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Archive for April, 2007


April 30th, 2007

Peter Gabriel's We7 launches ad-supported music downloads

Peter Gabriel's We7 launches ad-supported music downloads

Peter Gabriel has launched a new initiative to bring free music to the masses. The catch? You have to tolerate 10 second adverts at the start of each track.

His venture We7 is not the first to attempt this. Back in 1999, AMP3.com tried the same thing (some info here), splitting the ad revenue with artists. That lasted three years but never really caught on. Perhaps it was because all the content was from unknown amateurs and Napster was bringing free (albeit illegal) music to the masses at the time.

We7 is touting for bands and offering to split the ad money half and half. The site aims to overcome the problem of how to promote a vast catalogue of unknown content by building a community of tastemakers to review songs. If Gabriel can convince some record labels (most likely indies) to join in, it might prove more successful than AMP3 was.

The tracks will be available without DRM and you’re allowed to share them, so there will have to be some fudging of the ad prices to estimate how many times an advert is heard. The ads are targeted demographically to the original downloader as well, which would make them less effective for people who receive pass-on songs.

It sounds like a nice idea, and it could be a guilt-free way to sample new music. But it’s up against stiff competition: MP3 blogs still circulate unauthorised MP3s to evangelise their favourite signed acts and sites like MySpace provide amateur downloads without any adverts.

Perhaps this is more of a technology showcase: they’re talking up the ability to embed targeted adverts for each listener into the MP3 as it is downloaded without incurring delay. The Register speculates that We7 could be swallowed up by a bigger music site with the muscle to negotiate with major labels, which would enable us to sample major label tracks with embedded adverts. The label gets paid from adverts, the artists gets paid too and we’ll most likely end up buying the good tracks to remove the jingles too.

Footnote: It’s interesting that Amp3.com was deleted from Wikipedia because it wasn’t deemed notable. Perhaps the original entry didn’t make clear how it differed from other labels (the use of adverts), but it does go to show how long it can take for some ideas or businesses to become significant in the grand scheme of things.

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April 27th, 2007

Socialising to overtake porn as favoured online pursuit

Socialising to overtake porn as favoured online pursuit

In what seems like a telling indication of the evolution from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, the Economist reported last Friday (subscription required) that social networking is set to become a more popular online activity than ye traditional internet pastime of looking at porn.

It quoted figures from internet monitoring firm Hitwise, showing visits to ‘adult’ sites falling from 14% of all US web traffic in May 2006 to 11% in Feb 2007, while visits to online social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo rose from 7% of total visits to just over 10% in the same period.

The nature of the underlying trend here is, however, debatable. The Economist points out that it doesn’t mean we’re tired of carnal pleasures: a lot of activity in social networking environments is based on the pursuit of sexual encounters of one sort (e.g. finding a new partner through Facebook*) or another (e.g. getting it on with someone else’s avatar in Second Life).

All we’ve done, according to the magazine, is move from passively looking at saucy things online to actively doing saucy things online.

(Web 2.0, after all, is all about participation.)

But in amateur Freakonomics stylee, I’m wondering if these figures can’t be correlated with another set of figures that came to light recently. eMarketer reported on the 9th April that female US internet users now outnumber males, and may even have done so since last year.

While I’ve no stats to back it up, I suspect that a great many more female internet users are interested in socialising than in looking at porn. So whether Hitwise’s figures spell the end for the online porn industry, or simply illustrate the shifting online gender balance, may be debatable.

* Which, according to this survey by Mashable, is the second most likely online social network to get you laid…

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April 25th, 2007

We're all the media now

We're all the media now

Wired knew it in 2005, and published a seminal article called ‘We Are The Web‘. At the end of last year, Time got in on the act, naming ‘You’ as its ‘Person of the Year‘. Now, finally, PR agencies are creeping around to the idea that bloggers are just as much a part of the media as…well, Wired and Time.

