Monday, December 29, 2014

The top posts of 2014: Pebble, Pornography & Piracy, Vice Media...and a few more

In a year of disappearing aircraft, hoax viral videos, and celebrity body parts allegedly ‘breaking the Internet’, it’s good to have a few things we can believe in. Like this blog. And in the absence of one of those auto-generated year in review things that Facebook has, I decided to handcraft one of my own. So here's to this blog's year that was, as reflected in click count. (Yes, some things are popularity contests.)

When I write a post I honestly have no idea which ones will get piles of clicks, which will get lightly retweeted or shared, and which will take on a life of their own and circulate well beyond my immediate group of friends, colleagues, and contacts. Case in point: the most popular post on the blog, still, every damn day, is almost two years old. It's the one in which I break down how much money Macklemore made. Yes, Macklemore the white rapper guy who went all the way to #1 in 2013 with his catchy jam Thrift Shop — now at more than 628 million views on YouTube, I might add —and showed the world that you could get to #1 without a label, buying in promotional and distribution services on a la carte basis. The Macklemore machine began its roll into the mainstream in late 2012 and if you asked me if I thought people would still be interested in the story in late 2014 I would have said not many. Yet, every day, people are googling his name and ending up on my blog. (btw Macklemore’s real name is Ben Haggerty, which explains that showing up as one of the search terms that brought people to this blog).

I mention this because, as I break out the most popular posts of the year I would be remiss not to include the oldie but goodie that is the Macklemore steamroller. The rest of the posts listed here were written in 2014, and here they are in reverse order of popularity.

Let's get started with this post from November 2014, on the challenges the pornography industry has had to deal with it in the digital environment. Like all other content industries it's rife with piracy but has the added feature of the ability of people to just set up a webcam at home and entirely bypass the industry. Remember when porn was the only thing people would pay for on the Internet? 

The 'good old days' of monetized online pornography

Well those days are over, and have been for some time now. If you missed this post, here it is again for your enjoyment. It’s a feature interview with intellectual property scholar Kate Darling, and I must say that one of the most interesting things I learned doing this interview is that a good number of the people in the industry got into it after their jewelry store at the mall failed.

The next most popular post was this one, inspired by the dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, without just being more of the same about it...i.e. Amazon is the big bad guy, Hachette is the good guy, and therefore Goliath is bullying David. If only it were that easy.

The initial post turned into a series that used the dispute as a jumping off point for a look at the book publishing industry in a time of online book selling, eBooks, and self-publishing.

Coming in just above the Amazon vs Hachette post was this one, about how traditional news
Graphic courtesy @terraloire
organizations do their job in the environment of the social media circus. In this case around a scandal involving a prominent Canadian broadcaster...but you don’t have to be Canadian to care (though it helps). For this post I called on Andrew Lundy, Vice President, Digital, at The Canadian Press and he helped dissect the role of legacy media organizations at a time when the throngs are tweeting up a storm and no green lighting by editors or producers is necessary.

The next most popular post of the year was about, as one reader put it: “horseshit as the new journalism”. This was the year that sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Gawker, and similar 'gotcha news' sites went full tilt with the clickbait. It didn’t matter if it was true or not, it only mattered that you clicked. And, wouldn’t you know it, people clicked quite vigorously on the blog post about this phenomenon, so it was quite a satisfying meta moment.

Not actually Egypt in the snow. But on the Internet, it was.

Okay, it’s getting exciting now, as we move on to the second most popular post of the year, and for this one we examined the triumph of the bro media empire Vice, now valued at several billion dollars. This post goes all the way back to Vice’s earliest days as a free, across-the-board offensive, alt-culture paper, and traces their journey to deals with Rupert Murdoch, HBO, and other powerful players in the media pantheon.


     And now… it’s time for this blog's most popular post of 2014...


....And it is this one, about the evolution of the Pebble smart watch. Not only was it the most popular post here, it also went all the way to #1 on Reddit in the discussion group about Pebble. (And yes, the two are related.)

