Sips from the Firehose

Oct 18

JetPack: the Always-Open University Library that Fits in Your Pocket

Posted: under Design.
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…but without the annoying biology grad student who is using himself as a human guinea pig to see if it’s possible to survive for 3 months on a diet of only beer, vitamin pills and broccoli florets. 

the website for jetpack

The switchover to all-digital textbooks is happening faster than predicted. I'm not too sure about reading an entire text on a smartphone screen, but for in-between class cramming, or getting instant updates to course material, it's not a bad choice.

I’d love to say that this is it, we’ve found the perfect replacement for textbooks, but from what I can see here, this is still a very limited solution. They are also trying to accomplish something that is unbelievably complex. I know, because we’ve been trying to do the same thing: come up with a way to create once-publish many.

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May 19

Hulu and Delve Networks: We Still <3 Flash

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration, Online Video, television.
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…HTML5? Not so much…

In a move certain to cause much gleeful cackling and dry-washing of hands at Adobe HQ, Hulu and Delve announced that they are sticking with Flash, rather than making the Jobs-mandated move to HTML5.

The money graf from Delve:

Adobe Flash provides: ability to secure content, adaptive bitrate streaming, comprehensive
analytics and monetization of video through a wide array of advertising
Customers that are using our mobile delivery solution are
willing to experiment with video on these new devices to figure out what
works and to keep their existing customers happy. But they all expect
that eventually the mobile/tablet features match that of the Flash
player on the PC.

Hulu said:

When it comes to technology, our only guiding principle is to best serve
the needs of all of our key customers: our viewers, our content
partners who license programs to us, our advertisers, and each other. We
continue to monitor developments on HTML5, but as of now it doesn’t yet
meet all of our customers’ needs. Our player doesn’t just simply stream
video, it must also secure the content, handle reporting for our
advertisers, render the video using a high performance codec to ensure
premium visual quality, communicate back with the server to determine
how long to buffer and what bitrate to stream, and dozens of other
things that aren’t necessarily visible to the end user.
Not all video
sites have these needs, but for our business these are all important and
often contractual requirements.

Behind these two statements, back in the misty shadows, loom the outlines of the Hollywood studios and TV networks. I’m guessing the last couple of weeks have seen lots of closed-door meetings about what happens when we all start watching TV & movies on our iPad(-like) devices.

The problem with just abandoning responsibility letting the Apple empire do all the driving is that, as we have seen in the last couple of months, Apple’s hidden face is starting to emerge. And it ain’t pretty. Allowing Apple to control the flow of content through its ever-expaning iTunes store just means that you’ve given up the pricing and distribution power on your creative products.

Ask the music industry guys how that worked out for them.

If you can find any, that is.

So let’s take a look at the objection of the big video players to Apple’s vision of the future:

1. Content security. If you don’t think that the movie & TV guys have been sweating blood over the nightmare scenario of their business model going the way of CDs, think again. For the last five years, I’ve been going to tech conferences in and around LA, and at each and every one, the most popular booths are the ones touting various DRM/security features. Now, publishers such as O’Reilly may hold that “DRM is more costly than piracy”, but in the executive suites at the studios, that is a minority view.

You just can’t make a business out of producing $200 million movies like Iron Man 2, and then hope to recoup your costs by giving away the content, and hoping … ads will support it? Or that you will sell enough merch through wider audience? Nuh-uh.

Adobe and the Flash team have spent years banging on various content-security technologies, some of which tout NSA-level encryption schemes to try to mollify the big content creators. I’m guessing there’s not much love for Apple’s “blind faith” scenario with HTML5.

2. Adaptive bitrate streaming. Sounds like something a character played by Dan Aykroyd in his heyday would have spat out in staccato fashion. Basically, it means that when the web is congested (or your bus travels between a couple of skyscrapers as you watch video on your Droidphone), the video will momentarily de-res a bit until the signal is once again clear.  We’ve found that having a momentarily blurry(ier) video is far less disruptive to the viewer than having fits, starts, jumps and the little hourglass on the screen.

