Wednesday, January 29, 2014


The way I look at it, the single most likely approach to better lives in Valier is the Internet.  It is also the single factor most misunderstood and resisted, not just from the inside of the town, but also from the world at large.  It’s too much to ask aging farmers who still prefer radio to television and have no keyboard skills, to learn the ragged landscape of online protocols.  If people here can’t maintain the drug regimen necessary after a diagnosis of diabetes (30% compliance is usual across all populations everywhere -- all diseases), if their only real comfort in life remains alcohol (the mom-and-pop grocery store has an aisle of wine, the gas station houses the state liquor store) which works with television viewing but not so well operating a computer, and if they are only interested in people they know (which in fantasy includes a few celebrities) plus the demonization of politicians, then they aren’t likely to have the skills or interests that are needed.  We’ll have to wait for them to die so the tablet generation can take over.  Harsh!

I’m not exempting myself.  I’m a lousy Internaut.  I use this computer more as a keyboard for writing I could do just as easily on the kind of tablet with lines, requiring no electricity or batteries -- just a pencil.  The riskiest thing I do is write for radically different groups.  Sometimes something breaks through that opens up a new access.  More often, I slide into a routine so I can think about ideas in an efficient way, but about every six months the service providers have an epileptic fit or a big divorce or buy-out that throws everything catty-wampus.

This week it was Tumblr, where most of the work I want to see is provided -- its specialty has been creative, edgy, young vids.  I share access through a link made from Paris years ago.  I like it because I can mix print and photos with spoken word and stay there to watch vids.  It’s just been bought out by Yahoo.  I do not have a good impression of Yahoo and evidently neither do many others.

Yahoo was compelled to put their spokeswoman Marissa Mayer out there promising “not to screw it up.”  Yahoo is famous for shoving as many ads into their website as is possible out of desperation to make money.  Tumblr is seen as younger, sharper, in the demographic that the US worships:  teenagers.  Who else has so much discretionary income?  So in the next breath Yahoo says Tumblr is “mature enough” to be monetized with ads.  (“Mature enough” -- hear that, kids?)

A quote via CNN:  Tumblr has 300 million monthly unique visitors and 120,000 sign-ups every day, with about 900 posts a second. But as much traffic as it generates, not all the content is ideal for advertisers.

“Tumblr does not insist on knowing the real identities for users, and some of the Tumblr content is very adult-oriented, both features that advertisers would find repellant," said Brian Proffitt, an adjunct instructor of management at the University of Notre Dame.

In short, the morality of the ad companies is what controls everyone’s content.  Don’t "dis" anything that makes money.  Have you checked the morality of advertising in the US?  Violent, conventionally sexual (male dominated), celebrating drunkenness, fast driving and wretched excess?  This is clearly the moral norm in Valier and most of the rest of Montana, but I would argue that there is a growing shift among the young to idealism, minimalism and environmentalism.  

The kind of adverts that might work for youngsters is more about Bioneers, Doctors without Borders, and other kinds of activism, as well as the wealth of technical courses and tips about things like photography or even AIDS prevention.   (The group I've traveled with for a long time is kids at risk: street kids, trafficked, infected, dying, suicidal.)   Kids now are better educated than their parents and certainly more finger-fluid on the Net.  They go looking and experimenting far beyond oldster trails.

This is an edited version of what John Saroff said in the Fortune Magazine finance section:  

If I were Yahoo, I would not buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion.   

Here are five big reasons why:

1. Tumblr CEO David Karp is correct in his resistance to the use of traditional display on Tumblr. . . . Tumblr isn't built for display, and I'm not sure if the product can be changed to accommodate display and still maintain its Tumblr-ness.

2. If traditional display is not used on Tumblr, then new forms of native advertising have to grow at incredibly rapid rates. That's hard.  . . .

