Wednesday, 28 November 2012

E-books: A library in the palm of your hand

As a English Literature student, I have always held a slightly pretentious and snobbishly traditional view towards the 'craze' of the eBook; nothing will ever beat the satisfaction of holding a good, paper-back book. However, with the increase in appealing and impressive technology that support eBooks, such as the the Apple ipad and the Amazon Kindle Fire, especially with their access to the web and app accessibility,  I can't help but be intrigued by the device!

The popularity of e-books can be obviously seen in the statistics. The Association of American Publishers reported that in the first quarter of 2012, adult eBook sales were up to $282.3 million while adult hardcover sales came to only $229.6 million. In last year's first quarter, hardcover sales accounted for $223 million sales while eBooks logged $220.4 million.

With my reluctance to embrace the new world of literature online, I have missed out on many of the advantages of the eBook. For a start, the availability and range of eBooks are staggering, with over 2 million being absolutely free. You are only limited by the memory capacity of your device; a tablet that you can hold in one hand is a lot less hassle than the impossibility of carrying around thousands of paper-back books. Furthermore, eBook websites can include the ability to translate books into many different languages, making the works available to speakers of languages not covered by printed translations. And best of all, while an eBook reader costs much more than one book, the electronic texts can be cheaper, and many of the classics are free.

There is also a kind of satisfaction, merging on an obsession, of collecting eBooks; once you start it is very hard to stop. They are easy to buy and download, as well as filling up your iPad with loads of thumbnails and interesting time-wasting buttons to press.

I believe that this is just the beginning of the eBook; it has a much greater and expansive live ahead of it. Of course traditional books will never die out (I hope at least not in my life time). It will evolve in unexpected ways just as the music industry has evolved and adapted. Its ease and convenience will make it an unstoppable phenomenon.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

On-Demand and Catch-Up Services

 The internet has revolutionised so many areas of people’s everyday lives. It has changed the way we find and share information, communicate, and keep up to date with the latest news. Often overlooked is a fourth fascinating area that the internet has transformed: TV.

I remember a time when my parents would check the TV guide before going on a night out in case there was something on that they wanted videotaping. Just 10 years on, thinking back to that era makes me realise how antiquated and practically medieval the technology we used then was. I can imagine our children will laugh (the same way we laugh at our parents when they talk about having mobile phones the size of bricks) when we tell them that in the old days if you missed EastEnders and hadn’t remembered to but a tape on you missed it completely.

The advent of on-demand and catch-up services has been revolutionary for the TV industry. All major channels now have on-demand services. BBC’s iPlayer was first launched (excluding beta forms) in December 2007, just four years ago. A relatively short period has seen a massive expansion in this field and, as more people are switching on to the opportunities these innovative facilities provide, it has become impossible to ignore the trend. This has lead to a recent re-vamp for many channels as they work to make their on-demand services more efficient, instant and accessible.

How is this changing the industry though? Firstly, it means that advertisers are following viewers, increasingly putting more of their budgets into online. It also means that programmes are able to reach a wider audience, as viewers no longer have to choose between X Factor and Strictly – they can see both. Finally, as more on-demand services bring out apps for smart phones, TV has become more portable than ever before.

All this sounds great in theory. The problem is that it encourages ‘binge viewing’. I’d go so far as to say that iPlayer is detrimental to my degree. I watch so much stuff online that I just wouldn’t stay in for if it was only on TV. I didn’t just watch Sunday’s ‘I’m a Celebrity’ because I am entertained by c-list personalities sticking their hands into unknown concoctions of bugs (although watching Colin getting nipped by a crab was pretty funny), I watched it because I’m bored and it appeals more than starting that essay for Writing Society. For me, it’s a love-hate relationship. It’s great that I never miss anything, but sometimes I wonder how much I would really be missing (and how many more Firsts I would get) if Facebook, Twitter and iPlayer just went away.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Well there's no explanation necessary here, is there?

Facebook is actually quite a bit older than you'd imagine, becoming an incorporated company in 2004, and being founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Originally Facebook was only open to students of Harvard university, and mirroring its popularity today, half the undergraduate population were registered within the first month. So how has Facebook gone from such a small, localised scale to operating on the vast, global scale it does today?

Becoming gradually more and more open, first to other Ivy League institutions and then to employees of Apple inc. and Microsoft, shares in Facebook were bought by Microsoft in 2007. This was arguably the point at which its growth began to accelerate rapidly, and also when it was opened to anybody aged over 13. From this point onwards, it became a phenomenon among teenagers, and was the point Facebook went from being a form of recreation to a global commercial enterprise.