PR people have been *talking* about blogs being part of the media for a long time, with uber-PR-bloggers like Edelman’s Steve Rubel and Lewis PR’s Drew Benvie often leading the debate. But while everyone has been talking, no one seems to have actually been *doing* very much.

I know this because, in another guise, I am a blogger. I have a personal blog that is mildly popular (62 other blogs link to it, according to Technorati), and which is read by – ooh, about 150, on a good day – really quite lovely people who all seem to be writers and journalists and media types of one sort or another. It’s been chugging along quite happily since 2002, exciting no interest whatsoever among PR practitioners.

Until now.

For this week I am pleased and yet slightly disturbed to report that my blogging alter ego received her first press release. It came from a well known PR consultancy on behalf of their client, a division of, well, let’s say ‘a very well known software company based in the north-west corner of the United States’.

The press release was innocuous enough, but I was a bit perplexed about why I had been sent it. I asked the account exec why I’d been targeted, and she replied that the agency had done a search on ‘comedy blogs’ and had discovered mine.

I like to think that I’m sometimes quite funny, in a dry sort of way, but even I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my blog as a ‘comedy blog’. Then I realised that she wasn’t talking about my beloved personal blog at all, but a group blog that I joined in 2005, and wrote the grand total of two posts for…both of them in 2005.

When I pointed this out to her, she admitted that the agency probably could have done a better job of targeting bloggers.

Ooh, I felt just like a journalist, miffed because a PR person had approached me without taking any time whatsoever to read my blog, or understand what I write about (mostly unadulterated rubbish, it has to be said), or even address me personally (the press release just started ‘Hi’, suggesting it was a blanket missive sent out to an unknown quantity of ‘comedy bloggers’).

It looks like PR has quite a lot to learn about targeting the blogging community.

If anyone out there is thinking of targeting my alter ego again, please make an effort to learn my (made-up) name, read at least a few posts, get a feel for what I write about, and make sure you’re sending me information about something I’m genuinely going to like. Otherwise at best your press release is going straight in the recycle bin, and at worst, I’m going to write a scathing post about it, which will be immortalised in search engine results for all eternity.

Does this advice sound familiar at all? Ah yes, that’ll be because we’re all the media now…

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April 20th, 2007

Geotagging brings the outside in

Geotagging brings the outside in

The web is often blamed for the demise of the local community. If you believe the mainstream media, people now sit alone in their bedrooms, frequenting insalubrious chat forums, typing mundane nonsense into blogs, and making worthless virtual friendships on MySpace.

But while it’s true that more people are using the web to make online friends, there are signs that the web could also drive renewed interest in the local community. A new breed of entrepreneur is exploiting emerging Web 2.0 technologies to create community websites aimed at getting real-world neighbours together.

One such entrepreneur is Steven Johnson, the author of several bestsellers, including Everything Bad Is Good For You. Johnson’s interests in city life and web technologies spurred him to create www.outside.in, a site that gathers information and online chatter about individual neighbourhoods and publishes it in one place.

Outside.in exploits a technology called geotagging, a type of metadata that lets people assign a geographical location to web content. The site gathers all content – from blog posts to media articles, photos and maps – with the same geotag, and aggregates it into one place where it can be easily browsed.

The result, as Johnson explains in his blog, is ‘a glimpse of all the textured, real-world issues and conversations and news unfolding in [that] location.‘ People can quickly find out what the hot topics of conversation, or ‘in’ places, are in their community, and readily join in the discussion. The idea is that people will congregate around local places and issues, and start to socialise more with their neighbours.

With its emphasis on participation, outside.in represents an evolution from sites like British dotcom survivor upmystreet.com, which displays useful local information for a given postcode, but doesn’t include user-generated content like blog posts.

While outside.in is currently limited to a few US cities, it is expanding thanks to recent funding. My guess is that similar sites will start to emerge in the UK even before outside.in arrives on these shores.

