Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 6: June 2007


Trends & Quick Takes

Blogging for Bucks: The Dark Side

“Over the last six months, Ron DesGrosseilliers has recommended more than 260 products on his two blogs—everything from travel sites and TV shows to laminate floors and lingerie.” And made decent money doing so: These are paid posts, sponsored by PayPerPost and (apparently) run without disclosure. PC World for February 2007 has an interesting one-page “consumer alert” by Dan Tynan discussing the growing trend of posting for pay.

As Tynan points out, it may not even matter if the paid posts are negative. Assuming the posts link to the product’s website, they still raise its visibility in search engines. At least ReviewMe explicitly requires disclosure (and explicitly doesn’t require positive posts but does require that they be at least 200 words long and include the sponsor’s link).

More than 3,700 blogs have signed up with ReviewMe. The article doesn’t say how many take bucks from PayPerPost, but does say new competitors are on the horizon. Maybe what surprises me is how cheaply people sell their names and integrity: $5 to $10 with PayPerPost.

We Can’t All Be Winners

I don’t think it’s necessarily schadenfreude, but there’s no doubt that it’s sometimes more entertaining to read studies of washouts than endless lists of the Top 25 Whatever. Here’s a couple of the former for your bemusement, if perhaps not edification.

David Louis Edelman posted “Ten tech companies that blew it in the past two decades” on January 26, 2007 on his blog (www.davidlouisedelman.com/ blog/). These aren’t necessarily companies that failed entirely—but ones that “strike me as prime examples of organizations who lost a commanding lead and/or market dominance in a particular field due to their own idiocy or incompetence.”

Here’s the list, each one of which has a paragraph of discussion in the post: Atari, Netscape, Palm, American Online, Apple, Sony, Gateway, Compaq, Intuit, and RealNetworks. You’d have to read his reasoning; he concludes that the main causes are “failure of nerve, failure to innovate, excessive greed, excessive litigiousness and overwhelming fear of Microsoft.”

Hard to argue with Atari, Netscape as a corporation or AOL as failures. I don’t know enough about Palm to comment and Apple’s that odd situation of a company that failed and then sort-of succeeded (although its share of the PC market is still tiny). Sony? Hard to accuse them of failure—and Edelman completely ignores Sony’s suicidal DRM moves. He claims that Intuit only succeeds with TurboTax and QuickBooks because “nobody’s made a serious effort lately at unseating them”—which, at least for TurboTax, might surprise the people at TaxCut. (And Quicken still leads its market—a very odd definition of failure.)

Computerworld’s David Haskins upped the ante for individual products and technologies with “Don’t believe the hype: The 21 biggest technology flops,” posted on April 4, 2007 (go to www.computerworld. com and search for “21 biggest technology flops”). The article presents them in alphabetical order within two sublists—the 14 “top flops” and 11 runners-up. Here’s the list, again shorn of commentary:

Top flops: Apple Newton, Digital audio tape (DAT), DivX, “Dot-bombs” such as Pets.com, E-books, IBM PCjr, Internet currency (e.g. Flooz and Beenz), Iridium, Microsoft Bob, the Net PC, the paperless office, push technology, smart appliances and virtual reality.

Runners-up: Apple Lisa, Dreamcast, NeXT, OS/2, Qube (Warner’s 1977 interactive cable-TV system), speech recognition and WebTV.

Those are hard lists to argue with. There are different reasons for the failures, and some assert that push technology is working and that some others are “just around the corner.” I’m not one of them.

Computerworld invited reader votes as to the biggest flop of them all. The biggest winners—er, losers?

1st place: Microsoft Bob. 2nd place: Dot-bombs, 3,870 votes (12%). 3rd place: The paperless office, 2,828 votes (9%). 4th place: DIVX, 2,704 votes (8%). 5th place: Iridium, 2,615 votes (8%)

The article summing up the votes is more interesting for other elements. There’s a list of reader nominees which I won’t quote and more extended discussion. They quote some of the debate over whether Y2K was a flop—including those who say (I believe correctly, at least in part) that the main reason Y2K was a non-event is because thousands of programmers busted their butts to make fixes during 1999. And of course—of course—people lambasted them for including ebooks and some other products. The saddest comments were from people who took the whole thing a little too seriously: Any article like this has to be at least partly humorous or it’s a waste of electrons.