Facebook has changed the lives of many forever, particularly university students, although do the positives outweigh the negatives? It's fun, and useful for seeing what your friends are up to and where they are. But it's also a time waster and the most popular form of procrastination. Most do not think about the implications of what they post on Facebook, indeed people losing their jobs through regretful posts have become all too common. There is also the huge issue of young people using Facebook, who are often lulled into a false sense of security by the privacy settings, which still don't make Facebook as private as it may seem.

In short, Facebook has definitely had a positive effect on our social lives, but on other aspects? If you ask me, it's caused nothing but trouble.

Property on the high seas

Piracy is a big thing. It’s revolutionising the way we consume media, almost. Well it would be if we weren’t being held back by out of touch record executives and publishing companies. The digital revolution allows us to produce infinite amounts of media. The only limit is the storage available and an internet connection. We have successfully removed most of the barriers of entry consuming art, and we condemn this?

I am no way saying the artist doesn’t deserve money, that the costs of production should be funded by charity. But there are alternative funding methods over the standard pay for product (which most of the time we don’t actually own) yet we are continually condemning the pirates who seek to “steal” from the artists. Buying a record typically gets the artist 10%-20% of the album price. You are paying for the advertisement, the opportunity for the artist to record it and the opportunity for them to be recognised as good by a record company.

Yet you can record music for cheaper than ever before, a good HD camera and editing software will set you back less than £500, there are free game creators creating amazing products (see Spelunky for one of the best, it’s a stupidly huge made on gmaemaker), self-publishing is incredibly cheap for novels and it’s easier than ever to find good content through forums, youtube and social media.

So tell me again the amazing job the publisher does? That huge amount of money they take for their incredible service they provide. It’s outdated, it’s dying and good riddance, yet they continue to limit distribution channels for other methods. Torrenting is the number one method of pirating yes, but it is the fastest file transfer system which put it there in the first place. I’m not claiming it is morally right to illegally download files, but by associating torrenting=piracy you’ve illegitimated a fantastic way of artist who can’t afford a download server for their content a stigma against the way they distribute. I’m nervous this will be turn into a rant, so I will swiftly move on.
It’s all very well claiming I want cheap/free content, but how would I improve the current system:
-          Content should be simultaneously released, it’s the World Wide Web and this has plagued TV shows and games hugely. If you’re going to make some regions wait months to get content, you can’t blame them that they will stream/download you’re content which you’ve failed to make available
-          Make it cheap. The cost of production is high. Once it exists it has basically no cost. Why are we still being charged for John Wyndham’s works at £5 each, he’s not only dead but it costs nothing to give me a copy of the book.
-          Sort out copyright laws. Infinite extensions aren’t funny, Tolkien I’m looking at you. Warner Brothers has a record of suing projects seeking to use the huge amount of law (which is all copyrighted, even the notes which have merged from his son and several high profile fans and are not original work). The two most famous examples are a free mod for TES: Skyrim and the famous Southampton pub The Hobbit. Copyright needs to expire on death or after a fixed point in time so everyone else can enjoy the art.
-          Give us ownership. If I want a song on all 5 of my ipods Apple you can’t stop me, you sold it to me, it’s now mine.

This stuff works. But the important part is offering a service better than the pirates, something to be paid for. While it has been argued this goes above and beyond what the artist should be doing, but if you can offer (see Steam blog post for how great this all is) an extra service on top of the content you will get more viewers. I realise this is going on a bit now, but Spotify is a fantastic example. Unlimited content on the cheap is a step in the right direction. It allows a monetisation on casual listening without giving up ownership of the song. Also look up Valve in Russia, it manages to crack a hard market covered in piracy by allowing non credit card payments and setting up servers to enable fast download of it’s games. The consumption rate exploded. Similarly in China and gathering pace in the rest of the world are Free to Play games, you pay for a sexy hat or in the worst examples extra power in games and the core experience is free.

Apologies for the amount of game related posts, it’s where my interests really lie but you can apply this to most media markets

Till next time


Monday, 19 November 2012

Historically, networking revolutions have always been accompanied by either the advent of new technology or the widening of participation in a pre-existing form. With over 8 million unique visitors a month, YouTube is at the pinnacle of video distribution on the internet, whether the sites main goal is to educate, entertain or monopolise the market for feline pianists, is a somewhat debatable topic.

To truly understand the phenomenon of Youtube, a company that has been in existence for only 7 years, we should start at the roots - founded by three former PayPal employees in 2005 the creators claim that a failed attempt to share videos at a dinner party inspired the site. A dream vision in which anybody could, with ease, upload, share and view video and sound content with no cost to the end user.

