Communications Technology: This Changes Nothing

Hyper communication is not necessarily effective communication. Sure, we increasingly have access to almost any person or piece of information at any time. But too often we just talk or Tweet past each other, sticking to scripts without really listening. If nothing else, the modern age is a boon for irony.

The ongoing strife in Washington brings this to mind, naturally. But this is an everyday problem, for just about all the frustrations you and I are likely to have are related to communications, and technology has done little to free us from the drudgery of ourselves.
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Can MySpace Get Its Sexy Back?

It’s understandable that MySpace would want to regain its groove by hooking up with a hipster like Justin Timberlake, one of its new owners. But what does the singer-actor see in this tone-deaf cougar of social networking?

An ad-placement outfit called Specific Media brought in the tastemaker as an investor in its $35 million purchase, or roughly a dollar for each of MySpace’s 34.9 million U.S. users (per comScore). That’s only 6 percent of what seller Rupert Murdoch paid just six years ago for the service, which pitches music and other media to users based on their profiles.

Is it a bargain

or a value trap? What can the new bosses do better?  Did Timberlake’s turn as former Facebook president Sean Parker in the movie The Social Network give him some special insight for his new true-life role?

Those looking to turn around a business (or a career or even a life) must first honestly assess their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (good old SWOT analysis). Beyond name recognition (now enhanced with the Timberlake association), MySpace has an immense trove of marketable user information and it’s in the hot-hot-hot consumer social media sector. In the negative column, its flat-footedness has left it isolated, losing money, and swamped by numerous rivals that are well capitalized, popular, innovative, and determined. Hmm…

Timberlake, with more than 5 million Twitter followers, has said he wants a place for artists to connect with fans, but MySpace has tried to do that for years without much effect; hence, Twitter. No, the big idea from Specific Media seems to be encouraging users to share favorite ads with their friends. OMG: I can’t wait to share my favorite product pitches with everyone I know!! Wait, what? Is that what passes for social exchange and enrichment? Doing the heavy lifting of advertisers?

Why did Myspace ever let this happen? It was way, way ahead of Facebook just a few years ago. Now it only has some 225 employees, down from 1,400 a couple years ago, and will lose $165 million for the fiscal year ending today, June 30. Why did it fail to recruit or retain top tech talent? Why did it fail to open up its service to outside developers (Farmville, anyone?) Why did it let youngsters like Groupon and Zynga zoom ahead to valuations in the tens of billions? And why did Rupert Murdoch dye his hair orange?

What MySpace failed to do, primarily, was product development, according to the real Sean Parker. “It was basically this junk heap of bad design that persisted for many, many years,” the Napster co-founder told Jimmy Fallon at the NExTWORK Conference in New York. [] “There was a period of time where if they had just copied Facebook rapidly, they would have been Facebook. They were giant, the network effects, the scale effects were enormous.”

Why do any of us lose our way? A variety of factors from arrogance to misplaced trust can lead us astray, but it’s almost always pride that prevents us from getting back on track. All you can do is accept the new reality on the ground, dust yourself off, and keep going (hopefully a little the wiser). Parker, a bankrupt hacker not that long ago, did; look where it got him.

And give News Corp. some credit. It’s fairly nimble for a leviathan. It rapidly bulked up on Internet properties and then shed them when fleeter rivals overtook them. (It also too-quickly flipped the Dodgers to the McCourts, but that’s another tale of woe.) The corporation is now doing the smart thing of developing digital versions of its real product: its television and newspaper brands.

Funny how media’s other irascible octogenarian, Sumner Redstone, didn’t step up to buy MySpace once it fell into the clearance pile. After all, the Viacom chieftain canned well-regarded Tom Freston for the sin of  letting MySpace slip through his fingers and into the hands of nemesis Murdoch for a mere $580 million in 2005. (Businessweek shortly afterward referred to it as one of the savviest acquisitions ever.) Poor Freston. He didn’t want to overpay.

There will always be plenty who do (viz, the $5 billion later paid for Dow Jones, once again by Murdoch). Look no farther than current valuations for new media properties. Living Social is eying a $1 billion IPO; its larger rival Groupon dreams of $20 billion. Facebook, MySpace’s vanquisher, has gone from $30 to $50 to $80 to $100 billion in valuation estimates (or is it a trillion this week?). LinkedIn’s recent public offering made it the most expensive stock in the market, with a price to earnings ratio of more than 1,000.

By absorbing MySpace, Specific Media is probably laying the groundwork for its own public offering. “We have one of the most creative people driving the creative strategy,” Tim Vanderhook, Specific Media’s CEO said of Timberlake. [] “That’s a huge difference than what was done in the past.”


