Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Jul 132014
 

There has been a fair amount of traffic on my twitter TL on an article that was taken down in the DNA . People have, rightly, asked for an explanation.

Fact checking, misrepresentation of facts etc all good excuses/explanation to give when u pull down an article. However, they all sound rather silly – especially given that you have published it.   Sometimes silence is better than a hastily cobbled together justification. And, everything doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory. Nor does everything have to be high drama. Sometimes there are simpler explanations.

I could say editorial prerogative. But, that would be arrogance.  I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say i didn’t know it went up, but that would be cop out. Fact remains, I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t. I did exactly what I have ranted about, and outraged about for the last decade – that is in the need for speed, the desire to be first,  to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved. We have run far more scathing pieces by the author on Mr.Shah and they are still on-line. If I pulled down this one, it was for a good reason, and that reason is not fear.

I can understand readers ire on this, and appreciate the author’s anger  – i would have felt the same way if i was in her place. If I had the time on the day to make a call and sort it out, I would have. Unfortunately, I didn’t.  I was in a very long conference, where our phones were tucked safely away in our bags. Which is also the reason why I couldn’t respond to newslaundry.

Now to something else – when other TV editors/websites write about this, they obviously suffer from selective amnesia.  they have pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues. Was it fear, favor or fickleness? Or all three – that made them do this? And i am not even going into other areas of breach of ethics such as the cash for votes sting, or radia tapes, I am simply looking at spiked stories, and stories that disappeared. Seriously, i can appreciate reader ire, I can’t figure the hypocrisy of other media professionals. They know exactly what they had suppressed in their entire career Am sure if you follow any good news monitoring website you will know some of what has been taken off, what they have changed tack on, and where they have spiked their own stories.

I have not responded to this on twitter as  there are no 140 character explanations for things like this. Hence, this  blog.

And finally, far as the ToI piece is concerned – cute, very cute. Must be the first time that the ToI has run a piece naming a competitor without routing it through medianet.

 

Mar 312014
 

5 years late. But still makes a lot of sense…

“Why do people think “free” means diminished quality in one instance, and not in another? It turns out that our feelings about “free” are relative, not absolute. If something used to cost money and now doesn’t, we tend to correlate that with a decline in quality. But if something never cost money, we don’t feel the same way. A free bagel is probably stale, but free ketchup in a restaurant is fine. Nobody thinks that Google is an inferior search engine because it doesn’t charge.”

And this

With magazines it can clearly be effective to charge a minimal price, instead of nothing. But in most cases, just a penny—a seemingly inconsequential price—can stop the vast majority of consumers in their tracks. A single penny doesn’t really mean anything to us economically. So why does it have so much impact?
The answer is that it makes us think about the choice. That alone is a disincentive to continue. It’s as if our brains were wired to raise a flag every time we’re confronted with a price. This is the “is it worth it?” flag. If you charge a price, any price, we are forced to ask ourselves if we really want to open our wallets. But if the price is zero, that flag never goes up and the decision just got easier.
The proper name for that flag is what George Washington University economist Nick Szabo has dubbed “mental transaction costs.” These are, simply, the toll of thinking. We’re all a bit lazy and we’d rather not think about things if we don’t have to. So we tend to choose things that require the least thinking.

“The phrase “transaction costs” has its roots in the theory of the firm, Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase’s explanation that companies exist to minimize the communications overhead within and between teams. This refers mostly to the cognitive load of having to process information—figuring out who should do what, whom to trust, and the like.
Szabo extended this to purchasing decisions. He looked at the idea of “micropayments,” financial systems that would allow you to pay fractions of a cent per Web page you read, or millieuros for each comic strip you download. All these schemes are destined to fail, Szabo concluded, because although they minimize the economic costs of choices, they still have all the cognitive costs.”

Excerpt From: Anderson, Chris. “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

Despite the title – the books costs money :)

Mar 312014
 

“free” is a word with an extraordinary ability to reset consumer psychology, create new markets, break old ones, and make almost any product more attractive. He also figured out that “free” didn’t mean profitless. It just meant that the route from product to revenue was indirect, something that would become enshrined in the retail playbook as the concept of a “loss leader.”

Excerpt From: Anderson, Chris. “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” Hyperion, 2009-07-06T18:30:00+00:00. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Mar 232014
 

… yes if you have content worth charging for.

And, this brings me to a conversation i had a decade ago, while a channel was in the process of being launched. The channel was meant to be free to air and was designed for maximum reach. A few days before the launch I was asked if we could charge x per month (x was a figure greater than 10 – a lot in those days). The problem was simple, will someone pay Rs.X for something that was meant to be free – thank fully the promoters appreciated that perspective.

Will quality pay for itself ? It is anyone’s guess, because quality itself is a relative concept. Unfortunately – quality in content is often mixed up with esoteric, unreadable, stuff. And when you tell people you want ‘quality’ content – it conjures up visions of turgid academic writing , closed fonts, design from the 1940’s (where it looks like it is a manual typeset), no pictures, and the dryness of a tender announcement.

Offer for subsciption

Offer for subscription

Which is why this is such an interesting experiment. NYT has used the drug dealer’s methodology of hooking customers. Catch them cheap (99 cents for 12 weeks) and then some $8 a month.

With content, i think it is important to get people to start thinking about paying. You may not charge – but if you are giving it away free, it needs to feel like a favour to the user. The sense that they are privileged in getting what your are putting out, for nothing.

As a consumer, I like the idea of free content. As a producer, I need to think of ways to make it pay – be it ticket sales, paywalls, monthly subs – whatever.  As someone who has produced content (in what ever form) for the best part of two decades if there is one thing i know it is this – someone has to pay for it – Either the advertiser, or the subscriber or Santa Claus. Given that the advertising pie is finite, and Santa Claus does not exist – that leaves the subscriber :)

Needless to say, i have purchased a subscription to the NYT. Let us see if i will renew it :)