Information’s dependence on advertising

Ezra Klein points out that in the 19th century the different newspapers were tied to and funded by political parties.  The news was slanted accordingly.  But then newspaper revenue switched to advertising. This led to a greater degree of objectivity–as well as blandness–since newspapers didn’t want to alienate any particular audience, the advertisers wanting to sell to everybody.

After that interesting discussion, Klein segues into a larger discussion based on this observation:

One of the most mind-bending facts of our information culture is that almost every major medium of information supports itself by advertising.

Radio? Advertisers. Magazines? Advertisers. Television? Advertisers. Google? Advertisers. Facebook? Advertisers. Twitter? Advertisers. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are books, which are supported by sales, and Wikipedia, which is supported largely through donations.

From an economic standpoint, most information is simply a vehicle for advertising. We see the advertising as a distraction. But so far as the media company’s bottom line goes, the advertising is the point. Without the advertising, the information wouldn’t exist. So the history of information, in the United States at least, is the history of platforms that could support advertising.

via Human knowledge, brought to you by . . . – The Washington Post.

Thus free market capitalism shapes the online world and makes it available for nothing!  Of course, in exchange it gets information about us, so as to make marketing to us more effective.

Do you see anything nefarious or potentially nefarious in this?

The exotic and sinister world of Iowa

You’ve got to read Mollie Hemingway’s take down of that article in The Atlantic, in which University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom ridicules the state that pays his salary for being religious, for having so many farmers, for eating casseroles, and other rather normal qualities that he finds shocking.

I’ll just quote Mollie’s introduction, with its great story from her father, but you’ll want to read the whole thing:

My dad used to tell me a story about a man getting off of a train and asking the station manager for information about the town he’d just arrived in. “What’s the town you’re from like?” the station manager asks. The man explains that it’s not very nice. The people aren’t that smart or nice and the food isn’t that great and you can’t keep a job and the ladies are all uppity. “Well, I imagine you’ll find this town’s a lot like that, too,” the station manager responds. When the next train stops, another man gets off and asks the station manager the same question. “What’s the town you’re from like?” the station manager asks. The second man explains that he was blessed to come from a beautiful town with nice people full of interesting conversation and fun hobbies. People work hard, the kids are generally fun and he misses it terribly. “Well, I imagine you’ll find this town’s a lot like that, too,” the station manager responds.

You get the point. Well, I thought of that story when I read this absolutely hilarious (unintentionally, I should mention) piece in The Atlantic about how much University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom loathes his state.

via Iowa’s ‘uneducated Jesus freaks’ » GetReligion.

Be sure to follow her links to this  parody of Bloom’s article and to the reaction of Iowans.

But what conclusions can we draw from this?

“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter

Sacred Christmas music marathon

The online radio program Issues, Etc., is planning a marathon of sacred Christmas music beginning on Christmas Eve. You’ve got to love their promo:

The end of email?

An interesting article in the British business publication Financial Times about how many companies–including high-tech companies–are trying to do away with e-mail:

“We believe email is fundamentally unproductive, you need to sift through too many documents and things get lost,” says Leerom Segal, president and chief executive of Klick, a Canadian digital marketing company. “It has no prioritisation, no workflow, and assumes that the most important item is the one at the top. My business partner became so frustrated with how dumb email was, that 14 years ago he began to build better tools for us to manage workflow.”

Klick, which has over 200 staff, now uses email only to communicate with external clients, while internally all messages go through Genome, its self-designed system which enables users to monitor tasks in a workflow. The programme works so well that Klick is now receiving inquiries from clients interested in installing the system in their own offices. The company has 10 employees working full-time on developing the network.

“When we started this, we never thought it could completely replace email,” says Mr Segal. We thought it would be used for specific tasks requiring a response. But before you know it, it was being used for every task.”

Other companies have opted for social networking tools such as Yammer to replace some of the function of email. For example, Capgemini, the IT services company, says it has reduced its internal email traffic by 40 per cent in the 18 months since staff began using Yammer. About 20 per cent of companies are estimated to have experimented with using social networks to connect employees.

The appeal of social networking over email is that it puts people in control of the information they see. Rather than material flooding unasked into the inbox, employees can subscribe to just the social networking groups and topics they are interested in, and read the information at a time of their choosing.

Other companies, while not necessarily looking to replace email, are looking for ways to lessen its use. Intel, for example, has experimented with “no-email Fridays” encouraging engineers to solve problems by phone or face to face instead.

Indeed, email has become a symbol of stress for employees, according to a a paper published earlier this year in Organisation Science, an academic journal of management.

“Most companies are grappling with email overload,” says Monica Seely, an email management expert at Mesmo, a consultancy, and author of Brilliant Email. “Companies are losing up to 20 days per person per year, dealing with email poorly.”

Mr Breton estimates that managers at Atos spend between five and 25 hours a week dealing with email.

Ms Seely says most people receive over 100 emails per day, and feel pressure to answer these quickly. Studies have shown that a quarter of people expect answers to their emails within an hour, with a third expecting a response within two hours. It is impossible to meet these demands.

“We live in an instant gratification society where we expect a response immediately. People at the receiving end feel like they need to constantly check email,” she says.

Andy Mulholland, chief technology officer at Capgemini, says email works poorly for people working in unstructured roles, such as engineers solving IT problems. “Someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, so you send out emails to everyone you know. Out of 20 people, 19 have their time wasted and the 20th gives you half an answer,” he explains. Social networking, in this case, can give faster and better answers.

via The end of email? –

The internal/external communication distinction might be a useful one.  But can’t social networking be just as much of a time waster?  The beauty if e-mail would seem to be that it can be targetted to one and only one individual.  Perhaps getting rid of e-mail advertisements and mass mailings would help.  What do you think about this?

The 4th most accomplished president?

President Obama on himself, speaking in an interview with 60 Minutes:

“The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

via Blogs bash Obama’s historic claim – MJ Lee –

Covering for these grandiose claims, CBS edited out the remarks in the version shown on television.  They were, however, in the complete version posted online.  (Politico has the links.)

But let’s test his claims.  Since he considers Lincoln part of “modern history,” we can go back into the 19th century.  And he is talking about both his legislative and  his foreign policy accomplishments.  How would you say he measures up?  What other presidents had greater accomplishments in these areas?