All entries for Sunday 31 August 2008
August 31, 2008
Web 2.0 Opportunity For Entrepreneurs: The Huffington Post
I almost always find something of media related interest in the Financial Times Weekend and this weekend was no exception. There was an interesting article by Joshua Chaffin on the rise and rise of the Huffington Post an extremely successful blog based "online-newspaper" in the US. It is run by Arianna Huffington whom some of you may remember from the 1970s as the infamous anti-feminist Arianna Stassinopoulos.
In many ways Chaffin's article supports some of the points I was making in a discussion of the issues being raised by some media analysts around the need for Media Studies 2.0. My argument then was that the present user generated content from blogging and similar types of new media associated with Web 2.0 would eventually fragment into work which was being done professionally / semi-professionally and a more leisure-based hobby based type of approach. The latter being very much a virtualisation of small scale hobbyists, magazines etc. These might generate small amounts of advertising for relatively small niche markets. For the more serious bloggers the aim is to make a splash and also to earn money through the enterprise because to blog seriously and to research the content would be pretty much a full time job and the rest. This means that inevitably the best bloggers will either re-prioritise their time to do something else, be highly succesful at blogging so that they generate sensible amounts of advertise revenue / sponsorship to make a living or else they will build a user base which might conceivably be seen as 'added value' if a fully fledged media company decides to buy them out and use the virtual real estate and pay a salary for the generation of future content.
The Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington don't quite fit any of these models. She became a born again blogger early on and, given her past, is extremely well connected at higher levels in Californian society. As a result she has beeen able to gain professional advice, as well as venture capital from people like Alan Patricof to help establish her political blog. According to Chaffin's article it is receiving in the region of 4 million unique users per month. The blog was founded in 2005 and is now one of the most popular political blogs.
There has apparently been much talk about expansion of the blog with the intention of establishing new sections. She is hoping to raise another $10-20 million dollars to back this expansion. some people are speculating that the site could be worth $200 million however this could be rather an overestimate for as Chaffin notes cautiously:
...the site is not consistently profitable .Bloggers have not yet proved they can convert traffic into advertising dollars. (Chaffin W/E FT p 11)
Naturally this argument was of interest because anybody trying to raise $10-20 million for a blog is redefining the meaning of the term which originally signified slightly geeky people whipping out their thoughts to the world which for the most part ignored them. Here Web 2.0 is turning into a serious media venture. OK the model doesn't precisely fit but it shows that there is venture capital money out there backing likely looking ventures and trying to establish new audiences interacting with media in different ways, which accords with the spirit of my argument. Certainly Jeff Jarvis has been impressed as Chaffin has noted in the FT:
"They laughed when Arianna sat down at the keyboard, but she was right, and she's built something pretty incredible," said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York who also writes a media blog, BuzzMachine.
So how does a site like this make money and how does it build its audience? these seem to be the critical questions for new media enterprises which makes them exactly the same as so-called old-media. Everything must change so that everything remains the same to paraphrase Lampedusa in The Leopard! Chaffin put it very clearly in an earlier FT commentary in 2007:
These days, Ms Huffington and her partners tend to recoil slightly when the Huffington Post is called a blog. To them, blogging is merely the latest technology tool to transform the news industry - just as cable television yielded CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. While that tool may be central to their success, their aim now is to expand the Huffington Post into a mainstream media business - a path that other blogs are also pursuing as the once-fledgling medium becomes more professionalised.
What Happens at the Huffington Post?
Well, with 4 million unique hits per month its a little hard to define the audience however to put the numbers in perspective the Guardian released its figures a couple of weeks ago and the numbers were in the 18 million range with the Daily Telegraph lagging not too far behind. Obviously a key difference between these well established British dailies which have developed parallel web-based facilities is that they have already got a brand name, a well developed regular readership and a well developed peripheral readership who probably buy / read the paper on an intermittent and possibly regular basis. I usually get a Monday Guardian for the media pages for example but the Weekend FT and the Independent occasionally as well. Yes they are available online but I actually like a hard copy especially on the train if I'm travelling that way.