What a tale the Pebble is. It went from a student project to the most successful Kickstarter campaign to date. And they beat the Apple iWatch to market too. It all started because the company founder wanted to be able to get email notifications on his watch when he was riding his bike.

The Pebble Smart Watch,
now with tens of thousands of apps
that make it go where no watch has gone before

And there you have it, the most popular posts from 2014 on the Demassed blog. In the new year you can look forward to posts about changes that are afoot in the worlds of podcasting and YouTube, and in March I’m scheduled to participate in a panel at SXSW Interactive  and hope to hit as many panels and keynotes as I can and report back here.

In the meantime, happy new year, and please accept this lovely calendar as my way of saying thanks for your clicks, comments, retweets, and shares. (You've been doing that, right?)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Moving targets in the marketplace: learning lessons from Pong

“It’s easy to look back on Atari as a huge success, but we had no money. Ever. Investors looked at the video game business as being really specious.” These are the words of Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, and regarded by many as one of the fathers of the video game industry. Bushnell spoke in Toronto recently, sharing with the audience his life of serial entrepreneurship, from some of the earliest video games like Pong, to the themed restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese's, to more recent ventures such as anti-aging games and educational software. Oh, and he gave a college dropout named Steve Jobs his first job after ditching higher education, but more on that in a bit.

Though this blog has aimed to keep its focus on the effects of digital technologies and networks on the creative industries, today we’re going to stray from this theme, ever so slightly, and look at the earliest days of an industry that has become embedded in the devices on our desks, in our living rooms, and in our pockets. An industry that started out as a side interest of ham radio operators and electronics tinkerers and eventually became a global market worth over $100 billion.

From Pong to Breakout and meeting a young Steve Jobs along the way

According to Bushnell, his original plan upon founding Atari in 1972 was to be a research facility that then licensed games to manufacturers. “We had no money”, he reminded the crowd, so that was the option he saw that was open. Atari’s first game was based on a two dimensional tennis bat and ball (albeit square ball, which apparently was cheaper to render) and was called Pong. It became the first commercially successful video game.

But — there’s a but. Of the 150,000 Pong games released to the market, Atari did only 35,000 of them, as the patents weren't yet completed and knock-offs and copies started popping up in arcades, bars, and bowling alleys across America. 

Bushnell’s response: “We decided we were going to bankrupt the people who copied us.” And so they did. Nobody loves a good prank as much as a bunch of engineers. Bear in mind that the early video games, until about 1975 or so, had no program running in them. They were circuit boards that could play a game. From Atari’s HQ in Sunnyvale, California Bushnell was in the thick of that sector, with all the microprocessor plants just down the block. And so, Bushnell was able to have his competitors supplied with circuit boards which he stuffed with the wrong microprocessors. “And then we threw a champagne party to celebrate their demise.”

Steve Jobs, relegated to the night shift
A few years prior a recent dropout from Oregon’s Reed College decided that Atari was the coolest place to work. So he showed up at the office in the then nascent Silicon Valley and informed Bushnell that he wasn’t leaving until he was hired. Remembers Bushnell: “He didn’t shower, he smelled bad, and if he thought you were dumb he would tell you.” Not exactly a team player, so Jobs was put on the engineering night shift...which didn’t actually exist. “But I knew that his friend, Steve Wozniak aka Woz, who worked at HP, would start hanging around, which is exactly what happened.” 

Wozniak and Jobs worked on a 1-player game called Breakout, one of the three dozen or so arcade games that followed in the wake of Pong. Ultimately the duo saw bigger things on the horizon and decided to strike out on their own and start a hardware company. Nolan Bushnell was one of the people they approached to invest in their new venture. Woz and Jobs offered Bushnell one third of their company for $50,000. “I said no”, remembers Bushnell. He takes a breath, then shrugs. “I regret that.”