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April 19th, 2007

Web 2.0 'not all that participatory' shocker

Web 2.0 'not all that participatory' shocker

Reuters and others are reporting from this week’s Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco that the participatory web isn’t very participatory after all.

Stats from internet monitoring firm Hitwise reveal that less than one percent of visits to ‘user-generated content’ sites like Flickr and YouTube are from people planning to upload content. Most people just go to these sites to look at the photos and videos that other people have put there.

Wikipedia leads the pack as the most participated-in Web 2.0 site, with 4.6% of visits resulting in an amendment or addition made to the site’s content.

In my view, though, it’s not the number of people using these sites that’s important, but the fact that they’re there at all. They allow people to bypass traditional media and publishers to get their voices heard and find a global audience for their creative work.

So although user volumes are relatively low today, the growing number of Web 2.0 sites still provide the infrastructure for an alternative (complementary?) media that’s controlled by the people, rather than by a handful of uber-powerful moguls. And that, in my book, is a good thing for everyone.

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April 13th, 2007

LinkedIn not as linked in as it thinks

LinkedIn not as linked in as it thinks

Perusing Valleywag’s poll of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups this week, I was amused to see business networking site LinkedIn nestling alongside funky outfits like Twitter, Joost, and Pandora.

Ah, LinkedIn. We’re all on it, aren’t we? I’ve had my profile on there for a couple of years. Nothing has ever come of it, and I would probably have forgotten about it entirely if it hadn’t been for the odd invitation from ex-colleagues to join their network.

Yet LinkedIn appears to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the moment, probably on the back of the popularity of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Bebo.

But is it really online social networking? You can view someone’s profile, but you can’t link to them unless you already know them. You can’t introduce yourself to someone on the site. If you want to link to someone you don’t know, you have to find someone who does, and ask for an introduction. The profiles are staid, like an online version of a paper CV, and there’s very little scope for customising them*.

LinkedIn seems to preserve the world of cliquey, old-boys-network-style business, rather than providing a platform for building modern business relationships in an open, connected world.

If I’m interested in working with someone I don’t know, I’m not going to hang around waiting for someone to introduce us. I’ll see if they have a blog or Twitter profile, and connect with them directly. That’s the beauty of business in the Web 2.0 world – you can hook up with interesting people all over the world in an instant, without having to wait to be introduced to them at a (real or virtual) wine bar or golf course.

I don’t drink or play golf, but I do blog, here and elsewhere. And I can honestly say I’ve made more friends and business contacts through blogging than I ever have through LinkedIn. It might be useful for some things, but unless it changes a lot, it’ll never be the ‘online business networking’ platform it’s purported to be.

* Although Guy Kawasaki has some great tips for making the most of what you can do.


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April 11th, 2007

O'Reilly drafts code for bloggers

O'Reilly drafts code for bloggers

Following widely publicised death threats against friend and fellow blogger Kathy Sierra, publisher Tim O’Reilly has drafted a code of conduct for bloggers. Controversially, the code requires blog owners to police their comments, but does also oblige them to explain any deletions. While the spirit of only saying things online that you would say in person makes sense, banning anonymous comments would exclude many who would otherwise make valuable contributions to a debate. Anonymity was used by those posting death threats against Sierra, but is more often used by people sharing information or views they would not want traced to them from a universal forum.

Many of the code’s restrictions would be considered severe limitations on a free press, including banning content that infringes on a trademark, violates an obligation of confidentiality or violates privacy.

The code of conduct comes with two badges: one like a sheriff’s badge for blogs that abide by the code, and one of an exploding stick of dynamite to warn people about the kind of minefield they might be striding into where the code is not followed. While Sierra’s experience has been alarming, it has also been exceptional. Most blogs hum along nicely and it’s melodramatic to characterise blogs without moderation as explosive.

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April 6th, 2007

Indie music leads the way in social media marketing

Indie music leads the way in social media marketing

This week’s news that EMI plans to drop the copy-protection software from downloaded tracks marks an important turning point in the commercial relationship between music labels, artists and fans.

