Impulses

ACTION REQUIRED, the e-mail demands, NOW. Give money. Sale! One day only! You might like this video. Sign our petition now or terrible things will happen! How was your test? Sign our petition now to stop terrible things from happening! What kind of furry animal are you? Fill out this spreadsheet with data from another database, then copy data from spreadsheet column A to spreadsheet column ZZ. What’s for dinner? ACTION REQUIRED.

But can you act when all of these demands force themselves upon your attention and you’re twitching this way and that attempting to satisfy every competing request?

We’ve been trained to act on our impulses immediately, and to expect instant gratification: Send an instant message to your daughter at school asking about whatever springs to mind or sharing something interesting; pop off an unread e-mail to your Congressperson objecting to the latest idiocy; watch a movie now in the comfort of your car; order pizza delivered.

Whereas earlier we couldn’t, and had to learn patience; now we can, and the discipline of patience is but a fleeting memory. As is our memory: Can you hold a thought in your head longer than it takes to tweet at someone?

Can you respect your time and another’s?

Can you think before you act?

I shop therefore I am

AT&T Fell for Media’s Inflated Sense of Self-Importance

AT&T has entered the “content” business in a big way with the acquisition of DirecTV and TimeWarner. This is not a new plan–they’ve been in love with the glamour of Hollywood for years. But it is a misguided plan.

AT&T hopes to provide value and profit from exclusive content through focused advertising.

This is a fool’s errand.

Folks other than I have talked about the reasons why in greater depth for many years, most notably Andrew Odlyzko, formerly of AT&T Labs, whose “Content is Not King,” First Monday 6(2) (February 2001), persuasively showed that people pay overwhelmingly for connectivity, not content. And not by a small margin either.

The reason is simple: humans are gregarious. We are social animals. We want to reach out and touch someone.

Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail,” Wired (October 2004), proposed that given infinite, instant availability, sales of things, particularly digital things, would tend to accumulate in the long tail of a Pareto distribution. That is, value would accrue to things that had had minimal value before. A follow-up analysis in 2008 at the Harvard Business Review noted that while this was the case, the long tail got longer and thinner so that the popularity of things on the thick end of the tail became more significant. (You can also see this with the current shape of income inequality.) That could provide hope for AT&T’s advertising plans, but it doesn’t because of two factors outside of their control: time and the supply of money.

Time and money are finite. Time cannot exceed 24 hours in a day. Money is artificially constrained by governments and their agents. But content is essentially infinite: All humans create things. All humans want to share what they create. Alas, there’s nowhere near enough time to consume infinity, and one’s personal supply of money restricts what little can be consumed even further. I have to choose between writing this, correcting a crontab entry, listening to a podcast, making dinner, lifting weights, watching the Champions League, voiding my bladder, and so forth. No matter how much I want to find out right now what happens when the Ice Dragon breaches the wall, for me to actually do so depends on those two things: time and money. I’ll wait, and get the DVD from the library.

Money, or the lack thereof, is what drives cord-cutting. Even were there infinite money, time trumps everything.

Or, you cannot squeeze blood from a stone.

Oddly enough, AT&T’s earlier foray into advertising, the Yellow Pages, was similarly profitable for the same reason telephony is: connectivity. Rather than shouting at customers “Buy Me!” the directory simply sat there, waiting, until a customer needed something. It, and the classified advertisements which provided much of newspapers’ revenues, have been gradually replaced not by pay-per-click advertising on the Internet, but by services built on the World Wide Web–basically Google and Craigslist–accelerated by the general decline in local economies. Everyone’s price sensitive these days.

But I can understand why they’ve made the choices they did. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day, and only a certain amount of time to spend reading or listening or watching or working or playing. It’s highly likely that the idea connectivity is more valuable than content never crossed their minds.

Better to invest in what enables connections and carries all of that content. And ignore the shiny distractions.

So what next? What could AT&T do with what they have?

What do people actually need? It’s not more advertising and it’s not more content; there’s plenty of that.

Intrusion

There are times when I get myself in trouble because I minimize the details, and see only the Big Picture. One of those days was when one of our clients complained that his customers were complaining that his site didn’t work. He couldn’t figure out why and asked for help. Turned out that an advertisement originating from the third-party ad server was injecting HTML that caused his page to not render. It could have been worse. It could have been pr0n.

He bought service from us, we hosted the ad server, the ad agency sold inventory, and no one in the supply chain knew where the advertisements came from or who what they contained, or could predict what advertisements would show on which site. Now why would anyone let some anonymous fourth-party alter their work? Why would we make that possible?

Oh, we have to do that. We need the money from the advertisers.

::facepalm::

the creation of the modern web

XKCD may be talking about the current brouhaha in social media, but it’s always been exactly the way advertising works.