Not having this technology means that watching a video is going to become a throwback to the early days of the web … when you’d be downloading a GIF and watching the lines appear … and then hesitate … think about it … then another line appears … then it hangs for a minute … then ten lines appear all at once … then you start clicking in frustration, trying to get to another page that doesn’t so closely resemble a chamber of Hell.

If you really want to Geek Out, check out this excellent deconstruction of the (supposed) HTML5 video standard VP8 on the x264 blog. It explains far better than I can all the nitty-gritty issues behind the hype on “open source” video codecs. Again: not pretty.

3. Analytics. Apple is maintaining that firewall for content served through its store & technologies. You can get raw numbers, such as how many people downloaded the app/video. But nothing more than that. Which feeds into the next point, big time –

4. Advertising. The big selling point for online/mobile video over broadcast is that we’re better able to target the ads to the users, based on the data we collect from cookies, user agents, location, time, etc. If this is missing, so is the competitive advantage, and the dollars start flowing back to tried-and-true TV.

Also, HTML5 is not as robust an ad-serving technology. For Hulu, which is the bigtime play of the TV networks, if the ads can be skipped as easily as with a TiVo, or excised altogether, what then is the point of serving up all that content for free? If the advertisers aren’t getting any value for sponsoring the programs then they quite simply … won’t. And then where does that leave us with our fancy new tablets? Watching more dancing cat on piano keyboard videos?

Apple quite simply does not care about that. Their point is not to help content creators or advertisers. Their focus is on selling as many overpriced gadgets as possible, and then locking the users into having to pay thru the nose thru Apple’s store to actually get any content to watch/listen/read on that gadget.

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Jan 23

Bookworms love the new Nook e-reader

Posted: under E-ink devices, new media.
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Setting a couple of bookworms loose to play with the next generation e-readers is like setting Augustus Gloop loose in the Wonka Chocolate factory.

The first thing that strikes you about the Nook is how much *faster* it is than the Kindle. And Janine loved the touchscreen. More video to come on Digital Family.

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Aug 10

Why ad dollars will keep surging – faster & faster – towards digital

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch.
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Another quick hit, this one courtesy of an article in AdAge about how the free-fall in the ad industry has at least stopped, but what’s emerging out of the wreckage is that things will never go back to the way they were.

“This current economy has stimulated a new marketing consciousness,” said Laurence Boschetto, president-CEO, DraftFCB. “Clients are saying they want accountability for every dollar they spend, and they want cause and effect. Clients will continue to rally behind ideas that build business, and we as an industry have to accept that things will never revert back to the pre-recession mind-set that wasn’t totally focused on accountability.”

At every conference I’ve attended this year, especially OMMA and Digital Hollywood, I’ve sat in the room with media planners and ad buyers (AKA the guys in expensive suits who write the multi-million dollar checks to buy 30-second spots on American Idol), and listened to them piss & moan about their jobs.

“The goddam clients are calling me every day and screaming in my ear,” groused a Tums-chomping buyer for a major food company. “All they talk about is ‘The Board,’ and how everyone is shit-scared of winding up on the front page of the New York Times for blowing millions while we’re in a Depression.

“The orders have come down from on high that every nickel they spend has to be tracked, assessed, spreadsheeted and connected to a dollar in sales. Well, it all rolls downhill to me. I have to show results for everything, and when it comes to print and broadcast, that’s getting harder and harder to justify.

“Even if the scale and the reach aren’t there yet, when I’ve got a Google Analytics spreadsheet tracking the ad buy, at least I can walk into the client meeting with more than my dick in my hand.

“I’ve got a $300 million budget for the next year. Zero point zero zero is going to print. Nada. Nothing. I can’t justify it anymore. And broadcast TV is next.”

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Apr 02

Charging for News Content on the Mobile Platform: Not So Fast…

Posted: under Mobile commerce, new media, Newspapers.
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Another quick hit, because I’m swamped with assignments right now.

