Viewing Oregon’s horror in the mirror

oregonshootingThe Oregon campus shooting yesterday is yet another example of the soul sickness that blankets the U.S. The usual suspects are spouting their usual narratives about what we “should” do, and yet nobody talks about what’s really happening. This is a spiritual problem, and such matters cannot be discussed in public without recrimination. Moreover, nobody’s religion is going to fix it, because in America, religion is part of the problem.

But talk about it we must, for no amount of legislation will remove the deep shame, fear, loneliness, and rage that exist as the omnipresent fruit of our inability to successfully manage our own lives. And yet we try. We try, because we’re told constantly that civilization exists for those who do a good job of managing their lives. It seems to work so well for some, which further reminds us of our own failings. Such are the constant voices in the heads of the have-nots.

When your internal governor is other people’s success, you chase only the wind. And absent an internal governor, human beings are capable of anything, and the more heinous, the more obvious the evil. Yes, evil. It’s real, folks, and no amount of human reasoning can make it go away.

Education is certainly part of the solution, but education in what? Clearly, we’re not teaching the very basics of what it means to be human, and that’s because we can’t agree on what those are. And even if we did, there would be some group somewhere that would object, and so silence is our deadly response.

And so it goes.

Some of my most moral friends are those who self-identify as atheist. This is something that people of religion can’t seem to grasp, for they are too busy targeting atheists as their public enemy. This is but one of the reasons I say that religion is a part of this problem. It’s a problem, because it presents itself as the solution. But religion is a human institution that exists first to support itself, so its message is hypocritical by default, and people sense this.

Moreover, the politicization of fundamentalist Christian beliefs has been the final straw in Christianity’s saltless impact on contemporary culture. It is sadly the sole voice representing the faith publicly today (recent Papal exception noted), a turn-off so repulsive that it’s actually producing the opposite of what — giving the benefit of the doubt — is intended.

I’m willing to look in the mirror in the wake of Thursday’s horror. Are you?

The Handwriting on the Wall is Now Shouting

A few headlines and items in the news point to the continuing decline of legacy media, now especially television, and yet nobody is reading the tea leaves properly in terms of what to do. This will only hasten the inevitable end.

First up, Ad Age asks Where Did Everybody Go? TV Première Week Ratings Sag As Young Viewers Vamoose. This doesn’t really require comment except to say I told you so. Yeah, I’m going to be pissy here.

Next, the New York Times reports Fall TV Season Opens Onto a Shifting Ad Landscape.

The current television landscape is a challenging one for advertisers. Ratings are down but the amount of programming is sharply up, along with the number of streaming options available, many of which allow viewers to skip commercials altogether.

Now, as advertisers consider the best ways to spend their money, the excitement that once greeted the beginning of the fall television season has given way to anxiety. Industry analysts and advertising executives said the upfront market — the annual ad sales period that begins in May with lavish presentations by the networks — was unambiguously weak this year.

Then a remarkable (for its lack of focus and leadership) Wall St. Journal interview with the head of the IAB, Randall Rothenberg, on ad blocking, viewability, and click fraud, none of which he deems a really serious problem for digital advertising.

And, finally, the first of a two-part series by industry watchdog promotional group, TVNewsCheck on digital, Digital Turning ‘Broadcast’ Sales Upside Down.

The digital advertising revolution sweeping through the media world has reached local TV, upending the lives of broadcast salespeople, requiring them to do more and learn more, while sometimes earning less.

In markets of every size, stations and station groups are creating and offering a host of new digital products to prospective and long-time clients to keep pace with the invasion of digital and other media on their turf.

The broadcasters are re-emphasizing training, creating new digital-only positions, hiring digital specialists and even establishing whole new units to sell digital products and consulting services that often have little or nothing to do with selling traditional TV time.

Sorry, one more: TVNewsCheck also reports: FCC’s Lake: Time For Exclusivity Rules To Go.

The comments on some of these articles suggest that at least some people within the industry understand what’s going on. The problem is the industry itself can’t and won’t talk about the elephant in the room — culture is advancing horizontally every day in what is now clearly a revolution against the established way of doing things. Unless we accept this, we will continue to flop around like fish on the dock gasping for oxygen when none is there. Death will come sooner than most think, and I will not be happy when it occurs, because it all could have been prevented.

