say that some of it wasn’t great, though, NYT’s The Upshot did great work around the US midterm elections.
  8. Explanatory journalism. The other surprising trend this year was explanatory journalism. Alain de Botton published his book News: A Manual, where he called for news to be kinder to the reader and function more like an oracle helping the reader navigate life. Whether or not as a response to Alain, Ezra Klein this year left Washington Post and launched Vox, which became the torch-bearer for explanatory journalism. Again, it was a worthwhile aim, and some of the pieces served to provide much-needed background, but in order to maintain the 24/7 flow of a digital news site, some explanations proved a bit silly, and “Vox explains” could seemingly be attached to anything from ISIS to Easter Eggs.
  9. Drone journalism – The rise of affordable drones and cameras provided journalists, and especially photographers, with a fantastic new tool to investigate and report. There are still many question marks, not least around FAA regulations, but this is clearly something that will only grow. A related phenomenon is the launch of mini-satellites which can be used to provide high-definition images in close to real-time.
  10. Google’s Right to be Forgotten – A scary trend in Europe was for Google to remove links to websites under the court ruling dubbed “Right to be forgotten”. This could potentially be admissible for individual websites that are defamatory, or simply out-of-date, but it was applied to stories on many news sites, such as BBC stories about specific CEOs, etc, where it has no right at all. That is called editing history, and has no place in a modern society.

The smart newsletter and a return to the curated web

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A few years ago, it seemed that email was on a slow and irreversible decline. Beset by high levels of spam and cookie-cutter email marketing, email looked to be taken over by social networks and go the way of the pager and other outdated technologies.

These days, however, email is back and stronger than ever. With there being too many websites to remember, it seems almost quaint to type in a website address and go to a “home page” instead of arriving at through a link. Rather, we seem to be returning to the curated web of the early days, when Yahoo was just a set of links that Jerry and  David liked.

This has given rise to a whole slew of “smart newsletters” that have the potential to eliminate mindless web surfing by providing both a summary of key news of the day, as well as a set of curated links to interesting articles elsewhere. Most days, I could read just these and their links, and still get very close to a full picture of what’s going on.

If we look at the providers of these, Slate was a pioneer, with its beloved Today’s Papers. It was unfortunately replaced by its successor, The Slatest, which unsuccessfully tries to update the format. However, a number of the new media outlets produce fantastic smart newsletters. Quartz might be the best one, with its Daily Brief, which manages to both distill the key news, as well as provide links to interesting, more peripheral stories. Vox recently launched its Sentences, which aims to do the same thing. FT Alphaville was another early mover, and the power of the model can be seen in that they’ve now relaunched this as FT First.

A number of other publications have launched their own, which are all decent, even if they don’t reach the level of Quartz and Vox. These include QED from the New Republic, The Morning Email from the Huffington PostBloomberg View, and Mic. The NYT is jumping on the trend by separating the news roundup from the links to curated content into two separate emails. This still works pretty well, however, with the latter email called What we’re reading.

This trend might be a response to the social news that we thought would take over news delivery, but with Twitter now putting in more and more sponsored stories that I don’t want to read, and Facebook endlessly tweaking its algorithm, but still not showing anything interesting, I think the smart newsletters show that we still need curation from actual journalists.

Inequality sign of the times: David Plotz’s new podcast series on Slate

Slate is launching new podcasts left, right and center these days, which is of course a great thing. First we had Felix Salmon’s awesome finance podcast Money, then Mike Pesca’s inimitable, loquacious and erudite The Gist, and now recently, even a SCOTUS-themed podcast, Dahlia Lithwick’s Amicus. These are all great and you should check them out (I’m speaking like the card-carrying Slate Plus member that I am).

The latest addition to the roster caught my attention for a different reason, however. David Plotz, former editor (now head of Atlas Obscura, which is also great), has started a series of interviewing podcasts called Working. He was interviewed about the show in a separate podcast segment, and he described how he had been influenced to do the show by Studs Terkel’s 1970’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They DoThe interesting thing was that Plotz himself realized, and acknowledged, that his selection of people was starkly different than Terkel’s.

Where Terkel had interviewed people from all segments of society, Plotz had stuck mostly to the creative classes (that is according to himself, since there have only been two installments so far). As mentioned, Plotz noted this himself, but he didn’t seem apologetic about it, or finding it a shortcoming, but rather he presented it as an intuitive and normal choice.

The fact that this feels normal seems very much in line with the rest of the current media debate, in line with the lack of debate and solutions about inequality that we can see in all media. There are much more stories on increasing productivity and how to squeeze a few extra minutes of valuable time into our days rather than how to create new levels of productivity for the masses.

Granted, podcasts are mostly an “elitist” media (an interesting discussion about the audience of podcasts can be found on a recent Mediatwits podcast), but it is largely the same in most other mainstream media outlets, except a few outlets that are clearly on the left, such as Mother Jones.

Given the potentially massive impact that inequality is bound to have globally, both in developed and developing countries in the coming decades, it seems like a vast hole in our media debate.

The Ultimate List of Podcasts for Infovores

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/infovore/

noun: A person who indulges in and desires information gathering and interpretation.

As readers of this blog might have noticed, I’m addicted to podcasts. I find it an unbeatable way to take in information while multitasking something else. (I’m for example listening to the Politico podcast while writing this). Therefore, whenever I see a list of “The Best Podcasts”, I inevitably click on it. These pop up from time to time on all the listicle websites such as Business Insider, PolicyMic or Buzzfeed. This one was on PolicyMic, Biz Insider had this one a while back, and you could find this one on BuzzFeed.

However, there is one big problem with all these lists, they all favor the “storytelling” podcasts. Examples of these kinds of podcasts are This American Life, or Radiolab, or the TED Radio Hour. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great pieces of radio. Especially Radiolab is very innovative. However, they can sometimes feel a bit narrow in their focus on people’s stories or personalities.

Another type of podcast that is often favored in “best of”-lists, are the ones that stretch the medium in new directions. Examples are Welcome to Night Vale, or Love + Radio. Again, it’s great to see people playing with the medium, but those kinds of podcasts are not for everyone.

I’m convinced that there are other people like me who listen to podcasts primarily as an information source, the way that you have Bloomberg on the TV on in the background. This list, therefore, is for you: The Top Podcasts for Infovores. In no particular order.

Definition: A good podcast for an infovore is one that packs the largest amount of information and analysis into the shortest time possible. E.g. a podcast that doesn’t stray too much into unnecessary chatter.

  • 60-Second Science – from Scientific American. Does what it says on the bottle – delivers a quick, one-minute take on a recent scientific discovery. Has established cousins such as 60-second Tech and 60-second Mind. Published daily.
  • CFR’s The World Next Week – A fantastic, 30-minute podcast from the Council on Foreign Relations giving the audience a great heads up on what will happen in the coming week in terms of geopolitical and political economy events.
  • The Economist’s The Week Ahead – The Economist also has a great podcast looking forward to what key events to look out for in the coming week. Theirs is shorter, just 10 minutes, and tends to focus on a few key events, rather than CFR’s broader approach.
  • APM Marketplace Tech – APM (American Public Media) has their Marketplace business podcast, which is a great daily business podcast, one of the few American ones to take a global perspective. The podcast that is truly essential for the infovore, however is the Marketplace Tech podcast, which is a 5-minute daily take on the most interesting developments in the world of tech and digital business
  • BBC Business Daily – BBC’s business show is the best business podcast. It takes a very broad view of business, taking in everything from the economics of unknown elements of the periodic table, to a specific industry’s development in a little-known African country. The only business podcast that is truly essential listening. Not to be confused with their new podcast Business Matters, which is good, but not essential. Also runs for an hour, while Business Daily clocks in at a nice, info-packed 15 minutes.
  • Slate’s The Gist with Mike Pesca – Mike Pesca clearly packs in a lot of information in his daily, 15-minute podcast. It is arguable whether all the information is relevant for everyone, Pesca for example has an unhealthy obsession with vexillology (the study of flags), but he has the most interesting mind of any radio presenter alive and goes of on the most fascinating tangents every single day.
  • Philosophy Bites – Short, thought-provoking philosophy podcasts from Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds. Each episode contains a succinct interview with a philosopher about a specific concept.
  • Tech News 2Night – From TWiT comes this great, short (10 minutes) tech news podcast with Sarah Lane. Its daily companion, Tech News Today, with Mike Elgan, is also great, but it doesn’t make this list purely because of its length (50 minutes).
  • The Weekly Wonk – From The New America Foundation comes this great, newish podcast looking at the week’s wonky news, in terms of foreign and US domestic policy. Great guests join Anne-Marie Slaughter in the discussion.
  • O’Reilly Radar – Some of the most intelligent tech discussion takes place on this podcast from O’Reilly Media. Always impressed with the quality of the participants. Around half an hour.
  • More or Less: Behind the Stats – The Financial Times’ columnist Tim Harford has his BBC show debunking inane or questionable numbers and statistics that are thrown around in the media. Essential companion to news reading. Less than half an hour.
  • Babbage – The Economist’s weekly tech and science discussion. Only covers 2-3 news stories, but covers these well, and clocks in under 10 minutes.
  • Pop Tech Jam – The two presenters from the old New York Times Bits podcast (the blog lives on, but the podcast doesn’t) ventured out on their own, and have a fun and idiosyncratic take on the week’s tech and geek events. 30 minutes, and not a dull moment.
  • The Writer’s Almanac – From APM, Garrison Keillor does his daily take on what happened that day in the history of literature and world events. Ends with a reading of a daily poem. 5 minutes long.