Both the Guardian (8/10 Google ranking just for the blogs page ) and the Daily Telegraph (7/10 just for the blogs page)have developed blogs from some of their regular correspondents. So has the Financial Times (6/10 Google ranking) although the FT has a more sophisticated system for registering and providing online services primarily targetted at business users. There is then a parallel subscription service as well as the online advertising model that they all use. The BBC Blog Network (7/10 Google ranking) is a recentinitiative by the BBC to centralise all their blogs as well, to date people have been accessing them independently via links on the current newspages for example. Doubtless the Google ranking will rise as more people discover the page full of links to all areas of the BBC. As a regional paper the London based Evening Standard blogs page gains (6/10). Even a much smaller paper such as the Coventry Evening Telegraph blogs and forum page gains a Google 5/10 ranking. This quick research of the web based aspects of older media organisations shows that many if not most of them are in the process of making well organised transitions to a web based format runnng in parallel with the main services previously offered. With the exception of the BBC (for obvious reasons) all seemed to have a healthy balance of adverts, so advertising too is making a good transition to the web. None of the sites mentioned seemed to suffer from irritating pop-ups.
Obviously potential advertisers will be given access to at least some of the key analytics benchmarks in terms of not just number of hits but regulararity of use, and the most accessed columns and pages and how long users stay on them. The cost of advertising can then be worked out in a similar way to hard copy. Furthermore the greater the use the better the quality of advertisers drawn in which means better graphics, more amusing adverts etc. In reality good adverts provide users with a far better media experience and can prove to be an attraction rather than an irritant if they are well used.
Audiences for mainstream media sites in the UK seem to be strong. Remember 4 million hits per month is in the region of 120,000 hits per day and the problem with measuring who "unique" users are is difficult if people are not logged into the site's own system as then a regular visitor could be using the site from different computers. Chaffin reports that Huffington's site has 4 million unique users as measured by the analytics system but these cannot be totally accurate and it may be possible to "cookie" the books:
Authentication, either active or passive, is the most accurate way to track unique
visitors. However, because most sites do not require a user login, the
most predominant method of identifying unique visitors is via a persistent cookie
that stores and returns a unique id value. Because different methods are used to
track unique visitors, you should ask your tool provider how they calculate this
A unique visitor count is always associated with a time period (most often day, week,
or month), and it is a “non-additive” metric. This means that unique visitors can not
be added together over time, over page views, or over groups of content, because
one visitor can view multiple pages or make multiple visits in the time frame studied.
Their activity will be over-represented unless they are de-duplicated.
The deletion of cookies, whether 1st party or 3rd party, will cause unique visitors to
be inflated over the actual number of people visiting the site. Users that block
cookies may or may not be counted as unique visitors, and this metric is handled in
different ways depending on the analytics tool used. Ask your tool provider how
blocked cookies are managed in their tool: it is important to understand how this
impacts other metrics with regard to these visitors. (Web Analytics
Association Standards Definitions. My Emphasis)
What Future for the Huffington Site?
Huffington has been a social networker for decades gradually moving from right to left in the political spectrum, opportunism eclecticism if not 'me-ism' are the core values I suspect. Here's what one interested blog critic has to say:
The very things she has been mocked for over the years—her ability to shift swiftly from topic to topic, her swashbuckling political rhetoric, her penchant for attention-getting—are what the online world is all about. She’s found her home in the blogosphere.
Walking into the offices of the Huffington Post, I have a dizzying flashback to 1995: It’s an airy dot-com loft that—unlike, say, Air America, whose corporate cubicles we’d visited that morning—feels exceptionally well funded. Bright Pop Art splotches adorn the walls. Twenty-five-year-olds huddle on sofas eating takeout. There’s an MTV-logo-shaped fish tank in the lobby and a massive portrait of Muhammad Ali and, of course, a pool table. (Adam Ash Blog 2006)
As a consummate networker and has somebody who keeps churning out books over the years Huffington has gained something of a brand name and being an 'early adopter' along with some financial backing and a business plan has helped her to gain an online presence and she is clearly trying to compete with established media forms. The reality is that if one visits the Huffington Post site it is rather more than just a blog but laid out professionally with tags across the top and a range of pages dealing with things such as entertainment, business etc. Huffington on today's visit has her latest blog comment posted., with enough of her own characterful interpretations of whatever to attract a certain audience. The 'blog' is effectively an online newspaper which provides a range of links to other news sources. The front page has developed an excellent Google weighting of 8/10. This is only one point behind the BBC Online News Front Page which is currently 9/10. However these figures could exaggerate the Huffington site's importance because of the way search engines work.
