Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paying for Online (Media) Information

James Surowiecki has a piece in the current New Yorker "News You Can Lose" (22 December) about the increasingly common disappearance of local newspapers. He notes that a common explanation for the problems faced by newspapers is that, like the railroads last century, they have failed to recognize what business they are in. If "newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net."

True enough perhaps, Surowiecki writes. But something else interesting is going on: "The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular." We blog about what's in the paper; we forward articles millions of times a day. I do it; you do it. What most of us don't do, is pay for online subscriptions.

Why don't I, as an avid consumer of news, opinion, and commentary, and as one of those bloggers who spread the renown of NYT content, have more online media subscriptions? Simple reason: they all require me to pay up front before I know whether and how much I will actually look at them in practice. Sure enough, that's the same commercial relationship I have with them on the newstand or when I sign up for home delivery (not exactly -- I usually don't have to sign up for, say, a year at a time).

Why don't they agree to at least split the risk with me? I sign up today and if I end up using them everyday, my annual subscription is X. If I only visit on average once a week, then I'll pay, say, X/30. If I check them out only a few times and then never come back, they get a small token payment and we part ways. Notice that this is not "per use" pricing -- that's not attractive -- it won't work for either of us if I have to make new purchase decisions every time. But any media outlet confident enough to say "we think we're good enough that if you start looking at our pages, you'll be back regularly" would stand a pretty good chance of signing me up. And, if it turns out I really did like them and use them regularly, they'd get a year's worth of subscription fee from me. I'd likely try out numerous publications under such a plan, knowing that in the end, I can stay within my media budget because I only have so much time to read. The one's who keep me coming back get the bigger slice of my media spending (and their advertisers get my eyeballs and maybe even my clicks).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fundamentals: information, society, and economy

Provocative short piece on Keynes in NYT Magazine today: "The Remedist" by Robert Skidelsky. At issue is the question of just what it was that Alan Greenspan was backing off from when he said that his policies had been based on a "flaw." Skidelsky channels Keynes to suggest that it's an information problem that lies at the heart of our financial woes. The ideas that the market system, unregulated, will generate, in prices, all the information needed for social actors to act wisely (whatever that means) AND that the right calculations could capture all the relevant uncertainty (and thus price it correctly so that actors could make informed choices) both turn out to be not quite right. A discovery for some, but something Keynes and others said before.

Hence the title of this post. Weber wrote his "Economy and Society" almost one hundred years ago. What I'm imagining for a sociology of information is to insert "information" into that holy duo. We create systems and structures that can be either "net obscuring" or "net clarifying." That is, they help us to see the world more clearly or they make that world even harder to comprehend than it already is. How we do so is what a sociology of information looks at.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What Goes on Page One?

I am today working on a chapter called "Learning to be a Node" about how we need to be socialized into our roles as nodes in social information networks. While playing around with different metaphors and analogies I been playing with journalism metaphor: the idea that the competent node (what I mean by this is, generically, someone who "gets notification right," that is, doesn't inappropriately "spill the beans" or "talk out of school" or "overshare" or their converses) is someone who knows what goes on page one (and what does not).

To manage our relationships -- with spouses, friends, co-workers, etc. -- our encounters need to be governed all day by composing and recomposing what's on page one of our personal newspaper. People expect relevant stuff first (and relevance varies with each person and we are expected to know how it varies). They don't want to read on page one what they've already heard (and we are responsible for having an idea of what they have already heard). And we are expected to have multiple editions -- page one of the workplace edition won't look anything like page one of the family edition.

To get back to the "learning" part: with each new role we take on we have to learn a new set of guidelines for "what goes on page one." A good bit of the formal socialization in a new job, for example, concerns what goes in reports to whom, while the informal socialization will include things like what never gets written in an email, what happens only behind closed doors and what can only be said in surreptitious meetings on park benches (a favorite device in film). In relationships there tends to be a sort of ongoing socialization as partners remind one another about what they expect to be told and when (also a common dramatic device: see, for example, "Relational Notification Norms on 'Mad Men'".

The process of learning to be a node occurs across the life course. Small children need to be trained how NOT to be muck-raking publishers of personal and family secrets (see "Children as Spies"). Teenagers need to be cajoled into not producing "empty editions." Gossips need to learn the limits of even bad taste. Organizations are forever fiddling with reporting lines. And there's always more to be done -- "stovepiping," cited as a big problem in the intelligence community in the 9/11 report, is really a pathology of notification in which nodes have learned the "wrong" rules about who ought to be informed about what.

O.K., enough of that metaphor for now.