Just for fun, here’s one from the editor emeritus of Gizmodo (gizmodo.com), that ultimate shiny-new-toy site (motto: “Gizmodo, the gadget guide. So much in love with shiny new toys, it's unnatural.”). Joel Johnson is a little unhappy about the “disgusting cycle of gadget whoring.” No doubt the column’s a deliberate rant, but it’s fun—and some of it makes a lot of sense. He begins: “Consumer electronics are a joke. It’s everyone’s fault but mine. You assholes.” He discusses the nonsense of writing about Hot New Stuff—chewing up press releases, fielding PR emails and would-be phone meetings (I’ve dealt with this, oddly enough), and the extent to which “you guys just ate it up.”

His suggestion for early adopters: “Stop buying this crap. Just stop it. You don’t need it. Wait a year until the reviews come out and the other suckers too addicted to having the very latest and greatest buy it, put up a review, and have moved on to something else. Stop buying broken products and then shrugging your shoulders when it doesn’t do what it is supposed to. Stop buying products that serve any other master than you. Use older stuff that works. Make it yourself. Only buy new stuff from companies that have proven themselves good servants of their customers in the past…”

He has his own description for early adopters of gadgetry: “You’re really just a loose confederation of marks the consumer electronics industry uses as free market research and easy money.” Fun stuff (and, of course, the commenters who didn’t like what he had to say were the ones spewing ad hominem right and left).

Multitasking, Concentration, Interruptions

Some recent items from an ongoing discussion…

Kate Grossman wrote “Stop interrupting yourself” in the March 4, 2007 Chicago Sun-Times. She notes the origin of the phrase “continuous partial attention”: Linda Stone in the mid-1990s. Stone isn’t thrilled with how it’s working out as “nearly everyone” is addicted to multitasking: “Connect, connect, connect has brought us to a place where we feel overwhelmed, overstimulated and unfulfilled.”

Grossman cites a number of researchers who continue to find that “continuous partial attention” or multitasking is “really just constantly interrupting ourselves”—and that doing so leads to more mistakes, slower performance, “surface-level thinking.” The brain doesn’t multitask; “every time you switch tasks, the brain needs time to stop and then restart.” Worse yet, there’s some indication that continuous multitasking may reduce your brain’s capacity to “do the heavy lifting: reasoning and deliberating.” That’s not clear, to be sure. If it’s true, it’s disturbing, given that kids tend to multitask more than anyone else.

There’s more to this fairly long article (for a newspaper). Andrew Dillon (UT Austin School of Information) notes that it’s easier to “get lost” when you’re reading from a screen rather than paper, partly because it’s a slower process, partly because pathways are less clear. Toward the end of the article, Stone is quoted as saying that people are “increasingly looking for ways to lower the noise”—ways to carve out time for full attention. Oddly, Lee Rainie of Pew is quoted as suggesting that people find constant interruptions to be difficult—but, as you’d expect, he comes down on the side that continuous partial attention is “a permanent condition of post-industrial life”—and one Pew seems to favor in its reports.

Jason the “Pragmatic librarian” discusses his own antipathy for feeds in a March 21, 2007 post, “Feed me!” (pragmaticlibrarian.wordpress.com). He doesn’t want to be “converted” to an aggregator user, partly because “it seems that if you get a notification about updates, you have an obligation to zip to the website immediately.” He grumps about “RSS bigots” and notes that he doesn’t feature a feed on his blog. He also wonders whether aggregators could make people lose out on new sources because they keep viewing their aggregated sources.

In this case, to the extent that people do have live notification when something’s changed in their aggregator, and do feel obliged to go check it out, then maybe he’s right: Aggregators have “the potential to induce an enervating cocktail of laziness and information overload.” But in my experience, the second part isn’t true because the first isn’t. I don’t keep an aggregator visible on my screen, and see no reason to do so; there’s nothing that notifies me when one of my 400+ feeds has changed. I check feeds at my leisure, just as Pragmatic checks websites—but it’s a whole lot faster for me to skip over the 90% (or more) of sites that haven’t changed since yesterday.

