Info

A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Apple Music arrived last night, and with it Beats 1 – a new, global music channel. And I’m not just quite hopeful that it’ll be god; I’ve been actively listening to it and enjoying it.

Like many people in their early 40s, I’ve begun to drift away from music. I still listen to it – all the time, in fact – but my range of music is barely expanding. The few albums I’ve bought over the last few years have either been classics I didn’t already own, or new albums from old, familiar voices. My music development has stalled.

It’s easy to see why – I’m time-poor, and the form of my life doesn’t tend to put me in situations where I’m encountering or discussing new music. And so, I stick with what I know.

This is rather painfully pointed up by the “For You” section of new version of iTunes, which takes my often eclectic taste and makes it depressingly familiar:

Apple music -  For You

The journey to discovery

This is one reason I’ve never signed up for Spotify long-term. I have all the music I like already, and can stream it to my devices. My listening’s sorted – and I’ve never found a good way of using Spotify to discover new music. It’s great at facilitating access to the things I know I want, but hopeless at allowing me to discover the unexpected.

And that’s the problem Apple claims to be solving.

David Hepworth, writing in The Guardian, makes the argument that there isn’t a problem which Beats 1 actively solves, largely based on Apple executive quotes that suggest they’re trying to address fragmentation.

This fragmentation is only a problem for the music business. Music fans don’t have any problem that they need Apple to solve. The music industry on the other hand needs a mass audience to hype.

That’s very much a view from within music, though. There are plenty of us – people who enjoy music, but whose life has drifted away from active discovery of new music – that probably don’t count as “music fans” in his use of that term. That doesn’t put us in the same category as the people he disparages as “like John and Kayleigh from Peter Kay’s Car Share” – people happy to just sing along to golden oldies – though. We are happy to encounter the unfamiliar; we just have fewer opportunities to do so.

The fragmentation of music – the ever-deepening niches that you might find hard to dig your way into – has made music discovery much less simple for the time poor. And that describes most of us in the early stages of middle age.

I’ve found some approaches that work for me – buying SoundSupply drops, or judicious use of Shazam while out and about – but they’re not enough to truly broaden my range of experiences with music.

Apple Music: curation from two angles

Apple Music offers us two approaches to resolving that. Beats 1 is a surprisingly eclectic listen. In one half hour stretch I heard tracks from the last few weeks, the last few months, from the early 2000s and the 1960s. The DJs I’ve heard so far are skilled at putting new music in the context of old music – and that’s great for those of us who cherish our inner “28-year-old, madly over-compensating in the shadow of approaching middle age”, in Hepworth’s words (again). I have no intention of going gracefully into that middle-aged musical night – and I feel no shame in that, either.

What I’m enjoying more – possibly because it opens me to new music without being quite so full-on – are the heavily curated channels you can pull up. In particular, the activity-based lists have been a great way to find music to, say, write to, while throwing some unexpected musical choices my way.

Music for activities

I really like the fact that there are human beings – expert human beings – underlying this work. Algorithms are fantastic things, and are great for all sorts of situations. I actually appreciate the fact that Facebook tends to make good choices about what to show me, for example. But they are pretty terrible at both contextualising – giving me the story and connections between apparently unrelated tracks – and throwing up the unexpected. The nature of algorithms (at least the ones we have now) is to show us more of what we want – and that tends to narrow our sphere of encounters, not broaden it. That’s most worrying when it comes to political issues, as Eli Pariser explores in his fascinating book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, but it can lead to a shallowing of cultural experience, too.

In many ways, it would be hypocritical of me not to appreciate human curation of music. I’ve always tried to expose my readers to new and unexpected ideas through this blog – just not the mainstream of thought in whatever area I’m currently most interested. It’s a skill I understand, work to improve – and respect in others. There are algorithmic systems that attempt to do some of that lifting – Fraggl, which my friend Neil Perkin is involved with – is one example of that. But this isn’t an either/or situation. Humans complementing algorithms, algorithms complementing humans gives us a richer experience.

The test will be in three month’s time, when the free period expires. Will I be finding enough value in this to carry on paying? That will depend on how much I feel my musical circle expanding again.

Apples & blackberries

There’s no doubt that the thing I miss most about corporate life is the team camaraderie. I haven’t really had a team for three and a half years now. I work largely by myself, and that can be rewarding – but sometimes lonely. (The fact that I spend a lot of time training or lecturing goes a long way to balance that, though.)

However, Stowe Boyd makes a very interesting point: sometimes solo working can be more productive for some endeavours – like writing and analysing:

The case I am making is not that of the solitary genius laboring in a garret, per se. But actually the opposite: the strictures and costs of the modern-day model of teamwork provide a scant return on the investments those on the team have to make, individually. Yes, I am aware that all important and useful things can’t be accomplished by soloists, true. But we seem to have swung so far to the teamwork side of the equation that opportunities for individual work are routinely overlooked, or swept into the team to-do list, like everything else.

And, as we reshape our workspaces to encourage collaboration – do we lose something?

The open office combined with an obsession with teamwork make today’s office more of a minefield than a “mindfield”: It’s not a place to think deep thoughts for long periods of time.

Fascinating thoughts. Can we create workplaces that allow solo endeavour as well as group collaboration?

Under construction in Madrid

Sometime around a decade ago, I was starting my journey from full time journalist (features editor on Estates Gazette) to the specialist in digital media transformation and development I’ve become over the last decade.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over that decade it’s this:

Trust your instincts. Act on them. But test and refine them.

A decade ago, I didn’t have that confidence. I let myself get talked into doing things I knew were a mistake by more senior voices that knew less about emergent media than I did – but were “experts” (whatever that means in a constantly shifting media landscape). One major example of that has, thankfully, faded from the internet.

My big blogging failure

For a brief while in 2005, I tried to write a blog for Estates Gazette – and it was godawful. The crappy platform – Community Server, which was never good at blogging – didn’t help, but the core problem was the central idea was wrong. I was pushed into doing a newsy blog, but I wasn’t working on the news team, who were unconvinced by the whole blogging thing anyway, so were unlikely to be feeding me material.

Ironically, I’d been writing successfully about real estate here on this blog for years at this point. But that editorial definition imposed on me meant that I actually ended up producing something that, despite the name and backing of a big media brand, attracted less traffic than my personal blog. And that was one of my earliest lessons on how fragile brand value can be in the digital transition – if the digital product isn’t top notch. And believe me, it wasn’t. I was briefly the world’s worst property blogger, baffling the people who had been reading me on the topic on my own blog.

The poor EG Blog starved to death, and its digital corpse was swept away by the junking of that platform a couple of years later.

What I should have done – what all my instincts screamed at me to do – was do intelligent aggregation. Find, filter and link to the most interesting stuff out there, that would bring new information and thoughts to the industry. Rather than reporting on the property industry – after all, EG already had a whole team of people doing that – I should have been bringing the most interesting writing about property-related issues from the wider internet to the attention of the industry.

Serve your readers in a different way, rather than doing the same thing using a different technology. Core difference.

Property’s role in London’s downfall

I was reminded of this by a piece by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing this morning, where he explains why he’s moving back to the US:

The short version is, we want to live in a city whose priorities are around making a livable place to work, raise our family, and run our respective small businesses. But London is a city whose two priorities are turning itself into a playground for the most corrupt global elites who are turning neighbourhoods into soulless collections of empty, high-rise safe-deposit boxes in the sky; and continuing to encourage the feckless, reckless criminality of the finance industry (these two facts are not unrelated).

It would have been an interesting piece to point the property industry to because, while they might not have agreed with the thesis, at least it’s something outside their regular reading for them to consider.

A decade on, that’s still what blogging does well – pushing people towards interesting writing that algorithmic sorting and friend-mediated sharing never will.

Pando, occasional unapologetic copyright thieves, have decided to erect a paywall:

From today, the newest articles on Pando will be available to members first. Membership costs just $10 a month (or $100 a year, if you pay upfront) and members also get unlimited access to our entire video archive and to our real world events, in person and via livestream.

I guess we’ll find out how many people are willing to pay for undifferentiated opinion in a heavily over-provided news space (startup-centric tech), huh? Having spent over a decade working with paywalled business, both successful and unsuccessful, it’s pretty clear that people will pay for news they can use – and not undifferentiated news and opinion. My experience of reading Pando is that they have the latter not the former – but maybe there’s a content strategy shift at play, too.

They clearly think there will be enough people signing on to inflate their tech costs:

To coincide with our new membership model, we’ve spent months redesigning Pando from the ground up, including moving away from WordPress VIP to our own in-house CMS.

Building your own CMS can work – if you have the funding and focus of, say, Buzzfeed:

Pando has raised less than four million dollars in funding, ever — around 1/25th of the amount raised by Buzzfeed.

Oh, well. Never mind.

Here’s an actual product moving overseas thanks to the UK government’s moves on digital privacy (as opposed to a notional one):

The UK’s newly elected Conservative government recently pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act – which includes trivial rights such as “respect for your private and family life” and “freedom of expression”. The Netherlands, by contrast, has some of the strongest privacy laws in the world, with real precedents of hosting companies successfully rejecting government requests for data without full and legal paperwork.

Ghost is much written about in these parts – and may well be the future home of this blog.

The move isn’t just about the political situation – it’s driven by a hosting partnership with Digital Ocean – but it’s interesting to note nonetheless.

Gen Xers – or, at least, those of us born before 1985 – have a responsibility, according to an interesting Quartz piece about Michael Harris:

Being in this situation puts us in a privileged position.”If we’re the last people in history to know life before the internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”

Harris is the author of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, which is my (digital) pile of books to read next.

Mobile not snails

Possibly the most depressing paragraph I’ve read in a long time:

Speaking on the panel at the launch of the report in London, the Guardian’s executive editor of digital Aron Pilhofer said “mobile has snuck up” on publishers and it is a platform that they “have only recently started to take seriously.”

While I understand that many of them were burnt by the WAP era of phones, where people desperately tried to persuade us that this was the future of the internet – and it very clearly wasn’t – there’s little excuse for not realising by 2010 that the iPhone and Android were transformative mobile experiences that were rapidly building traffic share. This is the web all over again – publishers miss a transformation, and struggle to catch up.

We keep getting attacked by the snails

The original sin of mobile

If there’s an original sin of mobile, it was the assumption that mobile was what people did when they were away from their desks. I can’t count the number of meetings or workshops where I’ve been confronted by that idea. And it was always false, it’s just becoming ever more provably so.

But, for a while, it completely distracted corporate decision makers, who did most of their reading on desktop screens, and whose sense of the mobile internet was defined by their corporate BlackBerry – a status symbol for many that blinded them to the revolution their less prestigious staff were experiencing.

Now, of course, most are aware that that BlackBerry is in pretty serious trouble, and that the mobile web is closing in on – or exceeding – 50% of publisher site traffic. We’re in a mobile-dominant world. They can’t ignore it any more.

And, indeed, finally, some publishers are taking the transition really seriously:

Starting Monday, The New York Times will temporarily bar employees inside its Manhattan headquarters from accessing the desktop homepage in an effort to emphasize the importance of mobile devices.

Excellent move – force staff who’ve got too accustomed to sitting at their desk at their desktop computer to experience the site as the majority (or close to it) of their users do.

Buzzfeed competes for your precious notification attention

The importance of the mobile web is without question; what remains more open to challenge is the role of mobile apps in news. Buzzfeed are taking a serious punt at making an app that works – but are relying heavily on notifications to make that vision come true. One of the two buttons on the app’s home screen is devoted to configuring them:

Buzzfeed news

This addresses the major issue of news apps to date: nobody bloody opens them. We install them, play with them, and then forget about them. We just go back to getting our news via social networks instead.

Because the Buzzfeed app really encourages you to go look at the Notification settings, turn them on, and choose the news you want (in a pretty US-centric way right now), it has a fair chance of actually holding people’s attention. The trick will be in creating the right frequency and interest level within those notifications to keep people coming back to the app without annoying them enough that they uninstall it.

This is a nuance that many publishers will probably miss – it’s not just being on a device that matters, it’s finding a way of competing with the video apps and the games and the social media apps to actually spend some time open and in use. And that’s a tough fight. Notifications are the next platform – and the battle for news attention will probably be fought on them.

Martin Belam on the reasons for his latest post:

And having just sat through an event where one of the questions was a worry that knowing something about SEO or writing for social risks “losing the craft” of journalism, I thought it was worth drawing attention to Richard’s words.

That idea of “losing the craft” of journalism is just fascinating to me, because it’s something I encounter so often. The root of it is about the complete absence of any detailed feedback on the reaction to a single story published in print. We never truly knew who read what (and believe me, wether they mean to or not, people lie and lie and lie in market research). Thus, we’ve come to rely on our instincts for our sense of news.

The problem with that is journalism is not art for art’s sake – it’s a public service. It exists to inform people about… stuff.

(I wanted to use a more precise word there, but given how BIG journalism is, and how much it covers, “stuff” seems more appropriate.)

We now have a feedback mechanism to explore how our work is being received, thanks to the sort of analytics we can get online. And that means we can improve that work in pretty close to real time so it finds a larger audience. That’s not losing the craft of journalism, that’s improving it.

Why be a crafter when you can be a master crafter?

Journalism requires an audience. If you have a good story, using the sort of techniques Richard Beech talks about help it find an audience. And if your story isn’t worth finding an audience for – why the bloody hell are you writing it?