Jobs and Woz went on their way, and we all know what happened there. So now, back we go to the story of Pong. Bushnell recalls: “We realized we were selling coin-operated games, that would earn about 15 to 20 thousand in coin drops. It was a good business but it didn’t take a genius to figure out we were at the wrong end of the equation.” And that epiphany is what led Bushnell to two ideas: a play-at-home version of Pong, which he would release in 1975, and a foray into the restaurant business, which took place in 1977.
Play-at-home version of Pong,
retailed through Sears'
Sporting Goods department 

So Bushnell and his team created a play-at-home console version of the crazily popular arcade game Pong, and hit the road with it. First stop: the annual toy show in NYC. “We sold zero”, remembers Bushnell. Next he tried Radio Shack. Not interested. Then he approached department stores. Also not interested. Finally, he got a meeting with Sears’ sporting goods department. At the time home ping pong tables were a hot item and the buyer saw an opportunity with an electronic home version of Pong. “He asked me how many we could build. I said 25,000 — not having a clue if we could. He then came in with an order for 150,000, and we found out that we sucked down the complete world supply of knobs — so we used aluminum, wood, bakelite, plastic, whatever we could get our hands on. And that year we sold 240,000 Pong games.”

On the inspiration for Chuck E. Cheese's, where pizza collided with the fun palace

Hot on the heels of the success of the play-at-home version of Pong, Bushnell followed up on part two of his epiphany, the one about holding the wrong end of the stick by putting games into other people’s arcades. He would build his own venue. But this wasn’t just an arcade. This was a new category of eatery meets entertainment meets a warehouse-sized space filled with kids. And it would be called Chuck E. Cheese’s, where a combination of people inside mouse mascot costumes high-fived the miniature customers and giant animatronic animals performed the hits of the day. Where thousands of square feet of arcade games, rides, and jungle gyms were there for the playing, climbing, and jumping pleasure of groups of kids with dribs and drabs of tomato sauce and ice cream still fresh on their hands and shirts. It also seems to have become a popular place for adults to get into knock down, drag out fist fights.

But back to our story. So, was Chuck E. Cheese's a slam dunk for Bushnell? Again, the answer would be no.“We got the size totally wrong”, he admits. “We started with 5,000 square feet. Too small. We then went to 25,000 square feet. Too big. And it turned out 12,000 square feet was the right size. Another thing we got wrong was temperature control. We didn’t realize that with the heat load of games, people, and pizza ovens it was often 110F in there (40C). The problem of the hellfire level of temperature was eventually solved, but other problems weren’t as easy to address. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s the video game industry was growing rapidly, and people didn’t need to go to arcades or themed restaurants to play them. By 1984 Bushnell had no choice but to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sell off the assets. Chuck E. Cheese's managed to survive under different management and ownership, but for Bushnell it ended up being a giant money pit.


But fret not. Bushnell is a serial enterpreneur, so the story didn’t end there. In fact it not only went on, it continues today, despite rollercoaster highs and lows, getting banned from companies he started, and making and losing several fortunes.

For the purposes of this blog, let's think about Pong in the context of changing economics and power structures and the evaporation of many of the traditional revenue streams for software-based products. In this way the story of Pong can be looked at as one in which the company stayed alert to not just new contexts for its products but also occupying new spaces in the value chain. Is it in licensing? Is it in software? Is it in hardware? Is it in the consumer/home market? Is it in the restaurant business? Of course the tricky part here is that a video game company knows a lot about electronics and software, and less about, say, operating a chain of 12,000 square foot themed restaurants. But, as it turned out, these were all necessary steps in getting us to today's gazillion dollar a year game industry...and in the entrepreneurial journey of Nolan Bushnell, who thought about the process as much as he did the product, and as a result remains in the game today.

And now I’ll leave you with this, the advice for today's youth Bushnell shared with the audience at the recent talk in Toronto. I don’t think any of these things are part of any curriculum (is typing still taught at high school?), but probably should be.

With thanks to Martin Goldberg for additional information & clarifications about the history of Atari. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

McLuhan's Understanding Media: 50 years later

Original 1964 edition of Understanding Media
With just two weeks left in the year, time is of the essence if we want to squeeze in any sort of celebration, or at least acknowledgement, of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”.

I was able to do so recently, at a talk held at McLuhan’s old stomping ground at U of T in Toronto, where a group made up of his students from the 60s and 70s, current students of media & communications studies, and even a few of McLuhan’s sons convened to exchange stories about the quixotic professor who passed away in 1980. Some notes from that talk in a bit, but first a few musings of my own to provide some context as to why we we're still talking about this man with a talent for turning out buzzwords and catchphrases that many say were as inscrutable as they were pithy.

The year was 1964 when McLuhan put forward the idea that 'the medium is the message'. Since that time we’ve not only heard that phrase thousands of times but have also seen media and technology actually turn into extensions of man, whether by way of personalized micro-media like tweets and location-based services or more concretely through powerful, always-with-us gadgets like smartphones and wearable devices. And bear in mind that when McLuhan initially first made this point it was fairly abstract — the idea the structure of a medium, or communicative channel, has as much if not more meaning than the content of the message itself. Not a huge surprise, then, that when McLuhan made these pronouncements they were often thought of as  a trickster's riddles, as opposed to a visionary's axioms.

He also spoke of the effects of the electronic world, or the shift from ‘literary man’ of the era of the book to our (then) new electronic selves that came into being with the advent of television. Television, with its ability to broadcast to much larger swaths than its predecessor radio, enabled what McLuhan termed an “all-at-onceness” — a system in which a single piece of information could be experienced by millions around the world, all at the same moment.

One of the interests of this blog has been the impacts and affordances of digital, networked technologies on the creative industries. What gets easier when each individuals can communicate with each other, to people they both do and don’t know, and do so on a global scale? What becomes more difficult? What becomes possible that previously was not?

One of the answers is that with digital media leaving trails wherever it goes, diffusion has been made visible. Before, we knew people were exchanging ideas — and goods and services too — in all sorts of interesting ways, and creating all sorts of interesting patterns, but for the most part this was invisible. Yes, the world of loyalty programs and direct marketing databases held insights into such activities but their work was, and arguably still is, not well understood by the average person, whereas it isn’t difficult to grasp a concept like a particular song being Shazam’d more than most, or a particular phrase turning up on Twitter at a surprisingly high rate.

And what about the cultures of sampling and remixing? Or the blurring of the line between amateur and professional creators of media that is now commonplace? McLuhan foresaw these in his work, even though the realities of smartphones and universal uploading were still several decades away.

And with these little nuggets in our minds, I now present some notes from the recent 50th anniversary of McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”, held recently on the campus of the University of Toronto.

Son Michael McLuhan, a professional photographer. started things off with a series of reviews of Understanding Media he dug up from the time of its release in 1964.

From Time magazine: “Is it a fad or a parlour game? Is it intelligence, arrogance, or pseudoscience?”

From Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in BookWeek: “Bland assertions, hopeless nonsense, endless and random…an intelligent man masquerading as a charlatan.”

We then heard from Bruce Powe, novelist, English professor at York University, and former student of McLuhan’s. As Powe put it: “Some teachers convey information, some change your life, and some rearrange your DNA. For me McLuhan was the latter.”

McLuhan in a seminar at University of Toronto, circa early 1970s
Powe went on to describe “Understanding Media” as ana-logical, as declaring a war on logic, a war that was necessary so that an understanding of the associations and connections made possible in the electronic sphere of media could be put forward. We’re still talking about these connections fifty years later because they were so deeply prophetic, said Powe. But on his home campus at U of T, Powe says McLuhan was largely isolated in his own world of ideas. Power shared the story of keeping McLuhan’s name in the acknowledgements section of his thesis — something McLuhan warned Powe about doing. “Bruce, take my name out of there”, McLuhan insisted. But Powe didn’t listen, and once again McLuhan was prophetic. Powe ended up spending close to an hour of his thesis defence defending the presence of McLuhan’s name in the acknowledgements.

McLuhan’s vision was in understanding the great environmental forces at work in ‘the big bang that is technology', and that kind of understanding is a form of grace. McLuhan urged us to remove our value judgements about good and bad and simply perceive, Powe reminded us. And this was McLuhan's prophetic skill: that he could see the future in the present.

Related Post: When media is everywhere where are we?