The New York Times recently announced that it would be offering online higher education courses. Evidently, the traditional media giant realizes it needs to change the way it does business. This announcement was then followed by New York Magazine’s report that the NYTimes would soon be charging for online content. Perhaps being an esteemed online publisher won’t be enough in the near future.
Today’s most respected companies are ones that are born from the Internet – Amazon, Netflix, and Zappos. However, these businesses are far from remarkable. They sell or rent stuff on the Internet and make money. The difference between these online companies and ones born outside of the web is that their base business model is second to the consumer. The consumer first appreciates their continued commitment towards innovation, transparency, and community.
The NYTimes is in a fortunate position where its brand is highly credible. To some, a journalist who has the NYTimes under his belt is more credentialed than a blogger. Of course, many bloggers are earning ranks but it is still different. It’s difficult to weigh popular local bloggers against NYTimes journalists who are preserving the “long form” in Haiti or the Middle East.
The NYTimes understands that its brand should welcome participation, knowledge sharing, and build a community of people who are credited NYTimes scholars. If today’s currency is social currency (sharing content that builds your public facing image), then some of the strongest currency you could transact with is the NYTimes. I’d argue that the media giant needs needs to take its brand value outside of its gates by bringing NYTimes knowledge communities to other audiences. Imagine a group of NYTimes scholars invading Yahoo! Message Boards, elevating the level of conversation, and recruiting the average Yahoo! man to jump on the bandwagon. The media outlet needs to earn new audiences and active its current and future ones to act on its behalf.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYTimes eventually evolved into a wiki. Its community would be so schooled in journalism, ripe for thought and novelty that they’d be turning out stories left and right. This may sound a lot like citizen journalism, and perhaps it is, but the difference is that this community would be held to the same standards as today’s “traditional journalists.” Misreporting, inaccuracy of any kind would not fly. They would also have more access than a citizen journalist – funding for travel, ability to interview elected officials and so forth.
But with today’s foredooming news that the NYTimes will start charging for online content, my ideal knowledge community might not be. It’s fine to associate cost with status, i.e. buying a degree. But if the lowest level of participation becomes cost, the NYTimes will not become a prosperous digital community. Digital beckons the smallest possible barrier to entry, internet access and literary. Once cost enters the equation, the average lurker is off finding a place where he can lurk for free. Just look at the music industry, enough said.
Who wasn’t appalled when they found out that the H&M on 34th st, NYC was throwing away distressed inventory? The go to answer is for H&M to donate excess merchandise to charity – and it should be – but digital can prevent retail giants from reaching that point all together.
All eyes should be on Threadless. Threadless aims to keep their inventory level at zero. Each week artists submit designs in which the online community scores them from 0-5 and decides whether they’d purchase this design for a t-shirt or poster. The most popular weekly designer receives $2,000 and is invited to the HQ to be a part of the manufacturing process. Based on the voting process, Threadless then determines how many t-shirts and posters to produce.
Retailers need to harness the same supply and demand insights from their communities. Clearly, it’s much more difficult for a company that sells more than t-shirts and posters. It is doable. H&M could publish their spring line on their .com and elicit the community’s feedback to prevent the 34th st debacle. Did one product perform consistently below average? Kill it. Did a blouse resonate more with people from Illinois than New York? Let’s amend our local distribution plans. Retailers simply do not realize the amount of insights they can gain in advance from digital communities.
Please feel free to share other companies or sites that are following Threadless’ footsteps!
Yesterday, I saw a rendition of Martha Graham’s American Document. It’s a dance piece that samples the zeitgeist of 20th century America. The work is a part of the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival and now includes moments from the 21st century thanks to director Anne Bogart, playwright Charles Mee, and the Martha Graham Center. However, it’s only 80% done.
The work opened with a spoken prologue that explained the process of recreating Graham’s piece. The archives included a 5 minute video clip and choreography scribbled on a few sheets of paper. It’s funny to think of preserving dance because it’s live and fleeting. And that’s what got me thinking of digital.
Who remembers the architecture of GeoCities in the 90s? More so, who remembers the behaviors we exercised while creating custom GeoCities pages? The motions of digital are much like dance, improvised, rarely written down and difficult to replicate. History has always been an important foundation of progress, and I’m constantly grappling with my own personal digital history – less in terms of my digital footprint, but more so on my actions.
And that got me thinking again, preservation and data. At work, we’re constantly talking about data. For the greater part of my life, I avoided numbers – My father is an accountant and I always thought how boring it would be to spend your days surrounded by numbers. But today, numbers are our ticket to building an archive of digital behaviors. What’s my frequency of consuming content through my Google Reader than Twitter? Let me compare my 2010 ratio to 2015.
Data, however, is not nearly as valuable unless you have competitive benchmarks. I’d argue that calling data that’s outside of your own competitive is what’s holding the digital community back. All data should be deemed comparable. Digital advances when it’s open to everyone. The community can then apply their collective creativity to the information at hand and take part in projects like the Netflix Prize or NYC BigApps. I’m over the term collective intelligence. It glosses over the fact that analyzing data (the internet, this world) is evolving, begs improvisation, and embodies creativity.
Without the Martha Graham Center’s archives and the insights from Bogart and Mee, yesterday’s performance would have not been possible. Their collaboration was core to the success and their willingness to share their progress and unfinished work allowed for the audience to deeply engage and influence the piece’s completion. If dance is like digital, why don’t we exercise the same transparency? Why do we critique each website and application as if it’s a product that cannot be changed?
If I could have my way tomorrow, there’d be a Data Dump. Data Dump is to data as Creative Commons is to art. After a project’s completion, individuals and companies would submit their captured data to the site. Why? Because we will soon stop seeing data as something that needs protection. The more informed we become about digital, the more likely every project after will advance the community. Imagine Burger King being able to access McDonald’s numbers and vice versa. This idea is probably diabolical to their C-Suites, but it’s already happening to an extent. I can see how many Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Bit.ly clicks and so forth you have, but only having a slice of the pie creates an obstructed view. If each competitive party is making assumptions about the other, that only leads to equal errors and a lack of progress. But if each party saw each other as comparable, or dare I say collaborative, imagine the possibilities.
People are right when they compare Berlin to Greenwich Village in the 60s and 70s. For such an old city, it’s still finding itself. The outburst of underground art and music is unfortunately tainted by high unemployment rates and a lack of babymaking. Even so, you must go. But don’t go during the winter (learned my lesson the hard way).
Best things to see:
Künstlerhaus Bethanien – A 17th century hospital that’s now home to several art squatters.
Hamburger Bahnhof – A 19th century train terminal that’s now a contemporary art museum with Dan Flavin light installation on the building’s exterior.
Best places to eat:
Schlemmerbuffet – Super cheap, huge kabab sandwiches.
I Due Forni – Punk run Italian joint.
Luigi Zuckerman – Berlin’s take on a NYC Jewish deli. It’s run by a 20-something Israelie, who used to live on Avenue A, NYC.
Best places to go out:
Zu Mir oder Zu Dir – World’s chillest bar. With the world’s greatest name, “My place or your place?”
Clarchens Ballhaus – An old school dance hall that feels like you’re on a family vacation in the Berkshires.
And then any club in a warehouse in Friedrichshain.