The New York Times chimes in on multitasking in a March 25, 2007 article by Steve Lohr: “Slow down, multitaskers; don’t read in traffic.” The piece summarizes several recent research reports on the problems with multitasking and offers some advice: Check email messages no more than once an hour. “Soothing background music” can improve concentration (if it’s truly background music—my own little problem) but other distractions (including songs with lyrics) hamper performance. “In short, the answer appears to lie in managing the technology, instead of merely yielding to its incessant tug.” One of the studies is a little frightening: When Vanderbilt researchers used MRI to see what happened when people were given two tasks requiring multitasking, it took up to a second longer to respond to a given task—which is a long time if you’re driving 60 miles an hour and talking on a cell phone.  One second is 88 feet. Do you drive far enough behind other cars that you can add 88 feet to your car’s braking requirements? Worse yet, when it comes to serious thinking, Microsoft’s own studies conclude that its workers take an average of fifteen minutes to return to “serious mental tasks” after responding to email or instant messages.

Here’s an interesting one: Using a controlled task, 18- to 21-year olds did 10% better than 35- to 39-year olds when there were no interruptions—but the older group did just as well when there were interruptions.

43 folders (www.43folders.com) had a comment on the Times article on March 26, 2007. The writer was particularly impressed by the Microsoft study and also cites an estimate of $650 billion a year in lost productivity due to interruptions—but most estimates of “lost productivity” are silly. Early comments on this piece are interesting. One says that the 15-minute delay is well known; another points out the need for mental breaks (but multitasking isn’t quite the same thing); another thinks we can learn to “multitask better.”

Slightly off to one side—but only slightly—is a Reuters story from April 18 that extends the 90:9:1 rule for participation a little further. According to a study by Hitwise, those figures are way too generous for YouTube and Flickr, although the numbers have an apples-and-oranges feel. Specifically, only 0.2% of visits to Flickr are to upload new photos—and only 0.16% of visits to YouTube are to upload video. But that doesn’t equate at all to percentage of visitors, since it’s entirely possible (even likely) that contributors to either site are likely to view contributions a lot more often than they upload contributions. If anything, the peculiar number may be the exception: Hitwise says that 4.6% of Wikipedia visits are to edit entries on the site. That seems odd.

I’m ending this cluster with one that’s not in chronological order but links to one of the big essays in this issue: “Twitter TOO good?” posted March 15, 2007 by Kathy Sierra at Creating passionate users (headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/). Sierra starts right out: “Twitter scares me.” Why? Because it’s a near-perfect example of “intermittent variable reward,” what makes slot machines addictive; because its “feeling of connectedness” leads to a false sense of meaningful social interaction; but mostly because it’s “yet another—potentially more dramatic—contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking.” Sierra also says she’s in a tiny minority on this one, “so I’m mostly likely way wrong.”

I’ll skip the slot-machine argument for now and give short shrift to the semi-meaningful connectedness argument. It may be true that “coffee with your next-door neighbor could do more for your brain than a thousand Twitter updates.” But the heart of it, illustrated with one of Sierra’s classic graphs, is “Twitter is the best/worst cause of continuous partial attention.” The graph, in this case, shows time between interruptions for various things as they’re widely adopted, with a key junction being the “brain thrashing threshold—essentially, when there are so many interruptions that you can never think deeply. She sees twittering as causing the time between interruptions to approach zero, “i.e. we’re screwed”—but her graph says we’re screwed anyway, with MySpace, RSS, blogs, and IM all being past the critical threshold.

Sierra likes “flow,” a concept that has never sat well with me; I’d call it “mindfulness” or “deep thinking.” There seems relatively little doubt that constant interruptions interfere with—prevent?—deep thinking. She claims that brain scientists now say that becoming an expert is largely a matter of being able to focus; if that’s true, then continuous partial attention prevents expertise.

There’s a caveat here: Sierra agrees that Twitter can have benefits and can be used “responsibly,” although as a loner she’s inherently not in the Twitter target audience (which, Steven C., is one reason you ‘re unlikely to see me twittering). Mostly she’s saying is “beyond the hype, we should consider just how far down the rabbit hole of always-on-attention we really want to go.”