Many newspaper/media analysts have eagerly seized upon the micro-commerce capabilities of mobile phones and devices like the Kindle as possible ways to get readers to pony up for their content. Steve Smith, the self-deprecating mobile industry analyst, has an insightful take on this issue over at Mobile Insider:

I think it is a mistake for media companie [sic] to think that putting the same old content into our pockets or “at our fingertips” is enough to merit a fee. They need to reimagine content as a service. That is a tremendous challenge/opportunity. It means that publishers have to think beyond the media and imagine how people put information to work (or to fun) in their everyday lives.

If a publisher can turn media into a utility, not just more data, then the rest of the argument about pay-to-play models on mobile make more sense. If there is something of value to buy on the mobile platform, then the built-in payment system, the always-there convenience, and the pay-to-play habits of mobile usage make a fee-based model workable for some. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful by-product of the mobile media evolution if it forced publishers to revisit and reimagine how and why their product makes our everyday lives better, easier, healthier, or more enjoyable? Content could have functionality. Media would be a service — not just, well, media.

The thinking on this is pretty terrifying to anyone hoping that the news business will be able to just point their CMS outputs at .mobi or m.[whatever] sites and go on their merry ways.  If what Smith says is true, the news business is going to have to get a lot more disciplined about packaging up the information and presenting it to the average time-starved reader in a way that is immeidately, recognizably useful.

This means that big, exhaustive, Pulitzer-bait investigative pieces that curmudgeons point at as the core business that can’t be replicated … are not going to be in the lifeboats that make it to Digital Refuge Island. Well, at least, not in the way that we’ve all come to expect. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about investigations lately, and I think they represent the best of traditional media … and the worst.  Yes, they are responsible for great, sweeping changes and for holding corrupt politicians, abusive bureaucracies and ugly social trends up into public view. 

But these investigations have become an industry unto themselves, and like many institutions these days, they function based upon their own internal logic, rather than upon what the external market/society need.  That is, the investigations are done in secrecy, over a long period of time, consume vast amounts of manpower, and are disgorged all in a huge tidal wave of text/photos.  All to an audience in which – according to readership surveys – 80% of the intended audience never skips past the first column of text on page one to dig into all this hard-won information.

If an investigation is published and nobody really pays attention, was it really worthwhile?  I can already hear the outraged screams in response to that question.

How about this: wouldn’t it be better to accomplish what a big investigation sets out to do – that is, to identify problems, focus in on miscreants and victims to breathe life into the story, suggest solutions, AND FOLLOW UP IN AN OLD-SCHOOL CRUSADE – in a way that readers actually pay attention to? 

One of the “ah-ha!” moments I’ve seen in the trainings we’ve done is when we talk to the ad/biz side, and ask them whether they think advertisers are buying column inches of ads – or if what they want is more customers walking into their stores.

This (buzzword alert) paradigm shift in the mission of newspapers has to have its own parallel epiphany over on the editorial side. 

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Mar 11

Why 4G Matters: 300Mbps Data Rate (well, almost)

Posted: under Mobile commerce, Video.
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HD video demands – at pretty decent color depth & resolution – about 15-25 megs. (Well, unless you’re trying to deal with uncompressed 1080i HD, which calls for about 400 megs – but the only reason to do that is to capture/edit, rather than watch, which is a whole other can o’ crawlies.)  That means that a 4G phone is basically the final linking device to provide the addressable TV & instant content delivery that we’ve all been blathering about for the last 20 years.

This article on Gizmodo is about the clearest, best-written piece I’ve stumbled across in the last year or so of baking my noodle in the alphabet soup broth of mobile media acronyms.

But what’s so special about WiMax and LTE? And how fast can they really get? Very simply, West told us, “The magic is the channel width.” LTE and WiMax use really fat wireless channels, so they can move a lot of data at once. For example, AT&T’s Kafka told us that “peak speed for LTE in 10MHz is about 140Mbps and peak speed in 20MHz is about 300Mbps.”

