Sunday, September 21, 2008

About the Weird

"You're so weird !"

If only I had a nickel for every time in my life someone told me that.

I know this blog has picked up some new readers recently, not that this was an unexpected development. After all, Google my name - it's the first thing that comes up. Frankly I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. Last weekend my inlaws told me that they found the old Puppet Show, and while I don't know if they're regular readers, I generally assume they are. The thing is, I really don't publish anything on here I wouldn't want my mother (who has been a faithful Puppeteer since the launch) or my grandparents (who may one day stumble upon this blog) to read. But the more in-the-world realization triggered a brief audience review of material (I went back to make sure I hadn't said anything extraordinarily stupid, and I hadn't). But I realized there's some, well, weirdness going on here.

Like all good latticeworks of coincidence, this story continued yesterday as I walked into Forbidden Planet, London's mega-comic-shop, and was browsing while waiting for some friends to finish their business. I randomly picked up an art book about the gracefulness of machines, cables, and circuitry; something I'd never considered 'beautiful' or even 'graceful,' but certainly was as the artist depicted it. Some of the artwork though one could easily have labelled 'weird.' And yeah, it was pretty out there.

But this triggered another slightly existential thought process. I have rarely, if even, apologized for my being 'weird' when I occasionally say some goofy non sequitor at work or described one of my 'wouldn't it be cool if' scenarios to someone who clearly may not have ever considered attaching 'cool' to whatever concept I might be floating.

And yet this is the very bread-and-butter of my existence. It is the root of who I am, my very personhood relies on these 'weird' connections between things that don't seem to go together. I used to turn away from Cubist art because, I claimed, "I didn't understand it." I still don't understand it but I can certainly appreciate it more now as I grow older, because I see in it possibilities and connections that never occurred to me before.

Speaking of my grandparents, for my high school graduation my grandfather got me a carved rock for my desk (OK, a paperweight) with an inscription in it: 'Some people see the world as it is and ask why. Others see the world as it could be and ask why not.' I don't like dualisms and have asked 'why' as much as I've asked 'why not,' but if I had to choose I'd put myself in that later category.

Sure, these things may not go together. But they will. I may not understand how something works within a system now, but that's very likely because the system isn't understood, or the framework is wrong, or the thing misunderstood.

It's a big old world out there, and another thing I realize the more I go on is that it's far more full of wonder than most people give it credit for, if only they'd see and hear and taste and feel and create.

Photo: Grilled Shrimp at Creek Cafe by mamamusings.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Talk About A Pirate Day

In honor of Talk Like A Pirate Day, I wanted to talk a little bit about intellectual property, copyright and a slightly different kind of piracy.

Know Hope

I'm still digesting The Pirates Dilemma and trying to figure out exactly what its implications are but with each passing day I'm becoming more and more convinced I'm working within a broken system, and my attempts to apply a new framework to the old system will ultimately be doomed to failure – at least as far as my career appears to be going at the moment. But's another kind of post.

Before I start to organize my thoughts on piracy, I want to be completely upfront and transparent: I am a pirate. I have pirated intellectual property in the past. Here is a list of offenses. Consider this the sheet they'll hang on me when I'm swinging by a rope on Ratcliffe Highway.
  • When I was young, I pirated computer software, mostly because my friends and I couldn't afford to pay $50 for a new adventure game. So we'd all pool our money together to buy one copy and then share it amongst ourselves. More on this later, because it's an interesting concept of shared ownership that I think is being overlooked in the piracy/copyright debate.
  • When I was a teenager, I owned several cassette tapes that were copies of albums I did not pay for. I can honestly say I eventually paid for many of those albums (and owned CDs of many, many more albums than I had pirated tapes for.)
  • Here's the hardcore stuff. My sophomore year of college was the year that Napster hit the scenes. Before this, my friends and I would rip our CDs to MP3s and maybe pass them along to each other more out of convenience and curiosity. I was a complete nerd and hooked my stereo up to my computer so I could fully experience playing Quake with a subwoofer, so I could actually play MP3s through my computer speakers and not have it sound like a tinny mess, which most computer speakers still sounded like at the time. But Napster made finding music we didn't own incredibly easy. It also slowed our college's T1 connection to a crawl because of all the trafficking we did with it. I don't have many MP3s from those days anymore, mostly because the sound quality isn't that good compared with modern rips, but I've got a few still knocking around my cover song library.