Google reportedly has over 200 parameters when it assesses the importance of sites and pages within them via is web-bots. One aspect that Google values as good web 2.0 promotion is lots of linkages. It may well be that a more detailed analysis of the Huffington Post pages shows strong attention to this, certainly as something which is more parasitic in terms of largely acting as a hub and organising links this site's importance in real terms could be exaggerated. It is quite obvious that the web weighting by Google of Huffington Post is skewed when compared with the BBC. I don't know if the BBC release their web useage numbers broken down to the public but as it is probably one of the largest sites in the world if not the largest with thousands of pages available online. I strongly suspect that being based in California Huffington has a couple of smart tecchies working very hard on web optimisation, probably from an SEO optimisation consultancy. This would certainly fit in with Huffington's overblown real world persona.
Chaffin reports that The Huffington Post relies almost totally on news collected from other links although he managed to find an example of somebody who managed to upstage the professional news reporters. The reality is that Huffington swans around and a bunch of minions who know something about specific areas such as fashion, business or green issues sort out linkages. There are a few other bloggers on the site who presumably are regulars. Some bloggers will write for nothing as guest posts into order to advertise their own blogs. I suspect this is what Huffington gets, success berreds success and it drives down the cost of her content:
Sell Your Guest Posting Services:
Most bloggers write guest posts for other blogs for free as a way to promote their own blogs. However, you can also offer your guest posting services for a fee. (Make money blogging)
If that is the case it largely bears out my theory that the best bloggers will get sucked in to something else. Some advertising is via Google and others appears to be sponsored links. The site itself is keen to get registered users and the temptation to become registered is increased by some web marketing which offes lots of freebies, but you need to register first to access information about these!
Overall then overheads appear to be quite low compared to the sites of conventional organisations, in that sense it is a sort of parasite as it appears to contribute little to the public sphere as such merely act as a sort of hub and as an advertising vehicle. Whether this will prove to be a feasible new media business model remains to be seen. My interests are firmly in the range of already existing news organisations which are already developing excellent web based and new media systems. If I want continual updates I can connect with an RSS feed anyway.
My own suspicion is that once the intitial palaver about Web 2.0 / Media 2.0 dies down, things will gradually default to the mainstream media unless people like Huffington can compete for the highest quality analysts currently employed by the BBC / Guardian / New York Times etc. This though would mean money to put people into the field otherwise it hard to discern what the Huffington Post offers that can't be gained usually for nothing.
Once the hype is stripped out of the notion of Web 2.0 the issues of having the time to undertake all this possible interaction becomes paramount for most people. As for the Huffington site, well venture capitalists are usually working to a tight business plan. Real world businesses usually take 5 years on average to move into consistent profit, and the Huffington Post has been going for three. When venture capitalists are involved they are usually looking for an exit at a very high rate of profit (Return on Investement or ROI) and they are not known for being altruists. As with much about the web there is much hype and speculation. They are probably trying to get the revenue streams and user figures up in order to exaggerate the value of the site and then sell it on to some other media firm making a quick exit. This looks as bad an investment as ITV for the long-term, I quite simply don't believe it. I've more confidence in Second Life.
Please note I haven't put a link into the site quite deliberately, I don't want to push it further up the Google rankings and add "virtual value" to what is largely puff.
This morning's Media Guardian is carrying an interesting article on yet another business model for the record industry in the digital era. You too can become a venture capitalist. Well at least it could be more fun than being an investor in Northern Rock :-). (Health warning this isn't a recommendation).
Blogs get the old-media habit. Joshua Chaffin Financial Times
Deals Pioneer Gets Second Wind. Joshua Chaffin in Patricof the venture capitalist behing the Huffington Post and other technology start-ups
Happy-Go-Lucky(2008): Mike Leigh
Trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky from YouTube
I have just got the DVD of this film and sadly I wasn't too impressed despite generally liking the films of Mike Leigh. I have included a short synopsis of the reviews of other critics reactions to the film's theatrical release and have saved my own brief review until the end.