When Napster launched in 1999, the music industry came to view fans as the enemy; as thieving pirates who needed to be hunted down and punished for illegally sharing and downloading music. Two years passed before anyone thought that the thieving pirates might welcome the opportunity to buy music legitimately online. And when that thought did come, it didn’t come from the music industry. It came, of course, from Silicon Valley, and Apple has been cashing in ever since.

But the digital rights management (DRM) software slapped on to legal downloads showed that, while it was happy to take their money, the music industry still didn’t trust its customers. In any relationship, a lack of trust in the other party is an unhappy state of affairs, which is why EMI’s decision represents a major moral victory for fans.

Elsewhere, however, artists and fans have been enjoying a far more symbiotic and egalitarian relationship, partly due to new social media platforms. Social networks like MySpace have allowed fans to interact directly with their favourite artists. Industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails have actively sought to involve fans in their music by giving their approval to online fan remix competitions, while the Beastie Boys recently invited fans to submit their own footage of the band for a concert DVD, appropriately titled ‘Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!’.

(I very much like the prim and proper use of the semicolon in that title, incidentally.)

The other day I noticed one of my favourite bands, Voxtrot, endorsing a competition held by Spanish music site Buffet Libre and mp3 blog Stereogum to remix one of their singles. The Stereogum blog has nothing to do with the band, and its activities – posting free mp3s for fans to download – are, well, more than verging on the illicit. However, the band recognise the influence of mp3 blogs, and prefer to encourage them rather than sue them.

Voxtrot’s friendliness towards the mp3 blogs – despite singer Ramesh’s concerns about the dehumanising effect of the internet, ironically expressed in his own blog – will serve them well next month, when their debut album launches. The inevitable blanket coverage across indie music blogs will provide Voxtrot with a massive amount of online ‘media’ exposure, effectively creating a huge grass-roots promotional campaign for no marketing outlay.

Despite its initial slowness to adapt to fans’ behaviour on the internet, the music industry now seems to be leading the charge in the use of social media for marketing purposes. Marketers from other industries would do well to watch and learn.

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April 4th, 2007

On this day in history…

On this day in history…

I’m sure it hasn’t passed anyone’s attention that today is a very special day for a certain something close to all of our hearts and mice.

In Alberquerque, New Mexico, on 4th April 1975, a youthful Bill Gates and his buddy Paul Allen founded a rebellious, maverick software company which they hoped would one day take on the established commercial IT players and perhaps even become a big noise in the new-fangled world of desktop computing.

The musical mystics were more optimistic in the US than this side of the pond, however. Minnie Ripperton topped the US Billboard charts, squealing memorably on ‘Loving You’, while heading the British Hit Parade was Kojak’s more cautious Telly Savalas, with ‘If’…

So Microsoft Corporation is 32 today, and looking good on it. Actor Robert Downey Jr, by the way, is 42 today, and (according to my sister-in-law anyway) he’s looking in pretty rude health too.

I will be celebrating today by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ 32 times whenever I open a new Microsoft application or document.

How will you be marking this auspicious occasion?

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April 3rd, 2007

That's what I call using your head

That's what I call using your head

Back in the mists of time, at the tail-end of the original dotcom boom, things got a little desperate. Although each new day duly brought its batch of fresh-baked static websites, it soon became clear that all the most innovative ideas for web services that were possible within the restraints of technology available and the maturity of the online community at that time, had pretty much been covered.

Earnest young entrepreneurs refusing to believe they had missed the gravy train continued to scrawl ideas on beer-mats and throw huge amounts of capital into misguided business plans, bringing that pin ever closer to the bubble. Do you remember Webvan, Boo, Zing, Kerbango, Flooz or Beenz, for example? Or perhaps getting a couple of bagels specially delivered across London in an UrbanFetch van twice a day at a couple of quid a trip and marveling at how long they could keep it up?