    As much as I'd like to say Napster lead me to buy more music, it didn't, at least in the short term. Before Napster I would often purchase a CD for one or two tracks and never listen to the rest of the album, or listen to it a couple of times only. Typically – and this is important – this was because I was buying a CD for a song that received heavy airplay on the radio and I wanted to listen to it on my own, maybe in my car or in my room. For those familiar with the Long Tail model, this is the ultimate 'short head' model – not even listening to an entire CD, but only the hits on the radio. And I know there were lots of other people who did it too.
  • After moving to the UK I discovered how easy BitTorrent is to use. I'd used BitTorrent before but purely for legal things. Since moving here, I started using it to grab Season 2 of Jericho because the show wasn't being aired here and while I was available to watch completely for free on, I couldn't watch it because I was in the UK. Battlestar Galactica episodes? Ditto, I didn't care to wait a week, especially when an American audience could watch the whole thing online for free. And I admit I have also downloaded movies that aren't available here yet as well.
So I may have just painted a colossal target on my chest but I want to talk a little about how piracy has changed my buying habits – one of the key pieces of The Pirates Dilemma. I no longer buy short head CDs for one or two songs; if there's a hit I want badly enough, I can purchase it for less than a dollar from's DRM-free store. But this isn't a story about short heads, it's actually a story about long tails and legitimately purchasing more music. I don't listen to the radio anymore ever; all my music is discovered through my friends or other recommendations. I no longer buy CDs for one or two tracks, but for full albums by artists I like and have sampled online. I'd say that my music purchasing dropped off in the short term but now that I've started to tap into musicians I prefer and never would have heard on a top-40 terrestrial radio station, it's going back up again. And it's almost 100% digital. The only exception is when I buy a CD at a concert.

I'm not going to generalize everyone else's habits based on my own, but I certainly suspect my story is not unique. It is discoveries of this sort that will eventually reframe the business model as The Pirates Dilemma (and The Long Tail) suggests. Apart from the obvious applications of this principle to digitally distributed entertainment, I'm most interested in where it can go from here into other practices. Communications being a prime example.

There's a meme going around about brand hijacking on Twitter; I first became aware of it last week through this post, which cites an earlier incident this year where someone named Janet pretended to be an Exxon employee for three days. As a PR rep I can say with a high degree of certainty that this kind of hijacking would make even the most Internet-jaded old school communicator lose sleep at night: what if someone out there is pretending to be you online? Or worse, pretending to speak for your company and you couldn't control the message?

So much of how companies are trying to engage online depends on their reactions to these kinds of 'pirates.' People are talking about my brand online? Holy shit, are they staying on message? They aren't? Damn, I better get in there and either a) shut them down or b) make sure they've got the approved talking points!

Someone's hijacking my brand on Twitter? Holy shit, I'd better set up an official Twitter for my brand so everyone knows it's officially official!

Chris Lynn, the blogger who wrote the post above, made an excellent point about this in his post and specifically how to properly address it:
    Back in the old 1.0 days of the Internet, you could be pretty much anyone–a 40 year old man pretending to be a 13 year old girl–and no one would know otherwise. In the Web 2.0 world, however, our identities are built on and confirmed by our relationships.
How many companies actually get this? And how many communicators get the why of all this? If we look 'under the hood' to we understand why we're being forced to change, that the rules no longer apply? To use a piratical reference – here there be monsters. The rules are being rewritten, and not by us.

But the rules are being bent and broken elsewhere. I realize this post is starting to get long and rambly and I doubt anyone's still reading, but to follow up on some points I made in a blog post on my company's corporate blog we're at a point where piracy is going to begin to force major changes in the way we think about and do business. It's not going to be as simple as just 'let's make some Twitter profiles and talk to people;' what's going to happen is that companies will be forced to reconsider how they do business from the ground up.

Collective ownerships much like my friends and I going in on expensive pieces of software won't just exist among consumers but among companies as well. Take the cooperative business model: what if this was applied to a games company? What if it was applied to a book publisher – not a giant short-head-based publishing house, nor tiny individuals putting out books for their 1000 Fans, but something in between, a publishing house owned as much by those with the presses as those writing and consuming the books.

Let your imagination run wild on the possibilities there. Cooperative banking? Cooperative real estate developments? Cooperate government taxation structures? It's all a long way away from kids pooling their money to buy King's Quest 5, but in the end it's not so different after all.

Let the revolution begin.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quote of the Day

    I have liv'd long enough for others, like the Dog in the Wheel, and it is now the Season to begin for myself: I cannot change that Thing call'd Time, but I can alter its Posture and, as Boys do turn a looking-glass against the Sunne, so I will dazzle you all.
    - From Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd