I like Facebook, and have no complaint with its imperialism. It has identified and leveraged the most crucial founding fact of the mainstream internet: It’s about people. People connecting to other people. That’s why email was the killer app for years. If Facebook is the killer app of the 2010’s, it deserves its reach and revenue.
But entering into the movie rental business is different. There is nothing about watching a movie through Facebook that furthers a person’s online social life or helps connect with friends. Media delivery, when removed from friend delivery, separates Facebook from its core mission and core value.
The main reason I won’t watch The Dark Knight on Facebook is that I subscribe to Netflix and there’s no reason to pay any other service a per-movie fee.
I also am uneasy about the requirement to Like the Dark Knight FB page in order to rent the movie. It might seem trivial, but I don’t want my movie rental choices added to my social profile unless I choose to add them. When Facebook requires me to Like one of its page owners, then collects revenue from the relationship, that seems to cross a church-state line.
Most of all, I’m saddened by the start of a new kind of Facebook. I don’t mind if Facebook resembles the internet for many of its users, who are reluctant to leave the walled garden and explore the wider online realm. But if Facebook becomes just another media company pushing into the living room, stabbing at Netflix and Hulu for the sake of domination, forsaking its heritage as a place where friends share their lives … that seems like the start of a disappointing and unfocused downhill slide.
Perhaps Google’s recent algorithm change has done some good, but ridiculously poor how-to articles still soar to the top. Here’s an example from eHow: How to play a xylophone. The following quotes represent the article’s basic instructions.
"Find a xylophone to play."
"Understand the keys of your xylophone and what note each bar represents."
"Familiarize yourself with the music and learn to read it if you do not have a musical background."
"Purchase sheet music especially made for the xylophone."
"Place a xylophone mallet in each hand and strike the keys as the music dictates."
"Take xylophone lessons if you need help reading the music in order to play your music correctly."
OK then! I’m ready for my concert xylophone career. Encouraged by the apparent simplicity of developing instructional material, I now present “How to Cure Cancer”:
1) Find a person with cancer.
2) Familiarize yourself with the disease and learn how to fix it.
Sports coverage extends to both extremes of the journalistic spectrum: stats, and color. Even TV coverage of live games is separated into two roles that represent those extremes: play-by-play, and “color commentary.”
On the text side, there are sites like FanHouse whose writing stable is stocked with high-profile columnists whose heavily voiced coverage is supplemented with statistical feeds. On the drier side, there is a new player on the scene as of today: StatSheet, a somewhat misnamed North Carolina startup that auto-produces basic sports journalism via algorithmic article creation. That is to say, no human hand touches a keyboard to generate an article. Humans create only the databases and prose-generating software from which the articles are birthed.
Why misnamed? Because a stat sheet is exactly that, a list of performance metrics. StatSheet (the startup) is info-heavy, for sure, but is intended as a reading destination, not a reference destination.
How does it read? Well … the articles hit a middle ground between human writing and robot speak. In my opinion it tries too hard to be human. I’d prefer to see an unapologetic robostyle that refuses to emulate. That would differentiate more clearly, and might blaze an untrod trail of uniquely voiced sports journalism for the 21st century.
However the thing is styled, though, this is “white space” for sure, an interesting algorithmic experiment, and sports is the perfect field. There must be a market of users who would never consume actual data intensive stat sheets, but who aren’t passionate enough about sports commentary to settle into long opinion pieces by brand-name writers. That’s the sweet spot here, and on StatSheet’s launch day I say it’s an auspicious start.
And it’s great to have a startup here in the Triangle, just down the street!
NASA is on the cusp of its most serous identity crisis. Moon missions canceled. Mars missions canceled. More than half the staff laid off by end of 2011. The space station and its shuttles have over-proven that low-orbit living is doable. Serious reinvention is called for.