This week I was reminiscing about all the Web 1.0 trauma with Sean, and came to the conclusion that one major indication of dotcom entrepreneurs ‘jumping the shark’ was the launch of the iSmell from Digiscents, a device that web users were supposed to attach to their desktop machines and keep topped up with vials of proprietary perfumes in order to experience the many aromas of compatible websites. Visit a travel site and you would smell coconut oil, join an online cricket club and you’d sniff freshly mown grass, bruised willow and scones, or at least that’s what the PR blurb would have had you believe.

Well, what goes around comes around (probably), so in the gloomy spirit of paranoid doom-mongers everywhere, I’m going to start keeping an eye out for Web 2.0 water skiers in leather jackets with any sniff of a fish fetish.

Let’s start with Justin Kan and his site Justin.tv. This Web 2.0 lark just isn’t nearly interactive, collaborative or folksonomic enough for Justin, oh no. There’s no need to search intelligently for information on Justin’s life, or to huddle together in vibrant communities to discuss his activities (although there are 21 forums provided just in case). He’s cunningly circumvented the whole movement by simply strapping a camera to his head 24/7. Justin calls it ‘lifecasting’. Fans of the site make Justin’s life as hard as possible to make viewing more entertaining, calling the police to his flat, ordering him huge towers of pizza and the like. Nope, this fun will never wear thin.

Shark swerved? Remarkably it does look that way! Justin is already receiving serious capital investment and has been granted the title ‘phenomenon’ (the web’s version of a knighthood) despite the fact he’s clearly skiing on the coattails of JenniCam and DotComGuy.

Web 2.0 continues to ride its wave of success then. Perhaps this current ‘phenomenon’ illustrates one of the most dramatic difference between 1999-2001 and today. The slogan of Justin Kan’s site is: ‘Waste time watching other people waste time’, and in 2007, there are always tens of thousands of people a day browsing about online, at a loose-end and happy to do just that.

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April 2nd, 2007

EMI abandons DRM – Hurrah!

EMI abandons DRM – Hurrah!

EMI has broken rank had said it will start selling its back catalogue online without any copying restrictions. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to pirate it: just that you’ll gain the right to use the music you buy on virtually any music player, and that you’ll be trusted not to share it.

For a long time, downloads have seemed pretty poor value. In the UK, iTunes charges 79p per song (with deals on albums), to buy a track that you don’t ultimately control. If you want to hear it, you’re forced to either buy an Apple device to play it back on (and what happens in ten years if they’re no longer available?) or you have to kludge a lower quality version by burning to CD and re-ripping. Given that you can buy CDs for a tenner nowadays, and often a fiver, the price of downloads seems expensive.

So full credit to Apple, whose iTunes store will be the first to start selling EMI’s unprotected catalogue. This move breaks Apple’s stranglehold over the hardware used to play music it sells, and will create a more competitive market.

Songs will be provided at higher quality (256kbps instead of 128kbps) and at the same price as protected tracks if you buy a whole album. Individual songs, though, will cost 20p more per track. That’s being couched by EMI as the cost of additional quality, but it’s probably got more to do with defending the CD market and protecting Apple’s DRM sales, given that album costs are unchanged.

One reason CD sales are underperforming is that people don’t have to buy filler any more. By making single songs 25% more expensive to buy (even before any discounts for buying a whole album), EMI will encourage more people who are picking and choosing highlights to spend a few quid more for the whole album. Apple will also ensure there continues to be a market for its DRM-protected tracks. In the long run, if all tracks are sold without DRM at 99p, Apple’s iPod will be the only player with a ‘discount’ 79p option to buy copy-protected music.

It’s remarkable that one of the music industry’s major labels is taking this step, and we hope that others will follow. I can see my first iTunes purchase in the not too distant future. I already know what it is: there’s an album on Mute (now owned by EMI) that I’ve been wanting to buy, but which was only available with DRM. Once that goes, I’m there.

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