Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inside the Google moat

Published in the Post Register Oct. 4, 2009.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – There was a gathering last week of a bunch of old-media troglodytes within the moats of the new media’s top kingdom – Google.

We filled an auditorium-style conference room in Building No. 40 of the “Googleplex”, a campus one speaker called “shiny.” We listened to folks from, yes, Google, but mostly elsewhere, including Microsoft, Salon, CNN, Yahoo and various academic circles.

Here’s one of the takeaways from the meetings: The sheer volume of information coming at us will continue to grow astronomically, but there are two fundamental challenges that must be met soon:

First, information consumers need more help managing what they receive.

Second, providers of information need to find a sustainable business model.

It should come as no surprise, but these are the big topics inside places like Google and Microsoft and the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. The problem for news consumers isn’t access to information – it’s managing that information. Companies are feverishly working on building tools to help you do this.

The process of sifting through the information overload, vetting it for accuracy, putting it into perspective and disseminating it in a usable format already has a name, of course: journalism. What so many in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere are trying to do is create algorithms and computer code to replace the vital function already served, admittedly imperfectly, by human beings. But can we really expect to automate this process?

No, I think not.

As Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey wrote in his coverage of the conference:
“ … one Google executive, Bradley Horowitz, also acknowledged that consumers might be drowning in media, e-mail and the 'social stream.'

“So maybe, even in the age of Google, consumers are looking for someone to help cut through all the clutter to get at the important facts.

“Sounds to me like they're looking for a journalist.”
One speaker at the summit was Tara Hunt, a young woman who wrote a book called “The Whuffie Factor” (don’t ask), which is about social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Her basic point was, and I quote from her slide show: “If you can succeed in making your readers feel smarter, more in control, sexier, excited and more interesting themselves, then you will win.”

I am trying to figure out how to work that into a new marketing slogan for the Post Register.

One speaker defined news as “what happened.” This is a frightfully simplistic view that ignores the who, when, where, why and how.

The best line of the conference came from Blair Westlake, a vice president at Microsoft: “People associate the Internet with free like they associate deep fried with fatty." And therein lies the rub.

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