Here’s the thing: it’s not just budgetary, though it does cost $1.7B to build a shuttle and $450mm to launch one. The problem, and the key to reinvention, is that peopled space exploration isn’t where the intellectual action is. Knowledge is about tech, not the explorer’s urge. Orbiting telescopes are more romantic and revealing than orbiting atmosphere pods. The Hadron Collider is intended to solve not only questions of space, but time and ultimate creation. Robots on other planets do a much better job exploring than humans.
NASA is already in some of these businesses. The Hubble telescope and Mars Rover are both NASA projects. Shouldn’t the agency’s future be all about the most productive avenues of knowledge exploration, rather than shooting people into a slim envelope of extra-planetary space?
Rebrand. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is tangled up in aeronautics, which is the science of airborne (or vacuum-borne) navigation. As long as that legacy of human flight defines the agency’s work, its core mission will conflict with scientific and budgetary realities.
NASA is turning a corner in this direction. The 2011 budget approved by Congress is $19B skewed toward science and unpeopled exploration. Maybe it’s time to more thoroughly dismantle NASA, whose budget peaked in the 1960s, and rebrand as a pure science institution. USSS (United States Space Sciences)? That acronym is already in use by the United States Secret Service. Which agency would be the more glamorous … ?
It’s natural for a new industry to try everything in the quest for what will eventually work. The quest for what people really want. In the early days of web/TV convergence, the industry assumption was that people would want to bring the computer-internet experience into the living room, onto the couch, displayed on the TV. That was the use-case model for Steve Perlman's WebTV. I should know; I was the national media spokesman and evangelist for WebTV in 1996, its launch year.
If it seems shocking that web/TV convergence hasn’t taken off in all this time, it shouldn’t be. We (consumers) don’t want productivity on the couch, or information, or web services. We want freakin’ TV on the couch.
There is one reason web/TV convergence is getting second wind now (either built into the set or via an add-on box): TV programming has taken hold on the web. The reverse convergence sneaked in. We want the web on our televisions now, but only because the web features cheap, on-demand made-for-TV programming. That web feature, in aggregate, is an equal or better product than the TV itself and its expensive cable/satellite providers.
So, memo to Boxee Box, GoogleTV and the other nascent ventures swaying for balance on their newly launched ships:
New York Times app? No!
Pandora? No! (Er, rarely.)
The Onion? Yes, but only the videos!
RSS feeds? Are you kidding me!?
It’s about TV, stupid. The convergence has already happened. We just need you to get us off our computers so we can watch the web(TV) on the couch, like millennia of humans before us. Centuries of humans. Decades.
Did RockMelt release its new socialized browser to a wide audience too soon? Possibly.
Despite an infestation of first-day bugs, does RockMelt shine a light into the future, or mark a milestone toward a browser revolution? Possibly.
Enough equivocations. My own first day with RockMelt was skewered with frustrations and false starts. The “Edges” (left and right persistent sidebars that contain Facebook friends, RSS feeds, and social sharing) didn’t work at all for half the day. Importing bookmarks from Google Chrome half-worked (folder yes; bookmark bar no). Twitter was non-existent, either as a stream or sharing option, until mid-afternoon. I restarted the app multiple times on three different computers, trying for joy. RockMelt’s twitter stream was plush with apologies and reassurances that the team was spraying bugs, scrambling heroically to keep the trains moving during the product’s first rush hour.
The main RockMelt differentiator is this: instead of browsing to your social circles, you carry your social world with you everywhere. It’s like a stay-at-home mobile environment. If the concept gets any sort of mainstream exposure, the paradigm will appeal to folks who will never install Chrome of Firefox plug-ins that accomplish RockMelt’s basic strategy.
I like it. I like having my browsing universe circumscribed by friends. The sharing is no better than I get from Chromed Bird and other plug-ins, but it feels fresh and convenient. Ask me if I care about privacy hand-wringing that accompanies any server-side storage of personal info. Hell no, I don’t.
My RockMelt experience survived a bumpy first day, and I’ll be using it tomorrow.