Marketing in the traditional sense is done. Put a fork in it. It truly is the fish out of water, for the rules of marketing all apply to a mass, and that is quickly going the way of downtown shopping. And here’s the important thing: the people formerly known as the audience are REJOICING! This is what media and advertising people simply won’t accept, because it means the end of their money trees. Instead, they’re pleading with Washington for relief. Mr. Rothenberg’s comments to the Wall St. Journal are oozing with denial, including his assurance that the “sky hasn’t fallen.”

There is a real issue. I’m not worried because the marketing and media value chain has shown remarkable resilience. There is a natural human need to have businesses proposition you with goods and services and vice versa. You need to have that communication. I’m really not worried about whether advertising will be able to find its way through digital channels. I am concerned — very, very concerned — that costs of ads will go up and up and up from this unethical obstruction.

“There is a natural human need to have businesses proposition you with goods and services?” This is delusional, and that’s being kind. As Dave Winer wrote last week, “Advertising is unwanted.” It’s especially unwanted when it’s friggin’ everywhere as if it has some special right to be! One-third of prime time is commercials! One. Third. Why do these people think that viewers are ignoring or skipping them? Why do these people think the same users are blocking them online? Mr. Rothenberg (and others) would be well advised to read what Dave his written here and what The Cluetrain Manifesto published 15 years ago.

Times are changing, folks, but that’s a dead horse I’ve been beating for far too long.

Headlines like the above are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. The industry rejected me and my message, and you’d think I’d find a little joy in watching my prophecies come true. I don’t.

I’m very angry, and I’m very sad.

Re-writing history by erasure

Media in the U.S. is more often than not the servant of special interests, even though professional journalists would scoff at the idea as absurd. Unfortunately, the truth is that it’s been this way since the early 20th Century and the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. I’ve written extensively about the Creel Committee and its manipulation of information about World War I and especially the later work of its members, Walter Lippmann and his friend Edward Bernays. The only way to overcome this and set the historical record right is to participate in the postmodern practice of deconstructionism. The problem is rarely one of the facts but almost always of the narrative or grand narrative that comes from selecting certain facts and dismissing others.

Journalism in the future — it is certainly my hope — will embrace active deconstructionism to separate truth from self-serving narratives. It simply has no choice in a networked world. That’s because people can talk to each other without filters. Truth in mass media is often obscured for the sake of populism and nationalism, and we have a great example of this underway currently in the Middle East.

Zionism is a very real attempt to eliminate certain portions of history in order to establish a direct connection between modern day Israel and the historical record of the Old Testament in the Bible. There are regional political and economic reasons for so doing, and I get that. However, we don’t need to sit back as a culture and look aside as crimes are being committed in the process, no matter how righteous our intentions. The truth is there isn’t a direct connection between contemporary Israel and the Israel of the Bible, and attempts to make that connection by eliminating everything between are entirely self-serving. We must not only be concerned with what’s happening today, but what will happen tomorrow, if such a connection becomes a part of the grand narrative of world history.

mamillaMondoweiss, a publication that searches for verifiable truth in the region, today published the words of Sergio Yahni, an Israeli journalist and coördinator of the Palestinian-Israeli organization, the Alternative Information Center. The article expresses concerns about the necessities of Zionists to establish Jerusalem as entirely a Jewish city, despite prior agreements to keep it multi-cultural. The article specifically references an important Islamic cemetery.

“They are commercializing the city, selling it as a modern Jewish city, but at the same time as an ancient one. The mayor, Nir Barkat, wants to sell Jerusalem to the world as an opulent tourist attraction, because of this, he is transforming its character and the nature…”

“To reach this goal, it’s erasing the Islamic history and tradition of the city. Jerusalem is built on multiple layers, a unique stage of history, but the municipality is working hard to simplify it. How? Erasing the Islamic layer in order to replace it with the Roman and the Jewish ones…”

“The scientific archeology was replaced by the ideological archeology: all the Israeli work in this field is based on the Bible and the Old Testament, trying to demonstrate their narrative, and obviously, in this context, there is no space for the Islamic and Arab tradition. Let’s take the example of the Moroccan Quarter, in the Old City, just beside the Wailing Wall: it was built in the 12th century and it was destroyed after 1967 because it was contradicting the Zionist narrative. The same thing is happening in Silwan with the City of David and in Mamilla: the archeology is a tool to justify a personal and self-interested narrative, erasing the real one”.