Special mentions: These are really too long to be considered in this list, but are also among my favorite podcasts, so felt the need to mention them:

  • On Being – Technically a show on spirituality, Krista Tippett talks to a wide-ranging group of people on all matters that make us human. Some of the best interviews on the intersection of science, spirituality, and art.
  • The Tim Ferriss Show – Jack-of-all-trades Tim Ferriss sits down to drink wine with everyone from Kevin Kelly to Stephen Dubner.

 

Has the nerd culture led to the buttoned-up shirt no longer being short code for special?

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One of my favorite Slate pieces was this June Thomas piece from 2009, on how buttoning the top button on your shirt was shorthand for “special”, i.e. in effect being like Forest Gump. She also said it was meant to signify nerds.

Has this now changed in our post-Zuckerberg, nerd-obsessed culture? This morning, the BBC Sports presenter suddenly had a buttoned up shirt (like this). If the buttoned-up look has reached the bastion of machoness that is TV sports, then clearly something is going on. A quick look around flickr suggests this might be true. See e.g. here.

What’s next for our generation of wannabe nerds? Computers worn on your face? Oh, wait.

Nobel prizes and predictions in the age of big data

In this week of predictions, with the Nobel prizes just announced (one more quasi-Nobel prize to go – Economics tomorrow), I thought it’d be interesting to look at the ways predictions are made and what the reigning methods are.

For the Nobel prize itself, we saw some of the predictions come true, while others turned out to be off the mark of course, as always. It’s a tricky business making predictions, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr is said to have quipped. This goes especially for an event such as the Nobel prizes, where there are no longer-term trends to help guide our thinking. This year, UK bookies thought Murakami would get the literature prize (I still don’t understand why he’s even considered – he’s imaginative in terms of stories, but really weak on characterization), and The New Republic just published a list of how often they are wrong.

For the science prizes, it might be slightly easier, since there tends to be more consensus on what is Nobel-worthy, even thought the exact year of the prize is hard to predict. This year, Higgs did get his Nobel, but many of the others were surprises. Thomson Reuters’ ScienceWatch makes a set of predictions for the Nobel Prize winners based on the number of citations scientists and their articles get. This year, their nominees did include Higgs of course, but not the other winners.

Looking at the wider world, an interesting question is if big data is changing the way forecasts and predictions are usually made. I’m currently reading Expert Political Judgement, by Philip Tetlock and The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Tetlock’s main argument is that in order to be a good forecaster, you need to be a fox rather than a hedgehog, in terminology borrowed from Isiah Berlin. The nimble minds who accumulate information from several different sources and who are not afraid to update their forecasts that perform better than the hedgehogs with strong convictions and the tendency to interpret the world according to your worldview. The book was written a few years ago, and the world has arguably become even less hedgehog-friendly over this time. The kremlinologists that Tetlock studied would struggle to keep up with the pace of the changes in e.g. the Middle East. The fact that we have more and more data would, not change our ability to make better forecasts, like Silver says, it just makes us more able to create models that support our hedgehog views. However, I think Silver would argue that, these days, you need to be a fox who is even more knowledgeable about the subject at hand, along the lines of what Matt Yglesias said in his review of the book in Slate.

However, if you’re a hedgehog, don’t despair! There is always Long Bets, where you can place bets decades into the future, significantly decreasing the likelihood that you’d be off a few years on the timing.

 

The benefits of being a fast follower and the geopolitical smart phone wars

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image representing Samsung Electronics as depi...

Reading David Pogue’s recent review of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, the point of which was basically that it was a failure (“nobody will buy this watch and nobody should”) was interesting since it was the first really negative review of a Samsung product in quite a while. Like Business Insider points out, Samsung has been a darling of the media and the markets lately, up until this launch. Their profits were still impressive last week, but the reviews of Gear shows that they should have perhaps stuck to being a fast follower instead of trying to lead a product category. It is clear that they rushed this one out to be ahead of Apple for once. It is a product looking for a demand, instead of a product satisfying a specific customer need. Pogue lists all the features they’ve crammed in there, most of which will clearly never be used.

But with the iWatch still likely not to see the light of day until Q2 next year or later, maybe they should have waited a bit longer and done some more consumer testing. Or just waited for Apple to define, with their deft touch, what the actual consumer need is, and then just copy the product like they normally do.

The war between Apple and Samsung is heating up to be the key technological rivalry of this time (even if Amazon phones are getting closer and closer to launch!), since the comparison with Google/Android is hard to make, with all driver-less cars and non-Google Android phones out there clouding the comparison.