Did you see that? 300Mbps? Over the air? Whoooa. Well, don’t let your panties get blown away yet. Yes, 4G will be way faster than 3G. But don’t expect Asian city internet speeds wirelessly in the next couple of years. Clearwire’s Barry West throws a bit of cold water on the ridiculously scorching speeds you might see hyped for LTE: To get to that 170Mbps, “that’s like 8.5 bits per hertz and I’ve never seen a system achieve more than 5 bits per hertz.” Huh? Basically, it doesn’t take a whole lot of interference to slow your connection down, because it and WiMax use a complicated modulation scheme that you can’t have constantly cranked to 11. So real world speeds will be slower.

This, coupled with the laser-projection capabilities being built into the next phones, and the ever-smaller and higher-rez cameras, is pointing to one helluva information device in the future – one that can capture, upload, download and display crystal-clear video.

“In the future everyone will be a television network. For 15 minutes.”

Quick glossary:

4G: 4th-Generation cellphone.  The big clunky analog beasts that we used up til the late 90s were 1G. The switchover to digital (when bad connections were echo-y and robot-sounding rather than crackly and static like bad radio reception) put us to 2G.  iPhones operated at 2.5G, which means data rates of about 200K.  The faster data rate is 3G.

CDMA/1XRTT/EVDO: The compression & transmission technology sets used by Verizon and Sprint. Popular in Korea, Japan, South America and U.S.

GSM/EDGE/HSDPA: The data transmission sets used by AT&T and T-mobile. Everyone in Europe uses GSM technology. It allows you to swap SIM cards between phones, but is slightly less efficient than CDMA.

LTE/WiMax: The coming data transmission standards that phone companies have been beating to death for the past 10 years. LTE = Long Term Evolution.  This is a the data speed that will also be known as 4G.

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Jan 19

APT on Shaky Ground: Yahoo’s Ad Sales Partnership with Newspapers

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, Digital Migration, Newspaper Deathwatch.
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Three quick hits:

1. Here’s an interesting article about the one bit of bright news the newspaper industry had in the past year or so – the APT partnership with Yahoo that allowed newspapers to use Yahoo’s user-targeting technology to serve up ads. Here’s CNBC’s description:

It’s an online marketplace for display ads.

It allows publishers of display ads (like newspapers) and buyers of those ads to connect in this web platform that’s intended to be an efficient, transparent system.

Apparently the business of selling display ads is incredibly time intensive and complex- it even involves old fashioned technology like -gasp- fax machines to demonstrate what an ad would look like. This new technology aims to make the process of selecting and targeting display ads fast and easy.

Well, unfortunately, there’s a new CEO in town, and the APT partnership with newspapers is one of the things that Carol Bartz will be taking a look at. And with the sad & sorry shape of newspapers these days, having Yahoo get all “what have you done for me lately, baby?” is not optimal.

Or maybe it’s part ROI and part gut instinct. Maybe Bartz reads the (thinning) newspapers and decides that there’s not a lot of upside in her company investing its resources heavily in association with what looks like a dying industry.

2. Meanwhile, over at BrassTacks Design, the whole form & appearance of online display ads is being questioned.

CPC works for Google. It works for Google’s advertisers. It will work for newspaper Web sites.

Uh, no. Sorry, but no. Make that, “Hell, no.”  CPC would be a disaster for a newspaper that has to pay to produce content, and therefore, the ad space is limited and costly.  Google’s ad space is created via spiders & algorithms – far cheaper than a pavement-pounding reporter or stogie-chomping city editor.

Google’s ad spaces are created by users typing in search strings.  So a craptastic ad for Lizard potty-training manuals written in Urdu really doesn’t mean all that much.

That same CPC ad crammed onto the front page of a newspaper is a disaster.  Why? Because nobody but drive-by curious will click on it.

CPC only works in a blog or newspaper space when the products being sold are good.  It’s basically like an affiliate program.  You have shitty products that don’t sell – and the advertiser doesn’t really pay for the ad placement, but the content creator loses the valuable ad space on the page. 