Synopis and Comment
Mike Leigh's latest film Happy-Go-Lucky is now on general release. It has proved successful in the recent Berlin film festival with Sally Hawkins who plays the lead role of Poppy picking up a Silver Bear. The film is promoted as a comedy drama which focuses upon the character of Poppy a London based 30 year old single primary school teacher. Poppy is a a cosmopolitan urbanite who takes life lightly but seriously. In fact she is "absurdly cheery" (McNab) in the face of life's minor set-backs such as getting her bicycle stolen. (Surely not a reference to Bicycle Thieves.)
Despite this 'comic' (idiotic?) side to her and the ability to be comic in the face of adversity is balanced with her commitment to good teaching and a stated concern about issues such as children 'playing too much on video-games' (Hopefully Leigh isn't contributing to moral panics about children's media consumption here).
Dave Calhoun in a Sight and Sound feature (May 08) has commented that Poppy, the central character of the film, needs to be analysed in relation to the Zeitgeist when as viewers we consider her actions and behaviour. He quotes an interview with Mike Leigh:
I don't think Happy-Go-Lucky is any less political than my other films... its as much about dealing with life and coping with issues as anything I've made.
If it is a Zeitgeist film Leigh would argue it represents a humanistic solidarity with fellow beings at a time when in a post-political (in a party sense) world there is little else one can do. After all it's hard to rise above the cynicism and disappointment displayed by an older man of late sixties in the bank in front of me expressing his horror at how the banks had been bailed out by a Labour government of all things. Well Poppy is clearly a survivor in a topsy turvy world. Calhoun describes Poppy as:
...a modern, urban woman, as comfortable with her friends as with her family, able to balance pleasure with work, and confidant in being single while retaining romantic ideals.
Importantly Calhoun is pointing out that underneath Poppy's extremely lively 'in yer face' character there is an issue of whether she is repressing something or trying to compensate for a fundamental insecurity. Many critics have described this as a comedy and then argued that this is a change of heart from Leigh who is often held up as a "miserablist".
Leigh comments that the structure is different to his other films in that there is really no parallel narrative unfolding:
The only thing that makes this film unique apart from two tiny scenes, there's no parallel action. The entire action focuses on what's happening to Poppy, whereas even in Naked there's a lot going on with other characters.
This change in narrative structuring is a significant break from Leigh's normal working practices where he tends to work in a semi-improvised way with the actors who are often only introduced to the turns in events in the story as they would happen to the character in real life. It is an important break for as Leigh points out:
Rather than a causal narrative, here I'm more concerned with a cumulative narrative that evokes an atmosphere and evokes Poppy's spirit.
The review in Sight and Sound by Geoffrey McNab makes the important comparison between the picture postcard London promoted by Working Title produced films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill. Unlike these films Leigh notes the racism and also the racial and ethnic complexity of London. This makes a film which is giving a more honest representation of Britain rather than being a film which is a cultured British pearl for the American market, this is 'True Grit' one might say.
McNab makes a comparison between the permanently ebullient Poppy and Vera Drake in Leigh's film Vera Drake. For him there is a certain näivety yet ability to empathise with people common to both characters. At the same time Poppy appears to want to avoid responsibility. This is sharply pointed up when her pregnant sister Helen who is less than satisfied with her lot pressurises Poppy about marriage and a family: Poppy though, is having none of it. This would appear to be the Zeitgeist, if you can't change much better to think about the present than the future. Is this a Leigh critique of the postmodern condition?