3. *Tumblr doesn't own many of its page views, the bloggers do. Tumblr is a blogging platform/content management system first, and a destination site second. For Yahoo to place ads on is easy, for it to place them on is hard. To facilitate advertising on Yahoo will need to get my permission, put an ad unit on my page, cut me in on a rev share, and then convince an advertiser that is worth something. . . .

4. Many Tumblrs are unhospitable to advertising.  [Teens want to know the edge, the kinds of thing screenwriters love, the forbidden things. . . what sells scripts.] 

5. It is unclear if Tumblr has a sustainable competitive advantage. . . . Just because Tumblr is wonderful and the preeminent blogging platform today doesn't mean it will be tomorrow. . . . I believe that the space in which Tumblr operates has very low barriers to entry, making Tumblr very susceptible to new entrants.

In plainer English, when Yahoo starts imposing their money-making goals on Tumblr, all the energy will migrate to another website.  That’s how they got to Tumblr.  And every time there is a new invention of media support, it’s a little better in many ways.  Only the truly motivated will survive the winnowing of motivation that will leave the dullest, the laziest, the least creative and therefore least commodifiable material behind.

But it’s a pain in the butt to have to change all the time.  I WILL follow the people I care about.  In order to do it, I had to sign a long pledge so I could get past the opening wall of the website.  There are three main categories, all variations on a lawyer’s idea of a bullet-proof vest.  First is meant to ward off lawsuits about disclosing who the users are -- the big national invasion of privacy argument as well as sales of data-scrapings to advertisers and so on.  

Second is to protect against lawsuits that claim Tumblr took the creative material simply posted on the site and used it as the basis for something commercially viable.  Third is the pledge to be nice, not offend Mrs. Grundy, not to be inappropriate for children, and -- in fact -- to swear you are over thirteen.  (Don't they remember how offensive twelve-year-olds can be?)  This sort of thing is what makes lawyers rich and legislators as well.  (Hard to tell them apart.)  This requirement is full of land mines that can be interpreted to suit those wanting to make a reputation by being holier than everyone else.

This pledge is hypocritical because Yahoo knows very well that any self-respecting dude will sign because such pledges mean sod-all in court.  It’s the kind of thing that installs a nursemaid censor on information sites so that a person looking for info on breast feeding or prostate cancer is blocked.  The things that kids want to know, that no adult will tell them, range from VD symptoms (sorry -- I’m old-fashioned -- STD symptoms) to what to do about suicidal impulses.  Suppressing information is the most ineffective way possible to protect those who want to know.

I resent having to learn new things all the time, because it changes my patterns.  But then, a fish needs water, and water changes all the time.  I am a fish.  On the Internet I can swim anywhere, like the original boat-hoppers who populated the world.  The next iteration of a Tumblr-style website might not be in the USA.  It might not even be in English.

1 comment:

Rebecca Clayton said...

My first experience with users sharing content was Usenet News, which I found in the late 1980's. Bulletin boards, Listserv mailing lists, World Wide Web via Mosaic, weblogs, social media sites, twitter....they all go through a similar lifecyle, where the number of participants grows, the group gets better, then too many people jump on, and the signal to noise ratio declines. Eventually, most people move on to the Next Thing.

Trying to make money off these phenomena is probably going to be a short-term thing. Sell your site when you see you've hit the peak, before other people notice your popularity is declining.

Find out where the edgy stuff you like goes, and follow it there. Most of the bloggers I used to follow now direct their energy to Facebook, which, I understand, is no longer cool among the young people. (I didn't like their terms of service, so I never joined.) and Listserv are still functioning, and a lot of people blog, but only those who feel the format fits their needs and interests.

I'm not spending much time in a public internet space these days because I'm teaching math and biology to community college students by way of closed content management systems--kind of like the bulletin boards of the early 90's, where you have to pay to participate.

I'm actually reaching adults in rural areas who hope to upgrade job skills. Maybe your neighbors would start using the internet more if they had a specific motivation like that.