Wednesday, December 26, 2007

AdSense Advertising Pays - Finally

This week, just in time for the holidays, I received a check for $107 from Google. This blog displays Google Ads on the side panel, and in exchange for my displaying these ads, I receive a couple of pennies every time a reader clicks on one. While I'm certainly not going to complain about a $107 check, I do feel compelled to ask, "Why did it take so long?".

Here's the truth about the Google AdSense program: unless you are one of a very few blogs who attract thousands of unique visitors everyday, you're lucky if you ever see a penny. Google and the media have been touting AdSense for years as the future bastion of the advertising industry; that it will empower individuals who post content on the Web by offering them an easy avenue towards making money for their efforts.

But at only a few pennies per click, and considering Google's method of only issuing a paycheck after you've accumulated $100 worth of ad-clicks, most people are lucky to ever reach the threshold and receive any money at all. The same holds true of rivals such as Yahoo and Facebook Ads. And it's really not that hard to understand why this is the case. After all, how many Google Ads do you usually click on during your daily Web surfing?

While these online advertising programs can be frustrating, it also happens to be an instructive case of market forces at work. Because most people won't make any money, the vast majority of bloggers who produce a crappy product will quickly lose interest and give up. Think of it as Darwinian "survival of the fittest" for online content where the better sites will thrive while the rest will succumb to an extinction for which many Web surfers might actually be grateful.

Although the Nerfherder plans on continuing serving Google Ads (again, a hundred dollars is still a hundred dollars), the lesson to be learned is that if you want to make any serious money through blogging, you better plan on 1) finding actual sponsors who, after you make your brilliant sales pitch, agree to pay you a set monthly fee, or 2) attract thousands of click-happy regular readers in a hurry.

And besides, in the Web 2.0 world where websites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and Craigslist thrive based solely on user-generated content (in other words, in a world where people seem all-too-eager to post tons of content on the internet for free), am I at risk of sounding extremely outdated by even raising the specter of financial incentive?
  

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Teenagers Embrace Social Media...

A new Pew Internet Study has been released that highlights just how much teenagers have embraced social media. It should come as no surprise that the number of teens creating and sharing content on the internet is trending upwards, but there are some interesting findings such as that boys are more likely to post video clips to sites like YouTube, while teenage girls are more likely to have a blog.

Should the Nerfherder be worried?

How about the fact that teenagers are actually decreasing their use of email, staking out a clear preference for IM-ing, cell phone texting, and posting messages on sites like MySpace and Facebook instead?

Some of the main conclusions of the study:
  • Girls continue to lead the charge as the teen blogosphere grows; 28% of online teens have created a blog, up from 19% in 2004.

  • 55% of online teens have profiles on a social network site like MySpace or Facebook, and in keeping with the conversational nature of social media, online teens are interacting with each others' blogs and other posted content at about a 70% clip.

  • Older online boys (age 15-17) are more likely to watch videos on sites like YouTube than younger teens, and also twice as likely to post videos as older girls (21% vs 10%).

  • Digital images - stills and videos - have a big role in teen life. Posting them often starts a virtual conversation. 89% say that people comment at least sometimes on the photos they post.

And here's a whopper that may come as a complete shock to parents the world over. A majority of teens actually restrict access to photos and videos that they post online. Only 21% of teens never put restrictions on who can view their content. Meanwhile, adults are more lax and restrict access to the same content less often.

How should we understand this data? Ultimately, it's all in the eye of the beholder. Pew headlines the report, "The use of social media gains a greater foothold in teen life as they embrace the conversational nature of interactive online media". Meanwhile, your teenage kid's reaction is most likely, "Duh".
  

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FCC Relaxes Media Ownership Rules...

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created over 70 years ago to make sure that the media served "the public interest, convenience, or necessity". Of course, this can be, and has been, interpreted in a lot of ways, yet certain rules remained fairly consistent over the decades. So is today's decision to drastically change the rules governing media ownership an acknowledgement that the internet has fundamentally altered the media landscape, or is it simply a case of the government caving in to corporate lobbyists?

Briefly, the two major rule changes are that 1) no cable television company will be allowed to control more than 30% of the market, and 2) companies can now own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.

Here's what's at the heart of this issue: the concentration of ownership. Nearly everyone agrees that in a functioning democracy a free media must exist to express a diversity of viewpoints. Hence, the FCC has always limited how much of a media market one company may control, figuring that having several different media companies available to choose from will offer the public a wider range of opinions.

This principle of limiting the concentration of ownership is clearly evident in the first rule change that ensures that no cable company may control more than 30% of the market. But here's where the politics creep in. The 30% rule really only applies to the nation's largest cable company - Comcast - which analysts cite is right about at that threshold. You can thank the fearless lobbying efforts of cable's main rival, the telecommunications industry, for that one.

