We need to stop underestimating our audience

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

I laughed out loud the other day while watching one of those wonderful Gary Vaynerchuk videos. You should already know what I mean by that, but if you don’t, here’s where to find Gary Vee, as he’s known: garyvaynerchuk.com.

The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before,” was the line that put a smile on my face.

You know why we have an audience problem in the news business? It’s because we behave as though they’re stupid. We act as though we’re so much better than those with whom we’re sharing information, and it shows. This is at the heart of a massive cultural change in our world, because the people just aren’t as stupid as the elites of the Industrial Age, 20th Century think we are. And we’re getting smarter every day, and the smarter we get, the more disruptive we get. I wrote about this in The Evolving User Paradigm many years ago.

Vaynerchuk is absolutely right, because people have access to information that used to be protected by and for elites. This is not going to end well for the status quo, and journalists especially — who think of our trade as a profession — are incredibly vulnerable in separating ourselves so arrogantly from the people we serve.

I’ve written before of Edward Bernays’ (The “father” of public relations) 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, in which he wrote:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

The point is that the ruling class of the 20th Century is being disrupted by the Internet and its ability to put information in the hands of everyday people. It makes Bernays’ cleverness much more difficult, which prompts observers like Gary Vee to note that “The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before.”

In a recent interview with SFGATE, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley tried to explain a recent uptick in ratings for network newscasts.

Because never in human history has so much information been available to so many people, but unfortunately that also means that never in human history has so much bad information been available to so many people.”

We may not get it right all the time, but at least (viewers) know serious journalists and serious editors are trying to get the news right.”

No they don’t, Mr. Pelley, as the Gallup survey of media trust going back to 1973 reveals a serious decline in trust of the press by the American public. Only 1 in 5 believe these kinds of statements. For the others (80% of us) what Mr. Pelley is selling is, well, bullshit.

But it goes far beyond that culturally.

In this simple statement, Mr. Pelley reveals his bias and represents the central argument of colonialism — that people are stupid and need the brilliance and experience of experts in order to survive and thrive. Along the way, these experts make a very fine living as parts of the hierarchical ecosystem that feeds the masses. Every institution of Western Civilization functions on this tenet, which needs to be the functional reality in order for the elites to manage everybody, whether they know it or not. It’s eerily similar to the way things where in 15th Century Europe when Gutenberg challenged the ruling authority of the Roman Church by printing the Bible and subsequently, a common English language version.

TVNewsCheck ran an article recently about WBIR-TV news director Christy Moreno in Knoxville who regularly asks for feedback from viewers on daily decision-making. Notice the response of the Poynter Institute, that bastion of journalistic tradition.

Purists, such as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s expert on journalistic ethics, however, don’t like the idea, saying the average TV watcher doesn’t have the skills it takes to resolve journalistic issues.

Making ethical decisions about journalism is a process,” McBride says. “When you crowd source a decision, you come out with the lowest common denominator. That’s just the math of it.

So easily do these words flow from Ms. McBride’s mouth (and, let’s be honest here, the mouths of “most” professional journalists) that there’s not even the slightest thought that the idea may be insulting to a person with even average intelligence. This delusional gap between journalist and average citizen is at the heart of the people’s mistrust of the press.

I keep running into TV news directors who view their websites as a distribution point for what we call “Finished Product News,” in other words a completed, fully-vetted story filled with every detail and pictures or video that we have (see my 2007 essay “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product”). It’s not; it’s a distribution point for bits and pieces. Our TV newscasts are our “finished products.” This, too, is a failure to recognize a) that people understand the moving, changing, evolving nature of news in the process of development and b) that they don’t need us to assemble everything for them.

Citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor and author of the seminal “We, The Media,” once wrote “My readers know more than I do.” He was speaking of his readers as a group, and he spoke to them always with respect and humility. We could use a whole lot more of that ourselves as we deal with both the changing nature of news on the Web and the changing cultural roles brought about by the cultural shift to postmodernism.

Broadcasters and Aereo: sometimes winning means losing

We have a lottery game here in Texas called “All or Nothing.” The point is that if you get ALL the numbers on your ticket, you win, but you also win if there are NONE of the numbers on your ticket. Hence, “all or nothing.”