Not everybody agrees with David Calhoun's interpretations of Mike Leigh and his approaches to this film and others in his oeuvre. The 'Letter of the Month' in the July issue of Sight and Sound is scathingly critical of Leigh:
Happy Go Lucky is about as accurate a study of British society as Four Weddings and a Funeral (David Secombe Sight & Sound July 2008 p 96)
Secombe continues arguing that Leigh is a middle class film maker making films for the middle classes. He bases the argument on the notions that Poppy is nothing like any primary school teacher despite the fact that:
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
After spending some time commenting on what a change this makes for Mike Leigh the "miserabilist" the Channel Four reviewer sees the film in a rather less misanthropic light:
Poppy is the perfect primary school teacher. Her character's realism is found in memories of that supply teacher everyone once had, when their regular and boring teacher got pregnant or went to Pompeii, the one who let you do projects on space aliens and collect woodlice. Yet somehow you remember every word she said while the rest of those years are a Tudors-and-fractions blur.
The Telegraph reviewer argues that:
Leigh [admits that he] set himself a challenge: to make Poppy initially irritating, and then to allow her goodness to win audiences round. He embarks on this task subtly.
The divergence of opinions can perhaps be put down to everybody's memories of primary school teachers. Remember to bring yur memories with you when you get to the the film. I can't say I've really considere Leigh as a miserabilist anyway rather more an astutue observer who works in a sort of 'tragicomedy of the quotidian'.
When it come to thinking about the state of British cinema in general the interview with Calhoun ends with some thoughts about what Leigh would like to make in the future. He expresses frustration with the fact that he can only access budgets of 5-6 million. Talking about a desire to use a larger canvas his metaphor becomes very obvious when he talks about wishing to make a film about Turner, nobody, he says is interested. He admits that his ways of working haven't proved attractive to financiers and here one is remonded of Godard's Le Mepris with its ironic critique of an American producer trying to work in sex at the right point to make the film sell. Godard's film of course ended up a long way from what was being expected by his producers.
Strange that in these days when appaerently the notion of 'cultural industries' is accompanied by notions of getting British identity up and running again that it appears to be impossible for a well respected film maker to be able to make a film about an iconic and extremly important painter. Turner certainly preceded the French Impressionists when is came to being modern as he applied some of Goethe's theories of colour into his work amongst other things but then of course the Olympics in already into its expected tripled cost overrun, which will doubtless keep the consultants happy if not the taxpayer. As for Mike Leigh making a film on Turner.....
Special Preview Performance Q & A with Mike Leigh on Happy-go-Lucky
Having summarised some of the issues around Happy-go-Lucky identified by other reviewers when the film had a thaetrical release I have now had a chance to view the recently released DVD. I must say I found the film extremely disappointing. Admittedly I have high expectations for mike Leigh films and Abigail's Party (TV Play), Meantime, Secrets and Lies & Vera Drake are outstanding examples of his oeuvre over the years. This film bored and irritated me in roughly equal amounts.
There were some splendid examples of Leigh at his best when he brings a sense of shock to the actors which tranmits itself onto the screen because of the way he works. The Flamenco teacher was splendid, the scene at the house of Poppy's sister Helen worked brilliantly and the Eddie Marsden driving instructor was generally excellent.
By comparison the character of Poppy quite simply didn't add up. There is a difference between being 'happy-go-lucky' and a complete airhead. For most of the film Poppy was a complete immature airhead. There was a clear disjunction between Poppy as represented in her professional life as a primary school teacher and her life outside. There has been much made of Poppy's warmth, empathy etc by Leigh & Hawkins in interviews on the DVD as well as by some of the reviewers above. I totally don't buy into this idea at all.
Poppy is intensely irritating, unserious in terms of her own future and unserious when she takes the role of a student. She is a total clown in both the Flamenco class and in the driving lessons. Far from being warm and empathetic she is totally self-obsessed and I find it hard to disagree with the comments from the letter of the month in Sight and Sound
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
Whilst Leigh makes a virtue of there being non-parallel actions within the narrative and a lack of causality this would be fine if the scenes such as the one with the tramp actually advanced some depth of character. The scene with the tramp is totally artificial. Poppy is going down a rough looking street at night and then hears some drunken singing offscreen. she follows this sound into a derelict factory which is apparently open to all the world and finds a tramp behind a pillar. no-one in thier right mind would have domne this in the first place as it wouldn't have been possible to see properly. Later in the scene after the tramp has changed positions there appear to security lights blasting out in the same derelict factory. OK so McNab's point that this isn't the tourist gaze of London is correct but this representation of the seamy side doesn't really come across well.