Concentration of ownership is also clearly at the heart of the second rule change. For 32 years, companies could not own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city - again, to ensure that the public is exposed to many different points of view. However, what's interesting is that, in loosening this restriction, the motivation could be one of two things. Some people are arguing that it's a case of the FCC caving to the evil lobbying efforts of the media conglomerates who now want to buy out your local town paper. Others argue that this is totally justified because the internet now provides infinitely diverse points of view, therefore the media landscape has fundamentally changed and the old rules should no longer apply.

These are the same arguments that get made over whether to let the two satellite radio stations - XM and Sirius - merge into one.

The truth is that both sides of the debate have reasonable positions, and should not be casually shrugged off in the name of partisan ideology. That said, while the internet may indeed decentralize "media" and the content available to the public, the bottom line is that, legally, the public owns the airwaves, and thus the public's agent, government acting on its behalf, ought to continue ensuring that the media serves "the public interest", regardless of what other content or services exist out there.

For that reason, let's applaud the first rule change, and be highly skeptical of the second.
  

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Technorati Reveals With Its List of 'What's Popular' in the Blogospere...

Technorati.com is perhaps the most authoritative blog search engine. What Google is for the Internet, Technorati is for the blogosphere. They have a terrific feature where you can see the most popular search terms for the day, providing a glimpse into the most popular topics people are blogging and generating a buzz about in cyberspace. What's fascinating is that an examination of what's popular reveals just how nutty the blogosphere truly is.

As of this writing, the top 5 searches in Technorati's most popular list include the following: Blognation, Google Down, Cash Warren, Ron Paul, and None, with other notables in the top 20 such as Noelia and Elfyourself.

What the heck are most of these things, and who on earth is actually searching for them?
  • "Blognation" is a network of bloggers that is apparently shutting down due to lots of debt and no funding.
  • "Google Down" is, apparently, anything related to Google. It's not obvious why "down" is included in the search term.
  • "Cash Warren" is the boyfriend of actress Jessica Alba, who just became pregnant.
  • "Ron Paul" is one of the Republican presidential candidates.
  • "None" is nothing. I'm assuming this refers to searches that left the textfield blank, though why anyone would do this is beyond me.
  • "Noelia" is a foreign celebrity whose nude photos have been circulating for months.
  • "Elfyourself" is a website that lets you create your own elf avatar.

If these are truly the most popular topics being blogged about right now in cyberspace, that is quite disturbing and helps justify critics who argue that the blogosphere is filled with mostly garbage. On the other hand, it might actually make sense. Is it that hard to believe that people are most interested today in nude photos, celebrity gossip, a network of their peers going out of business, the presidential campaign, and a cute little piece of software designed for the holiday season?

Just maybe, this really is reflective of the diverse interests of the masses. If you consider that a sad, sad statement, perhaps take heart in Technorati's list of most popular news stories being blogged about, rather than search terms, which is based on far more "substance".

Now just imagine if Google publicized its most popular search terms as well. Try not to be scared.
  

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lessons from the Facebook-Beacon Debacle...

Before this story gets old, it's worth reviewing at least once and drawing some conclusions for future reference. A few weeks ago, Facebook launched its new advertising program called Beacon, which immediately became controversial for broadcasting purchases that Facebook users made on outside websites to all of their Facebook friends. But not everybody wanted to make their shopping habits known to the world, so Facebook users banded together in protest to stop the practice and protect their privacy.

Ultimately, Facebook caved in to the pressure... sort of. Last week, the company agreed to allow users the option to opt-out of the Beacon system, however, by default, everyone is still automatically enrolled in the program. Additionally, even after the announcement was made, it seems that Facebook has intentionally made it very difficult to opt-out of Beacon. After searching for a while, The Nerfherder has figured it out. Login to your Facebook account, click on "Privacy" on the upper-right corner of the page, click on "External Websites", and check the box marked "Don't allow websites to send stories to my profile".

So what have we learned from this entire debacle?

1) Facebook users and their ilk are quite the conundrum. Somehow the people who protested their lack of privacy with Beacon are the same individuals who have no problem sharing drunken pictures and videos of themselves on a regular basis on the site. It seems a bit strange to freak out over your friends knowing that you just bought a pair of socks from Wal-Mart, yet have no problem showing them humiliating photos from your awkward adolescent phase of life when you tried to grow a mustache years prematurely.

2) Cyberactivism by itself does not affect change; It is only the activists' ability to draw media coverage to their cause that is effective. While the Facebook users group opposing Beacon grew to huge numbers of people, it wasn't until they generated a lot of negative publicity in newspapers, on television, and in the blogosphere that Facebook actually decided to change their policy. Bottom line - PR that determines a company's value still matters more than numbers of people opposed against you.

3) Private companies operating on the Web are innovating new ways to erode people's personal privacy. This might not be news to many of you, in which case just add this to the list of empirical evidence for making that argument.

4) This case further demonstrates the ideological shift over ownership in the Digital Age. In the past, when a traditional company offered a service and then began a horrific business practice, their customers would simply switch to using the alternative service of one of their rivals. But as we increasingly see on the Internet, people believe that the websites they use (and generate content for) are more of a common space than a privately owned proprietary one.