And yeah, you can somewhat mitigate this by being choosy with your ads.  But there’s this thing called “Clickfraud,” see, and it’s one of the dirty little secrets that Google tries to keep a lid on. And that’s not even talking about “distribution fraud” – and if you don’t think that that is a risk in a desperate industry, look to the recent past, where circulation managers are doing stretches in the calaboose for cooking the numbers.  Viz:

So, even a Google executive is aware that this network needs to be cleaned up. Think about that. Even at the top level, Google knows it has a click fraud problem on its hands.

3. Meanwhile, over at Ethan Zuckerman’s blog, he raises some very pertinent questions about newspaper survivability, based on the increased efficiency and accountability that the web brings to advertising.

Here’s my concern. If I’m right and print advertising costs are fundamentally irrational, then it’s possible that the way we’ve built media in the United States can’t survive a transition to a more rational market. That would be bad. Newspapers aren’t just businesses – they serve a critical function in a democratic society, informing citizens so they can make intelligent voting decisions, lobby their elected representatives on issues of their concern and hold political and business powers accountable.

What if the idea that commercial enterprises should carry out the public interest function of journalism is built on a fundamentally broken model? What if advertising worked pretty well as a way of subsidizing public interest journalism only so long as advertisers didn’t understand the effectiveness of their ads? Putting aside all the other reasons why commercial journalism may be flawed – the tendency of newspapers and television channels to seek readers by publishing “edutainment” rather than investigation, the worry that papers will hesitate to publish stories that might embarrass advertisers – what if ad supported journalism is only viable in a world where we radically overvalue the worth of ads?

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Dec 30

Merry Christmas, News Industry! Nice Knowin’ Ya! Good Luck with that 50-80% Ad Revenue Decline for 2009!

Posted: under Digital Migration, Newspaper Deathwatch.
Tags: , , ,

Michael Arrington apparently wants my morning coffee to wind up on the keyboard.

Display advertising revenue is going to fall of a cliff in January
according to a number of content sites I’ve spoken with who rely on
advertising for revenue. “Sales through December were mostly strong as advertisers used up their marketing budgets,” said one sales exec. But, he added, “there are few buyers for this next fiscal quarter, and those few that are buying are looking for steep discounts.”

Just how bad will it be? I’ve heard estimates of 30%-80% revenue
drops over the next three months from companies that serve a variety of
content (games sites, tech news, celebrity news, political news, etc.).
The median pessimism point is around 50%. The people I’ve spoken with
work at large public companies and small one-person blog shops.
Absolutely no one I spoke with said they expect an up quarter.

Translation: If you work at any sort of media outlet, there’s about a 50-50 shot that the next few months will involve putting the little plastic baggies on your hands and trudging to work down at Quizno’s to make sammiches.

According to Ad Age, the meltdown that started in newspapers (article headline: “Media Jobs? Depressing)

U.S. media have cut 196,200 or 18.6% of jobs since employment in that sector peaked in the 2000 dot-com bubble. More than half the cuts (109,700) came from newspapers. Media employment fell by 3.1% (27,600 jobs) from the start of the recession in December 2007 through October 2008.

…is about to hit the ad agencies in a big, big way:

More cuts are likely; Omnicom Group did major cuts in December. While economists guess the recession will end in the second half of 2009, the U.S. job market — including the agency sector — could get stuck in another extended “jobless recovery.”

Investors have soured on the agency sector. Combined market capitalization of the Big Four agency firms — Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic Group of Cos., Publicis Groupe — in December 2008 was $23.4 billion, not dramatically above the June 2007 market cap of WPP alone ($18.3 billion).

Looked at this way, the newspaper contractions have been the “canaries in the coalmine” in the media industry, and the next 9 months or so are going to see a lot of other people sharing the fate of the ink-stained wretches. Which is not good news for newspaper people who are getting downsized, and who haven’t given a lot of thought as to what they can do next.  All the prescriptions & nostrums that have been offered thus far – start up your own hyper-local news website & start selling ads to local merchants – are not going to be possible when said local merchants are closing their doors and/or eliminating their discretionary ad budgets. 