I realize a lot of people simply say “so what? After all, Israel won the war, so let them do what they want.” The problem is very simply this: The prophecy that both Jews and Evangelical Christians use to justify this (Ezekiel 36:24–36) must be edited in order to apply it to contemporary Israel, for the text concerns God scattering the Jews for their misbehavior regarding the covenant God had established with them. The verses describe God’s great mercy in cleansing them and bringing them home. So one is free to ask the only pertinent question in light of the prophecy: is the nation of Israel’s behavior righteous or is it not? Are the people living in accordance with the laws and sacrifices ascribed to them as the people of God?

Even an idiot could answer that question correctly, unless they’re only given a tilted form of truth.

If Zionism is allowed to get away with this ruse, we will all bear the global consequences of a country, armed to the teeth, doing whatever they please in the name of God.

It’s enough to make you wonder who are the real good guys and bad guys in what we see unfolding day in and day out in the Middle East.

The Nasty Lessons of Ashley Madison

AMThe real story in the Ashley Madison scandal is the crime of the hacking, yet I’ve seen little in the way of follow-up on that and no reports about efforts to remove the database. What and who’s working on finding and punishing the people who did this? While there have been some stories about this, media outlets seem far more interested in exploiting the crime for their own profit. I’m seeing headlines like “Head of Louisiana GOP had Ashley Madison Account” or “Christian YouTube Vlogger Had Paid Ashley Madison Account.” This is journalism? I saw a report this morning on how the stolen database is now searchable. Really, people? Who does that serve if not those who wish to exploit the sordid underbelly of murder by character assassination?

My friends and family know I’ve struggled with issues of addiction my whole life. It’s a very long story — and one that has a happy ending — but before recovery, I lived two lives. Most addicts “live” their mask in order to hide the very deep shame they feel. I, too, had an Ashley Madison account, one that I obtained before addictive behavior in this very private side of life was discovered. I was curious, and what I discovered inside was fascinating but a far cry from what’s advertised. I’m also a cultural observer specializing in the Internet. It’s my life’s work. Nevertheless, I cannot be honest with myself if I were to say that my only motive with Ashley Madison was curiosity or work. We have a saying in AA that “the longer you hang out in a barbershop, the greater the likelihood you’ll get a haircut some day.” That awareness acts as a hedge against what the saying teaches, and besides, my relationship with God is such that I fear very little these days. The point is I never gave AM a dime, and that’s required if you want to make a connection. That doesn’t make me innocent, but it does give me a perspective you may not have.

So here are what I view as the real issues of this scandal.

1. We’re a society of hypocrites (what a shock!), and I’m not talking about those who may have used the site to have an affair. The joyful, self-righteous, and condescending energy behind the “stories” in the wake of the scandal bears the cloying marks of a vindictive form of murder by character destruction. While I have no pity for Josh Duggar, his case reeks of rationalization for the heinous nature of the real crime — the release into the wild of the private database. I honestly wonder how some people can look themselves in the mirror without seeing the enormous mote in their eye, for the exploitation of this leak for the sake of personal or political gain is as much a part of the crime as the leak itself. What have we become? We all need to be careful when stoning our neighbors like this, for the very glass houses we occupy could explode into millions of dangerous shards.

2. This is an early example of the legal system encountering the chaos of the network and attempting to wrestle it to 20th Century ground in service to the hierarchy. For one thing, lawsuits over breach of privacy will bankrupt Ashley Madison’s parent company, so the only people who’ll make any money from this are the lawyers. It’s simply too big a mess, and this is sanctioned and sanctified extortion. Secondly, do we really wish to live in a world where hackers can force this kind of ambulance chasing? If we’re ever going to reach a point where identity is a network requirement, this kind of breach simply cannot be tolerated, for the rules of real life that govern behavior run smack dab into the world of thoughts online. This is why membership in the site does not necessarily indicate intent to act, and why public assumptions to the contrary are such an egregious invasion of privacy and the purest form of “The Scarlet Letter.” My hope is always that we’ll rewrite some laws that will prevent lawsuits in the wake of such actions. There’s little hope for that right now, because our legislatures are filled with the same lawyers who profit from the laws they create. As I’ve written many times, it’s the biggest conflict of interest ever known to humankind. There’s no protection against time and chance.