I think the Supreme Court’s pending decision in the broadcasters versus Aereo case is a similar proposition for the broadcast TV industry, although the other way around. They will lose even if they win.

Historically, when given the opportunity — which this case does — to come down on the side of culture, the high court cannot resist, and culture — whether we like it or not — is moving to a one-to-one model of communications. There are exceptions, certainly, but the use of government resources, like spectrum, to enable old school thinking is up for grabs in the hands of the high court. What most people don’t realize is that one-to-one can mimic one-to-many in certain necessary situations, but one-to-many cannot mimic one-to-one. This is the essence of Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal,” and why this case is so fraught with danger for the status quo. You see, it isn’t about my ability to receive; it’s about my ability to send, and that’s why a whole host of laws have to be modified, including the use of the spectrum that’s owned by the people.

TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessel published a piece last week that examined the question of what happens if the court sides with Aereo. As informative as the essay is, the comments are not only entertaining but also revealing regarding how broadcasters think in terms of defending themselves in the case. Here are six general themes:

  1. Its “unnegotiable” civil defense mission is what will sustain broadcast spectrum. The Telcos even now are working to develop a new system of civil defense warnings and assisting the government in real time and beyond.
  2. The question before the court can’t produce a loss for broadcasters. Since when has the “question before the court” prevented the Supremes from deviating? Sorry, I don’t view this as protection.
  3. Local bandwidth is too small to permit any significant competition to high quality OTA broadcast delivery. This is the same argument used by broadcasters when cable first came on the scene. Quality follows what culture wants.
  4. The most likely outcome would be for Congress to intervene, revising the Copyright Act to bring systems such as Aereo’s within the purview of the transmit clause. The Supreme Court doesn’t need Congress to make law.
  5. There is a finely balanced economic ecosystem going on here in which everyone thrives. But it’s an ecosystem that can be damaged if something disruptive, like a Supreme Court win for Aereo, took place. Nobody cares about our “finely balanced economic ecosystem,” except where it impacts their wallets, and that is a biggie that the court could impact.
  6. If the Supremes give the decision to Aereo, then broadcasters’ spectrum is safe, because Aereo depends on a broadcast signal in order for its antenna farms to work. Well, yes, and that’s a possibility, but Harry’s piece fully explores how that could be a net loss for broadcasters anyway.

If the broadcasters were to win, however, there’s a significant chance, in my view, that the price of winning will be its spectrum, because there is widespread and significant pressure to shift TV stations to cable in the name of spectrum use for the one-to-one world of the Web.

It is the law that gives broadcasters the spectrum. It is the law that says cable companies MUST carry the broadcast signals. It is the law says that broadcasters have a right to compensation for cable carrying their signals. And now broadcasters want the law again to boost their business model. Live by the law, die by the law, for the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is or isn’t law, and that’s why this case was such a crap shoot from the beginning.

Broadcasters are already acting as cable companies, and here’s the rub. If broadcast signals become cable channels, then must-carry laws are irrelevant, and retrains fees become renegotiable. Without the weight of law behind the broadcast companies, there’s little doubt in my mind that the networks will by-pass the local money tree in making their programming available via cable. Hence, the losing even if they win.

The problem for the Supremes — and the key reason I think they took this case — is the profound necessity of rewriting what copyright means, absent the immense Congressional lobbying power of the status quo. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron created by the entertainment industry to give itself the weight of law in conducting its business throughout the world. It works fine in the one-to-many world of mass media, but it makes no sense in the Great Horizontal, and this is the conundrum for the court. Personal use of products must include sharing in a one-to-one universe, and every one of the old industries that thrived in a one-to-many paradigm must face this reality. It will take something like a court ruling to give the people formerly known as the audience (thank you, Jay Rosen) what they deserve.

The supermarket can’t charge me twice for a meal I share with neighbors, yet this is the absurdity of current copyright inside the network. The network is a cultural shift that’s here to stay, and its advancement is the duty of those in positions to make it so, such as our Supreme Court justices. Neither side in this case gives a ripple chip about consumers, the people, and that’s what the court will be forced to consider.

Folks, there’s much more riding here than the question before the court. In attempting to right what they view as a business wrong, broadcasters have opened Pandora’s box, and the chaos unleashed will likely produce a deleterious result for anything “business as usual.”