This cyber soap-box, through which film makers can educate or inspire, blog, journalise and showcase all manner of bizarre talents, has taken the recent trend of self promotion, megalomania and the eternal hunt for 15 minutes of fame, to the masses. Whilst it's true that some careers have been launched or augmented by Youtube (Bo Burnham and that Guy who sings chocolate rain), and the site does, on occasion, unite the country in a shared sense of wonder (e.g SuBo, Lucy Spraggan and that finger biting fiend Charlie) and that the site allows expert speakers to appear in classrooms all over the world (I'd have never learnt the mento/diet coke trick without it...), the main uses of Youtube seem to remain mundane; Rikrolling, defending Britney Spears and convincing the world that gingers do indeed have souls.

Until recently Youtube has been found lacking when compared to simpler networking sites, Tumblr, Facebook and most prominently Twitter, have all found themselves in the centre of real, world changing, cultural events. The Arab Spring, the fight against Super Injunctions and the changes in how political campaigns are acted out, and interacted with, have all been catalysed by other such websites. It was not until the video launch of the KONY campaign *insert dramatic chipmunk here*, which has since dissipated behind a miasma of ethical concerns, that Youtube took to the stage: the failings of that film being endemic within the medium - it is very difficult to promote a good cause, political ideology or skill through 1 on 1 video making without appearing self important and undermining your content.

On that note, I'm off to watch a Panda Sneeze. Repeatedly. For Hours.

Steam – Facebook’s nerdier, shyer and richer brother

Firstly, I imagine the majority of you, along with my group, are thinking what is Steam? I’ve never heard of it! Oh uneducated one, Steam is wonderful, Steam is the future, Steam is far too geeky for me to be this excited about. It started as a digital distribution platform, somewhere PC gamers can download games straight over the internet instead of normal hard copy purchases. It has then expanded into what one can argue is a social network with chat rooms, user submissions and unprecedented peer interaction and continues to evolve.
Steam currently has over 50 million users, with around 6 million concurrent at peak times. This is tiny compared to Facebook but for a gaming platform is huge. It’s estimated it holds around 70% of the digital download market, which is currently rapidly expanding as users gain faster and more reliable internet speeds.

What’s interesting about Steam when compared to other sites is it is the reverse of other social networks in the way it has been monetised. Because it was created as a store first and foremost, the revenue stream is already in place. Designed to counter the increasing piracy in the game market, Valve (its creators) combat this by adding value to games instead of restricting as the music and film industries do. While you are restricted by having to use Steam, by providing free voice chat servers, community pages and all the updates to the game in one place they increase the end product. This has been extremely successful for them as seen by its rapid expansion.

Why do I claim it’s a social network though? Firstly, community content is currently exploding. It allows users to create content for the games which can then either be downloaded (Skyrim, Civilisation 5) or in the case of Team Fortress 2 (go look it up!) selected content is sold by Valve and the profits split with the creator. Not only is this adding huge value to each game, but it has led to some immense group projects all collaborated on through Steam and associated forums.

Secondly, the actual community pages contain youtube videos, screenshots and even the occasional poem about the game. Team Fortress currently has 7 million pictures, videos and articles created and submitted by players. Furthermore, far too many clans and gaming groups all exist to play on various community owned servers from train simulators to Call of Duty.

What I think is brilliant is the level of focus. I’m not saying you should go and download Steam when you get home; it is definitely a network by gamers for gamers (there are however several amazing free games, go and look at Alien Swarm, TF2 and DOTA2). Because everyone is there for the same purpose, to buy and play games, I find myself with a combination of strangers and real life friends simply there to enjoy gaming. While you get the occasional ‘troll’, the self-run nature of the network means they are few and far between, you can choose who you want to play with and talk to.

Anyway, I set my group the daunting challenge of actually having to research (and hopefully play) Steam, let’s see how they do.


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tumblr: Follow the World's Creators

For artists, writers, and the rest of the creative population the Internet is becoming a very interesting place to be.  With sites like RedBubble, DeviantART and Society6 individuals are being given the opportunity to get out there and be seen.  Yet one of the most interesting places on the net at the minute is Tumblr, all you have to do is go to the homepage and see the words ‘follow the world’s creators’ to know that you have found something that isn’t going to generate the general sarcasm and rolling of the eyes that Facebook can on a day to day basis.

Tumblr combines the things I love in one place: art, fandom and community. Tumblr is a microblogging platform that goes beyond Twitter, it goes a little bit deeper than that, it enables users to post images, videos, music without the emphasis on it being a social network.  You don’t comment on posts, you reblog them and manipulate them to your own view; you add your ideas or you add your emotional reaction (usually by a GIF of David Tennant crying in the rain).  You don’t have friends, you have followers, although a follower on Tumblr often has a greater kinship with you than a follower on Twitter might, and you don’t even send messages, you ask questions.  Tumblr is where the interesting and the intelligent get to meet and be creative.