In the groaning aftermath of Thanksgiving, the nation is already casting its insatiable eyes to the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, the official kick-off of the year-end Hail Mary consumerama sometimes quaintly referred to as Christmas.

Shopping isn’t just the central transaction in an economy that’s rapidly evolved from manufacturing to consuming. It’s at the core of our identity. Get the best thing, get the best deal, but by all means get something. Throw out the old stuff and repeat.

It’s trite to be overly judgmental about this – we’re all complicit in this frantic paddling in the shallow end. We might be grateful instead that this relentless materialism has provided amazing prosperity no only to ourselves but to people around the world who labor to make and ship the objects of our restless desires. Our retail, marketing, and advertising industries depend on people buying more sweaters and iterations of gadgets than they know what to do with.

Like all marketing gimmicks, Black Friday is no longer enough. It isn’t even true anymore, in terms of being the day when retailers’ bottom lines finally go into the “black” for the year – we buy like crazy all year long. So now we also have Virtual Monday, for deal-seekers who don’t want to leave the warmth of their computers. And under consideration: an American launch of Boxing Day, the traditional British holiday that gave the servants December 26 off since they had to man their employers’ parties the day before. It could be a great way to goose those all-important after-Christmas sales, proponents argue.

The Devolution From News to Newest

The news media has fallen under the boot of “the forces of entertainment” said a prominent senator this week. Huh? Was this a battle that we missed somehow on one of those 500 specialized channels we can’t find the time to watch? Kiddo, that war is long over. Entertainment won.

“Instead of a watchdog that is a check on the excesses of government and business, we have the endless barking of a 24-hour news cycle,” scolded Jay Rockefeller in a hearing that was supposed to be about retransmission rights between broadcasters and cable operators. He stayed on point, however, with his argument that consumers shouldn’t have to pay (and dearly) for hundreds of channels they don’t care to watch and that swamp the mindscape with bread-and-circuses triviality and ideological hokum. He noted the average monthly cost of cable service increased at triple the rate of inflation between 1995 and 2008, according to the Federal Communications Commission.. []

In any event, the yapping is going to just get more intense. Any day now expect to witness the debut of the The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s newest creature, eager to show its 24/7 social media pedigree by being available only on tablets like the iPad (a “game changer” declared the savvy old mogul during an earnings call in August).

“We think it’s a great format because the tablet in general lends itself to a type of journalism that is really new,” said News Corp. heir James Murdoch.

So just what is this new type of journalism? Reports [] have it that The Daily is experimenting with an investigative secret weapon called a “quadricopter” — basically a drone with cameras that can be operated with an iPad touch screen. No celebrity will be safe. Just another example, Senator, of how the newest thing (a.k.a., technology) trumps news.

Let’s Make P.R. Stand for “Promoting Responsibility”

Before the Deepwater Horizon destroyed its credibility and balance sheet, BP spent millions on green-related imagery: donations to environmental groups, solar panel experimentation, speeches on safety. It redid its logo to look like a green and yellow sunflower and cleverly recast its initials to stand for a new slogan: “Beyond Petroleum.”

We know how well that worked out. We got the Gulf disaster anyway. Not because it was inevitable. No, a million spent on a better blowout preventer would have avoided that – a mere drop compared to the gallons of money expended on commercials and lobbyists and image consultants since the accident. Lesson: Integrity is cheaper than bullshit.

Arguably, the company did its damnedest to stop the leak and continues to clean up the aftermath (at least on the visible surface). But wouldn’t the global behemoth, and the planet on which it resides, have been better off if its catch phrase had been retooled as “Beyond Publicity”? Or “Beyond Perfidy”?

There’s nothing wrong with salesmanship. It’s a necessary lubricant. Most relationships, good ones too, get their start with a little courtship. But increasingly in this hyper-marketing age (commercial, political, religious, and otherwise) we have to be on the lookout for those whose game is deception. Or even self-deception, for believing something is true doesn’t make it so – viz, all the trendy “green” campaigns we’ve witnessed recently.

When you come across falseness, you don’t necessarily need to crusade against it. You have other things to do. But you should refuse to feed the beast with your business. As Thoreau said, “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”

Shun the lobbying polluters, the Trickle-Down tricksters, the Wall Street thieves, and their ilk. Deny them your eyes, ears, mind, money and votes as much as possible. Do not lend them your sacred trust and credulity. Give a new meaning to P.R. by putting your own spin on it: promoting responsibility.