Ning: the social-networking engine

For something that was created by legendary Netscape founder Marc Andreessen — the Blake Ross of his day, for you Firefox fans — the social-media “engine” called Ning has kind of been flying under the radar for awhile. As Mike Arrington notes at TechCrunch, the initial release of the service was somewhat underwhelming, and so I think a lot of people sort of forgot about it. But it has steadily improved, and just rolled out some more enhancements.

ning.jpgI have some first-hand experience with Ning, because I decided awhile back to use it as a tool for helping to plan a journalism school reunion that I’m involved with. It’s been quite awhile since I was at Ryerson in Toronto (don’t ask how long or I’m liable to punch you), and many of my former classmates have scattered to the winds. After a couple of members of the group sent out some emails trying to get a reunion under way, it became obvious that having a single place to co-ordinate things would make a lot of sense. One or two people mentioned MySpace, but it seemed too — well, MySpacey. Then I thought of Ning.com.

The reason Ning came to mind was that a Toronto group — helmed by Mark Dowds — created a site related to a new “open office” concept called Indoor Playground. It seemed relatively simple to add members, send out updates, upload photos and had a nice, clean look to it, so I decided to try it out. In just a few minutes I had the site set up (there is even more customization available with the new features), and apart from a few glitches in getting people signed up — it’s invitation only — it was a no-brainer.

Further reading:

Om has some thoughts about the new Ning, and Scoble has an interview with Marc Andreessen and CEO Gina Bianchini up at Podtech — and Ms. Bianchini has a post on the Ning blog with some of the insights that she has gained from starting the company (I particularly like the “Underhype your service” one). Frantic Industries has a good overview of the service too. Steve O’Hear at ZDNet has some thoughts too, and Don Dodge wonders whether it’s any better than Live Spaces or Yahoo Groups.

The other side of Google and video

When it comes to Google and video, most people probably think about YouTube or Google Video and the struggles that have been going on with Viacom pulling its content and the deal with CBS falling through, etc. (which I wrote about recently). But as a story in the New York Times reminds us this morning, there is another whole side to the Google video story, and that is the advertising side, where Google is moving to expand a trial project.

GoogleTV.jpgAccording to the NYT story, Google has signed on Dow Jones Co., CondeNast and others as partners for its video ad trial, which runs video content in Google ad space on websites — complete with post-roll ads — and then shares the revenue with the site owner and the content provider. As Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy points out, this is much closer to Google’s “core competency” (as the business types like to say) than streaming clips from The Colbert Report on YouTube. And as PaidContent notes, it is an extension of a trial that started last year and was then expanded earlier this year.

There is obviously a lot of jockeying for position going on here. As the NYT story makes clear, one of the stumbling blocks is that the content providers — such as the Wall Street Journal, MTV and so on — want to maintain control over not just the content but the relationship with the advertiser as well. Although they seem open to experimentation, there is bound to be friction as Google inserts itself into that process.

For media, disruption is the new order

A couple of things I’ve come across have got me thinking about the media business — broadly speaking — and just how profound the changes it is undergoing really are. It’s easy to dismiss them as just some kids on MySpace or a bunch of yahoos posting their juvenilia on YouTube, but it is really much more than that. Not a magical transformation by any means, but more like a rapid evolution, and a turbulent one at that.

film camera.jpgOne of the pieces that got me thinking was Scott Karp’s post over at Publishing 2.0, which he calls The Great Media Schism. In a nutshell, he says, the media industry is “dividing itself into content creation on the one hand, and content aggregation and distribution on the other.” And he is exactly right. From newspapers to movies, media titans are grappling with the fact that content and distribution no longer go hand in glove — and just because you used to control one doesn’t mean you still do, or will. “Content creation is no longer an easily scalable business,” he says. “In fact, many players in the new content creation game are not in it to build scale business, or even to make money at all.”

For some reason, that statement reminds me of the success of Craigslist.org, which has become an accidental business in a sense — a service that Craig Newmark decided to start because it seemed like a good idea, and people adopted, and which has become wildly profitable almost by accident. All of which makes the damage it has done to the newspaper classified business seem even more of an insult, since Craig didn’t even mean to do it.

The other piece that got me thinking was a story in the Los Angeles Times by author Neal Gabler called The Movie Magic is Gone. Gabler describes — in a piece not-so-coincidentally published at Oscar time — how the traditional movie industry is in decline, in part because:

“To the extent that the Internet is a niche machine, dividing its users into tiny, self-defined categories, it is providing a challenge to the movies that not even television did, because the Internet addresses a change in consciousness while television simply addressed a change in delivery of content.”

The reality is that the Internet is unbundling the movie industry in the same way it is unbundling the newspaper industry and the music industry — dismantling or disrupting the traditional power relationships, in part by separating content from distribution. As Gabler puts it: “Much of modern media is dedicated to empowering audiences that no longer want to be passive.” And even when they do want to be passive, traditional content sources are finding a whole lot more competition for those eyeballs.

Further reading:

Ashkan Karbasfrooshan of HipMojo has some thoughts about the future of video, distribution and scalability. And please see the comment below from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

BitTorrent service is built to fail

Far be it from me to question the motivations of Bram Cohen, the genius behind the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol, who has finally launched (NYT link) the long-awaited (or at least, much discussed) movie download service that BitTorrent has been working on with the major Hollywood studios. It’s possible that he entered into the deal under duress, in order to avoid a blizzard of lawsuits.

prison.jpgBut one thing is pretty clear by reading between the lines — or even just reading the lines themselves — in the New York Times story that is headlining Techmeme right now: the service as it is structured will almost certainly fail, and Bram Cohen knows it. The BitTorrent service will sell downloads of TV shows for $1.99 an episode, but will only rent movies, which expire 30 days after they are bought or 24 hours after someone watches them, thanks to the ever-helpful digital rights management features of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 10.

BitTorrent co-founder and chief operating officer Ashwin Navin effectively admits that this is a dumb idea, and says that (NYT link) the company actually had agreement from the studios to sell movies outright for download, but the prices that the studios wanted to charge didn’t make any sense. “We don’t think the current prices are a smart thing to show any user,” he said. “We want to allocate services with very digestible price points.” Translation: We want to offer something that has a hope in hell of actually working.

Then Bram Cohen says that he thinks the new service will provide a compelling alternative to downloading illegally — but in the very next breath, he says: “We are not happy with the user interface implications” of digital rights management. “It’s an unfortunate thing. We would really like to strip it all away.” And then the real money quote comes right at the end:

“The sad thing is, it’s not about the money,” said Aaron, a 36-year-old San Francisco programmer who regularly uses BitTorrent to download movies illegally. “I’m not interested in renting a movie. I want to own it. I want total portability. I want to give a copy to my brother. Digital convergence is supposed to make things like this easier, but D.R.M. is making them harder.”

Bang. That was the door slamming shut on BitTorrent’s new service — or maybe the bullet in the temple of the studios’ hopes that they can somehow eat their digital cake and have it too.

This ad for an editor speaks for itself

From Cory at Lost Remote comes a link to what has to be one of the most creative — and elaborate — classified ads ever, which the Roanoke Times newspaper from Roanoke, Virginia put up as part of its search for an editor. If you have even a few minutes to spare, you really should check it out. And be sure to click on all the links in the toolbar at the bottom — it’s worth it. In fact, it makes me want to work there.

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