It’s also a place of discovery.  Tumblr is not based upon who you’re friends with or celebrities, it’s about your interests, the things you love, and because of that you are able to build on that because you’re connecting with people who love them too.  I have read books that I never would have thought to read because someone has posted a quote from them on their Tumblr.  

It’s also an incredible platform for getting yourself out there and known, especially if you want to get into the creative industries.  The features of tracked tags and reblogging creates a chain of people seeing and further passing on your ideas and images, enabling any individual to get their work out there with ease.  I really wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was not originally generated by the idea of chain mail, but with an actual gain for all involved.

An average day on Tumblr can see someone post quotes from Sylvia Plath, their latest oil painting and then five minutes later GIFs of foxes bouncing on a trampoline.  It’s a very funny, strange corner of the Internet, but it’s where exciting things are happening and I would have it over Facebook and Twitter any day.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Twitter: here to stay

Few would dispute that Twitter is the most successful social medium around. It has over 500 million active users as of 2012, generating over 340 million tweets and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day. The microblogging application, which enables anyone with Internet access to issue short public messages has enjoyed stunning growth that has dwarfed other digital phenomenon such as Facebook. An increasing number of companies are employing Twitter to communicate and bond with customers and employees, and an account is seeming a necessity in the digital age.

Posting on the internet is now the modern PR. As well as the social interaction twitter provides, its uses extend into business and politics. Trends are a great way of keeping up to date with current affirs, and provide a great way of gaining and sharing information. However, 140 characters is a very small quantity for such communication.

Safety and privacy are cope with well by Twitter. Cyberstalking victims can indeed use it and feel safe and secure by using some of Twitter’s privacy settings. For example, you can confirm the people that follow you, and you select who you follow, allowing you to manage your social circles.

Who owns what on Twitter is currently an issue that is the focus of a battle Twitter is waging with a New York State judge. Twitter says that it makes it clear in its terms of services that users own their content, and all that personal information. The court says Twitter does, and should hand them over when subpoenaed.

Something like Twitter is definitely here to stay. This micro-announcement service does serve two needs: to post updates with low overhead and to follow a concise stream of updates. Thus, it has become necessary not only to individuals but also companies. It is not just social media, but an essential resource: a way to keep in touch with what is happening locally, nationally and internationally. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

What is the real price of Facebook?

 Today we’d be hard pressed to deny that to the public, Facebook is pretty much priceless, playing an undeniably large part in our daily lives. It allows both the public and companies to network efficiently, opening up new opportunities and options in both our personal and professional lives that would otherwise take anything from weeks to months. These new opportunities are created by driving visitors towards a particular website, offering a facility to regenerate old friendships, and providing a platform to forge new mutually beneficial relationships to further social or professional ends. In addition to this, Facebook is a driving force in the day-to-day organisation of events, and distribution of information.

However, the question must be asked: what is the real price of this freedom of communication? It cannot be denied that one of the most attractive things about Zuckerburg’s site is the lack of fee to be paid. However, this supposed benefit comes at the price of advertisements on every page we access through our browsers. Personally, I don’t even notice the adverts any more, they seem to merge into the background and overall setup of Facebook, but it seems that in the near future there is the potential for a huge increase in this encroachment on space of our computer screens.

In order to make a profit, Facebook faces the challenge of convincing investing companies and agencies that “a message from a friend” is the best form of advertising for their product or service. Facebook is undoubtedly an incredibly effective platform for the promotion of products- with an inexhaustible supply of eyes around the world constantly on the site. Because of this, it is expected to be an advertising machine. While companies such as Google take advertising to a new level- offering a technological solution to enable lots of people to place ads easily (by bidding for key words or the space next to these words- immediately placing said ad next to the key word all over the web), Facebook has employed what seems to be a rather standard mode of advertising. This has recently led the company to be on a knife edge of failure or success.

The problem with Facebook’s mode of advertising is that they constantly devalue investor’s products, trying to fit as many on a page as possible. This is a response to the ever increasing traffic that the website experiences. The lowering prices of ads against the increasing traffic may mask the problem of lack of profit in the short term, but actually ends up decreasing the value of the adverts, and therefore Facebook itself.

When we take into account mobile media, the problem becomes a lot clearer. Because of the small size of smartphone and tablet pages, only a small amount of adverts can be placed on any one page, which means that unless Facebook can come up with a solution, there is the very real potential the demise of this company may come about due to the increased use of this mode of media.