BONUS LINK, also via TVNewsCheck: Michael Berg’s legal view of the case (although tilted by an admitted bias towards the NAB).

New York Press Club responds to police rule change

The New York Press Club has fired off a letter to police commissioner Raymond Kelly (I thought it was Tom Selleck) demanding an explanation among other things for a rather striking rule change impacting the press. Reporters used to be able to obtain police reports at the precincts they were covering, but they must now go to a central office. Here’s the letter:

December 9, 2013

Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly
New York City Police Department
One Police Plaza
New York, NY 10038

Dear Commissioner Kelly:

On behalf of the New York Press Club, I strongly protest NYPD’s latest decision to cut-off a long-standing source of information, vital to New Yorkers.

The policy change to deny media access to complaint reports at the precinct level is, to us, another example of blatant hostility by NYPD toward locally-based media outlets that disseminate information about neighborhood occurrences to residents of those neighborhoods. We are stumped by the question of why NYPD now requires community reporters to scurry down to the notoriously uncommunicative and uncooperative DCPI office to examine incident reports that originate locally. One inescapable conclusion about the new policy is that NYPD wishes to “edit” or otherwise obfuscate the information in question. At the very least, the policy unnecessarily complicates public access to information and data that should instead be freely available.

This new restriction on openness and accessibility is, in our opinion, another disturbing example of the department’s recent, relentless slide towards non-accountability. We therefore request restoration of the previous, long-standing policy and its expansion to all precincts. We also request, for publication, an explanation of the reasoning behind NYPD’s latest decision to constrict access.

Thank you,

Sincerely,

Larry Seary
President

CC: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mayor-elect William de Blasio, William J. Bratton, John McCarthy, Donna Lieberman, Esq.

This is a big deal, folks, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it elsewhere. It’s a big deal, because it signals a reaction to the concept of “everybody’s a reporter.” It’s the kind of thing we’re going to see repeated as the institutions of Western culture are challenged by weakening silos and authority that’s spread horizontally across a world that used to be entirely top-down. The press has always been defined by its access, but as Mr. Seary notes above, even press club members themselves face a form editing in the oldest information gathering process on the planet — the police beat.

While nothing about this is good for the First Amendment, it does point out the absurdity of trying to govern a horizontal culture with top-down rules.

Stay tuned. This one is going to get interesting.

Should we really fear native advertising? Really?

We're not all dummies that need protectionThe principal reason that innovation in the media space is so problematic today is that we’re in the midst of a cultural change at the same time. It appears that technology is causing the changes, but the reality is that these are due to people using technology, not technology itself. If it was simply technology, whole industries wouldn’t be influenced as they are, because we could adapt to those new technologies. This is the false assumption that drives the status quo in the West.

The brilliant Farhad Manjoo, for example — a technology columnist for the Wall St. Journal and one of the most astute observers of the technology world — got it wrong recently in a piece about native advertising, because he didn’t or couldn’t connect the dots to the cultural shift. He makes a strong argument that native advertising is inherently evil, because eventually, web surfers (a.k.a. “users” a.k.a. “people”) won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s content and what’s advertising.

When ads appear as part of content (as in product placement), they sneak past our defenses; they don’t look like ads, so we aren’t as skeptical of them.

The online-ad marketplace is ferociously competitive, and given the wild scramble for ad dollars among Google, Facebook, and Twitter, not to mention smaller media sites, advertisers are in a position to keep asking sites for more. If they begin to notice that ads marked “sponsored” aren’t doing as well as they used to, they’ll demand fainter disclosure, and they’ll get it.

Note that Twitter calls its ads “promoted” messages, which is hardly clear. BuzzFeed calls advertisers “featured partners,” which sounds more like an award than a paid relationship.

I can’t solve this problem. I think native ads are sure to get blurrier about their provenance. It’s too late to stop that now. But I sure hope advertisers, publishers and ad networks will be extra careful about how these ads are implemented.

This reasoning sounds familiar, and, well, reasonable. It’s logical. It makes sense. But hidden within its thinking is a leftover remnant from an archaic cultural bias — that “the masses” are incapable of self care, including the ability to avoid hucksters and con artists without help from those with superior minds and positions. This view is straight out of the dominant social construct of the industrial age and before, colonialism (I reference it as “modernism” in my work). Wikipedia defines it thusly:

Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between the colonists and the indigenous population.