Lots of comments, of course: Sierra is (was, actually) a high-profile blogger who says contentious things. Given the dynamics of most blogs, it’s about as you’d expect: Most people commenting on this post agree with Sierra (only seven out of 88 clearly disagree, with one of them using loaded language in that disagreement and another using the usual “you just don’t understand” response to any skepticism)—and Sierra even notes that this is typical and points to another blog where those who are pro-Twitter are commenting favorably on a pro-Twitter post.

I was doing something I don’t usually do while writing this segment of Trends & Quick Takes. I was multitasking—checking some other things running simultaneously. Does it show?

Quicker Takes

I did a little post on Vista a few weeks ago, not because I’m using it but because I was hearing a little nonsense (e.g., “wait for SP2!”). My basic conclusion was that you don’t want to move to Vista until you’re ready to buy a new PC—and that you definitely want a machine that’s comfortable with Vista Home Premium or better, which means at least 1GB RAM, probably a dual-core CPU (which you want anyway!) and a contemporary graphics card with plenty of RAM. I don’t remember whether I’d read Bill Machrone’s January 2007 PC Magazine column at that point, but his headline says it: “Vista needs a new machine.” He offers several reasons why Vista may be worthwhile and cool, notes that it’s really designed for multicore CPUs, and basically says you shouldn’t bother upgrading your current PC. A February 2007 PC World test report seems to back up part of this: On single-core machines, Vista ran significantly slower than XP (5% to 23%)—but when multitasking on dual-core systems, Vista was substantially faster (29% to 31%), albeit still slower on some games not yet designed for multiprocessing.

Ø    Is portable video the next big thing or dead on arrival? Christopher Jones argues the latter in a February 2007 Perfect Vision column. He notes that watching a real movie on a video iPod is absurd and wonders how often people actually watch videos on the go. Turns out that, according to Nielsen, the answer is “not much.” Less than one percent of content played on iPods or iTunes was video; the percentage wasn’t much higher for video iPod owners. As Jones puts it, consumers watch mobile videos about as often as they watch C-Span. This shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a “royal pain” to encode video for portable devices—and they’ve found that you need at least a 7" screen to watch movies without eyestrain. And that’s too big a screen for a handheld/pocketable portable.

Ø    According to a Media Life piece by Heidi Dawley (January 30, 2007), online retail is starting to plateau as a percentage of total retail sales. JupiterResearch predicts that online will wind up with 10% to 15% of total sales—but the internet as an “influencer of sales” will continue to be more important. This isn’t surprising; even Amazon’s founder has said he doesn’t expect online to capture more than 20% or so of book sales. Most of us continue to do most of our shopping in real stores—but we’re increasingly likely to do some of the research online.

Ø    I’m delighted to report D-Lib Magazine’s funding issues may be looking brighter. The new D-Lib Alliance will provide financial and advisory support. You’ll find a list of participants at www.dlib.org/dlib/march07/alliance/03alliance.html

Ø    Ryan Healy posted “Twentysomething: 7 ways to motivate your millennial” at Brazen careerist (blog.penelopetrunk.com) on April 9, 2007. The short version: Be spontaneous, give me feedback, ask for feedback, “an optional reward system” (e.g., extra vacation time instead of a raise), keep me in the loop, be my friend, it doesn’t hurt to smile. Constant readers know I like to poke at gen-gen now and then. Here, I wonder why these practices (generally good ideas, although “friend” can be a little tricky) apply more to so-called millennials than to anyone else?

Ø    Speaking of business advice that cuts across generations, Robert I. Sutton offers an excerpt from his new book at Law.com (www.law.com, dated February 20). The title of the excerpt and the primary title of the book: “The no-asshole rule.” I won’t offer extensive excerpts or even the seven key lessons, but here are the first and last—and the last rings true (the Firesign Theatre said it many years ago: I think we’re all bozos on this bus): “A few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hordes of civilized people”—and “Assholes are us.” What? You’ve never been a jerk? Really? Those wings must get awfully heavy at times.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 6, Whole Issue 90, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

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