Undoubtedly, this will not be the last time you hear about Facebook pushing the envelope of violating personal privacy. So maybe next time everyone ought to keep these things in mind.
  

Thursday, December 06, 2007

MySpace-MTV Town Hall Wins Presidential Debate Format Wars...

On Monday, MySpace and MTV sponsored a Town Hall meeting featuring Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and it was the most interactive and internet-savvy yet.

As Sarah Lai Stirland writes in Wired, "As with earlier events in the MTV-MySpace series, the town hall focused on only one presidential candidate, rather than a panel of several. Voters were invited to submit questions to McCain in real-time through instant messaging and e-mail. The questions were selected on the spot by Washington Post political blogger and columnist Chris Cillizza, and voters could rate the answers online; results were tallied and displayed instantly on the web and in the MTV broadcast."

The CNN-YouTube debate, in contrast, was severely criticized for failing to allow citizens to have any input in what questions were selected, and for selectively screening those questions without any announced standards.

The more open MTV-MySpace format, which cedes a greater amount of control to the audience, resulted in questions that "roamed over a broader set of subjects" more in line with the priorities of the American people. While the CNN-YouTube debate heavily emphasized questions relating to the candidates' religious points of view, the MTV-MySpace Town Hall addressed a wider range of topics including the falling value of the dollar, stopping the genocide in Darfur, protecting the environment, the state of public schools, and much more.

Surely, more work needs to be done - for instance, extending this more open format to a debate with more than just one candidate being featured and further minimizing the role of journalists as gatekeepers of question selection. However, the MTV-MySpace format is certainly a step in the right direction, and serves to prove a point, highlighted by Stirland, but already understood in cyberspace - the less direct control, the better.
  

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Digging the Presidential Candidates...

When all is said and done, the current U.S. presidential election campaign will undoubtedly go down in history for demonstrating how differently internet politicos view politics compared with the mainstream American public. For example, Digg.com's campaign titled "Digg the Candidates", which allows users to add presidential hopefuls to their profile as a show of support, lists the following number of friends for each candidate:

Republicans:

Ron Paul
Mike Huckabee
Fred Thompson
Mitt Romney
Rudy Guiliani
John McCain

13,420
832
533
497
465
416

Democrats:

Barrack Obama
Dennis Kucinich
Mike Gravel
John Edwards
Hillary Clinton
Joe Biden

6758
5925
2026
1048
684
468

Contrast that data with the fact that, in national polls, the leading Republicans in order are Guiliani, Romney, and Huckabee; for the Democrats - Clinton, Obama, and Edwards.

The Ron Paul phenomenon is the big story of this election cycle, as he is far and away the most popular candidate online between the two parties, has broken records for grassroots fundraising, and yet still polls no higher than 6% nationally.

Additionally, a quick glance at how well the candidates are faring in other online communities like MySpace and Facebook reveals very similar results. Paul is miles ahead of everyone, with Obama a distant second.

What does this say about the state of American politics, and for that matter, the state of Internet politics? Judgment ought to be reserved until the final primary and caucus results are in (in other words, wait and see how people actually vote). However, the consistency with which Ron Paul, Barrack Obama, and the other candidates score in these online metrics indicates that this is certainly no polling anomaly, but rather we are witnessing a notable shift in the political attitudes and ideologies of the most active netizens away from those of mainstream American voters.

One thing is for certain. In this changing political landscape, it's the establishment candidates who have the most to fear.
  

Monday, December 03, 2007

YouTube Censorship: Gratuitous Violence or Anti-Torture Activism?

An award-winning blogger named Wael Abbas has been posting videos on YouTube documenting cases of brutality and even torture used by the Egyptian Police over the past three years. This would seem, on the surface, to be an extremely worthy endeavor, revealing the Egyptian regime's anti-humanitarian practices to the world. However, YouTube decided last week to shut down Abbas's account, citing that the "gratuitous violence" in the videos violated its Terms of Service.

Certainly, there are very valid reasons for YouTube and other websites that emphasize user-generated content to create minimal restrictions over what type of content can be shared. After all, nobody wants children to have completely unfettered access to pornography and insanely violent depictions. However, democracy is best served when those concerns strike a balance with other worthwhile journalistic efforts that reveal what is happening in the world - and which often isn't pretty.

In response to an outcry in the blogosphere, YouTube has since restored Abbas's account, though the restored account no longer contains any of the approximately 100 videos that he posted. This is a positive first step on YouTube's behalf, for surely a pro-democracy, anti-torture activist should, at the very least, not be punished for their humanitarian efforts. But it should be a first step, not the entire solution.

Common sense suggests that there needs to be a better balance between determining what is gratuitously violent and unsuitable for children versus what is a responsible journalistic attempt to expose the truth about current events. On YouTube's end, they could implement a ratings system (think movie ratings like "PG" and "R"), but rather than having YouTube or the content creator provide the rating for a particular video, use a voting-based system where all YouTube users could determine a video's classification. On the individual end, people can choose other forums besides YouTube, with less restrictive Terms of Service agreements, to post their content, or avoid the headache entirely and host their own website.