From the outset Poppy is the sort of person you want to shake some sense into. Her visit to the bookshop in the opening scenes represents her as a complete idiot. She displayed no interest in any books whatsoever and seemed intent on trying out some light flirting with the bloke running the shop who was entirely bored by her. Poppy's playing with chicken fillets as breast enhancers with her mates after the night club when they carried on drinking to the point of stupefaction is clearly what we expect from 30 year old professionals. What was more astounding if not surrealistic was the ability of her and her friends to make miraculous recoveries after a heavy night. Poppy was a complete idiot when she got into the car for the first time with the driving instructor and carried on being an idiot. Poppy was also a complete clown when she turned up at the Flamenco sessions. This kind of a approach is unlikely to say the least from someone who is a practitioner in the educational system. She was behaving throughout like an immature office worker with no education at all and flirting with all and sundry. Had she not been a primary school teacher then the character added up, but Leigh by wanting to have it both ways and giving Poppy hidden depths in her professional life ends with a character that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Meet her in a pub and you'd probably be bored out of your head in two minutes. No she wasn't a malicious character but so what?
Even when there is a danger of Poppy entering serious discussions, such as when discussing the issue of children and video games or issues of parental responsibility for their children after a hard day at work, she skims the surface. The scene in Helen's house was sterotypical in terms of its content, with the sort of sharp binary positions being displayed which might have shocked in a 1960s play but just seem old hat nowadays. Poppy defends her freedoms from being tied down with a house and children against her sister who seems to be stuck out in an amorphous suburbia and is nearly 9 months pregnant. Helen is even made to act like a 70 something year old as is made up and dressed in an appropriate manner which again just didn't gel. Poppy even scorns a pension, except that as a teacher she would get a pension deducted from her salary anyway. Inexact detail lke this irritated.
In the past Leigh has been a master at creating quirky characters but believable ones not -as a correspondent in the September letters column of Sight and Sound suggests - surreal characters. People do not behave like automatons and Leigh has brought out this aspect of life significantly in the past. Leigh is associated with realism rather than naturalism but it has been a realism at the micro level which has focused upon the the dynamics of relationships between people and their individual choices rather than a realism such as Loach's which is always trying to strip bare the surface of the social world and identify and challenge what the structuring agencies within society are.
For me Poppy just didn't add up as a character. Her liberal ideas seemed to be without foundation and it is hard to believe that a person who had worked her way around the World as a teacher with sessions in Vietnam and sometimes classes of 60 wouldn't by the age of 30 have some deeper things to say. At times too there was a sort of faux-naivety in her dealings with other people. Far form being warm and empathetic she totally fails to understand the driving instructor, and the scene with the physiotherapist was ridiculous. Her flirty innuendos are fine coming from an 18 year old but they just made Poppy look stupid. Does the argument that Leigh is a surrealist save this film by giving it a different reading? I don't think so. Certainly Leigh is able to appreciate the surreality of the quotidian but the defense that Leigh and Hawkins put up in defence of Poppy's character scupper this idea from the outset.
In the end this film was disappointing and frequently bordered on the vacuous despite being interspersed with some good sections. The films of Leigh's that I'm familair with and mentioned above are far more worthwhile and it is worth adding High Hopes to the list as well. I'm a little surprised that the reviewers have been as soft on the film as they have. Maybe I'm turning into a complete misanthrope but I can't remember anything in it which struck me as funny. This isn't to say that there wasn't an enormous amount of skill and effort involved. Hawkins was great at making you sqirm, its just that the character as originally conceived didn't gel leaving an impossible task for the actor. There is nothing very satisfactory in this film in terms of the relationships. The central interaction between Poppy and the driving instructor was also difficult to buy into, if you have ever actually taught anybody to drive. The best one can say of this was that it was a representation of post-modern pap skimming the surface and skittering onto the next thing, certainly it lacked depth despite sympathetic reviewers trying to root it out. There are quite literally hundreds of good films to see and spend time and money on, sadly this wasn't one of them.
Independent review Johnathan Romney
Independent Sarah Sands on Happy-Go-Lucky
BBC on Happy-Go-Lucky with video interview available.