The rivalry is even taking on geopolitical overtones. Witnessing product excitement from Asia, there is a definitely a case of regional heroes going on. While many of Apple’s recent 9 million sales clearly came from China, most Asians clearly feel that Samsung’s products are more targeted to them (not to mention Xiomi phones), and Americans feel the same way about iPhones.

Farhad Manjoo and Matt Yglesias had Apple and Google take each other on in a war games scenario recently, it would have been even more fun had they done it between Apple and Samsung (Samsung could rope in ships from their ship-building business).

In the Apple-Samsung war, we even saw Obama getting involved lately, when he overturned a veto on selling some older Apple products resulting from a Samsung lawsuit. Thankfully, in case of an actual war, the US would still have command of the South Korean forces, as discussed in Hagel’s latest visit.

Images from Crunchbase

Latest use cases in MOOCs

University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Cour...

MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) are really taking off at the moment. It has yet to be proven as a business model, and it is still in its early stages of proving its usefulness, but it does seem to hold large potential. It currently seems to be in the phase of testing out what works and what doesn’t.

From the origins of computer science-based courses we see at EdX, now Coursera and Udacity are adding new types of courses. I’ve signed up for courses at all of them to test them out, and will report back as they proceed with pros and cons.

English: Photograph of bust statue of Ludwig v...

In the last couple of days, two new courses have appeared that are likely to be able to change the perception of what topics work for a MOOC. Coursera started a piano class on Beethoven’s sonatas today, which has 32,000 registered students! Also today, new provider Instructure is offering a class based on hit TV show Walking Dead. These kinds of high- and low brow MOOCs have the potential to significantly broaden their appeal and reach.

The traditional universities are struggling to keep up. Georgia Tech is testing ways to couple online, paid-for education that results in a proper degree, with the size of MOOCs. Slate describes more here. The Ivy League schools are still torn as to whether it’s better for their brand not to offer any online content, or whether they would benefit from leveraging the brand on the Internet. Harvard is testing the waters by making a few courses available on EdX.

The only thing that is clear so far is that we will see a huge amount of experimentation in the years to come, which can only be good news to all us knowledge-hackers out there.

Photo credits: University of Maryland Press Releases, Wikipedia

Words we need but don’t have, versus words we have but don’t need

Guacamole

Guac? (Photo credit: Lady Madonna)

 

Lately, there’s been developments on both sides of the language spectrum – many new words that we really don’t need have entered the language, while at the same time there are things we’d need to describe for which there are no words, at least not real ones.

 

First, on the unnecessary side, the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not the OED itself, as pointed out by Slate here) just announced their latest batch of words, and it’s a humble-jumble of words that I’m sure some teenagers out there are using, but that really don’t feel like they will be around long enough to be included. Atlantic has a fun take on it here. What’s up with all the abbreviations and acronyms? Is it a pure result of a texting society, or are we just in a hurry? Guac and apols are not words, they are abbreviations only.

 

Why invent all these new words at the same time as we don’t use all these great existing words? Atlantic just had a piece on which words get removed from dictionaries, detailing the harsh fate that words such as landlubberliness and ostmark have encountered. Perhaps they can be consoled by the fact that they survived a lot longer than twerking and fauxhawk probably will.

 

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also all these words that don’t exist, but whose existence actually would enrich our language. The recently published Afterliff covers new fun words created from signposts, and defines common emotions such as a person worth emailing, but not phoning (eworthy). In this earlier post, I looked at some other great resources for this, above and beyond Urban Dictionary, such as the Emotionary.

 

One example of something that really should get its own word is the “yeah no”-combination. Lexicon Valley had a great podcast on its use. In our ambiguous society, that could definitely be a concept that deserved its own proper word.

 

Schrodinger’s cat on the Internet

It seems to be a beautiful happenstance that at the same time as we get new discoveries in quantum mechanics, such as this bits teleportation, we also have a new technology – the Internet – which according to some very knowledgeable people, or at least people on Reddit, which may or may not be the same thing, seems to be mostly geared toward looking at pictures of cats.

Cats were of course the subject of one of the most famous thought experiments in quantum mechanics – Schrodinger’s cat in the box. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, it was the observer that “ruined” the experiment, and made the cat come down from its state of being neither dead nor alive.

English: Diagram of Schrodinger's cat theory. ...

Fortunately, a new technology solves this problem. Enter Snapcat. With Snapcat, we no longer need to live in fear of there being an infinite number of alternate universes, since we no longer need an observer. Give the cat an Android phone, and off it goes. It can take pictures of itself all day long, in its neither-dead-nor-alive status.

Only issue is what happens when someone looks at the photos. Does the cat then fall into one state over the other?

Photo credit: Wikipedia