Colonialism is a hierarchical culture wherein the haves justify their position via the false claim that the have-nots actually need them, and this is what’s absolutely gutted by the horizontal activity of the network and the immediate access to knowledge via a touch. So Manjoo sees danger, because the poor masses are too ignorant not to be taken in, and therefore, require a system — naturally run by the elites — to protect them. The whole idea of objectivity, where journalists swear some internally-governed oath to “be” unbiased in their reporting, is, in fact, a farce, created by the social engineering geniuses of the Creel Committee to provide a sterile environment in which to sell advertising, including their own views of society.

This is a central theme of two of my books, Reinventing Local Media, Ideas for Thriving in a Postmodern World volumes I & II. I just slipped in a native ad, right? Who cares?

And don’t you think we all know or suspect the truth about which I wrote earlier this year, that We’re All Shilling For Something? When the camera zooms in on the Chevrolet logo on the grill of Hawaii 5–0’s hot Camero, do you honestly believe that it isn’t seen for exactly what it is? Again, who cares (except that it makes for crappy TV)? And in the same show, when scenic shots reveal Diamond Head in all its glory, is that not to compensate Hawaii for the state’s help in filming the program? Who cares? When Buzzfeed mixes a “featured partner” in with its list content, why does Farhad Manjoo care? Nobody cares, and where’s the evidence that caring matters one whit anyway? Again, arguments suggesting that this is a serious problem don’t hold water, if advancing the horizontal culture is the aim.

We could go on and on, and the question “who cares?” would remain. It’s time we began giving credit to the masses for lessons learned and lessons passed along. The gossip magazines at the grocery store checkout tease us and titillate us. Do they honestly believe we don’t know it? The underestimation of everyday people is the greatest sin of contemporary hierarchies, and it will not be tolerated for long.

The reason this is so important for all of us is that this colonialist cultural view will never produce new forms of value, which can then be exploited for the bottom lines of media and beyond. It has its established values (cash) and must, by its nature, reject attempts to alter its basic tenets. Doc Searls’ Project VRM is not of the status quo, and therefore its core competency and value propositions are completely different. It turns advertising upside-down by bringing ad messages from consumers into an arena within which there is bidding for commerce. This fits the post-colonial culture, because its energy is disbursed sideways, not top-down.

The 21st Century will be known as the century when major laws and rulings will more clearly define the disruptive nature of knowledge and information in the hands of the masses. Right now, we’re just guessing, but I’ll take even a guess over insistence that everything’s fine.

We must not and cannot look at 21st Century doings through 20th Century eyes. The world has changed and everything in it. And it’s only just begun.

An open letter to creatives

My brothers and sisters, I want to leave you something today that I hope will guide you throughout your days. It is the truth about those of us enabled with the blessing and curse of creative sensitivity. Most of us simply mask it as best we can, for the others around us simply don’t — or should I say can’t — understand. To them, we are “overly” sensitive. We get our feelings hurt easily. We’re “out there” or just plain weird. We’ve never fit into their world, and believe me, they run things with their math, logic and processes.

While I’ve written of this before, I feel a strong pull to summarize my thinking today, so that you can see if it matches your own experience, because if it does, I have an important message for you.

The Lesson of the Garden Hose

Garden HoseIn Richard Adams’ wonderful little book “The Unbroken Web,” he logically explains that the source of all creativity encircles the earth and rotates around it. Sensitive people touch this plane of existence, which explains why identical ancient stories appeared on different parts of the planet before intercontinental travel. I believe this is true, which is why nobody really “owns” anything they discover while touching Life’s Unbroken Web. I recall interviewing Bill Monroe many years ago, and he explained to me that he never wrote any song. He said he “just heard them first,” which was his way of explaining his touching the Unbroken Web. Bill Monroe made a decent living, but that was not his reward.

So let’s assume this is true. If so, then we can apply the lesson of the garden hose, which is this: opening the spigot to bring fresh water into the hose is meaningless, unless the other end of the hose is open, so that it can become a conduit for spreading the water elsewhere. This is the lesson of all Life, for we humans want to keep for ourselves that which we obtain from the spigot, but we seldom get more, unless we give away what we get. This is why being in love “feels” so good. We give away love to another, and it is replaced from the source of all Love. Likewise, among those of us fortunate enough to touch the source of all Creativity, we must give away that which we find in order to touch it again, or to have it flow through us to others.

