A toast to Semantic Web

Not really. Semantic Web is one of those things that have a grain of a great idea but fail miserably in execution. Its failings arise from asking its constituency - content authors and publishers - to do something unnatural with little incentive or help by way of tools that fit into existing workflows.

A good idea is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful platform. You need to line up the incentives for your target audience; make it worth their while. And as importantly, you need to provide tools, patterns etc. to get your platform into people's natural development processes and habits.

Semantic Web has therefore been supplanted by lesser powerful but good enough technologies, namely your friendly neighborhood search engines. They do a reasonably good job locating names, places, reviews, etc. Of courses there's room for improvement, but the latent demand isn't nearly enough to warrant unnatural actions such as Semantic Web requires. This is notwithstanding tireless advocates.

Moral of the story? Any platform/framework/pattern that:

  1. requires you to do something unnatural,
  2. doesn’t fit into your workflow / tools,
  3. provides you little incentive to change status quo
is toast. Even if it is borne out of a great idea.

Notice the "...and drops a coin..."? More about the Notificator here and a web version here.

The only business model I see in Twitter (and its ilk) is of being bought by one of the big fish, perhaps for their data. This is probably why they're in no hurry to reveal how they're going to monetize the site. They're perfectly willing to ride the current wave of buzz in the mass media until some sucker shows up with wads of cash.

Gradually... then suddenly

The silence at the demise of the Seattle PI - one of only 2 major dailies in this area - was deafening. Yes there were a few blog posts with "I told you so" or "bloggers are the new reporters" garbage. Yes there was that persistent refrain about Seattle being a "one newspaper town" on the way to a "no newspaper town". The media loves to talk about itself; but never in any breadth or depth that truly matters. Stop this cliched garbage, please. How about something a little more substantive - even analytical perhaps?

Tren Griffin - one of the characters that makes Microsoft such a great place to work - says that newspapers are doomed because news content is non-rival and non-excludable. He is right. The newspapers dug a good portion of their grave by conditioning us all into getting stuff for free; and deluding themselves that they can have high operating incomes from online ad sales. Craigslist and Google also played small parts in shovel duty.

But what about blogs? Did they play a role in killing newspapers? I don't think so. Bloggers with their large egos may choose to believe this. But they're kidding no one when they claim people get their news from blogs. That's like saying I get all my oxygen on my commutes from the car a/c. Please.

Regardless, now an institution that fosters transparency and further accountability is dying. The big fish will find a way to cobble together alliances, get investors to suspend disbelief and survive for some more time. Its the local rag that is toast. Sucks for us. No more oversight on our local officials, teachers, law breakers and enforcers.

But there are other consequences too. I'm curious how the public relations industry adjusts to this. Lefsetz gets what few recognize:

[there is a] SEA CHANGE in publicity/image-making. In other words, you can no longer spin the public. You can have friends in the press, but didn’t you hear that newspapers are dying?

So you have to ask yourself what you’re selling, and focus on THAT!

I don't think we've quite grasped what changes are in store for us. Having the luxury of newspapers for a century has conditioned us into not thinking of what its like to have a world without them. To paraphrase Hemingway, the demise of newspapers happened gradually... then suddenly.

Attention to Detail == Differentiation strategy

Michael Porter has argued that you need differentiation as much as you need operating efficiency for a sustainable competitive advantage. Most companies get the latter; in fact incorrectly associate good strategy with having a cost advantage against competitors, only to their detriment. They ignore the value of doing things differently than their competition.

I've noticed many cases where the central idea cited as differentiation isn't "moat"-grade but yet the company enjoys the fruits of the strategy unimpeded. [I am using "moat" as Warren Buffet likes to use it to indicate the economic moat of a company, similar to moats in medieval fortresses that made it difficult to penetrate.] This is likely due to things like core competence and corporate DNA at play. I think attention to detail is one example of such an elusive competence.

Mark Cuban talks about an epiphany with newspapers asking for a payment via envelope several times a year, each time giving you an opportunity to rethink this relationship, when they could just go the Amazon route and have your credit card on file. This is an area where Amazon does most of the things you're supposed to to: have low prices, low COGs etc. but also does what few others grok i.e. systematically remove all barriers in the way from desire to purchase.

Having your card on file is just one piece of the puzzle; lots of other online merchants do that. Most don't; especially the brick and mortar ones, likely because it is hard to get that level of customer trust. But customers trust their utilities with their cards. Most newspapers are currently consumed by thinking of ways to achieve operating efficiency. It is thought to be their only chance of survival. By paying attention to detail, Amazon removes the systemic hurdles that exist for a shopper from desire to purchase. It does things that keep it from being thought of as just another store. Perhaps not for the sake of differentiation, but because this is the outcome of having focused thought on carving out a niche.

Another example I recently stumbled upon was how each of the three big search engine players position their advertising solutions. Search engines are "free parking" for the cash cow that is advertising, much like malls and fast food joints have free parking for shoppers. One assumes that search engine providers are highly incentivized to put on their best face for what's effectively their store front. Here's what you see when you search for "google advertising":
And here's the "yahoo advertising" page:
and here's the "microsoft advertising" page:
The last one can do with a little more attention to detail. For one, as a multisided market, it needs to do a better job delineating the entry portals for each of its customers: the publishers and the advertisers. For another, there's a lot going on in that page that has no correlation to happier user experience.

What's Stephen Thinking Now?

A study by OSU threesome on what people thought of Stephen Colbert reveals:

[...] individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

This is just comedy gold!

Zero-Infinity Dilemma

A zero-infinity dilemma is a situation where the probability of occurence is tiny while the consequences are enormous. It is typically used in cost-benefit and risk analysis, however in this case the "zero" refers to the risk and the "infinity" refers to the cost.

A common reference of this dilemma has been when characterizing the choice of nuclear power: the risk of a mishap is incredibly small (close to zero) but if one does occur, the cost and repurcussions are infinitely large.