3. This case reveals the true extent to which modernist hyperbole has replaced fact as a determining element of human understanding. Ashley Madison advertises itself as a place where men and women (can) find each other to have an affair, without strings attached. Hell, there’s even a guarantee and the boast of over a million “satisfied” members! The brand’s photo of a comely woman holding her finger to her lips is provocative and full of meaning. Really, people? Have we forgotten caveat emptor? It’s a business, and businesses are all about money, no matter what’s on the sign out front. These people will do anything and say anything to get a renewable fee from users. And like everything else in the world of adult entertainment (a.k.a. porn), therefore, the promise vastly exceeds the delivery, and it’s hopelessly naïve to think otherwise. Even if their hype is to be believed, for every “satisfied” customer, there are 36 dissatisfied members. What is Ashley Madison to them, if not, at best, a fantasy?

4. There are a staggering number of unhappy people in our world. Rather than slinging stones, we ought to be taking a deep look into the cave that’s home to all of these souls. My Evangelical friends would submit that all they need is Jesus, but you’d be amazed to discover the degree to which many of these people have been utterly rejected by the church. And now, the elbows and winks that accompany our self-righteous judgment of others in the wake of this scandal makes us the ones to be pitied. What is it about modern Christianity that produces such arrogance? The degree of discontent demonstrated in a website alleged to be for cheaters that has 37 million members ought to give us pause that maybe we’re not as perfect as we think we are. What does it say about our institutions? I think it discloses (again) that what we’ve built as a culture isn’t working. Let’s face it; Ashley Madison wouldn’t exist without demand. Shut it down, and that demand will retreat once again to the shadows, but it won’t go away.

Look, if this whole thing inspires discussion about infidelity, that’s a good thing. But during the discussion, let’s also look at the root causes (like the soul sickness of selfishness) and not dismiss it with the oversimplified notion of blaming a symptom instead of the disease.

The Ashley Madison story is one of the biggest of the 21st Century and a harbinger of conflicts yet to come. It has the potential to destroy not only real people but freedom itself, including one that’s most precious to all of us, the freedom of thought.

We all ought to be concerned.

Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point

“(W)e’ve reached the end of the Golden Age of Advertising,” says pioneering media researcher Gordon Borrell in a new report that paints a very realistic picture of the state of local advertising. This report — Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point — is a 5-year follow-up to a report published in 2010 and tracks the opinions of 7,228 small and mid-size advertisers (SMBs).

While there is a lot of between-the-lines conclusions to be drawn, here are just a few of the report’s findings. Remember, these are advertisers speaking, or it would be more appropriate to call them “the people formerly known as the advertisers.”

  • 82% of SMBs have established their own media channel in the form of a website or social media page.
  • Since 2007, spending has skyrocketed to the point at which businesses last year spent 72% more on marketing services and promotions than they had spent 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, the annual expenditure on local advertising was 22% less than it was a decade ago.
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  • 72% of those are purchasing digital services to support those channels, spending far more on those efforts than on basic advertising.
  • By examining IRS tax records, Borrell concludes that “if businesses were devoting the same percentage of this year’s gross revenues to advertising as they were 10 years ago, the advertising economy would be $56 billion richer.”
  • Online media appeals to the largest percentage of local advertisers and takes the largest share of ad budgets of any other media. This is a pedestal newspapers have occupied for over 300 years! “Over the next 12 months, the gap will almost certainly widen to the point that all traditional advertising channels — print, broadcast, outdoor and mail — begin to look like niche support mechanisms to a local businesses’ digital marketing plan.”Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 12.33.49 PM
  • Traditional media has devolved into an option, selected by habit or by preference but certainly not by necessity.
  • Online is so strong that by 2020, Borrell projects that all traditional media will scramble to maintain a small set of advertisers who will spend small shares of their budgets with them.
  • Local businesses, on average, get 20% of their sales from online, versus 13% by the old standby, the telephone.
  • These businesses have just begun to become digitally savvy, according to a new metric from Borrell. 85% of SMBs fell short of a line considered “very active” in digital activity. What this means is that they are novices that somebody can teach and that the more savvy they become, the more disruptive they’ll likely be.
  • 82% of respondents maintain a social media page with an average of 2,123 followers, though 61% have fewer than 1,000. The report notes that growing their own audience base equates to real customers for SMBs, which is radically different than buying ads based on somebody else’s reach.
  • Native advertising (a.k.a. Content Marketing) is another area of satisfaction for SMBs, although its use is low. This equates to a growth opportunity for those providing a service.
  • Mobile is another BIG area of interest, although not in any traditional advertising sense. The projected spending categories for mobile relate almost entirely to SMBs own web franchises and include things like Responsive Design (mobile-friendly), search, SMS, proximity, apps and video.

With all Borrell research, it’s useful to take a step back and try to get a 30,000 foot view. What this report doesn’t say directly is that the levers of commerce in our world are shifting to the hands of businesses themselves due to the growth and development of a networked culture. The beauty (or evil, depending on your perspective) of the network is that it is a 3-way communications medium, which allows human beings to by-pass filters that the network deems inefficient and, frankly, now useless. This includes our entire cultural infrastructure of expertise divided into silos, the first of which is how we communicate. There will be others.

This Borrell report tracks empirically the shifts relating to the way money changes hands in the levers that grease of the skids used by businesses to reach customers and sell their wares. Those businesses are loudly telling us now — along with their customers — exactly how THEY want things done, and clearly that doesn’t include traditional forms of getting the word out. It’s too expensive. It’s too haphazard. It’s out of control in ways that we tend to disregard in the name of profit.

While I certainly respect the crisis that journalism may face in all of this, we’ve been our own worst enemies in the assumption that we could simply shift our model to the Web. It’s too late to effect any significant change in that strategic blunder, but it’s not too late to shift our focus to what we’re being given and away from what we want. That, I’m afraid, is the only logical path for the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Meanwhile, Gordon Borrell will continue to apply his fascinating research to helping us understanding not only what’s going on today but also where that’s all headed.

The lesson of Bill Simmons and ESPN

bs_report_300The always astute James Andrew Miller, writing for Vanity Fair, makes an important observation for all media in his “Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN.”

In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun. He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.

On the other hand, it could be said that Bristol forgot a kind of cardinal rule itself: In an era where fans can get not just scores but highlights, and a ton more, on their smart phones, distinctive and original content is the way to engage and hold onto an audience plopped in front of big 99-inch screens. That content often comes with a big price tag—and with a requirement that the people with unique abilities and talent who create it be treated like the stars you’ve paid for.

In a world of mass media, the single brand of the company rides atop every other marketing concern. This is a core Madison Avenue concept and the truth behind Miller’s statement that “nobody can be bigger than those four initials (ESPN).” In the next paragraph, however, he describes the truth of Jay Rosen’s The Great Horizontal, which is the newer and greater reality of today and, especially, tomorrow.

So allow me to restate what I believe is obvious. Media is increasingly about personal brands, because those are what’s permitted in the revolutionary conversation taking place among the people formerly known as the audience (another Rosen witticism). Even where brands are able to “act” like people, they are not, and this is the harsh reality of doing commerce in the age of the consumer. Harvard’s brilliant Umair Haque noted long ago that companies should be spending money on products instead of marketing, and his justification was this very thing.

This is why I encourage students and people already in the media industries to expend the energy necessary to create and maintain their personal brands. In the end, it’s the only thing that really matters in a networked world, where exchanges of knowledge and information occur at the personal level. The age of slick marketing is drawing to a close. You won’t be able to buy your way into anything downstream, because the process for doing such is slowly disintegrating. In 15 years of trying, Madison Avenue has returned to an old stand-by — one that empowered consumers have already dismissed — the pop-up ad. It’s truly amazing that, just like The Odd Couple, this tired old irritant is back with a vengeance. How true is the old saw that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Commerce in the Great Horizontal will require great products and services and people willing and able to pass them around. There’s already the idea that “influencers” at the personal level are what product manufacturers need to buy, but that’s merely wishful thinking from the hammer known as Madison Avenue. I don’t have a map with the route from here to there charted, but the laws of attraction will be more useful than the laws of promotion.