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A Couple of Cool Concepts

Say what you like about the Internet letting the wackos out of the woodwork, but it also lets people with truly neat ideas have a chance at trying them out. The dot-com implosion could even be seen as a good thing by turning attention back toward the days when you didn’t need a business plan and a cool million in venture capital to do something on the Internet – not that we’re bitter because no vulture capitalists ever threw a million bucks our way!

Recolonizing the Commons — Larry Lessig, Stanford law professor and author of The Future of Ideas, along with Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, has come up with a humdinger of an idea he calls Creative Commons. The basic idea is to make available flexible, customizable intellectual property licenses to musicians, writers, programmers, artists, and anyone else who wants to distribute their work widely while still defining what constitutes acceptable use. The best part, for anyone who’s had an uncontrollable coughing attack after reading a lawyer’s bill, is that Creative Commons intends to provide these licenses for free.


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Once Creative Commons launches, which is currently planned for May of 2002, anyone with a hankering for some home-cooked license will be able to visit the Creative Commons Web site, choose the options that fit their situation, and, without even putting a quarter in the machine, get a custom license. Actually, it gets better. Every license will contain a special machine-readable tag specifying the terms of that particular license. When that license and the content it covers are indexed by the search engines, that tag will enable searchers to find specific types of content available under particular licensing terms, such as if an editor of an environmental newsletter wanted to browse through nature photos available for non-commercial use.

Another project Creative Commons plans is a "conservancy" to facilitate the preservation and dissemination of intellectual property. From what I can tell, the goal here is similar to a straw man I proposed back in 1998 under the name of the Electronic Phoenix Project – a group that would exist as a target for donation of old code such that it could be brought into the open source world and kept alive after its commercial parent was unable to justify further care and feeding. The Electronic Phoenix Project was doomed from the beginning by virtue of an overwhelming ratio of opinions to actual effort, but perhaps the times have changed. Best of luck to Larry Lessig, his colleagues, and the entire Creative Commons project – may their efforts rethink the morass that has become copyright and intellectual property.


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When Numbers Get Serious — I’m a word person, so for me, intellectual property involves writing, and numbers tend to wash over me without leaving much of a trace. But a new study called The Secret Lives of Numbers has me recalculating my digital relationships. Here’s how it works. The authors wrote some custom software, ran a lot of searches through public search engines, and applied a heavy dose of statistics to the results to come up with an interactive exploration of numeric associations. What’s a numeric association? The number 17, for instance, is associated with the 17-inch computer monitor, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the Glock 17.

Notwithstanding what Mark Twain said about there being lies, damn lies, and statistics, the results are fascinating. Load the Java-based interactive visualization and you can enter any number under 100,000 and see what was most commonly associated with that number. A scrolling bar graph shows how popular any given number is with regard to those surrounding it, and you can also click any line in the graph before getting the number’s associations. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time, both playing around in the Java applet (which works surprisingly well on the Mac in Internet Explorer 5.1 and Opera 5.0, though a bit less so in Netscape 6.2), and thinking about how numbers both rule our lives and reflect how we live them. ZIP codes, area codes, product versions, numeric lists – numbers weave in and out of our lives in innumerable ways.


Bonus Concept — While we’re on the topic of numbers, how many items does a "couple" imply? The obvious answer is two, although in informal speech, couple can grow beyond two, into the realm of "few," which is more than one but not many, or even into "several," which is more than two but not many. I say all this as introduction to my third item in this article, which I wanted to add without screwing up the alliteration in my article’s title. (And because it will irritate Geoff, our tecnical editor and resident curmudgeon when it comes to these particular usages.)

Anyway, one place where numbers have gotten very serious, as in seriously low, is in online advertising. For a long time (Internet time, which is generally measured in months), it was believed that online advertising was the second coming for advertising because such wonderful statistics were available. Never mind Mark Twain: these were numbers, and there were so many of them. Such lovely numbers! Even if they didn’t want to be privacy-invading weasels, companies publishing ads could determine number of impressions, click-throughs, and all sorts of other fabulous stats. Never before had advertisers been able to add such unblemished numbers to their spreadsheets; suddenly they didn’t have to work with such fuzzy concepts as brand awareness, since they knew exactly how many people saw each ad, how many people clicked through, and how many actually purchased something. Numeric nirvana!

But there was a wee problem, which is that some of the numbers kept getting lower and lower. Click-through-rate in particular dropped through the floor because – surprise surprise – using the Web is an active process, and people are generally goal-oriented. Unless a banner ad happens to match exactly with the user’s goal, the chance that they’re going to click a banner is pretty low, and as the more inured users became to online advertising, the less they clicked through. Never the sorts to avoid soiling their own nests, the most aggressive advertisers like X10 immediately redoubled their efforts, introducing pop-up and pop-under ads so annoying that incidents of computer monitor abuse rose tenfold (personally, pop-up ads tend to make me speak in punctuation – @#$%!! – and hit Command-W harder than is healthy for my keyboard). Pop-up ads were effective initially, since they were novel and very much in your face, and in X10’s case it probably didn’t hurt that the ad implied its wireless video camera was perfect for capturing surreptitious footage of gorgeous blondes in various states of undress. (Totally fabricated response from X10: "Shocked, I’m just shocked you could think that! The clear message was that normal people concerned about security and privacy could install them, for instance, in their guest bedrooms to make sure their buddy’s hot wife doesn’t steal the towels after her steamy shower. Umm, and for mothers trying to catch their kids drinking milk straight from the carton. Yeah, that’s what we meant!")

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But I digress – it’s so difficult to avoid helping X10 reap the rewards they so richly deserve for their advertising campaigns. I wanted to talk about brand awareness, which has long been a major goal of traditional advertising. No one sees a car ad on TV and runs right out to buy one – the entire point is that the next time you are ready to buy a car, the cumulative effect of all those ads will make you think, "I should test drive one of those cool new gas-electric hybrid cars from Honda." (Well, not really, since neither Honda nor Toyota seem particularly interested in actually selling their hybrids to anyone who’s not willing to order one sight unseen, and advertising them would undoubtedly make it even harder to not sell them.) The problem with brand awareness is that it’s hard to track, since you have to do real-world surveys and ask people questions, and you’re always going to get people like Tonya, who once responded to a market research question about which painkiller she used with the helpful answer of, "The one in the round bottle."

Advertising actually is good for brand awareness, something we’ve been saying since we started our sponsorship program back in 1992 (possibly the first instance of advertising in an online publication), and a company called Dynamic Logic has finally proved it. They created a fake brand, a concierge-type service for people with more money than sense (err… time), and promoted it purely by running a few million ads on the Internet with the British Web sites FTMarketWatch and iVillage. When it came time to survey people, they discovered that about 4 percent of people claimed to recognize the brand but had never seen an ad for it (some people will agree to anything). Nearly three times that number, or 11 percent, recognized the brand and had actually seen the ads. And in the brand’s target audience of men between 18 and 49 earning more than $120,000 per year, 19 percent of all users remembered the ads. In short, properly targeted, appropriate advertising does work, even without spawning windows all over users’ screens.


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