Unfortunately, this is not a life of great profit, but that has been the way of artists from the beginning. The prophets of old were the creatives of their time, and they had nothing except the surety of their flow and the absolute conviction that they would be cared for, as long as they kept their channel open. This, however, takes a form of faith in Life that few exhibit today. Nevertheless, it is our way. It really is. Culture, I believe, owes us, but that is another story for perhaps another time.

As I survey all that is fresh and new around us today, I marvel and am hopeful that one day touching the source of Life will be seen as virtuous and not as a pathway to profit. I think we’re going to have to get this right in order to do something truly meaningful with copyright, for the logicals of the world have turned the act of creation into a profit center, and this is where justice runs into conflict with Life. I do not mean to suggest that those who touch Adams’ Unbroken Web should be denied a comfortable living. God forbid! But attaching oneself to the source of Life for creative purposes is a powerful end unto itself, as only those who do so can attest.

And for me, I’d rather be there than in any mansion on earth.

An open letter to certain Facebook “Christians”

Christianity is changingThe President has been re-elected, and it’s time to put aside your good intentions and inspect your behavior of late. May I?

You and those who lead you have spent the last year in vile character assassinations (a form of murder, but who knew?) in an attempt to convince me (and other “friends”) of the righteousness of your worldview. To those of us who’ve had to endure this bombardment, the relentless hostility of the cartoons, clever images and commentary came off as a haughty justification of your superiority by painting your political enemy as something less than human. This is called “demonizing,” something that your spiritual taproot probably condemns.

I cannot count the number of times I came across the theme “I’m a Christian; I’m voting for Romney,” spoken with certainty, as if a vote for “that other man” was a vote for evil personified. I’m serious. It was that bad. And this thought did not originate with you; you were simply parroting what others inside your bubble were saying. What is it about politics that turns a certain group of Christians into ignorant, raving maniacs?

If your God needs you to participate in the process in this manner then, I’m sorry, but you need a bigger God!

The latest report from the PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life a few weeks ago has many loud messages for those who have ears to hear. Here are three specific findings.

  • The numbers of people who say they are unaffiliated with any religion jumped to almost one in five (19.6%), and those are more likely younger adults.
  • Protestantism fell below the 50% threshold for the first time. Just 48% of Americans call themselves Protestants today, down 5% in just one year. This Protestant decline goes back many years, which leads us to the third finding.
  • When the unaffiliateds were asked for their views about religious institutions, 70% said such institutions are too interested in money and power; focus too much on rules; and are too involved in politics.

So let’s summarize: Protestant Christianity is not only in a significant decline, but it’s pushing its future out the door by an overemphasis on money, power, rules and politics.

The problem, according to Pew, is that the flock sees through these behaviors and is pulling away, and as Stephen Covey once wrote, “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.”

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

Because I used to live inside this bubble myself, I know the automatic retort — that an increasingly immoral culture is trying to pull you into the gutter with it, and that voting in “righteous” representatives is your duty as citizens. Let me repeat, you need a bigger God. When in history has “the culture” not tried to pull you into the abyss? No, it’s not the culture; it’s your reaction.

It’s my prayer that over the next four years, you’ll begin the important journey of reading the work of those outside your bubble, because the reflection from inside your dwelling place has blinded you, or at least colored your view of truth. I’m as Bible-aware as any of you, but I’ve matured over the years and am now influenced by many other people, views and philosophies. The view from here is much more inclusive but not any easier, and I don’t find any evidence either of a world that’s conveniently just black or white. If it were so, life would be so much simpler. The gray confounds, but that’s where you’ll find God’s spirit most at work.

In the postmodern era about which I write (which some call “postChristian”), the days of automatic, lock-step, Caucasian hierarchical acceptance are on the wane. God in the postmodern world is a participatory god, God, the Holy Spirit, and He is not concerned with a specific “type” of human being only.

If history is any judge, it’s very likely there will be revivals of religion in the 21st Century. Don’t count on them to look like those from the past, however, because the past has, well, passed.

And let’s all consider the old admonition, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”