I’m sure the coming months will hear wails & howls from the ad folks like those we’ve been hearing from the news side. However – like in the news business – those advertising professionals who are on top of the latest trends, and who have trained themselves to have multiple skills – they will survive.

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Nov 13

New vs. Old Media Flamewar – We Really Don’t Have Time for This, Guys…

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Let’s set the stage.

First, Ron Rosenbaum unloads on Jeff Jarvis for being “increasingly heartless” about newsroom cutbacks, layoffs & the general death spiral.

A sampling:

Not all reporters had the prescience to become new-media consultants. A lot of good, dedicated people who have done actual writing and reporting, as opposed to writing about writing and reporting, have been caught up in this great upheaval, and many of them may have been too deeply involved in, you know, content—”subjects,” writing about real peoples’ lives—to figure out that reporting just isn’t where it’s at, that the smart thing to do is get a consulting gig.

But Jarvis believes the failure of the old-media business models is the result of having too many of those pesky reporters. In his report on his recent new-media summit at CUNY, he noted with approval one workshop’s conclusion that you’d need only 35 reporters to cover the entire city of Philadelphia. Less is more. Meta triumphs over matter.

It makes you wonder whether Jarvis has actually done any, you know, reporting.

Oh, that’s nasty. Shorter Rosenbaum: “Jarvis is an substanceless, fluffy airhead, taking advantage of gullible publishers, peddling his New Media snakeoil & banking fat stacks while real reporters who actually work for a living are being thrown to the wolves.” Read More

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Nov 08

Blast from the Past: Indecision 2000 and How Video Stories Have Evolved

Posted: under Digital Migration, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
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Man, check out John Stewart.  Is it me, or does he look just a little bit like the Muppet Beaker?

Ah yes. The pardon of Marc Rich. Makes you nostalgic for a time when this was the worst crime that could be laid at the feet of the outgoing president, don’t it?

Just looking at this video makes me feel 1,000 years old.  It’s a reminder of how, when the party in charge of the White House changed back in 2000, there were all manner of investigations into the misdeeds of the previous administration.  Wonder if that’s going to come around again … and if we’re going to spend most of 2009 having to sit through a re-hash of all the grubby insider deals perpetrated by the Bushies

I am of two minds about this issue – on the one hand, I think that to distract ourselves with chasing down Bush partisans to whack them around & humiliate them in front of banks of TV cameras, would be a mistake, taking our attention away from dealing with all the massive problems we face.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the fact that the massive problems we face are a direct result of the actions of these sleazy, incompetent thieves. To let them skip merrily away into the night, their pockets stuffed with stolen taxpayer funds, chortling in glee at their cleverness … well, that just grates.

Anyway. The point of this was to do a compare/contrast of viral video from then, to the political online video we see now.  Makes you realize how far we’ve come, with production values.  And how we’ve come to expect that when outlets like The Daily Show air a segment, they back it up with video clips culled from the past.

This is a very Web 2.0 concept … I think it comes out of stories on the web, where we have hyperlinks within the stories that allow us to see the evolution of the meme over time, and then compare it to the current story. 

My point is that in the last eight years, the way that we process information has changed in a fundamental way that we’re really not fully cognizant of. We expect to see the background, the history from primary sources, that supports what the person is telling us in the present.

In a very real way, The Daily Show and John Stewart are the equivalent of the “content aggregation” sites that have succeeded so well online. 

I just want to find a way to make sure that the aggregators have something to aggregate. That original reporting of facts & events does not die off, and that the persons who do the pick & shovel work to unearth the sound bites & images that are then stitched together (for great acclaim & profit) by middlemen like the Daily Show (or Drudge, or HuffPo, or Sadly, No!, Politico, etc. etc. etc.) start to share in some of the extraordinary wealth that is generated off of their sweat equity.

The link economy.
We needz it.

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